In Defense of Fanfiction for Aspiring Writers

I haven’t written fanfiction in years, but there was a time when it played a big role in my life.

Way back in the dark ages, also known as the late 90s, early 00s, I was a tween. We weren’t called tweens then, that slang hadn’t become popular yet. I had a good friend, a teenager, who lived a few blocks away. I liked her and trusted her judgment. So when she told me I simply had to watch this show Sailor Moon, I followed her advice.

When I turned off the TV, I thought: This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever watched. …I’m going to watch again tomorrow!

Thus began my love affair with one of the most popular anime of all time.

My older friend also turned me on to fanfiction. The TV could only give me half an hour at a time. The internet could give me so, so much more. Reams of stories, any time I wanted. I learned all the lore of this new world and was exposed to stories beyond what was ‘safe’ enough to be in the library, namely lesbian relationships. I read it all.

It wasn’t long before I started writing my own story. I gave myself a penname. I started a Geocities site. I joined

I started getting readers. I got comments. People loved what I wrote, and so I wrote more.

The beautiful thing about that period of time is that I was part of a very large, very active community. Thousands of other people were also hungry for more stories, and they were happy to read and comment.

The next year I discovered Gundam Wing, and that’s when my fanfiction writing career really took off. The fandom could not get enough of those boys and their mecha. Neither could I. In the six years I was active on the site, I wrote some 265,000 words.

That’s a lot of practice. And let’s be clear, the vast majority of that was written in four years when I was really active. Figure 50k a year, between the ages of 14 and 18. Not including the originals works I did for class.

I wrote because I wanted to. I wrote for the instant feedback. I wrote because other people cared if I didn’t update. I wrote because playing in those worlds made me happy.

I sometimes miss the abandon with which I used to write. There were no rules. I had no craft lessons to deliberately apply. It was just me and the blank page, going wherever we wanted to go. For those years, I was a pantser.

And I can honestly say that over the years I got better. My taste and instincts matured. I read a lot. Both good, published books, and bad, what-is-this-burn-it-with-fire fanfiction. I read some outstanding fanfiction as well, things that deserved a much bigger platform. I became discerning. I learned what I liked, and what not to do. I began to articulate what was wrong with what I was reading. I began to absorb craft.

Over time, I outgrew fanfiction. My community of choice was dying out and I didn’t feel like joining another one. Instead I focused on my class assignments, original fiction. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest. I began looking for the colleges with the best writing programs. Because I wanted a career as a fantasy novelist, you see, and I was determined.

Writing fanfiction gave me confidence in my abilities. I trusted myself to know what was good and worth pursuing. Maybe that’s arrogance in a teenager, but that arrogance had me pursuing a dream instead of putting it aside. I kept taking classes, kept workshopping, kept reading. I knew I wasn’t good enough yet. But I knew I could get there.

So, the next time someone tries to argue that fanfiction is a waste of time, don’t listen to them. It’s a productive form of play. You wouldn’t tell someone to stop playing pick-up basketball if their aim was the NBA. Insist they do the drills as well, but don’t tell them to stop having fun. People argue that fanfiction is stultifying because it doesn’t require the writer to invent their own worlds and characters. I suppose children shouldn’t play with LEGOs because they didn’t mold the plastic themselves. LEGO sets may seem limiting, especially as they become more and more branded, but kids still do fantastic, imaginative things with them.

Nobody should be forced to read or write it, but those who do should keep on keepin’ on.

Seeking Critique Partners

This post is inspired by the #PitchWars mentors, who have said time and again that this contest is about community. Finding friends, CPs, commiserators, etc. And it occurred to me, “Why am I not talking DIRECTLY to the other wannabe mentees? We’re hopping to each other’s blogs, we want to get to know each other!”

So, this is me talking to you, my brothers and sisters in arms. This is about what I’m like as a critique partner and what I’m looking for in a partner. Please do not be shy about reaching out! I’m the shy one here. There can’t be two of us. (Actually, another shy introvert would be awesome.)

What I Write

Fiction about women, usually strong ones. That’s always my starting point. Lately I’ve been focused on contemporary YA, but my next WIP is NA paranormal romance. (I know, I know, poor market. Too bad. It’s in my brain.) I’ve got some fantasy and historical sitting on my hard drive that I want to get back to. Here are the pitches for three WIPs to whet your appetite.

