How Fanfiction Saved My Writing Life

After finishing my bachelor’s degree I was burned out on writing. I had been in a writing pressure cooker for three and a half years, and after assembling and defending an honors thesis my final semester, I was wiped out. When I looked at my post-graduate life, my first thought was that I needed a break from writing. I planned to take a month away to let my brain rest and refuel, but that month stretched into a year because when I tried to get back to writing, I couldn’t do it.

As an undergraduate I was trained to write “literary” fiction, which boiled down to contemporary realistic fiction. I don’t recall if anyone directly told us not to write genre fiction, but I graduated with the perception of what I was “supposed” to be writing, which wasn’t science fiction. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t like writing contemporary realistic fiction (and therefore was terrible at writing it); I couldn’t shake this feeling that if I started writing science fiction, I’d be letting down my professors. They taught me how to be a better writer! Didn’t I owe it to them to write what would make them proud?

What I did instead of writing was start watching Stargate: SG-1. The premise of the show (which is contemporary sci-fi), is that there is a portal that takes SG-1 to explore other planets, most of which are based on various ancient Earth cultures. The show has world building every week, great interpersonal relationships between the four-man titular team, and concrete good vs. evil themes that get more complicated and gray as the ten-year series develops. Plus, Daniel Jackson is a linguist-anthropologist who is very pretty.

I quickly moved from watching the show to scoping out fandom online. I picked up friends, and, through them, joined a challenge community where a moderator would post a weekly challenge and participants could respond with art or fanfiction. Fanfiction, I thought, I’ve done this before. I hadn’t written much fanfiction prior to my immersion in literary fiction, but I wasn’t a stranger, so I gave it a shot and wrote my first SG-1 fanfic. The response was mild, but the experience opened my eyes to what I had been missing while writing literary fiction.

Writing fanfiction is an expression of love. Fan writers write because they love something enough to want to add to it. Writing about characters and worlds that I loved was my first step to falling in love with writing again. It was a slow build. My first years writing fanfiction I posted only a few stories, but then I started posting 40,000–60,000 words a year. I started incorporating my own worlds and characters, and once I was doing that much original creation, it was easy for me to find my way back to writing wholly original works.

Writing fanfiction taught me a lot about writing science fiction. I had a better grasp of world building because I had emulated SG-1 encountering new worlds and what obstacles and biases they had met. I learned how to pace a novel because I signed up for a Big Bang challenge to write a 40,000-word story. I learned to love what I was writing, how to balance projects with a day job, how to finish a story, and how to move on to the next thing. These are not easy lessons to learn, but through the process of writing fanfiction—over years—I got a taste for what all of these things meant.

Fanfiction was never my end goal, but I’m grateful for the years I spent wading in the waters of fandom. I learned so much from writing fanfiction (and I actually made several connections that have helped me in my journey to traditionally publish). While fanfiction doesn’t have to be a stop on every writer’s developmental roadmap, for me it was a reminder of why I was writing in the first place. As helpful as an MFA has been toward my development, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without having written fanfiction.

I Don’t Feel Like It

Even in the middle of a multi-year streak of writing daily, I sometimes hit walls. The walls aren’t as thick as they used to be, and frequently they’ll appear after I’ve written 100 words (so technically I’ve already written for the day), but there they are, blocking my progress. Sometimes those walls come in the form of being unable to fill in a plot hole, or in difficulty articulating a thought, but often all of those walls manifest in the feeling of not feeling like writing. It’s the ultimate avoidance tactic! I don’t have to deal with my writing problem if I just don’t write.

So, how do you deal with not feeling like writing but needing to write?


Write Something Different

I frequently circumvent this wall by stepping away from what I was planning to write and working on something else. That’s how I started this blog post. I had been struggling to draft a chapter (not “feeling” like working on that novel), so I opened up a new document and asked a question: Do you ever not feel like writing? Suddenly I was on my way writing again.

Switching focus can unclog my brain and give myself the mental boost of having written. Generally if I’ve put some easy words into something else, I’ll be past the hurdle of feeling like I wasn’t performing, and then have the confidence to tackle the task that blocked me. (I may not have resolved the block, but I can start working on the problem again.)


