Tuesday, September 30, 2014

New Feature: Totally Random Tuesdays!

I am introducing a new feature here on The Lonely Young Writer. "Totally Random Tuesdays" will be, as the name might suggest, totally random and on Tuesdays.

This isn't an every Tuesday thing.  It's a random, whatever-Tuesday-I feel-like-posting-something thing.

Not only is the timing random, the topic will be too.  Will it be pictures of my cats?  Raising awareness for a certain cause?  A vlog?  More stuff about writing? Who knows?

All you know is that it's going to be on Tuesday, and it will be totally random.

For today's TRT, I would like to bring your awareness to a specific cause and challenge you with a writing exercise.

Image courtesy of www.mofas.org

 It's the last day of September, and September is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Month.  But FASD isn't something we can ignore the rest of the year.  It's a serious problem in America, and many people still don't even know what it is.  FASD is a birth defect caused by the mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy.  It's the most common birth defect and the most preventable one.  Check out these websites to learn more about this serious social problem.

Now, for your writing challenge, write a very short story (1,000 words or less) from the perspective of a) a person who suffers from FASD or b) the mother (either biological or adoptive) of a child with FASD. If you'd like to, please share what you wrote for the writing challenge in the comments.  Share it with everyone you know. 

It seems strange, but writing is a way to change the world around us.  Books often trigger social change.  The working and sanitary conditions in meat packing plants improved after Upton Sinclair pointed out how bad the conditions were in his book The Jungle.  Words are powerful things.  With words as well as actions, we can fight the problem of FASD. We can change the world.

Please help me spread awareness by sharing this blog post on your favorite social network.  If you want, you can also check out and share the post I did on this topic over at Lamps and Mirrors, my other blog: An Exercise in Speculation

Give a shout-out of support to those who face the problem of FASD or struggle with addiction in the comments.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Getting the Most out of Feedback

Image courtesy of Akeeris at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If you write, part of you probably wonders whether your work is any good. Unfortunately, the only way to answer that question is to ask somebody else to look at it. That's kind of scary, because then there's the chance that you'll receive some criticism. If the idea of criticism freaks you out, you can think of it as feedback. After all, that's really what it is.

If you want to improve, you need to take the plunge and ask for feedback. However, there are some things you can do before you even share your work with someone that will maximize the usefulness of the feedback you receive. Tell the reviewer what you are looking for specifically. Make a list of things they can help you with, such as grammar, writing style, or just an overall impression. This way, the person offering feedback has somewhere to begin, and you are more likely to receive a critique that will be helpful for you.

Another thing you can do to get a more useful critique is to ask your reviewer to mark up the work you are giving them. Microsoft Word has a really useful feature for tracking changes that you make, as well as a feature for inserting comments in the margins. If you submit your work to anyone for critique and both of you have Word, ask them to use the 'review' features and insert comments exactly where they noticed one of their concerns. If you're using a hard copy (what some writers now refer to as 'dead tree format'), provide a brightly colored pen and some sticky notes for the person who will be reviewing your work.

Once you have the feedback, what do you do with it?

The first thing you want to do is give yourself some space after receiving any kind of criticism. Acting on the criticism while you are still emotionally unbalanced from it is a very bad idea. If somebody said your work was very poor overall, and you were to act on that while riled up, you might do something stupid like delete the entire document in a modern-day version of dramatically throwing a manuscript onto the fire. Or, you might delete a large segment, only to wish the next day that you hadn't. Once you've hit 'save' and exited your word processor, that's that.

So, do yourself a favor and give yourself some time to wind down. Once you've cooled off, print a copy of the critique or marked-up manuscript and re-read the feedback that you were given. Hopefully, you've been able to receive a marked-up manuscript that makes it easy to find specific comments (which, if you followed the tips above, you probably have). If any of the comments are positive in nature, saying something like “I really like this,” take a big highlighter or marker in your favorite color and circle those comments. Celebrate the positive before you tackle the negative, and think of the negative as exciting opportunities to make your work even more awesome than it was before.