  • In UNCHURCHED (PitchWars submission 2015), agnostic, feminist Janine is taken aback when her father joins an evangelical church. He’s delighted to help put on a purity ball, but Janine is horrified by the idea of making a vow of chastity in public. Taking the vow would be a lie and she’ll hate herself forever, but standing up to her dad will break his heart.
  • Based on the ballet of the same name, GISELLE follows a young woman with epilepsy who begins to see and hear strange messages from beyond the grave. These voices warn her away from Ali, the boy she’s been crushing on since high school. When he betrays her, Giselle is sucked into a world where disloyalty has deadly consequences.
  • In THE SILK THAT CUTS, a harem overthrows an empire. Twice.

What I Read

Almost everything? I’ve never been into horror, sorry. And I don’t read much middle grade, but I do read a lot of YA and adult. I love fantasy and historical, and really enjoy science fiction and diverse contemporary. (Please share your diverse stuff. It needs to be seen.) I’m a politics junkie, and love tackling controversial issues from religion to international relations (I skew progressive but I’m open to reading about more than that–if you’re doing it right, I’ll love your characters anyway).  I love funny stuff. I love irreverence. I love being surprised by twists and turns. I don’t shy away from hard stuff that may trigger others, but I don’t delve into really dark things very often. I do like sexy times, so erotica is totally ok.

Some faves:

  • Made You Up by Francesca Zappia
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  • Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
  • The Heartland Trilogy by Chuck Wendig
  • The Black Dagger Brotherhood books by JR Ward
  • The Temeraire books by Naomi Novik
  • The Confessions of Georgia Nicholson by Louise Rennison
  • Various books by Tamora Pierce

How I Critique

I like to comment as I do my first read, catching typos (I can’t help it, they stand out and I just can’t leave them) and giving first reactions. I tend to ask questions rather than make suggestions. I trust you to know what you intended, and I’m just here to confirm that the way you depicted it worked or not. I’m a member of Scribophile and I can give you the link to check out my review work there.

I’ve been likened to movie slashers because I can turn a page red. I’ve also been told that I have a great combo of encouraging and relevant comments. I bring my sense of humor to the table, so if you use the same word four times I may tease you a little because I’m genuinely and affectionately amused. You will get squeals and gushing over things I love. I’m happy to reread portions or the whole thing.

If you’re looking for diversity research, I can help you out with: atheism, depression, and immigration.

My best communication methods are text-based (email, instant messaging) but I’ll suck it up and talk on the phone or meet in person, too.

What I’m Looking For in a Partner

Please, please, please hack and slash my stuff to bits. For years I’ve been plagued by comments that just kind of say it’s good but not why or how or what’s slipping or augh. Vagueness. Get in there and get messy, please. Demand high standards. Ask a million questions.

I love brainstorming. My best friend and I are constantly poking and prodding each other’s worlds to expand them. Again, I ask a lot of questions, and I love getting them back.

I can’t keep, say, a weekly schedule. Too much pressure. I’m happy to swap a chapter at a time, or a whole book. I don’t mind sharing as soon as a chunk is drafted to get a first read. Tell me how polished it is and I’ll read accordingly.

Reach Out

Send me an email! I would lovelovelove to hear from you, especially if something in this profile sparked for you. There’s no such thing as too many eyes.

Plot Points for Characters

Last week Writer Unboxed ran a piece called How to Craft a Page-Turning Plot by

The article is rather long, but the relevant part is under item 1. Apologies for such a long quote, but it’s totally worth reading the rest of the article.

Essentially, Yardley is reframing the elements of plotting in terms of what they mean for the characters.

The inciting incident is the first domino struck: if the incident hadn’t occurred, then the protagonist would not have a goal.

The first plot point, generally the end of the first act, is where the goal is established, although the protagonist has no idea how to accomplish said goal.

The midpoint is a turning point, where the protagonist goes from reactive to proactive — from aimless to focused.

The third plot point is the hardest to pin down, where the protagonist sets up for the final act… the calm before the storm, the prep, a moment of confidence because they’re stronger.

Then, there’s the black moment, where the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist, in terms of the story goal, strikes.

Then the climax and resolution. The protagonist’s transformation is complete. Through the lessons learned, the protagonist is changed and the goal is either obtained or not, depending on the kind of story you’re writing.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Again, this isn’t the only system, and it may not be the best for you. But I have found it helps to approach it in terms of your character thinking:

– “I want this, it’s important, but I don’t know what I’m doing”

– “I know what I”m doing, but it’s going to be really hard.”

– “I may have the hang of this, but I’m scared.”

– “My soul is absolutely crushed.”

– “I have grown, changed, and become more than I was. I resolve the goal, one way or another, as a result.”

When you look at it in terms of character, emphasizing change, you’ll usually find the middle starts shaping up a bit more easily.

This set off a lightbulb in my brain. I can’t even quite put my finger on it now, after the fact, but I know it’s there. I’d been looking at plot elements solely in terms of plot, as though that were separate from character.

