#98: How to Write Without Plotting

Dear Story Nurse,

I work in a different creative industry, but books and stories are what that pushed me to pursue it. I want to put something out into the world that resonates with other people the way my influences resonated and shaped me. Something that’s good enough for someone else to care about it. Fantasy worldbuilding and character-making are such joyful exercises of the imagination, and I want to do something exciting with all these fun toys I come up with! But wow, turns out I hate making stories maybe?

Or rather, plots and narratives are agony for me. I thought that since I’m delighted by intrigue and puzzleboxes it’d be enjoyable to construct those things myself. Turns out I’m full of it. I hate scrounging around for premises, I don’t care about the whats and hows and whys of events, and everything is just a thin excuse to make my characters have a Point. All I want are for my characters to Feel The Deep Feelings and for things to have been Very Important because of Reasons. I want to be good at this and to do practice stories and sharpen my skills, but the exercise of the craft never seems to give back even a drop of fun. Trying to force the vague shifting silhouettes of a “story” into a concrete narrative shape is a joyless chore. Why pour my very limited time and energy into something that I seem to hate actually doing?

Yet I’m still never able to make peace with the idea of truly giving up and letting go. I keep burning with the desire to actually Make Something. I believe if this desire exists inside of me so strongly then it must be tied to something real. But it feels like I don’t have any stories in me, just the places where they could happen and the people they might happen to, someday.

Can you bash yourself over the head with something you hate enough times until it becomes fun? Is that possible? Is this all really very normal?

—Not a Storyteller? (she/her)

Dear Not a Storyteller?,

I’m sorry that plotting is giving you such a hard time. It sounds like you’re very clear on which parts of writing fiction are fun and satisfying for you, and which ones aren’t. That’s important! And you’re not alone in loving some parts of writing and disliking others. For some people the struggle is with voice; for some it’s character creation; and for some, like you, it’s plotting.

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#90: Writing Inclusive Stories That Are Scary, Angry, Painful, or Sad

Dear Story Nurse,

This is partially applicable to my current WIP, but it’s really a problem I have across the board. I love stories with complex, morally grey characters that make mistakes and act selfishly or obey their own, peculiar moral codes. I like horror, disturbing stuff, and stories that aren’t a simple good/evil dichotomy.

Whenever I try to write that kind of stuff, things get complicated.

See, I was raised in a very strict household – think fundamentalist Christian values, even if that wasn’t technically my parents’ religion. Especially since I was raised as a girl, I was taught to be quiet and polite and Nice and never say anything too shocking. Anything I wrote deemed Morally Wrong in some way was ripped apart. I’m out of that situation now, but the training runs deep. From the very start, I have a hard time putting down the wonderfully weird and horrible stuff I want to.

It’s not helped that I also crave positive feedback, and that’s difficult to find for my id-pleasing work. One of the few sources of positive feedback I had quit reading one of my stories after declaring something I thought was relatively minor disturbed her too much, and although intellectually I know it’s more a matter of her personal taste… it set me back a while. Not to mention the general culture about stories featuring queer & otherwise marginalized characters, in (understandable) pushback against depressing Bury-the-Gays stories, is mainly ‘nobody wants anything difficult, we only want happy cute romance stories’. More power to them, but not my thing, and it makes me feel even more insecure about my work.

So the end result: I come up with ideas and characters I love, but struggle to execute them. I’m constantly plagued by thoughts of ‘Are people going to find this disturbing? Do I need to show more clearly this character isn’t supposed to be right? Maybe I should tone down his behavior.’ Etc, etc, until I tie myself into knots and everything comes out stilted. I struggle to write characters that are even mean, let alone the gloriously terrible sorts I like reading about and privately imagining.

I hesitated to write you because I feel like this might be a difficult problem to advise on, but I thought it might be worth a shot. I feel trapped between the queer/diverse writing community I feel won’t appreciate the strange, dark stories I want to tell, and the dark fiction I love that never seems to leave room for people like me. I want to combine them, but my fear of judgement keeps tripping me up, and I don’t know how to turn it off.

Thank you for your time.

—Strange and Unusual (he/him)

Dear Story Nurse,

In some ways, my question is a follow up question to #36, although I didn’t send in that letter.

I’m a minority in a few ways (disabled, genderqueer but only out to a few, mostly asexual, diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, attracted to women while being AFAB).

If I’m writing a fictional story, I tend to write disabled or chronically ill characters a lot, and also other body-related issues like dysphoria (both gender and body), eating disorders, having an atypical sexuality or wanting to have a “normal” positive sexual experience and struggling.

These are things I struggle with in my own life, but I tend to write fiction because it’s easier to process when the character dealing with these struggles is explicitly not me. They’re someone in a different context, sometimes a fantasy context or just a different sort of family than mine. In many ways, the characters I write feel the same way I do inside my head, but they aren’t me.

