Words for Wri… Actors. Words for ACTORS.

Another LIP-FLAP Friday  question and answer has produced another great blog post that I thought I should share here. This one is about VOICE ACTING.

kwramsey asked: How does one get started as a voice actor?


I will give you my answer, but I thought, since I have the privilege of calling Alyson Court (Big Comfy Couch, Beetlejuice, Resident Evil, X-Men, etc.) an occasional hang-out buddy, I thought I’d ask if she had any advice.

Here’s what Alyson had to say:


Thanks to modern technology (in the form of one’s own laptop recording device and access to millions of examples of different character voices on line), anyone can easily acquire the tools they need to start honing their skills. Record yourself and listen back. Get to know how your own voice changes depending on volume, emotion, etc, and work to control and stretch your range. You don’t have to be able to do everything but the voices that you choose to specialize in should be polished and you should be able to do them with ease and control. The only way to get good at anything is to practice practice and… what’s that? Oh, yeah, PRACTICE.

All of this can be done for free. No point shelling out hundreds of dollars on a demo if you don’t have anything good to record. Get the voices down and then make a demo and yeah it costs a bit but it’s totally worth getting your first demo done professionally- you’ll learn lots at the recording session.

Then, once you have a decent demo, start shopping it around to talent agencies.

JM: And how did you get into voice acting, Alyson?

I went to a school for the arts starting in grade 4. They used to get calls from producers so I started going to auditions. Got an agent a couple months later and the rest is history! But being one of the first Nelvana kids is probably the source of my voice career- right time, right place.

Nelvana needed kids voices and there wasn’t an established kids voice pool yet- Nelvana basically created it in Canada. So most of us truly owe our starts to Nelvana.

JM: Thanks Alyson!

You can find and follow Alyson Court on Twitter and take a look at her impressive voice acting history at IMDB.


JM Frey adds:

I became a voice actor because one of the vocal coaches I was working with in university mentioned that I had a good radio voice and I should consider it. (She worked on Sailor Moon, so I took her word as gospel).

So, I did some auditions for a local commercial-creation start up and amassed a nice little demo. Like Alyson says, I learned a lot about my voice and the art of learning to speak with a mic on the fly, while in the booth. It’s not something you can really learn without actually speaking into a mic and hearing what you sound like, what the mic does to your voice, how to inflect and breathe and not pop your consents. And how to change your voice for every character – you may think you sound different each time, but listening back, you might find it’s not all that different at all. All of that requires practice with an actual mic. I practice with a crappy mic I picked up at the dollar store, so it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg for a practice mic.

As for the art of creating voices, one of the best workshops I ever did was with Roland Parliament , and it was a free one hour session at a FanExpo. He said: “Look at the character and think of what they’d sound like. Where and when are they from? Look at their teeth, their mouths, envision how that would feel to speak around. Don’t just do a funny voice – do the character’s voice.” It is advice that I use every single time, and it’s a beautiful starting point at which to marry technique with creativity and acting.

If there’s no character image, then I make up a little story in my head about who this person is and what they look like, even if I’m doing a commercial for, say, Fabricland. (The masters have been burned. You will never hear me singing that jingle again.)

Of all the sorts of acting I get to do, I love voice acting the most. Unfortunately I also find it the most competitive and difficult to get into. I’ve never had any luck landing an agent. Pounding the pavement is thankless and unless you have a thick skin, it can be a bit heartbreatking. I’ve taken a break from it for a while, until I have enough samples to build up a new demo.

Luckily, I seem to get a few opportunities a year through friends-of-friends or people who have heard me and call me up for a gig, or people who have me recommended to them.

I would still very much like to get an agent and try to do voice acting on a more full-time basis, but before I can do that I need to build a new demo reel and start pounding the pavement again. If there are any director/producer/agents out there reading this… hey! I’m available!

You can also look into other options, like VOX or the Audible program ACX for exposure and income. But you’ll need a really good home set up to participate in these services – a great mic, a very quiet space with zero ambient noise, an editing program, and patience. All of that can be had for relatively cheap, but have to be willing to put in some money and time.