Next, re-read the work, keeping the feedback in mind. Do you agree with any of the criticism? Chances are that you will agree with some of it. Circle that criticism in a different color of marker—a color you like, so that you can see it as something positive. If you disagree with some of the criticism, circle that in a neutral color, like brown or gray. Think about it a little while longer before you disregard it.

And speaking of that...

Yes. You, as the writer, have to power and the right to disregard criticism. You don't have to agree with or do whatever the reviewer suggests. In the end, it's your call. Let that empower you as you sift through the feedback. You don't have to agree with it. You don't have to do everything, or even anything, that somebody else suggests.

That being said, it's still wise and in your writing's best interest to think really hard about somebody's feedback before you decide to disregard it. If you don't agree with it, ask yourself why. If, after thinking for a while, you have a solid reason for disagreeing, then you can probably safely disregard it. But if you can't come up with a reason at all, and you just don't like the feedback for whatever reason, that's a major warning sign that the criticism might actually be accurate.

There's a saying among writers: “Kill your darlings.” What this means is that if you are particularly in love with something you've written, but lots of reviewers say that you need to cut it, you are probably better off cutting it. If you don't have a really solid, compelling reason for keeping it, and you just like it because it's your “darling,” then “kill” it.

Thanks to modern technology, it's easy to save the portion you've cut or save the unchanged version, just in case you want to come back to it and reconsider it someday. I routinely make backups of my stories, labeling and dating them carefully. It's so easy and cheap to get a flash drive with lots of storage, so I don't worry about running out of space. This way, if I ever change my mind about a darling I've killed, I can go bring it back to life.

So, if you disagree with the criticism for a powerful reason, then disregard it. Circle those comments in black. If you disagree with it just because, you might want to think twice before ignoring it. If you can't decide, put it aside for now and come back to it later.

You don't have to figure out exactly what to do right away. It's okay to put somebody's criticism on the back burner and let it simmer for a while.

When you are ready to start applying changes, keep your printed, re-marked-up marked-up manuscript with you while you are making changes to the electronic document. Use it as your reference and guide. When you see your favorite color, smile and congratulate yourself. When you see the other color that you like, concentrate on what you can do to address the concern, thus making your story even better than ever. When you see black, skip it. When you see brown or gray that you're not ready to act on, remind yourself to come back to it later.

This, of course, is just one way of dealing with the feedback you've been given. I usually do this mentally because I am so used to receiving and dealing with feedback. But if you're going on your first feedback adventure, this can make the experience less scary and more positive.

As you learn to think of criticism (feedback) as something positive, you become a better writer.

What could be more positive than that?

Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

When It Doesn't Come Easily

Image courtesy of Graur Codrin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Sometimes, writing doesn't come easily.

We have a lot of names for this—writer's block, the doldrums, feeling uninspired, and so on. In the end, it all boils down to one thing: you, staring at the blinking type cursor on the screen, willing it to type the words for you.  You, staring at the tip of your pen, wishing the ink would simply write words on its own.

Sometimes, you feel completely void of ideas.  Other times, you are brimming with ideas, but the words simply won't come. 

Honestly, I'm not sure which is more frustrating.

When the words don't come, it's easy to throw up your hands in despair and walk away. If you're like me, you are assaulted by a steady stream of self-doubt: I should have known I couldn't do this, there's no point to this, I'll never finish anyway, even if I do finish this, who's going to care, why do I even bother at all? Even if you're not like me, difficulty writing can be highly discouraging.  

So what do you do when the words evade you, leaving you feeling cheated and lost?

Well, there's always the option to sit around, despondent and inconsolable. Having done that, I can't say I recommend it.  If anything, it makes it even harder to start writing again.