I’ve sold a few stories, mostly in the fantasy / horror genre, and often the struggles I deal with are things I metaphor-ize: a person haunted by a ghost, a person who is intangible, an alien disguised as a human, a person who is literally invisible and simultaneously blind. These stories have pretty much gotten completely positive feedback, and one has been anthologized.

The stories I write are not necessarily what I think of as disability stories, especially since they have other elements and themes in them. But, lately, I’ve been trying to write non-metaphor stories about characters with real-world disabilities who struggle with dysphoria or dealing with chronic pain, still in a s/f context. And I’ve been getting a lot of pushback from other disabled writers.

Basically, they think my writing is too dark or “negative.” They keep saying that by writing about disabled characters having body dysphoria, I’m feeding into a negative stereotype. Because the characters are fiction, the critics don’t know (probably) that I’m trying to write about my own experiences with dysphoria; I don’t want to ‘out’ myself. Nor to I really want to write memoir — plots and adventures are part of the fun of writing for me.

But it’s very hard to not take these critiques personally. I feel like I have revealed a very real, vulnerable part of myself and I’m being rejected. I feel very raw and naked in these new stories, and I’m deeply hurt by the reactions I’ve gotten, even though I know, as you say, I can reject a critique. It seems so personal.

Also, I keep worrying that I’m wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t write a disabled character with vaginismus or an eating disorder, even though that’s my life experience, because that belongs in memoir or literary fiction rather than fantasy, which is meant to be escapist. I’ve re-read #36, about how just because you fit a stereotype doesn’t mean you should write it.

I’m so confused. Should I try writing in a different genre? Should I not write characters who are like me in this specific way? Should I try to give characters positive, empowering stories in every genre? Should I ‘out’ myself as someone who experiences dysphoria and disability? Should I try to toughen up and take critiques less personally?

I thought vulnerability was supposed to make stories better,

Anthem (they/them)

Dear Strange and Unusual and Anthem,

I’m sorry you’ve both run up against critiques of the form “stories about marginalized characters should only be positive and happy”. Anthem, I’m especially sorry that post #36 came across as a “you shouldn’t” post. I intended it as a how-to on a particular technique, not as a suggestion that there’s only one way to write stories about marginalized characters, and I appreciate you sending your follow-up question so I could clarify that.

I grouped your letters together in part because I want you to know you’re not alone. I’ve heard a lot of other marginalized writers express similar concerns.

There are many conflicting takes on whether and how to write stories where bad things happen to, or are done by, marginalized characters. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, and here is my personal approach.

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#69: Getting Unstuck from “Should”

Hi Story Nurse!

I’ve found your advice on getting back into writing after a long break really helpful, thanks! At this point I’m having what feels like a related problem. Earlier this year, I got back into a more regular writing habit after many years of not writing, or only writing very rarely and with extreme difficulty. I write mostly fanfiction, though recently I’ve come up with a couple ideas for original short stories that I’m excited to tackle. I still feel out of practice and kind of clunky, which is frustrating – but I want to stick with it and build my writing muscles to the point where the hard stuff is easier, and the fun parts are even more fun. Before that long hiatus, I had a real sense that I was getting better at getting stories out of my head and onto the page, and I want to get there again.

At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough ideas to keep writing consistently, but actually I’m having the opposite problem. It seems like as soon as I start writing one story, I’ll come up with an idea that feels even more important to get on the page as soon as possible, so I’ll put the first project aside and start working on the bright shiny new one. I’ll mean to get back to the first one, but a lot of the time the same thing happens again, and I’ll end up abandoning the first project.

I think a lot of this comes from wanting to avoid what’s harder for me right now – I love mapping out the bones of a story on notebook paper and planning how all the pieces might fit together, while finishing a first draft and revising feels like hard and confusing work. So it makes sense that the new thing would be that much more tempting to me! But I don’t just want practice at starting stories, I want to get better at the whole process. And the whole reason I love writing fanfic is the sense of collaboration – reading other people’s interpretations of the characters, worlds, etc, and sharing my own. But that isn’t really happening if all of my own are sitting half-written on my hard drive.

When I have a deadline (two of my three finished stories this year have been for fic exchanges) I can finish a story, but because I’m worried about the time pressure, I end up writing stories I know I can finish, not ones I’m very excited about or interested in. The answer seems to be stop doing exchanges for a while, but I’m afraid then I wouldn’t finish anything. Due to the finite nature of time, it’s not going to be possible to write every single idea I come up with, so it’s fine if some are abandoned – but how do I prioritize so that some of them do get finished?

