Monday, June 11, 2012

Fanfiction--A Good Jumping Off Point

One mistake I think a lot of new writers make is trying to take on too much too soon. They outline sweeping stories with multiple sub-plots, huge casts of characters, deep, meaningful themes. They choreograph complex fight scenes and build complicated worlds. And all these things are fabulous.

If you're up to it.

The fact of the matter is, most beginning writers aren't up to it.

The book of your heart may have one or more of the above components, but if you don't have a few finished, simpler novels written and under your belt, you may not be ready to write that heartfelt book. It might not be a bad idea to put that one on the back burner. Try something with two or three characters, one storyline, set in present day, requiring little research. Baby steps. Makes sense.

I wrote three novels before the fourth one landed my first agent. And yes, that fourth novel had multiple points of view, a complex dual plot alternating between the main character's past and present, and some complex world building. It was the book of my heart, the character I wanted to focus on. Could I have written it better if I'd had a few more practices beforehand? Absolutely.

I knew going into it that even with three previously completed manuscripts, I might not have the chops to pull off what I wanted to accomplish. So, I fell back on something that gave me a ready-made foundation: fanfiction.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, fanfiction is playing in someone else's world, or with someone else's characters. It takes one or more items out of the writing equation. You don't have to build the world if it's already built. You just have to add a new story. You don't have to establish as much characterization if everyone already knows the characters. And often you don't find yourself over-characterizing because YOU already know the characters.

Writers can use this medium as a practice ground. And there's some fantastic fanfiction out there. I've read great Xena stories on fan sites. The science fiction/fantasy/superhero shows and comics are frequent subjects of fanfiction. Many established novel series have fanfiction short stories written about them. And posting the work online can earn a new writer some valuable feedback.

Now, some might view fanfiction as plagiarism, but I would hope most would find it flattering. If it were me, if I had something published that people wanted to write fanfiction about, I'd like to believe I'd be flattered so long as they weren't making a profit from the work or trying to pass it off as something I'd created.

So anyway, I used fanfiction to help me work through some characterization issues in the book of my heart (and one more since). I won't admit here which worlds I played in, and I'd challenge anyone who doesn't know me personally to figure that out since I made dramatic changes, but I had previously established people in my head. I definitely used the medium, and I highly recommend it for beginning writers. Because the cool thing is, once I'd done it a few times, building my own characters came that much more easily to me.

If nothing else, it makes a great practice exercise, whether you share the work with anyone or not.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

NEWSFLESH series by Mira Grant

It's been awhile since I wrote a book review post. To be honest, I'd gotten tired of writing them. Though I only post my honest opinions, it felt like I was saying the same things over and over again. So it was going to take an extraordinary book (in this case, an extraordinary entire series) to get me to write another one.

Every once in a very long while, I read a book that makes me wonder why I write. A book that is so brilliant, so compelling, so suspenseful, so emotionally moving, that I know I can never possibly compose something as good. And every book I read immediately thereafter is unsatisfying by comparison.

Every once in a very long while, I read a book or series that, when I finish it, I am deeply saddened by the fact that there will be no more. That those characters have completed the story arc the author set out for them, lived their lives on the books' pages, and vanished into whatever ether discontinued characters disappear into. I miss them like lost friends. I want to know more, and yet I don't want anything to detract from the perfect story in which they appeared, and so I am torn.

And every once in an extremely long while, an author will create characters that make me want to cry or cheer for them. Or both.

The NEWSFLESH series by Mira Grant accomplished all these things.

For readers, it is a compelling page turner, a non-stop suspense thriller, an emotional roller coaster.  I have set times in my day which I devote to reading, and I don't deviate from those times. If I do, nothing else gets done. These books made me drop everything on my to-do list and just read. Every time I'd think, "Just one more page. What could possibly happen in one more page?" and something would happen, something emotionally charged or terrifying or surprising, and I'd have to continue reading.

And then there were the characters. I'm a hard sell when it comes to characters. I rarely cry at movies. I rarely cry in real life. It takes a lot to move me with words on a page. This series nearly moved me to tears on numerous occasions. And when I wasn't on the verge of crying, I was cheering the characters on with each thing they accomplished. I wanted to hug the two main characters. I wanted to laugh with them and fight at their sides. I hurt when they hurt.

For writers, it's a lesson in creating suspense, in putting that "tension on every page" so many speak of. With every accomplishment, the characters faced a new challenge. Every word served a purpose.

And I can think of no better example of characterization. The relationships between the characters, both major and minor, are built from page one. By the time we left them, our two main protagonists could do no wrong. We loved them that much. And they did plenty of questionable things. Didn't matter. The author made us love them for who they were, made us accept them on their terms, no matter what.

Lastly, I'd like to compliment the incredible world building. Mira Grant created a post apocalyptic Earth so real that I found myself analyzing every building I entered for possible escape routes and items to be used as weapons against the zombies, should an outbreak occur. Of course, I live in Florida. Readers of the series will know I'd better be prepared. :-)

P.S. I'd love to discuss the specific scenes that moved me, but I didn't want to give spoilers. If anyone wants to share their favorite scenes, put them in the comments, and we can talk about them there. :-)