This past December, I finished a semester taking a course on Writing for Publication. The class curriculum was focused on guest speakers, rather than lectures and discussions, and the professor invited writers and editors of varying subjects to come and impart their wisdom to us impressionable students. One of those speakers was author Mercedes M. Yardley, a horror novelist and Bram Stoker Award winner.
While many of the speakers had much of the same things to say, Mercedes touched upon topics that I had been struggling with as a writer for so long. I didn’t have anyone in my life who was experienced in the world of storytelling, much less anyone who was actually into writing. While I could ask friends and family for a Yelp review, I couldn’t ask for constructive criticism. In fact, most of the feedback I received can be compiled into a singular GIF of Adam Driver flashing an okay sign and saying, “Good soup!”
It goes to say that I had many questions, and little to no answers. I was lost and confused, and riddled with doubts. Was I being original? Was I being problematic? Was my story even interesting enough to read? Was it even good enough?
Mercedes walked into our classroom and gave me the answers I had been searching for. If you’re a struggling writer, I hope to ease your mind by sharing some of her advice with you, as well as my own takes.
1. Art is not meant to be consumed.
First and foremost: Your story is worth reading.
We live in a society dominated by the economy, and we are conditioned to believe that anything produced needs to be worth consuming. But art is not meant to be consumed. The worth of your story, and the worth of your own self, are not determined by number of likes or monetary value.
Your story is worth reading because it is important to you. Because it is worth reading to you. So write whatever you want to write. Write a story that you are interested in. Write a story that you want to read.
Life is too short to worry about what others think. We spend so much time worrying about whether or not our stories are worth reading. Whether or not they are interesting enough, or whether or not they are good enough. But the fact is, the time spent wallowing in our own doubts is time that can be spent writing. If you spend so much time worrying, you will never get to read your work, much less write it.
But what if it isn't good quality? Simple: you don’t know that. Quality cannot be measured on something that does not exist. And besides, no first draft is ever perfect. The first draft for this very blog post was messy and unorganized, but with time and effort, and with the help of my lovely editors, Perri and Mei-Mei, it has become what you are reading right now. You can’t fix what you haven’t written.
So write! You are not writing for anyone’s approval, you are writing for your own self. You yourself have decided that your story is worth telling, and so you yourself have decided that your story is worth reading.
2. Don’t worry about being original.
With so many tropes and cliches circling around the world of storytelling, it can be difficult to feel original. I’ve had a story living inside my head since middle school, and the premise has something to do with the conflict between humans and demons. How many stories have had that same premise? I was almost devastated when Demon Slayer became a thing, because I was afraid that I wasn’t original anymore. But then I watched the show and realized that, lo and behold, it was not the same.
For one, my story isn’t set in the Taisho era of Japan. Rather, it’s set in modern day Oregon. (I chose Oregon because I visited a few summers ago and the vibes were cool.)
Thor’s Well, Cape Perpetua, Oregon (Oregon is for Adventure)
I could count the similarities between my story and the show and cry about it. Or I could count the differences and realize that everything from the characters to the story itself are literally a world apart.
Take the summary of Demon Slayer from its Wikipedia page:
“[The story] follows teenage Tanjiro Kamado, who strives to become a demon slayer after his family was slaughtered and his younger sister Nezuko turned into a demon.”
None of the elements mentioned in the summary are elements that are mirrored in my story. My main characters are a pair of 16-year-old twins who don't even know that demons exist, but are pulled into an age-old conflict because they discover that they come from a long line of demon hunters. Their last name is Jaeger. Meaning “hunter.” Middle school me was so clever.
It’s not just the characters that are different. The worldbuilding between the two mediums are also not the same. In Demon Slayer, demons are created from power-hungry humans who are exposed to the blood of an already existing demon. You know, like how STDs work. All demons possess the same superhuman strength and regenerative prowess. They develop their own fighting styles, and the stronger ones are even able to develop magical abilities.
