Rhythmic, echoing creaking drew me across flat empty plains to a flat, empty house. An untidy row of windows stared out from the house’s weathered flanks at the setting suns blazing orange and purple across the sky. My favorite kind. Next to the house stood a tall, tall tree, beneath the branches of which creaked a swing set.
The rusty swing swung back and forth. Empty. Creaking.
I hovered a wary distance away between a pair of old gateposts, regarding the mysterious swing. But I could not divine its secrets from here. So I huffed an irritated breath and approached, shoes crushing long yellow prairie grass that sprang back up in my wake.
When I got close, somewhere between blinks, a child appeared on the swing, facing the sunset.
Nonplussed, I stopped next to the swing, trying to decide whether the child had been there the whole time. My mind believed both realities at once and it hurt to think about.
I said, “Your swinging is very loud.”
“Only to you,” the child replied, smiling up at me. “You were meant to hear it.”
Pumping little legs harder and harder, the child rose higher and higher. The creaking of the chain increased in volume, roaring, crashing off the ground and careening into the sky. Hands over my ears, I held my breath, expecting to see the child go sliding off into the dirt.
“Now you’re here,” the child called, “I can go!”
At the apex of the next back swing, when the seat whipped all the way above the supporting pole, the child flew off. Kept going, going. And winked out over the horizon.
Silence settled over the empty plains as thrill shivered across my skin.
Gripping the cool chains in both hands, I sat down.
We’ve all heard the claims. Fanfiction = bad writing. Blah blah blah. Gatekeepers want to keep readers of fanfiction from enjoying fanfiction and writers of fanfiction from enjoying writing it. For some reason.
For one, fanfiction = bad writing is a false equivalent. Just like original fiction = good writing is a false equivalent. I’ve seen excellent fanfiction and read terrible published original fiction, both traditionally and self-published. (The self-published = bad writing argument is a whole other can of worms.) Don’t get me started on how the latter fuels my writerly fury.
Just let people enjoy the thing they like. It’s not hurting anyone. In fact, writing fanfiction for me represents the ultimate form of fun writing. Is writing fanfiction low-stakes? You bet. No one is asking for your money to read it. And that gives me an opportunity to blow reader expectations out of the water. Queue the smug satisfaction.
I’ve got five solid reasons why writing fanfiction rocks. Check them out below and let them encourage you to try your hand at writing fanfiction, if you’ve haven’t already. Wink.
Like I mentioned, no one demands your money to read fanfiction. In fact, that’s illegal here in the states. And while fanfiction does not always equal bad writing, it often does (and that’s okay!). Sometimes the writer’s talent shines through with great plot or characterization or tension building more than with sentence structure and punctuation. You can still be entertained.
Because readers of fanfiction come in expecting less-than-perfection, the pressure to write publication-quality writing is off. Let me tell you, as a perfectionist writer, that is a huge relief. There’s nothing more freeing than knowing I just have to write my best and my best will almost certainly be good enough for the fanfiction arena.
How many writers get critiqued on the lack of setting for their story? You know, when your beta readers mention your story is happening in a vacuum because you haven’t described the area around your character, or the setting of the plot overall. Sometimes you just want to focus on the interaction between your characters. But then you have to use your writing time to build settings and even worlds.
And you know what? I don’t always want to be researching and working out what currency my fantasy realm uses, because ugh, my character just needs to pay with a lot of money to show off their wealth. Let’s get on with it! I would much rather play with someone else’s setting and not have to worry about making up my own for just this one minute.
This is why I write present-day fantasy so much. The setting is right there and I already know it pretty well, given that I live in it and all.
Same thing with characters. The character someone else made may have grabbed me so completely that I want to explore more aspects of their personality. What would they do in this situation? Can I faithfully recreate the behaviors that writer imbued them with? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s find out!
Addition to Existing Narrative
Oh geez, that great show you binged is already over! That 10-book epic series just ended and there’s no more coming! But wait, someone out there made fanfiction about it. Now there’s more to read!
