“I’d Like to Order a Mystery, a Side of Romance, and Add a Pinch of Sarcasm, Please” Writing What You Like To Read

Part 5 of The Fan Fiction Experiment

Never bet your money on another man’s game.

– Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Every reader has a different expectation when he/she opens a book. You can wind up in a losing game of chasing the trend if you try to write based on what you think others want to read…this week. Besides, the best stories are often the ones where the writers penned what their own inner readers craved.

Fanfiction can help you learn to write what your inner reader wants to read. It lets you test out your literary concoctions on a random sampling of readers—one that doesn’t have any impetus to support garbled writing or purple prosaic slop just because it’s you. You get to find out if what interests you interests others. Sometimes that means tearing out all the back story and the family connections in an adventure. It might be a fun study for you as a writer, and you should delve into the back story for yourself, but imagine picking it up off the shelf. Would you like having to wade through the four info-dump paragraphs that introduce every character? Not likely.

James Hamilton, Duke of Châtellerault and 2nd ...
James Hamilton, Duke of Châtellerault and 2nd Earl of Arran (Photo credit: lisby1)

I’m a Jane Austen-ophile, but I’m not a British aristocracy buff. There is a rare sect of Austenites that congregates for the pure pleasure of touting genealogical trivia. Some of them believe a long, meandering family tree belongs in the introduction of a regency fanfic. Now, if I have to know and recall to memory Sir Pimpleton Snigglebothum’s entire progeny, I will shelf that fic pronto. But I didn’t consider this when I first entered the Austen fandoms. I spent hours trying to get a grip on the difference between a duke and an earl, and which family house claimed which lands and what their links to the crown were–all to come up with a decent set of fake family names and titles so I could begin the actual story. You will not find that story online. It was duller to read than it was to write, if that’s possible. My point is, I wasted my time fulfilling other readers’ expectations, when I should’ve been writing what I enjoyed.

Try perusing fanfic stories in a fandom for one of your favorite novels. Many fanfic writers will attempt to write in the style of the author. Reading through these attempts will help you develop an eye for the original author’s methods and tricks. Does the author sum up large periods of time in a sentence or two? Does the author use flashbacks to keep the story moving? What narrating perspective is employed? Are the descriptions highly detailed? Is the story peppered with sentence fragments? Focus on what intrigues you about the way the author wrote that great story—what pulls you in—and implement it in your own fiction.

barsetshire 2: barchester towers
barsetshire 2: barchester towers (Photo credit: cdrummbks)

In the stories I crave, the author goes off on tangents and philosophizes in a way that endears me to the characters. Shortcomings are introduced from a perspective that lets me laugh sympathetically with the characters, not at them. They will reach the inevitable rock and hard place and leave me emotionally torn because I’m sympathizing to some degree with both sides. I find this scenario in many of Anthony Trollope’s novels. He was a master at creating reader sympathy for his characters. I also admire Elizabeth Gaskell’s understanding portrayal of those with conflicting views in works like Wives and Daughters and North and South.

What story-telling methods do you like best, and which authors satisfy the appetite of your inner reader?

Next up: Help for Wordophiles

(Disclaimer: My inner reader likes to read my opinions and pretend those opinions are clever. I’m pretty certain that’s why I’m posting this series.)

What a Character! Tackling Characterization

Part 4 of The Fan Fiction Experiment

After all, the reason why poets invented these stories was surely just this—so that we should be able to see our own behavior mirrored in these other, imaginary characters, which thus cast a vivid light upon our own daily lives.

Cicero, In Defense of Sextus Roscius of Ameria

This will seem like a no-brainer: a good character relates to your reader. But it’s not as easy as that. You, the writer of the character, are not the reader. What do you know about the filters and experiences of the stranger who opens your book?

The beginning of your story is where a reader is most aware of your ability to relate to him or her. He/she can become attached to your character, or the situation surrounding your character, in just a few lines. Make your character come alive for your reader, and he/she will overlook a few hundred mistakes to find out what’s going to happen.