Make Some Tea

Getting up and doing something with a time limit can sometimes unblock my brain. Making a cup of tea takes me seven minutes, which means I can devote seven minutes to thinking about what was blocking me, why it was blocking me, and how I can get around that block. Seven minutes isn’t long, but often by the time I have a cup of hot tea, I have a solution for how I can keep writing. (Even if that solution is figuring out a different, unblocked part of the story I can write.)


Give Up

This may sound counter-intuitive as a strategy to start writing again, but sometimes the only solution is to stop fighting. I have many times gotten so frustrated that I marched away from the keyboard, only to suddenly be slapped with the solution. Walking away was key to my discovery. It wasn’t until I had become so frustrated that I was ready to give up that my brain presented the answer so plainly. Sometimes walking away from your writing is a good thing!

 

Feeling like you don’t want to write doesn’t have to stop you from writing. Lean into the feeling a bit, give yourself a break, and once you come back to it, you just may feel like writing again.

The Write Mindset

I recently received a great question* about how I center myself and clear my mind before writing. I think answering this question begins with establishing what “clearing your mind for writing” really means.

For some authors it might mean clearing away distractions to create focus. It might include selecting and molding their physical and mental environments to encourage concentration and creativity. For me it includes knowing what I’m going to write.

I never sit down in front of the computer with a blank page and a blank mind. Today, for example, I came to my writing time with this question in mind, and I had already thought about some things I wanted to say on the subject and how I wanted to organize my response. Tomorrow I will come to my writing time with a draft of this blog post, which I will read before laying fingers on the keyboard. Another day I may seek out a prompt in advance, explore a line of dialogue, or continue a scene on an in-progress story.

All of that thinking and planning and deciding is done before I sit down to write. I do that mental work while I’m in the shower, or eating breakfast, or going to sleep the night before. Basically, I think about writing in my spare minutes, so that when I physically sit down for a ten-minute sprint, I’m ready. This means I spend more of my writing time actually writing, and less of that time staring at a blinking cursor and figuring out what I should be doing.

I still have days when I haven’t adequately planned and I wind up opening and closing several documents, trying to figure out what to work on. Those days of uncertainty and indecision underscore for me how important it is to plan. If I find myself doing that, I stop, get up, and work on something different so I can plan before coming back to the page. (Folding laundry, flossing, and taking a walk are all excellent activities to busy my body while my mind works.)

Planning what I’m going to write doesn’t have to be involved or include outlines, notes, or a chart. The real “plan” comes from eliminating uncertainty. When I come to the page with something in my mind, I can start writing right away and am never stymied by indecision while sitting in front of the keyboard.

Do you have a different strategy for clearing your mind to write? Do you meditate? Use free writing or journaling? What methods work best for you to get yourself into the writing mindset?

 

*This question is actually from a spam bot, but was coherent enough to be useful as inspiration, so you really never know what will inspire you!

,

Hesitant to Finish

I am resistant to finishing things.

It sounds ridiculous typed out like that. I mean, the point of starting a project is to have a finish product. In this case, it’s to have a finished story, and having a finished story is an amazing feeling! But even though I know that, I have a lot of trouble motivating myself to finish one pass and move on to the next. For me that hesitation comes down to three anxious questions:

  • What next?
  • Will I have another good idea?
  • But is it really done?


What Next?

This is a question that isn’t just about what project will I work on next, but how will I structure that project? What will my days be like? What is the routine?

I like ruts. I love working in ruts because I know how much work I’ll get done each day, when I’ll start, and roughly what I’ll do while I work. It’s comfortable and consistent and I am super productive once I have a well-worn rut. But getting that rut going is difficult. Figuring out the best way to work on a project takes time and patience, and often means experimenting with new workflows—new ruts—until I find the right one for the project (or for that stage of the project). As a project winds down, so do I, dragging out the last few tasks in anticipation of having to carve a new rut.

I haven’t figured out how to battle this question. The simple solution seems to be to develop a rut for each stage of writing, but every book I’ve worked on has been different, so that means the process isn’t cookie-cutter. For some books I’ve followed a structured outline, and for others I wrote scenes out of order. Perhaps one day I’ll have enough experience with each kind of workflow to immediately know how I’ll attack it, but for now I have to find other methods to banish my worries about what happens next.


