Learning from fanfic writing

Okay, I admit it. I’ve been writing too much fanfiction lately, and neglecting my novels.

But it’s not all bad news, especially for my writing.

I started by writing a couple of scenes, just conversations between characters. Then I progressed to episode-type stories, posted in chapters as I wrote them. I’m currently working on my fourth one of these. And so as I’ve progressed, I’ve learned a lot about the way I write, because these have been like mini-novels. Writing four mini-novels in as many months gives you a good chance to examine the process.

Thankfully, Lucifer provides a great structure for story writing, which seems to suit me well. And the lessons, and the practice I’m getting, all help towards my novel writing, as well as reminding me just how much I enjoy writing, especially for an audience.

So my process seems to be this:

First find an idea, the inspiration for my story. With Lucifer, it’s a combination between having a case to solve and having a lesson for the characters to learn.

Plan out the story – write notes on the scenes I need. If there’s more than one story arc – and for Lucifer, there’s generally a character arc and a crime arc – then plan the two arcs side by side and figure out how they interweave.

Figure out who’s telling each scene, and make notes on what needs to happen in it. Sometimes the POV character is easy to pick. Sometimes it requires a little more thought.

Scene notes should end up indicating the major action – what information they find out about the case, for example – and the minor action – what’s on the characters’ minds when they argue, what the subtext is, what their motivation is.

Adjust all the scenes in order and content until I’m happy with them.

Then start writing – and the bulk of the work is already done, so it’s just having fun. I’ll generally write between one and three scenes for each chapter, aiming for something between 1k and 3k words.

Reread the first draft of the chapter the next day, make sure it’s doing what I want it to do. Edit and proofread as necessary.

Then post and relax.

Next day – the next scene or three. This generally leads to a chapter posted every three days, which is what I aim for. The planning beforehand means I don’t write myself into a corner, and can foreshadow events if needed, and means that the writing itself progresses smoothly.

All this can translate into my novels, as I’ve learned that I write better when I plan thoroughly beforehand. I’m not saying there are no surprises when writing, but generally I know where the story is going and what I need to achieve at each point.

But above all, what I’ve learned is that I write best when completely absorbed in my story and the characters. I find that harder with a full length novel peopled with my characters than with shorter fanfiction with characters and settings I know well. But it’s all about building up stamina and strength, and that’s what this rapid writing practice is doing for me.

Now I just need to learn to focus my attention on my novels, pull them apart if necessary to ensure the structure is sound, and then build them up, edit thoroughly and continue the polishing process until they’re actually ready to publish.

 

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I’m no longer sure I want to publish

I find that lately I’ve really been questioning my intentions with regard to my writing. Don’t get me wrong – I love spinning a good story, and I love sharing my work. But what am I prepared to go through for that?

There are two options: find a publisher to invest and publish traditionally, or publish your writing yourself. I know someone who’s currently going through the first option, and while I admire the energy and effort being put in to promote the book, it also terrifies me. I’m not sure I believe in myself enough and am confident enough to do that much promotion, and I suspect any publisher would expect it.

So that leaves self-publishing. And it worries me how many people will stick their work out there without any quality control, and how readers don’t seem to care in many cases. The end result is that there’s so much out there, and so much of that low quality, that it makes it very difficult to stand out. So again you’re back to spending all your time involved in self-promotion.

Where does that leave me? Not wanting to publish traditionally. Not wanting to self-publish. I’ve been publishing some fanfiction lately, which is back to my fun writing roots, and at the moment that’s where I feel most comfortable.

But fanfiction leads nowhere (unless, of course, you can come up with something like Fifty Shades of Grey, or other notorious books/series that started life as fanfiction). It is, however, a great way to practise.

The bottom line is that in order to improve my writing, I need to be moving forward, and that means actively writing and studying the writing process. I don’t have to write with an eye for publication, but feedback is useful.

Or I can focus on the editing side of the business and gain more experience that way. It’s easier to spot problems in someone else’s writing than in my own, and I know that the work I do feeds back into my own writing skills. I would also be helping to raise the standard of published work, and to develop the skills of other writers.

Have I decided to abandon the world of the writer and focus on the world of the editor? Maybe. At least, I’d say my priority is that way for now. On focusing on writing/editing skills rather than trying to complete work for publication. Maybe I’ll return to the idea of publishing further down the line, when my writing has matured further.

