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.

 

Advertisements

The Angel of San Bernadino broke me

I’ve been watching a lot of Lucifer lately. Until now. This post is my attempt to explain to myself why that is. Please note: it contains spoilers for the current episodes. We’re currently up to season 3 episode 21, and awaiting the last three episodes of the current season and an announcement over the series’ future. If you don’t want spoilers, then don’t read – but I’ll be explaining why spoilers are the only thing keeping me going at the moment.

Okay, you’ve been warned. If you don’t watch Lucifer, let me give you enough to understand what I’m talking about. The series, based on a comic by Neil Gaiman, focuses on Lucifer Morningstar, the devil himself, who has quit Hell to live in Los Angeles, the City of Angels. There, he runs a nightclub called Lux, and lives a life of sex, drugs and rock N roll, until a friend of his is murdered, and he meets Chloe Decker, a police detective. Chloe, unlike other women, isn’t susceptible to his charms, and this piques his curiosity. From that moment on, Chloe solves crimes while Lucifer tags along helping her while trying to figure her out. The relationship between the two of them is a big driver of the show, and the pair of them getting together properly is considered by most as endgame for the entire series.

The show is funny, with a serious undertone, and very entertaining. It’s very strongly character-driven, far more than any other show I’ve watched, and I’ve never been sucked into a show so strongly before – and believe me, when I go for a show, I always fall hard. I found it just before Christmas, which I always find a difficult time of year, and it’s been absorbing me ever since. I’ve rediscovered my creativity and zest for life through the show – and then we hit the current arc.

So we’ve had two seasons of this, and now we’re in the climax area of season 3. The focus of the story at the moment is a love triangle between Chloe, Lucifer and the new police lieutenant, Pierce. Except it’s not that much of a love triangle. Lucifer is convinced Chloe’s feelings for him are one of his father’s manipulations, and so is trying to keep away and not take advantage of Chloe. Pierce is manipulating Chloe into loving him in order to break a curse on him.

The show has been a bit stop-and-start over the past few months, and we recently had a two-week break around Easter, meaning episode 20 – The Angel of San Bernadino – involved a three week wait. This was one of the final five episodes, which we’ve been told are the best of the show so far, and one that Tom Ellis has said was his favourite to film to date. So the build-up to the episode itself was intense.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think TAOSB was a fantastic episode. It was strongly written and the acting was incredible. But I also hated it. Ten days later, it’s the first episode I haven’t rewatched. I’ve looked at some scenes again, sure, but not the whole thing. It also broke me. Up until then, I’d been fanatical about avoiding spoilers – as the episode is aired in Canada on Sunday night, and the US on Monday night, while we in the UK don’t get it until Tuesday morning, finding spoilers is all too easy. But from this point on, I’m not watching any more episodes without knowing beforehand what will happen.

So why did this episode have such an effect on me?

In the episode, we see Lucifer descending almost to the point of mental breakdown, while Chloe stands back and does nothing about his pain. She even hears him tell her the truth about Pierce, but she refuses to listen and take him or his pain seriously. That’s incredibly hard to watch, considering she’s the love of his life. And then to discover that his pain is being deliberately caused by the person who was once his truest supporter – that was even harder.

The end result was to leave me completely emotionally drained, and feeling furious with Chloe for the way she treated Lucifer. I don’t know what I was expecting from the episode, but I certainly wasn’t expecting that much darkness, and to hit it out of the blue, after anticipating the episode so eagerly for all that time, was too much.

The closest episode to compare it with is Monster, episode 2:6. In that episode, Lucifer is consumed with guilt, because he’s just been forced to kill his brother. He hurtles from wild partying to attempting death by sniper, because he finds the pain too hard to deal with. But in that episode, the pain he’s suffering is understandable, and his friends – Linda, his therapist, and Chloe – are trying to support and help him, and trying to encourage him to talk it out. In the end, that’s exactly what he does do, as he comes to a quiet understanding of what he’s been through.  In TAOSB, the pain is inflicted by someone who should be his friend, and made worse by the woman he loves, who pushes him away and ignores his desperation. And there’s no final relief, just the promise of more pain to come in the next episode, both for Lucifer and for Chloe.