Generally speaking, there are no shortcuts into voice acting. Either you work your way in via an agent, by doing your own productions like Welcome to Night Vale, through some of the other freelance voice acting sites, or through opportunities to be recommended to people like me.

Best of luck!

JM FreyWords for Wri… Actors. Words for ACTORS.
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Words for Writers: Publishing Sans Agent

I had a great email from someone asking for advice about signing a publishing deal with an indie publisher with no agent.  She was directed to me by a fellow writer because I did the same when I first published – Dragon Moon Press picked up Triptych, and I had no agent at the time.

With her permission, I’m posting my answers here because I think that it could be helpful to my readers.

First, I asked her who the publisher was and how she had submitted her manuscript. She gave me the name, and I looked them up and with some research found them to be a fairly reliable, fairly professional indie publisher of mainly ebooks.

About how and why she submitted to this publisher, she said:

“I am a member of Critique Circle, a writing workshop website and I noticed a fellow writer listed them as publishing one of her stories so I looked them up and submitted one of mine. I am a total newbie and while I am super excited I don’t want to go into this thinking rainbows and lollipops, right?! I just don’t want to do something wrong because I didn’t investigate first.”

My reply:

You’re very welcome.

From what I’ve gathered from the publisher’s site, they do what they say they’re going to do. They’ll publish your book.

Whether you want to publish with a publisher their size is entirely up to you. (I have – I published a novella with Double Dragon Books here in Toronto.) There are pros and cons to going with a publisher this size:

Pros: They’ll pay very good attention to you because there’s few of you authors to juggle, it’s a high royalty, and they probably have a loyal fan base already. They’ve got a publication schedule, they’re visible on FB, Twitter, and on their site. And they’ve probably worked with new authors a lot.

Cons: They’re small market. Now, that doesn’t mean amateur or crappy, just that they’re small and mostly online. That means that probably almost all the marketing will be up to you to do, and that your book will probably not be carried by any book store outside of special request. It will not be ordered for any libraries unless you donate a copy to your local (as I’ve done, and I recommend highly). As long as you take an extremely realistic look at this, it’s not a bad option.

[They indie publisher in question] seems forthright and honest, but I would always talk to other authors who are published with them to see if they are happy with their experience.

In the end if you read the contract and you are uncomfortable or unhappy, listen to your instincts or talk to fellow published authors about the sections you are unhappy with to see how they compare.

And as always, do your research.

As for not having an agent:  agents are great for getting you access to publishers who require submissions to come from representation. Publishers employ gatekeeping tactics like this because they just get so much stuff and they need help weeding the suitable projects out.  Agents are great for knowing the legal hoo-doo surrounding contracts and being able to get you the best deals, or being able to explain things to you that you don’t understand, or making sure your rights are upheld and protected. Agents are great for having the networking contacts and hob-nobbing skills needed to get your books to the right publishers, in the right magazines, included in the right blog tours and signing events, etc. Agents work in tandem with foreign rights and film agents, help arrange appearances and big marketing drives, etc. And most importantly, your agent will be your partner in your career, your advocate, your best and most trusted beta reader, and will help you decide what projects to focus on, will let you bounce ideas off them, and will make sure that your work is the best it can be.

If [the indie publisher in question] was a big-time super-corporate over-the-top-legalesse publisher, then I would encourage you to get an agent before agreeing to publish with them.

However, as this is indie press that is mainly online, I think you’re fine without one. The contract should be straightforward and easy to read, and as the drives around it will be smallish, you should be able to handle it all yourself.

At the same time, I would encourage you to read your contract very carefully and very thoroughly and know exactly what you’re agreeing to.  This is not meant to scare you; this is so that you are clear of the agreement you’re making and to be certain that you’re stepping into it with knowledge.

