Tag Archives: critique groups

Five Reasons to Write Fanfiction

stockvault-notebook-and-pen136687Fanfiction, while exceedingly popular, can often get a lot of scorn from authors. I think this is ridiculous. There’s a long history of re-imagining established stories and characters in literature. All the famous Greek playwrights wrote in one sense, fanfiction in that they took well known stories and characters and made them their own, creating new adventures or re-imagining older ones. In fact, I’m willing to go beyond just saying fanfiction is not a problem and people ought to write fanfiction (if they are inclined to).

With one caveat though: Always respect the authors’ copyrights. Don’t steal work and illegally sell stories based on their characters and worlds. Making money off other people’s work is wrong. But when done properly, there’s definitely five great reasons to consider writing fanfiction.

1) Learning Your Craft 

Fanfiction in some ways makes things easier for a beginning writer. It supplies the world building and the characters ready made. Sometimes it even provides plot, big events happening in the mainstream story that you can use in your own re-imagining. When trying to write for the first time, it can be overwhelming to create everything you need on your own. Trying fanfiction allows you to practice writing and gain skill in it with the support of elements you know are solid. I think of it a bit like tracing when learning to draw. Or copying masterpieces in learning to paint. These common exercise are used to educate beginning artists in how to do things right. It helps you learn to pick out elements in your own work that need further development when you compare them to your favorite stories.

Much of my earliest writing was Redwall or Star Wars fanfic. When I look at it, I can see ideas that I added to these worlds that were good strong ideas. Later on I kept some of those concepts and characters that originally came out of fanfiction and developed them further into original stories.

2) Keeping Enough Enthusiasm and Confidence in Your Story 

Another common problem beginning writers struggle with is believing your story is good enough to actually get to the end of it. Often writers will abandon a project because somewhere along the way they lost faith in it as a good idea. This can happen with any story, even fanfiction, but I’ve found that where fanfiction differs is you have the original story that excited you no matter what. You love something about this world or these characters, something about it got you so excited about it, you weren’t done when the story was over. You wanted more. Your brain is giving you more, filling in new ideas about what these characters are doing or how this world is changing. I find it easier to hold onto my confidence in the characters and the world when it’s so obvious popular with many people. This can help the writer stick with the story longer and thus learn more from writing it.

3) Feedback From People Who Care as Much as You

When you’re starting out as a writer, getting feedback on your work is essential. It’s the biggest way you learn and grow as a writer, to hear reader comments about how you can improve. However, as anyone who is a writer knows, it can be pretty difficult to get anyone to read your stuff. Friends and family get tired of you begging them to, and often don’t give good feedback. Joining critique groups is quite helpful, but sometimes you end up in groups where the people critiquing you don’t have the same interests in reading as you do. You might find what you’re critiquing in exchange just as boring back. While you’re all writers, you have different tastes.

With fanfiction you have an immediate community with other fans. These people are just as excited about this particular world and these characters are you are. They’re eager to read it. You’ll find their writing more exciting as well as it features the same things that excite you. On a fanfiction forum you can meat lots of people to share and connect with and to give you thoughts and reactions on your writing. It’s a fantastic way to grow as a writer.

4) Gaining Fans That Carry Over

If you have an active fanfiction community and fans who enjoy your work, sometimes that can carry over to your original work as well. These people know and love your fanfiction. They like your treatment of characters and find your style interesting. It’s also likely that your original work will have lots of the elements of the established worlds you love. I’m not saying copying, but more like they’d be in the same genre. My original books aren’t copies of Redwall or Star Wars anymore, but you can see the influences in things like animal characters, complicated family relationships, a hero on a quest to save his home or country, and other larger themes.

Many of the people read your fanfiction will likely enjoy your original work as well. Several authors have had success publishing original stories after having a large number of fans of their fanfiction work. It helps you to build up a platform from which you will eventually sell your own work.

5) You Can Make Money in Fanfiction 

Now, just to be clear, I mean LEGALLY, not trying to sell stories still under copyright. There’s several ways you can do this. First, some older properties are no longer under copyright. Notably, recently copyrights expired for Sherlock Holmes and Treasure Island. You can now legally write stories with those characters. There’s a lot of great older stuff like Alice in Wonderland or the Jungle Book. Just double check to make sure the property you’re selling actually is public domain before you charge money for it.

Sometimes, when a property is still under copyright, there are ways to get permission. If the owner of the copyright is willing to sell you or the publisher the rights, your story can be published. Peter Pan for example goes through the Children’s Hospital in the UK. Also, some larger publishers regularly put out books in various worlds like Star Trek and Star Wars. Someone has to write those books. If you’re good enough and they like your ideas, it could be you. Recently the Jim Henson Company held a contest to pick which author they’d hire for a Dark Chrystal prequel novel. If you really love the right fanfic universe, you just might be able to write in it. Just do your research about who holds the rights and the best way to legally write for them.