And in the next episode (for which I devoured all the spoilers I could find and still took several hours to pluck up the courage to watch), there is indeed more pain, even though at this point Lucifer himself is mishandling things and making things worse rather than having someone else torture him. And with three episodes left, no promise at this stage that there will be another series, and the threat of one of the main team not surviving this season, I find myself unable to deal with the prospect of watching without being forewarned.

Maybe one day when this storyline has played out completely, I’ll return to these episodes and watch them in context, and enjoy them properly. But at the moment, it’s just too hard to take. Maybe I’m just a wimp. I’m overreacting, I know. But when you’ve invested so much emotional energy in a set of characters, it’s hard to watch as their lives fall apart, and not know how everything will turn out.

Something to bear in mind for writing, perhaps. I struggled to read the Poldark books, because they were such an emotional roller coaster, and I found that TV series hard to watch as well. But of course the beauty of writing is that there’s always fan fiction, where if you don’t like the way a story goes then you can write your own version.

Which reminds me, I’m halfway through writing my own version of the end of season 3, where I fix what I hate about the current situation and take the cop-out of a quick fix.

These episodes have powerful writing and acting, and make a great story, don’t get me wrong. It’s just rather painful to receive a chunk of it every week and not know what’s coming up until the following week. And the team death, cliffhanger finish and unconfirmed season 4 make it that much worse. I look forward to being able to look back on this time with amusement as I rewatch the episodes, knowing the end of the story, and remember that time I ended up so frantic over a TV show.

But that won’t be for a few weeks yet, sadly. So I’m reduced to using my writing as therapy, figuring out why this program and this episode in particular have such a profound effect on me, and waiting out the end of the season, when I’ll know the full storyline from season 3 and also whether the story will be continued for season 4.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Insecure Writers time again

86044-insecurewriterssupportgroupWell it’s the first Wednesday in the month again, which means Insecure Writers Support Group time. I’m already well into nano, having hit just over 12,000 words late last night. That puts me well above target for finishing the 50k by the end of the month (and also pushing on to finish the whole manuscript, of course).

So how’s it going?

In one sense, it’s going well. I have a lot planned out, I know my characters, I know where they’re going, I know what has to happen in every scene.

In another – not so much. I haven’t found the spark yet. It’s hard work. I see my writing as weak, trite, clichéd, uninteresting.

So why continue?

As part of my preparation and thinking about the writing to come, I looked back on one of my fanfiction stories. It was over 32k words, published a chapter at a time, as it was written, over a period of a couple of weeks to a month. The writing looked good, the characters well portrayed, the descriptions fitted and did the job they should do. And my author’s notes that I put in at the end of each chapter told another story: the one of the writer. The one whose characters were so real that they took over, doing unexpected things that changed the plot slightly. It reminded me of the extreme buzz that I can feel when a writing project goes well, that elusive high that leaves such an impression I can’t help but chase it. I likened it recently to a drug, that I’m addicted to and constantly looking for. I know it exists, because I’ve felt it. That compulsion to write, to get a story out of my head and into words, to a form I can share.

I’m constantly making up stories. I don’t often get to the point where I put them into shareable form. But that knowledge of the personal pleasure that comes from writing that’s going well – that’s enough to get me trying every now and again. And I suspect that the more often I feel it, the stronger the urge will be and the easier it will be to find.

So I’m going to keep going with this novel, maybe trying to slow down, concentrating on feeling the story rather than just purely chasing words – or maybe the opposite, waffling as much as I can in order to get the rubbish out of the way and find the real story. I’m not sure at this moment whether Scrivener is helping or hindering – the ability to jump around from point to point can cut two ways. It can enable me to pick up somewhere more interesting for a while, but it can also allow me to back off instead of pushing on with tricky sections.

