#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.

To start with, I want to tackle an issue that neither of you mentioned, but that may come up for some other readers of this post. If you want to write a story that focuses on or significantly features the pain of a group of people that you don’t belong to—don’t. Look for people who are in that group and are writing about their own pain. Support them and encourage others to read their work, and find another story to tell. It’s fine to write about people who are unlike yourself! But it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to write something that focuses on the pain of people who are unlike yourself without being exploitative and voyeuristic.

This isn’t about whether readers know you’re not a member of that group (I address that below). It’s about the morality of writing on that particular topic as an outsider, while insiders who are also writing about it are almost certainly going unrecognized and unsupported. This is a call you have to make from your conscience. My personal feeling—and of course others may disagree—is that there simply is no ethical way to write and publish non-ownvoices stories that focus on the pain of marginalized people as long as publishing and bookselling privilege outsider work over insider work. If we ever manage to fix (or dismantle and replace) that system, I’ll be glad to reconsider this position.

Of course the boundaries of like/unlike and insider/outsider are fuzzy. I have intermittently unhappy arm tendons, and I consider my story about someone with intermittently unhappy leg tendons to be ownvoices. Someone else might disagree because a leg injury is a mobility disability and an arm injury generally is not (and I do plan to consult with sensitivity readers on the mobility limitation aspects of that character’s injuries). “Focus on” is also an imprecise term, and I’m not going to try to define it as N% of word count or what have you. Again, this comes down to what your conscience tells you. You will know whether you’re mostly writing from your own experience; you will know whether the heart of your story is the pain of a marginalized group.

Ultimately, no one but you can decide whether you should continue with a given project. I’m offering these as ethical guidelines, but you need to make your own decisions.


From this point on, my post assumes that any stories you want to write that are primarily about unpleasant things happening to or being done by marginalized people are, broadly speaking, ownvoices stories.

Let’s start with some axioms.

Stories that explore real pain (physical, psychological, emotional) felt by real people can be very valuable for many reasons. They can be cathartic for the people who are writing them; they can be cathartic for the people they’re about; they can be educational for people who haven’t experienced that pain. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to write stories like that.

There is an enormous corpus of fiction and nonfiction written by marginalized people that digs deep into their most painful and sorrowful experiences. If you want to write stories like that about your own pain, or about the pain of people like you, I strongly encourage you to read the works of others who have done likewise. You aren’t alone in wanting to do this, and the publication and lauding of other non-fluffy ownvoices works will remind you that there absolutely is an audience out there for stories like the ones you want to tell.

The (perceived) scarcity and obscurity of works by and about people like you should not stop you from telling the story you want to tell. There is no tipping point of sufficient happy stories in the world that will make it okay for you to tell sad or scary or angry ones. If your story doesn’t reach a fellow member of your marginalized group, it can be hard to say “Sorry it doesn’t work for you, try reading another one” while knowing that there are not many other ones out there. However:

  1. If your choice is between writing a story that doesn’t please everyone and not writing any stories because you’re stressing about wanting to please everyone—write your stories. Any critique that makes you want to stop writing is a bad critique, and that includes self-critique.
  2. You can always look for and support other writers in your group who are writing other types of work. Collaborate with them on promotions so you can both reach more people who need your different stories.
  3. If you acknowledge that there’s value in writing for a minority group, there is arguably more value in writing for a minority of that minority. If you feel marginalized within your marginalized community because of the stories you want to write, remember that readers who want to read those stories feel the same way. Write for them.
  4. You don’t actually know that only 30 people want your stories until you get your stories out there. You could be writing for a majority of the minority and not even know it until the sales numbers come in.
  5. The most compelling argument, to me, is that a fundamental way of making the world better for people like us is to show that we get to write whatever we want. We get to write bad books, we get to write silly books, we get to write fluffy books, we get to write scary and sad books, we get to write books that other people think are a waste of time. it’s still on us to go about that in an ethical way, but that’s a matter of how we do it, not whether we do it.

In short, we solve the scarcity problem by writing more, and we solve the obscurity problem by boosting one another, and we keep doing these things until there are 60,000 books for marginalized readers to choose from. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our worst problem was too many books on our to-read lists? Let’s make it happen.