That’s what fanfiction does. It makes more of the stories you love. You can make more of the stories you love. It’s not that the original work is better so there can’t be fanfiction, it’s just that, with fanfiction, there’s more. Of course, you may not always like the fanfiction out there. But that’s just more incentive to add to the narrative yourself with a version you do like!
The biggest thing for me about writing fanfiction is getting to practice narrative techniques. Maybe I’m good at setup and writing beginnings, but I don’t tend to make it to the big fight scene in the middle. Or maybe I just don’t usually write fight scenes. Either way, I don’t have so much experience writing fight scenes to make them feel natural. I could practice on my own, but what weapons do I give the characters? What attitudes will they have about fighting? What strategies are they likely to employ? Here I go down a research rabbit hole, and now it’s midnight and I’ve written nothing.
With fanfiction, I already know all this information. I don’t have to lay the groundwork just to get to the thing I need to practice writing. I can jump right in and when the fight scene I’ve written is done, I can post it straight to a fanfiction site to see what readers think about it. Rinse and repeat.
Oh, how we writers grapple with collecting willing readers. Links to Facebook, to Twitter, to Tumblr, to Instagram. Hashtags and loglines and promises that the original fiction we wrote is free to read. Writer’s lifts to get more followers who might look at our feeds ever again to read what we post. Often we resort to posting in other writer groups with fingers crossed.
Yet with fanfiction, the original writers, producers, and game makers have already made something that many, many, many people love. A portion of those lovers of the original story might go looking for more of it, hungry for anything like this thing that has gripped their hearts. When you post up fanfiction, readers actively looking for more of that game or show or book will find your story. You don’t even have to beg them to read. Unless you’re writing for a very obscure story. Even then, you’ll probably get some views. More than zero.
That’s more than I can say for some of my original fiction.
Have I convinced you yet? If you want to try reading fanfiction, you should check out the major outlets, Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net. Same thing if you want to try writing fanfiction. It’s ridiculously easy.
No path ahead, no path behind. Just four flights of concrete stairs embedded into a hillside invisible beneath a blank blanket of snow. These, for some reason, just damp, not buried along with everything else. Upward, the pale hill sloped into the pale sky. Downward, more snowy hills rolled away into infinity.
It felt like this had gone on since this world’s beginning and would continue long after I left.
I stamped my feet with cold, my shoes slopping in the dark ice melt dripping down the steps. Fast falling snow clung to my eyelashes and had already filled up my tracks, so that I could not even say which way I had come to get here.
Indecision cascaded over me like the warm, buttery light cast from above by the lamp topping a nearby wrought iron pole. Piled snow just about snuffed out the glow. A metal box clung to one side of the pole. I wondered if it contained a control switch I could use to make the light brighter. To help me see a way out of here.
The box popped open beneath my fingers with a cold clank. Inside, a dial. But it held directional markers rather than a scale for brightness output. Frowning, I twisted the dial until the needle pointed southward.
The ground beneath me shifted, almost toppling me. I clung to the wet metal rail as the entire ensemble of stairs twisted ninety degrees. At one end, presumably the southern end, the snow sizzled and melted away, revealing a concrete path snaking off into the distance.
I didn’t really need to go south, but I would take it. Smiling, I snapped the dial box shut. Then, as an afterthought, I took out a thick marker and wrote across the box’s surface:
Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.
The Very, Very Beginning
Deep down, or maybe not so deep down, writers know the value of a good opening sentence. Because writers are readers and have read a multitude of first sentences that draw them straight into the story. Even if you don’t know how, you know why: the hook. That magical gimmick that entices readers to keep reading, to buy the book, to read to the end, to tell their friends.
So I’m sure you know why you need The Hook. But how to create it? Structure it? Incorporate it into your story?