There were some questions that I had when I published indie, so I will tell you the answers in advance, in case you’re thinking of them right now:

In a small press, this is usually how Who-Does-What is divided up:


  • Provide an editor (either just copy/typos, or a full substantial editor, depending on the publisher) to work with you on polishing the book or fixing more substantive concerns if they exist.
  • Turn the manuscript into a “book” – i.e. register for the ISBN, typeset, etc.
  • Engage and work with a cover designer/artist. (You may or may not be asked for your opinion/ideas for this – usually the cover is ultimately out of the writer’s hands, so be prepared to not be involved. That said, it’s rare that they won’t ask your opinion, though.)
  • Work with you to create the back cover copy.
  • Publish the book.
  • Advertise the book on their site, in their newsletter, and through their regular channels, blogs, and sites. If they do it, they would also submit the book to their regular review channels (Publisher’s Weekly, a regular blog, etc.)
  • Make the book available for purchase at a variety of online stores, including their own. They may also put it up on Goodreads.
  • Provide books to you at the special author’s rate on your request.


  • Work with the editor to create and provide a clean and polished manuscript for the publisher to turn into a book.
  • Any and all other marketing outside of what the publisher usually does including: having a launch party (and paying for it), booking appearances at conventions (until you’re super famous and you have a PA and people are inviting you), getting any marketing materials (bookmarks, postcards, etc.) designed and printed, building and maintaining your website and social media networks, booking appearances at libraries, community centres, etc.
  • Buy boxes of books at the special author rate for resale at conventions, or to friends and family, or consignment to local book stores
  • Answering interview questions or participating in any marketing the publisher may have set up; setting up interviews with your local library, papers, schools, etc.
  • Research and submit the book for review with other bloggers or reviewers that the publisher may not have.
  • Set up Amazon author profile, make sure books are tagged properly, and maintain the book’s profile page once it’s up.
  • Possibly submit and maintain the Goodreads page as well, if the publisher hasn’t done it.

Both (together) usually:

  • Discuss and decide if the book should be submitted for awards or reviews, and where, and who will pay for what. Sometimes the publisher doesn’t have the budget to submit to awards with an entry fee (my publisher and I have each paid for roughly half of my submissions).
  • Discuss and solicit reviews from which to pull a front-cover blurb for the book.

It sounds scary, but with a checklist, it’s not so bad. As I said above, I’ve published two books sans agent.

The first was with Dragon Moon Press. I was querying small press publishers and agents simultaneously with that MS, and DMP said yes before any agents did. I talked over the contract with the acquiring editor, and also had a published friend look over it as well, and was comfortable signing it without an agent.

The editor and I both worked very hard on polishing and pushing the novel and it was rewarding for me. I enjoyed having so much control with the marketing, but decided that I wouldn’t do a second book with DMP because I was still interested in going bigger with the next project. And it is always possible that I may write another book that’s just perfect for and indie SF/F publisher like DMP and might approach them with it in the future. I’ve also stayed connected with them by publishing some short stories in their anthologies. They’re fantastic folk.

My review on Triptych from Publisher’s Weekly was what attracted my first agent to me. He contacted me and asked if I was seeking representation. I was very pleased with my experience with DMP, and they’re very supportive, but their marketing budget is not comparable to a larger publisher, understandably, and I had put quite a bit of my own money into making my novel visible. I am trying to make a career of writing, so I need to graduate slowly to bigger and bigger presses with their own marketing budgets, and put less of my money into marketing if this is going to be a viable income-earner.

Thus, I needed an agent. So, after a few rounds of phone calls with him and some other agents who had another of my manuscripts for consideration, I narrowed it down and accepted him as my agent.

(Since then I have switched to a different agent, simply because we work together creatively in a better capacity, and we have a better rapport than I had with the old agent).

If he hadn’t contacted me and offered, I was going to continue querying agents with my next project, explaining that I had one book out with an indie publisher that had done quite well critically, and that I was looking for an agent for my next MS to up my game.

The second sans-agent book I published – The Dark Side of the Glass – was with Double Dragon which is very similar, from what I can tell, to [the indie press in question]. That is – they published it, made it available online and in a print-on-demand store, and I email them to buy boxes of books at the author’s special rate.