Fanfic stories mean instant camaraderie with fans, stemming from personal relatability to fictional characters we all love. You get to tap into that emotional attachment when you write a fanfic about one of these beloved fictional friends. When a fanfiction writer takes liberties with the characterization of an original author’s protagonist, protective readers will jump down a fanfic writer’s throat. For them, the character is not “canon,” and that’s like lying about their close friend.

Charlie Chaplin from the film The Great Dictator
Charlie Chaplin from the film The Great Dictator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fanfiction inspires a writer to develop crisp characterizations. When writers tackle these fictional friends I know and love, I get to see how much or how little the author of the original story included in the description of a character’s personality—and how much I’ve assumed. Developing an awareness for the details that an author provides about his/her characters means I can better decide what details I want to include or omit about my original characters, and how I want to convey those details in my story.

Secondly, writing from the perspective of your favorite book characters lets you practice allowing a personality to speak through you, not like you. Two of the worst mistakes in writing a character are the dreaded “Mary Sue,” which is just the writer inserting herself into the story, and going OOC (out of character), where the character reacts in whatever way seems to move the story along to the writer’s whim. Practicing characterization through fanfics sharpens the ability to later define and describe an original character’s personality traits so a reader will recognize someone he/she knows in real life, and immediately relate to your character.

Angry girl.
Angry girl. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Protagonists who aren’t perfect are the ones we form literary relationships with. You know the temperaments and quirks of the people you are close to in real life. And don’t you love them even more for that? It’s their humanness. Don’t short-change your characters by omitting their inconsistencies. Don’t be afraid to write about your character’s flaws. Let him make mistakes. Let her be influenced by circumstances. Let him make promises that will selectively be forgotten. Let her contradict herself. Allow him to adamantly assure himself that others are at fault. Let your character judge the people around her because we all view things from a flawed perspective. Part of developing a relatable character is learning to allow those rough edges to show. That’s what makes them lovable. That’s what makes a story real to its reader. And, yes, even characters of plot-driven stories need some attention.

Friday will be about feeding your inner reader.

(Disclaimer: These opinions are based on my love of character-driven fiction. You may hate that. You may hate characters altogether. 🙂 )

Who Are These People? Finding Your Audience

Part 3 of The Fan Fiction Experiment

Mr. Baggins saw then how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars.
‘A very good tale!’ said he. ‘The best I have heard for a long while. If all beggars could tell such a good one, they might find me kinder. You may be making it all up, of course, but you deserve a supper for the story all the same.’

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

As writers, we all want to tell a story in a way that will prepare our audience to be the most receptive. Experimenting with fanfiction can help you approach your original fiction with a map that takes you right to the heart of your reader because it can help you realize who your audience is and how to talk to them.

Fanfiction sites give you opportunities to connect with all sorts of readers. If you post your work online, and it has potential, you’ll earn fans because they like something about what you’ve written. Fanfiction sites also give you tools that can help you get to know your readers better, so you can communicate with them more effectively. That way you can analyze what audience your style and story themes seem to attract. You may find it’s different from the audience you thought you were writing to.

But how do you attract these readers who are often introverted bibliophiles who read fanfics anonymously? (I started out as one of them.) And, anyway, what’s the point exactly in attracting those shy, bookworm types?

For one, they are the ones who buy the books on the bookstore shelves. They’re often lurking in specific fandoms because they’re caught up in some author’s world to such a degree that they need more to read about the characters to whom they’ve grown attached. Isn’t that the kind of fan-love you hope your characters receive some day?

They also know what makes a good book for them. If you happen to be writing in their area of expertise, they can sometimes be persuaded to explain it to you. Baiting these lurkers and hooking them can be a valuable asset in your writing journey. They can encourage you in the genre in which you really excel.

