#81: Your Writing Is Enough

Dear Story Nurse,

I just read your post on original ideas and the derivative nature of all stories, and loved it. I struggle a lot with feeling like I’m writing “unique enough” stories to justify putting the effort into them (it doesn’t help that I can literally go through my folder of ideas/snippets/starters and pinpoint exactly what I must have been reading/watching when I came up with each idea, so I wind up feeling like obviously anyone else would notice it too—even though logically I’m fairly sure it’s not that obvious and I only notice it because it’s my own stuff).

But in similar vein… how do you create unique, original worldbuilding? The hardest part for me is magic systems—I write almost exclusively fantasy, sometimes scifi with fantasy elements—and I love including magic and witches and sorcerers, but I feel like I can’t create a unique, exciting magic system to save my life.

The example I always go back to is the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve never seen anything remotely like the magic system in that setting, allomancy (for those who haven’t read it, some people can ingest different alloys of metals and use those to fuel various mental and physical powers; all the powers come in pairs, like Soothing vs. Rioting people’s emotions). If I could hit on something that unique, that original, just once in my life, I would be thrilled. But in the end, most of my magic systems are either bog-standard elemental-based types of things, or more generic “magic just does what you need it to do, albeit in limited quantities or with skill requirements to make it work so it’s not a complete deus ex machina device” a la D&D.

You say that “originality doesn’t mean rubbing two brain cells together until they spark an idea that bears no resemblance to any idea that anyone’s ever had” but on the other hand it feels like, in this area of things, it does mean basically that—and I’m not sure the “file off the serial numbers” approach would work, if only because if you take a particularly interesting existing system (like allomancy) for your “base” to work from, I think it would still be pretty obvious. How can I either figure out how to spark unique ideas for magic systems, or stop beating myself up for not being able to come up with entirely new, unique, original magic systems for my worlds?

—Jadelyn (they/them)

Dear Jadelyn,

I love this question as a counterpart to the question about worldbuilding from real places. There are so many ways to approach the creation of a fictional place.

As I said in my post on originality, what makes your work original is that you make unique choices that no one else would make. It sounds like that’s where you’re feeling stuck—you know your worldbuilding choices are yours, but feel that they’re not “unique enough”. Instead of looking at the word unique (or original, though those aren’t the same thing), let’s look at the word enough.

Sometimes enough means that you cook the same simple dinner or order the same takeout three nights in a row. That gets you fed and frees you up to do other things, like playing games or getting work done. Is your worldbuilding enough to do the job? Does having a basic, familiar fantasy setting let you focus on characters, plot, and prose, which is where you find joy or know you need to do more skill-building?

Sometimes enough means you have a small meal because you aren’t very hungry. Is your worldbuilding enough for your limited appetite? Are you forcing yourself to do more of it because you feel like you have to, not because it’s what you actually want?

Sometimes enough means that you buy a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card for your beloved, because you know they would rather get a sweet, simple card than a bouquet of flowers (allergies!) or dinner out (so crowded and noisy!). Is your worldbuilding enough for your readers? Are you giving them what they personally want, rather than adhering to generic notions of what a setting ought to be?

Sometimes enough means a grade of 66%, because that lets you pass the 101 class and move on to something more exciting and engaging and challenging. Is your worldbuilding enough to get your career going? Will knocking out some straightforward works now get you established so you can more confidently try more adventurous things down the road, once you’ve got a readership and an agent and a better sense of which envelopes to push?

Sometimes enough means coloring within the lines, doing exactly what’s required of you and nothing more, never sticking your neck out, being cautious, being safe. Is your worldbuilding enough to be comfortingly familiar to you and your readers, without making anyone uncomfortable or risking anything? Does trying something different make you feel like you’re tapping into deep scary parts of yourself, or bring up complicated thoughts or upsetting feelings? Do you worry that more experimental stories are less commercially viable?

Sometimes enough means quiet music and white walls and simple furniture, because that’s what creates the ambiance you want. Someone else might call it boring, but to you it’s peaceful. Is your worldbuilding enough for the mood you’re trying to create in your work? Does it give your characters room to play without being a vast expanse, and set up interesting plots without having an explosion on every corner?

