Words for Writers

Words for Writers: At What Point Should I Start Searching for an Agent?

Question: If I do decide to go the agent route, at what point would it be recommended to start looking? Total manuscript completion? 

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Basically, yeah, wait until the book is written, polished, and has been through beta readers or critique groups. You only get one chance to impress an agent. Always, always, always ensure that what you’re sending them is the very best version of it. Also, waiting until the manuscript is totally complete also means that a) you’ve proven to yourself and to the agent that you can finish what you start and b) you won’t get caught with your pants down if they respond right away asking for the full, after you’ve sent a partial.

But more than just a totally spit-shined MS, also ensure you write a complete pitch package before you start to query. Why? Because agents invariably ask for come combination of these documents as well as the query letter and MS, and it makes sense to just sit down and do it all together once instead of scrambling to create new docs with each submission.

Pitch Package:

  • Elevator Pitch: One or two sentences to hook ’em. Imagine you have the length of one elevator ride to intrigue a publisher/agent/producer. What would you say? (Example: A girl vigilante and her mystical, semi-sentient rocketpack are shot down behind enemy lines, and now have to rely on the help of an underground rebellion to not only get home, but end a decades-long war. The only question is whether the rebellion can be trusted, or if they’re planning to turn her in for the bounty.) This is the only part of the pitch doc I recommend memorizing, because you may have the opportunity to pitch someone in person at an event, and you want to have a slick response to: “So what are you working on now?”
  • Back Cover Copy/One Paragraph Pitch: Basically, write the stuff that goes on the back of the book. Try to keep it to about 100-200 words. You will use this in your query letter, as well as turn it over to marketing when it’s time to design your cover.
  • 5 Page Synopsis: Write out the entire plot of your novel, beat-by-beat, pointing out cause and effect and character growth, INCLUDING the ending (surprise your readers, not your agent.)
  • 3 Page Synopsis: Turn that same doc above into a 3 pager.
  • 1 page Synopsis: Turn that same doc above into a 1 pager. (Why? Because these are the industry standards, and these get asked for a lot).
  • If the book is first of a series, DO NOT WRITE THE SERIES. Write the back cover copy/pitch paragraph & a 1 page synopsis, and included it in the package as well. (Why not write the whole series? What if the publisher only wants the first book? You’ve wasted your effort. Or what if your editor asks you what book #2 is about and the two of you come up with a MUCH BETTER idea? Wasted effort.)

Once you’ve done all that, then you can craft your Query Letter, and begin to submit to agents. (I made an Excel with each agent I wanted to submit to and their individual submission requirements.)

Best of luck!

Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWords for Writers: At What Point Should I Start Searching for an Agent?
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Words for Writers: Updated and Reorganized

Today I reorganized my WORDS FOR WRITERS tags and posts on my website to make them easier to navigate.

This is a blog series I’ve been writing for nearly ten years now (!!) about the craft, business, ins and outs of being a professional writer.

Some posts are reflections on my own experiences, some are reposts of guest blogs I’ve written, some are transcripts of speeches I’ve given, some are panels or podcasts I’ve participated in, and some are answers to direct questions I’ve received. But all are filled with advice for writers.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Updated and Reorganized
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Words for Writers: Do I Write the Boring Bits?

Question:

When you’re writing, how do you fill in the parts between major events, dialogue and foreshadowing. Like transitions where characters are just traveling where nothing descript is supposed to be between. I understand parts of it are setting tone but is it maybe just that I’m thinking the story is supposed to be longer than it really is?

My Answer:

Thanks for the question!

So, if I understand it correctly, what you’re asking is – how do I write the stuff where nothing happens?

The quick and glib answer is : don’t write it.

Honestly, if you don’t want to read it –if you would skip it as a reader – then don’t write it either.

The long answer is: each scene you write should advance either a) the plot, b) character growth, c) understanding of the setting/world. Ideally, all three at once. If a scene doesn’t do that, then just skip it. Save your time, attention, and words for the places and moments in the story where something happens and something advances.

Now, I’m not saying just write the action-y bits or the exposition dialogue-y bits. It doesn’t have to be actions-action-action. Small, quiet moments are important too, for pacing. But make sure the small quiet moments you choose to describe do something.

For example, in the films The Lord of the Rings the battle sequences are important, yes? But so is the moment when Frodo and Sam are walking through the forest talking about what kinds of stories they want to be when this is all over. The former advances the plot and our understanding of Tolkien’s world. The latter advances our understanding of the characters, and foreshadows just how important Samwise is going to be at the crucial moment when it looks as if Frodo isn’t strong enough to drop The One Ring into Mount Doom’s cauldera.

What Jackson didn’t film and show were endless, needless scenes of the Fellowship walking across Middle Earth. We saw a few brief sequences to establish how they’re travelling, and we cut back to the walking again when Important Moments happened during the walking, but we weren’t subjected to five hundred hours of just walking. It’s implied, we don’t have to see it, we as clever viewers can figure it out.

Writing a story is the same.

Especially if you’re writing a short story. Don’t waste your precious allotment of words on something that doesn’t serve the tale. I’m not saying “don’t be flowery or descriptive”, I’m saying, “You’ve only got 5000 words so make sure you’re not using them up on side stuff that doesn’t matter.”

Think of it like Peter Jackson cutting out Tom Bombadil because it didn’t further the story of “Frodo takes The One Ring to Mordor and destroys it”. It’s a neato episode, but ultimately doesn’t serve the main narrative. But he kept all the worldbuilding stuff – Bilbo’s birthday party, dinners and campfire meals, moments of culture building – because it showed the audience the world that would be lost if Frodo failed. It was necessary.

If you only have 5000 words, just don’t write the Bombadilly bits.