But as long as the reader remains a lurker, leaving little more than a hit and a country, that reader can’t really help you improve. (Unless the writer has a ton of hits from, say, Slovenia. If so, he/she might consider presenting future material to a Slovenian publisher.) Here are ways to lure those valuable shy readers, as well as keep your current readers actively involved in your journey:

1. Set up your story to accept anonymous reviews. There are enough filters in place to help you deal with anything offensive, and it will encourage those who aren’t ready to commit to an account yet to submit a review.

2. Send private messages. For a writer, there is much to be gleaned from fanfic sites beyond the story itself, and beyond what is publicly displayed. Cultivating one-on-one conversations can garner fantastic feedback because a shy reader is more comfortable expressing critiques and insights privately. They can give you a picture of what it is about your story, or your style of writing, that your audience wants to read.

Private-messaging is this undercurrent that builds goodwill and friendships. I’ve received private messages from shy readers who told me they signed up just to be alerted when I updated my story with a new chapter. I’ve never let a message like that lie dormant in my inbox. It is an opening for a potential writer/reader powwow.

Also, lookup the fanfic members who favorite you and/or your story. It’s to your advantage to reach out to these members. Send them a message thanking them for favorite-ing or adding your work. When you can, read their profiles to look for ways to personalize the note. Your message serves to break the ice.

3. Ask your readers for assistance. Many readers like to help out writers, but they won’t unless they know you’ll take suggestions well. So, post a note above or below your chapter that you are open to advice or suggestions. You can also say you’re looking for information on some aspect of your story that you wish to improve and would appreciate reader concrit.

While writing one of my stories, I requested to be contacted by readers living in a city where my character stayed briefly. Through the responses, I gained all sorts of details and anecdotes to help me better understand the environment, which helped me give those few paragraphs the finishing touches.

4. Encourage your readers to write detailed reviews. Answering thoughtful reviews for the recent chapters you’ve posted can help you receive more specifics from your readers. If you answer them publicly at the bottom of your next chapter, you can get a multi-viewer conversation going that encourages discussion and questions that will flourish into vital feedback! Here are guidelines to keep your review responses on task:

  • Make your response brief. Don’t go over 6 lines, if you can help it.
  • Don’t explain reasons or motives in your story. If you must explain something, chances are that explanation needs to be worked into the story itself.
  • Make your response entertaining, witty, complimentary, funny or all of the above. You want your reviewers to look forward to your response as much as you look forward to receiving their reviews.
  • Be confident about where your story is going, especially when you are the most unsure!
  • Be discreet. Reviewers can write about anything and everything—and they should because it tells you more about your audience—but a fanfic writer should be conscientious in responses. Otherwise, it might hamper a reviewer’s candidness.

Next Monday, I’ll focus on character relatability–which WordPress doesn’t recognize as a word. 😛

(Disclaimer: Not all lurkers want to be lured. Sometimes they want to leave one comment and disappear again. Some need time to get to know you. It took months for me to gather the courage to post my first anonymous review.)

Studying the Masters through Fan Fiction

Part 2 of The Fan Fiction Experiment

A lyric conception—my friend, the Poet, said—hits me like a bullet in the forehead. I have often had the blood drop from my cheeks when it struck, and felt that I turned as white as death. Then comes a creeping as of centipedes running down the spine,–then a gasp and a great jump of the heart,–then a sudden flush and a beating in the vessels of the head,–then a long sigh,–and the poem is written.
I said written, but I did not say copied. Every such poem has a soul and a body, and it is the body of it, or the copy, that men read and publishers pay for.

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Have you ever had the concept for a story catch you unawares? It is both enervating and overwhelming. You think, Oh, what an idea! It’s perfect! But stories don’t write themselves, and having a story does not a writer make. No one is born fully equipped to write well.

Playing Violin
Playing Violin (Photo credit: garryknight)

Writing is like playing music. Even the most musically-intuitive artists never begin with the concerto. The music student tackles one thing at a time, practicing well-known arrangements to master certain skill sets. The devoted musician studies the classical composers and does the research, actively examining and trying out known methods and styles. The same thing works for a writer who wants to improve writing skills.

