“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.)

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My Top Five Love Stories

These are my current top five books and movies. It changes, of course.

Books

English: Persuasion (last Jane Austen Novel) c...
English: Persuasion (last Jane Austen Novel) ch 23 : Captain Wentworth is showing his letter to Anne, “with eyes eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Persuasion by Jane Austen

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to t...
Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2.  The Book of Ruth

You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.

Illustration to the North and South (novel by ...
Illustration to the North and South (novel by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Take care.—If you do not speak—I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptuous way.

4. Emily’s Quest (Last of 3 in Emily Series) by L. M. Montgomery

It came clearly and suddenly on the air of a June evening. An old, old call–the two higher notes and one long and soft and low.

5. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

We belong to each other now really and truly, no make-believe.

Movies

1. Pride and Prejudice (1995)

You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

2. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

She could peel an apple in one long, curly strip. The whole apple.

3. The Parent Trap (1961)

I miss those wet stockings you used to have hanging around the bathroom. And I miss my razor being dull because you used it to shave your legs with. And I miss the hairpins mixed up with the fishhooks in my tackle box.

4. Wives and Daughters (1999)

I couldn’t go. I couldn’t go without… Molly, do I still have any chance with you?

5. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

My dearest sweetheart, Klara, I can’t stand it any longer. Take your key and open post office box 237 and take me out of my envelope… and kiss me…

After choosing these, I realized the most appealing thing to me in a love story is sacrifice, whether it’s through waiting or giving without expecting anything in return. I hope you’ve had a lovely February! Expect another post tomorrow because I plan to update my blog Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in March.

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.

Which Way Is Ever After?

by A. Ashkanani, flickr.com

It’s the mushy month. Love and all that… And I was thinking, ‘I should find a good love story to celebrate Valentine’s Day properly.’ Nyah, nothing with a sappy name this time. They bother me. I know there’s something wrong with a Gaskell’s North and South/Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fanatic who doesn’t devour those confectionary titles like a big goblet of dark chocolate mousse, but I have difficulty reading a book that’s embarrassing to name aloud. (“Oh, I’m reading, ‘Love’s Endless Flowing Tragic Quest of Angst,’ you?”) It reminds me of Gilbert’s down-to-earth remark to Anne Shirley about her flowery romances. He tells her, “Nobody talks like that in real life.”*

Still, I believe there’s nothing like a good love story, and romances aren’t necessarily good love stories. Take Tolkien’s Return of the King as an example. It wasn’t a romance, but the love stories are mint. The relationship dynamics are what intrigue me most, I guess. Whatever my current writing obsession, I find myself watching my protagonist develop, placing certain situations before him or her to see what the reaction will be. As a reader, I like book characters that give me the impression I’ve met them before. I’m the Bildungsroman sci-fantasy sort, add a side of love story.

Because of this, a tale about a woman who is thawed into falling in love with some non-confrontational, gorgeously handsome man, who waits all through the book for her to notice him, has no appeal. I think I prefer reading about a confrontational, ugly guy who goes through his own metamorphosis. (Have I been conditioned to correlate male attractiveness with spineless drooling? Hm…)

How about the male love interest who makes the heroine eat her words? Well, he ought to be gentlemanly about it when she does, of course. But I’m not completely a Taming of the Shrew fan because it lends itself to the opposite extreme, toward berating or abusing womankind.

Why do so many love stories belittle the intelligence of either gender to make the relationship work? I think the romance genre often finds its writers in difficulty over how to keep that balance. And what about original endings? Wedding bells ring, a thrilling account of what happened on the honeymoon, or hints of a baby’s arrival often conclude the tale. Jane Austen fared just fine leaving her characters to pledge their troth and… Here’s an epilogue. Cue the orchestra, roll the credits. What are some other ways to end a love story without being cliché? The only other endings I can think of are the ones where one, or both of them, dies. The Hunger Games (Spoiler! Spoiler!) used a tactic which I found both realistic and depressing. Kat just deals. She ends up with the one she loves best, but they are too scarred to really be happy. Call me an idealist, but I don’t find death and despondency very inspiring in a society where love comes and goes like a hobby and no one seems to know which direction to ride off and find ‘ever after,’ much less ‘happily.’

So, any book suggestions, or have I thrown out the lot?

*from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series