Developing Ideas: One Path from Idea to Draft

You start with an idea, a glimmer in your eye, a shimmer in the void, a vague sense of maybe… It may be a single image, a lone character, an interesting what if? You poke and prod, squint and twist, and decide it’s worth uncovering from the shadows of the muse’s cave.

Or maybe you don’t have an idea—maybe you just want one. Maybe you stand in the dark, no light to guide you other than the blazing of your own dreams, the desire sharp and pressing on your back, urging you forward. So you grope and crawl and search for something, anything, to follow into the sun.

But how do you take this vague, amorphous, fickle creature and bring it to life? How do you build its roots into the ground so it can stand on its own?

How do you take an idea… and make a book?

This is one way, from unclear start to something potentially real. It may not work for everyone, or every idea, and sometimes the path resembles a hopscotch more than a straight line. But when you’re stumbling in the creative night, every tiny step is one towards dawn.

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On Fandom and Creativity

I believe this is the golden age of fandom.

We could have a debate about the quality of current content versus the classics of old—certainly more is being produced today, and “nerd culture” is at its most mainstream—but that debate would exemplify what can sometimes be wrong in fandom: competitiveness, and judgment, and gatekeeping.

What I want to explore is the best of fandom, and I think the best of today’s fandom is the best there’s ever been.

For any out there who might be unfamiliar, “fandom” is a term for a collective group of fans—it can be applied to a specific work, such as the “Harry Potter fandom,” or as a general term for people who express enthusiasm and even love for fictional works—through buying collectibles and t-shirts, attending conventions and midnight screenings, drawing fanart or writing fanfiction. Being a part of fandom is more than just enjoying a work; it’s about the hunger for more, the passion for the details, the connection you feel to others who love the same, and the burst of creative energy that can come from this adoration.

It’s the last two that are more powerful now than they have ever been.

I’m sure as long as there have been creative works, there have been fans. Shakespeare’s plays probably had a dedicated group of followers (including Queen Elizabeth?); and Arthur Conan Doyle’s fandom was so strong and vocal that he had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from the dead. In fact, an interesting book I read about fanfiction—Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison—mentioned that the Bronte sisters wrote fanfiction as their early work (I’m pretty sure; this is from memory).

The earliest form of fanfiction as we recognize it today—“amateur” fans writing stories about their favorite characters or worlds and sharing it with each other for free; as opposed to licensed media tie-ins or adaptations of works out of copyright, both of which share many qualities of fanfiction, but notably not the “free” part—is generally believed to have come from the original Star Trek fandom, who sent out newsletters and coined the term “slash” around the pairing of Kirk and Spock (a.k.a. Kirk-slash-Spock). In these early days of fandom, to love a fictional work so much that you subscribed to newsletters and attended conventions was a mark of an outcast, a “Trekkie,” a geek or nerd before that was an okay thing to be.

But still, people sought fandom out. Because somehow, fiction stirs something in us, powerful and deep and often unavoidable. (I maintain that “sports fandom” shares many of the same traits—costumes and gatherings and trivia and fan creations—without the stigma, but I digress…)

So what has changed to make today’s fandom not only so much more mainstream, but so much better?

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Update on Wattpad–Complete!

Hi all,

Just wanted to check in briefly and let you know that my “novel” on Wattpad is now completely posted! Check out the “My Books” tag above for the link, if you’re interested. :)

I’ve gotten a few more readers, some lovely comments, and whether new readers find it now that it’s finished or whether it floats away quietly into the void, I can say that I do not regret posting the story on Wattpad for one moment. It’s out there, and people can read it (if they want), and that’s better than my black hole of a hard drive any day.

I said at the beginning of this that if I got even just one reader who enjoyed the story, I would be happy. So I can say, unequivocally, that I am happy. Thank you to anyone who takes the time to give it a chance–I appreciate that so much.

As far as this blog… I want to get better about posting. And I keep saying that, and not changing, so I realize that’s a problem. But I’ve been in a difficult creative slump (more like roller coaster) lately, and it isn’t very conducive to posting writing “tips” like I know anything about anything. As always, my eternal optimism remains, so who knows what might happen in the near future… (Answer: nothing. Always nothing.) :)

I will do my absolute best to post more in the future, and if anything radical happens on Wattpad, I’ll let you know (for those interested in it as a platform themselves).

For now, I just wanted to say that my first novel, something I made, is out there in the world… and whatever happens in my life and career, that will always be awesome.

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Update on Wattpad

For those following along at home (after this long hiatus, I’m sorry), and considering using Wattpad for releasing your own fiction into the wild, I thought I’d give an update on how it’s going.

The mechanics for uploading a chapter are super easy, at least so far—just copying and pasting from MS Word, and it keeps all the italics and everything. Once the chapters are published, cross-posting them to Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr is just a click of a button (so far, I’m only doing Tumblr). From this aspect, Wattpad is very user friendly and doesn’t require any complicated formatting or anything.