But for now, my writing will be considered practice. Just as a piano player needs to practise their scales regularly, and footballers will drill in particular skills, maybe I’m not quite ready to produce performance displays just yet.

 

The Beauty of “What happens next?”

Back in junior school, I remember having a student teacher for a few weeks. She would occasionally take lessons for our class, and one in particular sticks out.

She read part of the opening of The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis, one of the Narnia books. It starts with two children running away, and leads up to them standing at the top of a cliff. There’s a struggle on the cliff edge, and one of the children loses his balance and goes “hurtling to the depths.”

The exercise was to write what happens next in the story.

Of course, being ten-year-old kids, we came up with a wild variety of answers, and none of them were particularly close to the original story. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that we’d taken the story and continued it in our own way.

I’ve never forgotten that exercise, or the sense of excitement that it brought. That suited the way my mind works – I love to take a part-story and spin my own version of the rest of it. Ask me to think of an original story, and I stare blankly. Tell me an opening and ask me to continue it, and I’ll keep going all day on different versions.

I guess that’s why, although I’m complaining loudly that the TV series Lucifer has taken a two-week break, I’m also excited: that extra time gives my imagination time to try to figure out what will happen next.

We had a previous break of the same size, and in that break I took the spoilers and synopsis of the next episode and wrote my own version of it. I’m seriously considering doing the same thing again. On top of the creativity and the fun, it’s really fascinating to take a situation and try to carry it forward, and then see how the professional writers do it. I learned a lot from trying to do the same job they do, and from comparing how I would imagine it on screen to how I need to write it on story version.

One of the beauties of Lucifer is that it is very much character-driven, with the case story filling a character need, which means it suits the way I write. Compare Lucifer with something like Castle, where there is an on-going character arc, but the case is the main arc in each episode. In Lucifer, the case always ties into the current state of the characters.

So I’ll get through the next 20 or so days the best I can, and hope that my imagination and creativity will make the time pass faster. And I’ll continue to play the game of “what happens next?” in my writing.

And as long as I’m actively writing, it makes it so much easier to take on board everything I’m studying about the craft of writing, and to work on my skill.

 

 

Unfaithful?

I have to confess that over the past month I’ve done minimal work on my novels. I’m currently working through two novels, in two different writing groups, submitting a chapter a month. Both novels are already in first/second draft stage, so it’s fairly straightforward to pluck the next chapter and send it in for feedback, but what I haven’t been doing is working further on them.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing.

Over the last month or so, I’ve got sucked into fanfic writing. I did a lot years ago, and dabbled again a few years ago, and having got hooked on the TV series Lucifer over Christmas, I ended up writing my own stories based around those characters. So far I’ve written over 26k words on the topic, with three shorts, one full-length episode-type story and another that I’m currently just over halfway through writing.

So is it wasted time? I had this discussion with a friend recently. What’s the point in writing? Is fanfiction wasting time that could be spent doing real writing? If you’re prepared to write stuff and publish it for people to read for free, what’s the point in trying to write for publication?

They’re valid questions, and I considered my answer carefully. In the end, I’d rather be writing than not writing, but I’m not yet disciplined enough to force myself to write if I’m not in the right mindspace. Fanfiction is immediate: it’s usually published one chapter at a time, as written. You have to deal with problems as you go along, without the leisure of a considered re-read and edit. It’s using existing, well-loved and well-known characters and settings, so you don’t need to do all the scene setting. And feedback can come in almost immediately after publication, giving an instant boost, and that makes it very addictive.

And yet it’s like eating chocolate. A little makes you feel good, but too much leaves you unsatisfied and yearning for a proper meal.

So I will be returning to my novels, and working on them, but it will be with renewed enthusiasm for writing, a greater appreciation for the art of crafting a good story, and with a lot more experience in writing both dialogue and action. One of the stories I wrote was based on an upcoming episode, so I was able to use the episode trailer and one or two hints/spoilers to craft my own version of that episode, and then see what the writers came up with, see how they tackled issues that I’d already tried to handle, and admire their skill.

I’ve learned so much from this wander into fanfiction, and not just from writing; there’s a lot of stuff out there, of varying quality, and it’s interesting to read a story that’s good but not quite there, and try to work out the problems with it. Why does it fail the publish-standard test? Why am I reading it anyway? How could it be improved?

