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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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.

 

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.

 

 

Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy was in Harry Potter. That’s what a lot of young people will remember him for.

But I will forever remember Sunday evenings, and Siegfried Farnon.

Sunday evenings were unmissable. I used to spend a lot of time with elderly next door neighbours (I’ve spoken about them before), and when I first knew them, they had only an old radiogram to listen to the Archers on. Then they got themselves a black and white TV, and All Creatures Great and Small became a regular part of the Sunday ritual – round there around 3pm, playing board games, dinner with them, and then watching TV before I headed back home.

The programme had an extra impact on me because it was about that time that I came across the books as well. Our teacher at school, in what would now be year 6, the year before moving to secondary school, would read us bits of All Creatures Great and Small, and I remember getting very upset because a boy in class had his own copy of If Only They Could Talk, the first book in the series, and I desperately wanted to read it. These were among the first books written for adults that I’d come across in my own reading.

I picked them up years later and looked at them, considering whether to share them with my children, and was astounded to see just how grown-up they were – no thought of reading something like that to 10 and 11 year olds these days!

So Siegfried Farnon, and Tristran Farnon and James Herriot, were all part of my childhood. Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy, and thank you for bringing Siegfried to us.

 

It’s been a while

I’ve decided that I can spend my time and energy either talking about writing or actually writing, so for the past few weeks I’ve been concentrating on actually writing. Nanowrimo complete, I set Abandoned to rest. It was the first time I’ve written a complete draft of a story and been reasonably happy with it, but I haven’t yet gone back to it, so I might be in for a nasty shock when I do.

Since then, I tried starting another first draft, of a romance this time, but Gods V Heroes called to me too loudly, so I’ve returned to that. It seems to be a novel of 3rds – it’s in three parts, and the first part was done, the second part needed work and the third part was a mess. Now I’ve worked my way through to the third part, and the first third of that is okay, the second third needs work and the third part is a mess… So it feels like I get closer and closer to complete, but never actually getting there.

The third part is now thoroughly mapped out, so it’s just a question of putting in the time to get it written. Another draft will be needed, but the more I write, the cleaner my writing becomes, so it won’t always be this tough. In the meantime, the news stories I collect relating to my Babies novel suggests that by the time I finish that, it might well be fiction rather than speculative fiction. The romance is on hold for now, but has the bare structure ready, and another fantasy is brewing in the background.

What I’m trying to avoid is going so slowly on GvH that everything else jams up behind, so that I lose enthusiasm and focus and can’t decide what to work on.

And now I’ve discovered a TV series called Forever, which is just calling out for fanfiction…

The attraction of fanfiction is that it’s instant gratification. The characters and settings already exist, there’s a ready-made audience for the stories, and they tend to be rattled out and published very quickly, often in instalments rather than a finished product. Very different from the laborious process of writing a novel.

So I hereby grant myself permission to explore Forever via fanfiction, but promise that I will also persevere with Gods V Heroes, at a pace that will allow myself to make real progress.

 

 

Show and tell

We’re always being told as writers to show the action rather than telling. Sometimes that can be a struggle. Well, I’ve just watched the first few minutes of Unbreakable, and that’s an excellent example. It’s a movie, so they can’t tell you “the relationship between him and his wife was on the rocks.” Instead, they show in a series of scenes – he removes his wedding ring and tries to talk to a young lady. She tells him she’s married and moves away. He puts his ring back on. He walks out into the hospital waiting area, and his son rushes up to him, while his wife moves more slowly. The kiss is tentative, forced. They start by holding hands as they walk out, but the hands soon fall apart, as though feeling unnatural. Those scenes tell you everything you need to know about the relationship.

So maybe, next time you struggle with showing and telling, imagine watching it on the screen. What could you see that would get that message across, instead of just giving the information?

Screenplays and novels are very different media, but comparing the two, and considering scenes from one told in the other form, can be really enlightening.

 

D is for Downton Abbey

The letter DWhen I’m working at my desk I have a habit of having something to watch on the second screen, and my latest find is Downton Abbey – I hadn’t realised just how entertaining it was. It’s also thought provoking. If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t discovered it yet, it’s about an English estate, set 100 years ago. There are many things I’m learning from this series, on every level.

On the writing side, since I’ve already watched the earliest episodes twice I can see there’s foreshadowing of many plotlines in early episodes that are fairly inconsequential until they’re addressed fully in later episodes. It’s also intriguing to see how the different relationships are built and shown.

On the social side, it’s interesting to see there are good people and bad people in all classes of life and at all levels. It pays to be nice to people, because you never know whether that person you’re being nasty to holds your fate in their hands. Generally, what goes around comes around, and good triumphs, although that doesn’t prevent me from feeling the tension when some characters are at stake. There’s also the issue that people are not all bad or all good, which I hope is developed more, because one-sided characters become dull and predictable.