It’s harder to gauge when you’re talking about a novel, of course. But don’t forget that scene cuts or time jumps can happen in books too. You can end a chapter and pick up the story at the next chapter in a different place. Or put in a scene separator (usually asterisks or a little wingding in novels) to indicate a time and place change. Just be sure that when you open the next scene you either give a header or a clue to the reader that time has jumped. For example:

“How much further have we to walk until we reach Erebor, Uncle Bilbo?” young Frodo asked, pleased that he had finally pestered the older Hobbit into taking him to see the dwarves his uncle spoke of so often.
“A great deal farther yet, my boy,” Bilbo said gently. “We’ve a night in Bree planned, and from there—”
“The Trollshaws!” Frodo exclaimed gleefully. “I want to see your stone trolls!”
“We’ve days of walking ahead of us before we arrive, my boy,” Bilbo reminded him. “Days and days.”

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         The stone trolls were as hideous as Frodo had hoped they would be. He stared up at them with wide-eyed glee, poking the end of a branch into the nostril of the one Uncle Bilbo had called Bill.
Sure, Frodo’s feet were a bit tender, but the blisters were worth being able to see the trolls in the flesh. Stone. Whatever.

If, for some reason, you feel that your story isn’t long enough without putting all the “boring” and “taken for granted stuff” in it, then I would suggest taking a step back and revaluating the arc of your plot and character growth. There must be a complication or subplot that you may be neglecting, or that might be anemic.

And again, I’m not advocating for cutting out the worldbuilding or the tone and mood of the book, or anything that displays a great voice. That stuff is important, as long as you do it well and deploy it thoughtfully.

I hope this has been helpful to you!

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

JM FreyWords for Writers: Do I Write the Boring Bits?
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Words for Writers: The Story of How I Started Selling Stories

Improbable Press put out a call asking fan fiction authors how they went from Free to Fee. Here’s my response. Happy reading!

My parents, teachers, and acting/singing coaches will all tell you that I’ve always been a story teller. For the first twenty four years of my life, I was determined to do so through musical theatre, though I had always secretly harbored the desire to write a hit stage play. My early writing consisted of plays for my friends and I to put on, interspersed with prose that I supposed would one day become a novel, but which wasn’t my passion.

I was a big reader, but where this habit came from, I’m not certain. While my mother always had a book on the go – whatever crumbling paperback law thriller or murder mystery she’d been handed by the woman down the street when she was done it, which was then passed on to the next neighbor – my father and brothers preferred sports (either on TV or outside in the yard) over reading. I stumbled into fantasy and science fiction because Wil Wheaton was hot, and his show was on every Friday night, and from there I consumed every Star Trek tie-in novel my tiny rural library carried, then started following the authors of the novels into their other worlds and series.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that this was how I found fan fiction for the first time. My “I love this, gee, I wonder what else there is?” muscle was well developed by junior high, and before the internet had come to The Middle Of Nowhere Rural Ontario, I had already gotten quite adept at search keywords and codexes to track down more books to consume.  Imagine my shock and joy when, in the middle of my Phantom of the Opera phase (come on, fess up, you had one too), the internet in my school library told me about not only Fredrick Forsyth and Susan Kay’s stunning re-tellings, but of something called fan fiction.

I wasted a lot of the librarian’s ink and paper printing out these books and secreting them into binders and pretending to do school work at my desk or backstage between scenes. A lot. And yes, I still have most of them.

And as we all well know, the jump between reading and writing is a short when one is submerged so fully in communities of creators. Everyone else’s “What If” rubs off on you, and it’s just a matter of time before you find yourself playing with the idea of coaxing a few plot bunnies over to spend some time with you. Not everyone loves to write, but gosh darn it, if you want to give it a try, then you couldn’t ask for a better, more supportive community. It doesn’t matter how new you are to it, everyone reads, everyone comments, everyone makes suggestions. People beta read. People edit. People co-write. People cheer, and support, and recommend, and enthuse. Yeah, there are the occasional jerks, flammers, and wank-mongers, but on the whole? There’s literally no better place to learn how to be a writer than in fandom, I firmly believe this.

So, of course, born storyteller that I am, I had to give it a try.

I started writing fan fiction in 1991 for a small, relatively obscure Canadian/Luxembourg co-pro children’s show called Dracula: the Series.  I used to get up and watch it on Saturday mornings, in my PJs, before heading off to whichever rehearsal or read through or practice I had that year.

1995 brought the English dub of Sailor Moon to my life, (and put me on the path to voice acting), and along with a high-school friend, I wrote, printed out, illustrated, and bound my first “book” – a self-insert story that was just over eleven pages long, which introduced new Scouts based on us.  From there, I didn’t really stop.

1996 led me to Forever Knight and Dragon Ball Z, and from there to my friend’s basement where they’d just installed the internet. We chatted with strangers on ICQ, joined Yahoo!Groups and Bravenet Chat Boards. (Incidentally, a friend from my DBZ chat group turned out to be a huge DtS fan, too. We wrote a big crossover together which is probably only accessible on the Wayback Machine now. We stayed friends, helped each other through this writing thing, and now she’s Ruthanne Reid, author of the popular Among the Mythos series.)  In 2000 I got a fanfiction.net account and never looked back.

In 2001, while in my first year of university for Dramatic Arts, I made my first Real Live fandom friends. We wrote epic-length self-insert fics in Harry Potter and Fushigi Yuugi, cosplayed at conventions (sometimes using the on-campus wardrobe department’s terrifyingly ancient serger), and made fan art and comics in our sketchbooks around studying for our finals and writing essays on critical theory or classical Latin.  I was explaining the plot of the next big fic I was going to write to one of them, an older girl who had been my T.A. but loved Interview with the Vampire just as dearly as I, when she said, “You know, this sounds really interesting. Why don’t you strip all the fandom stuff out of the story and just write it as a novel?”

You can do that? was my first thought.

No! I don’t want to! Writing is my fun hobby. What will happen if I try to be a writer and get rejected by everyone and I end up hating it? was my second.