Sometimes enough is drawing a stick figure because you’re new at making art. Over time, your stick figures will gain motion, emotion, dimension, detail—but you’re not there yet. Is your worldbuilding enough because it has to be, because it’s the very most that you’re capable of right now? Can you let that be enough for the projects you currently have, while you work on developing your skills for future projects?

Sometimes enough is about what feels like enough for you. That’s a thing only you can determine. But it doesn’t sound to me like any of your concerns about whether your worldbuilding is original enough stem from your dispassionate assessment of yourself or your work; it sounds like it’s about how other people will judge you. Who are those other people? Are they the people you’re writing for? If they aren’t, why does their opinion matter?

If your work were enough—if you were enough—how would you know? What are the signifiers of sufficiency, for you? Is it something you can point to? Or is it an unattainable mirage? Can you see ways to redefine “enough” and put it within your reach? Can you see ways to feel like enough right now?

Let go of the Mistborn series; your dilemma would be no different if you’d never heard of Sanderson or his books, so right now it’s just a stick you’re using to beat yourself. I guarantee you that he can look at his work and play spot-the-source all the livelong day, to a degree that no one else can because no one else has read all the books and seen all the movies and heard all the songs and lived all the history that he has. This is true of every writer. You really can’t know where someone’s ideas come from unless you live in their head. But I promise you that they come from somewhere—usually a lot of hard work and practice, and also reading and watching and listening and living. All those jokes about writers asking “can I use your tragic/funny/angsty life experience in my work” are jokes only because a lot of the time writers don’t bother to ask.

If you wanted to get very picky, you could say that Sanderson’s use of paired magical forces is drawing on the Aristotelian idea of opposing elements (which was Aristotle building on the work of Empedocles) and/or the Newtonian idea of equal and opposite pairs of physical forces (which, like all scientific advances, owes a great deal to both the observation of the world and the work of other scientists). But both of those concepts are so deeply embedded in Western culture that basing something on them is no more unoriginal than using the word the. At some point you need to decide that caring about a concept’s degree of uniqueness is a distraction from getting your writing done, and set it aside like any other distraction (too bad there are no URL blockers for persistent anxious thoughts), and focus on the work.

If you’re a relatively new writer, much of your problem may simply be that you haven’t developed your worldbuilding skills very far yet. Don’t be fooled by the mysticism of inspiration and spark-striking; those moments of epiphany are backed by a lot of learning and a lot of work. The next time you read a story with interesting worldbuilding, look at it as a craftsperson and see if you can figure out how the author did it and what makes it work so well for you. Work with mentors, critique partners, beta readers, writing teachers, agents, editors, and anyone else who can help you level up. Don’t let your impatience over being a beginner distract you from your ability to learn. See yourself as being on a path, rather than stuck in place, and make a plan for moving further down that path.

You seem to worry a lot about about the notion that “someone” (who?) will find your work lacking. To get away from that, it will help to have two things: personal goals for your work, and a sense of who you’re writing for.

If you know who your audience is (and it can be as general as “epic fantasy fans” or as specific as “my brother Jim” or “teen me”), you don’t need to guess what they like or wonder how your book fits into their personal collection; you can research it! For a genre-based audience, do some market research and see what’s selling now in that genre, what kinds of book deals are being made, who’s getting lots of buzz, who’s headlining conventions, which books get high marks from trade publications and lots of stars from Amazon and Goodreads reviewers.

Once you know your market, find your unique sweet spot between the book of your heart and the book that will reach the audience you want to reach. You might be be over at the “I will write formulaic books that hit all the bestseller buttons because all I care about is reaching the largest number of readers” end of the scale, or the “I am driven to write this specific book and I don’t really care if no one else understands it” end, or somewhere in between. You may decide to write a commercial book now and an avant-garde one later. All the options are fine. The important thing is to make some decisions about your goals for your work, so you can then evaluate whether your work is achieving those goals.