This helped me to finally, finally!, write a decent query letter. In a query you have to lead the reader through your set up (the normal world), then the inciting incident, then where things start to heat up, then explain what the potential consequences will be for your primary characters. (Did I just come up with a query formula? I think I might have.) Query format demands plot, but it needs the emotion of character in order to mean something.

So, thank you, Cathy Yardley!! I’m ready to go wading into the #PitchWars trenches now!


Alanna, Tamora and Me

When I made the transition from picture books to middle grade I devoured everything in my path. Amelia Bedelia. Mrs. Piggly-Wiggly. The Egypt Game. All of the American Girl series. Most of the Babysitters Club–we’re talking twenty books at a time. I was voracious, because I was still searching for something.

When I was twelve, I found it. Tamora Pierce’s In The Hand of the Goddess, a book set in a medieval world, with royalty, magic, adventure, gender politics, and a BAMF for a heroine. I thought to myself, This is it! I knew then that there were books in the world that could be what I wanted, and I think that played a big role in my pursuing writing.

It’s sort of analogous to seeing yourself mirrored in media. When you see yourself depicted, you’re reassured that you exist, that you matter. Hand affirmed that my wants and desires existed in the world beyond my head.

For those who don’t know, Tamora Pierce is known for writing books about strong heroines. The Song of the  Lionness Quartet is about Alanna, a girl who decides at the age of ten that she wants to be a knight, not a lady, and disguises herself as a boy to do so. (Yeah, Hogwarts looks like a cakewalk now, doesn’t it?) She befriends a Prince and the King of Thieves. She battles boys bigger than her and forgotten gods. She learns to appreciate her body despite what she hates about it. The books follow her through her early twenties, experiencing love, hatred, magic, romance, danger, fear, heartbreak, and friendship. Basically it had everything I wanted omfg.

Alanna remains a member of my core head cannon, alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who deserves her own post). She will forever be who I picture when people say strong female character. A lot of her strength comes from sheer stubbornness, a refusal to accept that she is somehow less capable than anyone else. Even in her darkest moments, she pushes through.

That was all in line with the Girl Power messaging of the 90s, which I absorbed a lot of, and so I had no qualms about picking up a pen and writing my own stories. I was a girl, I had heroines like Alanna, and I could do what I wanted. If I wanted to write stories, that’s what I would do. I would make more books as wonderful and amazing as Tamora’s. I was convinced I had a career as a fantasy novelist ahead of me.

Within a few years of discovering Alanna, I found Sailor Moon and the online fan community with its mountains of fanfiction. That’s where I really got started writing in earnest. Sailor Moon was BIG at that time, whereas Tamora Pierce’s books didn’t have a massive online fandom. Nowadays there’s fics and amazing fanart and fan theories like QueeringTortall, which is my new favorite thing. If I were fourteen right now I’d be in-freaking-heaven. Also less prone to drawing anime eyes. But I digress.

My point is, Tamora Pierce opened a door for me. For years I emulated aspects of her fiction, or held it as the standard to which I aspired. I still want to capture that sense of rightness I felt reading In the Hand of the Goddess for the very first time. I hope someday I’m able to do so. And that what I write will positively impact the next generation of readers, as I was impacted.

But, Therefore, Then – Plot Connectors

This is one of my favorite tidbits, made ever-cooler by its origin. It’s a trick that comes from the writers of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. I first learned of it from the documentary about how an episode gets made, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park.

The WriteOnSisters blogged about it recently, and they have a really nice explanation:

If you can put “but” or “therefore” between scenes, then congratulations! You’re advancing the story!

If you can’t use the above words and put “then” between the scenes, you’re not advancing the story.

For example (each sentence represents a scene):

I ate a tuna salad sandwich for lunch today. Then I went and bought a coffee at Starbucks. Then I worked on that spreadsheet. Then I checked Facebook for an hour. Then I went home.

That’s a string of random stuff happening, not a story. “Then” isn’t a connection, it’s a segue into something unrelated.

“But” and “therefore” are connections. “But” denotes conflict. “Therefore” implies a reaction. Both mean that the following scene isn’t random; it’s connected to the previous scene in a meaningful way. For example:

I ate a tuna salad sandwich for lunch, but the tuna was poisoned. Therefore I had to go to the hospital, but the hospital was overrun by zombies who bit me! And therefore I became a zombie.

You can see how this is capable of getting out of hand rather quickly, South Park-style.

I think Matt and Trey’s original may have been “but” and “so”, but “therefore” is more polished. 😉

It’s an excellent tool, one I don’t use enough. Plot is about cause and effect, not just a string of events (“thens”).