But the seed was planted.  Slowly at first, and then at increasingly obsessive pace, I began writing my first novel around an undergrad thesis,  fourth-year  essays,  several other big fanfics that popped me into the cusp of BNF status but never quite over the tine, and then a move to Japan to teach English. From 2002-2007 I wrote about 300 000 words on the novel that I would eventually shut away in my desk drawer and ignore until I published on Wattpad under my pseudonym on a lark. It was messy. It was long. It was self-indulgent and blatantly inspired by Master of Mosquiton, Interview with the Vampire, Forever Knight, and anything written by Tanya Huff, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Charlaine Harris. This was fine for fanfic, but in terms of being comfortable with presenting it to agents and publishing houses, I felt that it wasn’t original enough.

By this time I was teaching overseas, and in my spare time (and boy, was there a lot of spare time while sitting in a Japanese teacher’s office for 40 hours per week when one only actually teaches for 11 of them) I started applying to MA programs (where I eventually wrote my thesis on Mary Sue Fan Fiction). I also spent it researching “How to Get Published”, mostly by Googling it and/or buy/reading the few books on the topic in English I could find at the local book store or order from the just-then-gaining-international traction online bookstore Amazon.

What that research mostly told me was “Write and sell a bunch of short fiction first, so you have proof that a) you can do the work and b) you can finish what you promise you’ll finish and c) you have proof that other people think you’re worth spending money on.”

Short fiction. Huh. Of course we’d studied short stories in school, and I’d even taken a short story writing class in university, though nothing I’d written for the class was indicative of the kinds of stories I preferred to tell. But I felt pretty confident about this whole writing short stories thing… after all, I’d been doing weekly challenges for years. Drabbles. Flashfic. Stories and chapters that were limited to the word count cap that LiveJournal put on its posts. I’d written novellas without knowing that’s what they were called; I’d written whole novels about other people’s characters. All I needed was an idea. Short fiction I could do.

Unfortunately, everything that came to me was fanfic inspired. It frustrated me, because I didn’t want to write a serial-numbers-filed-off story. I wanted to write something original and epic and inspiring. Something just mine. I started and stopped a lot of stories in 2006-2007. I’d been doing NaNoWriMo for years by then, having been introduced to it in undergrad, and I was determined that this would be the year that I wrote something I could shop. Something just mine. Something unique.

While I adored fanfiction, I was convinced that I couldn’t make a career on it.  What had once been a fun hobby soon because a source of torment. Why could I think of a hundred ways to write a meet-cute between my favorite ships, but come up utterly blank when it came to something new and original and just mine?

It took me a while to realize that my playwriting and short story teachers had been correct when they said that there are no original stories in the world, no way you can tell a tale that someone else hasn’t already tried. The “Man vs.” list exists for a reason.

The unique part isn’t your story, it’s your voice. Your lived life, your experiences, your way of forming images and structuring sentences. Your choices about who the narrator character is, and what the POV will be, and how the characters handle the conflict. In that way, every piece of writing ever done is individual and unique, even the fanfic. Because nobody is going to portray that character’s quirk or speech pattern quite like you do, nobody is going to structure your plot or your imagery like you. Because there is only one of you. Only one of me. Even if we’re all writing fanfiction, no one’s story sounds like anyone else’s,  or is told like anyone else’s.

That is the reality of being a storyteller.

And strangely enough, the woman who opened my eyes to this was a psychic from a psychic fair I attended, who told me that Mark Twain was standing over her shoulder admonishing me to stop fretting and just get something on the page – but to never forget character. My strength, she said that he said, was in creating memorable, well written, well rounded characters. And that my book should focus on that above concerns of plot or pacing.

Well, okay. If Mark Twain says that’s what my strength is, then that’s what my strength is, right? Who am I to argue with the ghost of Mark Freaking Twain?

An accident with a bike and a car on a rice patty left me immobile for six weeks in 2006, and I decided that if I was finally going to write this original short story to sell – especially since I would need income, as the accident made it obvious that I would never be able to dance professionally, and probably would never be able to tread the boards in musicals – now was the perfect time. I was going to stop fighting my fannish training and write.

I cherry picked and combined my favorite aspects of Doctor Who, Stargate: Atlantis, Torchwood, The Farm Show/The Drawer Boy, and my own melancholy experiences with culture shock and liminal-living in a foreign culture, and wrote a novella titled (Back). It was a character study of a woman named Evvie who, through an accident of time travel, meets the future version of her infant daughter Gwen. And realizes she doesn’t like the woman her daughter will become. It was a story about accepting people for who they are, instead of who you wish they would be, and had a strong undercurrent of the turbulence I was going through in trying to figure out my own sexuality and that I wouldn’t have the future in performance that I had been working toward since I was four.

Deciding that I would worry about where I would try to publish the story after it had been written, I sat down and wrote what ended up being (at least for me) a pretty standard-length fanfic: 18,762 words. It was only after I had finished the story that I looked up what category that put it in – Novella. Using paying  reputable markets, like Duotrope, the Writer’s Digest, MSFV, Absolute Write, SFWA, my local Writer’s Union, Writer Beware, I realized that I had shot myself in the foot.

It seems like nearly nobody publishes novellas anymore. SF/F and Literary Fiction seem to be the last two bastions of the novella, and the competition to get one published is fierce.  The markets that accepted SF/F novellas was vanishingly thin I had to do a lot of Googling and digging to figure out who I could submit to with an unagented/unsolicited SF/F novella. If I recall correctly, it was only about ten publications. I built an excel database and filled it with all the info I found.

I put together a query letter and sent it off using my database to guide me. Most of the rejections were kind, and said that the story was good, just too long/too short/ too sci-fi-y/not sci-fi-y enough. Only one market offered on it – for $10 USD. Beggers couldn’t be choosers, even if I had hoped to make a little more than ten bucks, and I accepted.

It was a paid professional publication, and that’s what mattered to me. I had the first entry on my bibliography, and something to point to in my query letters to prove that I was a worthy investment for a publisher/agent.

And energized by this, and now aware that length really does matter, even in online-only publications, I started writing other shorts to pad out my bibliography more.

I tried to tailor these ones to what my research told me the “mainstream industry” and “mainstream audiences” wanted, and those stories? Those were shot down one after the other. I was still writing fanfiction at the time, too, and those stories were doing well, getting lots of positive feedback, so why weren’t my stories?

