I Like Your Style! Inspiring Other Writers

Part 9 (and last) of The Fanfiction Experiment

‘Your soul is a beautiful thing, child,’ replied the grave man’s voice, ‘and I thank you. No emperor ever received so fair a gift.’

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

When I’m in the throes of a story, I will question sometimes whether I’ve become obsessed. There’s something very insistent about a tale all wrapped up in my head. It will entreat me to pay attention to it at the most inconvenient times. My thoughts trail away to a scene, and the characters begin to interact, whether I’m in a position to listen or not.

Medieval writing desk
Medieval writing desk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no wonder that some of us writers grow emotionally attached to our stories. They become part of us. And when they are written and we close the book, it is a painful separation. An inexplicable grieving period follows that no one really shares or understands. Connecting with other writers is a way to find support for that intense connection that a writer can experience with his/her story-child.

When a writer hands over that treasured story for another to read, it’s a gift—even if it may seem more like a white elephant. Many writers are looking for someone willing to read their manuscript with an objective eye and to give insightful feedback. It is an opportunity to be supportive, not only of the work but of a writer’s heart.

Fanfiction allows you to observe a writer’s style and temperament before you agree to invest your time. Last summer, I discussed my great experience with my first critique partner. It worked out well, but it was definitely more of a blind search than getting acquainted with a writer through his/her online work and corresponding through private messages. I’ve reviewed and touched up many works from fanfic writers I got to know beforehand. I became interested in supporting the writer and his/her style first.

Here are some tips for encouraging meaningful interaction that can grow into that supportive writer relationship:

Give thorough, honest reviews
Receiving a thoughtful review is everything to a serious writer. He/she will seek you out for genuine feedback because he/she is not there simply to amass reviews. (I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice, mind you.)

Writing a thoughtful review is also a writer’s advertisement. This is true for blog comments, isn’t it? It’s the primary means I use to find writers whose work I’m interested in reading, whether it’s through blogging or online fiction.

Reading glasses
Reading glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Volunteer to be a beta reader
Being a beta reader, that second pair of eyes, is a ton of fun, but it requires sacrifice. It’s important to make the most of what you can offer a writer and prioritize, considering the time you will spend on the work. It’s necessary to be selective. One can’t be a beta reader for every writer who makes the request, but it’s worth it when you’re interested in a writer and/or the story. And beta reading isn’t just a service, it’s a learning experience. It helps a writer reason through the stream of someone’s work objectively, and it develops awareness of one’s own storytelling weaknesses. In my opinion, the object of a beta reader is to give a writer the assurance that the story flows and speaks to the reader. Honest assurance.

When I’m the writer, I try to be considerate of my beta reader, both of his/her time and feelings. I want to create a relationship in which it’s okay for my beta to respond, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure about this” when expressing a gut feeling. Sometimes a reader’s intuition benefits a writer more than textbook corrections.

English: "A Helping Hand". 1881 pain...
English: “A Helping Hand”. 1881 painting by Emile Renouf Français (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Be a mentor for a less-experienced writer
There are different ways to go about this–there are organizations, of course–but you can do this on fanfiction sites, too.

The lengthiest fanfic chapter story I’ve worked on was 25 chapters, and I accepted redrafts of each chapter. The story was written by an advanced high school student. It was a magical adventure, and her passion for improving her work made the whole experience magical for me. I started from scratch and returned to writing basics. Instead of cleaning up grammatical errors, I was allowed to help her restructure her sentences for better impact and flow. (You can’t do this with many writers because repeating a simple rule of grammar can come off belittling.) I brainstormed with her for ways to make her characters more than actors under her pen. The ideas came from her own head, and I just prompted her to decide the mood or conclusion she wanted and to think about ways to communicate that. She taught me so much! She completed her fanfic, and we’ve kept in touch. She’s in college and writing for her university’s paper. It makes me happy to know she still loves writing, despite my critiques.

