#27: Ethics in Fiction Writing

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Dear Story Nurse,

Let’s say I made a boo-boo in one of my previous stories, and I handled a sensitive subject a bit badly. Not super badly, but I relied on overused tropes because I didn’t realize how overused (and damaging) they were. Now I know better, and I’m planning to write a sequel to the story where I messed up. Is there anything special I should do in the sequel to sort of “make up” for the mistake and build that trust back with my readership? Or should I just focus on not making it again?

Sincerely,

Really Very Sorry

Dear Really Very Sorry,

This is a very kind question. I’m glad you understood where critiques were coming from, took them to heart, and have been working on doing better. Those are the essential things you need to be doing, and to keep doing.

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#26: Maintaining Story Momentum

Dear Story Nurse,

You mentioned in #22, Passion Projects and Practice Projects, that you felt plotting was one of your weak points. I wondered if you had any anecdotes on how you work to overcome this and any advice for the bare bones of creating a plot that keeps moving?

I’ve been told that my writing is best when it focuses on characters and my most successful stories have been tight 1,000 word flash fiction competitions with a time limit of a weekend. I seem to be able to craft memorable moments and interactions pretty solidly. When it comes to working on bigger projects I tend to get stuck because I don’t know how to turn a solid character-based idea or series of moments into a plot that moves along.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas for plots, and I have two longer stories I’ve stalled at. One is a horror story at maybe 4,000 words that is effectively a possession story, but with a past life rather than a demon. The second is a novella or novel length story with an English-village-comedy genre about a flower seller who gets an unusual side job that lands her in trouble.

They have a goal and end point and characters that have good voices and interactions. They have (I hope) decent enough concepts and opening paragraphs to hook in a reader for the ride, but it’s how to add in the turns and beats you need with the plot that trips me up every time until my anxiety makes me freeze up.

In the past I’ve tried the Stephen King approach of ambling without much direction until a plot happens, which didn’t help. When it comes to the opposite approach of plotting in detail I often feel lost as how to begin but for “Start. Middle. End. Some sort of drama somewhere.”

Any advice is much appreciated!

All the best,

Leanne (she/her)

Dear Leanne,

This is a great question and one that a lot of people struggle with (definitely including me!). You ask for the bones of plot, but it sounds like you already have those: start, middle, end, some drama. What you need are the muscles and tendons of plot, the pull and thrust and tension that turns a skeleton into something that moves and breathes.

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#24: Semicolon Surgery

Dear Story Nurse,

I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.

I use too many semicolons.

I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.

Here are some from the last story I wrote:
  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?

Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)

—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)

Dear Independent Clause,

This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.

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#22: Passion Projects and Practice Projects

Dear Story Nurse,

In post #2, “Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself”, you said:

“I’m working on two novels at once right now; one involves putting characters I’m very invested in through some difficult experiences with strong echoes in my own life, and the other is much more of a technical exercise.”

I’d like to know more about the latter one. What is it like? How is it a technical exercise? I would be interested in trying this approach myself, so any details would be much appreciated. Thank you very much!

Best,
Jenna (she/her)

Dear Jenna,

Thanks for asking about this; working on a practice project alongside a passion project is something I’ve alluded to in a few posts, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to go into more detail.

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#21: Stopping and Starting

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently living at my parents’ house and working part-time. I’ve been trying to work on my fantasy novel more since I have more free time, but I keep hitting a wall. The first time I tried to write it, it was a disaster. I had no plan, nothing about it was pleasurable. I started again, it went better this time, but eventually it stopped working. Instead of pressing on, I started over again. I started at the point I was most excited about, instead of trying to do back story or following a formula.

I wonder if this stop and restart habit came from my Creative Writing degree. I revised many short stories, so starting over might have become habit.

Now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to ask next. How do I stop myself from stopping and starting over again? My novel is never going to get finished if I keep doing this! I want to have this first draft finished by the end of the year.

Thank you for your help,
Third Time’s Hopefully the Charm (she/her)

Dear Third Time,

Novels are definitely a different animal from short stories, and it’s hard to make the jump. It sounds like you’re accustomed to writing short fiction off the top of your head and then revising as needed, but that approach isn’t working for your longer project. And when you’re doing something different from what you’ve done before, nothing gets in your way more than a creative writing degree and a lot of practice doing other kinds of writing, both of which fill your head with all sorts of ideas about what writing should be like—how you should experience the act of writing, what sort of work you should be producing, how long it should take you, and so on.