But the real question is—is anyone reading it?

The short answer is… not really. Which is pretty much what I expected, so I’m not too disappointed. The most basic underlying reason I posted to Wattpad was just to put my story out there, for better or worse, for feedback or radio silence, and to have it out in the world. In that, mission accomplished.

But if you’re thinking about Wattpad and wondering about readership, I’ll dig a little deeper. There are two potential reasons why my story isn’t being read:

Option A is that it’s just bad. No one’s going to make the effort to continue reading a story on the internet if it’s boring or confusing or poorly written, and they shouldn’t have to. This is my first completed novel, and I can accept that it probably belongs in a bottom drawer. However, if my statistics are to be believed, I don’t have too many random people clicking on the first chapter or two and then turning away (a few, to be sure, but not enough that I feel like I’m missing out on some huge readership). Whether there are random people seeing the summary and not being enticed, it’s impossible to tell—though undoubtedly quite likely.

The more likely reason is Option B—it’s not being seen. In the vast sea of works that is Wattpad, standing out isn’t easy—even just being visible isn’t automatic. It’s especially difficult when you don’t do any promotion… Probably the best tactic would be going out and reading and commenting on other people’s works, which I will admit I haven’t really done. Without an internet following of any kind to point towards my story, or any standout features to attract its own audience (such as being a fanfic of existing characters people love, or having some really unique twist), I’m not surprised that it’s lost in the void of the internet.

My guess is that it’s a combination—hard to find amidst the overwhelming crowd, and with a first chapter that isn’t going to make anyone instantly obsessed for the few who find it. Add to that my lack of promotion, and it’s destined to do exactly what it’s doing…

But that’s still cool. I will continue posting chapters until the story is complete, and then I will leave it there (and linked here on my website), and I will have put my first book out into the world. Perhaps someday I’ll have a legitimate reason to be embarrassed by that, but I think this is part of growing as a creator. You make something, you put it out there, maybe no one likes it, and then you keep making things. It’s the only way. :)

Let me know if you’ve used Wattpad and how it went—or if you read things on Wattpad, how something catches your eye! Or, alternatively, what it takes to keep you reading–and what turns you away. I’m sure every writer is just looking for that secret formula, eh?

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Healthy Eating for the Week–and Some Tips!

I’ve written before about the issues of body image that seem to plague almost all young women (and some men), following them from meal to meal and mirror to mirror like a shroud. Our culture is struggling, slowly and painfully, to move towards a world where women are not objectified, commodified, and quantified by their appearance above all else—before they can even walk.

But in the meantime, women (and men) of strong principles must find a new balance, between the confidence to love our bodies in all their imperfections… and the struggle to live a healthy lifestyle that may not always be fun, and may even require a bit of that body image issue for motivation.

As someone who likes a lot of bad food and hates exercise, plus lives a sedentary lifestyle, I have found myself putting on weight and sinking into my decidedly unhealthy lifestyle like a swamp. Suggestions to change get under my (admittedly lumpy) skin, reeking as they do of our image-obsessed and impossible-perfection-seeking culture. And yet they’re not… wrong.

This week, for whatever reason, something in me switched. It may have been an overpriced patty melt that didn’t sit quite right with me, or a candid picture I saw of myself that made me do a double take (mostly a problem with the angle, I assured myself…). Unconsciously, it sunk in, and when I went to the grocery store, I bought all healthy stuff. And I mean… all. Since Tuesday, I have eaten basically nothing but fresh produce, cooked and prepared in various means—a miracle on two fronts, since I’m used to frozen meals and haven’t actually cooked in ages. I’ve also walked every day!

Knowing me, this won’t last. But I decided, in lieu of a writing blog this week, I’d share the food I’ve been eating—easy to prepare, tasty, and healthy (I think). And pictures, with horrible quality that I apologize for. Recipes and tips under the cut!

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When to Fight the Doubt… and When to Follow It

Any creative endeavor is doomed to come with a heap of doubts. After all, you’re pulling something raw and untested out of your mind—your unique, imperfect, emotional little mind—and putting it out into the world, saying, “Look at this. Judge this. Judge me.”

It’s only natural that your mind would seek to protect itself from this potentially cruel examination, by throwing out doubt after doubt to convince you not to let them see. And it’s tricky, too; it will simultaneously keep up the idea that someday you might create something worthy for them to see… just not this. Not now.

So a lot of writing advice (including my own) is about pushing past these doubts, opening yourself up to judgment so that you can open yourself up to success… and no matter how hard the doubts fight, you have to just keep creating. Right? Right?

Well… not always.