These days, you can even self-publish in a few established worlds. Amazon has purchased the right to sell fanfiction in several worlds through kindle publishing. These copyright holders receive a percentage of your story’s income. It’s worth checking out their list of allowed worlds to write in to see if any of them are worlds you enjoy. While it’s a limited list, it ranges from something as literary as Kurt Vonnegut’s novels to as pop culture as GI Joe. Each world has rules though that have to be followed before you can publish a story with it, so make sure your fanfiction follows the unique guidelines. Hopefully more copyright holders will be interested in joining the program in the future.

Now if only they got the rights to Redwall… and I might just return the field of fanfiction.

The Writing Life: Novel Critique Challenges

This weekend I attended Darcy Patterson’s Novel Retreat held in my area through SCBWI. Revision and critique groups are something I’m rather intimately familiar with but I wanted to try a new format for looking at a particular book that was stuck. I’d put it through an online group twice, but still hadn’t been able to articulate what it needed. The retreat was focused on whole book critiques, done by a focus group who had read each other’s whole novel all at once. I was successfully able to figure out what the book needed this way, which has made me ponder why my online group has worked so well for some projects but not for this one. I think the answer is in that there’s two basic ways to critique a novel: a chapter at a time and the whole book at once. Each process has different advantages and disadvantages.

old-books-stackedA Whole Book at Once

Ideally, a novel should be taken in as a whole. It is a complete artwork and so when getting feedback it’s invaluable to get it on the whole book. When a critiquer reads a whole book they can comment on key things like plot, pacing, character arc, setting, tension, and message from a place of understanding the whole story.

However there are several downsides. Critiquing such a large work is a strain on the reader, which means unless you pay someone to do it, often people who offer either don’t get to it, or give a very brief reaction. It’s rare someone will have the time and energy to give line by line suggestion in an entire novel unless you pay them to. So, other than a few typos, it’s rather unfair to ask someone to offer editorial comments on that scale. Still, even asking just for general reactions, I’ve found sometimes the critiquer has only a brief reaction of a few things they liked and disliked. While that is helpful, it doesn’t really dig into the novel to help dissect what it needs.

Usually if you exchange a novel with another author, the process is more reliable since the person is also awaiting your feedback. What made the novel retreat stand out was that everyone had three other people who had read their book, which meant the whole small group could debate each novel in detail, answering specific exercise questions posed by Darcy. This was extremely effective because when one person was unsure why they felt a certain way, either the question or other member’s ideas would help spark them to find words for why this or that part was something they felt worked or didn’t.

workChapter by Chapter

While the experience was intense and awesome, it did take a large chunk of time reading the three other novels and thinking about what I thought before the retreat. Then, it was an intense weekend that I had to set aside for the process. Unfortunately, not only do critiquers not usually have that much time to put aside to help me, I don’t usually have that much time to devote to the process. This is where chapter by chapter critique groups come.

Usually there’s a set meeting schedule where everyone comes together and critiques either a single chapter, or in some groups a set amount of words. The most common schedules are once a week, every other week, or once a month. Everyone comments on the chapter, whether aloud (in a real life group), or in email/forums, on an online group. While this make some overall things harder to see, it gives more time to individual scenes and chapters, allowing for more in depth comments, and also help with sentences, grammar, description, or other specific writing problems.

Both processes are very helpful, and I think this weekend’s retreat underscored to me that ideally a book should be critiqued both ways. When one doesn’t help me find the problem, it makes sense to try something different, until I do. Hopefully, this next draft will be a definitive one!

The Writing Life: What Nine Years of Nano has Taught Me

2013-WinnerOkay, so I didn’t mean to disappear on the blog for a month, but as many of you know, I do Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) every November. The challenge, for any of you who have yet to hear about Nanowrimo, is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  Some people worry that it produces a lot of bad, haphazard writing, which I can’t deny, but it’s also produced a lot of brilliant writing as well. The best part is the camaraderie and meeting up with people during the month for word sprints, parties, and generally having lots of people to discuss the joys and frustrations of writing with. I always enjoy ending off the year with Nanowrimo. My first year I’d never finished a book before. I wanted to find the courage and willpower to write a complete finished novel. I found all that and more. However, writing my ninth Nanowrimo was vastly different than writing my first. I’ve learned a lot these nine years, and I keep learning new things. Here’s a few of them:

I really can do it.