Fanfiction is a ready-made setting for all types of writing exercises. It’s perfect for studying the methods of the masters. Retelling the tale of another writer in your own way is an active examination of an author’s work. It provides the writer with a better understanding of the value of his/her own work. And that’s what every writer should be aiming for: increasing the value of his/her work. It’s not about merely telling the story but telling it in a way that hits the reader like a bullet, the way it first felt when it came into existence in your head.

Posting your exercises on a fanfiction site allows you to expand your perception of your work beyond your own opinion and your best friend’s gushing but a little biased opinion. You get to see how the method you’re exploring comes across to your reader. I’ve tried retelling a tale from a new point of view, adapting plots to merge two stories into one (the crossover) and I’ve explored “what if” plot derivations. I’ve tried using different narrative voices and added scenes to build character relationships and interactions that didn’t exist in the author’s original story. In this way my fiendish, plot-bunny imagination didn’t get a chance to work itself into overdrive too soon. I could keep my zeal in check until I felt like I could handle more.

How do you make a writing exercise out of a fanfic story? Like this:

1. Define your goal. What is the specific skill you wish to improve?

2. Pick one of your favorite stories, movies, etc. and think about creative ways to capitalize on the skill you’re trying to improve.

3. Write the scene. It can be a real scene you’re changing to work with your exercise or a scene you make up for that purpose.

4. Edit it. Edit it again. Give it to a beta to edit/comment on, polish it up for public viewing.

5. Post it. You can even add a brief foreword that you’d appreciate reviews about how the scene came across in relation to the skill you’re working on.

Friendly Saber Duel
Friendly Saber Duel (Photo credit: xddorox)

One of the top skills I see fanfic writers attempting to tackle is writing a fight scene. Hey, fight scenes are a high to write, although it’s sort of like learning to play “Clocks” by Coldplay on the piano when you only know how to play the melody of the “Heart and Soul” duet. But to give you a gist, let’s say I decided to write a fight scene. I would revisit the plots from some of my favorite books or movies to look for an opening that could involve a fight I’m going to create, be it fist fight, sword fight, Lightsaber duel, etc. (I’d probably choose to write it based on a popular movie category, like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, or I’d pick a superhero movie. That way I’d probably get some quick feedback.) I’d research what was happening in the story around the time of the scene I’m creating to make it fit the context. Then I’d write my scene, edit (and edit, and seek beta reader intervention, and polish), and post it.

When I received reviews, I’d pay special attention to those comments that expressed my reader’s comprehension of the action. If I received comments like, “I was confused,” “I couldn’t follow what was happening,” “Not sure who hit who,” I’m on my way to improvement because I need to step up my game and try again.

A standard bottle of Wite-Out
A standard bottle of Wite-Out (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revel in the mistakes because it’s the best way a writer learns to communicate clearly. Who gets it right on the first draft? The beauty of making mistakes on fanfiction is no one knows. You get to remain anonymous as long as you want to, deleting cringe-worthy stories until you get it right.

Have you modernized a scene from a favorite classic? What did you learn?

This series will continue on Friday with thoughts on reader/writer interaction, plus I’ll update on Wednesday to tell you what I’ve been up to. I hope you’re having a cozy Monday!

(Disclaimer: I could be wrong. You might be a concerto-mastering genius on your first try.)

The Fan Fiction Experiment

Who writes fan fiction?

How many times has the Cinderella story been revisited? What about Snow White or Beauty and the Beast? Do you know how many books and movies claim to be adaptations of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

English: Cinderella drawing of Ludwig Richter ...
English: Cinderella drawing of Ludwig Richter (1803-1884) Deutsch: Aschenputtel Zeichnung von Ludwig Richter (1803-1884) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no big secret that writers from all walks like to write fanfiction. Fanfiction gets published all the time. Online, readers gobble up stories about their favorite movies, TV shows, popular books, classics and fairy tales with insatiable appetites. People want more of the stories they love.

