Wednesday, September 5, 2012

100 Things Post 4: Leave It Online

I don't like books about writing.  I find most of them to be either authoritarian (listing off a series of "dos and don'ts" while they talk a lot about the need for writing discipline and what a disciplined writer does without ever giving a helpful suggestion for how to develop this all-important quality) or flaky (with nothing but a lot of fluff and feel-good motivational speeches but--again--very little practical value.

One of the few books about writing that I have ever found useful is Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg.  It's by no means a perfect book, and there are parts of it I think are flaky, but the overall tone and themes that the book presents are valid.  The biggest thing I learned from that book is this.

Nobody starts out being a disciplined writer.  Nobody even starts out to be a very good writer. Writers get better by writing, and we get disciplined by figuring out some rules that work for us and employing them. We also get better--and more disciplined--by learning to let go of our stories and our egos.

For me, every story is a learning experience, and every time I finish one (or even get significantly far into one) there's a moment when I think to myself, Man, I wish I had known this back when I wrote such-and-such.  There's a temptation to go back in and "fix" things.

The best example of that for me is a story in the Stargate fandom entitled Taking The Long Way. The idea started as an episode tag for Memento Mori (a scene or collection of scenes that the fanfic writer imagines to have taken place directly after the end of a televised episode--the idea is that it's stuff we would've liked to see happen on TV so we "fill in the blanks"), but it took on a life of its own, merged itself with two previously written tags for earlier episodes, and then went off on a long, winding path that started at a military base in Colorado Springs and ended at an unspecified beach on the West Coast.

Early on in the story, one of the main characters, Vala, suggests a trip to the ocean.  She's not from Earth, and she has spent most of her time here on military bases, so she has relatively little grasp of the planet's geography.  The other characters know that there's no beach in Colorado, and that driving to one would require a long road trip.   I had an idea for how that trip to the beach could happen, but I didn't do a good job of letting my audience know that I had a plan.  I didn't think I had to explain the geography or explicitly show what the characters were thinking.

Looking back at the story now, I can see several times when things that were perfectly clear and obvious to me, the author, really couldn't have been clear to my audience.  I had each character make assumptions about what another character was thinking.  Daniel assumed that Vala was trying to manipulate him when she asked to go to the beach.  Vala had a history of manipulating people, so it was a reasonable assumption for him to make, but it wasn't the only thing he could have been thinking, and I never let the audience know what was going on in Daniel's head.  Vala assumed that Daniel just didn't want to spend that much time alone with her and felt rejected.  I identify very strongly with these two characters, so I tend to write about them a lot when I do Stargate fanfic.  I interpret the actions that I see on the TV screen through the lens of my identification with the characters.  Some things about the way I characterize them are pretty well agreed upon throughout the fandom, but other things (like specific assumptions they might be making during a conversation or specific vulnerabilities that one might feel in the other's company) are based on my interpretation of the characters.  They might resonate with a reader if I explained them in my narrative, but they're not readily apparent to everyone.

That's an easy mistake to make in writing fanfiction.  Fanworks may be individual efforts, but they're based on a communal set of ideas and values.  As I've said in other posts, the whole community of a fandom is based on shared emotional investment in a group of characters and their world and shared enjoyment of a franchise.  Fanfic writers share, interpret, and re-interpret the characters they write about in much the same way that early cultures traded myths and folktales, with each storyteller adding his or her own variations and twists to a larger collective body of work.  The main differences are the ways in which the internet allows so many people to interact and archive what they've written.  Because the characters and their histories are widely known by the audience, a fic writer can often skim backstory details or imply things that would otherwise need to be spelled out more explicitly.  [More on this in Understand Your Canon and Make Up The Details]  It's hard to know where that line is, and most writers will make a few mistakes along the way.

The geography issue was just bad judgment on my part.  Geography was never a strong area for me academically, and I should have done more research to make sure that my idea was feasible.  I also should have made sure that the narrative was clear about where the characters were physically going and how they were supposed to get there within the timeframe that the story sets up.

I goofed, and I'm always tempted to remove Taking The Long Way from the internet because of that.  I've learned to ignore that temptation, because the same thing happens with everything I write.  It's usually not so blatant, because the things that bother me about the story aren't great big glaring goof-ups.  They're typically relatively small things that I should have done differently or things I can see now that would make the story a lot better but which I didn't know about yet or hadn't occurred to me.

"Leave it online" is one of my personal rules.  The other major ones connect to it: "If you start posting it, you will finish it," and "If you post it, you can't re-write it." They all get back to what I was talking about earlier: learning to let go of my stories and my ego. I know that if I don't do this, sooner or later it would lead to everything I'd written being taken down.

If you're growing as a writer--which you should be--the same thing will happen with everything you post.  That amazing, wonderful, fantastic story you wrote last year or five years ago just won't hold up so well when you come back to it again.  There will be parts that make you wince.  There will be things you read over again and say, "What on Earth made me do that?"

Well.  Change a word or two, fix the grammar and the spelling if you notice an error--and they will be there, no matter how good your beta readers are--maybe write some missing scenes for your fanfiction (separately from the main body of the story; I'll be talking about that more as we go further in the series)--but leave the story alone.

You'll benefit from being able to see your own progress and so will anyone in your audience who's been reading your work for a while.  Remember the things you loved about that story when you wrote it, because they're still there.  Don't let your ego take them away from you.  Try to remember that no matter how many revisions you make, you're never going to achieve perfection.  Eventually, you'll just start whittling away at all the wonderful things about your story, and something you loved doing will become a stress-ridden chore.

Related Posts:  Understand Your Canon Make Up The Details, Fanon is Not Canon, Fanon Happens For a Reason, Give Me The Background, and Don't Tell Me Everything.

Masterlist For This Series  Chronological Post Index For This Series


  1. I'm so bad about leaving stuff alone once I've posted it. *sigh* Very good points here. :)

  2. Thanks. I HAD another post concerning the endless tweaking of stories that have been posted, but it disappeared and I haven't re-written it.