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#20: How to Choose a Title

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

Hello, fabulous Story Nurse! I was wondering if you have any advice about figuring out titles for pieces of writing. I feel like the titles that naturally come to me are either vague and unremarkable (e.g. my story “Free State,” which is about a queer woman shapeshifter in Bleeding Kansas, but you wouldn’t know that from the title) or entirely too on-the-nose (e.g. I was trying to come up with a working title for my novel-in-progress so I can put it on my CV, and the best thing I could come up with was “Stolen Sisters,” which is kind of okay, I guess, but one of the inciting incidents of the story is the protagonist’s sister getting abducted, so again, it feels a little obvious). As a result, then, any advice you might have about titles would be most welcome!

—What’s in a Name (she/her)

Dear What’s in a Name,

This is definitely a challenge, and it can feel like a really big challenge. A title is your very first interaction with the reader, and it carries significant weight. But if you think of it as communication, rather than as a summary that is somehow meant to encompass everything the story is while not giving anything important away, that can help you decide how to shape it.

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#19: Love After Angst

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing a fan fic as a low-key side project to keep writing fun, as opposed to the writing that I do professionally, which is of course work.

It’s a modern-day, angsty romance, where two people from totally different worlds fall for each other even though they don’t fit well into each other’s lives. They figure they can’t be together, but finally the tension gets too much and they have a wild night together. Then they spend some time angsting and avoiding each other. Your standard piece where the agonizing is part of the appeal.

But I can’t figure out where they go from there. Where should I take it next? I think I’d ultimately like them to get together (though I’m not married to it) but I can’t figure out what new element to introduce to change things. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

—Beautiful Mistake (she/her)

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

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

NaNoWriMo: Reassuring Your Inner Critic

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe November’s almost over, and NaNoWriMo with it. By now you’ve ideally got somewhere around 40,000 words under your belt. Take a moment to feel really good about whatever you’ve accomplished writing-wise so far this month. Those words exist because you brought them into existence. That’s amazing! Congratulations.

NaNo is specifically and deliberately about quantity over quality, but as the quantity stacks up, it’s hard not to look back at it and start to fret about the quality. If you’re feeling the urge to go back and fix (or despair over) what you’ve written already, and if it’s getting in the way of powering on toward your goal and your deadline, this post is for you.

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#15: How to Create Original Work

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I have written tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of words of fan fiction. Some of it exceptional, some of it terrible. Some of it in forty-thousand-word multi-chapter works about main characters having big adventures, some of it in a couple of hundred word-long drabbles about a micro emotion on a background character’s face.

It’s National Novel Writing Month next month, and I would like to write something that’s all my own. Or at least try to.

I have no idea how to start from scratch. Any advice?

—NaNoWriMo Novice (she/her)

Dear NaNoWriMo Novice,

I have wonderful news for you: every work of art is derivative! That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as original work. But just like fanwork, original work exists in the context of other works, and of the world. This means you can write original work exactly the same way you write fanfic: begin with an existing thing, and then decide how you’d like to change it, build on it, imitate it, and/or argue with it. No need to start from scratch, because there actually is no such thing as starting from scratch.

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#13: “Should I Just Give Up on Writing?”

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m not sure if it’s beyond your remit but I long for help on the subject of fear of writing. You see, I’d love to write again. I’ve written a couple of books and had them published within the lesfic genre but then I lost confidence. There was a mixture of external feedback, mainly positive, some less so, but nothing as damning as my own machinations.

I think about how much I want to write and try to progress a career in this area but my inner voice shouts me down. The arguments involve how many other people want the same thing, how I lack the talent and how even my best efforts so far have disappointed me. In the face of massive competition, I feel like I would always be a poor wannabe.

I’ve stopped writing because I can’t bear to have something that means so much to me thrown under the train of self-criticism traveling with this much momentum. Now I find myself unsure of my path. Part of me is tempted to stop now while there is still the hope that I could be good enough rather than persist and prove beyond all doubt that I am not. Still, to give up on a dream I have nurtured since childhood feels wrong at the most fundamental level.

Am I alone in feeling this way? Should I just take the hint and retire quietly into obscurity? Is there any way I can reclaim the pleasure of writing for myself without this contamination of self-recrimination?

Whether you answer or not, thank you for reading and for your website.

—Self-Critically Stumped (she/her)

Dear Self-Critically Stumped,

That crash-and-tinkle sound just now was my heart breaking. I’m so sorry you’re having such a hard time. Self-criticism is incredibly painful, because we know where all our own weak spots are. But by that same logic, we can also be our own best allies, cheerleaders, and friends.

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