Will I Have Another Good Idea?

Well. Will I???

The idea that what I’m writing will be the last thing I ever write is one of the most ridiculous anxious thoughts I could have, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking it nearly every time I near the end of a project. Obviously I’m going to write something else. Even through periods when I wasn’t as creative or productive, I never stopped getting ideas for stories. But this is anxiety talking and anxiety doesn’t have a firm grip on reality, so it throws out fearful doubts like this.

There’s no real defense against an anxious thought, except to not entertain it. I’ve gotten better at ignoring this question over the years, but sometimes it still catches me off guard and slows down my progress, keeping me from crossing the finish line so I can linger in my “last” good idea.


But Is It Really Done?

Of all the anxious questions I have that disrupt my productivity, this is the one that I actually have to answer. Figuring out if a project is actually finished is key to, you know, finishing the project. The problem is when this idea turns from productive checking in with the story to obsessing over commas, prepositions, and if I should start swapping around scenes just to see what it looks like.

I typically use revision checklists to keep myself on track and to eventually identify a stopping point. Sometimes I need to add things to the list—maybe during copyediting I uncover another crutch phrase, so I want to double back to search for that phrase, or I might finally figure out how to condense two scenes—but mostly I stick to the list and when the list is done, I’m done. Having that list as a definitive end point helps stop me from obsessing because I have something tangible to point to that says the story is done.

 

Knowing my weaknesses and having strategies to overcome them certainly helps, but it doesn’t stop me from struggling with finishing projects. Hopefully with continued practice it will get easier as time goes on.

Are there any aspects of finishing writing projects that stymie you? How do you over come those obstacles?

,

Writing Sick Days

With my goal to be an every day writer, I can’t really take a sick day. But I also can’t expect a normal writing day while I have a sore throat, runny nose, and major exhaustion. When I’m sick, here’s how I make the adjustments to take care of myself and still be productive:

 

Put aside non-writing activities.

To make sure I have the energy to write, I take a sick day from all non-writing activities. That means I step away from the blog, editing, responding to emails, and anything else that is part of my “work” stack. Doing this lets me focus my time on self-care and on writing, which will not only help keep my writing streak, but hopefully let me get better faster.

 

Rest up, then write.

The moment I’m out of bed and feeling up to sitting at the computer, I go for it! That might be my only writing session for the day, but if I’m prepared for it, 10 minutes will be all that I need.

 

Lower the bar.

Normally my daily writing includes working on my current projects, but on a sick day I’ll let myself chase a stray thought or write something I might not complete.

My daily goal includes writing 400 words per day, but this is where my minimum goal of 150 words per day kicks in. When I’m not feeling well, I’m perfectly fine to stop writing after hitting 150 words. That’s the whole reason I have a minimum goal, so that when I’m really, really not feeling up to it, I have a low bar to clear while still making the effort to write every day.

 

Pick at it.

Sometimes I can’t do the 10-minute stretch, or the 10 minutes weren’t very productive, so instead of working in my usual method, I pick at writing. That may mean writing a few sentences on several different things, or writing one or two sentences at a time on something in progress. I keep the pace slow for my medicine-logged brain and go where my attention seems to prosper.

 

It’s tough to stay productive when I’m not feeling well, but usually my stubbornness is enough to get me to the page and keep me writing. Even though I might crawl back into bed and collapse into a pillow for a long nap, getting something written makes me feel better—at least emotionally.

What do you do to help yourself keep motivated when you’re not feeling well? Do you plan sick days into your schedule, do you let yourself off the hook, or do you push yourself to keep working?

,

Camp NaNo: The Kinder, Gentler NaNoWriMo

April marks the first Camp NaNo of 2018. If you’ve been intimidated by National Novel Writing Month, or just had the misfortune of having a busy November, Camp NaNo is an opportunity to commit to your writing with less stress and greater control.