In my story, demons are born naturally. And, if we’re going to talk about the specificities of it all, they aren’t actually demons in that they are only perceived and labeled as such through the eyes of humans. There are also different types, such as those with physical deformities and those who are able to control aspects of nature or parts of the human body. Regardless of their innate abilities, strength differs from person to person, and only very few of them are able to regenerate.
In regards to plot, the lore and story arcs are also completely different. How the conflict began. How it developed in the time before our characters. How the protagonists deal with the antagonists. How they overcome their adversaries and how they save the day. Everything from the beginning up until the end– it’s all different.
As they say, the demon is in the details. (Ha!) You might find many stories that center around the same premise, but the details are always different. So don’t worry too much about being original. Whatever you bring to your story will make it unique and individual.
3. Challenge yourself.
Write the things that are different or uncomfortable. Things like different cultures and different backgrounds, or uncomfortable topics like assault and mental illness.
My very first draft was written during a time when I wasn’t aware of the importance of representation. My characters weren’t explicitly white, but they weren’t explicitly POC either. As I grew older, I began to write in more diverse characters, but I worried that I wasn’t portraying them correctly.
Is it problematic to write about diverse characters and/or sensitive topics? No.
Is it problematic to write about those things in a harmful way? Yes.
The author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Rick Riordan, started writing with an ensemble of white characters, but slowly progressed into including more diverse characters, representing those of different ethnicities, religions, and sexualities. Unfortunately, many people found cause for concern with the character Piper McLean, a demigod with Cherokee roots, for wearing a feather in her hair.
I’m not Native American, so I didn’t think to find it offensive. But while it was not an obvious caricature, it was still as harmful as any stereotype. The fact that I did not even think to find it problematic was also part of the damage. Representation is not only important for people to be seen, it’s also important for people to realize there are different cultures outside of themselves. Children reading about Piper would be building their perspective on Native Americans, unaware that it is built on a lie.
Riordan has done excellent work on fostering diversity, and he continues to be mindful of his young and growing audience. Though he had the best intentions in mind, the price of his ignorance has harmed real people. This is not to discourage you or other writers from writing representation, but rather a word of advice on doing research and doing it carefully.
The same should be said for writing about sensitive topics. It can be difficult to write about them, but don’t shy away from it. We need to talk about them. Just as talking about diversity allows people to be seen, talking about sensitive topics validates people who go through similar experiences.
Here at the LYF, myself and the other blog writers have but one agenda, and that is to tell you, the reader, that you are not alone. We do this by talking about our experiences, the raw and unfiltered truth, in the hopes that our stories will resonate with another and give them hope. It might be uncomfortable, but the end goal of bringing light into another’s life is what makes that challenge worth it.
So write about sensitive topics. Just don’t be problematic about it. Don’t pull a 13 Reasons Why. By this, I mean be mindful of how you are portraying these topics. Again, people with no knowledge of these topics will take whatever they have read or seen and take it as the truth. The show in question did not take into consideration how its narrative would sensationalize suicide by framing the act as one of vengeance or, dare I say, one of justice.
I could write an entire blog post about how problematic the show was, and how little it actually helped in spreading awareness for mental health, but this is a post about writing advice. So instead, I’ll let this post do it for me.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming:
Be respectful and humane. Always aim to make a safe space for others.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the source of inspiration for this advice comes from a novelist, Mercedes. (Much of her direct quotes were all highlighted in bold throughout the post.) Many authors came to speak for that Writing for Publication class, but Mercedes in particular was one of the only novelists, among which she was the only one to present the inner workings of writing a novel. Her advice on worldbuilding, as well as the hidden joys of writing short stories, were not only helpful, but enlightening. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, tune in next time for the Writer’s Corner!
In the meantime…
Still lost? Need more advice? Check out Mei-Mei’s post on 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Writer for more tips and tricks!
About the Author
Charlize Colle Fernandez is a content editor and blog writer with the Love Yourself Foundation. A student at UNLV, she is currently studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She hopes to become a book editor after graduation. Charlize has always enjoyed the arts, and she continues to find solace in stories, music, and photography.