#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

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#55: Writing for Five Minutes at a Time

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I almost always work in short little bursts of a few minutes. Even when I clear out my schedule and sit down to have a long writing session I get the most done if I work in bursts on a few different works at a time. And, I also tend to have a lot of little 2–5 minute breaks in my day while I’m between tasks at work, or waiting for things. I’ve been frustrated with my lack of writing time lately, so it seemed totally natural that the obvious solution would be to try and write during the breaks I usually waste on the internet.

And for some reason I can’t.

My attempts at writing during my downtime currently just involve me staring blankly at an open document for a few minutes and giving up.

On the rare occasion I can get started in a timely manner I can write a little segment of text then go back to work and it feels really good, but getting started as soon as I open the document is REALLY HARD.

The type of writing I do doesn’t seem to make any difference; it’s equally difficult for fanfic, original fiction, and work-related science writing.

How do I stop needing a ritual 15-minute staring session before I start writing?

Thanks,

Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

Thanks for writing in again—I love answering your letters! (And if any past letter writers are wondering, yes, you’re always welcome to send me another question.) I appreciate that this time you gave me a nice easy question to answer. The answer is: you can’t.

Every writer has a different process. Your process appears to require you to idle your brain for a bit before getting it in gear. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that it’s inconvenient to you given your other constraints at the moment. Alas, sometimes creative work is inconvenient.

I totally understand you thinking that “do work, write for five minutes, go back to work” is the same as “sit down, write for five minutes at a time on a bunch of different things for a few hours, get up” but it really isn’t. You’re discounting the crucial transition from the work or everyday life mindset to the writing mindset. That transition takes time (apparently for you it takes about 15 minutes) and is very difficult to rush or skip.

In my experience, a lot of the transition time between not writing and writing is spent getting your intuitive, creative side and your intellectual, designing side (or your conscious and subconscious or left brain and right brain or whatever metaphor you like) to work together, like getting two high-spirited horses to draw a carriage. If you simply don’t have time to do that, here are some writing-related things that mostly rely on one type of thinking or the other.

Intuitive tasks:

  • Doodle. Free-associate. Let your intuition run wild. You can try to do this with relation to a particular plot or character issue, or just meander. Maybe you’ll come up with the ideas for your next six stories. Maybe you’ll get a page full of meaningless scribbles. Both those outcomes are fine.
  • Make a list of title ideas.
  • Come up with some questions about your story or characters that you can’t immediately answer. “Why” questions are particularly good. These two nations are at war when the book starts—why? Lisa has an inordinate fondness for milkshakes—why? Don’t try to answer the questions for now; just ask them.
  • Come up with some ridiculous ideas for fanfic of your work. Coffee shop AU! High school AU! One character throws another a surprise birthday party! Or match your cast up to the cast of a book or movie or show: which Avenger or Crystal Gem or member of the Ring Fellowship would your protagonist be?
  • Take a quick online personality quiz as if you were one of your characters.

Intellectual tasks:

  • Draw a quick sketch of a character or a scene. This can be especially useful if you’re trying to figure out who’s standing where in an interaction where physical proximity is important.
  • Do a little bit of research. It might help to plan ahead for this so you stay focused and get the most out of your short breaks: “On Tuesday, I’m going to see what I can learn about medieval sheep farming.”
  • Outline the next scene you want to write, or work on the outline for your whole story.
  • Create a timeline of significant story events.
  • Try to answer some of the questions you came up with in another day’s question-generating session.

You may try a few of these things and realize that you need your work downtime to be downtime. If trying to get anything done during your breaks ends up frustrating you, take them as breaks. The time isn’t wasted, any more than time spent sleeping or eating is wasted. Your brain can’t keep going at top speed all day, and valuable, important things happen when you let your mind wander and ruminate. If you’re not a fan of staring off into space, try reading a book or working on a handicraft project or playing a silly phone game. Give yourself permission to rest.

Separately, see what you can do to carve out more writing time that includes the 15-minute staring session and whatever else you need. Your innate writing process is what it is. Work with it rather than against it, and you’ll be much happier and more productive.

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!

#43: Describing Your Viewpoint Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently writing a story in first person POV and I’m finding it extremely difficult to describe my main character because of it. What are some strategies for getting across character description to the audience in a way that is not cliche?