Most harm caused by stories about marginalized characters is attributable to failures of craft or audience mismatch. When stories about the pain of marginalization fall short, it’s often because of clichés and stereotypes, insufficient research, clunky prose, and other technical flaws that undermine their value as chronicles of real feelings and experiences. Writers of ownvoices stories have an advantage of knowledge, but all writers need to develop their skills, unpack their internalized biases, and work with sensitivity readers and editors and betas in order to handle readers’ most volatile emotions with the care and skill they require. I’m not saying that either story or writer needs to be perfect, but writing these stories is writing on hard mode, and it takes some time and effort to work up to that.

(I speak from personal experience here. I have a multiply ownvoices novel that’s back-burnered until I feel like a good enough writer to handle the topics it covers. It’s very frustrating to have to focus on less personal projects when I want to be digging into that one, but I know that it’s going to pay off in the long run.)

Audience mismatch means that the story is being read by people who don’t actually want that kind of story. This can happen if you’ve got a regular beta reader who’s not prepared for you to try something very different from what you’ve written before, or if your work’s genre is mislabeled, or even if your cover art doesn’t accurately signal what’s inside. A reader who wants a happy story will think of your angry or sorrowful story as “unsuccessful” no matter how good it is, because it wasn’t successful at meeting that reader’s expectations. With all stories, and these stories in particular, it’s very important to make sure you’re reaching the readers who want what you’re writing, and warning off the ones who don’t.

Any critique of the form “no one wants stories that _____” is wrong. All fiction has an audience somewhere. There is a world of difference between “no one should tell a story like this” (always wrong) and “you aren’t telling this story in a way that works for me” (always worth listening to, even if you ultimately discard the critique).


Finally, some advice. For this section I’m going to use a case study: Elizabeth Hand’s 1991 short story “The Bacchae,” a story in which women respond to patriarchal suppression by treating men as brainless sex objects and becoming casually violent (be warned that there is a lot of blood in the story, including animal harm). At one point, the male protagonist’s female companion says, “I think you just don’t like it when things don’t go as you expect them to. Even if it’s the way things really are supposed to be.” That tension between the reader’s initial expectations and the story’s own deeper logic makes it very disturbing for some readers, and very cathartic for others.

Before you start or as you write, decide whether this is a story you want to share, and if it is, whether it’s a story you want to sell. Some stories that are worth writing have no commercial potential. Some stories that are worth writing don’t even need to be shared with anyone other than the writer. If you are writing a story about pain and intending to sell it or share it, think about who your anticipated audience is and how to balance what you need from writing it with what your audience wants from reading it. The more disturbing or challenging a story is, the harder it may be to find any kind of commercial success with it. However, remember that you only need to find one editor or publisher willing to take a chance on your work.

Write as though no one will ever know whether you belong to the group you’re writing about. Your story has to stand on its own and be worth reading on its own. “It’s ownvoices” can put an interesting additional angle on a story that already works without it, but it can’t cover for failures of craft or defang hurtful words.

Decide whether to make a public claim of affiliation. No reader is owed personal information about you, especially if that’s a matter of safety. There’s a long and honorable tradition of using initials or a pen name or a falsified bio to hide one’s marginalization, and if doing that feels right to you, then by all means do it.

(This should go without saying, but absolutely do not falsely state or imply that you’re part of a marginalized group. It’s one thing to undermine a biased system by claiming access to privilege you don’t usually have. It’s quite another to place yourself in competition with other marginalized people by claiming a marginalized identity that’s not yours.)

Privacy or the lack of it always comes with trade-offs. In this case, privacy may lead readers to feel more free to critique you (and perhaps to do so in pointed and personal ways) because, as a perceived or presumed member of the majority, you are assumed to have the privilege and emotional armor to withstand it, and you may also be seen as intruding into spaces that aren’t yours. You may also be lauded as one of the few people in the majority who really understand how to write minority voices, or receive opportunities that wouldn’t go to someone whose marginalization is apparent—experiences that can be both enjoyable and uncomfortable. It’s up to you to decide how to balance your various risks.