If the target audience still feels like a big looming someone who’s judging you in a mean judgy way, create an ideal reader, the way you’d create a character. Give them a name and a list of books they love (which is a fun exercise: what reading habits would set someone up to like your work?) and an exuberant eagerness for books like the one you want to write. The next time you think “No one will like this” or “Everyone will see how derivative this is”, swap that out for “Would my ideal reader think this is great?” and use your concept of them as your guide. If you’re a visual thinker, you can find a photo of someone looking kind and friendly and supportive, tape it to the corner of your monitor or make it your background image, and chat with it when you need a boost. Would you like this scene, smiling person? You look so happy just at the thought of it! I love writing for you!

For your reader, for the imagined smiling person or the real one who will someday cherish every word you write, your work isn’t merely enough—it’s exactly right. And so are you.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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!

#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

Dear Story Nurse,

I have an idea for a novel I’m really excited about, but I’ve got overwhelmed by some of the world/character building.

The basic idea is a take-off on a Swords and Sorcery fantasy where, because of the availability of magic, technological development has stalled, and society has become a magocracy. The story then follows a group of inventors who create and spread non-magical technology. The things they actually invent are based on real history of science, but I’ve selected things by a combination of what makes sense with my world building and things I think are cool. It’s going to end up a very anachronistic mix, but it’s also a fairly self-indulgent fantasy story, not historical fiction, so I’m not worried about that. Just in case it’s relevant, currently the plan is that most of the story would take place in a big diverse port city where people are coming and going from around the world, but it’s early days and that may change.

Even though it’s strictly secondary world fantasy the bits of real history of science come from specific places which I would like to carry over into my characters and world building and I’m stuck on how to do that.

So that I have a concrete example, one of the things I know I want to include is the invention of the printing press, which is originally Chinese in real life. The bit I’m having trouble with is coding my printing press inventor from China-inspired-fantasy-land as Chinese in a way that gets the point across without being appropriative. I’m really struggling to figure out what sort of details are good for world-building, vs what is not, how much I can trust my readers to pick up, and generally (especially given there’s a lot of anachronism in my world already) identifying the boundary between diverse world-building and smearing bits of other people’s cultures around willy-nilly.

My printer is one of my better developed characters (I’m still fairly early in the planning stages of this), but I’m seeking general advice for all my non-European characters. Please help me escape the ‘everyone’s from Britain but with the names changed’ fantasy trap.

—Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

That sounds like a very cool project. I understand your concerns about appropriation, especially when you’re working with multiple cultures and doing what amounts to a cultural mash-up. Fortunately, people of color and others with relevant experience have created some great resources on cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity in writing, and I’m glad to bring some of them together for you.

Before I begin, I want to gratefully acknowledge that my thoughts on this topic have been significantly informed by the work of many, many writers and activists, most of whom are women of color. I’ve named and linked a few people and resources in this piece; please consider that a starting point, and invest some time in further research.

K. Tempest Bradford has put together a primer on what cultural appropriation is, which I highly recommend reading. It has links to many other useful pieces on the subject, including Nisi Shawl’s beautifully succinct piece on ways to reframe the conversation around cultural appropriation in fiction.

Shawl writes, “[I]t’s unrealistic for an author to expect to be awarded an embossed, beribboned certificate proclaiming the authenticity of her work.” This reminds me of a talk I went to with activists Ajay Chaudry and Eric Ward, where they discussed the idea of people seeking not only plaudits for bravely writing across color lines but absolution or forgiveness for potentially getting it wrong and hurting a reader. If you’ve had thoughts in that direction, I urge you to move away from them and look for other ways to frame your relationship to your work and your readers. No one can tell you “Congratulations, your work is guaranteed harmless!” or “You aren’t one of those white people!” with any degree of certainty, because no one speaks for all members of their cultural group. Even people from within a group can have the “authenticity” of their work questioned (Ken Liu has spoken about this, with regard to his fantasy novels influenced by Chinese history). There is no absolution; there are no clear-cut rules that you can strictly follow and thereby relieve your anxiety. There is only you, doing your best.

