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Words for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well

Almost exactly 365 days after my agent called to offer me representation (Good Friday, 2011), he sent out the first submission package for the novel I queried him with. It’s been two weeks since then, with a little bit of feedback from publishers, but nothing substantial, and I’ve nearly gotten over my willies over the fact that there are editors out there at major publishing houses who might be reading my manuscript right now.

When Authors are on submission, the advice they get from the agents, support circles, advice blogs, and writer buddies is nearly always the same thing:  “Start a new project to keep you distracted.”

Excellent advice to my mind. It allows you to fall in love with new characters, and a new world, and helps you unclench your fingers from around the one that’s now out in the real world, all grown up and out of your control.

I want to follow that advice; to the point where I sent my agent the pitches and/or synopsis for five other possible projects. I am waiting to hear which he thinks would be the best next step. But while I’m waiting for his reply, I ought to be reading.

And I’m not.

This is a bit of a problem, I think.

I want to read. I know I should be reading. I know I should be diving into the world of the genre/age range that I am working in and roll around in the glorious prose, let the soft sweet prickly ends of letters cling to my skin and my hair, let its words whisper past my ears, let its character tenderly pluck my heart strings, let its worlds dazzle my eyes and steal my breath.

But I can’t. I’m scared.

I’m afraid that I’ll read a YA Adventure book and it will be better than mine. It will be steampunkier and more creative, that the world will be more awesome than mine, the MC more likeable and badass, the plot more engaging, the prose more vivid, the villain more shiver-inducing. I am afraid that it will make me throw up my hands and say, “I quit!”

I am afraid that I’ll read a book like mine and decide that there’s no place for mine in the world, because they’ve already done everything I wanted to do, and did it better. I am afraid that I will read a book nothing at all like mine and get resentful and worried that I’m not writing books of that quality in that genre instead.

I was genuinely heartbroken when I saw the first trailer for “Lost in Austen”,  because I had been about 1/3rd of the way through writing a novel with the exact same premise. I punched the wall so hard I left a mark on the plaster, and I mourned the loss of those characters and that world for days.  I was able to salvage some of the characters and scenes for another novel I wrote in the era, but ultimately the new book still feels a little like the puppy your dad buys you after your old dog is put down – wonderful, energetic, loving, but not the same. I really like this book, and am really proud of it, and would really like to sell it to a publisher… but I still can’t help but think of Lost in Austen every time I re-read it.

So, to alleviate this fear I’ve been turning a lot to fanfiction.

Partially, (and I will admit that this is totally shallow,) this is because these are stories that cannot, in any way, compete with my books. These are not professional works written for profit, and these are not works filled with original characters and worlds that might end up being objectively ‘better’ than mine. I am already familiar with the worlds and characters, so I can’t resent them.  I can simply turn off my analytical brain and enjoy the story for the story’s sake, because I have nothing to fear from it.

When I start a new book, I also get slightly anxious that I won’t like the characters or the setting.  I had to stop reading Emma because the titular heroine drove me bonkers. I know that she gets better, that’s the point of the novel, but I didn’t have the patience or enough affection for Emma as she was to want to stick it out long enough. Twice in the last year I’ve begun YA books and left them unfinished because I wasn’t feeling engaged.

One of the joys of reading fanfiction is that I already know I love the characters and worlds. The fandom settles over me like a warm sweater, the jumper from university that I’ve had for ten years, whose little whorls and pulls and pilled pile I know intimately; I know who these people are, I know where and when they are, and I understand the shorthand of place and setting. Even when the story is an AU or a crossover, the core of the story and the characters remains the same, and that is a comfort. It is home cooking, Mom’s favourite dishes, and I know I will enjoy the meal and not be stuck trying to figure out which fork I’m supposed to be using at the fancy new restaurant. I feel safe reading these stories, and the anxiety of not like the setting or the characters is absent.

The third reason I read so much fanfiction is that I find the writing incredibly fresh. Most of the writers are not professionals. They don’t do this for a living. They don’t have word counts to hit every day, and editing deadlines, and editors/agents/marketing teams guiding their projects. I’m not implying that professional writing is stale or formulaic, only that the modes and motivations of creation inevitably must inform the creation.