It is absolutely vital as a wannabe creator to learn how to create through doubt, because for most people, there will never be a creative space without it. And it can be done, I promise you, because I have the strongest and most virulent doubts imaginable and I’ve still managed to finish drafts.

But… there are times when the doubts might be worth listening to—and the trick is separating the two.

The key skillset to develop (to fight doubts as well as to grow as a creator) is self-examination, and its use here is in figuring out where the doubt is coming from. Doubts come on several axes, and the trick is to make sure the doubt is coming from the “right place,” from “truth,” before listening to it.

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Showing vs. Telling Character Traits: the Mary Sue Factor

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the tried and true cliches of writing advice (along with “Write what you know”). Both of these tidbits have a basis in sound advice, and both of them can regularly be ignored for the good of the story. Telling is sometimes vitally necessary, for pacing or simplicity or style. And while showing can vastly improve descriptions and dialogue and plot, sometimes it drags things out with diminishing returns.

But there’s one specific aspect of showing vs. telling that I think is rarely talked about but vitally important—and that is the use of showing in character traits and accomplishments.

Certainly, it may be common knowledge that you shouldn’t just say a character is “happy”; you should show it, with a smile or a humming tune or something more original than that. And if you open the story with a bland description of your character’s entire personality—“he was kind and gentle”—it often isn’t as engaging as showing—“he caught butterflies between his palms and fed them with an eyedropper.”

But more than character traits, it’s important to show us the accomplishments and abilities that you claim they have. If the heroine is supposed to be intelligent, but we never see any evidence of this in her dialogue or her choices (or even see her studying or interested in knowledge), then at  best it’s poor storytelling and at worst the reader won’t believe it… and may disengage from the story.

This is where I think a lot of “Mary Sue” accusations come from. The core of the “Mary Sue” is a character (mostly female… though there are many male examples which are ignored) whose traits and accomplishments do not feel earned—they feel like a glorified self-insert of the author living out her girlish fantasies of being loved and adored… without having “earned” that adoration. They are instantly liked by all (except the “mean girls”), they can go from simple nobody to strongest warrior in the world in a paragraph, and everything they attempt from musical instruments to complex equations is easily accomplished.

I maintain that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of “chosen one” idealization and fantasy, especially for young girls (and boys) who want to feel special. There’s something wonderful about wish fulfillment, and stories are a perfect vehicle for that, safe and comforting.

Yet “Mary Sue” stories get so much hate, and I think the reason (beyond sexism, obviously) is that these character accomplishments that make the main character so great are not just “unearned”—they aren’t shown. Want to write about the smartest girl in class? Show her studying, show her answering questions in class, show her discussing extra credit with the teacher—show her actually being smart when problems come up in the plot. Want to write about the strongest warrior? Show her training, show her getting hurt and learning how to block, show her learning different weapons in a more realistic time frame, show her bulking up and focusing, show her fighting and winning in difficult situations where others fail for realistic reasons (and she succeeds for realistic reasons). Want to write about the kind heroine winning over her former enemies with her friendly demeanor? Show her helping them even when they scowl, show her getting to know them through talking, show her impressing them (grudgingly at first) with her mercy and generosity, show them finding things in common, or seeing a bit of her dark side and finding it funny, and so on.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Devising scenarios which can actually show a character’s accomplishments requires a certain level of knowledge and experience in the author (or at least, research), as well as a flexibility in the plot. If your chosen one heroine gets plucked from the farm and has to be leading vast armies with an expert’s understanding of her legendary sword within a week, there’s simply no way to realistically show that… at best, you’d better bring out some magic that accomplished this and show us that (instead of just saying, “yeah, she was just that fast”). If your heroine is supposed to be smart but having her figure out that clue too quickly would wreck the plot, then you have to find a way to adjust—either make the clue harder, or let her figure it out and then find a different obstacle to put in her path.

The basic complaint of the “Mary Sue” is that everyone in the story finds her so impressive—but the reader doesn’t. When the hero tells the heroine he fell in love with her intelligence, but we’ve seen no evidence of that, we roll our eyes and assume the author is just living vicariously through this shallow character. But if the hero tells the heroine he fell in love with her intelligence, and we’ve seen her not just reading or studying but applying her knowledge to the plot, that moment will feel earned and mean so much more to us.

It’s not easy. It takes time, cleverness, research, and being willing to adjust the plot to fit—all of which may take a couple drafts to fully develop. And, unfortunately, it’s much harder with female characters, it just is… Male characters can show up in a cool costume and a smirk and we’ll believe that they’re awesome; female characters can do all sorts of clever and amazing things in the story and they’ll still get hate and be called weak. There’s only so much you can do about that.

But take the time to craft your character, and give her accomplishments real weight and realism and development in the story itself, and you’re that much closer to creating a character people will love and admire—and they’ll believe it when the other characters in the story love and admire her, too.

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