In 2007 I returned to Canada and Academia, frustrated by my lack of sales, desperate to kick off my publishing career, and feeling a creative void left by having to depart theatre because of my new difficulties walking. I wrote my MA, and decided that if (Back) was the only original story that people liked, then I’d try to expand it into a novel.

Over the course of two years I did my coursework, and  read everything there was to read about how to get a book deal, started hanging out in writer’s/author’s groups in Toronto and met some great people who were willing to guide me, and expanded (Back) into the novel Triptych. I kept reminding myself what Mark Twain said – character was my strength, the ability to make the kind of people that other writers wanted to write stories about, a skill I’d honed while writing fanfic. Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? Sure, we write fix-its and AUs and fusions and finish cancelled shows, and fill in missing scenes, but what we’re all really doing is playing with characters, isn’t it? Characters draw us to fanfic, and characters keep us there. Characters is what we specialize in.

Fanfic had taught me to work with a beta reader, so I started asking my fic betas if they’d like a go at my original novel. Fellow fanfic writers, can I just say how valuable editors and beta readers in the community are? These are people who do something that I’ve paid a professional editor thousands of dollars to do for free out of sheer love. Treasure your beta readers, folks. Really.

“It reminds me a lot of fan fiction,” one reader said. “The intense attention to character and their inner life, and the way that the worldbuilding isn’t dumped but sprinkled in an instance at a time, like, you know, a really good AU. I love it.”

Dear Lord. I couldn’t have written a better recommendation or a more flattering description if I’d tried. Mark Twain was right, it seems. And fanfic was the training ground, for me – my apprenticeship in storytelling.

Of course… what Mr. Twain hadn’t explained is that character-study novels just don’t sell in SF/F. They say Harry Potter was rejected twelve times? HA. I shopped Triptych to both agents and small presses who didn’t require you to have an agent to publish with them, and I got 64 rejections. Take that, J.K.

At first the rejection letters were forms and photocopied “no thanks” slips. But every time I got feedback from a publisher or agent, I took it to heart, adjusted the manuscript, edited, tweaked, tweaked, tweaked. Eventually, the rejections started to get more personal. “I loved this character, but I don’t know how to sell this book.” And “I really enjoyed the read, but it doesn’t really fit the rest of our catalogue.” And “What if you rewrote the novel to be about the action event that happens before the book even starts, instead of focusing solely on the emotional aftermath?”

In other words – “Stop writing fanfiction.” There seemed to be a huge disconnect between what the readership wanted and what the publishing world thought they wanted.

Disheartened, frustrated, and wondering if I was going to have to give up on my dreams of being a professional creative, I attended Ad Astra, a convention in Toronto, in 2009. At a room party, complaining to my author friends that “nobody wanted my gay alien threesome book!” a woman I didn’t know asked me about the novel. We chatted, and it turned out she was the acquisitions editor for Dragon Moon Press, and incidentally, also a fan of fan fiction.

I sent her Triptych. She rejected it. I asked why. She gave me a laundry list of reasons. I said, “If I can address these issues and rewrite it, would you be willing to look at it again?” She said yes. She was certain, however, that I wouldn’t be able to fix it. I spent the summer rewriting – while making sure to stay true to my original tone of the novel, and writing a character-study fanfiction. I sent it in the fall. I do believe it was Christmas eve when I received the offer of publication.

From there, my little fic-inspired novel was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards and a CBC Bookie, was named one of the best books of 2011 by the Advocate, and garnered a starred review and a place on the Best Books Of The Year at Publishers Weekly.

The award nominations led me to an agent, and further contracts, and even conversations with studio execs. It also made me the target of Requires Only That You Hate, and other cranky, horrible reviewers. But you know what? I’ve had worse on a forum, and on ff.n, and LJ. It sucked, and it hurt, but if there’s one thing fandom has taught me, it’s that not everyone is going to love what you do, and not everyone interprets things the same way you do. The only thing we can do is learn from the critique if it’s valid and thoughtful, and ignore the screaming hate and bullying. Then you pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and go write something else.

Because a screaming hater? Is not going to ruin my love of storytelling.

But for all that… the day someone made me fan art based on Triptych is one etched in my memory. It means far more to me than any of the emails I ever received inquiring about representation or film rights, or wanting meetings to discuss series.

The lesson I learned from publishing Triptych  – now sadly out of print, but we’re looking for a new home for it – is that if I chase what the “mainstream” and the “industry” want, I’ll never write anything that sells because my heart won’t be in it. I have to keep writing like a fanficcer, even if I’m not writing fanfic, if I want to create something that resonates with people. And if it takes time for the publishers and acquiring editors to figure out what I’m doing, and how to sell it, then fine – I have an agent on my side now, and a small growing number of supporters, readers, and editors who love what I do.

Do I still write fanfic? Very, very rarely. I’ve had some pretty demanding contracts and deadlines in the last two years, so I’ve had to pare down my writing to only what’s needed to fulfill my obligations. Doesn’t mean I don’t have ideas for fics constantly.

Sometimes the urge is powerful enough that I do give into it – I wrote To A Stranger, based on Mad Lori’s Performance in a Leading Role Sherlock AU recently, when I should have been writing the second and third novels of The Accidental Turn Series. And even more recently, I cleaned up To A Stranger  into something resembling a real screenplay and started shopping it around to film festivals and producers because I love this story, I love what I did with it, and I’m proud of the work. If To A Stranger is only ever a fanfic, that’s fine with me. I poured my heart into it and am so proud of it. But I figure that if there’s one more project I could possibly get into the real world, then why not go for it?

The worst thing the festival heads and producers can say about the work is: “No, thank you.” And being an online writer has taught me not to take the “no, thank you”s personally. Applying the values of Don’t Like Don’t Read or Not My Kink to your publication/agent search makes it much easier to handle the rejections – not every story is for every person.

Maybe once every producer in North America has rejected it, I might think about working with someone to adapt the screenplay into an illustrated comic fanbook? Who knows?