Every story that reflects the messiness of the real world will cause readers some discomfort; your job is to choose which readers to discomfit, and to what end. In an interview about “The Bacchae,” Hand says she deliberately drew parallels between the experiences of women in the real world and those of men in her story, and “exorcised some demons” relating to her own experiences of being violently harmed by men. She was undoubtedly aware that a lot of people would find her story uncomfortable or upsetting to read, and felt it was still worth writing—perhaps because she wanted to upset them, or perhaps because her priority was the process of exorcism for herself and the readers who identify with the rage of her female characters.

Strange and Unusual, you mention craving positive feedback. You may well get it if you write your more disturbing stories, because there’s absolutely a market for those, but you may also get a lot of negative feedback alongside it. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth it for you.

When writing about the pain felt by a particular group, center that group as your audience. Even if you’re aiming for mainstream publication to reach a wide range of readers, some of those readers will be in the group you’re writing about, and it’s important to treat those readers with care.

Some readers will feel their unhappy experiences are most accurately reflected by unhappy endings, and some will want a note of happiness or optimism to help them hope for the same in their own lives. Some will be comfortable with explicit depictions of unpleasant situations, and others will prefer metaphor or turned-tables situations. (“The Bacchae” is clearly about sexual violence but never directly depicts it, a choice that in no way undermines the power of the story and may make it safer for readers who don’t want to see their traumatic past experiences on the page.) Some who have internalized self-hating messages will want to see characters like them be brutalized, and others will want to see those same messages undermined and countered. You can’t please or satisfy all of those readers, since they want contradictory things, but you can write in a way that takes them into consideration and doesn’t actively antagonize or scorn those who want something different than you’re interested in providing.

Hand establishes from the very first paragraph of “The Bacchae” that this is a bloody, gory story, giving readers who don’t want that an immediate opportunity to opt out. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, another often grim ownvoices work, does the same thing, opening with a scene of a father killing his young son. These unflinching openers are sort of like content notes or trigger warnings embedded in the text; they say, “If you can’t get through this scene, then this story is not for you.” Any story that wrestles with challenging topics will be suited to some readers and not suited to others. Making your approach clear up front is one way—though not the only way and not a mandatory way—to be respectful of the readers who are in your centered group but not in your target audience.

Gather a team that wants to work on the stories you want to write. Your betas, SRs, and editors need to be passionate about your work and share your goals for it. It may be hard to find the right readers for your darker fiction, but cast your net widely and put in the time and effort to assemble a group of people who are into reading what you’re into writing.

Be prepared for a challenging writing process. When you find yourself struggling with whether you should (or are “allowed” to) write these stories, remember that the real question is when and how to write them. When is about your development of your writing skills and your emotional preparedness; how is about employing your skills as well as your technical and personal support teams. Stories about pain, anger, sorrow, and fear can be incredibly rewarding to tell, and can also be absolutely wrenching. You may never feel fully ready to write them, even as you feel a desperate need to write them. They may take many more drafts than you’re used to. You may have to step away from them for months or years at a time if the emotions are overwhelming or you realize your technical ability just isn’t where you need it to be. Comments from SRs and editors, even very gentle ones, can be devastating. You may need to edit with tweezers instead of your usual bulldozer. That’s part of the nature of writing from your pain. Keep taking care of yourself as you go, and make sure the people you lean on really are supporting you and your work.

Be prepared for strong criticism. Some people are going to judge your work harshly because it’s not what they want or because they find it upsetting. This is an inevitable side effect of writing stories that provoke strong emotions, especially when they’re aimed at people who are already vulnerable because of the collective trauma of marginalization. Only you can decide how to balance your safety and comfort against your desire to write these stories.

You may decide to use a pseudonym; you may decide to start out writing more mainstream works and gradually trend toward writing the stories of your heart; you may decide that you will never read your reviews; you may hire extra sensitivity readers and editors to be absolutely sure that when you send your works out into the world, you do so knowing that they are the absolute best you could make them; you may publish a manifesto explaining why you think it’s important to write what you do. As with the question of identity privacy, preparing for strong criticism is something that everyone will handle differently. But do prepare for it, because it will come your way.