In case you’ve missed a post or two, here are the points I’ve mentioned in the Fanfiction Experiment series:

  • All Fiction is Fan Fiction.

 Fanfiction:

  • is a ready-made setting for all types of writing exercises.
  • can help you realize who your audience is and how to talk to them.
  • inspires a writer to develop crisp characterizations.
  • can help you learn to write what your inner reader wants to read.
  • challenges writers to hold a reader’s attention.
  • sites can help you stay accountable, motivated, and focused.
  • allows writers to filter through the trends.
  • allows you to observe a writer’s style and temperament before you agree to invest your time.

I hope something I’ve touched on in this series has inspired you to think outside the box about ways you can develop your craft. Granted, fanfic readers aren’t editors, nor are they versed in all things considered marketable by the publishing industry. The majority of readers read what they do because they like it, not because they’ve analyzed the trends or they have a good eye for the best opening line. But it’s eye-opening for the writer who considers his/her craft a journey. No matter how much one learns, there is always something more to be gleaned. There is always room for growth. Keep writing!

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Writer Nostalgia

Every writer goes through the stage of writing what he/she knows nothing about. When I was in middle school, I had a love story in the works. So did my friends. We were all writing about undying love, and none of us had a clue what love was. I learned quickly not to show my story to my friends because the male love interest would go through some changes. After reading our stories to each other, our handsome princes seemed to merge into one look we all agreed upon. Sometimes the battle lines would be drawn between the writers who thought gray eyes were better and the writers who maintained that the green-eyed princes had far more sophisticated gazes. Then we’d all go home and come back with blue-eyed and brown-eyed princes. We were writers…penning awkward, lousy stories and changing eye colors mid-paragraph.

We ventured into the unknown. Unknown to us, at least. Settings like medieval castles and French palaces abounded. Sometimes we languished with our characters in dungeons…which featured a friendly servant-rescuer who cleaned out the damp and musty chambers. Sometimes we climbed to the top of frigid mountain peaks to find talking furry friends who would normally have inhabited pine trees. We were explorers on a quest for an adventure without a concern for what was plausible.

English: Public domain image from the book, Dr...
English: Public domain image from the book, Dramatic Reader For Lower Grades, by Florence Holbrook, Copyright 1911, page 118. License: CC BY 2.0 User: perpetualplum Sue Clark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to go back to that bliss of writer ignorance at times. Facts didn’t throttle my inspiration then, and the protagonist and antagonist weren’t set in stone. One minute my witch would be a vicious, calculating sort with a fancy for cutting my heroine’s pretty throat. The next minute, she’d come to the hero’s rescue and turn into the sweetest little grandmotherly type with a habit of serving up cookies and cakes whenever someone felt sad.

It was all irrational and lovely.

Actually, there are a few too many fairytale movies out lately that sound exactly like that. I hate them. Never mind that whole nostalgic moment. I’m fine now.

Desperate Times Call For Christmas Card Envelopes

I’m still living in panic-strewn chaos. I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying it’s not the ideal. I should couch that by making it clear nothing is essentially wrong. Just the usual changes and growing—and I’m sooo not good at all that change stuff. (I know I’m not alone in this, ye Facebook users who have fought thy way through the many FB improvements in time past.)

I look around me every once in a while and take stock of my many blessings: people I love in my life, the stuff they like to do, the stuff I like to do, the stuff we acquire to do all that stuff, and the other stuff I use to clean and organize all that stuff that has to be stored somewhere—often in my bedroom, where I scare myself silly at two in the morning because I wake up to something tumbling and forget about the ladder with a suit that needs fixing hanging on it and go into paroxysms of fear at the seemingly tall figure standing next to my bed.

Serious tangential run-on, there.

