Monday, February 17, 2014

23 Fanfiction, 10,000 Hours, and Accepting that You Can't Ever Get It Perfect

Via NMCIL
COMPULSION is on its way to be printed up for ARCs, and I have a little time to reflect on what I wish I could still have done better. I've probably driven my editor crazy tinkering with the opening. But unlike the talented authors who nail it with a killer sentence, the perfect opening has proven to be elusive.

So what do we, as writers, do when perfection is out of reach?

At some point, we have to trust. Trust in ourselves. Trust in our characters. Trust in our agents and our editors. In our critique partners and beta readers.

I've heard so many friends beat themselves up because they feel like failures, or they feel like they aren't "getting there" fast enough. They see some of these brilliant young writers publishing at 22, or 25, and they begin to doubt their own talent. But those young writers, many of whom started out by writing fan fiction, have something going for them. Something critical. Many of them have been writing since they were eleven or twelve. Every day.

They've also had feedback. Hours and hours of passionate, attentive feedback that helped them discover through trial and error what works and what doesn't.

Feedback, honest-to-gosh thoughtful, expert feedback from a lot of simultaneous perspectives, is beyond price when you want to understand what you are putting on the page. And that's something that the Internet, with its access to fan fiction sites, online workshops, and critique partner match-ups is able to offer.

As writers, we are the orphan stepchildren of the arts. Too often, we work in a vacuum, slogging through weeks, months, years of butt-in-chair, making the same mistakes hour after hour because we don't know any better. Violinists, ballerinas, skaters, painters . . . they all spend thousands of hours with teachers and coaches helping them learn to examine every facet and nuance of their work. Fiction writers? If we're lucky we get a handful of classes in school. Most of us have very few hours of guided exploration, or structured learning. We write, and we read. And mistakenly, we often believe that simply reading for enjoyment is sufficient to count as study.

It isn't.

You're heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule? The one that suggests you need to practice for 10,000 hours before you become proficient? It's one of the justification writers often use to explain the need for "butt in chair." Maria Popova at Brain Pickings had a brilliant post last month about Debunking the 10,000 Hour Rule that touched on the science behind the issues. In a nutshell, what the science really shows is that you need to spend those 10,000 hours in mindful application of lessons set forth by master teachers.

Can we do that ourselves by studying the work of other writers? Some of us likely can. I can't. I need help. That's why I set up the First Five Pages Workshop a couple of years ago with Lisa Gail Green, hoping that by giving other aspiring writers the kind of early input on their pages that I wished I had would give them a jump start on their careers. We've been lucky--beyond lucky--with the great authors who have pitched in to provide mentorship, and we've had a lot of success with the workshop. (In fact, our April mentor is Lori Goldstein, a First Five alum who got a fabulous deal for the book she revised through the workshop.) But I'll tell you a secret, I'm still envious of the participants every month, because they are getting the kind of feedback that I wish I could have. Yes, I have an agent and an editor and a lovely team of pros who now have my back--but helping me learn is not their job. It's my job to keep learning, to keep trying to understand why things work--or why they don't.

COMPULSION is now out of my hands. It's gone. It's done. And I don't have 10,000 hours of guided instruction behind me to give me the confidence that I've done it right. (Although I did get my first blurb the other day, and I love it. WOO HOO!) All I can do is hope COMPULSION will continue to be well-received, and go back to work on Book Two with renewed determination to keep getting better.

If you read these Inspired Opening Posts here on Adventures regularly, you probably came today hoping, as I do every Monday, that the guest of the day will divulge the one Secret that will make all the difference. Instead, I will give you the best advice I can offer.

The secret to writing the perfect opening, the perfect anything, is exploration with feedback. Take advantage of things like the First Five Pages Workshop and the agent-judged Pitch Plus First Page Contest that we put on. Take advantage of every opportunity to "learn up," by which I mean learning from writers who are further up the learning curve than you are. Participate in opportunities like Pitch Wars and Pitch Madness over at Brenda Drake's blog and the Secret Agent contests at Miss Snark's First Victim. Take craft-dedicated workshops from editors and agents like those over at Free-Expressions and Ventana Sierra. Give yourself the gift of learning, the gift of confidence in your craft. The writing never gets easier. All we can do is hope we will get more comfortable with the idea that we're likely never going to offer up something perfect.