Sites like Fanfiction.net thrive off offering readers and writers their fill. I compare these sites to yard sales. Some bookworms won’t want to make the effort because of the junk, but they miss out on the treasures.

And, yeah, fan writing can be poor—it can—but permitting writers to post really bad writing gives them a way to create and experiment with uninhibited zest. These writers are still in the original packaging. They haven’t been chiseled by formulaic plot and prose yet, and the spontaneity bubbles up in every line. It’s exciting to find those shiny new writers with that intuitive sense of how to get their concepts across in fascinating ways. The thrill of happening on that blossoming wordcrafter keeps me scouring stories for the clues that hide between the descriptions and chuckle at me from the narrative. The stories I’ve found on Fanfiction.net have inspired me to write from the heart, to think about my characters differently, to challenge traditional methods of speaking to my readers. There’s joy in reading fanfiction.

Then there’s writing fanfiction. My first fanfic took a great deal of courage for me. It wasn’t easy, deciding to let strangers read and reflect on my first try. It had tons of mistakes, and it still garnered such a great response I knew I wanted to write more fiction for public consumption. So I started writing in other fandoms. I tried the classics and popular books, TV shows, and movies. I dabbled in anime/manga and video game-based fanfiction. I deleted many bad tries, but they developed my writing skills. My approach to the fanfiction world became a writing experiment. My stories became my case studies, and the reviews and hits became my data…and the writers and reviewers became my friends.

English: Rainbow
English: Rainbow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’ve learned is: All Fiction is Fan Fiction. An author’s style is really the sum of what he/she has read and experienced. Every story is, in essence, adding to something already in existence to create something new. A writer who takes this view understands that utilizing the wheel in different ways can be far more effective to wheel-users than attempting to reinvent it. Fanfiction doesn’t limit creativity, it directs creativity. It conjures a rainbow of endless possibilities.

I plan to tell you more about what I’ve learned from writing fanfiction starting next Monday and continuing through the Mondays and Fridays of March. I hope it will inspire you to think creatively about methods to use to improve your craft.

(Disclaimer: Smut-writing and advertisements are obnoxious in fanfiction, like anywhere else, but most of the offensive stuff can be avoided through customized filtering and ad-blocking software.)

The Tried and the True

Sriracha hot sauce
Sriracha hot sauce (Photo credit: kattebelletje)

There are two things I have a knack for. One is cooking, as long as there’s no serious pastry work involved. (Pastry and I stare at each other and circle distrustfully.) I enjoy trying out new recipes with ingredients I can incorporate in other recipes. I want to use up what I buy, not use it once and have it taking up space in my fridge until it curls up and dies, rots, and stinks. For example, there is an almost full bottle of Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce in my fridge leftover from an Asian dish I tried during our China unit study. It’s a niggling reminder every time I open the fridge. (The spiciness is not getting the thumbs-up from my kids. Someone please give me some mild-tasting ways to make it palatable, else I have a feeling I’m going to become all thrifty and try to add it to a homemade shampoo or facial toner. Save me!)

dolmas (Photo credit: tofutti break)

I follow some kindred spirit food blogs—those are blogs that promote recipes with comforting staple ingredients—like Maggiesonebuttkitchen. Yes, the word “butt” is in the title of a food blog, and it happens to be a good food blog. Many of Maggie’s recipes require simple, everyday ingredients, like her Peach Snack Cake. She also showed me how to roast garlic, and her Dolma is on my “gotta try this” list. Okay, so grape leaves in brine aren’t hanging out in my pantry, but Maggie persuades me not to listen to myself about leftover ingredients. Mmm.

Last month I was introduced to at350degrees. Warning! This one’s pretty much all about sweets. Just going to the blog homepage will make you drool. At least, it makes me drool. Carissa finds recipes, tries them, and provides links for the recipe. My next guilt trip will be the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Fudge. And then I will be dead of sweets overdose and become an example to food bloggerdom of what not to tempt your readers to try. But until then, let’s be optimistic and pretend I can get away with eating things that pair cookie dough and fudge together, shall we?

