Writing Woes: A Lesson From My Fanfictions

Remember that post where I ranted about how boring I’m finding my story? Well… I’m just here to say that the feeling hasn’t improved that much. But at least it’s gotten to a tolerable point where I can write down words for the sake of writing down words. I’ve impulsively signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo — possibly, in a manner just as impulsive as I did when signing up for the real deal back in November. So I’m employing every ounce of motivation, organization, self-discipline, and self-tricking into keeping up with the daily word counts.

That said, it still feels like a chore.

Two nights ago, I stumbled across one of my old fanfictions, a draft that I never finished. And it shocked me. Because the writing was so rich and so exciting and so full of voice and character, that I wondered how I could possibly have written it.

Looking back at my fanfictions, I realized that my writing style — no matter what genre my fanfiction happened to fall into — was so much richer than the way I’m writing now. And it’s an incredible shame that I’m able to write so well for other people’s creation, and yet my skills balk when I try to write my own original content.

Then this morning, I think I finally realized what was causing the difference: When I was writing fanfiction, I knew — and cared about — the characters.

I tried to remember all the time in the past when I had a burning desire to write a fanfic. It was because I had a very clear idea of a situation, or a very clear feeling about a character, and I wanted to express it. I have liked many books and shows in the past, but why is it that I write only for a select few fandoms? I think it’s because in order for me to write, I need to first develop a clear characterization of the characters. I have to know what it feels like to be in their shoes. I need to see them existing in a particular situation.

And there definitely have been times when I wanted to write a funny skit, but it wouldn’t work out, because I just couldn’t see the characters in it. Not with the way I envisioned their personality.

I keep talking about past fanfictions, but keep failing to point out to any examples. So here are a few.

BEWARE: The following might contain excessive teen angst or weirdness, poor grammar and spelling, and cheesy lines.

Exhibit 1
This is the opening paragraph to one of my Dragonball fanfictions that is a spin-off of Shakespear’s ‘What You Will.’ It centers around Videl trying to go under-cover as a boy in an all-boys school.

Her name was Del Natas. ‘Late-bloomer Del,’ they joked. That’s why ‘his’ voice was still high. Officer Miso gave her three-inch platforms to insert into her shoes. He even gave her two pairs. One for the sneakers and the other for the dress shoes, he said, giving her a wink. Yet as she stared at her reflection in the mirror, trying to familiarize herself with her male alter-ego, she knew that even the freshmen boys of West City Academy would tower over her.

I mean, okay, it’s not perfect. But if I were to write something like that today, I would inevitably succumb to the typical high-school student mornings, with the alarm clocks going off, the grogginess, the late school bus, whatever. Isn’t this a much more interesting way to pose the premise? How did I even think of this?

Exhibit 2
In the same story, some chapters later, I had Bulma talk about a device she invented.

“Hack? That would take you hours,” Bulma answered. “Now if you turn around, walk three steps to the right, you’d find a gadget I invented some months back that could dismantle any of the latest model of Whirligig 4.0 security systems, which is what WCA is using for their datacentre, so I have heard through the grapevine. I call it the Doorminator.” She spoke in a careless manner, though pride was brimming in her tone.

Okay, let’s ignore that weird run-on sentence. But the Doorminator? That had me cracking up when I saw it. How did I come up with that before?

Exhibit 3
Semaphore is still one of my favourite fanfictions. It’s one of those stories I constantly go back to and wish I could write like that again. Here’s the opening line.

When she found the fourth dragon ball, she was overcome by a sudden wave of fear and loss, and she almost threw the ball away, almost went back home. Gohan would be wondering why she had been gone so long. All she had said to her son was that she needed some groceries, and no, he didn’t have to help her, but that she would borrow Nimbus for a while. She hid the dragonball radar in her pocket. She didn’t think her son knew she was in possession of it in the first place. She had asked Bulma a while back. Her friend did not ask what she wanted it for, but with a five-month old baby at her hip, Chichi looked like could use the wish for anything. Anything.