—Noelle (she/her)

Dear Noelle,

This is a delicious technical question that I’m very happy to sink my teeth into. First-person POV can be a lot of fun but it also definitely presents some challenges, and one of those is conveying who’s speaking without a clunky or clichéd paragraph of self-description.

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#42: Writing with a Playful Heart

This week’s column is a little different. The question I want to address is one that author Isabel Yap posted on Twitter. The thread starts here. (And it has lots of great replies, so you should go read it.)

I want to talk a little bit about regaining a playful heart when it comes to writing. I know I need this but I’m not sure how.

It’s on my mind because one of my first pro-published stories got retweeted today. It came out on Tor.com in 2013. It’s probably the story I’m still best known for. I love that story and I’m proud of it and I’m still not over Victo Ngai’s art for it. But after that story came out, or maybe even from the time it was accepted, in addition to exhilaration, I started to feel…pressure.

Pressure to write a good story. Pressure to write a story I can sell. Pressure to write something people will want to retweet. Pressure to try and land work in a good market. Pressure to maybe, juuuuust maybe, write something worthy of award nominations. Pressure to do better than the old me. Pressure to be consistent. Pressure to have a social media presence. Pressure to be someone.

When I wrote that story, I had barely any conception of markets or the sff short fiction/fandom world at large. I was at Clarion and I had this somewhat snicker-y thought of ‘I want to write a story about onsen and maybe a sexy kappa. Hehe.’ I obviously wanted to write a good story. I had some things I wanted to say about grief, and aging, and love in weird forms. But that’s all I really wanted. I wanted to write a beautiful story. I wanted my classmates and teachers to like it. That would be enough.

Some part of me was probably thinking it would be nice to publish it, but that wasn’t my concern. How could it be? I hadn’t even written it yet. So writing it, and failing at the writing of it, was still hard, but it was fun. I fumbled and I tossed around ideas and the sentences started to click. It was playing with a story. It was great.

I’m not sure I remember how to be that way. I’m not sure how to get back there. It’s hard for me to play with writing; the me who writes now feels like I need to be thinking ahead. It’s still fun. I still love it. But the burden is real, sometimes prohibitive.

How do people get out of this? How do people get back to that state of just playing? Is it possible to regain it/trick yourself into it?

My eyes lit up when I saw this because it is so important to be able to play with one’s creative work. And the more your livelihood or identity depends on creative production, the harder that gets.

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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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#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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#34: What It Means to Be Blocked

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a professional writer. I write list articles for a website that focuses on trends in geek culture. I usually average about 1750 words per article. It’s a fun gig and I get paid to write about my favorite things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. It’s part time so I supplement my income by working at a grocery store.

The problem? I’m blocked.

And it’s just on my list articles. I can sit down and plug away at my passion and practice projects (thanks for the idea for practice projects!). But I’m running out of ideas for list articles and when I sit down to write I just end up staring at the outlines I made with nothing to say. It doesn’t help that I sometimes work early shifts and come home too tired to write. Is there anything you would recommend to get unblocked?

—Blocked (she/her)

Dear Blocked,

Thanks for this very interesting question. Being blocked on writing that one is obligated to do—for work, for school, because of any other external commitment—is something we don’t usually think about the way we think about being blocked on creative projects. But it certainly does happen, and the root causes are very similar.

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#33: Balancing Commercial and Artistic Demands

Dear Story Nurse,

How do you know if the story you’re telling honestly needs more than one POV?

I’m working on a sequel under contract and deadline to a fantasy novel. I wrote the first novel with one POV, in first person. Now for the sequel, I have a different protagonist (she was in the first book, as a character with antagonistic goals to her beloved brother, who was the protagonist of the first book) and there’s just some things about the world and the situation that she doesn’t know.

But another character from the first book has direct experience with the parts that my planned protagonist doesn’t, and her journey is really interesting. The characters are… rivals who become allies. They’re on opposite sides politically, and come together in the end to save everything.

But I’ve heard that if you write the first book as 1 character in 1st, you have to stick to that narrative model because that’s what readers expect, and switching to 2 characters in 3rd or 2 characters in 1st is a bad idea. But every time I look at what’s happening with my planned protagonist’s rival, it’s just so interesting.