In addition to not being set right before holiday season, Camp NaNo allows participants to set their own goals. Writing 50,000 words in one month is a challenge even the most successful writers may skip. But the customizable goal during Camp NaNo allows you to set your own word count goal, or pledge to work on a certain number of pages or lines (welcome, poets) or even for a certain number of hours or minutes. That flexibility allows writers who are revising or who are juggling other responsibilities to also participate. It also allows you to factor in what is actually the most productive accountability for you. Does tracking words stress you out? Are you more interested in making sure you write for 30 hours over the month? Then Camp NaNo may be the NaNo for you.

Goal flexibility also means that if you are more successful when you’re ahead, you can arrange to be ahead and stay motivated. Surpassing my goal is highly motivating, so even if I think I’ll write 25K during the month, I tend to aim lower, maybe 18K, so I can feel that boost of accomplishment for hitting the initial goal early. Without the 50K pressure, I feel much more motivated to extend beyond my goal, and—if it turns out I misjudged my available time—I have a buffer to still be successful.

Camp NaNo is also a closer, more intimate environment. Instead of the massive forums and regional groups, Camp is organized around “cabins,” which are private chats with up to twelve writers. You can be assigned to a random cabin, or create a private cabin, accessible via invite. Personally, I go the private route, cultivating a cabin of positivity and productivity among like-minded friends and colleagues. We take turns asking, “Have you written yet? What are you working on?” which makes for a nice daily check-in about our writing. It’s also encouraging to see our small group combine to hit our target goals.

Because there isn’t as much outside activity around Camp NaNo as there is during NaNoWriMo—there aren’t daily tweets and blog posts about composing a novel in a month, maintaining motivation, or dealing with writing anxiety—it’s easier to forget about the event or to let check-ins slide. NaNoWriMo is a little like being in a big city, with eye-catching advertisements directing you to write, but Camp NaNo is like taking a breath in the woods and recharging creative energies. It requires a little more mindfulness to check-in daily, but it is peaceful in comparison to the chaos of November. If that sounds like the kind of thing your writing life needs, sign-ups for Camp NaNo are currently open. Camp runs in April and in July. Use your NaNoWriMo username, if you have one, or create a new account. I wish you many productive hours of writing.

,

Making Sense of First Draft Mess

This last week I dove back into the novel I worked on during National Novel Writing Month. While I had a successful NaNoWriMo in 2017, I also took a helter-skelter approach to putting words on the page. I jumped around in my outline when I ran out of steam. I allowed new, unplanned characters to appear and take my attention. I discovered solutions to plot problems and simply picked up the threads as if I had already written the scenes—or I wrote a divergent scene that covered those solutions, while still leaving the first scene in place (essentially writing an alternative universe, if you’re playing along from a sci-fi angle). All of that is great for writing 50,000 words, but not as good for writing a cohesive novel.

After a comfortable break—and wrapping another project—I’m ready to tackle this mess, and thought it was a good time to talk about how I start a revision.

Make a Schedule

The first task is to assess how much I have to read, and then make a schedule. While I’d like to finish the assessment pass in two weeks, I have a lot to read and some other obligations this month, so I’ve stretched my schedule to finish by the end of February.

I considered dividing the number of scenes or number of words by the number of days, but that can lead to some awkward splits and I’d rather make sure I’m comparing multiple options for the same scene on the same day. Any scenes not divided into chapters (which is most of them), I grouped by related content and then divided those into reasonable chunks. I also took my work and social calendar into account, so I wasn’t scheduling too much on a day when I was otherwise busy. At the end of this process I had a calendar and knew exactly what I should be working on each day.

Read the Draft

Once I’m ready to start reading, I gather my materials:

  • My manuscript (on the computer, currently)
  • A notebook
  • A pen
  • Highlighters

I set up my notebook with the working title of the manuscript, date, and the title of the first scene. Each new section of my notes starts with the title of the scene. Right now the scene titles are a letter for the first name of the POV character and a few words describing what happens. My first scene is “A: Boarding” because it’s when Alex boards the pirate ship.

This assessment pass is strictly to review ideas, figure out what’s missing from the plot, and choose which of those divergent paths I like best, so a lot of my notes are questions. Sometimes those questions are about when information is revealed (and I may find the answer in a later scene). Sometimes those questions are about research or world building that I need to develop. Generally most of my notes center around the plot and character relationships. I also jot down the existing character, setting, and world details, so I can start refining those aspects to later create consistency.