Another option is to focus your energy elsewhere; you can exercise, work hard at school, clean house, or if you have a job, pour your energy into that.  I have found that this is most effective.  You might feel like you're abandoning your writing, but what you're really doing is proving to yourself that you can achieve what you set your mind to. You can immediately see the measurable results from these things. If you exercise, you can feel your body becoming stronger; if you work hard at school, you can see your grades improve; if you clean the house, you can see what color your carpet is actually supposed to be (or just plain see your carpet); if you pour energy into your job, you see your employer and co-workers show more and more respect for you.

Even if you're not writing for weeks at a time, every time you accomplish something, you are proving to yourself that you are capable of doing the things you want to do.  That knowledge goes a long way in reassuring yourself when your writing doesn't come easily.

Every discipline has its rough streaks; an injury while exercising can set you back, making it difficult to keep up the same intensity of workouts.  You might become burned out at school or work, making it difficult to perform well. I'm guessing that, while these things are frustrating, you accept them as a normal part of life.  You can see how this is just temporary, and you know you'll get your mojo back eventually. Why should trouble writing be any different?

You can always try to push through, however, just as you can exercise through an injury (ouch). But focus your writing energy on something low-stress, something that doesn't carry high emotional stakes for you.  For example, finishing and editing my novel has high emotional stakes for me, but writing a poem or doing a ten-minute writing challenge doesn't.  For the writer, short writing exercises can be like physical therapy for an injured athlete.

Every time you accomplish one small writing victory, you prove to yourself that you are a capable writer—even when it doesn't come easily.  One small victory at a time, it becomes easier.  There's the old cheesy saying that you eat an elephant one bite at a time.  For writers, that's one sentence at a time.  Heck, it's one word at a time.

Maybe it will never feel easy, but difficult does not equal impossible.  If nothing else, remember the moral of The Tortoise and the Hare?

Slow and steady wins the race.

This is true even—especially—when it doesn't come easily.

How do you react when writing doesn't come easily?  What steps can you take to overcome the challenges? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Word of the Week: Malapropism

Thank goodness it's Word of the Week Thursday!

Word: malapropism

How you say it: [mal-uh-prop-iz-uhm]

What it is: noun

How to pluralize it: malapropisms

What it means: (1.) an act or habit of misusing words ridiculously, especially by the confusion of words that are similar in sound. (2.) an instance of this, as in “Lead the way and we'll precede.” (Definition courtesy of Dictionary.com.)

(Side note: precede means to come before something, as in "The Boston Tea Party preceded the American Revolution," whereas proceed means to move forward, as in "We'll proceed as planned.")

Use it three times and it's yours! Using a word three times can help it stick in your memory.

The writer's malapropisms were so varied and ridiculous that nobody took her seriously.

Sometimes, the auto-correct feature on phones can lead to hilarious malapropisms.

I believe, sir, that you just uttered the worst malapropism that I have ever heard.

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writing Dialogue

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Knowing how to write dialogue is a crucial weapon in the writer’s arsenal, so for today’s Word-Craft Wednesday, I’m going to talk about some of the mechanics and style you should know.

Basic grammatical guidelines

All right, let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. 

The first word inside the quotation should be capitalized.  This is because the quotation is a sentence within a sentence, and the first words of sentences are always capitalized.

Ana said, “You can’t have the last piece of pie, Jill.”

If the quotation is being followed by a speech tag (for example, Bob said, he said, or Ella shouted), end the quote with a comma instead of a period.

“I was saving that piece,” Ana said.

This only works with periods.  Leave exclamation points and question marks as they are.

“That’s so unfair!” Ana said.

“Why?” Jill asked.

Also, notice that commas, periods, exclamation points, and question marks are always inside the quotation marks.

Now, observe the punctuation and capitalization in these two sentences.

“It’s not fair,” Ana snapped, “because you took the pie I’ve been looking forward to all day!”

“Sure it is,” Jill replied. “Your name wasn’t written on it or anything.”