What makes it worse is that in the background, I’m constantly afraid that I’ll abandon my current project and never start writing again (or at least have to re-learn a ton of stuff whenever I do start again). And it’s much easier to abandon a project when it gets boring, so it seems even more important to chase those super interesting new ones. But that’s no way to finish anything! I feel stuck in this pattern – any ideas for how to get unstuck?

Thanks!

—Unfinished Business (they/them)

Dear Unfinished Business,

It sounds like what you’re stuck in is a whole lot of pairs of competing urges and influences:

  • Wanting to push yourself to learn and get stronger but not wanting to do difficult things.
  • Wanting to finish anything at all but feeling that the things you do finish don’t count.
  • Understanding that not every story can be finished but trying to develop every new story idea.
  • Dropping projects when they get boring but dodging the challenges that keep projects exciting.

You need to have a good hard think about your priorities along each of these axes. Think about what you get out of them, what makes them appeal to you in the short and long terms. Also think about, for a lack of a better term, your values—the type of writer you want to be. Which choices are in line with those values? Which paths take you closer to your own personal definition of satisfaction and success?

Continue reading

#59: Accepting Your Writing Style

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a fantasy writer currently trying and failing to kick my brain into producing a novel. The problem is that I have lots of story ideas, but no plots. All of my ideas are for cool settings and themes and imagery and emotional beats, not plots and conflicts and scenes. Even when I force myself to come up with a problem in my world and a character to solve it, I am immediately unenthused. I’ve tried to write through my boredom before, and I have three documents full of irredeemably listless garbage to show for it.

I think one of my major problems is that all of the problems I want my characters to solve are enormous and complicated and vague. For example, I’m currently kicking around a fantasy idea where a corporation-run government has driven everything it considers useless or harmful to extinction, and has sterilized and leashed magic to specific words and gestures. Now magic is striking back, choosing prophets to speak for it and worming wild roots into the cracks of buildings to shatter them. It’s SUCH a cool idea and I’m so excited about it, but there’s no really concrete beginning and end and one thing that one character can do with a satisfying ending.

How do I take a messy pile of colors and feelings and turn it into a thing with bones in it? Please help, Story Nurse!

—Perplexed Plotter (she/her)

Dear Perplexed Plotter,

That does sound like a challenge! Fortunately for you, it’s a challenge that many other writers have also faced, and there are some good resources and time-tested tricks for you to try out.

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#49: When Settings Are Fun and Stories Are Hard

Dear Story Nurse,

I love developing settings, but once I have my stage set, I find I have no idea what to do with the characters. Unless I force myself with NaNoWriMo or a similar challenge—and even then, I don’t often like what I came up with—my inclination is to circle the worldbuilding stages forever. For example, my current project is geography-focused, because I’ve been having a lot of fun researching historical cartography. I have kind of a unifying myth for my island nation, and now I want to explore this space through the lives of the people living in it, but I can’t seem to make a story happen. How can I come up with ideas when that’s not the part of the process that interests me?

Thanks!

—Masamage (she/her)

Dear Masamage,

When I first read your letter, I thought I’d answered it before, or one very like it. I looked through my archives and realized I was thinking of these letters from writers who find world-building easy and character development hard. You’re in a similar position, but facing a different challenge (though my response to them may still be of some use to you).

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#48: Writing Characters Who Share Your Identities

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently stalled out on both short stories I am writing. While they are both fantasy stories, each one deals with a theme that is important to me. One is a romance with a genderqueer shifter and the other features a character embracing her chronic pain. While both of these topics are important to me, I’ve not been writing them because it’s stirring up unresolved feelings in me on both of these issues.

My question is this: Writing #ownvoices is important, but how do I support myself in exploring hard topics that stir up unresolved feelings in me, and relatedly, how do I manage the fear that I’m not doing #ownvoices stories well enough, sensitively enough, or with enough compassion and good representation?

Thanks for your time, and I understand if you want to split the questions up!

With admiration,

Psygeek (she/her)

 

Dear Psygeek,

I sympathize a lot with this letter. I’ve run into this problem with my own novels in progress. We are surrounded by wonderful conversations about representation, but that can come with an increased feeling of pressure to get it right. That can then get tangled up with internal anxieties around identity, such as the feeling of being not [identity] enough or doing [identity] wrong. So I definitely think these two questions go together.

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#38: A Plotless Novel

Hi Story Nurse,

Up front, my question is: what is the best way to go about a plot-less novel? Is such a thing possible?

Meaty details: the Most Important project that I’m working on right now is best described as a postmodern epistolary (anti-)bildungsroman. In simpler terms, it’s a collection of letters written by a shut-in. You can imagine that nothing much happens. Or maybe more precisely, nothing really resolves in any kind of traditional storytelling way.

I have personal reasons for wanting to finish this sucker and put it out into the world more or less as I’ve envisioned it, but I obviously would like it to be readable (and, ideally, marketable). I’m at a loss for other works I can use as an example for what I want to accomplish.