Otherwise neither of us have done much more for the book – the marketing is 100% up to me with DD (beyond them just putting up on the store and making it available for purchase) , and I’ve sort of left this one to be a world of mouth book. I’m too broke to put any marketing behind it right now. It has been a satisfactory experience with DD, too (even though the first editor I was assigned and I did not get along at all); I just don’t have the resources to push the book as much as I’d like. But I do bring it with me anywhere I am going to sell my books.

I hope all this info has been helpful, instead of overwhelming or harshly realistic.

The summary is this:

If you are comfortable with reading and following the contract on your own, I don’t see why you can’t indie publish your story without an agent. However, if [the indie publisher in question] is not the size of publisher you’re hoping to land with this manuscript, then perhaps beginning to query agents or bigger indie publishers is the better option.

I can’t tell you want the first step of your career should be, but the fact that someone has offered to publish you is fantastic, and I offer my sincere congratulations!

It’s a hard choice for you, and I’m sorry I can’t do more to make it easier.

Agents, as far as I can tell, actually do like it when you can prove that you can follow through – and successfully publishing a novel with an indie publisher and being totally professional and baddass about marketing it is a great way to show that you can swing when you’re up to the plate. I think they may be much more inclined to consider your second project if your first is already out and is totally pro.

(Same way you should always mention in your query letters if you’ve completed a thesis; those things are way more complicated and difficult to finish than a book, IMHO!)

Feel free to ask any more questions.



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


JM FreyWords for Writers: Publishing Sans Agent
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Words for Writers: Bidding Farewell

This weekend, I am in mourning.

Time of birth had been somewhere in the spring of 2007; the time of death was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, July 26th 2012 while hunched over my much-dog eared and highlighted copy of Jane Austen for Dummies.

Yes, that was the moment that I realized that the manuscript I had been working on for nearly five years was dead. And just like for every other death I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing, the swift realization was followed by an even swifter sucker punch to the gut.

That was it. It was over.

I curled over the book, pressed my forehead against the spine, and cried.

Because this manuscript? This novel I’d written and was fact-checking with Dummies? That manuscript was unsalvageable.

What happened?

Well, this book was meant to be one of those kinds of books that is a revisionist history without changing any history whatsoever. The steel frame of 100% historical accurate events was the mold, and the story itself was melted plastic that I had pushed through the cracks to ooze out the bottom. It was meant to be one of those books that you read for the fictional story, and then when looked up the historical persons and events, realized it was completely plausible that the story had happened, even if there was time travel and science fiction.

Only the frame, I realized, was the wrong shape. I had messed up somewhere four years ago, messed up again on both research trips to England; I had gotten one itty bitty number wrong (1805 instead of 1804) and it had shattered the plastic of my story. There was no way to take the steel frame away and reposition the plastic segments without cracking the whole book apart.

The book was dead.

Now, before you try to tell me that there’s always a way to shift things and muddle, please understand that I filled a whole notebook and several hours worth of conversations with friends and fellow writers. And there are cheats, there are always cheats, but I didn’t want to cheat.

The whole point of this book is that there weren’t going to be any cheats. It was going to be all right and plausible and yet completely fantastic and impossible.

So getting this one thing wrong, this one major thing, completely destroyed the rest of the novel. The time line was thrown entirely out of whack, and no matter how much tetris or jenga I play with the plot, I cannot make the shattered pieces of plastic fit the frame any more.

This was especially hurtful and frustrating to me as I had already had a discussion with my agent about the book and he had said that while it was a fine manuscript, he wasn’t interested in shopping it. I wasn’t trying to revise it to make him change his mind, but because I thought the story was still worth fighting for, still worth improving, and that if the book was in great shape I could put it away for a while until someone asked me if I had a romance novel to shop.

I had also mentioned it to some important folks in NYC whose interest had been piqued, so I felt like I was not only witnessing the death of my novel, but that I was in some way betraying the confidence these other people had in my work. That I had let them down.

That, I think, was the worst part of it of all.

I felt like a miserable, utter failure. I still do, a little.

