Save the Dangling Characters!

I needed to read Essential writing skills: why a bad first draft is better than no first draft by M J Wright this past week. I’ve been beating myself up lately. Here’s why:

I began a story last year in a flurry of excitement. I finished chapter 10 or 11, and the going got tough. After writing approximately 30,000 words, I started to wonder, “Is this really good? Am I wasting my time?” It was the “make or break” phase. My fear of commitment kicked in. I thought, “What if I invest in these characters, fall in love with them, and find out they aren’t who I think they are?” Weird? Maybe, but that’s how I tick. So, what did I do? I hung it up. Left it. Left my characters dangling. I don’t want to admit to you how many characters I do this to. It’s painful.

And I hate to quit. So I told myself, “You are going to finish this, even if it’s bad!” I wanted to commit to the project, to put my heart into it, but I couldn’t. I needed to know my characters were lovable, relatable. I needed feedback to continue.

None of that friend-y stuff would do. I’m talking about your best friend who reads three lines and says, “Oh, this is wonderful! You’re such a great writer! I don’t know why you’re not submitting to every publisher!” I needed the real reaction of the reader who wasn’t influenced by my wonderful personality and incredible wit. (heh)

Where could I find that? Where could I find an audience who would only pay attention to the story? If it was good, I’d know it by the following it garnered.

This is where I cracked. I gave up the dream of professionally publishing the book. I changed the story up a bit and posted it on Fanfiction, knowing I was giving it away for free. Why? Isn’t that like shooting myself in the foot? Ah, my friend, a free book is better than no book at all.

I’m deep in my latest obsession, The Kiss of the Gobboling King. It’s one of those fairytale-revisited works. It’s fun. It’s freeing. No requirements. No target audience. It’s already found a little following. Readers tell me they like Esda and Draill, so I feel safe that these characters won’t disappoint me. I can love them unreservedly. I can finish the story.

Is it written the way I imagined it, shined and polished for the bookstore shelf? No. It’s a first draft. But when I’m finished, it will be the entire first draft. That’s what matters.

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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!

Where’s the Ending? Completing Your Story

Part 7 of The Fan Fiction Experiment

There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Dodo from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Dodo from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most difficult and annoying issues that plagues writers—and readers!—on free online writing sites is the inability to complete the story. There are tons of incomplete works of fanfiction, along with furious readers and apologetic writers. Let’s face it, writers can lose impetus, especially when there isn’t any monetary motivation involved. Plus, waning interest and plot bunnies come complimentary with storytelling genius. Many writers cater to them, leaping to a different tale without rescuing poor Sheila, the Little Mermaid’s sister, from the clutches of Korth, King Triton’s evil twin. Readers want writers to be reliable.

Johannes Vermeer - Lady Writing a Letter with ...
Johannes Vermeer – Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid (detail) – WGA24698 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy to be a steady serial chapter writer. It’s even harder to finish the story. Diligence is a muscle a writer has to exercise. Sense and Sensibility was originally written as a series of letters and read to the family. Think about that: It’s probable we wouldn’t have Elinor and Marianne and their beautiful love stories if not for the support of Jane Austen’s family to keep her writing. Unfortunately, not everyone has a family like Jane’s.

Fanfiction sites can help you stay accountable, motivated, and focused while writing your story. Every writer craves encouraging reviews, but they won’t keep a story going if the writer doesn’t have a purpose for continuing. So, begin with a purpose statement. ‘What?’ you might say, ‘Can’t a writer just write for the fun of it, to free one’s adventuresome spirit?’ Actually, a writer always has a purpose statement because no one writes without a reason. Some purpose statements include: “I want to try a ghost story,” “I want to explore a political theory of mine,” “I want to exorcise a harsh time from my past,” “My teacher says I have to write this,” or “I want to see how much of this story I can complete if I make a goal of posting two chapters a week.”

When beginning a story, writing down my purpose statement is like insuring my work. It’s my fallback. Without it, my story can become like a game of Telephone; I start with one idea and the story mimics flypaper, gathering plot bunny carcasses until I can’t find the original idea at all.

Here’s an example of a purpose statement:

I am writing Backwash, My First Job at a Dentist’s Office because I need closure on this most disgusting experience in my life, and I need to defend my decision to brush my teeth fourteen times a day.

I try to be as descriptive as I can. If I’m writing to a specific person or audience, I include that as well. This helps me refocus on the reason for writing the story, should I get sidetracked, say, by deciding to change the plot midway through. (Fanfic reviewers can have very tempting ideas, by the way. It is easy to get sidetracked, especially once a writer begins to receive good feedback.)

It’s just something to consider if your original reason for writing is important to you to stick to. Changing the story to accommodate a different purpose isn’t necessarily bad, but changing your motivation can change your work. It can also usher in a bad case of writer’s block.

There’s a general consensus that J.K. Rowling wrote Deathly Hallows with her fans in mind because there are nods in the 7th Harry Potter book, and it reads differently from the giddy, sky’s-the-limit feel of The Sorcerer’s Stone. After reading book seven, my sister and I discussed our theories on how the book would have differed without the influence of Potter fans everywhere. We’ll never know.

English: Cropped version of File:Lucy_Maud_Mon...
English: Cropped version of File:Lucy_Maud_Montgomery.JPG (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, wrote the other books in the Anne series after there was a demand for more. The rest of the stories in the series are great, but it is my opinion that there is something very precious and delightful when you first meet Anne that you don’t find in the rest of the books. Did this affect the sales of these books? I doubt it.

To clarify, your purpose statement is not the premise or the story outline, which are excellent ways to keep a writer focused, too. Some writers work best when following a premise or outline, while other writers like to wing it; but all of us have a purpose when we first begin writing the story, be it simple or complex.

Monday’s post will be about fails at originality. And next Friday’s post will be the last in the series.

(Disclaimer: Something about opinions and experiences. Writing this post distracted me, and I forgot to write it down.)