That’s the joy of starting out as a writer in fandom – felixibility, adaptability, creative problem-solving and cross-platform storytelling comes as naturally as breathing to us fan writers. It’s what we do.

You may not think that this is a strength, but trust me, it is. I was never so shocked at an author’s meetup as when I suggested to someone that their “writer’s block” sounded to me like they were telling the story in the wrong format. “I think this is a comic, not a novel,” I’d said. “It sounds so visual. That’s why the story is resisting you.” And they stared at me like I suddenly had an extra head and said, “But I’m a novelist.” I said, “No, you’re a writer. Try it.” They never did, as far as I know, and they never finished that book, either.

As fans, our strength isn’t just in what we write, or how we come to our stories. It’s also about the physical practice of writing, too. We’re a group of people who have learned to carry notebooks, squeeze in a few hundred words between classes, or when the baby is napping, or during our lunch breaks, or on commute home. This is our hobby, we fit it in around our lives and jobs, and that has taught us the importance of just making time.

We are, on average, more dedicated and constant writers than some of the “novelists” that I’ve met: the folks who wait for inspiration to strike, who quit their day jobs in pursuit of some lofty ideal of having an office and drinking whiskey and walking the quay and waiting for madam muse to grace them, who throw themselves at MFAs and writing retreats, as if it’s the attendance that makes them writers and not the work of it.

We fans are career writers. We don’t wait for inspiration to come to us, we chase it down with a butterfly net. We write when and where we can. More than that, we finish things. (Or we have the good sense to know when to abandon something that isn’t working.) We write to deadlines. Self-imposed ones, even.

We write 5k on a weekend for fun, and think NaNoWriMo’s 50k goal and 1667 words per day are a walk in the park. (When I know it terrifies some of the best-selling published authors I hang out with.) Or if we fans don’t write fast, then we know that slow and steady works too, and we’re willing to stick it out until our story is finished, even if it takes years of weekly updates to do so. We have patience, and perseverance, and passion.

This is what being a fanfiction writer has given me. Not only a career as a writer, but tools and a skill-set to write work that other people think is work awarding, adapting, and promoting. And the courage to stick to my guns when it comes to telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell.

This is what being a fanfiction writer gives us.

Aren’t we lucky, fellow fans? Hasn’t our training been spectacular?

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J.M. (@scifrey) is a SF/F author, and professional smartypants on AMI Audio’s Live From Studio 5. She’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. Her debut novel TRIPTYCH was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards,  nominated for a 2011 CBC Bookie, was named one of The Advocate’s Best Overlooked Books of 2011, and garnered both a starred review and a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly. Her sophomore novel, an epic-length feminist meta-fantasy THE UNTOLD TALE (Accidental Turn Series #1), debuted to acclaim in 2015 and was followed by THE FORGOTTEN TALE (Accidental Turn Series #2) this past December. FF.N | LJ |AO3| Books | Tumblr

 

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

JM FreyWords for Writers: The Story of How I Started Selling Stories
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Words for Writers: Your Voice Is Valid

On February 10th, 2017 I had the fantastic opportunity to speak to a group of students and faculty from Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, about Fan Fiction, Mary Sues, and #DiversityMatters.

Here is the audio (slightly cleaned up) and transcript of that talk.

Audio:

Transcript:

Mike Perschon:

So, our keynote speaker is J.M. Frey. And she is from the Toronto area. I can say the “Toronto-area,” that’s a quick way of saying–

J.M. Frey

It’s a good way of saying it.

Mike Perschon:

–it and everything.

Uh, she is a science fiction and fantasy author. She’s a pop culture scholar.  She’s going to be talking to us about some of that stuff tonight. She often appears as a guest on podcasts, television, and radio programs. Okay, she’s got a book coming out later this year, the third in the series – the fantasy series – she’s has been writing for the past few years and, uh, she’s got a whole bunch of other creative projects on the go.

Tonight she’s going to be talking to us about how “Your Voice is Valid” and the idea of the “Mary Sue”.

So if you’ve seen that term in pop culture, and was confused what it was or, perhaps, gotten misinformation, you’ll find out exactly what that is.

[Applause truncated]

J.M. Frey:

Thank you very much for inviting me, everybody.

Thank you to the student organizers. Thank you to the faculty organizers. I really appreciate it.

I—ah-ah! First off, I’m gonna say: I’m going to have my notes with me, and I apologize, ‘cause talking for forty-five minutes is—a half hour! I promise, it’s a half hour!—without notes is a little much.

Um, so I just wanted to say thank you to Grant MacEwan for inviting me. Um, this is the first time in Edmonton, and I’m looking forward to exploring it. I think I was maybe promised roller coasters? I don’t know…

I do want to, in particular, thank you Mike for inviting me and for being my designated buddy while I’m here in Edmonton.  It is an honor to sleep in the same guest bed that Gail Carriger once slept in.

And secondly, I do want to say thank you to everyone else for being here. I do in my brain still think of myself in my brain think of myself as your age, even though I have been out of academia for… oh… a little bit over a decade. But I loved being you guys, I loved this moment of my life. Ah, this weekend is going to be so awesome, you have no idea.

But of course before the awesome happens, you’ve have to listen to a keynote and you’re probably wondering who this hobbit in the front of the room is, getting between you and these amazing burgers that I’ve heard about?

We don’t have “Red Robin”s in Ontario? So apparently I’m in for a treat. I’m very excited about it.

So, my name is J.M. Frey. I’m a science-fiction and fantasy author, a screenwriter, and a fanthropologist. And I have a declaration to make. A promise. A vow, if you will.

And it is this:

If I hear one more basement-dwelling troll call the lead female protagonist of a genre film a “Mary Sue” one more time, I’m going to scream.

I’m sure you’ve all seen this all before. A major science fiction, fantasy, video game, novel, or comic franchise or publisher announces a new title. Said new title features a lead protagonist who is female, or a person of color, or is not able-bodied, or is non-neurotypical, or is LGBTQA+.