In the first sentence, I am “interrupting” Ana’s statement with a speech tag, followed by a comma.  I do not capitalize “because,” since it is still technically part of Ana’s sentence.  However, when Jill speaks, she speaks in two separate sentences.   So, I put a period after the speech tag and capitalize “your,” since it is the first word of a new sentence.  Now, check this out:

“There you go,” Ana said, “blaming it on me.  Sometimes, I just want to punch you.”

“Sometimes” is capitalized because—that’s right—it’s a new sentence.

There are also occasions where you will have a quotation inside of a quotation.  To do this, use double quotes (“) on the exterior quotation and single quotes (‘) on the inside quotation.

“Did you just say, ‘Sometimes, I just want to punch you?’” Jill said.

The final punctuation mark always goes inside the innermost quotation mark.  Now, I have read books that used single quotes on the outside and double quotes on the inside, but those were generally older prints.  Modern day American usage follows the example I gave above; I don’t know about British or older guidelines.  

Finally, and perhaps the most important grammatical rule of dialogue is that every speaker gets a new paragraph.  You would never do this:

“Jill, you’re such a jerk!” Ana said.  Jill said, “At least I’m not a freak.”

Ana and Jill get separate paragraphs, like this:

“Jill, you’re such a jerk!” Ana said.

Jill said, “At least I’m not a freak.”

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that each speaker gets their own paragraph.  It is incredibly difficult and confusing to read dialogue where multiple speakers are crammed into the same paragraph.  After years of reading, we are actually mentally programmed to expect dialogue to follow this rule—so when it doesn’t, it really throws us for a loop.  (I suppose that if all books were written using a different rule for dialogue, we would be trained to read it that way.) 

You would think that if reading one-speaker-to-a-paragraph dialogue comes naturally, writing it would as well.  However, this is not the case—so if you didn’t know to follow this rule, don’t feel bad.  Reading and writing, while related, are separate disciplines.  You might subconsciously be aware of how it’s supposed to be but you might not be consciously aware of how to make it that way.  It’s a little like the difference between looking at a painting and actually painting a painting. 

Basic style guidelines

Speech tags are one of the most important things in dialogue.  However, they can also be extremely problematic.  Read the following dialogue.

“Jill, you’re such a jerk!” Ana said.

“At least I’m not a freak,” Jill said.

“You think I’m a freak?” Ana said.

“I think you’re worse than a freak,” Jill said.

All of the speech tags have exactly the same verb.  It’s very repetitive and boring; this is a big fight, so I want it to be interesting.

“Jill, you’re such a jerk!” Ana said.

“At least I’m not a freak,” Jill replied.

“You think I’m a freak?” Ana asked.

“I think you’re worse than a freak,” Jill countered.

Why is it that this doesn’t seem that much better?  It’s still repetitive.  It’s supposed to be a heated argument between two sisters, and all of those speech tags are cluttering it up.  Once we have established that Ana and Jill are the speakers, we can actually drop the speech tags.

“Jill, you’re such a jerk!” Ana said.

“At least I’m not a freak,” Jill replied.

“You think I’m a freak?”

“I think you’re worse than a freak.”

Isn’t that better?  It moves much faster now.  However, be careful not to leave out the speech tags for too many quotations in a row.  

“I hate your face!” cried Ana.

“At least my face isn’t ugly,” Jill snapped.

“You are the most terrible person on the planet!”

“Well, it sure takes one to know one, doesn’t it?”

“What the heck is your problem?”

“You’re my problem.  I was perfectly happy before you came in here and ruined my day.”

“Oh. I ruined your day?”

“Yeah.  My day is totally shot now.”

“Well, excuse me for wanting there to be some sort of pie-related justice!”

“You didn’t seem so interested in justice when you took the cookie I had been saving.”

“Is that what this is all about? Revenge?”

“No. It’s about showing you what a rotten, prissy little princess you are.”

