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Writing tips for new authors

This seemed like a good place to share my advice on writing fanfic for new writers. The following is an article first published An Idiosyncratic Review, in its final issue. Hopefully, new writers will find it informative and entertaining at the same time. Feel free to comment, ask questions, or post your own tips for successful writing to this topic.

Tips from a Successful Fanfic Writer

I've been a writer ("one who writes") since at least my preteen years. I've been a reader since long before that. As it turns out, now that I'm in my latter-twenties, I'm pretty good at both. Or so people tell me. I get great reviews on my stories, but I'm also told I'm a good editor. So I want to share with other aspiring fanfic (or profic, for that matter) writers some of the things I've learned along the way.

Everyone practices the craft a little differently. Some write longhand; some write on the computer. Me, I write on a Palm Pilot. Some use notes and outlines; some just start writing and see where it leads them. None of that really matters. I write on a Palm Pilot, not because I write better on a Palm Pilot but because I can write while riding the subway or while I'm walking. I can't do that longhand and my mid-tower PC doesn't sit on my lap very well. Write however works best for you. If you can't get your juices flowing without a pen and paper, then use a pen and paper. If you can write while walking down a busy street, use whatever you can!

So it's not about the medium you use to write. It's about the story. It's about the characters. It's about bringing what's in your imagination to life in others'. For me, it's story eggs--sounds silly perhaps, but I'm hoping it will make sense for you when I get done.

I daydream. I daydream all the time. Some of my daydreams are interesting; some are silly. Some are incomprehensible for the most part, and some are just plain self-indulgent. Any one of those can be a story egg. But like eggs in a chicken coop, only some of them hatch. Those that hatch grow into stories--the egg was just a scene. But if it's a good scene, it might get me thinking: "How did they get to that?" "Why did that happen?" "What happens after that?" And if I can answer some of those questions, I might get another daydreamed scene and the whole thing might grow a plot. But before I write, before the egg is a full-fledged story, it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Too often a story starts and doesn't end, or a great plot just can't find a good place to start, or you get a beginning and an end but flounder too much in the middle, or leave the middle out altogether and rush the story.

Let's talk about beginnings. Start with a bang. You have to hook your reader right from the start. Give her a reason to want to read the story. Unless something exciting is going to happen, you don't want to start your story with your character stuck in her morning routine. You've got a plot, now figure out where it starts. How did the character get to the place where that plot began to matter? If it's a conflict, what led up to the conflict? If it's a kidnapping story and your main character is the kidnapper, you have to figure out why he wants to kidnap someone and who that particular someone is and how he'd go about it. You might have to figure out how he plans it. All that said, the place to start may not be the beginning of the story. You might actually start with the kidnapping event, because that's a hook. That's exciting. Then you can back up and tell about the planning. If it's a revenge story, you may start with the revenge planning and save the why for later. The event that came second (the revenge) might come first and the event that came first (the reason for revenge) might be better saved for the end of the story--but gosh it would have to be a doozie!

Middles. Some people have a lot of trouble with middles. Whether short or long, a story needs a middle. Novels need a lot more middle than short stories, but both live and die by the middle. You don't want to rush a story along and hit the end too soon, but you also don't want to wander around in the wilderness forever and bore your readers before they can get to the end. There's a balance in there somewhere, pacing forward evenly, moving toward a climax at the end. Let the story take its own shape, find its own length.

Keep in mind the stories you see on television and in the movies. Read books and think about pacing. How fast should the story go? How slowly should you let the clues leak out to the reader?

One thing I do to help build the middle is ask all the questions. I try to find all the questions a reader might ask and make sure the answer is in the story somewhere. Why would the main villain do that? Insanity? Revenge? Just plain sadistic? How would that make the hero feel? What would he think? Why would he think that? How would he be able to get away from the trap? Think your story critically as you write. Ask the questions so that a reader won't later.

And now the end. Ends should be climactic. They should not fizzle or just simply drop off. The whole middle should be moving toward the end, building toward it, gradually speeding up until the suddenly you're THERE! The big thing the reader was waiting the whole story for, what the beginning made them want and the middle only teased them with. This is the heart of the story, the reason it beats. It's the payoff. Ends can be happy, as with a romance story, or sad, as in a tragedy. Everyone dies. But that's still climactic.

