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.

 

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.

 

Determination

Okay, it’s time I got myself into gear. Whatever I want, I’m going to have to go out and get it. No one is going to hand it to me. So by a month’s time I’m going to fit into my running clothes a little better, I’m going to be at least walking parkrun, I’m going to have completed a draft of a new novel, I’m going to be in a proper working routine, with housework fitted in, and I’m going to be using my time more effectively.

How does that sound for a promise?

 

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?

 

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

I was cute when I was younger. I was a bridesmaid a total of four times, although for the first – for an aunt – I was too young to remember.

I did eventually have my own turn as bride, but nevertheless the phrase has haunted me: always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

It feels as though the phrase describes my life: all those around me are signing up for races, and completing marathons. I signed up for a marathon, but never got there; injury stopped me before training had even started properly. And yet it felt as it was meant to be that way. That while others achieve, it’s my role only to cheer on the sidelines.

It’s the same with writing. While I work on my own projects, it still feels as though my role in the writing business is to help others with their projects. I edit, proofread, format, even help with structure, while my own projects never reach that final stage.

I’m still haunted by a book idea I had thirty years ago. It was a valid non-fiction book idea. I started out researching it. And then someone else published it. The book I was planning to write. How silly I was to think I could do it myself! (why is it so silly, though?)

In life generally, I seem to fall into that support role. Even while playing World of Warcraft, I heal, enabling others to do their jobs better without worrying about their health. I love the healing role, but it means that once again I’m following others around and helping them, while they charge in and get things done.

Sometimes it feels like my role in life is as a support act for others. When do I get to take a main role? Or am I doomed to always stand on the sidelines cheering the rest?

I guess it’s not so bad. We can’t all be huge successes, at the top of our field. And I’ve a sneaking suspicion that a lot of my problem is self-sabotage.

But still, I’d really like my turn at some point.

 

Babies project takes a step forward

I’ve been playing around with a specific project for several years. I’ve done two very different complete drafts for nanowrimo, a few years apart, and I keep coming back to it. I have a whole document full of news links that are relevant to my novel, and every time my interest dwindles another news story comes up.

This project is along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale – taking all sorts of stories and projecting the sort of world they are leading to. It started along the lines of thinking about Babies R Us, and imagining it as a kind of pet store but for babies – go along and choose your baby. Then it developed away from that. But it always suffered from lack of direction, and that was reflected in – and was caused by – the lack of a proper title.

So for years it was “that thing about the babies”, or just “babies”. But without that focus, the project floundered.

Then recently it came to me. I know what the title is, or at least one or two variations on what I want, and with that title comes the whole theme and purpose of the novel.

Ladies and gentlemen I present: A Perfect Childhood.

The novel seeks to explore the idea of state as parent, and how eliminating the variation in parenting quality, and providing a consistent, expert parent in the state, would theoretically solve the attainment gap and ensure that every single child would have the same opportunities in life.

Of course, being a novel, things don’t go quite according to plan…

So now I have a title and a focus, I really need to get on with a new draft. Although there’s still Abandoned to work on for writing group, and Life Lessons, my romance, is nagging at me. And Gods V Heroes will need another draft at some point soon…

If only I could get Dropbox working again on my laptop, I could get on with all of these. Otherwise I face the prospect of either carrying a memory stick around and running several different versions, or having to retire to the study rather than sit with my feet up in front of the TV while writing.