I used to be so good at openings. I mean, clearly other people would disagree that this is great writing at all, but for me, I think this was me at my best. Which is so sad. You probably can imagine the level I’m on right now.

Exhibit 4
The Legend of Eli Monpress is one of those really awesome series that strangely does not have a very big fandom. I don’t know why. I spent two years of my life trying to sail the JoNico ship with like… 3 other people. Here’s a snippet from the ending of an AU fic I don’t remember ever posting.

“Maybe it’s better if you forget,” she said softly after a while. He just snorted again, but he didn’t deny what they both knew. That she was poison. That really, no matter how many things Eli stole, he would never be the thief that demons were, would never steal life and past and future, the very essence of all things.

“I will never forget,” he said. And he reached out to touch her cheek, and immediately the cuff at his wrist decomposed into grimy threads that fell about their feet. She looked away.

When he left, she memorized the way his shoulders were outlined by the graying light outside the cavern, the way the Heart was slung across his back, the stubborn set of his shoulders. She ingrained it in her mind. Then she waited.

Looking at these examples, and all those times I was writing fanfiction with a zeal that I would beg for now, I can see that my best writing was when I allowed the internal voice of the characters to come out. When I wrote with what I perceived was their voice.

And I really think that’s what’s missing in my original story. Despite the fact that I’ve been outlining and planning and letting these characters use my brain as their playground, I still don’t know them. Not to the same extent as I know my headcanons of the characters I love in other books or shows.

And that’s why it’s so hard to write my own characters.

My characters get lost in the forest. What do they do? Well, I don’t know! Is it even in character for them to allow themselves to get lost in the woods? No? Yes? I don’t know even know that.

My characters have to talk about this big, important thing that my outlines says they need to address. What do they say? Well, I don’t know! Conversations highly rely on people’s attitudes and personalities. Something my characters apparently lack.

My characters are sailing a boat. What do I write about this boat trip? Well, that depends on what my characters pay attention to. Are they present in the boat trip? Are their minds wandering? If so, what do they think about? Or maybe they’ve never been on a boat before, and are extremely interested in its mechanics.

I. Don’t. Know.

Ugh, it’s incredibly frustrating. Why do I not know?

7 thoughts on “Writing Woes: A Lesson From My Fanfictions

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself Leng. You are doing the right thing – just keep writing. Even when it’s like pulling teeth. Write your characters on that boat – and if later you decide it wasn’t in character, you can always come back to it.

    For inspiration about this – go to Marissa Meyer’s (The Lunar Chronicles) blog. In the weeks leading up to the release of Wires and Nerve, she released a whole bunch of snippets from the first drafts of the books. Some of the characters were nearly unrecognizable-and for instance, in Scarlet, their journey was to be from Rieux, France to Oregon, US! Big difference. Also, other little plot bits that got way ironed out before the books were published. Also one extremely funny scene that she admits she knew would never make it into the books when she wrote it, but it was fun (and it probably helped her flesh out each personality by writing them in different scenarios).

    I’ve tentatively embarked on the writing boat, and find myself feeling your pain. As of this point, my main character was finally called “Mary”, instead of writing MC when I wanted to refer to her. I also spent a lot of time struggling with writing any sort of outline, and coming up with a setting. I even have a half scribbled map that was supposed to help me come up with my setting. I finally decided I just need to start writing. I can go back and fill in some of those details after I start to get inside my characters heads.

    You know you can write – think of this as character studies, so you can go back and write it with that special passion that you have.

    Good luck!

    • Hey Bookworm! Thanks for commenting. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do — just write, even when it’s painful. My only worry is that I don’t seem to be making as much progress as I want, exactly because I’m so uncertain about so many elements in my story. I think if I just knew more about the characters, I could at least have the story move along.