So I do feel a little unfaithful as I abandon my original creations for fanfiction, but as I hone my skills and return with new enthusiasm, understanding better what drives me to write and what engages me in characters, I’m sure my novels will benefit from the diversion.

 

Plot or pants?

As I develop my writing, I’ve become more and more convinced of the benefit of planning a story out. A first draft without structure ends up as just that – a rambling mess. Maybe some people can write that way. Maybe as I develop further, I’ll be doing that part internally rather than externally. But right now I need to have the whole storyline laid out.

Then as I write, I add flesh to the skeleton, and that flesh might change the structure a little. That’s fine – it’s easy to adjust a plan. It’s not so easy to adjust a completely written draft.

I’ve currently become distracted from my novels into fanfiction, writing a complete episode of a TV series while waiting for the episode itself to appear after the winter olympics hiatus. For this, I developed the structure in Scrivener, with chapters and scenes. I wrote a short paragraph for what has to happen in each scene. In some cases, I discovered that other scenes were needed. In other cases, I had to go back and add to previous scenes.

Once it was all planned out, it was straightforward to build up the story. So the end result was that the start of the writing was slower than pantsing it, but once I started the writing part it went smoothly, with no nasty surprises as I write myself into a corner.

I’ve also developed an increased appreciation for show writers through this exercise. It’s incredibly difficult to write an episode with a complete story, including the character development of the regulars, a believable plot line and good balance between all, and above all keep it short and sweet.

 

A visit to the movies

Yesterday eldest son took me to the local cinema. I haven’t been there for years, as we’ve been going to the big multi-screen cinema, so it was really nice to stay local for a change. The movie we went to see was the new My Little Pony movie. It might seem an odd choice, but I’ve mentioned before that My Little Pony is actually really big among a particular set of young adult males, known as bronies, and my son was eager to see the new movie.

I went along partly to support him, because I could imagine it’s not easy for him to walk into a cinema for a movie that’s aimed at young girls, but I also went along to enjoy the movie – I like MLP as well, and find that it usually does carry a message far beyond the pretty kiddie story you might expect.

So yes, I really enjoyed the movie, and I enjoyed the experience of the local cinema, which was rather empty – not quite a personal showing, but we were one of about four groups in there (and the only one without small girls).

But there was something else as well. As we watched the adverts, I found myself relaxing and thinking nostalgically of the time when I, too, played with playdoh or other children’s creative toys. I found myself really missing those days when I could just focus on doing something fun without feeling guilty about the time spent on it, or feeling pressured into making something “good”. When and why did we lose that simple pleasure of being able to just sit and play?

The movie itself was good, with the characters carried into peril and learning messages on the way, and I appreciated the inside knowledge my son provided, looking out for the subtle differences in the software used for the animation as well as enjoying the music and story. MLP carries such important messages about friendship and learning to trust each other, and being loyal and kind, that I found myself wondering whether the younger members of the audience were actually mature enough to really understand them.

Or is that when they are most able to take them in? When life is still new to them, when they don’t have experiences that try to tell them otherwise?

Whatever the truth is, I think life might be better if we could all sometimes just sit, relax, do something for fun and watch a kiddie movie.

Not entirely sure about the short cartoon shown before though! Although, if you start looking closely, that carried some pretty big messages too: sometimes a bit of fun can go too far and get dangerous. Sometimes we have to face danger to rescue those we love. Sometimes the danger can prove to be a lot less than we feared. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself and have fun. So maybe it was well placed after all. Let’s just say it beat a cat trying to catch a mouse who runs rings round him…

 

That time of year again…

It’s October. Nearly halfway through, in fact. And I know from experience that I write better in November if I’ve planned thoroughly beforehand.

So, am I doing Nano this year?

I’m currently without my laptop, as it’s been away for repair for over three weeks. The good news is that they’ve said that as it’s taken so long I’m entitled to a new one instead, so I’m waiting for a voucher to spend to get a new laptop. It would be incredibly difficult to complete nano without a laptop to sit with in the evenings and to take to meetups.

But once I get my new one, there’s that excuse removed.

So what are the pros and cons?

Pros:

Every time I do nano, the end product is a little cleaner than the previous year’s work. My writing improves under the consistent practice. I remember, again, how much I enjoy writing. I have a real sense of achievement. I enjoy joining in with other writers, comparing word count, creating worlds, completely losing myself in the process. I end up with a novel that’s ready for editing and polishing.