Any protips?

—An Unfunny Seinfeld (she/her)

Dear Unfunny Seinfeld,

It is certainly possible to write a plotless novel. You’re demonstrating this by doing it. If you want to entertain yourself by writing a book where not much happens, plot threads don’t resolve, and characters don’t grow, there’s no reason not to do that.

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#37: When Depression Stops You from Writing

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Content note: this letter and the response talk in some detail about depression and strong self-critical thoughts.

Dear Story Nurse:

Over the course of many years, in fits and starts, I wrote a novel (actually two but the first was pretty bad!), got an agent, and got myself published last year. The reviews were positive, even the meanies at Kirkus, although I did not get any of those starred reviews that publishing houses seem to live and die by. But nobody was mean to me or anything. The sales were low, but those who did read it seemed to enjoy what I wrote. Some hated it, of course, but others really loved it and even took the time to let me know. The publisher declined the option on my next, but I have a wonderful agent who continues to support me wholeheartedly.

So. In that paragraph I can count roughly a half dozen events that many struggling writers would kill to have happen to them. There are, as Captain Sensible would say, many reasons to be cheerful. And yet I’m not. I feel like a failure.

I never deluded myself about bestsellers or Oprah’s book club or whathaveyou. I actually work in a different type of publishing for my day job, so I have a pretty realistic understanding of how difficult the business is. I had no illusions (or even desire, really) about supporting myself through fiction. And yet there’s this tremendous sense of disappointment and I don’t even know why. I mean, what did I expect? I expected what happened, more or less. And yet I feel like a fuck-up in some way I can’t even explain.

The real problem is that this depression (I guess that’s what it is?) is standing in the way of my ability to finish the next thing. I have two new books started. I have an agent who would love to have something else to sell. And yet I hate everything I write these days and find myself wondering about the point of it all.

What’s more, I’m totally embarrassed by the whole situation. I know that good books get ignored all the time. I know I have many more reasons to be grateful and proud than I do reasons to be unhappy. But knowing it doesn’t seem to help. I can’t seem to Stewart Smalley my way out of this one.

My question is, how do I stop being such a baby and get back to work?

—Captain Insensible (she/her)

Dear Captain Insensible,

I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now. I’m very glad you wrote in, because it means that you want to feel better, and wanting to feel better is a crucial first step toward getting better.

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#31: The Myth of the Everyperson

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m about to start writing the next volume of a fantasy series and find myself-second-guessing my choice of 1st person protagonist. In the usual way of fantasy novels, all of my previous protagonists (multiple per book) have been exceptional in some way: magical talents, physical skills, social status, etc. Because I want to write a wide diversity of characters, for this one I deliberately designed a character who is not “special”. A young working-class woman with no magical talents, no money, limited economic expectations, and only tentative aspirations with regard to the skill she has her sights on (dressmaking). But she gets drawn into adventures because of the friends she makes and because she chooses to support the skills and aspirations of those friends with her own more everyday abilities. (The book is planned to be YA.)

That circle of friends is itself fairly diverse, including people with physical disability, marginalized ethnic and religious background, trans identity, as well as some with more privileged backgrounds. But now I’m second-guessing the reasons I chose a “default settings” protagonist. (She’s lesbian, but in my series that pretty much counts as a default character setting, though it does make her life more precarious.)

I keep thinking of stories I’ve read or viewed where my reaction was, “Why wasn’t this the black girl’s story—she’s the more interesting character? Why doesn’t the disabled character get to be the hero?” And yet, as the story is designed, all those other characters intersect the story and are brought together through her. Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit. (I know this is sort of vague without giving the whole plot.)

Am I overthinking this? Can an everywoman of a poor non-magical queer white laundry maid be a worthy protagonist?

—heatherrosejones (she/her)

Dear heatherrosejones,

You’ve actually got two questions here, cleverly disguised as one. The first is whether an ordinary person—in the sense of non-extraordinary, someone lacking in special powers or status—can be a successful protagonist. The second is whether a “default settings” person, someone who is not significantly marginalized in their setting, can be a successful protagonist. The answer to both questions is yes. You just have to pick the right kind of story for her, and understand who you’re telling that story for. Continue reading

#28: “Am I Busy or Avoidant?”

Dear Story Nurse,

I am in the midst of a year in which mostly-familial requirements on my time make it something like impossible for me to make my slow-but-steady former progress on my novel, for now. (I had chugged along to slightly over the halfway point.)

At least, I think so. The requirements on my time, energies, and attention are genuine, and the nature of the attention required results in my being bored, which for me doesn’t mix well with writing. But am I being avoidant, or is it really all The Year of Hockey and Real Estate?

—I serve the ice (they/them)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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