But it gets me to my point, I think, which is: My writing habits are getting really, really strange with all this craziness. For one, I am writing story ideas and details on envelopes. Not just any envelopes, but Christmas card envelopes. I’m using the Christmas greeting cards to write thoughts from my morning Bible study, so I have all these sparkling, white envelopes—because, I’ll confess, I have boxes of Christmas cards I’ve collected over the years with the notion that I’m actually going to send out Christmas cards to people I haven’t seen in forever. You know, so they can say, “Hey, did you know Rilla is still moving and breathing on the planet? It’s true; I have the Christmas card to prove it.” Well, after four-ish years of Facebooking “Merry Christmas,” I don’t see the point in this festive rite of the season; and now I have all these blank cards and envelopes, see?

It also needs to be stated that I’m writing on these envelopes in my closet. Yes, I’m holed up in my closet, where I keep a pen and a bottle of water… and a box of crackers. I think I could live rather cheerily in my closet for a bit. Just yesterday I moved my laptop in there—which, I think, is really progress because I might stop writing on envelopes and use the laptop instead.

So, how is this new routine working for me? Surprisingly well, except I completely quit working on the sequel to Dragonfly Prince. It’s marinating in my brain, but I haven’t been able to touch it in weeks because Dragonfly Prince has undergone a transformation. The last chapters have been replaced with totally new scenes and a totally new ending. I don’t know who did that. Alright, it had to be me; but what a presumptuous creature I am, despoiling my own story! Of course, the sequel gets the backlash and must reconfigure itself with a little help from me.

I’ve also gone back to one very wonderful tale that I let dangle while Dragonfly Prince Part Deux was getting the limelight. It’s a love story set in the Middle Ages. (I actually have three Middle Ages stories. I’m a medieval times junkie.)

There was another story I revisited that I think I should burn, but enough about that.

You may consider this my desperate attempt to update my blog, but I’d rather you didn’t. I’d rather you think to yourself, “Wow, what a great way to recycle all those annoying xmas cards!” Hey, it’s creative. Let’s just leave it at that.

Bullies Can Expire – I Mean, Inspire

I had a bully in school. It wasn’t anything too severe. Sometimes I came home with a few bruises. My self-esteem was more affected than anything. I certainly consider myself one of the lucky ones.

The impression that remains with me is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Did you know those feelings can lie dormant in a person and resurface? Suppose ten or more years pass, and you’re walking into a grocery store in your hometown—you could be on your cell phone finishing a call—and someone approaches. You look up, wondering who’s impersonating a human wall in front of you, only to find yourself peering into a face that sends you back to elementary and junior high school. What would you do? Would you drop your eyes and keep talking on the phone, pretending not to have recognized your old bully?

That’s what I did. He walked away. He retreated behind the Hallmark card display. I knew he thought I hadn’t recognized him. I let him think that and kept walking. Mentally, I wanted to greet him, all assured and genial, ready to laugh over those school days. That would’ve been the mature thing to do, after all. Instead, my body reacted as though it was going to perform a none-too-composed sprint into the parking lot. My heart was in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. It was everything I could do to stroll over casually to the produce and pretend he wasn’t there still.

As the initial dread wore off, I became curious: Why was he shopping for cards in the grocery store, his head floating above the display as though it were disembodied*, haunting me like a gruesome nightmare? Why had he approached me and not spoken? That soon changed to indignation. How dare he show his face in the same store! Why didn’t he leave? I hoped he would be gone by the time I came back to the checkout.

While I shopped, I kept a sharp eye out for him, looking over my shoulder at every turn. Gathering milk from the dairy cooler, I slewed round repeatedly, just to keep a constant check on my blind spots. I must’ve looked mad. I felt mad—insane, unreasoning, and furious all at once. Why was I acting like a kid again? Adults don’t act like this! Do they?

It would be nice if I could say I met him again and learned he is actually very nice. I didn’t. The only other thing I recall in that brief meeting was his sweatshirt with the word “Marines.” That was at eye-level. Maybe he’d relocated.

There is no real closure to this. That’s why it makes for a perfect story idea. Most of the stories written begin with a question like, “How would it be?” or “What would have happened?” The best stories are based in fact, where the vivid emotions choke the writer as the words are penned.

