Nervous to Start Writing Fiction? Begin by Critiquing Your Favorite Stories
My favorite shows are problematic. Facing that helped me prep to write my novel.
My favorite stories aren’t flawless. Neither will mine be. If I can critique my most beloved books, shows, and movies and feel good about it, I’ll be at ease with my own vulnerability as a first-time novelist.
The novel will be a murder mystery, set in Prescott, Arizona. This is the chosen place my dad moved to and raised us. He now has Alzheimer’s, but he had wanted to write a novel. With this fun family project, I hope to bring to life some of the fiction ideas my dad had written down. I’ll also weave in every theme and anecdote from his world than I can.
I’ll aim to make him laugh in recognition of the familiar, even as new details become harder for him to take in. And my dad will know that, at least indirectly, his own words, actions, and legacy wrote this book. That is what I hope to do.
Of course, to sustain my enthusiasm for the project I’ll want to merge family interests with my own. When I first returned to living with my folks, I kept fleeing downstairs from the Chicago PD and true crime they had on TV. Meanwhile, I don’t think they quite understood my My Little Pony obsession. Now we’ll find common ground in this small-city crime novel that conveys an empathetic and optimistic spirit.
No, it won’t be perfect; but yes, the book will be progress. An escalation not only of my family relationships and writing, but also of social equality and human kindness. Here are 4 things I aspire to do well in my novel, based on both the brilliant and critiquable aspects of a few of my favorite stories.
I want the story to validate diverse bodies
Have you ever noticed a cartoon where the good characters tend to be light in color? Whereas the naughty ones are more often dark?
As a fan of the aforementioned My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I can attest. The mostly bright-hued horses of the show stand in contrast with dark Princess Luna—the villain of Episode One. Later we meet the changelings, a troublemaking species with fur that is dark sea green, almost black. When the changelings become reformed, their fur magically bleaches to bright pastel tones!
Many stories I’ve loved could better affirm diversity of size, age, ability, and other traits too. I’ll do my best.
At first I thought about leaving characters’ looks to the imagination. Only mentioning the most basic differentiating details. While this makes a point that character is independent of how we appear, it also misses an opportunity. When you’re normally a nonfiction writer, showing diversity in a cast of characters is a worthy challenge!
I’m glad I could make the novel more lifelike by rising to that edginess. I look forward to being able to..
- mention a character is fat, thin, or in between
- describe abilities and disabilities
- admire how their brown or pale skin shines
- evoke their youthful, middle-aged, or elderly beauty
Despite some representation issues, My Little Pony is amazing and always tries to promote inclusion. The story gives redemption arcs to characters who misbehaved. “Everypony” makes mistakes, some even get lost in destruction, but we all have the potential for friendship and goodness. My novel will share this prudent, yet faithful worldview.
I want the story to promote empathy for all animals
In the book version of Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego, Carmen shows compassion for a hungry stray dog in Morocco. However, this scene is left out in the show. I was hoping at some point Carmen would have to stop an animal cruelty operation, but I don’t think solidarity with other species ended up being a major theme of any episode.
The nonhuman 99% have a lot less luxury and protection than many modern Homo sapiens like me. I always try to work in a kind word for animals, even when the story is predominantly about people.
Perhaps some chapters of my novel can open or close with brief scenes of Prescott’s animals. They charm us with their alien wonder, keep the human characters company during our tribulations, and even offer clues to help solve the mystery. This nonhuman backdrop will remind us life is so much larger than just our immediate communities.
Since two characters will be based on my dad and mama, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a transgender girl character who happens to be vegan. You know me, sneaking my animal rights propaganda into everything without rocking the boat too hard. Like Carmen, I’m committed to justice for all… just through writing instead of secret missions!
I want to be sensitive in how I portray violence
Sense8 is an international sci-fi drama that is remarkable for its portrayal of empathy. It’s about 8 psychically interconnected people called “sensates” who display incredible teamwork.