Within each section I take notes roughly in chronological order. I try to group character and setting details together, which may mean that I leave a few blank lines after a character introduction or when we enter a new setting, just in case I wrote some other pertinent details later in the scene.

At the end of each scene I write a one or two sentence summary. This summary should include the most important thing about the scene (from a plot and/or character standpoint) and will later act as a guide to help me figure out if the scene is important enough to make it to the next draft and if it’s in the correct place.

As a final step, I highlight headings so I can reference information later—characters are pink, world building and setting is blue, and plot is yellow. I use green to mark scenes I want to keep or elements in scrapped scenes I want to include in the next draft.

Assess the Draft

After I’ve finished the entire manuscript, I review my notes on what I’ve already written to figure out what adjustments need to be made to my outline, what scenes still need to be written, and what scenes belong in the trash file (I never delete my work while I’m drafting—I never know when I might want to return to an idea or description). By the time I’ve done that review of my notes, I should be ready to start writing again! We’ll find out at the end of February.

,

Writing Goals for 2018

It’s easy to not write. I used to write when I felt like it, or when I had a burning project or a deadline, but not with any consistency. Even when I started making word count goals for the year, I still subscribed to writing when I “could.” I’m much more aggressive about my writing these days, and part of that comes from making more specific writing goals and nudging those goals each year to encourage myself toward the kind of writing life I want to have. For me that writing life is summed up in two statements:

  • Be a daily writer.
  • Have more days writing 1K+ words.

As such, these are my writing goals for 2018.

 

Day Count: 365 days
I’ve written every day for the last two years, so this is about continuing my streak. At first writing every day was difficult, but now it’s part of the routine and (almost) no problem.

Total Word Count: 185,000 words
Last year my goal was 200,000 words and I exceeded that goal by 34,000 words. I’m keeping my 2018 goal under my past achievements because experience has shown me that keeping ahead of my goal and exceeding it is more motivating than trying to catch up. I’m also anticipating some shifting workloads later in the year, so I’d like to keep the goal realistic and achievable.
Stretch Goal: 225,000 words

Daily Word Count: 150+ words
150 words per day won’t get me to 185K, but with events like NaNoWriMo and knowing that occasionally I’ll get sucked into a project, 150 words as a minimum is a good goal for the rough/long/exhausting/under-the-weather days. In 2017 I wrote at least 100 words every day, so adding 50 words to the minimum will only help me reach the 185K faster!

Write 1K+ Words: 40 days
This wasn’t an official goal last year, but I did keep track of how many days I wrote 1,000 or more words. In 2017 I wrote 1K+ words on 37 days, so in a year when I’m going to be more mindful of that goal, I feel like 40 days is a good starting goal. I fully expect the majority of the 1K+ days to come from NaNoWriMo, but that still leaves me with some days I need to clear during other months of the year.
Stretch Goal: 55 days

Draft a Novel
I’ve worked the last two NaNoWriMos on the same novel, so I need to keep up the momentum to finish that first draft. (And then, start revisions!)

Revise/Write a Short Story
I have three short stories in varying stages of completion, and I’d like to move at least one to the next stage by the end of the year. I think the one I most want to work on is the new draft, partly because I want to figure out if it’s actually a short story or a novel. (My shorts have a tendency to become longs.)

Read: 35 Books
Reading is part of writing! In 2017 my goal was to read 30 books, and with the introduction of audiobooks to my life I ended up reading 38 books. I’m kicking my goal up to 35 books, because even though I’m expecting to continue sucking down audiobooks like they’re water, I’m planning to take more editing jobs in 2018.
Stretch Goal: 40 books

 

When it’s all spelled out like that it can seem like a lot, but given how many of these goals are already in-progress in some way, I feel confident that I can achieve all of them.

What writing goals do you have for 2018? Do you have any with metrics, like my word count goals, or more general ones, like my goal to finish a draft of a novel?

One-Size-Fits-All

Have you ever searched for that one piece of writing advice that will magically make writing easier and your stories better? Have you ever thought that you found it, only to discover that it doesn’t work for your best friend? Or has your friend given you a piece of “magic” writing advice that doesn’t work for you? That is the road of writing advice. Writing advice isn’t one-size-fits-all because the creative process is varied and subjective. Heck, writing advice isn’t even one-size-fits-a-single-career. The writer you are today may not be the writer you were yesterday or the writer you’ll be tomorrow, and the process that worked for you then may not work for you now.