I’ve only ever written romances when it comes to stories with two POV characters. How do I know when I need more than one POV in a story where romance between the characters is not happening?

—oenanthe (they/them)

Dear oenanthe,

You’ve already answered your own question: you as a writer are telling yourself that you need more than one POV to tell the story you want to tell. That matters far more than some vague gossip someplace about what readers can or can’t tolerate. But I don’t think that’s actually the question you have. Going by the rest of your letter, the question underneath your question is: “Am I allowed as a commercial writer to do the thing I want to do as an artist?”

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#30: Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a mostly-fan sometimes-original fiction author who generally has a clear idea about plot and story beats and so on, but an issue with an unfinished NaNo project has me a bit stumped. It’s original fiction, a time-travel transhumanist romance between characters whose first names conveniently start with A, B, and C.

For the first part of the story, our point-of-view character is B, a female graduate student who has been sent to the distant past and who hooks up with A, a man of some privilege there. She makes a copy of his brain pattern on her computer (with his consent) and returns to C, her genderqueer ex, who helps her load up A’s mind on a computer. Eventually, A will be restored to a physical form with science magic and they will all live happily ever after together, but before I can write that I have to figure out a very basic question: Whose point of view do I write the next section of the story in?

I’ve written everything so far from B’s POV and I intended to write the rest of the story that way, but there’s a lot going on between A and C that she won’t be witness to. On the other hand, it could be that all of C’s diagnostics aren’t actually interesting or relevant to the story. I’d almost decided to write the next section in A’s POV, but something inside me is rebelling!

What can I do to narrow down my options and figure out why I am hesitant to commit to an actor for my next few thousand words?

Thank you!

—Aris Merquoni (she/her)

Dear Aris Merquoni,

Questions about point of view are really questions about what story you’re telling. If you’re not sure whether to switch POV, you may not be sure what your story is. Is it B’s story, or is it A, B, and C’s story?

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#29: When Creation Feels like a Chore

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life has been when revising and editing my own stories. Unfortunately, I need to produce some kind of draft before I can start polishing, and that has started to feel near impossible to me.

I’m trying to resume writing after several years hiatus due to a tumultuous life event and emotional fallout that left me with no energy to spare for creative pursuits. Now that my mental wellbeing has improved and day to day life has become much less stressful, I’d like to do something nice for myself and have fun writing again. I’ve set aside some hours at my preferred time just for that, and my partner is being wonderfully encouraging.

However, I find myself treating what’s supposed to be an opportunity for creative play as if it’s a chore I’m trying to put off long enough to forget about entirely. I feel like I have no clue what comes next, struggle to commit to what thin threads I have, and both my freewriting and outlining attempts too often turn into long agonizing sessions of tensing my imagination into immobility as I attempt to Make A Really Cool Idea Happen Right Now.

Previously, I mostly wrote romantic vignettes and notes for potential storyworlds without much for plot. I’m trying to resume writing similar short scenes as well as outlining a romantic fantasy novel very loosely based on some earlier work, though plot remains as elusive as before. I’ve considered trying to write nonfiction or a different type of fiction to attempt to get unstuck and perhaps find “what I’m really meant to be writing”, but I still end up unhappily mired early into the “what shall this specifically be about” stage and just end up feeling more directionless than ever. I’ve also spent some time trying to do stream of consciousness warm-up writing, but that has yet to help me produce anything beyond a lot of lines about “I don’t know what to write.”

Any advice for getting through the initial decision and drafting stages for those of us who feel like the fun comes after?

—Stuck at the Start

Dear Stuck at the Start,

I get the sense that you’re trying to make up for lost time by doing years’ worth of writing all at once. You’re trying to write beginnings with your head full of middles and endings and plots and “is this idea good enough” and pressure pressure pressure. You also mention that you love editing and revising, which explains why you’re critiquing your drafts before they even exist. Your brain is desperately trying to escape the pressure by retreating to the part of wordcraft that feels enjoyable and happy and safe. Alas, that part can’t happen until you have a draft, and so the pressure to create a draft increases. It’s a vicious cycle. You need to get out.

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