As for me? I'm going to keep learning too. And I'm going to make a concerted effort to do more experimentation. Maybe I'll even write some fan fiction. It sounds like learning AND fun.

Now all I need is an extra few hours in the day.

What about you? Have you ever written fan fiction? Have you taken any great workshops or classes? Where do you go for feedback?


23 comments:

  1. Great post! I think finding feedback is one of the biggest struggles for new or aspiring writers - even my creative writing degree wasn't as valuable as insightful feedback from someone who reads the genre. This is why critique partners and beta readers are so valuable - it's their faith in our work that can give us confidence in our work.

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  2. Hi Emma,

    I love your point about the faith of our readers giving us confidence. That is definitely true, and that confidence is a HUGE part of surviving the querying, submission, editorial, and publishing process too. There are so many rejections and pitfalls along the path that any novel takes getting into the hands of the reading public. Having love from knowledgeable people who have read it not only tells you the book is ready to start that journey, but it also gives you a well of thoughtful commentary to go back to when your confidence takes a hit. You're right. That's so important!

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  3. I got started writing fanfic. In fact I read somewhere - and this goes along with your 10000 hours thing - that a writer should write a million words before they call themselves a writer. I don't agree with that, but it was a goal I held myself to, and in just fanfic I passed that million. One million words posted publicly, read, and reviewed. And yeah, it's just fanfic, but that's more than most writers will ever get. I owe any talent I have now to that experience.

    The feedback becomes addictive, and the hardest thing to leave behind when you switch to original fiction. Writing fanfic never feels lonely or solitary like original writing does. To me, at least. The closest thing I can compare it to, aside from contests and one beta at a time - is being on a writer's forum like Absolute Write, posting the first few pages of a WIP for critique. Even then, though, the other writers on forums are looking for things to critique to make you sharper, while the readers of fanfic are looking for reasons to enjoy and gasp and squeal over whatever it is you get right. They're very different things, and it takes some adjusting.

    I've always said that I'll know I've written something great when I find fanfiction based on it. That will be a great day.

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    1. That is such an important observation about the difference in getting feedback from fan girls (or boys), to use the common term, and getting feedback from writers! One of the things I try very hard to do when I critique is to point out what someone is doing right--in at least a general way. Knowing the emotional effect you have on the reader is critical.

      And can I just say 1,000,000 words? WOW! Respect. That's awesome, and I'm sure you are seeing that paying off!

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  4. Nice post! I have tried myself on fanfiction. I wrote a novel which apart from the new characters i had created, i used the Disney characters and a new setting on my plot line. I have never taken any writting classes concerning writting fan fiction but i am aware of the rights and the limitations. I simply liked the idea that popped in my head and wrote it. Here's the link if you are interested! XD
    http://www.wattpad.com/story/5485544-roxanne-and-the-blue-rose-disney-fanfic

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Alex! It's great that you have been able have that experience and explore your own ideas within the context of a world that you already loved. : )

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  5. That Trust in Ourselves thing is hard. Really, really hard! I'm so looking forward to Compulsion! It's going to be great! :)

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    1. Thanks, Jemi! It is hard, isn't it? It's amazing to me the sheer number of ways that we manage to beat ourselves up or burden ourselves with the weight of expectation. Maybe it's the whole idea of having each word potentially existing somewhere forever that becomes crippling. Think of the hours a violinist spends pouring notes into the atmosphere. The notes fade away and there is only the memory of them, the benefit of the learning that went into them. But we writers expect our words to have staying power and heft from the beginning. It's crazy. And crazy-making. :)

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  6. I've been writing consistently since I was 11, and a lot of that was fan fiction. I think it's an excellent way for aspiring writers to start out if they're not ready yet to create their own characters or worlds. Plus the community in most fandoms is great. I made a lot of friends through fan fiction.