So maybe I’ll just waffle and see what comes out of it. Editing’s easier than the first draft, right? Or put it another way, I can’t edit what I haven’t written.

 

So what’s your excuse?

One of my excuses has always been I don’t have time to write. Then I came across this blog entry from Elle Casey, in which she describes how she has written 18 books in 15 months. She must be a full-time writer, I guess – except no, she works 2 days a week as well. She must have found the secret of avoiding social media – but no, she has an active presence on facebook and on her own blog, and she takes promoting her own work seriously. No family? Sorry, husband and kids.

It can’t be any good, right? Not written at that speed. Sorry, wrong again. I knew within the first few lines of the first book of hers I read that she knows how to write and her books are well edited as well.

So what’s her secret? She reveals in her blog post how she does it. She admits it won’t work for anyone, but the fact is that it can be done. And a large part of that secret is just to sit and write.

Damn, that’s that excuse blown out of the water then. You can create high quality writing in high quantity without locking yourself away in a room away from everything. What other excuse can I use?

There’s the two-pronged excuse of … you know what? I’m not sure I can even put it into words any more. That double edged sword of not wanting to expose my writing to scrutiny, and not wanting to write if no-one will read it.

The best writing I’ve done has been to get stories that stick in my mind out into words. In a way, it hasn’t mattered whether they’ve had readers or not. Some have, some haven’t. A couple that I’ve put onto fanfiction.net as I wrote them were never finished, as the impetus died away. Every one of them has taken my writing skill a little bit further, but only a little bit because I didn’t keep writing.

The trouble with publishing fanfiction like that is that it becomes like a drug: all the reviews you get encourage you to push out more and more, and then the quality can fall because you’re too interested in publishing and editing becomes an irritating delay.

I think it’s time to get back to when I first started writing fanfiction, when I would put down ideas onto paper just to see if they work out or not. It’s not lack of ideas that’s the problem: it’s actually going through the process of getting them down, fixing them into words. I have so many stories that come to me in a flash, and I can see the whole story arc, but just can’t be bothered to actually do anything about them. I’m sure that if I encouraged them I could quite easily put out large amounts of fiction. Sure, the quality would probably be poor, at least to start with, but it’s only by writing that we learn to write.

Half an hour a day maybe? How much can I write in that time? How much can I write and edit in that time? Only one way to find out. Then I suspect it’s like running: the more you do it, the more you feel like doing it, the more you notice the results and the better you become.

 

 

And so that was Christmas…

…and what have I done?

I started out this holiday with certain intentions. I was going to run, paint, draw and maybe even write, and generally concentrate on unwinding and resting.

I’m pleased that I managed to keep up the running, so that I’ve at least maintained fitness if not improved it over the holidays. I’ve done a couple of 6k runs, as well as parkruns, and been to the gym a couple of times.

Drawing – well no. I’ve done a few sketches on the ipad, but haven’t actually put real pencil to paper, let alone got the paints out, although I did find my painting bag and was sorely tempted. In the end, though, there was just not the time.

What I did do was start writing again. Over the past few days I’ve written over 15,000 words of a fanfiction story, of which I’ve posted a new chapter each day for over a week. The final episode of Merlin on Christmas eve was so good in some ways and so irritating in others that it tormented me into reaching for the keyboard and writing my own version, which is still ongoing. I’m just hoping I can maintain at least some momentum on it over the next days and weeks.

The other thing I’ve done, linked to this, is rewatch very nearly the whole series of Merlin, all five seasons (65 episodes!), to remind myself of storylines and characters and background research for my writing. Thankfully, most of the time it’s been a case of working on one screen while watching the other with half an eye 😉 I’ve also been reading Merlin-related books, to get the general feel of the mythology and the era.

I’ve slept fairly well, mostly, so can only assume that I’m well rested. So now it’s time to sort myself out and tackle the term ahead with energy and determination, reminding myself of all that’s best about my job and tackling and taming the negative elements.

And hope that I can find a way to maintain creative and relaxing time throughout the term rather than having to crowd it all in to the holidays.

Here’s hoping for a good 2013!