It might be the new Iron Man or Spider-man, who are both young black teenagers now. The new Ms. Marvel, a Muslim girl. It could be Jyn Erso, the female lead of the latest Star Wars film, the deaf Daphne Vasquez from Switched at Birth, or Alex in Supergirl, who was just recently revealed to be a lesbian still coming to terms with her sexuality in her mid-thirties, or Dorian in Dragon Age, who is both a person of color and flamboyantly queer.

And generally, the audience cheers. Yay for diversity! Yay for representation! Yay for working to make the worlds we consume look more like the world we live in! Yaaaaay!

But there’s a certain segment of the fan population that does not celebrate.

I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.

This certain brand of fan-person gets all up in arms on social media. They whine. They complain. They say that it’s not appropriate to change the gender, race, orientation, or physical abilities of a fictional creation, or just protest their inclusion to begin with. They decry the erosion of creativity in service of neo-liberalism, overreaching political-correctness, and femi-nazis. (Sorry, sorry – the femi-“alt-right”).

It’s not realistic – women can’t survive in space, they say, it’s just a fact. That is a direct quote, by the way. Superheroes can’t be black, they say. Video game characters shouldn’t have a sexual orientation, (unless that sexual orientation is straight and the game serves to support a male gaze ogling at half-dressed pixilated prostitutes).

And strong female characters have to wear boob armor. It’s just natural, they say.

They predict the end of civilization because things are no longer being done the way they’ve always been done. There’s nothing wrong with the system, they say. So don’t you dare change it.

And to enforce this opinion, to ensure that it’s really, really clear just how much contempt this certain segment of the fan population holds for any lead protagonist that isn’t a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, cismale, they do everything they can to tear down them down.

They do this by calling that a “Mary Sue.”

When fan fiction author Paula Smith first used the term “Mary Sue” in her 1973 story A Trekkie’s Tale, she was making a commentary on the frequent appearance of original characters in Star Trek fan fiction. Now, most of these characters existed as a masturbatory avatar – wanna bone Spock? (And, um, you know, let’s face it who didn’t?) They you write a story where a character representing you gets to bone Spock.

And if they weren’t a sexual fantasy, then they were an adventure fantasy – wanna be an officer on the Enterprise? Well, it’s the flagship of the Starfleet, so you better be good enough to get there. Chekov was the youngest navigator in Starfleet history, Uhura is the most tonally sensitive officer in linguistics, and Jim Kirk’s genius burned like a magnesium flare – you would have to keep up to earn your place on that bridge.

So this led to a slew of hyper sexualized, physically idealized, and unrealistically competent author-based characters populating the fan fiction of the time.

But inserting a trumped-up version of yourself into a narrative wasn’t invented in the 1970s. I mean, Aeneas was totally Virgil’s Mary Sue in his Iliad knock off, Dante was such a fanboy of the The Bible that he wrote himself into an adventure exploring it. Uh, Robin Hood’s merry men and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table kept growing in number, and characteristics with each retelling; and even painters have inserted themselves into commissioned pictures for centuries.

This isn’t new. This is not a recent human impulse.

But what Paula Smith and the Mary Sue-writing fan ficcers didn’t know at the time, was that they were crystallizing what it means to be an engaged consumer of media texts, instead of just a passive one. What it means to be so affected by a story, to love it so much that this same love bubbles up out of you and you have to do something about it.

Either in play, or in art. So for example, in pretending to be a ninja turtle on the play ground, or in trying to recreate the perfect version of a star fleet uniform to wear, or in creating art and making comics depicting your favorite moments or further adventures of the characters you love, or writing stories that encompass missing moments from the narratives.

“Mary Sues” are, at their center, a celebration of putting oneself and one’s own heart, and one’s own enjoyment of a media text, first.

So, heh, before I talk about why this certain segment of the population deploys the term “Mary Sue” the way it does, let’s take a closer look at this impulse for participatory play.

Here’s the sixty four thousand dollar question: where do “Mary Sues” come from?

I’d like you all to close your eyes, please.

Think back. Picture yourself outside, playing with your siblings, or the neighbour’s kids or you cousins…. and You’re probably around seven, or eight, or nine years old… and…

Think about the kind of games you’re playing. Ball games, chase games, and probably something with a narrative? Are you Power Rangers? Are you flying to Neverland with Peter Pan? Are you fighting Dementors and Death Eaters at Hogwarts? Are you the newest members of One Direction, are you Jem and the Holograms or the Misfits? Are you running around collecting Pokémon back before running around and collecting Pokémon was a thing?

Open your eyes.

That, guys, gals and non-binary pals, is where Mary Sues come from. That’s it. It’s as easy as that.

As a child you didn’t know that modern literary tradition pooh-poohs self-analogous characters, or that realism was required for depth of character. All you knew was that you wanted to be a part of that story, right.  If you wanted to be a train with Thomas and Friends, then you were a train. If you wanted to be a  magic pony from Equestria, you were a pony.  Or, you know, if you had brothers like me, then you were a pony-train.

Self-insert in childhood games teach kids the concept of elastic play, and this essential ability to imagine oneself in skins that are not one’s own, and to stretch and reshape narratives, is what breeds creativity and storytelling.

Now, think of your early stories.

You can keep your eyes open for this one.

As a child we all told and wrote stories about doing what, to us, were mundane everyday things like getting ice cream with the fictional characters we know and love.

So for example, my friend’s three year old tells his father bed time stories about going on walks through Home Hardware with his friends, the anthropomorphized versions of the local taco food truck and the commuter train his dad takes to work every morning. He doesn’t recognize the difference between real and fictional people (or for him, in this case, the stand ins that are the figures that loom large in his life right now as a three year old obsessed with massive machines). When you ask him to tell you a story, he talks about these fictions as if they’re real.

As we grow up, we do learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality. But, I posit that we never truly loose that “me too!” mentality. We see something amazing happening on the screen, or on the page, or on a playing field, and we want to be there, a part of it.

We sort ourselves into Hogwarts Houses. We choose hockey teams to love, and we wear their jerseys.    We buy ball caps from our favorite breweries, line up for hours to be the first to watch a new release or to buy a certain smartphone. We collect stamps and baseball cards and first editions of Jane Austen and Dan Brown. We want to be a part of it. And our capitalist, consumer society tells us to prove our love with our dollars, and do it. 