Central Casting

On Writer Unboxed there’s a post called Central Casting by . I find the premise a little alarming.

Quoting Gore Vidal: [E]very writer has a given theater in his head, a repertory company. Shakespeare has fifty characters, I have ten, Tennessee has five, Hemingway has one, Beckett is busy trying to have none. You are stuck with your repertory company and you can only put on plays with them.

Alright, I actually find it rather horrifying. I’ve never liked writers leaning on the same archetypes again and again. The idea that I could fall into the same trap is very distressing.

The world is not made of these archetypes, and even if it were there are so very many of them that using only a handful is staggeringly short-sighted. I try very hard to make my primary and secondary characters into their own personages, as unique and layered as real people. I don’t want to just ring up central casting.

How limiting. *shudder*

So here’s a question, gentle reader. Do you find this sort of thing bothersome? Does it pain you to pick up a book and realize it’s the same characters from the last, completely unrelated book? Or am I tying myself in knots for no reason?

Battling Egos in Romance

I read a lot of blog posts on writing, thanks to Twitter. A lot of the information is on repeat, but not The Ego Struggle: The Core of the Romance Storyline posted by .

I think this post has some solid insight. When it comes to romance, it’s about battling egos. It’s about changing in order to make the relationship work. That’s character arc right there.

Each of them has to decide what they’re willing to give up for the sake of the relationship, versus what they need to keep because it’s essential to their happiness. … The decisions are made incrementally and often unconsciously, as the romantic couple grows closer—until the end of the novel, when they finally shed their illusions and choose each other over things they thought mattered more.

Through this struggle, their sense of identity changes. Their ego is dismantled and rebuilt. 

What the characters value changes. Importantly, they put side something of their own, a sacrifice.

Thanks, Andrea, for making me think!

Adaptation Displacement

This is a concept I heard about years ago and have never forgotten. It’s kind of fascinating.

TV Tropes defines adaptation displacement as:

Adaptation displacement is the phenomenon by which a derivative work becomes successful enough to overshadow the original work completely.

Not to be confused with the “Weird Al” effect:

When a work is displaced by a parody, this is known as The “Weird Al” Effect.

My favorite example is the origins of Foghorn the Leghorn. You know, the oversized, jabbering rooster. (Do kids still get to watch Looney Tunes these days? They’re kind of horrifying.) Wikipedia’s got that for us:

The character of Foghorn Leghorn was directly inspired by the popular character of Senator Claghorn, a blustering Southern politician played by Kenny Delmar who was a regular character on the Fred Allen radio show. The rooster adopted many of Claghorn’s catch phrases, such as “That’s a joke, ah say, that’s a joke, son.” Delmar had based the character of Claghorn upon a Texas rancher who was fond of saying this.[1]

No one remembers Claghorn anymore–who was himself based on an anonymous dude no one remembers. Now if a character acts like that we assume it’s a parody of Leghorn himself.

Just wanted to record this so I don’t forget it again and have to go scrounging across the interwebz to find it.

No, this had nothing to do with what I’m writing. Imma get back on that now. 

A story without conflict…

…well, that’s just not a story. Conflict is essential to story. Without it, there’s nothing to tell. It’s just, “Two ducks existed. They lived in harmony. The end.”

Yesterday I got a beta reader request that began with, “It is a romance story that has no conflict, just pure adorableness.”

What this writer meant was that the story contained no violent conflict. Your story doesn’t have to include explosions and carjackings for it to have conflict. It doesn’t have to include a murder or even one person slugging the other one. You don’t even need a “fight”.

What you need are two (or more) characters with conflicting goals/wants/needs. That’s it.

Let’s say that Sir Duckington wants to buy a red car, and Lady Duckworth wants to sell a car. No conflict, they’re both going to get what they want. No story.

How about if Lady Duckworth’s boss has challenged her to sell the last blue car on the lot? Now she’s motivated to try to change Sir Duckington’s mind. Maybe he doesn’t really mind a blue car. Still no conflict. But, if Sir Duckington is dead set on a red car, has always wanted a red car, cannot imagine driving anything but a red car, then you have a conflict.

We now have a story about Lady Duckworth struggling to change Sir Duckington’s mind.

No violence necessary.

See, when we say “conflict” we don’t mean violence. We just mean conflicting goals.

The writer who reached out to me actually summed up her conflict just by mentioning the genre: romance. The “will they/won’t they?” question is inherent in romance. That’s conflict. We make the assumption that the story will be about the individuals overcoming obstacles that keep them apart. Romance and mystery are unique in that they immediately suggest a story question (“Will they solve the mystery?”).