      Oh my gosh, you’re writing something too! How exciting!! Tell me more about it! I actually bought a couple of writing guides to help me with planning my stories. They’ve been very helpful, but the problem is with me — when it comes to answering the questions in the workbook, I never answer them. I always think, “I already have an idea about that,” or some equally vague thing. Later, I would realize that my initial idea wouldn’t work out, or that it was too vague that it wasn’t much of an idea to begin with. They’re called “Structuring Your Novel” by K.M. Weiland, and “Rock Your Plot” by Cathy Yardley. You can find a free version of the first one on Weiland’s blog. I hope that would help you with your outlining a bit.

      I can’t wait to hear more about your story!!

      • Maybe you could also skip to the next section of your story where you know what is going to happen – then go back and fill in the blanks after you’ve had time to flesh other details out. That’s one thing I noticed in Marissa Meyer’s writing – sometimes she would just note something in parentheses and move on.

        I think some of it is a product of our upbringing – we feel like everything has to be perfect on the first shot – and especially in writing, a lot of things will change between now and the finished product.

        We also feel like we have to have it done “today”. That’s a lot of pressure on ourselves to work through the slumps instead of taking time to relax.

        My story is really only a story in name only! I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie “it’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart. It’s one of my most favorite movies ever. The (overly) simplified plot is that George Bailey thinks his life is worthless cuz he sees all these people with more power, status, money, etc then him. He had dreams to travel the world, and for a lot of reasons, they all fell through, and he never left the small town where he grew up. In the movie, he gets shown all the impact he has on all these people’s lives. SOO, my idea is sort of the opposite of the classic fantasy chosen one adventure thing and more along the lines of George’s tale. It sort of started simmering because I feel like media always focuses on those who make it big (Steve jobs, etc) so they make you feel like anything less is not enough. So this was also in response to that, how you can have “a wonderful life” even in your own small way.

        Books thinks I should do it as a spoof of the fantasy tropes – I think she over estimates my abilities!

      • That’s the weird thing about me writing a plot-oriented story though. I can’t skip to a different scene further ahead. It’s just harder for me to write without knowing what I’m building upon on. I think one of the reasons it was so difficult for me to get back to writing after revamping my story is because I lost my orientation. I’m trying to continue where I left off, without necessarily knowing the kinds of information I would have revealed before hand. T__T

        Yes, I think you’re right about the upbringing. And I also think it’s once again my fanfiction background coming into play. Most of the time, once a fanfiction has been posted, it’s hard to go back and edit it, at the risk of confusing your readers. So I usually edited my chapters heavily before posting, and most of the things I already wrote I considered set in stone.

        Ahh, what an interesting concept! I haven’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” yet, but I’ll add it to my To Watch list. I definitely agree that most of the time, people concentrate on those who are successful, with a very narrow definition of what that success constitutes. I think seeing that message subverted in a fantasy setting would be a breath of fresh air!

  2. The thing with fanfic is that the heavy lifting of the characterization, backstory etc. has already been done for you, not just in terms of developing them for you as the author but also in terms of the reader’s experience. In that sense it’s not really “fair” to compare fanfic to original writing (though I still love both!) because a novel obligates you to introduce and develop the characters in a way that fanfic (where the reader already knows and loves those characters) doesn’t.

    That being said I often look at my fanfic and like you, am amazed by my own past self’s cleverness and daring (and mystified by why it seems to be so much harder to be that clever or bold in my original writing).

    I do very highly recommend a book called STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron, though. I’m not sure that all of her method for story development is going to work for my particular writer brain, but she asks some really great questions that help you to develop your book as a real story and not just a succession of events, and your characters as fully rounded people whose emotional arcs are integral to the plot, instead of just sheets full of physical description and trivia.

    • Thanks for commenting on this post too!

      Oh yes, it makes sense that a large part of why it’s more difficult to write your own characters is because you have to build everything from the ground up, whereas other people’s characters are already pretty much developed. I think it was a shock for me to realize that I seemed to know other people’s characters (or at least my idea of those characters) better than my own. Especially because a couple of my own characters have existed in my head for years now.

      I’ll definitely check out Story Genius. Thanks for the recommendation!

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