So, I went with that. I let Amanda Hartley pour out her soul in her own words about her middle school nemesis, Paul Skinner. Angry rant after angry rant, her life unfolded before me until the anger became knowledge and the knowledge became understanding. I followed her for the next two years, purely through her journal entries addressed to Paul, the notes in school, the Facebook posts and messages, and their texts, and watched her develop confidence and unconventional friendships.

When I finished writing I Have Nothing to Say To You, I knew I’d exorcised my own bully baggage. I also knew the story premise was dated. The term “bully” has undergone a significant makeover in the last decade. Middle grade readers would not be open-minded, having been indoctrinated with almost religious zeal to equate bullies with proud rack-of-dead-deer-posing, Global Warming-loving, nasal brain-scraper-toting Nazis with questionable attributes linking them to a dastardly species of genetically modified zombies. And I shudder to think what terrible creatures those bullies are. Mine was just a mean, often pain-giving, sort of person—still roughly human.

Roughly.

*Edited- This was originally ‘disemboweled.’ (sheepish grin) Thanks, Mom O!

The Conversation

“You were 126 a couple of months ago. Now you’re down to 123. It’s progress, sure, but it’s not enough. The goal is 114, remember?

“You know what? If you’ll work with me here, we can settle on 116. What about it? Is it a deal?”

(No response.)

“What can I do to make this an easy transition for you? Just name it.”

(Uncomfortable silence.)

“Come on! What will it take to get you down to 114K? And, yes, I’m taking back my offer of 116,000 words because you’re being stubborn!”

(The manuscript still refuses to budge.)

“Look, I’m on your side—I’ll always be on your side—but I have to look at this objectively. If I were asked to read a 123K manuscript for teens that I was reading cold, taking a chance on its writer, I’d probably pass.

“You know, the first Harry Potter book was only 77K.

“I’m rounding up.

A Wrinkle in Time was just under 50. Okay, so it’s true Eragon was 157 plus, but I want to err on the safe side, don’t you?

“Doesn’t it matter to you that you’re not published yet? Because it matters to me. I don’t want you to have to live in a box for the rest of your existence. Of course, I could always end your existence. I have that power, you know.”

(The tension is palpable.)

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. It’s just… I’m frustrated. I’ve been focused on you for quite sometime now. How long have we been together? Let me see… This September, it will be three years. Wow.

“It’s been fun, and I know it’s because I still like you–more than I did at the beginning. You bring out things in me I didn’t know were even there. Some of them are kind of embarrassing, but, all in all, I’m glad we’ve spent this time together.

“I’m not breaking up or anything. I mean, there are some other stories I’d really like to catch up with. Some of them were written before I ever started thinking about you. I feel bad that I’ve neglected them.

“Look, you’re still the one. You know that. It’s because so much about you is real, and it makes me feel fulfilled in some strange way; but then we come to these roadblocks. I admit, sometimes I question whether our relationship is healthy. What do you think? Is talking to you like this healthy?”

In trying to get this manuscript to cooperate, the words ‘wits end’ are ringing in my ears.

I Write of You, Solanum tuberosum

You know how I said I wasn’t going to write when I was really hungry? Scratch that. I was thinking about potatoes today. Potatoes are really one of the easiest foods to make. You basically put them in the oven on a low setting. Sometimes I even remember them a few hours later. I’m not the most reliable cook because of the “out of sight, out of mind” thing. If I remember to set a timer, everything’s fine. Otherwise, it better be potatoes in the oven. Can they be overcooked? It’s been my luck they are always done when I recall where they are.

They have a starchy satisfaction to them. Everybody understands what it means to say, “A real meat and potatoes kinda guy.” You can take him at face value; no need to ask about salad dressings or anything. Potatoes are the same way, hearty and dependable.

A potato complements almost anything. Simple butter, some salt and pepper, and it’s done. Restaurants add all kinds of toppings, like broccoli and red onion. Have you ever watched a person’s eyes when the server begins listing the toppings on the “loaded,” “super loaded,” and “add more pig” potato? Me, either. I wasn’t ordering potatoes.