So what now? What does one do now, when something you’ve worked so hard on suddenly becomes non-viable? How do you, as an author, handle actually giving up on a story?

The first thing I did was open a very good bottle of wine, sit out on my deck, and brood. I filled notebooks with possible cheats, but disliked every single one of them. I called my ever faithful beta reader and hashed it out with her, and we came to the same conclusion: unsalvageable. I spoke to an author friend: unsalvageable.

I am frankly still flailing emotionally. I had two very rough nights, one filled with horrendous nightmares about how none of the books I ever produce again will be good and that I’ve used up my life’s allotment of ideas.

The only way, it seemed, to be able to get over this decision to bury the book was to treat it like an actual person who had passed away. After all, we writers really do emotionally connect with our novels as if they were people. We cherish the characters and the worlds, we take pride in the moments and fight with the errors. We spend years thinking about, thinking through, thinking around our books.

Books take up real estate – emotionally, mentally, physically.

To have to give up a book is, very much, no different from having to safe farewell forever to a loved one.

To that end, here is the Kubler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief:

Denial – like me, you’ll probably be stunned and horrified when you realize that this book is done. It is gone, and not in a good way, where it’s heading off to an agent or editor. It will never be read, it will never be cherished, and it will never leave your home. You’ll rage, you’ll wail, you’ll have a very tough few nights.

Anger – and then you’ll be mad. Angry that you screwed up the research so very badly, angry at your beta readers when they told you that it was a good book (even though it’s not their fault that it’s not working, and they may have genuinely enjoyed it; that’s why it’s called irrational anger), angry at the book for not being better, angry at the world for forcing you to give up.

Bargaining – then you’ll start to try to find away around it. Changing plot points, switching characters, telling the book from a different POV or starting period, anything, anything to not have to give up on it.

Depression – but of course, none of that will work. Because if it worked, then it wouldn’t be a dead book, would it? So you’ll cry. You’ll hurt. You’ll feel terrible and probably walk around like a zombie. People will say, “it’s just a book” and you’ll hate them a little bit for not understanding. It wasn’t a book, it was a tiny spark of life and you are the one who had to smother that flame.

Acceptance – In the end, it will suck and it will hurt, but you will come to the realization that putting the book away will be good for you and your career. The book just isn’t working, just isn’t good enough, and to focus on something that is working, you have to sacrifice this one. It will be okay. Your world didn’t end because you had to let go. It’s just fine. You will always hold a warm spot in your heart for that book, those characters, that world, and in the end, at least you hold it.

In the end, I’m sad to see this story get put away in the box under my bed labelled “morgue”.  But I also feel lighter, because truthfully, this book wasn’t working. It never really was working. I got some fabulous feedback from some fantastic beta readers (James Bow among them; what a swell guy! Especially since he’s pretty much the antithesis of this book’s target demographic and apparently loved it.) but I never really could seem to get it to work.

The characters were never quite on (though I loved my version of Captain Francis Austen), the plot contrivances never quite natural enough. It was like the plastic fit, but not comfortably.

So what now?  Now, the book goes away, possibly forever. Maybe in a few years I’ll dig the research out again and start from scratch, re-read the whole set of articles and texts that inspired the novel to begin with and try to make a go of writing a whole new book.

In the meantime, I will mine the corpse for great scenes, imagery, and lines to feed my new manuscripts. I started a brand new novel a few days ago, and I think I can use some of the scenes from the dead book in this one.

Possibly, if someone invites me to an appropriately-themed anthology, I will revive the concept as a short story.

For now, I will make my farewells and move on to other projects.

And who knows, perhaps, just perhaps in a few years, I might release the original novel as a freebie for a laugh. “It’s a good book,” I’ll say. “Shame that it’s dead. Enjoy the zombie goodness.”

I am still in a rough place. I am not over this book, not yet. I don’t know when I will be. But I know that it was a far braver, harder thing to do to acknowledge to myself that the book wasn’t working, couldn’t work, and to accept that and put it away. Far, far better than flogging a book that no one could ever accept or sell, a book that I insisted to myself, to my agent, to editors and publishers and the reading public was good when it wasn’t, it simply just wasn’t.