 

Time to develop a plan

Image of my timeline planningThree chapters posted of the story already, and I’m only just starting to plan? Well, truth be told, so far most of what I’d done was just novelization of the episode, including an extra scene or two that was missing from the original. It’s interesting to note the differences between stories that are told in images and stories that are told in words, and the different techniques used and messages conveyed. Now, with the characters starting to take over and direct me, it was time for me to draw a rough map of my intended route through the story.

The trouble with fanfiction is that like nanowrimo, there’s little time to go back and revise. With chapters posted as they are written, it’s easy to write yourself into a corner and find that you’ve set up situations in earlier chapters that given hindsight you would have rearranged.

And so I set out to plan the events and timeline that the story needs to follow.

First I went through the original episode, which I had already transcribed (it drops off iplayer tonight and my DVD set isn’t released for another three weeks) and wrote down the order of scenes, categorising them into Merlin/Arthur, Camelot and elsewhere. This enabled me to see the flow of the episode and how the three areas of activity intertwined.

I numbered these, giving each a multiple of 10, following original computer programming convention. This served two purposes: first I could easily tell which were the original scenes, and second I could add in other scenes, with the intervening numbers, and had enough numbers between original scenes to allot to them. I also needed to work out which extra characters I would need to develop to carry the story through, tying it with previous episodes where I could and trying to stick to the style and structure of the original characters and storylines.

I then had a rough list of events, and the order they needed to occur in.  The next job was to colour code these to show who would narrate them, as my story is written in first person but jumping from character to character for each section, each clearly prefaced with who is speaking. The challenge is to work out who in each scene would tell the story best. Sometimes there is an overlap between chapters, as the same scene is told from the POV of two different characters, but only where I feel the second POV adds something to the storyline, or where I need to paraphrase to skip past a bit we’ve learnt about from someone else already.

I’m finding generally that my way of writing changes a little with each character, as I hear their voices in my head and picture them on screen. Even the vocabulary can change. This gives more interest to the story, but I still need to learn how to get deeper into their heads and I know one weakness of my writing is lack of description.

Ah well, I can’t guarantee a story update every day, but now I know where it’s going things seem to be going fairly smoothly.

The story is over 6000 words so far, by the way, with each chapter over 1000 and the longest chapter so far being 2250.

 

They escaped…

My story was going to be a roadtrip story, with Arthur and Merlin telling the story alternately. The trouble is, they had other ideas.

I was trying to work out how the next chapter would go. It should be Arthur’s turn next, but he wasn’t completely sure he could tell it right.  Merlin was willing to go again, but then a quiet voice spoke up: the third character who was present, who kindly offered to tell the next part from his point of view.

And so just three chapters into my story the characters have taken me hostage and are starting to write their own story. It’s hard to describe what’s going on when that happens: it feels like I’m not writing the story but channeling it.  Like the story already exists and it’s telling itself to me, for me to write down. I might feel like I’m in charge, and I might be able to influence it, but if it feels hard it’s because I’m heading the wrong way, or telling the story from the wrong POV, or just not listening properly.

That’s the magic of storytelling for me, and the feeling I’ve been chasing without knowing how to find it. Now it feels like I’ve pulled a loose thread and my brain has come unravelled, throwing up story ideas so fast that I can hardly recognise them as such, let alone deal with writing them down. As though they’ve always been there, lurking in the corner, but now the light has been turned on I can see them, and they’re clamouring for attention.

Apologies for the mixed metaphors; the stories may present themselves to me, but it’s my responsibility to vocalise them. This is where I need to call on and develop my storytelling skills, so that I tell the story in a way that others can follow, my description skills so that others can picture the story as I picture it, my vocabulary so that I can find the right word to conjure up the sensations reactions effect I want.

I think this is part of why I’ve avoided writing for a while: this feeling that my life has been taken over, that I’m a slave to the story, that there is either me or the words, and no place where the two can exist comfortably side by side.

Or I’m just a melodramatic idiot who likes to pretend these things 😉