Bradford also links to the Australia Council for the Arts’ protocols for working with Indigenous artists. Some elements of these are specific to Indigenous Australian cultures and their history with white colonizers, but reading the guidelines on writing, which include information for non-Indigenous writers writing on Indigenous themes, will give you some idea of the types of pitfalls you might run into as you address any culture not your own, especially those that have been repeatedly appropriated. These bullet points are particularly apropos, I think:

Some important questions to consider about interpretation are:

  • How will your writing affect the Indigenous group it is based on?
  • Does it empower them?
  • Does it expose confidential or personal and sensitive material?
  • Does it reinforce negative stereotypes?

If you want to shift away from worrying about or seeking advance absolution for harm you might potentially cause, try focusing on that second question of whether your work empowers the people you’re writing about. Another approach is Rose Lemberg’s model of “unbreaking the reader”. What would make your portrayal of (your fantasy equivalent of) China healing, satisfying, and empowering for a reader of Chinese descent?

Obviously you will need to do your research; less often discussed is the notion of honoring your sources. Consider including a research bibliography in the back of your novel. You can use the acknowledgments section to highlight teachers, librarians, essayists, sensitivity readers, and others whose assistance made your book a rich and thoughtful and unbreaking portrayal of its various cultures. (Make sure you get permission from anyone you want to name.)

One of the major concerns about appropriation is economic exploitation, the use of another culture’s stories or history to enrich yourself. Donating a portion of your proceeds to one or more appropriate nonprofits is one way to address that concern. (I recommend the Carl Brandon Society, which supports people of color in the SF/F writing field.) Hiring and paying sensitivity readers is another good way to directly support people with roots in the cultures you’re writing about. You can also include writers from those cultures in your promotions for your book, with paired giveaways and joint book signing events, and promote those writers and their work separately from promoting your own work.

Finally, consider Hiromi Goto’s questions for white writers:

1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; it is quite possible for you to think hard about them and decide to move forward with your project in an ethical fashion. As Goto and Shawl both observe, saying that white writers can only write about white people is its own contribution to erasure. As I’ve noted in the past, you are absolutely allowed to write outside your own experience. If this is the story your heart longs to tell, by all means tell it! Just be willing to put in the work: do research, hire sensitivity readers, excavate your internalized biases, and keep the marginalized reader foremost in your thoughts. Your book will be all the better for it.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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!

#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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#35: Making Side Characters Feel Real

Dear Story Nurse,

Once again I’m looking back at a first draft and making notes of what needs fixing. It’s my usual list: Slow down, set the scene, connect things better, and fill out the ancillary characters. It’s the last one that I continue to find the hardest, particularly in my longer fiction. (In this case a near-future science fiction novel.)

My main characters are generally good, each having their own full and distinct personality and voice. But my supporting characters, the ones who reoccur occasionally to help move the story along, are all the same generic piece of furniture, saying or doing only what is necessary to further the story. They usually embody some specific purpose. (The Informer, the Boss, the Scientist, etc.) I feel like it’s important to make these characters distinct for the benefit of the reader. If the character has been off page for several (or many) chapters, I’d like the reader to recall their value without too much prompting. These characters also tend to be the third (or fourth or fifth) person in the room, and giving them a distinct presence can help calm the mayhem of group scenes.

Since they aren’t main characters, I don’t want to spend too much page time developing them, so I feel the pull to draw from familiar clichés. (The sniveling Informer, the clueless Boss, the Scientist with bad social skills, etc.) But applying broad clichés doesn’t really do any favors to me, my readers, or the characters themselves.

On the other hand, when I sit down and give them all the consideration of a main character, they get away from me, doing all kinds of things. I love that behavior in my mains, but it’s downright rude of my supporting characters since it’s not particularly… uh… supportive.

How can I balance all of these competing forces to best serve the story and the reader?

—Ancillary Justice (they/them)

Dear Ancillary Justice,

There’s a broad range between “plot furniture” and “side character gets uppity, wants to be the protagonist.” I think you can aim for somewhere in the middle of that range and have it work out well, as long as you have the writerly discipline to keep your characters in line. Or you can develop side characters as embodiments of the setting, which will probably serve your books better in the long run.

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