I also have a knack for writing. Surprised? Yeah, I’m full of surprises. My forte is character-driven fiction, and I have a ton to learn. I receive a lot of encouragement in my craft from the thoughts, questions, and discoveries of other WordPress writer-bloggers. Here are the ones on my instant email list, the ones who often speak to my writer’s soul: (They are in chronological order, the first being the one I’ve followed the longest.)

Twisting Threads: There’s a rhythm to Twithre’s thoughts. I can relate to her frustrations. She talks about floundering at times. She’s not afraid to admit defeat. In fact, she gains ground as she think-writes her way through situations. Her post Home Sweet Park is a glimpse into her interesting childhood experiences.

Ayesha Schroeder—One of my favorites is: Lofty Goals and the Like, where she reminds her readers, “Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from setting your goals.”

JMMcDowell: She recently wrote Am I Good At This—Or Not, and it was a candid look that reassured me of what every writer faces.

Thursday’s Child: Her writing style has an intensity I admire. Many of her posts express how she relishes life and love, like Feelings of Nostalgia. She wrote a post in December entitled, Developing Characters. It has some great suggestions for writers with a philosophical turn.

Joseph M Kurtenbach likes to entertain with his posts, and he is super imaginative. I think we share a dread of posting something we’ll regret, but I’m not certain about that one. Maybe that’s just me. 😳 One of his adventures that makes me laugh is My Run In with a Ninja Ant.

This month I’ve added wogginswriting. His “De Baiting Game” is hilarious and so true.

What are some tried-and-true blogs that have inspired you?

This Skeptic Just Turned Avid Fan

Did you miss me? I’ve been in the throes of fresh, uninhibited editing! It’s delicious. My Critique Partner’s manuscript was due today, and we’ve been blazing through chapter after chapter, draft after draft for a week and a half. We’ve fleshed out meaningful descriptions, and we’ve brainstormed for effective ways of foreshadowing and developing more intense relationship interactions. I love, love, lurve working with this writer! And four months ago, I didn’t know her from Eve.

I’ll admit: when I signed up on Ladies Who Critique, I was skeptical. My previous critiquing and beta experiences have rarely included a trade. I thought I’d end up in the same scenario on LWC—which I was okay with. I would be generous, and I would find someone equally generous. But that’s not how the system is meant to work. It’s truly about the give and take of a partnership. I’m such a loner in my craft I couldn’t quite grasp that concept. That might be why finding a Critique Partner took me a few months. I sifted through a ton of writers’ profiles on the site. I contacted a few writers and vice versa, but we were able to tell almost immediately that our tastes weren’t a fit. Then along came this writer, who pores over Celtic folklore like I do and loves to mask a good fairytale archetype with a better setting and higher stakes. I’m so glad she found me!

So what changed me from the one dragging my feet all the way to the game to the one waving that ridiculous “We’re #1!” foam hand? Here are a couple of things I’ve loved about the Critique Partner setup:

Having a Critique Partner spurs my creative momentum. We both have a vested interest, so it’s easier not to get sidetracked working on manuscripts. And it’s like Christmas when I get the notification that there are a new set of her chapters waiting for me.

There’s a sense of fairness when it comes to constructive criticism. Every writer knows that concrit smarts. I mean, who wants to be told something negative about one’s child of script? And telling someone else the flaws in his/her story is so much worse! But that honesty is necessary to correct what’s amiss in the tale. When we are both giving positive and negative feedback—both encouraging the strengths and highlighting what is lacking—it’s easier to take, and to bravely give, that negative stuff.

My CP continues to be thorough about analyzing my characters and their influences. She’s already pointed out inconsistencies in characterization, lack of action during dialogue, wordiness, incoherent mood transitions… She deserves a medal.

And you know what’s amazing? She makes comments after my critiques, like, “This is the kind of feedback I need! Thanks!” It’s so awesome to think I might be helping her as much as she is helping me.

Gushing finished.