Aftermath. Not everyone writes aftermath, but me, I love it. So I write epilogues or save a little of the middle to reveal at the end, like dessert after a good meal. That's where you can do the wrap up. Tell who survived that climactic battle at the end or what became of the heroine after the hero died in her arms.

Speaking of heroes and heroines, there are creatures that inhabit a story. We need to discuss them, too. Characters. Characters are very important. If there were no characters the plot would never go anywhere. Characters carry the story. They can't be flat, two-dimensional models of people. Stories are heavy. They fall without support. Main characters should be especially sturdy. We readers should end up knowing them as if they're family or close friends (or enemies in the case of a villain). But don't short-change the secondaries either. Or the tertiaries, or quaternaries . . . you get the point.

There's an easy way I've found to give those less-important characters a boost of life. I give them a detail--just one, or two--perhaps some memory of mine or a trait from someone I know. One real, honest-to-goodness human trait, even if I'm writing an alien. I gave a character my earliest memory once; I gave another my favorite book. You might give them your fear of spiders or your aunt Louise. Sprinkle yourself around your characters and they might surprise you and come to life. Jordan did that, and so did the Gidari.

Who are they? Ask my readers. They know. They're not at all who I intended. Jordan was a replacement seat holder. He was supposed to sit at the helm of a starship when the major-character pilot got up. The Gidari, they were just some aliens who wore hoods so I could get away with a murder in the middle of a crowded bar at lunchtime. (Um, as a writer, not as a murderer.) But they wouldn't sit still. Those Gidari were sneaky. Powerful, too. They kept popping up when they weren't expected. They scared the major characters and didn't seem to care. They were arrogant and refused to play second fiddle. In the end, you didn't know if they were good guys or bad guys. I still don't, and I write them. All I know is those guys are SPOOKY. And Jordan, he did the same, without the scaring. He sat in another chair and did something fairly important, finding a signal from a missing crewman. And then later he volunteered to take on a risky assignment and ended up finding the missing crewman after getting stuck in a concentration camp work commando for a day. The guy had heart. He wouldn't, couldn't live with being a cardboard cutout seat-warmer. He had to live! (So I killed him in another story, breaking a lot of readers' hearts. But wait, dear readers! There's more! Perhaps the clone was mistaken....)

For those of you who went ahead and read that note at the end of that last paragraph, I'll throw in another tip. Don't be afraid to be evil. Jerk your readers around. Pull on their heartstrings. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, and make them stay up all night because they can't put your story down. It takes all those things--beginnings, middles, characters, pacing, ends--to do that and not leave your readers hating you for manipulating their psyches like that. Handle those things well, and your readers may darn well be traumatized, but they'll thank you for it! Just remember to keep your evil in your fiction and be gracious and kind in real life. If anyone does thank you for making them think counseling is necessary, be sure to thank them for telling you so. Feedback is a gift and should be treated as such at all times, even if the feedback is not what you wanted to hear.

Oh, which brings me to... test readers. Or beta readers, whatever you want to call them. Get some you can trust, who won't hurt your feelings or feed your ego too much junk food. Let them help you find all your mistakes. Let them ask those questions you didn't manage to think up. Let them save you from bad feedback. Your test readers can help steer you from a boring tangent, help you decide which fork to take in the road, answer the question you don't have the answer for, name your characters (I sometimes have trouble with that one). Let them help you polish your story before you throw it out to the world. You'll save yourself some heartache and you'll probably make some great friends in the process.

Now, go. Start daydreaming. There are eggs waiting to be hatched!

Gabrielle Lawson
Author of Star Trek DS9 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel zines: If It's Not One Thing...., Healer, Oswiecim, Pain of Memory, First Considertaion, Faith, A Clever Plan, Just a Messenger, and Close to Home...So Far Away.

a.k.a. Ainaechoiriel, author of Immortal

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Thanks Ainaechoiriel. I have the feeling I'll have to come back and read this one several times. Good one.