I hope none of this discourages you from telling the stories you want to tell. They are valid, valuable stories about things that really matter, and there is an audience out there for them. It will be difficult, but when you’re ready for that challenge, I know you’re going to knock it out of the park. Hang in there, and keep writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Many thanks to the Story Hospital Patreon patrons who provided invaluable critique of the first draft of this post.

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#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?

A lot of this looks to me like conflicts between your inner desires and what you think you should be doing. For example, there’s a very strong cultural idea that you should finish things, and want to finish them. But it’s perfectly okay to write for other reasons besides generating a finished product. Rose Lemberg just wrote a magnificent piece about writing as stimming, and the shame that can accompany not finishing things even if you only want to write for the pleasure of writing. It’s perfectly okay to only do the parts of writing you find fun and easy and exciting; that’s called having a hobby. It’s also perfectly okay to make practical decisions on deadline, like finishing the story you know you can finish rather than the story that excites you; letting that pressure push you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise go in is an excellent way to build your skills. (I definitely don’t know how you got the idea that you should stop doing the only kind of writing that you finish, when finishing stories is what you want to do. You are doing the thing you want to do! Keep doing it! Everything you learn from doing it is absolutely applicable to your original fiction.) It’s perfectly okay to write playfully sometimes and push yourself hard at other times. Every single approach to writing is perfectly okay, as long as it’s in line with the kind of writer you want to be.

So if “should” is keeping you stuck, give yourself permission to let go of it. Let every choice be equally acceptable in the broader sense. If there were an easy decision to be made you would have made it already, so clearly there’s something to genuinely recommend each of these options. Now is also a good time to accept yourself for who you are right now, how you’re inclined to write, and where you are in the never-ending learning process.

Then figure out your values and commit to pursuing them. Whenever you feel stuck, use that commitment and those values as levers to unstick yourself. It may help to write up a series of statements beginning “I want to be a writer who…” and post them prominently in your writing space, always keeping in mind that you can add, change, and remove list items as you learn more about yourself and how you write.

(This technique is cribbed from a psychology approach called acceptance and commitment therapy, which is used to help people find healthy ways to interact with personal experiences that they fear or avoid. I’ve found it extremely useful for getting past inner roadblocks to writing and building better writing habits.)

Finally, a note on boredom. You know that you want to stop doing things when you get bored of doing them, so use that! Indulge your bad habits until you get bored of them and decide to try something else. Flit from idea to idea until you’re so tired of that that you actively want to commit to one and see it through, just for a change of pace. Whenever something challenges you, remind yourself that being challenged is better than being bored.

No one is born with the perfect writing mentality (because there’s no such thing). We all have to figure out our own combinations of carrots and sticks. Keep trying different ways to get yourself to do the things that are short-term difficult but long-term educational, or that feel embarrassing or unproductive but also deeply enjoyable and satisfying, or that make you anxious but also get you closer to your goals. If you sometimes need to give yourself a little kick in the pants or play the occasional mind game on yourself in order to get where you want to go, there’s no shame in that. We all do it. As you build your unique set of writing tools and habits, you’ll find that all these things get easier.

If you decide that a finisher of stories is who you want to be, then I have no doubt that you will finish many and many more stories. And if you decide that right now you just want to write for fun, then I have no doubt that you will have loads of fun. All these possible paths lead to the same place: the concretization of your writing dreams and goals, the maturity of your writing skills, the satisfaction that comes from finding ways to enjoy and achieve simultaneously. Just pick a direction—any direction you like—and go. You’ll be in the groove before you know it.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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#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.

Before we get to any of that, though, I suggest practicing acceptance. You are the type of writer you are, and the type of writer you are is a GEE WHIZ GOSH WOW conceptual writer. You’re probably never going to be the type of writer who naturally comes up with plots. If you accept that about yourself, you’ll have a much easier time emotionally than if you keep trying to make yourself be a plotter.