Novels vs. Everything Shorter
As novels have more word count room to maneuver, the hook for a novel has traditionally appeared on the first page rather than in the first sentence. Most of the time. Can you imagine having to turn to page two in search of the reason to care about this story? I can think of many a book like this. Books I put back on the shelves, unpurchased. The novel may have a dearth of words on hand for getting around to the point, but I do not have a dearth of time to wait. So the latest you might expect a novel hook is on the first page.
Everything Shorter Hooks
Novellas down to flash fiction just do not have the wiggle room of 120K word novels. Often these drop the hook in the first paragraph at the latest. As someone in a constant all-fire hurry, I would say even this first paragraph hook comes too late. I, Mr. Average Reader, will think I’ve learned all I need to know about your story in the first sentence. Whether or not you’re promising me an interesting tale falls to how fast and how well you executed that Hook.
Ah, but what of The Hook itself? What is it? There are two things readers want to know about your book, far and away above tone, genre, moral point, et cetera:
What is this person’s problem and why should I care?
The Hook answers those two questions. Almost like a thesis statement in academia. Through answering those two questions, The Hook generates the need to know more, like what happens to this person I now care about and how does their problem get solved?
So often the first sentence contains set-up. That’s fine, because readers could use an anchoring point to let them know what kind of story to expect. For example, the below sentence:
The southern tribes believed that the goddess of day and birth would drop a bead of her spirit from the heavens once every three hundred years.
But such a sentence leaves you asking, so what? And maybe not in the good way that makes you read more, but in the bad way that makes you put down the story. That sentence could contain more punch to jumpstart your reader’s interest with an immediate hook before you launch into continued description of the situation. Example, the below sentence:
The southern tribes believed that the goddess of day and birth would drop a bead of her spirit from the heavens once every three hundred years; Bead, named for this day 92 years ago, meant to be the one to catch it before her entire family line died out.
See how the second part of the sentence relates the main character to the described situation? How it creates need for that character, their personal conflict, and what’s happening because of that conflict? This character has almost a destiny to receive the goddess’s blessing and a very good reason for seeking it, but will she succeed? Now your reader has incentive to keep on reading.
If you can squeak The Hook, the central conflict and reason to care about it, into your opening line (and you can), then you stand a much better chance of convincing your readers to get through your set-up. Doing so in the first sentence leaves them almost zero chance to escape before you’ve got their interest. I suggest reading first sentences of your favorite books and short-stories to see how those writers did it. Then overhaul your first sentences using this method. See the difference.
Got any questions about adding the hook into your first sentence to get your reader’s attention? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for hooking readers in your opening sentences, I want to hear them!
When I left a labyrinth full of unsettling creatures, I went out through the wrong exit. Ahead, a simple wooden gate, twice my height with a neat pitched roof, blocked my way forward, more wooden fencing stretching to either side.
Almost as if to keep those strange cave creatures from getting out this way. Although what good a wooden fence would do, I didn’t see.
I consulted my fabric map of the labyrinth. As I suspected, this had not been my intended exit, but I wanted to leave all the same. Even walking all the way around the mountains instead of through, as I’d meant, would be preferable to going back.
The green scent of moss and water wafted on the breeze, tall bamboo trees swaying on the other side of the fence. Inviting. As I approached, I noted carvings on the outside walls of the cave. Images of sages and community leaders entering the cave to consult the otherworldly creatures. For wisdom? For trade?
When I reached for the gate latch, an electric snap sounded. A force punched me in the stomach, throwing me to my back. From there, when my vision cleared, I saw painted sigils on the under side of the roof. Marks for repelling the unearthly, for the most part. Defined as things not-of-this-world. Anyone else could pass through unharmed.
Wheezing, I sat up. So the rules applied to me too, it seemed. Clearly, something had changed since these people had communed with the others. I could call out, persuade someone to let me through. But my inability to open the gate myself was all the evidence anyone would need that they should not let me in. Out.
Oh, I wanted out of that labyrinth.
I turned around and headed back the way I had come.