Lyllyn

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

I have just added some URLs to the resource section. Some are more on the mechanical side of writing: grammar, tenses, etc. One is a series of essays by a successful SF writer, and covers plot, character development, etc.

Lyllyn

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Just a quick "Hello!" from another newbie along with a word of thanks for the insights you've shared re: writing fanfics. I've been reading some of Dwimordene's comments as well, and I appreciate all the advice.

Like you, I daydream a lot, and one of those "eggs" is trying to hatch, so hopefully I'll be brave enough to ask for feedback. Fear of rejection is an ugly thing. Worse than the Nazgul!

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Welcome!

Like you, I daydream a lot, and one of those "eggs" is trying to hatch, so hopefully I'll be brave enough to ask for feedback. Fear of rejection is an ugly thing. Worse than the Nazgul!

That's what the beta area is here for.... No need to fear rejection.

Tavia

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Thanks! I needed to "hear" that! I did a read through of the list of beta readers (what they will and won't read) and I noted that quite a few will not read OFC's. Has this to do with the whole "Mary Sue" syndrome? I admit that when I was 15 and madly in love with Eomer I might have been accused of wanting to write a Mary Sue" fanfic, but I hope the years (and they are many!) have taught me better than that.
The idea I'm nursing through early drafts (outlines, research notes, etc.) has it's foundations in the Silmarillion and the main body of the piece is from the Akallabeth. There's a possible second story that would come into the War of the Ring, but I promise there is no tenth member of the Fellowship or anything like that.

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

I did a read through of the list of beta readers (what they will and won't read) and I noted that quite a few will not read OFC's. Has this to do with the whole "Mary Sue" syndrome?

OFCs are not widely loved here, though there are some (me for one) who like well-written ones a lot. Have you looked at the Mary-Sue challenge? You might also enjoy my short and somewhat tongue-in-cheek essay, if you're interested in OFCs and Mary-Sues, it's up at:

http://www.viragene.com/OCs.htm

I've discussed a few examples of Tolkien fandom stories with well-written OCs, though the essay covers a range of fandoms.

Tavia

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Well, you're on my good side for having loved Eomer at the tender age of fifteen.

And I suspect that you're right, and many people's unwillingness to read OFCs comes from the plethora of badly written ones out there. Now me, I'll read them, though I am sort of wary of them. I'm even in the process of writing one, though between the AU and the OFC and the guns, I suspect has a somewhat limited readership.... But I say, write what seems good to you to write, and if it's good writing, it'll find an audience.


-Rachel

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

I shall try not to disappoint!

As for Eomer, he's really the reason I found Henneth Annun. It all started with Erin Rua's story, which I's stumbled across on another site, and that directed me here. The love of JRRT's world that everyone bring's to this is why I chose this site; that and the care that is taken to try and do it well, rather than just do it!


Back to work I go!

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

ust a quick "Hello!" from another newbie along with a word of thanks for the insights you've shared re: writing fanfics. I've been reading some of Dwimordene's comments as well, and I appreciate all the advice.

Dwimordene is a wonderful writer! I used to be. :-) I hope I'm at least still good.

Like you, I daydream a lot, and one of those "eggs" is trying to hatch, so hopefully I'll be brave enough to ask for feedback. Fear of rejection is an ugly thing. Worse than the Nazgul!

Like Tavia said, that's what the beta area is for. I've got one in the works there right now that started with two drafts I feared to put my name on. Third draft is better and I don't mind that people know I wrote it. Still some work to do on it, but this is the time to do it, in my opinion, before it is "published" for the world to see.

OFC's. Yes, Mary-Sue is the reason most people fear the OFCs. I've written OFC's though not as my main character in any story. Secondary perhaps. But none of them Mary Sues. In fact, I don't think of them as OFCs because they are just who the characters are Inara Taleyn, Julie Whaley, Mylea Thomas, Caldia Mtingwa. They are just original characters who happen to be female. Aim for that.

Writing is an adventure. Don't be afraid of it. Even if I am intimidated by Tolkienesquity and therefore not a very good role model in LOTR fic land.