Acceptance might mean looking for ways to work with this rather than against it, such as writing little vignettes or flash pieces, or teaming up with a visual artist to create a set of stunning images, or collaborating with a writer whose strengths complement yours, or hiring an editor to take your beautiful messes and organize them. It might mean stealing a plot from somewhere else or beginning to write with no plot or structure or outline in mind at all. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being more of an ideas person. Many, many, many writers are ideas people. Celebrate your glorious ideas rather than treating yourself as a failure because plots are trickier for you.

Acceptance also means realizing that any plot will feel clunky to you because writing it won’t have that natural grace and ease of coming up with grand sweeping ideas. Before you give up in despair, run that “irredeemably listless garbage” past someone else and see what they think. You may be surprised how hard it is for a reader to tell which parts of a story came from sweet easy inspiration and which were crafted in sweat and agony. And remember that every story has some component of inspiration and some component of craft; the all-inspiration all-easy story is a mirage, so don’t bother chasing it.

Finally, acceptance means realizing that your “unenthused” feeling goes beyond not naturally being good at plotting; it sounds to me like a real aversion to writing plotted work. Take a look at my post on what it means to be blocked and see if you can identify any underlying emotional or psychological causes of that very abrupt switch from “my ideas are glorious” to “my writing is trash” as soon as the element of plot is introduced. Maybe you only like coming up with ideas and don’t actually like writing. Maybe the weight of should that drives you to look for plots also makes you feel really uncomfortable and averse to continuing with a project. Maybe the act of writing feels like a scary first step toward someone else seeing your work. Maybe someone once told you that your writing is bad and now it’s hard to stop hearing that voice in your head. Whatever it is, there’s something going on there that’s worth investigating.

Resources for plotting exist in abundance. I list several in my earlier post on when settings are fun and stories are hard, which responds to a letter that’s similar to yours. You can also get into reading books that break conventional ideas of plotting, and see whether their approaches appeal to you. But none of that will get you anywhere until you come to terms with being where you are in your process and being the type of writer you are. Let go of all your shoulds, even the ones that seem incontrovertible (like “every story should have a plot” or “every plot involves a character solving a problem”), and begin from where you are with as little judgment as possible. You might be surprised how far you can go from there.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#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.

The snag comes with wanting anyone else to read it. Books have plots for a reason: readers like them! You might be able to find a small audience of postmodernists or people who read only for prose, but you’re probably not going to entertain the masses with your antibildungsroman.

Again, that’s no reason not to write it. “What’s the best way to go about this” is a very broad question; “the best way” depends rather a lot on your goals and it’s not clear to me what you’re trying to accomplish, other than writing the book of your heart, which only you can decide how to do. But, generally speaking, if you’re eschewing plot, I recommend focusing on prose quality and characterization. You could also give the individual letters a degree of structure and narrative, making each one moving or dramatic or intriguing or beautiful.

If you imagine your hypothetical reader recommending your book to someone, what do you picture them praising about it? When they say “It doesn’t have much plot, but I kept reading anyway because—”, how do they finish that sentence? This exercise will help you focus on what you want to put into your story, rather than on what you’re leaving out. And once you’ve finished the book, it may also help you find an audience for it.

Regardless of any advice I give, I suspect you’ll keep coming back to your personal reasons for writing the book the way you are. There are some projects where artistic urges outweigh commercial considerations, and this sounds like one of those. So really the best way to go about it is the way that makes you feel good, and creates a project that satisfies your own internal (maybe inarticulable) parameters.

I’m sorry I can’t give you a more detailed response, but I hope this gives you something like a useful starting point. Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on PatreonGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#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.

1. Ordinary protagonists

Off the top of my head, here’s a short list of positive, inspiring media that center ordinary people:

  • The song “Somebody Will” by Sassafrass
  • Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series of books
  • Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
  • Sesame Street
  • Bob Ross’s painting videos
  • Jane Austen’s novels
  • This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee of interviews with civil rights activists

Stories about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things are escapist fantasies: “Wouldn’t it be cool if my life were like that?” Stories about ordinary people doing ordinary (but still important and valuable) things are very different. They encourage us to think, “I can do that right now.”