I was unsure of myself the first couple of years, afraid I wouldn’t make it. After nine years it’s pretty obvious I can write 50k in a month. It’s even pretty obvious I can write 100k in a month as I did two novels some years. 150k however was a fail. I think my best has been 120k. Knowing I can make it, that when I’m really motivated I can crank out words, means that now I focus on what kind of writing I want to get. Do I want a solid first draft of something? Do I want to have a bunch of fun writing a silly or personal project? Do I want to freewrite my way through exploring and fleshing out a new idea for development? My third nano novel sold after only minor revisions, while my sixth was a completely mess of fragmented scenes that kept contradicting each other as I tried to figure out where the story was headed. Self doubts plague me when submitting a novel places that it isn’t ready or as good as I believe it is, but drafting a novel isn’t about the doubts. It’s about sitting down and doing the hard work of writing.

Resistance has meaning.

This little saying was something I first read in “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain” and Nano has taught me it’s very true. Every year is different in how “easy” or “hard” Nanowrimo is. There doesn’t seem to be any way to tell ahead of time which books will practically write themselves and which will be like pulling teeth. Sometimes I breeze through it. Sometimes every word is written in blood. Sometimes a few scenes flow and others are awful. Sometimes it’s so bad I have to give up and switch projects. The first couple times the novel turned out hard I got angry and tried to force it out. I almost no prewriting on my second Nano book and the idea was only a month old, and yet it wrote itself rather quickly (never mind I thought it was awful by the time I got through it). So why weren’t these other ideas moving?

Fighting resistance never worked though. I had to learn to read it. Sometimes it meant the event I was trying to make happen wasn’t right, or that something earlier in the book needed restructuring. Sometimes it meant I was too stressed about real life, and needed to solve other problems before I could clear up my mind to be creative. Sometimes it meant I needed to delve deeper into world building or characterization that needed further development. And yes, sometimes it meant I was writing the wrong project entirely and needed to switch. Each novel has to be taken where its at when it comes to a screeching halt and the question asked, why? What’s stopping me from writing the next scene? Once I find the answer to that, things will flow again.

Distance provides perspective.

When writing slowly it’s tempting to keep agonizing over each bit of a story and worry about how good or bad it is. During Nano, when every word is needed for that word count there’s nothing to do but keep onward. Or if I rewrite a scene, I keep both versions in the document rather than take the hit to my word count. Every year about the fourth week of Nano, like clockwork, I detest the project. I decide it’s truly awful and nothing I’ve written is worth anything, but force myself to get quota anyway. Then as soon as I win, I drop it and swear I’m never looking at that piece of garbage again.

Later when I reread it, a month or two or even a year after Nano, I’m surprised to discover each time I was overly harsh. That while its not perfect, there’s some good stuff in there. Because of Nano I’ve written several books I was convinced were horrible, books I might have otherwise left unfinished or unwritten. My second Nano book which I think I hated the most is the book my critique partners tend to mention the most as their favorite of my books. I’ve learned to be fond of it and certainly would never call it awful now, even if I still do think its a bit sentimental of a story.

Interacting with other writers is important to me.

Writing is often a very solitary pursuit.  I had a couple small critique groups online before I tried Nanowrimo (that’s where I heard about it) but I’d never had the pleasure of meeting other writers in person. I was the only person I knew at that time in my regular life who was trying to be a writer.  My first time at a Nano gathering, I met a whole room full of writers. We talk about our ideas, our love of writing, and I was totally hooked. Meeting other writers is fantastic. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them, but I have gone to Nano meet-ups ever since and enjoyed them fully. I’ve also expanded how I interact with other writers online, and now most of the year writing is a community activity for me. I race with writing partners almost daily, while I have other critique partners that I exchange books with several times a year. Many of my real life friends I made through writing and we get together to either brainstorm plot trade work. There’s a real synergy that happens when working with other people that brings everyone’s projects, no matter what stage they’re in, to a higher level. I can’t imagine to going back to writing and editing alone.

So, as Nanowrimo has drawn to a close, with yet another year, I’ve locked up my “awful” attempt at something new and creative to incubate, plan my party with the great group of writers I’ve met this month in Salem, and lay out my list of project for the new year with renewed vigor. I think editing last year’s nano (Much Ado About Villains) moves to the top of the list. After all, there’s a lot of good stuff in here.

The Writing Life: Some Workshop Thoughts

I went exploring the Hood River Library this month.  One of the things I asked them was about writing’s group.  After being told to ask so-and-so instead and whatnot, I found the person who did know.  “Welllll,” she said, “I do know of tons of writing groups, they’re just all…”  She made an expression of extreme disgust.  “Exclusive.  Or something.  They’re like book clubs, and don’t want to meet anyone new.”

So much for a warm welcome in Hood River (at least the library staff are awesome).  Hopefully I’ll find some less exclusive writer types during Nanowrimo.  Although I do understand the desire to be exclusive.  When you get a small positive group of beta reader together, you tend to want to hold onto each other.  You don’t want the idiots tromping all over your work.