“I’m a prissy little princess?  Well, at least I’m not an evil dictator!”

“How am I an evil dictator?”

“You’re like Hitler, but with pie.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense!”

“You don’t make any sense!”

Now, who was the last speaker?  If you answered Ana, you’re correct.  However, you might have found that somewhere around “My day is totally shot now,” you had to double-check to see who was saying what.  This kind of dialogue with minimal speech tags certainly keeps the speed of the dialogue up, but it slows the reader down when they have to back-track to be sure they have the correct speaker in mind.

So how can we fix this?  We could throw in a few speech tags every couple of paragraphs as reminders, but they would make the dialogue feel flat and slow again.  The solution is to use “beats.”

“Beats” are so named because their function is to insert a very brief pause in the dialogue.  If you’ve ever done any acting or drama, you might see something like this:

CHARACTER 1: I am very angry with you.

CHARACTER 2: Oh, sure you are. [Beat] Wait, are you?

This direction indicates to the actor to pause, but only for a very brief moment.  In writing, the dialogue beat is generally indicated with a short sentence. 

“Oh, sure you are.” Betty shook her head. “Wait, are you?”

Beats like this are great because they also allow the reader to visualize other aspects of the scene, rather than just the dialogue itself.  If you think about all of the subtle body language we use, you can understand how dialogue is visual as well as auditory.  

Beats also alleviate some of the need for speech tags.  In my above example with Betty, I don’t need a speech tag to understand that Betty is the one speaking.  She has her own paragraph, and she is the only person mentioned in it.   However, if you follow a quotation with a beat instead of a speech tag, use a period instead of a comma.  Here’s a comparison.

“Oh, sure you are,” Betty said. “Wait, are you?”

“Oh, sure you are.” Betty shook her head. “Wait, are you?”

While I’m talking about beats, I feel like I also ought to mention amplified speech tags.  A simple speech tag is just the speaker (Bob, Mary, she) and a verb (said, cried, shouted).  I have heard a lot of different terms for modified tags, including amplified and “super said,” but the idea is that you add some sort of modifying word or phrase.  For example, “Bob said angrily” or “Mary cried, shaking with rage” would be modified speech tags.   The first example with Bob simply involves tacking an adverb on, while Mary’s example is a little more elaborate.  Mary’s example is sort of like combining a speech tag and a beat. 

Here’s how a combination of speech tags and beats affects Ana and Jill’s argument.

“I hate your face!” snapped Ana.

Jill rolled her eyes. “At least my face isn’t ugly.”

“You are the most terrible person on the planet!”

“Well, it sure takes one to know one, doesn’t it?”

Ana threw her arms up in the air. “What the heck is your problem?”

“You’re my problem.  I was perfectly happy before you came in here and ruined my day.”

“Oh. I ruined your day?”

“Yeah.  My day is totally shot now.”

“Well, excuse me for wanting there to be some sort of pie-related justice!”

Jill snorted. “You didn’t seem so interested in justice when you took the cookie I had been saving.”

“Is that what this is all about? Revenge?”

“No. It’s about showing you what a rotten, prissy little princess you are.”

“I’m a prissy little princess?” Ana gasped for a moment, searching for words. “Well, at least I’m not an evil dictator!”

“How am I an evil dictator?”

“You’re like Hitler, but with pie.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense!”

“You don’t make any sense!”

As you can see, the pace of the dialogue is still rapid, but it is far easier to tell who is saying what.  As a bonus, we have some details that help us visualize the argument a little better.

There is no magic formula for dialogue

When it comes to writing dialogue, there is no fixed way to do it, though different schools of thought suggest different methods.  It’s a matter of style and style preference, and every writer in the world is going to have his or her own opinion.