    I'm 25 now and still not published. I feel like I'm closer than I was even a year or two ago, but it's still discouraging to keep getting mostly form rejections every time I submit something. Oh well, I guess everyone's journey is different.

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    1. Wow, Mary! See? That's the kind of practice that will stand you in good stead eventually, I have no doubt. But maybe it's time to take the next step and find a mentor who can tell you what you need to work on. I was at that point after I had completed Compulsion. I knew that I had near misses and a number of agents who had asked to see more work, but I felt like there was still something I was missing. I took the Your Best Book workshop from Free-Expressions, and I was lucky enough to hear exactly what my manuscript needed. Sometimes, when you're ready to hear the advice you've already heard a hundred times, getting it in just the right moment and in the right way can be the kick that gets you the rest of the way across the finish line. Hang in there!

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  7. Martina, I'm so excited that your baby is off to the printer! That is SO exciting.

    I struggle with perfection a lot. I try and try and try, even knowing that perfection isn't possible. But I actually think it's a good thing to strive for perfection. We aren't taking our readers for granted, and we keep reaching out and learning more.

    Your book will be wonderful, and will continue to be well received. You've only just begun! *cue Carpenters music*

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    1. Lol! I'll take the Carpenters music, thanks! And I know YOU know what I'm talking about. But it's hard, isn't it? We can know in our heads that this is the first book, that it's never going to be perfect or anywhere close to it. It's the foundation for the books to come. But we want so much for our characters and we so don't want to disappoint our readers. We writers are an angsty lot--but I think that's comes with the active imagination and the empathy we need to have to create stories in the first place, right? :)

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  8. Congratulations that Compulsion is off to becoming an arc. How exciting for you. I don't think I'll try fan fiction..but am working towards accumulating those 10,000 hours. (Shucks! I should have been keeping track!) I agree with everything you said. And pretty soon I'm going to be ready for your first 5 pages workshop!

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    1. Oh, I can't WAIT to see your WIP, Carol! I know it's going to be amazing. I remember your voice so clearly. And you know, I hadn't actually divided it out until you said that, but 10,000 hours works out to 3 1/2 years of working 8 hours a day, 350 days a year. YIKES.

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  9. So happy for you! :) I can't wait to read it! I have no idea how much say you have in it, but I would LOVE an ARC of Compulsion. I'd be happy to review on my blog, Goodreads, Amazon, wherever!

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    1. Hi Kate,

      Thank you! My publicist at Simon Pulse is handling all ARC requests, but I'll send you an email with her information and I'll drop her a line about it too. : ) Hopefully we can work out something! (And hugs for that!)

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  10. Congrats on this great big step with your novel. I've never tried fan fiction, but who knows what tomorrow will bring.

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    1. Never say never, right? Maybe it's the Rainbow Rowell effect, but honestly, it makes so much sense from a practical experience perspective, right?

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  11. So excited your book is at ARC stage. Can't wait to read it. And yes, you can always look at a manuscript and find ways to improve it. But at some point, you just have to be done with it.

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    1. Yep. Or your editor kills you. :D Thank goodness mine is lovely and patient!

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  12. How exciting that you're done!!! Congrats for that, and on the great blurb you received. :D Nope, have never written fanfic. I prefer to make up my own characters, I guess. I wrote my first 10 novels with not much feedback. While fun, I really didn't start growing until more info became available online. I did attend SCBWI conferences too--very helpful. :)

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    1. SCBWI Conferences are great aren't they? I wish I was at the one in New York right now. But I think there's a danger (at least there was for me) with attending conferences that offer information or advice at the same level as those you've attended before. As with feedback and the writing itself, we need to be stretching ourselves. I had a fabulous experience at the Miami SCBWI conference a couple of years ago where they had half-day classes truly devoted to specific aspects of craft. Courses that are deep show you how much you have to learn, and that opens all sorts of doors. It was that experience that made me hungry enough to want to take a week long workshop. And seriously, that was a fabulous decision for me. I guess the bottom line is that I suspect is it rare for anyone to make real progress without some form of feedback--whatever form of feedback that takes, right? : )

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