The part that confused me was the violence. A little background: Some of the sensates are already embroiled in violence in their communities from the start of the show. Then when the corrupt group BPO tries to suppress the sensates, they are forced to fight to set things right.
The show captures strong empathy for the sensates, their friends and family—but no empathy for the unknown characters who perish or are hurt in combat. Many of the kills/injuries are in self-defense by the sensates, yet they never show remorse. Surely not every John Doe who died was a hopeless parasite like Whispers (the antagonist). I bet some of them just got trapped in the wrong crowd or were innocent bystanders. It’s hard to say because I tuned out during some of the bloodshed.
This novel I write will try to give nods of empathy to even to the most briefly mentioned characters. Especially to the ones who are murdered or seen suffering in some way.
I also hope to generate sympathy for the antagonist’s biology and circumstances. Rather than making the reader want to cheer when they’re in distress. Admittedly, that’s how I felt towards Whispers in Sense8. (And Lila Facchini.)
Despite these qualms, Sense8 was stunning and became an all-time favorite. My parents loved it too! Now to write my own good fiction, I’m keeping in mind what made the show so riveting to us.
I want to celebrate cultural and identity differences
More Sense8 inspiration: I want there to be a collective consciousness that provokes teamwork between the characters. I want the action to thrill, to exhilarate. Sense8 was sex-positive. It synched people of different countries, cultures, and personalities. I wish for my novel to do an equal job of celebrating our meaningful differences.
This is the aspect I’ve been debating the most. As with characters’ looks, I felt timid about showing internal diversity because of the homogeneity in my own life:
- Agnostic, I’ve barely done any church but been surrounded by commercialized Christianity.
- Prescott is overwhelmingly white/European.
- I never grasped my town’s historic cowboy culture, nor am I familiar with any of Yavapai county’s Native tribes.
- A big gamer for years, I experienced culture in a cartoonized fantasy form. I went to few events and was little in touch with real human diversity.
I’d like to pen a novel that reads like an anthropologist’s dream—filled with accurate, appreciative renderings of different human cultural dimensions. Yet, that’s not who I’ve been; there’d be too much catching-up to do?
Then I realized I wasn’t giving myself credit for the diversity I do know. Writing a character based on my dad or on myself feels effortless and playful, not nerve-wracking. Other characters can feel breezy too if I base them on real people my family loves in detail, rather than on stereotypes or distant ideas. I can pick identities to explore in the book that are a reachable stretch (requiring some research and new experience, but not a ton).
Got it. The display of human variety in the book can unfold naturally and with joy. I’m ready to stop thinking and to start playing around with characters!
Here are my next steps to get started writing the novel
My next steps for the Prescott mystery novel that honors my dad are to ease my way into the writing and research. I know how much my creativity hates pressure, so I want to make sure I ground this project in FUN.
Taking my own advice from a previous The Brave Writer article, I’m bringing back my Creative Courage Bucket List concept. Here’s a simple list I made of quick, easy actions to inch into motion:
- Get cozy in a reading nook and flip through Dad’s old books.
- Start sketching and brainstorming on paper who a 4th character in the novel could be, based on people we know and love.
- Pick up anywhere in the plot and just start freewriting. Use the Most Dangerous Writing App for 5–10 minutes so I can’t stop typing.
- Take a virtual tour of a Prescott historical site. Share some interesting facts about it with my parents.
- Help someone else who is trying to write a novel. Even if it’s just reading a forum post and sprinkling a short comment of encouragement their way!
Sharing a family book-writing project with my dad is a growth experience I don’t want to miss. At first, I hesitated to start. I worried I wouldn’t tell a compelling or socially responsible story. But as I kept pondering my favorite stories—what makes them great, and what could make them even better—I gained confidence. Now I know I can create a next-level novel I feel proud of.
What you love in a story and want to create may be different. I hope my writer’s musings have helped you reflect on your own journey and decide where to go next. Best of luck with your fiction; you’ve got this!