The television shows I mentioned basically teach that message over and over and over. You can manage your feelings! You can learn to count! You can paint! And gradually viewers absorb the greater lesson: whatever it is you think you can’t do, you probably actually can.

Austen’s novels have a more specific focus: even if you think you can’t find love, you probably actually can. And the activists and “Somebody Will” say that even if you think you can’t contribute significantly to efforts to make the world better, you probably actually can. And Pierce’s books, like your story, say that even if you think you can’t have adventures because you’re too ordinary, you probably actually can. But the gist is the same.

So let’s recast your story in those terms:

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.

That sounds to me like “Even if you think you can’t be a good friend without uncomfortable amounts of self-sacrifice or self-denial, you probably actually can.” And that’s a lesson many people could stand to learn, especially many people who, like your protagonist, are marginalized in some ways but privileged in others, and are trying to figure out how to balance what they need (or feel they are owed) with what they can give.

You’re absolutely right that many stories with ordinary protagonists also have boring protagonists, but that’s a story craft issue. We’re swimming in the narrative conceit that what makes extraordinary characters interesting is their extraordinariness and what makes protagonists interesting is that they’re protagonists. Stories built on those premises tend to keep the action and adventure coming so quickly that they can kind of get away with it for a bit. (They also tend to have sequels that fall flat as pancakes because the initial excitement has worn off and readers realize there was nothing underneath it.) So if you take away the crutch of extraordinariness, many writers fail to realize that they now have to put in actual protagonist character development work to compensate.

Meanwhile, those same writers put significant effort into building up side characters because they’re more aware that side characters can’t just skate by on their extraordinariness. Side characters also often get moral complexity than the protagonist does, especially in heroic tales where the protagonist is the embodiment of goodness, and they provide conversational foils, dispensing both banter and wisdom. And if they’re more marginalized than the protagonist is, they have more real-world problems to contend with, making them more relatable to readers. Naturally, these complicated, sympathetic, well-developed characters steal every scene.

To avoid this trap, take the time to figure out what makes your protagonist interesting, to herself and to the people around her, and to learn the Mister Rogers lesson that characters can make their stories special just by being their unique selves. Think about the people in your life with whom you can happily talk for hours and never feel bored. How do they hold your interest? What makes you want to hang out with them over and over again? Use that knowledge to help your readers feel just as good about spending hours of reading time with your protagonist. And make sure you spend just as much time developing her depth and complexity as you do for any of her companions, and give her plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, wrestle with her conscience, and support other characters on their own journeys.

2. “Default settings” protagonists

You’re also right that many (many) (so many) stories fall into the trap of considering someone with tremendous social privilege to be a protagonist whom of course all readers will be able to relate to, while relegating marginalized characters to narrative support roles because they would be “unrelatable” in the central role. (“I can’t relate to this character” is a phrase often used by privileged editors and readers to reject work featuring marginalized protagonists, even though marginalized readers are expected to force themselves to relate to privileged protagonists.) To some extent, you’ve fallen into that trap too, awkwardly stretching the term everywoman to cover both the ways your character is marginalized and the ways that she’s privileged. Is she an everywoman because she’s poor and queer and low-status and therefore overlooked by the elite, or because she’s white and able-bodied and therefore the narrative default? Rather than trying to thread that needle, I recommend ditching the label altogether. No one is actually an everywoman, and you will do your story and your readers a much greater service by focusing on her as a complete and unique person.

With regard to having a protagonist who’s privileged in some respects, you’ve already taken steps in the right direction by constructing your story around her learning to genuinely value the marginalized people she knows rather than treating them as objects. Now you just have to make sure the narrative also doesn’t treat those people as objects for her to learn important life lessons from.