A deep groan sounded through heavy fog as I inched my way up to a lane of thin ice running through a frozen lake. Though I was on the lookout for travelers along this lane, I also watched against any misstep that would send me plummeting below to a shivering grave. Several such lanes of thinner ice wound and turned beneath the frozen crust, steel gray water just visible below. Rushing from where one river fed into the lake to where another, far away, led back out. The lake itself stretched to the horizon, reflecting the fog and the white sky back and forth until I wondered if I stood in an upside down world.
As the groan died away, I took one cautious step back from where an ominous crack had split the thinner ice.
In the silence that followed, beneath that crack rushed a dark, amorphous shape, wriggling and reshaping. A water soul. Following by another, and another. All streaking along these icy lanes toward a world I could not reach. Not yet.
With care, I crouched next to the ice lane, little slivers of frost poking at my knees. I pulled off one glove and laid my hand flat over the crack. This fractional fracture, this threat to my very existence, was all that separated me from the other side. An impossible thing, an impossible distance away. Cold nipped at my fingers, leaching the warmth from my skin.
As I contemplated the passing souls, a much deeper cold settled into my bones.
Though I couldn’t swear it happened, as the last of the water souls passed, a vaporous hand had pressed a palm to the ice beneath mine. There for a flash. Gone in a breath. Leaving behind the freezing memory of connection with the dead.
At the bottom of a lake long dried up, my hazy gaze rested hopefully on a cloud building in the distance. Dust rose up around my plodding feet, settling on my cracked tongue. The size of this lakebed desert must have grown since the last estimation. I didn’t have enough water to get back; I could only move forward and hope I reached the edge before I ran out.
I tried not the think about how dehydration could have me just walking in circles.
A ridge of reddish rock stretched across my path, a veritable fortress wall. In the distance, it culminated at a former island, towering upward. I had tried to scale the wall only to slide back down on slopes of shale. When I had rolled to a stop at the base, dust in my hair, I picked myself up and followed the wall instead, looking for a break. Better to save my energy.
The cloud inched closer, pure white edges blurring with the horizon.
A break in the wall appeared all at once to my left. In the moment I registered freedom to continue forward, I stumbled on a hard object in the sand, going down to my knees. Tiny rocks skittered away from my hand as I scraped the object free. At first, I frowned, not understanding what I found.
A railroad tie. Attached to a railroad rail. The line passed through the break leading straight to… the oncoming cloud.
I got to my feet as the rippling heat revealed a dark train running toward me from the distance. The cloud of steam puffed upward, better than any raincloud I could imagine.
As the train neared, I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride. The brakes squealed as the train started to slow.
I have never had much use for writing magazines. When I first began writing, I went to them for instruction, guidance, the revealing of writerly secrets. I didn’t find as much of that as I wanted. Plus, the issues kept piling up in my home, not quite read all the way through, because what is focus? So I canceled my subscriptions and when more offers for magazines arrived in my mailbox, I ignored them.
One of those offers came from Poets & Writers. I had never subscribed to them nor had I submitted to them, so I’m not sure how they got my address and the knowledge that I wrote. But while sick these past couple of weeks, I ordered a digital subscription on a whim. I had long wondered what they had to offer.
Though I still did not find the revelation of secrets to writing stories loved by all, I did find a joyful celebration of writing. A loving lingering over impactful word choice, a delving into the triumphs and heartbreaks of writers, and desperate expressions of the struggles writers face. High emotion for all things writing dripped from the paragraphs, such that I felt validated as a wielder of words for the first time in a long time. Perhaps it’s all just an ego stroke in the end, but one that we writers, toiling away in obscurity and anxiety, could use once in a while.
This issue of Poets & Writers featured as its main article ‘Inside the Notebooks,’ revealing the journals, sketchbooks, and thinking boards from several prominent literary authors. These pages represented the hearts and minds of writers, often scribbled out in big, sprawling letters, on cardboard, and even across walls. Sketches thrown together with no intent to show others, portions blocked off with uneven lines. Sentences that flew up the page toward the top right corner.