Fanfiction writers are truly free to write whatever they want, at whatever pace they want. And the way that some of these writers – either because they know the rules and choose to deliberately break them, or because they don’t know the rules and they are breaking them without knowing it and creating something new and glorious – assemble narratives is stunning.

Sure, there’s really abysmal fanfiction out there, and the bad is bad. But there is also some really incredible fanfiction, and the good stuff is fantastic.

Mix in the flexibility of the internet as a medium of conveying the story, and, gosh, wow. I think one of the most gorgeous transmedia multi-layered narratives I ever experienced is “Missed the Saturday Dance” by Zoetrope (Stargate Atlantis).   I love it when authors can string me along like taffy for weeks, months, years while making me anticipate the next chapter of their works in progress. I love the thrill of seeing a new chapter come up online, and the horror of being left at an intense cliffhanger.

Sure, there are tropes and stereotypes, idioms and metaphors and phrases that are recycled within the fanfiction of a specific fandom, but that also happens within the genres/age range groups of published novels as well.  But more often than not, I find myself jotting down phrases, or tricks used to convey character, or ways of displaying dialogue, or ways of playing with the page.

I begin to intensely enjoy the play aspect of fanfiction.

Playing with format, with character, with setting, with narrative, with logic, with the rules. I love how fanfiction can focus on minutiae; how a writer can devote 100 or 100,000 on a character study, how conventions and expectations can be inverted, subverted, and reverted.

I become invigorated. I want to try out some of the things I’ve learned, apply them to my words-on-a-page format of my novels and see if I can make it work. I want to play within the worlds in my head.

And this leads into the creative-well filling of the title of this post.  I often refer to my creativity in water metaphors and symbolism. Words flow down my arms, through my fingers, around the keyboard and onto the digital page. Ideas and characters percolate and boil in my brain until the kettle whistles and all the froth of heat and water becomes a perfectly directed cone of steam, a tight idea ready to be written down. Characters and settings slosh between my ears, and occasionally formulate shards of ice that poke into my brain and stab me with an excellent idea.

At the end of a novel, I feel drained. My metaphorical water table of creativity is so low that even crawling across the desert to drink at my bookshelf oasis is hard work. I lose all ambition to read, I get insecure and my confidence-membrane dries out and cracks. I feel like I will never not be parched again.

I know I should reach for the big gallon jugs of water that are the books of my professional colleagues, but the water bottles of the unique fanfiction writers are so much more appealing, and much easier to heft. I don’t want to work, I want to play.

And then, slowly, as my well begins to refill, I find the strength have confidence in my projects and to be recovered enough to try out new novels. Inevitably I enjoy them and wonder why I was being so silly, fearing to read the books, fearing that I would compare them with mine and find mine lacking. Nobody’s novels will ever be like mine, because nobody else is me. Even if we worked from the exact same character list and pitch, my version of a novel would never exactly match, say, Suzanne Collins’, or Lesley Livingston’s, or Adrienne Kress’.

Or Random Nexus, Velvet Mace, or Sheafrotherdon, for that matter. (Though, holy heck, wouldn’t that be a fun thing to try on Archive of Our Own?)

There is nothing to compare, and nothing to fear, because there is no such thing as “a better novel than mine.” Books and stories are different from one another, not “better” or “worse.”

I become even more hydrated, confident in my own work and adoring, celebrating the work of my professional colleagues, splashing amid the fanfiction, and taking in great gulps of inspiration.

It often takes a while for my well to refill. I read for a month or more, and write nothing. I’ve given myself April off of writing – purposefully holding back so that when I do sit down at the computer on May 1st, the stone walls of my well ought to be overflowing, the kettle just beginning the whistle, and the ice shards poking out all over in my gray matter.

The cycle starts again. I imagine my creativity like those posters in your primary school classroom with the mountains and the rainclouds and the lakes, an endless water cycle. The whole ecosystem is needed, necessary, and sometimes there are dry spells. But sometimes, when the weather is lined up just right, there are also floods.

 

Reminder: J.M. Frey is giving away eBooks of TRIPTYCH or THE DARK SIDE OF THE GLASS on her Tumblr to fancrafters (fanfiction, fanart, cosplay, etc.) until April 30th. Read about the give away here.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

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