Tag Archive: Writing Exercise

In Defense of Fanfic

fanficLast week, when talking about how Agents of SHIELD seems to have been written like it was MCU fanfic rather than a true member of the franchise, I mentioned that fanfic isn’t a bad thing and can, in fact, be quite beneficial. It occurs to me that this probably deserves extra attention.

Yes, fan fiction can be beneficial. It’s a great way to encourage creativity, practice writing skills, and generally provide a sandbox for fans to play in.

It’s also a type of fiction that is notoriously riddled with bad writing. We’re not just talking about grammar and spelling. We’re talking about fiction that, quite often, shows little understanding of plot structure, character development, setup and payoff, or even why the source material it draws on is told the way it is.

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So yes, I have an apprentice.

By the way, Rebecca hates this reference now.

By the way, Rebecca hates this reference now.

Rebecca’s not to be confused with an intern. I don’t make her do any of my work, and I don’t provide any college credits. I do, however, occasionally assign homework.

One of the first things she learned was that an editor must know how to write. An editor must try her hand at writing, because there is no way to really understand how a story works without playing around with it yourself.

An editor, essentially, needs all the skills of an author: language, plot, character, research, setting — whatever it is, an editor must know how it works. The one thing that isn’t truly necessary is creativity. That spark possessed by all storytellers that makes them not only craft a great story, but want to tell it too.

Now, most editors actually are writers, if not published authors. (I’m joining the ranks of the latter group next year.) The job of an editor, however, is not to come up with the story in the first place. We make it better, and that means we must be experts in the art even if we don’t produce it ourselves.

And that brings us back to the matter of writing. There is always a story to tell.  We practice this all the time, sometimes without knowing it. We just have to hone the skill.

I’ve told Rebecca that I don’t need to see her homework. I’m not even making her write. I just strongly recommended it. She’ll be attending my workshop (having done the grunt work of setting it up . . . okay, I guess I do make her do some of my work!), and I told her she’ll learn more about editing if she’s also got a story to apply things to. She’ll get her chance to practice critiquing other stories, including my own, but it’s important to have something to work on even if you’re never going to show it to another living soul.

flannery_oconnor_quote_writingI’ve encountered bestselling authors who tell me they get burned out on stories. I tell them pretty much the same thing every time: burnout and writer’s block can very often be cured by the same thing: starting another story. Both can come because the current work-in-progress is taking up too much real estate and you need to rest so you get a fresh perspective. Anyone who writes knows that this can be easier said than done, because we’re always writing in our heads.

So you just start a new story, something you don’t intend to be “serious.” Fanfic is a great tool for this, for example: no pressure, no stress of creating characters or settings, just writing and clearing the cobwebs. Or take your characters and put them in a different situation, even if it doesn’t make sense in the context of your story. What happens if your characters encounter something funny? What if your characters’ parents had an adventure that they never knew about? What happens if your characters have a day off — what would they do?

Artists keep sketchbooks to doodle in; writers keep a notebook or computer folder for the written equivalent. All artists need to relax and fiddle with their art to practice, to refresh themselves, or just for the sheer fun of it.

Never let yourself feel pressured unless you yourself want the pressure. Sometimes we work better with a deadline; other times, we just need to relax and let the story flow. You discover a lot about yourself and your art that way.

I’ve had this blog for more than seven months. I’ve averaged about three or four posts per month. That’s bad enough, but in all that time, I’ve kept putting off telling you about Writing Excuses.

Writing Excuses is an award-winning weekly podcast (two time Parsec, two time Hugo nominee, also nominated for a Podcast Award) that covers creative writing. It’s a bit over five years old now, and its archives are nearly 100 hours deep. If you listened to an episode every day starting now, you’d finish in just under one year (counting the new episodes that will be released weekly over that time).

Does that sound daunting? Don’t worry. Each episode is only fifteen minutes (well, okay, sometimes they run over) long — because, as they say, “you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.”

The “in a hurry” part is correct. It’s hard to make time when focusing on writing, because you really have to treat it as a full-time job. Most of us already have full-time jobs, or in many cases two or more part-time jobs. Some of you are in college, which is more than a full-time job. (Hint to you college students: if you’re not devoting about sixty hours a week to school, you’re either not a full-time student or you’re in some really easy classes.) The podcast format makes it very easy to listen to a full episode, maybe two, during your commute, while you’re on your lunch break, or while you’re cooking or doing your dishes or vacuuming the house. (Though you might need earbuds for that last one.)

The “not that smart” part is . . . debatable. These guys are good. The podcast hosts are New York Times bestselling fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson (yes, that guy who finished The Wheel of Time and wrote the Mistborn series), supernatural horror novelist Dan Wells (author of the seriously wonderful John Cleaver novels, starting with I Am Not a Serial Killer, which deserves a review from me sometime), professional puppeteer and historical fantasy/alternate history novelist Mary Robinette Kowal (author of The Glamourist Histories; she joins the podcast full-time in Season Six), and science fiction cartoonist and humorist Howard Tayler (who writes and draws the award-winning and record-breaking Schlock Mercenary).

I’ve met all four in one way or another (the first two in real life, the other two via webcams, Facebook, and email). They know their stuff and they’re great to talk to. I’m not saying I agree with everything they say, mind you; just 99%.

Well, okay. 98%. That’s my final offer.

Give them a listen. Even if you don’t write fantasy, horror, or science fiction, you’ll find plenty to learn from them.

Four things you can learn about writing from Soulless:

  1. Regency/Victorian stylings. If you want the feel of 19th century England, it’s obvious where to go: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and other authors who lived in that period. Sometimes, though, it’s refreshing to look at someone taking that period and messing around with it, allowing you to see what’s essential and what isn’t. If inserting vampires, werewolves, and ghosts into everyday Victorian society isn’t “messing around with it,” I don’t know what is. 
  2. Sexual humor without vulgarity. It’s a fine line between joking about sex and being crude. There is a lot of sexual humor in this book, but it is funniest when couched in Victorian speech patterns and indirect phrasing. See what you find funniest, and ask yourself why.
  3. Floating perspective. There’s a reason why floating perspective is frowned on in modern fiction: it can get hard to keep track of which person you’re supposed to identify with. It works in Soulless mainly because the literature of the real-life period did it; but to make it work, you have to avoid getting too deep into one character’s perspective before shifting into another’s. Pay attention to where the POV shifts in the middle of a scene, and why Carriger keeps it from being jarring.
  4. Avoid infodumping. Read the first chapter and identify the information that is just placed there before it’s truly needed. Compare this to other parts of the book where information is not given so quickly. How would you rewrite the first chapter to give a steadier, more gentle flow for information? 

Gaming for Writers

For those who know me, it’s no secret that I’m a gamer. No, not a computer or video gamer; I’ll play those, sure, but what I really like to do is sit around a table with friends to tell a story using nothing but dice and imagination. Continue reading

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