A lot of writers disagree about amplified speech tags.  Some writers believe in cutting as many adverbs as possible from writing altogether, so they discourage an adverbial “super said.”  This is because “shouted” and “said angrily” basically mean the same thing, but “shouted” is a lot stronger. Many also would say that my sentence example with Mary several paragraphs back should just be changed from an amplified tag to a beat, so you don’t have all the extra words cluttering things up.  It’s also in vogue right now for people to suggest that you use almost no speech tags at all, relying almost exclusively on beats and identifying nouns to establish the speaker.  

My opinion on all of this is to trust your intuition.  There isn’t such a thing as one right way to do it.  I believe that you need a variety of speech tags, amplified speech tags, and beats to keep your dialogue interesting.   You don’t want the tags and beats to distract from the dialogue, especially while writing a heated argument, so keep a minimalistic approach in mind.  Of course, what you do all depends on the type of dialogue you’re writing.  A heated argument needs to have fewer speech tags than a lengthy, laid-back discussion.  If you have more than two speakers, your need for tags or beats increases greatly, just so that you can tell who is saying what.   
Either way, you want to hit that just right balance, as if you were salting a bowl of soup.  You don’t want it to be so incredibly salty that you can only taste the salt, but you also don’t want it to be bland.  And, just like a taste for salt, the taste for speech tags and the like is highly subjective.

Now—go grab your pens (or keyboards) and write some awesome dialogue! 

How do you like to write dialogue? Share any thoughts, suggestions, or questions in the comments. 

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Monday, September 22, 2014

"You Know Almost No One Gets Published, Right?"

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve had someone say this to me.   It’s always said with good intentions, I’m sure.  I always imagine that the thought process behind it goes something like this: 

Oh, that poor young lady wants to write a book.  Thousands of people try and never finish.  Thousands who do finish get rejected by publishers.  She’s so optimistic and enthusiastic—oh, I don’t want her to get her hopes up, only to be disappointed.  Well, here goes: “You know almost no one gets published, right?”

Somehow, people think that they are being nice or gracious by saying this to young, ambitious writers.  They don’t want you to be disillusioned when you find out that being published is difficult—so they tell you that it’s nearly impossible.  They probably figure if you give up your writing dreams now, then you won’t have to be disappointed later.  Or, maybe they don’t want you to give up writing, but they want to make sure that you do so with a healthy sense of despair.

Perhaps people don’t mean to discourage young writers when they say this.  Perhaps they don’t realize the effect it has.  It’s probably because they’ve never had the experience of having someone say that to them. 

It’s quite the experience, to tell someone about your life’s dreams, and then to have them say, “You know almost no one gets published, right?”  It’s not just emotional.  It’s physical.  Blood rises to your face as your cheeks and ears get hot—your stomach flops and goes cold.  A sense of embarrassment floods you.  You feel foolish for having such a stupid dream—a dream so stupid that people feel the need to remind you just how stupid it is. 

However, it’s not a stupid dream.  Besides, the statement that “almost no one gets published” is patently false. A lot of people get published.  Millions, in fact.  Amazon has over a million English language titles.  That’s just English.  The world is a pretty huge place and there are writers—published writers—all over it.  Today’s technology makes self-publishing surprisingly easy.  Traditional publishers still publish lots of book by many different authors.  

So yeah, I guess millions is “almost no one” compared to the seven billion or so people on the planet, but it’s certainly not as hopeless as a lot of people make it sound.  

A more accurate statement would be, “Few people make a living as authors.”  This is a factual statement.  Very few people do make enough money from writing books to live on.   But this shouldn’t stop you.  Yes, you’d like to get paid for your writing, and if you persevere, you probably will at some point.  Will it be enough to pay your bills?  Most likely not, but if you’re writing a book, you’re probably not doing it just to pay the bills. 

No. If you’re writing, you’re writing because you love it. 

Is it difficult to get published? Yes.  But so is getting a college degree, and nobody discourages you from going to college.  It’s difficult have a job, but no one discourages you from working.  Good things are always difficult to obtain, but we shouldn’t instill in ourselves a sense of despair, confusing the word difficult with the word impossible. 