On the other hand, it makes finding/meeting this wonderful group when you don’t already have it near impossible.  Not to mention, sometimes those so-called newbie idiots might be awesome and wonderful people you could become lifelong friends with.  Sigh.

So, for the moment that means sticking with my very positive (and wow, welcoming to new people while letting people form smaller groups) online writing workshops: Critique Circle and Holy Worlds.

Now, I love these groups, I’ve met a ton of great people there, but I have noticed one thing about larger writer’s workshops.  The group tends to develop a style.  At Critique Circle, the style is third person limited (first person is acceptable) but we must have an immediate and close POV, lots of action, active language as well, and a minimum of narration/description.

Holy Worlds tends to have the opposite style.  Use mythic language, lots of narrative explaining, traditional fantasy conventions and omniscient POV is preferred.  Take time to have lots of details about how your world is created, made up languages, magical rules, and go ahead and explain them in detail.

These groups are made up of a great number of people, so how is it they have a style?  No one is in charge, telling people how to write, and yet what people like, what they get excited about, and what they recommend really does differ between groups.  I’ve decided that groups as a whole drift in a certain direction.  Something important I should keep in mind when submitting a novel to them… if it’s the sort of novel I’ll get a good group response from, vs if this novel isn’t really right for this critique group.

Now, back the Hood River library and its hidden exclusive writing groups. I gave up on finding something prior to Nanowrimo, and just checked out some books on writing.  Among them was “Narrative Design” by Madison Smartt Bell.  Well, I was fascinated by what Bell had to say about his experience with the rather famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Bell had always assumed the dreaded “Literary workshop style” people complain about was taught, but found with the variety of teachers, always rotating, no one was teaching a style.  Instead, he found several pressures unintentionally created a group style.

First, in a critique group, everyone is setting out to find flaws on purpose.  When you don’t find something wrong several paragraphs in, you start worrying about what you’re going to say/recommend to the author.  A crit that doesn’t find flaws is a “failed” crit.  That and the following discussion tends towards group pressures.  Even on a workshop like Critique Circle, where you can’t read the crits until the story is done, I find that certain ideas make the rounds between members even so.  Bell had some great advice on how to listen though to such group fault-finding, which even as an experianced workshop member, I found a great insight.

When the talk begins to shift from flaws in realizing the story’s apparent intention to the idea that the intention itself ought to have been different — ie that the writer should have written som different kind of story — that’s a signal to the teacher that the story may have been successfully completed.  It’s a good thing for students whose work is under discussion to learn to listen for that signal too.

What a great point!  And, what a moment to make an author pause too, when looking over your crits, because you mostly shouldn’t change the kind of story you’re writing just because your writing group thinks you should write something different. This is your story… which ties into Bell’s second issue with workshops, the idea of trying to please everyone on a technical level.  Bell writes:

At Iowa, the students were very diligent about annotating each manuscript and writing an overarching commentary at the end… when the classroom discussion was finished, these fourteen annotated copies would be handed over to the unfortunate authoer, alnog with mine… I found out through private conversations that many of these students, if not all, would indeed spread out fifteen different annotated copies and try somehow to incorperate all  the commentary into a revision of the work.

The results of this kind of revision were often very disheartening. I’d get second drafts that very likely had less obvious flaws than the first, but also a whole lot less interest.  These revisions tended to live up to commonly heard, contemptuous descriptions of workshop work, being well-tooled, inoffensive, unexceptional, and rather dull.

I’ve found out myself when looking at crits that sometimes people complain about opposite things, that I’ve got conflicting advice.  Even when I don’t, I know what he means about it ruining the voice and style of a piece to have so many editors taking a hand in it.  I know exactly what he’s talking about.  All the advice I get is soooo valuable, I don’t want to waste it, but the truth is, I shouldn’t take all of it.  Just the bits of advice that fit with my vision and voice for my story.

I’m grateful for each and every crit I get.  They buoy up my confident, support me in my process, and challenge me to always strive to do better.  However, I also agree with Bell’s decision to change what he said at the beginning of each workshop to something like this:

Assume that when your work is being discussed, about 90 percent of what you hear will be useless to you and irrelevant to what you have done.  Learn to listen carefully and to discriminate what’s useful to you from what’s not.  Remember the revelevant part adn ignore the rest.  If even one person understands what you intended to be understood, then you can say you have succeeded.  Past that, the only issue is just how widely accessible you want your work to be.  Don’t try to please the group… The person you have to please is yourself.

So, get out there, get crits, thank all those helpful fellow writers, and then be  discerning on your vision for your work.  I can tell I’m going to enjoy the rest of this book too.