And for fan creators, we want to be a part of it so badly that we’re willing to make it. Not for profit, but for sheer love.

And for the early writers, the newbies, the blossoming beginners, Mary Sues are where they generally start. Because those are the sorts of stories they’ve been telling yourselves for years already, right?

Yet as we get older, we begin to notice a dearth of representation – you’re not pony trains in our minds any more, and we have a better idea of what we look like. And we don’t see it. The glorious fantasy diversity of our childhoods is stripped away, narratives are codified by the mainstream media texts we consume, and people stop looking like us.

I’m reminded of a story I read on Tumblr, of a young black author living in Africa – who, I’m going to admit, whose name, I’m afraid, I wasn’t able to find when I went back to look for it, so my apologies to her –  and the story is about the first time she tried to write a fairytale in elementary school. She made her protagonist a little white girl, and when she was asked why she hadn’t chosen to make the protagonist back, this author realized that it hadn’t even occurred to her that she was allowed make her lead black. Even though she was surrounded by black faces, the adventures, and romance, and magic in everything she consumed only happened to the white.

This is not natural. This is nurture, not nature. This is learned behavior. And this is hegemony.

No child grows up believing they don’t have place in the story. This is something were are taught. And this is something that we are taught by the media texts weconsume.

Now, okay. I do want to pause and make a point here.

There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with writing a narrative from the heterosexual, able bodied, neurotypical, white cismale POV in and of itself. I think we all have stories that we know and love and like to tell that are like that.

And people from community deserve to tell their stories as much as folks from other communities.

The problem comes when it’s the only narrative. The default narrative. The factory setting. When people who don’t see themselves reflected in the narrative nonetheless feel obligated to write such stories, instead of their own. When they are told and taught that it is the only story worth telling. ‎

There’s this really great essay by Ika Willis, and it’s called “Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Room for Mary Sue At Hogwarts“. And I think it’s the one – one of the most important pieces of writing not only on Mary Sues, but on the dire need for representation in general.

In the essay, Willis talks about Mary Sues – beyond being masturbatory adventure avatars for young people just coming into their own sexuality, or, um, avatars to go on adventures with – but as voice avatars. Mary Sues, when wielded with self-awareness, deliberateness, and precision, can force a wedge into the narrative, crack it open, and provide a space for marginalized identities and voices in a narrative that otherwise silences and ignores them.

This is done one of two ways. First: by jamming in a diverse Mary Sue. And making the characters and the world acknowledge and work with that diversity.

Or, second: by co-opting a pre-existing character and overlaying a new identity on them while retaining their essential characterization. Like making Bilbo Baggins non-binary, but still thinking that adventures are messy, dirty things. Or making Sherlock Holmes deaf, but still perfectly capable of solving all the crimes. Um… making James Potter Indian, so that the Dursleys prejudiced against Harry not only for his magic, but also for his skin color. Making Ariel the mermaid deal with severe body dysphoria, or giving Jane Foster PTSD after the events of Thor.

I like to call this voice avatar Mary Sue a Meta-Sue, because when authors have evolved enough in their storytelling abilities to consciously deploy Mary Sues as a deliberate trope, they’re doing so on a self-aware, meta-textual level.

So that is where Mary Sues comes from. But what is a Mary Sue? How can you point at a character and say, “Yes, that is – definitively – a Mary Sue”.

Well, Mary Sues can generally be characterized as:

-Too perfect, or unrealistically skilled. They shouldn’t be able to do all the things they do, or know all the things they know, as easily as they do or know them. For reasons of the plot expedience, they learn too fast, and are able to perform feats that other characters in their world who have studied or trained longer and harder find difficult. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

-They are the black hole of every plot – every major quest or goal of the pre-existing characters warps to include or be about them; every character wants to befriend them, or romance them, or sleep with them, and every villain wants to possess them, or kill them, or sleep with them. Makes sense, as why write a character into the world if you’re not going to have something very important happen to them. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

-A Mary Sue, because it’s usually written by a neophyte author who’s been taught that characters need flaws, has some sort of melodramatic, angsty tragic back-story that, while on the surface seems to motivate them into action, because of lack of experience in creating a follow-through of emotional motivation, doesn’t actually affect their mental health or ability to trust or be happy or in love. So, Like the emotional arc of, I dunno… Neo in The Matrix.

– A Mary Sue saves the day. This goes back to that impulse to be the center of the story. Like, Neo in The Matrix.

-And lastly, Mary Sues come from outside the group. They’re from the ‘real world’, like you and I, or have somehow discovered the hero’s secret identity and must be folded into the team, or are a new recruit, or are a sort of previously undiscovered stand-alone Chosen One. Like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

Now, as I’ve said, there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with writing a Mary Sue. Neo is a Mary Sue, but The Matrix is still really good. So there’s nothing really wrong with it.

 

The first impulse of storytelling is to talk about oneself. All authors do it. We write about ourselves, only the more we write, the more skilled we become at disguising the sliver of us-ness in a character, folding it into something different and unique.

We, as storytellers, as humans, empathize with protagonists and fictional characters constantly – we love putting our feet into other people’s shoes. It’s how we understand and engage with the world.

And we as writers tap into our own emotions in order to describe them on the page. We take slices of our lives – our experiences, our memories, our friend’s verbal tics or hand gestures, aunt Brenda’s way of making tea, Uncle Rudy’s way having a pipe after dinner, that time Grannie got lost at the zoo (mouths: wasn’t my fault!) – and we weave them together into a golem that we call a character, which comes to life with a bit of literary magic.

I mean, allow me to be sparklingly reductionist for a second, but in the most basic sense, every character is a Mary Sue.

It’s just a matter of whether the writer has evolved to the point  in their craft that they’ve learned to animate that golem with the sliver of self-ness hidden deep enough that it is unrecognizable as self-ness, but still recognizable as human-ness.