There is no such thing as a healthy sense of despair.  If you believe that getting published is next to impossible, then it will be.  You’ll be so trapped in the sense of pointlessness that your writing will suffer and you may never actually finish.  I’m not making this up, either.  Psychologists describe this type of thinking as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Besides, I’ve lived in that belief that almost no one gets published, and I promise you that it didn’t help my writing.  

If you really, truly believe that it is possible to be published, you’ll work your butt off to make it happen.   All published authors have something in common.  They worked hard to become published—and to do that, they had to believe that what they were doing was worthwhile. 

That’s why I’m ditching the despair.  I am done with believing that publishing is some foolish, stupid dream too impossible to attain.  It took me until age 27 to realize this—if I’d learned it when I was younger, who knows what I could have accomplished by now?  

No matter what your age, if you learn this important lesson now, who knows what you could achieve?  

So the next time someone tells you, “You know almost no one gets published, right?” 

You should reply, “I know.  But the people who are published had to work hard, believe in themselves, and have hope in order to reach that goal…  

“…and that’s why I know that someday, I’ll be one of them.” 

Share any thoughts you might have in the comments.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Meet Mikhaila (Fan Fiction to Original Fiction)

This is a picture that I drew of Alexander, Mikhaila's father. 
I have written before on the topic of fan fiction as a springboard for creativity, but today I would like to delve into the process a little deeper. If it weren’t for fan fiction, I probably never would have become the writer I am today.  

When I was fourteen, I tried to write a few of my own original stories, but all of them were lacking.  None of them really seemed to ring true, and I abandoned them ten pages in, if I even made it that far.  But fan fiction changed that. 

Well, sort of.  The title of today's post is slightly misleading.  I actually didn't write fan fiction until a year or so ago, unless you count a few stories I wrote about my toy My Little Ponies when I was twelve (the stories weren't based on any of the shows).  

However, I didn't write fan fiction in the sense that I never wrote it down.  Instead, I acted the stories out.  Safely cloistered in my room, I walked in endless circles, talked to myself, and acted out these stories I was making up.  I interacted with other characters by speaking to my mirror; romantic scenes were staged by me kissing my closet doorframe. 

Don't laugh too hard.  I am not the only person who has kissed a doorframe.  There are others out there who have done this.  (You know who you are.)

During my teens, I was very interested in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Okay, by interested, I mean obsessed.  And by obsessed, I mean that I had almost half of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings memorized. I knew the entire lineage of Elrond's family, from Thingol and Melian all the way down to Arwen. (I did forget the name of Dior's spouse, though.) I knew The Silmarillion, too. I can still  tell you exactly where all three Simarils are.  In fact, I will, just to demonstrate how serious I am about this. One's at the bottom of the ocean.  One fell into a rift in the earth and was destroyed by magma.  The final one rides in the sky above Middle Earth; Eärendil sails his ship there, placed by in the firmament by Elbereth Gilthoniel herself.  Want to know who my favorite son of Fingol is? Maedhros.  That's right.  He was a lefty.  Well, not by choice—since he had to lop his hand off to escape from Angband. But, you know, it was all okay, because he became a better left-handed swordsman than he ever was with his right hand.

Naturally, when you are that obsessed with something, you make up your own stories to go along with it—fan fiction.  Just because I didn't write it down doesn't make it any less fan fiction. Let's see...there were the stories about Elrond and Celebrian, detailing just how she got that poisoned wound that Elrond couldn't heal, thus causing her to leave her family and sail to Valinor. (If you know what I'm talking about, you are awesome.  Also, show of hands--how many people hated that Hugo Weaving was cast as Elrond for the movies?)

Then, there were the stories set after the events of The Lord of the Rings, starring mostly my own original characters.  Eventually in this story, Elros, Elrohir, Thranduil, and several of the Valar showed up.  The Valar were there because Melkor was trying to break back in from the void.  It was bad news.