The sight of that whole beautiful mess imparted to me a sense of relief. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t make pretty bullet journals with straight lines and perfect sketches. I wasn’t the only one who threw word spaghetti at the page just to see what stuck. Who let feelings out in the margins.
Maybe, all along, this was what I needed from writer magazines. A presentation of reality for writers.
So in the spirit of inside the notebooks, I figured I would do my own notebook reveal. The pictures aren’t great, some of the words misspelled, the margin thoughts messy and disjointed. But that’s the whole takeaway, isn’t it?
Without a breath of air to stir them, a plume of snowflakes rose up from the drifts coating the mountainside. Where the morning sunlight had not yet touched, deep blue shadows crept beneath a forest of firs. Nothing moved but the flurry of flakes, whirling around each other, the whole cluster angling upward along the mountain’s flank.
I crouched behind a screen of snow-heavy tree limbs, a tiny encampment from which I had not shifted all night. My legs hurt and snow soaked through the knees of my pants. Cold nipped at my lips. My breath fogged white, then gold, sparkling where the sunlight had just glanced over my shoulder, lancing between the trees down the mountain in a wide ray.
My breathing stopped. In the revealing light, the mysterious plume of snowflakes passing by my hiding place had resolved into a shape. Gold glimmered along the faint outline of a delicate creature – a long low body, tufted ears perked in my direction, pointed nose twitching for scent, one of four paws raised in consideration. Blinding white feathery wings folded along its back.
A breeze had lifted from my back, carrying my scent straight to the creature. All in a rush, it flapped those wings hard, scattering snow in every direction. The whoosh of wind threw flakes in my face, stinging my cheeks. Only four pawprints and the faint pattern of wings on the snow remained.
As well as one feather.
When I lifted the feather and moved it back and forth between shadow and light, it vanished in the darkness, though its icy touch stung my fingertips.
As promised to the people in the town below, hanging this at the community coop would at least deter any more of these creatures from stealing their chickens. That should appease the hunters.
The way I see it, no new year has hurt us the way 2020 has hurt us. In past years, I have found myself quietly swept up in the hope of a fresh start on New Year’s Day. New writing goals to pursue, maximum output calculated down to the letter ifI can just write X number of words per day… as if I were some machine, chugging away on the tracks to writing success. No room for error, like bad mental days, family emergencies, work stress, or just breaks to have fun. A piston pumping up and down, ceaseless.
Ironically, I didn’t make resolutions for the year of 2020. Not that I thought I, at last, had things figured out. But just because I had come to learn that not only would I not hit my goals for the year (I never do, as they’re always just so lofty), but that plans have a lot of opportunity to change over the course of 365 days.
Boy, was I ever right about both those things.
Nevertheless, I feel burned. Such that I may never again go into another year feeling optimistic about my prospects. Though too many press releases now have used the phrase, I find myself creeping into 2021 with an abundance of caution. Un- optimistic.Prepared for ambush from some fresh horror, some predator stalking in the ceaseless stream of the future. But I am wary prey and I fully plan to see the next attack on my very existence coming.
All this is to say, there will be no goals from me in 2021. No writing goals, no self improvement goals. Not just because 2020 has been the equivalent of an emotional abuser, traumatizing us all daily. But also because the whole experience has brought home to me more than any intellectual exercise that
none. of. that. matters.
Time will come. Perseverance of whatever that thing is that we pursue will see us through. What need have you or I for tracking and numbers and dates? For output? We need only to continue living. To keep going.
We will always keep going.
There will be new things about the blog this year. If only because I want to try some new things I may love and drop others I have not enjoyed so much. Instead of author updates, which were not much in the way of updates really, I have planned a series of short memoir topics, all centered around my journey as a writer. I will likely drop reviewing every book I read and reserve my reviews column for indie authors and publishers who reach out for the exposure. They’re the ones most deserving of the attention anyway.
Who knows what else will come our way in my microscopic corner of the internet? Certainly not me. I have no plans, after all. But I’m glad you’re along for the finding out.
As always, dear reader, I leave you with my exhortation for the coming year.