That certain segment of the fan population has been telling us for years that if we don’t like what we see on TV or in video games, or in books, or comics, or on the stage, that we should just go make our own stuff. And now we are. And they are losing their goddamn minds! “Make your own stuff,” they say, and then follow it up with “What’s with all this political correctness gone wild? Uhg. This stuff is all just Mary Sue garbage.”

Well, yes. Of course it is. That’s the point. But why are they saying it like that?

Because they mean it in a derogatory sense.

They don’t mean it in the way that Paula Smith meant it – a little bit belittling but mostly fun; a bemused celebration of why we love putting ourselves into the stories and worlds we enjoy. They don’t mean it the way that Willis means it – a deliberate and knowing way to shove the previously marginalized into the center. They don’t even mean it the way that I mean it. And for those of you unfortunate enough to be in Dr. Perschon’s class, and have read The Untold Tale you’ll know: as a tool for carefully deconstructing and discussing character and narrative with a character and from within a narrative.

When a certain segment of the fan population talks about “Mary Sue”, they mean to weaponize it. To make it a stand-in for the worse thing that a character can be: bland, predictable, and too-perfect. Which, granted, many Mary Sues are. But not all of them. And a character doesn’t have to be a Mary Sue to be done badly, either.

When this certain segment of the fan population says “Mary Sue”, they’re trying to shame the creators for deviating from the norm - the white, the heterosexual, the able bodied, the neurotypical, the straight cismale.

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t believe people like this are interesting enough to be the lead character in a story.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t think there’s any need to listen to that voice. They’re not interesting enough.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “This character is not what I am used to a.k.a. not like me, and I’m gonna whine about it.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Even though kids from all over the world, from many different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds have had to grow up learning to identify with characters who don’t look or think like them, identifying with characters who don’t look or think like me is hard and I don’t wanna.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: ”Even though I’ve grown up in a position of privilege and power, and even though publishing and producing diverse stories with diverse casts doesn’t actually cut into the proportionate representation that I receive, and never will, I am nonetheless scared that I’ll never see people like me in media texts ever again.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Considering my fellow human beings as fellow human beings worthy of having stories about them and their own experiences, in their own voices, is hard and I don’t wanna do it.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I only want stories about me.”

 

They call leads “Mary Sues” so people will stop writing them and instead write… well, their version of a “Mary Sue.” The character that is representative of their lived experiences, their power and masturbatory fantasies, their physical appearance, their sexual awakenings, their cultural identity, their voice, their kind of narratives.

Missing, of course, that the point of revisionist and inclusive narratives aren’t to shove out previous incarnations, but to coexist alongside them. It’s not taking away one entrée and offering only another – it’s building a buffet.

Okay, so who actually cares if these trolls call these diverse characters Mary Sues?

Well, unfortunately, because this certain segment of the population have traditionally been the group most listened-to by the mainstream media creators and the big money, their opinions have power. (Never mind that they’re not actually the biggest group of consumers anymore, nor no longer the most vocal.)

So, this is where you come in.

You have the power to take the Mary Sue from the edge of the narrative and into the centre. And you do can do this by normalizing it. Think back to that author who didn’t think little black girls were allowed to be the heroes of fairy tales. Now imagine how much different her inner world, her imagination might have been at the stage when she was first learning to understand her own self-worth, if she had seen faces like hers on the television, in comics, in games, and on the written page every day of her life.

And not just one or two heroes, but a broad spectrum of characters that run the gamut from hero to villain, from fragile to powerful, from straight to gay, and every other kind of intersectional identity.

You have the power to give children the ability to see themselves.

Multi-faceted representation normalizes the marginalized.

And if you have the privilege to be part of the passing member of the mainstream, then weaponize your privilege. Refuse to work with publishers, or websites, or conventions that don’t also support diverse creators. Put diverse characters in your work, and do so thoughtfully and with the input of the people from the community you are portraying. And if you’re given the opportunity to submit or speak at an event, offer to share the microphone.

–Sorry, I always get emotional at this part. Ah-heh!

The first thing I did when actor Burn Gorman got a Twitter account was to Tweet him  my thanks for saving the world in Pacific Rim while on a cane. As someone who isn’t as mobile as the heroes I see in action films - who knows for a fact that when the zombie apocalypse comes I will not be a-able to outrun the monsters – it meant so much to me that his character was not only an integral and vital member of the team who cancelled the apocalypse, but also that not once did someone call him a cripple, or tell him he couldn’t participate because of his disability, or leave him behind.

Diversity matters.

Not because it’s a trendy hashtag, or a way to sell media texts to a locked-down niche market, but because every single human being deserves to be told that they have a voice worth listening to; a life worth celebrating and showcasing in a narrative; a reality worth acknowledging and accepting and protecting; emotions that are worth exploring and validating; intelligence that is worth investing in and listening to; and a capacity to love that is worth adoring.

White, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied cismales are not the only people on the planet who are human.

And you have a right to tell your story your way.

Okay, so I’ve basically spent thirty minutes basically cribbing my own MA thesis, and for what? Why? Well, you’re here for a conference focused on Narrative and Identity, right?

Calling something a “Mary Sue” in order to dismiss it out of hand, as an excuse to hate something before even seeing it, is how the trolls bury your Narrative and your Identity.  We are storytellers, all of us. Every person in this room.

Whether your wheel house is in fiction, or academia, or narrative non-fiction, we impart knowledge and offer experience through the written word, through the telling of tales, through leading a reader from one thought to another.

The root of the word “Essay” is the French “Essayer”. A verb meaning, “to try”. To try to convince the reader of a truth in an academic paper is no different than trying to convince a reader of an emotional truth in a fictional piece. Tout le monde doit essayer.

And we none of deserve to be shouted down, talked over, or dismissed. No one can tell you that your story isn’t worth telling. Of course it is. It’s yours.

And don’t let anyone call your characters, or your work, or you a ”Mary Sue” in the derogatory sense. Ever again.  Ever.

Or I am going to scream.

Thank you.

*

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

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: Your Voice Is Valid
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