And it’s tough. And it sucks. But in the end, it will make you feel better, feel proud, and feel ready for the next hurdle of being a professional writer.

Words from Other Writers On Mourning Your Book:

I asked: How do you deal with realising your book is dead? When should you abandon a book?

Nikki Faith Fuller‏ (@Myth_Girl): When you no longer feel like you *have* to do it. And it’s not an abandoning, but a letting to 🙂

August C. Bourré‏ (@FishSauce): Never abandon anything forever. Bits can be used, or it can take a new shape, but don’t see that as abandoning.

Gethin Jones (‏@gethinmorgan): When it stops being fun!

Fingers Delaurus: Look at George Lucas. Ponder. THAT should motivate to lock the thing away when your editor says it’s done 🙂

Victoria De Capua Campbell: Take a holiday. Distance.

Adam Shaftoe: Strip it for short story fodder.  Remember that this will not be the last thing you will ever write. Find a take away from the experience that will let you improve on the next project.

K.W. Ramsey‏ (@KWRamsey): It’s never abandoned. It’s just put on the back burner until the answer appears or I die, whichever comes first

Gillian Leitch‏ (@gilliandoctor): From the ashes something beautiful will come out- lost, but not forgotten, and lessons learned.

Rob St-Martin When opening the file (or notebook or whatever) doesn’t excite me, drains me dry just thinking about it, and I dread the sight of it, it’s time to stuff it in the archives and move on. Whatever good that can be salvaged from it will be, one day. Just not right away. Time will offer the emotional distance required to deal with it.

Derwin Mak Similar to what Rob says: when it isn’t fun to work on the story anymore. However, exhaustion doesn’t equal fun. On both my novels, there were times when I was exhausted, but I was still enjoying it.  As to what to do with it later, parts of it can wind up in future stories.


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

JM FreyWords for Writers: Bidding Farewell
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Announcing – the MSFV Success Story Blog Hop!

Hello, readers!

Guess what? We’re just about to begin what will hopefully be the first of the Annual Authoress’s Success Story blog tours!

Authoress Anonymous has built a strong and supportive community on her blog Miss Snark’s First Victim: a community of writers, critiques, hopefuls, agents, editors, and readers. There, writers can participate in contests designed to help them practice giving and receiving critiques, polish their hooks, spiffy up query letters, and gain exposure to literary agents… and, in the case of some writers, get offered representation or publishing deals!

Over twenty professional authors now owe some part of their successes to Authoress, the incredibly generous people who participate in her contests, and her blog. Those of us who have owed our publishing successes to MSFV have decided to come together to celebrate both MSFV, Authoress, and to help cross promote each other’s work.

Every day in the first two weeks of August, a different author will be posting an interview of one of our fellow Success Stories. There might even be some giveaways, so don’t miss a single blog post! Make sure to tune in to everyone’s blogs from August 1st to the 15th, and to follow the hash tag #MSFVSuccessStory this month for more details, tidbits, and info. See you there!

Name Website Twitter Posting Date
David Kazzie @davidkazzie 1-Aug
Leigh Talbert Moore @leightmoore 2-Aug
J.Anderson Coats @jandersoncoats 3-Aug
J.M. Frey @scifrey 4-Aug
Elissa Cruz @elissacruz 5-Aug
Amanda Sun @Amanda_Sun 6-Aug
Kristi Helvig @KristiHelvig 7-Aug
Leah Petersen @Leahpetersen 8-Aug
Monica Bustamante Wagner  @Monica_BW 9-Aug
E.M. Kokie @emkokie 10-Aug
Monica Goulet @MonicaGoulet 11-Aug
PeterSalomon @petersalomon 12-Aug
Sarah Brand @sarahbbrand 13-Aug
Angela Ackerman @angelaackerman &
Tara Dairman  @TaraDairman  15-Aug


JM FreyAnnouncing – the MSFV Success Story Blog Hop!
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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.


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

JM FreyWords for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well
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