Cons:

I already have several novels at different stages of completion and they need focus in order to get finished. (But nano helps to build up a momentum and enthusiasm). I don’t have the time (but I have plenty of time for playing solitaire, or reading books). It’s hard work.

So is that it? Am I just work-shy? Or am I afraid to succeed?

I guess I’ll be spending the next week or so deciding on a project (there are one or two contenders, and I’m sure I can come up with something I want to spend a month on). And then I’ll be planning to spend my spare time in November putting that world into words.

After all, it’s only for a month, right?

 

Self sabotage comes in all forms

I’m starting to wonder just how much self-sabotage I do. How much I’m actually harming myself by not allowing myself to write, to be creative, to relax and have fun. The pressure seems always on to be working, earning, cleaning the house, walking the dog, and always so that other people (or animals) benefit.

Why can’t I allow myself regular time to write? Why can’t I remember that walking helps me as well and I deserve to have that break and time to myself? Why do I worry about housework instead of remembering that I actually like having a cleaner, tidier house? Why do I sit playing solitaire when I really enjoy drawing? Why can’t I remember that I contribute to this household in other ways than financial? Why do I only feel comfortable when feeling miserable and deprived?

In just under two weeks, I’m scheduled to have an operation on my knee. No biggie, but it will lay me up for a few days, and reduce my mobility for a week or few. And I know from experience that there’s nothing makes me want to do something more than when I can’t actually get on and do it. In the meantime, I’m finding it hard to focus on work, especially since I seem to have meetings of various kinds every day or evening for the next eleven days, so I’m here, there and everywhere physically as well as mentally.

So I’m going to aim to find my centre by ensuring I do things for myself during this next week. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to achieve this, but I do intend to try my best. Because I reckon that the more I allow myself to do things I’d like to do, the more enthusiasm and focus I’ll find for the things I have to do.

Wish me luck!

 

Work hard, play hard

I’m just starting to appreciate the relationship between working hard and playing hard. It’s so easy to feel I’m chained to my computer, working, and don’t have time to be creative, but I’m discovering that if I do deliberately take a break and allow myself some fun time then I can return to the desk refreshed and able to work more efficiently than if I’d stayed here ploughing through. So it’s not just pleasant to take a break, it’s necessary.

It’s like the story of the two guys who started a new job chopping down trees. On the first day, one guy chopped down 10 trees, while the second did 5. On the second day, the first guy chopped down 8, and the second man 5. On the third day, it was 5 each. On the fourth day, the first guy only managed a couple, while the second again managed his five. The supervisor investigated, and discovered that the second guy was spending time each day sharpening his axe, while the first man was just focused on working, but as his axe grew blunt, he would work more and more slowly.

So now when I take a break, I refer to it as sharpening my axe. And sure enough, once I return, I can work efficiently again.

So how do I sharpen my axe? I have a list of things I want to spend time doing. Over the past couple of days, I’ve tried creating new clothes for my doll, Annie. I have my sketching and painting that I’d like to do. I want to have another go at making paper, now I have a greater understanding of the processes involved. I have a brand-new screen printing kit that I want to try out, if only I could come up with an idea for a design I want to print.

Then there’s the learning to be creative in other ways – book cover design, for example. More elaborate document layouts. And maybe one day I’ll even manage to get back to my programming projects.

Then of course there’s my allotment, which desperately needs time spent on it.

And there’s always my writing, which I found more enthusiasm for when I allowed myself to relax and play as well.

I’m tracking at least some of my creativity via my Annie’s Escapades page, and I’m hoping that by creating a list I’ll have something to turn to when I want ideas.

So how do you sharpen your axe?

 

Annie’s Escapades

dsc_0385I have a new project! You can follow my progress on https://www.facebook.com/Anniehasfun/. Here I wanted to explain the thinking behind it.

I’ve already spoken about some of the voices inside my head, how there’s Annie, my inner child, Betty, the nagging parent, and Charlie, who’s basically psycho. Well, I’m fed up with hearing Betty’s voice, and Charlie worries me, so I thought it was about time I really listened to Annie. My intention is to use her as my focus for getting out, having fun and being creative. Christmas presents worked together to help out, and I’m looking forward to seeing just what Annie and I are going to get up to together.

For those who are interested, Annie is a Lottie doll. I fell in love with these when I first saw them. Her dog is Biscuit, and will join her on outside activities. Her cat is Pandora, and will keep her company on inside activities.