There’s nothing morally wrong with having a white protagonist, but you have to put some work into making her a protagonist worth reading. Some starting points:

  • Give her a distinct identity, rather than leaving her whiteness as an unmarked state. (Both those links are to posts by the marvelous and insightful Mary Anne Mohanraj. I highly recommend reading them in full.)
  • Describe her and other white characters in similar ways to how you describe nonwhite characters. If you mention race for some people, mention it for everyone.
  • Don’t define the character’s attractiveness in terms of her pale skin, light-colored eyes, or other attributes linked with whiteness. If a particular other character is attracted to her because of those qualities, be careful to distinguish that from a narrative opinion that those qualities are inherently attractive.
  • Be aware of ethnic distinctions as well as racial ones, and how identities and labels change from one situation to another. For example, someone who’s seen as white in America might be regarded as Italian in Europe and Calabrian in Italy—none of which tells you how they think of themself (which may also change depending on the situation they’re in).
  • Avoid the many clichés of white exceptionalism, such as the white savior, the white anti-racist activist who helps nonwhite people realize how oppressed they are, or the white ruler over a nation of nonwhite people. If your story looks like a million anonymous brown arms reaching out for one named blond lady, something is awry.

Likewise, for an abled protagonist:

  • Give her an explicit relationship with her embodied self. The biggest cliché of the able body and brain is that they just work; the protagonist never encounters a burden they can’t lift or forgets important information. But in reality, everyone is conscious to some degree of being embodied, and everyone encounters situations that they’re not equipped for. Showing how your protagonist works around those situations can be great for character development.
  • Mention her physical and cognitive reactions to everyday situations such as not getting enough sleep or food, being startled, catching a cold, or having period cramps. Or, since she’s a poor working-class woman and probably has never gotten enough sleep or food, mention her physical and cognitive reactions to finally having a good meal or a full night’s rest, if the narrative allows her to have those things.
  • Mention her sensory reactions to the world around her.
  • Don’t use temporary injury or disability as a plot device that affects nothing else in the character’s life and magically gets better as soon as it’s no longer needed for plot reasons.
  • Make her skills and abilities appropriate for her age and lifestyle. There’s a fine line to walk here, because one person’s “that’s unrealistic” is another person’s “that sounds just like my grandma,” but in general, any skill or ability she has should have at least a scrap of attached backstory explaining how she acquired it (for your reference even if it doesn’t make it into the narrative), and any new thing she attempts should have a learning curve. Also, expending much more effort than usual should leave her tired and sore, and her vulnerability to ailments and recovery time from exertion should be increased by age, illness, malnourishment, or chronic exhaustion.

And in general:

  • If your character is aware of her privilege in certain areas, give her complex and plausible reactions to it, especially if she’s marginalized in other ways. Don’t make her a mouthpiece for endless platitudes about the importance of allyship, and be very wary of centering her story around her political awakening, which can easily turn into an exceptionalism narrative (especially if the less privileged people around her disproportionately admire or reward her awareness).
  • Regardless of whether she’s aware of her privilege, the narrative should be, and the marginalized people around her should be.
  • Her setting, whether real-world or created, should incorporate diversity of all sorts from the ground up. If it’s not, its homogeneity should clearly be due to overt or covert actions taken by one group to exclude other groups. Women-only colleges exist, but not by happenstance. Many of those colleges have majority-white student bodies, which is also not by happenstance.

Most importantly, she needs to be a real, multifaceted person. Just as you can’t assume that the protagonist is interesting by virtue of being the protagonist, you can’t assume that privileged people are interesting by virtue of being privileged. So in the end, there’s one answer to both your questions: yes, any fully developed character can be a protagonist in a story that’s written with care.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on PatreonGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#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)

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Writers in a Dangerous Time

Dear friends,

I am committed to giving advice to any writer, anywhere, but today’s post is specifically for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who are deeply distressed by the thought of President Trump and deeply anxious about what comes next for the U.S. and the world. It’s a modified version of my post-election piece on goals and deadlines in a time of strong emotions. This one is more general, without the NaNo-specific content, and I hope it will be a post that you can come back to again and again.

As we face difficult times as creators of art, we will face a lot of pressure from different sides, and from within ourselves. We will be pressured to make art. We will be pressured to stop making art. We will be pressured to make different art, to be more radical or more moderate, to be commercial or to never sell out, to reach different audiences who are all in need of artistic sustenance. We will be pressured to depict the past, the present, and many possible futures.

Sometimes circumstances like these make it very easy to make art. Other times they make it very hard.

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