Recently, my sister found out she wasn’t eating enough starchy carbs in her diet, which resulted in her body working to convert the proteins. She was lethargic and losing weight. She and I happen to ascribe to the same diet, consisting of lots of cruciferous veggies and meats. For me white carbs, like rice, potatoes and noodles, are flavor squelchers. They don’t originate with the flavor, and they can even be known to mute it. I prefer a piping hot tray of mushroom tops with freshly minced garlic simmered in butter, or sautéed green beans.

So, I’ve decided to give ol’ Idaho a chance again. I’m thinking of composing a verse as an ode to this incredible tuber of the nightshade family. I plan to compliment its eyes, of course.

In case you think I’ve forgotten the point of this post, here it is:

A writer’s story is not like a potato.

Brilliant, eh?

1. The potato baking in the oven will forgive you when you forget about it, but your story may not forgive your neglect. Inspiration can be fleeting. If you don’t cultivate the plot and invest the time in seeing the story through, it may dry up to become but a few flecks of dull, unreadable scenes.

2. The potato’s starchy makeup will leave you feeling full. While I think an ending should leave one satisfied, a good story should leave one hungering for more from that author. It also doesn’t hurt anything to keep the reader wondering whether there might be a sequel.

3. Potatoes can be better with toppings, a.k.a., fillers. Stories? Bleck.

4. The flavor of a potato doesn’t change. Good old potatoes. They are the same all the way through. If a book were like that, it would have no readership.

Now I will return to my mountain top to meditate, and you may go on with your journey through the wilds of WordPress.

Learning from First Impressions

I’ve been reading tons lately and writing very little. There are ten chapters written on the sequel to Dragonfly Prince. I don’t want to call it writer’s block. You see, I’ve had trouble with sequels before, and that’s why this is making me nervous. When I completed my first novel-sized story (a modern crossover fanfic drawing from Austen’s Persuasion/Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera) – I had this exciting idea about merging Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice with Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel for the sequel. I named it Florid Impressions. (Austen’s P&P was originally entitled, “First Impressions.”) It would follow talented ballet dancer, Marguerite (or ‘Meg’), as she joined a newly formed troupe begun by a young, accomplished choreographer, P. Darcy-Blakeney. He would be like Orczy’s Blakeney in style and attitude and Austen’s Darcy in true personality and noblesse oblige. He and Meg would not see eye-to-eye; but she would learn to respect his impeccable taste for interpretation, and he would find himself taken with her vivacity, wit and, ultimately, her determination and loyalty. I had these great ideas for following international conflict and constructed two daring rescues and a wonderful escape finale. I totally fell in love with it, eavesdropping in on my characters’ conversations in my head.

To prepare I immersed myself in researching the art of ballet. I hunted for advisers and sought their advice. I read and watched all the documentaries I could study. I have notebooks stashed away scribbled back to pulp with terms and practices and personal reflections of dancers. Through my research I came to the conclusion that my first impression of a ballerina was completely wrong. It is truly an art of illusion. Its disciples are always in pain, always pushing their physical limits.

While gathering the information, it struck me as strange that I didn’t know the names of any current danseurs or ballerinas. The programs do not garner the same breathless anticipation of the Super Bowl, or even Wimbledon. Yes, I’m comparing ballet to a sport. It requires intense athleticism, but that is coupled with emotional expression. It’s quite an incredible craft.

Where once it had claimed a regal, astral sort of beauty for me, the earthy reality ruined it. I became disillusioned by the line of work I’d chosen for my main character. I’m rather sad for her. Still, it taught me to stick with what I know (and to give my characters jobs where they had more to wear than a kerchief and tights). And that’s where this sequel scares me the most. It’s all about what I know, and I’m intimidated. I’m more conscious of its flaws and less attuned to how it communicates its meaning to someone who hasn’t been in my shoes. Can I let my guard down and *gulp* give it the vulnerability it needs? Ten chapters are just a knock at the door.