It’s also interesting to watch it considering the news that’s been published this week about the new classes in society. One aspect of the story is that a young lawyer is thrust into the life of Downton with the prospect of inheriting it (thanks, O level English study of Pride and Prejudice for the knowledge of what entail means).  A conversation persuades him that everyone has a part to play, and that just because he feels he doesn’t need a valet, why does that give him the right to refuse his valet the chance to do his job? In a world where everyone seems out to pay the least they can get away with, for the most they can get, I found it a refreshing reminder that if all have their part to play, both in paying for services and in offering services, the world goes more smoothly. Maybe a little less attention to bottom line profits and more attention to giving as well as taking will improve life all round.

 

Sci Fi and powerful writing

I caught an episode of Deep Space Nine today, for the first time in ages, and was totally blown away by the power of the episode.

Like all good science fiction, this particular program succeeds because it shows ordinary people in recognisable situations, which can be seen all the more clearly for the unfamiliar setting.  I’ll give a little background, but the real life parallel will be obvious.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, it’s a Star Trek series based on Deep Space Nine, a space station (think motorway service station) near a planet, Bajor, and a wormhole (think motorway) to another quadrant, where the Cardassians originate.

A few years earlier, Cardassians occupied Bajor, and the Bajorans were freedom fighters standing up against the oppressors. Now Cardassia has retreated, and Bajor is trying to rebuild.

Kira is a Bajoran working on board Deep Space Nine (which is run by the Federation, a neutral group), and when a Cardassian calls in and asks for medical treatment, she accuses of him being the leader of a concentration camp.

At first the Cardassian insists he was just a filing clerk at the camp, and asks Kira how many Cardassian civilians she killed during her days as a freedom fighter (or terrorist). These are hard questions for Kira, but she sticks to her guns, researches, and eventually turns up a photo to prove the Cardassian really is the camp leader. Sure enough, he confesses and gloats about his crimes to her.

Just as they’re ready to hand him over to the Bajoran authorities for trial, further evidence turns up – the real camp leader died several years ago, and the guy claiming to be him seemed to have undergone plastic surgery, wound up his affairs and then deliberately sought passage to Deep Space Nine, where he was likely to be recognised and picked up.

So who exactly is he? In a moving conversation, Kira discovers that the Cardassian really was a filing clerk at the camp, who was horrified by the treatment of Bajorans but helpless to do anything about it. In despair, his conscience pricking him, he decided to pose as the camp leader and turn himself in, hoping that the ensuing trial would force Cardassia to face up to its crimes.

Kira ends up sympathising with him and assuring him that he was not to blame for the crimes. As she escorts him to the ship to take him back home, one of the Bajorans who lives on the station rushes up and stabs him in the back. “What did you do that for?” cried Kira. “He’s not the camp leader.”

“He’s a Cardassian,” replies the man. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” says Kira, cradling the dying man in her arms. “It’s not enough.”

And at that moment you realise that while at the beginning of the episode she too felt that the only good Cardassian was a dead Cardassian, she and we had travelled on a journey that led to the conclusion that there is  good and bad on both sides, and that it pays to look far more deeply.

That, to me, holds all the power of a true science fiction story – just as Kira is absolutely certain at the beginning and has her attitude changed by the end, so we too realise that there are two sides to the story, and that you can’t lump everyone together, label them and feel secure in that labelling.

The tension between Bajor and Cardassia plays a large part in the show, as does the religious beliefs of the Bajorans, and while DS9 may not have the excitement of a new planet to visit every week, I do believe it helps the stories themselves to become much deeper, with very strong characterisation and situations that truly reflect society.

I would love the ability to write stories of that calibre. And I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks at home, when I can catch up with more DS9 episodes.

 

audio commentaries

Finally my Merlin season 5 DVD set has arrived and I can watch it and listen to the commentaries. I love hearing the actors argue and chat over the episodes, but even better are the episodes where the writers and directors get their say. You hear all sorts of stories about the writing and filming of the episodes, what tricks they had to use, what worked and what didn’t, inside stories – like how they hard-boiled 120 eggs for the juggling scene instead of realising they could use wooden or rubber eggs – and generally get a really interesting view of life on the other side of the screen.

It’s even more enjoyable now I’ve finally figured out to turn on the subtitles, so I can follow the storyline of the episode properly while listening!

I just wish that the DVD producers would realise that the loud repetitive music and flashy sequences in the menu section are entertaining for the first two minutes/first viewing and thereafter simply become totally irritating and off-putting.

The first disk, containing the first three episodes of the season, all have commentaries on them – I hope my luck continues and there are lots of episodes with commentaries throughout all 13 episodes. And that I get a chance to get through them in the near future. Mind you, I’ve come to quite enjoy my Sunday mornings ironing in front of the little TV in the kitchen.

 

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.