Just six years ago I was living a lifestyle that would not support writing every day. I had more responsibilities and a demanding job with a schedule that had less flexibility. Now I’m self-employed, which means I have more control of my schedule, and it’s easier for me to plan time to write every day, even on busy days.

Just six years ago I wrote in binge spurts, up to 4,000 words in a day. But I only wrote 158 days out of 365. This year I’ve only had a handful of days where I passed 1,000 words.

Just six years ago I wrote short stories, rather than novels. Those binge sessions of writing frequently corresponded to writing a first draft of a short story. A first draft of a chapter usually isn’t longer than 2,000 words for me, which means binge sessions are shorter.

It’s clear the writer I was six years ago is not the same writer I am now, which means the writing advice and processes I followed then may not be effective for me any more. Redefining myself as a writer from 2011 to 2017 has taken some work. Some of it is organic, like discovering that I could write daily with a little motivation and consistency. Some of it is decisive, like focusing on novels rather than short stories. And the rest of it has required experimenting because I’ve had to hunt for new processes and advice that works for this new writer that I’ve become.

Which is where all that disparate, subjective, one-size-will-never-fit-all writing advice comes in. Writing advice isn’t and shouldn’t be thought of as a one-size-fits-all magic solution. Writing advice is an opportunity to try something new and see if it works for you (or if it works for you now). Trial and error is the queen among writers—that’s actually what the drafting and revision process is about. So consuming as much writing advice as you can, trying what sounds interesting, and throwing away what doesn’t work is the way writing advice works best. The only writing advice that is truly one-size-fits-all is to try everything, and then in five years, try it again. Writing is about reinvention and no one is reinvented as often as a writer.

First Drafts Suck

Sometimes one of the hardest things to do is to keep writing through your first draft. Ideas can feel flat and uninspired. Characters might not meet the expectations you set out for them. Obstacles wind up being easier to overcome than you imagined, or, the opposite, you find yourself written into a corner. It is frustrating and infuriating and quitting starts looking better and better because, let’s face it, your first draft sucks.

But the good news is that all first drafts suck. No matter how much planning you do in advance, there’s a big difference between an idea and a story. A story requires details and specifics and everything has to work together. Sentences have to be crafted, motivations have to be honed, choices have to be made, and consequences have to be realized. Moving from an idea to a final product takes a lot of work, and the first draft is the first step. And the first draft is always a messy step.

First drafts don’t just suck because they are the messy beginnings of a novel. They suck because they’re difficult to write and they’re difficult to stick with. But the reason you must keep writing through a terrible first draft is simple: blank pages can’t be revised. In order to make the book better, something needs to be on the page. Revising is like sculpting, and the first draft is how you make the clay.

Sculptures can’t be made without material to sculpt, and the same works for stories. The first draft has to be written so the writer has something to revise and craft into the finished work. It may be tempting to stop in the middle and start revising, but not finishing your first draft is a disservice to your story and sometimes a waste of your time. Even the most organized planners can discover things about their characters, plot, and world through writing the first draft. Ideas develop organically—it becomes clear that the character should turn left instead of right, a sub-plot more fully develops, one idea spawns another and a new area of the world is fleshed out. You might discover that a scene you wrote well and loved doesn’t belong in your novel any more—and if you spent your time honing it instead of writing to the end of your first draft, you would have wasted that time.

So push through your first draft. Even when it sucks, try your best to love the experience and motivate yourself to continue. Reward yourself for writing. Tell your friends what you’ve completed. Write the scenes that excite you. Write out of order. Leave gaping holes that just have notes like “battle scene” or “much smooching” or “Kate and Joe need to talk.” Leave notes to yourself about ideas you get as you’re drafting or revisions you want to make, but keep writing forward. You’ll have a mess by the end. You’ll have a draft that sucks, but you’ll have a draft that you can craft, make better, and sculpt into the story you were always meant to write. As much as writing is about revising, revising can’t happen if you don’t have a first draft.