Those were actually the good stories. 

However, most of them were little more than me basically inserting myself in the story so that I could be Legolas's girlfriend.  And for the record—I liked Legolas before he was played by Orlando Bloom. (If my older sister happens to be reading this: Yes.  I was doing exactly what you accused me of and I staunchly denied.  You were right.  Try not to gloat too much.)

Those—those were the lame stories, to put it mildly. 

Then, there was one day I made up a new character to represent myself in Middle Earth (yet another character destined to lock lips with Legolas—or the door frame, as the case may have been).  Her name was Mikayla.  Naturally, I had to come up with a back story for Mikayla.  She couldn't just appear from nowhere, and I didn't want to go with any of the obvious choices, like Gondor or Rohan.
So I made up my own back story for her.  She was from a country hidden in the Northern Wastes, north of the Ered Mithrin (the Grey Mountains, for the uninitiated).  She had come south both to flee civil war and to find out why the Nazgûl's winged beasts were so active lately. (The beasts originated from the Northern Wastes, after all.)

I had started this little story with Mikayla sometime around 7 in the evening.  Sometime around 1 a.m., I looked up at the clock and realized what time it was. In front of me were complex political maps and detailed histories of Mikayla's country.

You have to understand that this was the first time I had written down any of this kind of thing related to my LotR stories.  The only other things I'd written before this were my Pony stories and the aforementioned abandoned stories.  But writing down all of that history, drawing all of those maps—this was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

The next morning, I awoke eager to resume work on Mikayla's story, but since it was January, I had to do school work instead.  You can imagine how much I was actually paying attention to my math lesson.  During my ten minute break between subjects, I managed to wiggle in a little more planning on Mikayla's back story.  

That was when it dawned on me:  Forget Tolkien.  This is my story.  

It was a defining moment in my life.  Everything about Middle Earth vanished from Mikayla's world, evaporating like morning fog under a rising sun. This story was mine.

So, over the course of the following year, I wrote the story about the civil war in Mikayla's country.  It was about 71 pages long—10 point Times New Roman font, single spaced, 1.25-inch margins. I worked on it when I should have been reading Oliver Twist.  I worked on it when we went to vist my grandparents during the summer, typing on my grandfather's ancient computer. Not even typing—I hadn't taken a typing class yet, so I stared at the keyboard and fingered in the words one letter at a time.

I was 15 when it was done, and I was glowing with pride.  I had written a story! My story. Not Tolkien's.  Not anyone's but mine.

Then, the revisions began.  The story evolved and grew up along with me.  Mikayla's name changed to Michaela, since her grandfather was named Michael, then later became Mikhaila when her grandfather's name was changed to Mikhail. From that 71-page story has arisen a 80,000-word monstrosity with a life of its own—a living, breathing organism that keeps on growing. It has its own origins. I made up languages for these people, if only a small lexicon. Cultures. Nations. Politics.  A world.  And I'm still not done.  I'm not even a third of the way through with it. 
Mine. All mine. Inspired by other things? Yes, but no more so than any other tale. 

And all of that—all of that—came from a silly, vapid "Mary Sue" whose sole purpose was to have the hots for Legolas. 

Forget Legolas.  Forget Tolkien.  That fan fiction is gone.  Dead.  Totally vanished. 

This is just one way fan fiction can be a springboard for creativity.  If you write fan-fics now and can't possibly imagine your having your own original ideas, don't count on that lasting forever.  One day you'll hear the clarion, siren call of your own story.  Yours. Not your fandom's.  Not anyone's but yours. 

You'll meet your Mikhaila.

What are your thoughts on the topic of fan fiction? Do you think it fosters or stifles the creativity process for original fiction?  Experiences and opinions vary; share your thoughts respectfully in the comments. Oh, and don't forget to put in your two cents about Hugo Weaving as Elrond (you don't need to be respectful about that).

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