--Ainaechoiriel

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Writing is an adventure. Don't be afraid of it. Even if I am intimidated by Tolkienesquity and therefore not a very good role model in LOTR fic land.

Seconded! I think writing half-decent Tolkien-related fic is a hell of a lot harder than writing fanfiction in many other universes.

I suppose it's partly that there's this huge body of canon from all the books and appendices, half of which I haven't read and feel intimidated over.

Then there's the problem of whether to write in a pastiche JRRT style or not. It's much easier not to even make the attempt, but I rarely enjoy reading the results when people have essentially put the canon characters into modern dress. And Tolkien pastiche, as I am learning to my cost, is much harder than it looks -- even if one sticks to attempting to imitate just one of his many styles.

Until the movies there was no physical hook to hang characters on, and now one has to contend with those movie characters who are not at all how one's mental picture imagined. (I loved Sean Bean's Boromir, but he doesn't look at all like my mental Boromir.)

There's also the problem of coming to terms with writing in a very different universe from our own, where one can't, say, characterise someone by what clothes they wear / car they drive / books they read. That's also true of sf universes, but there feels to be more room to manoeuvre somehow, at least in Blake's 7, I've never tried writing Trek or Babylon5.

Tavia

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Seconded! I think writing half-decent Tolkien-related fic is a hell of a lot harder than writing fanfiction in many other universes.

I suppose it's partly that there's this huge body of canon from all the books and appendices, half of which I haven't read and feel intimidated over.


Me, too! And I've never written fanfiction of a book before. Probably wouldn't have considered it if there hadn't been a movie made.

Then there's the problem of whether to write in a pastiche JRRT style or not. It's much easier not to even make the attempt, but I rarely enjoy reading the results when people have essentially put the canon characters into modern dress. And Tolkien pastiche, as I am learning to my cost, is much harder than it looks -- even if one sticks to attempting to imitate just one of his many styles.

Very much harder than it looks. Can Tolkien fanfic be written in modern vernacular without being "modern dress?"

Until the movies there was no physical hook to hang characters on, and now one has to contend with those movie characters who are not at all how one's mental picture imagined. (I loved Sean Bean's Boromir, but he doesn't look at all like my mental Boromir.)

Oh, the movie made it easier for me. As I said, I'd never written fanfiction on a book. I don't know if I could, but the movie, by putting faces and bodies on the characters helped me to integrate them fully into my imagination. And since I saw the movie before I read the books, my mental picture of the characters matches the movie pretty closely.

There's also the problem of coming to terms with writing in a very different universe from our own, where one can't, say, characterise someone by what clothes they wear / car they drive / books they read. That's also true of sf universes, but there feels to be more room to manoeuvre somehow, at least in Blake's 7, I've never tried writing Trek or Babylon5.

I've never seen Blake's 7 so we're even there. I do write Trek though, and we lose the "clothes they wear" for characterization because so many just wear the Starfleet uniform. Although I guess that says something of their personality as well. But then so does the way Legolas dresses. No cars, but ST people do read books. LOTR characters heard stories and tales and learned history. That Legolas could recite most of the Nimrodel story by heart shows that he has some interest in it, so it says something of his personality. There are things that characterize them; we just have to look for them.

I never write anything in the modern time so I guess those things never occurred to me to be a hindrance.

--Ainaechoiriel

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Nessime wrote:
I admit that when I was 15 and madly in love with Eomer I might have been accused of wanting to write a Mary Sue" fanfic

You could write one, using the excuse that it is for the Mary Sue Challenge we have here... I know I made full advantage of that...

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

If I was still 15 I probably would! Oh, heck, maybe I will. After all, I have often been accused of not acting my age!

P.S. I just glanced at your bio and noted that you started reading Tolkien at the same age I did. Only I was your age back in 1970 (there, now those who do the math know how old I am!).

 

 

Re: Writing tips for new authors

Thanks for your great advice.  I really enjoyed it.  Maybe you can give me some input about where to submit original fantasy short fiction.  I'm aware of a few magazines, but since I'm a new writer, I'm sure there's probably a lot out there I haven't been exposed to.  Do you have any ideas?

Wordweaver

 

 

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