Transformers Fan Fiction: A Long-Winded Dissertation Intro: Didn't Anybody Read My Story?!? A nearly universal complaint among fanfic writers is the lack of feedback from readers. While it's probably true that the group's massive volume of traffic means that fewer people read and respond to fanfics than in days of olde, I feel that, at times, there is also an issue of quality involved: better fanfics tend to get more responses. Put bluntly, and without naming names, some fanfics are better than others. Some are equal to or better than anything we ever got from the "official" sources; others were so bad I couldn't even finish them. Some made me smile, made me laugh, caught me up completely in their world, made me feel tension and excitement and sorrow. One or two even made my eyes water up. Others just made me say, "uh-huh." Accordingly, some works deserve more, greater, and more in- depth response than others do. Some folks may feel that it's a cardinal sin to judge other people's fanfics, but how can you not have some reaction to a story, whether negative or positive? I'm not trying to belittle the efforts of some writers or put others on a pedestal. It's just that when I read Transformers fanfic, I have varied reactions to it. I've noted some things that seem to produce good stories (to me, at least), and some problems and stumbling blocks that fanfic writers commonly hit. Maybe airing them will help someone write better, or just help give a fanfic writer a different way to think about what they're working on. As a very approximate rule of thumb, a fanfic writer can expect response to come in proportion to the perceived effort put into a work. If a story looks like it's finely polished, and not something just churned out in a single sitting, it is far more likely to get a response from readers. Personally, I know that when a story is carefully constructed, well-written and well- presented, I am far more compelled to write the author and share my thoughts than if the story looks like a first draft. That means some of us have to slave over a story for countless hours, while a few lucky bastards can get the same results seemingly with no effort at all. Such is life. [On the other hand, it's not always the case. A short story may get more responses than a longer one, simply because more people read and finish it. Again, that's life -- but I've found that those few who do respond to a longer story tend to write more in their response, which is cool.] So, given that, what can you do give your story that extra tangy flavor that'll wow the readers and lure in those emails?... Part One: How To wRite Gewd Here's some sketchy guidelines for turning out stories that will be at least respectable, if not heaped with praise. Note that, while all these are basically my opinions, many of them are based on things most English and writing instructors will tell you, and they're inspired by the things I've seen in fanfics that turn me off from reading them. If I'm turned off, it seems reasonable that others may be as well. * Follow the Rules This one comes to us courtesy of Dave Van Domelen, who posted a great little essay a while back entitled "Dave's Guide to Guides to Writing" or some such. The gist of it was: any so-called 'rule' in writing can be broken, but to do so it's essential that you understand why it's a 'rule' in the first place. Most great literature involves breaking one or more of the 'rules'; however, before you can write anything great, you have to be able to write well -- and to do that, knowing and understanding the 'rules' is essential. * Read! Read everything you can get your hands on. Notice how different authors put sentences together, describe things, introduce characters, set mood, etc. Published authors are bound to be competent, at the very least -- so they're good role models. Whenever I feel my own writing style is getting stagnant, I pick up a book or three and start browsing, just sampling the writer's style, seeing if there might be any ideas I could use myself. * Use correct grammar and spelling. Actually, this one is *not* my opinion; it's a stone cold fact. The importance of correct grammar cannot be overstated. A writer who expects to be taken seriously must have strong writing skills; the best story in the world can be completely sabotaged by poor grammar. Writing mistakes jump out at readers, throwing them suddenly from the discovery of what your characters are doing, to "what's the author trying to say here?" The reader can't digest your story if he is laughing at your spelling mistakes. And no amount of deep insight, profound character development, and breath-taking plot twists can get around poorly constructed sentences. It's okay for Grimlock to say "Us are on our way", but when something like that shows up in narrative text it's a huge distraction. It makes the story look childish and immature. Don't put down "your" when you mean "you're". Don't jam your sentences together with "and". Use a separate paragraph each time a new character speaks. Don't use more than a couple of exclamation points at the end of your sentence -- and even then only rarely, if at all. Everyone makes typoes and spelling mistakes; the trick is to proof-read and spell check so you catch most of them. If you feel grammar is not your strong point, find a proof reader. But check it yourself first; practice makes better, if not perfect. Remember, you are putting your work out to where hundreds of people are likely to see it... and where, in theory, MILLIONS of people could see it. Make sure you've got your best foot forward. Also remember, on Usenet, people have only your words to judge you by. As with any Usenet post, if your story has numerous grammatical and spelling errors, you will most assuredly look like an idiot, and most folks don't care to read a story that looks like it was written by an idiot. :P As an aside: personally, I grant a huge leeway in this department to writers who aren't native speakers of English. However, most of the foriegners who post to the newsgroups have darn-near flawless English, so it's pretty much a moot point. :] * Revise, revise, revise. For most people, in most cases, a first draft should not be shown to the reading public. Don't just write -- rewrite, and then RE-rewrite. Then do it again. Let your story sit for a while, then come back to it, read it afresh, and try to decide if it's something really worthwhile, something you're at least a little bit proud of and really want to share with other people. Not everyone needs to work this way -- a few lucky souls can get it right on the first try. And sometimes things just come out that are absolutely perfect and don't need to be touched one bit. But in general the first shot doesn't hit the mark. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just something that needs to be recognized. Anyway, even the best first drafts can usually be improved with some effort. * Slow down. Don't get in a rush to finish your work. The multiplicity of fanfics on the newsgroup at any given moment can make one eager to jump in with his own work. It's understandable; you're anxious to get in on the action, and share your story as soon as you've spilled it out into the computer. I felt the same way when I was new to the group. (Shoot, I still feel that way!) Transfandom online is an exciting and dynamic community that, at its best, strongly encourages one to participate. It's an impulse I had to tone down, though, to get some quality. I posted my first fanfic before it was really ready, and got zippo response. Later, when I'd rewritten a big chunk of it and worked more carefully on the new parts... well, I won't say the responses poured in, but I got a satisfying amount of feedback. It was worth the wait. Even now, I have to restrain myself from putting stuff on the 'net until I've made myself go over it two or three times, and really asked myself if it's worth someone else's time to read. * Don't write to feed your ego. If you go in expecting lavish praise, you will be stunningly disappointed. In fact, if you "wait for comments from people" before you "write the next part" (a common disclaimer among fanfic writers), your story will most likely never be finished. Write because you love what you're writing about, or because you have a story to tell, or because you want to draw the reader into a world that's fascinated you. The reward should be the process of creating a story, the finished product itself, and the thrill of putting it out on the Internet. If you get responses, view it as a pleasant surprise. Besides, one of the strongest points of a well-constructed story should be the ending and/or the conclusion of the plot - and therefore the ending will be one of the things most likely to draw in comments from folks. And many comments are just, "Hey, nice story." How can someone really judge a story as good if they haven't seen the ending yet? (reference: Beast Wars episode "Other Visits" parts 1 and 2.) * Use consistent narrative tense, person, voice, and perspective. "Narrative" refers to all the words in a story that aren't spoken by your characters. It's basically you telling your story. Narrative tense (past/present/future) must be consistent -- if you start off with a past tense like "Optimus Prime destroyed the Decepticons", don't suddenly switch to a present-tense "Megatron revives them all." In fact, it's very rare that present tense should be used at all. It works okay on a MUSH, where the "events" are actually happening as one reads. But in a text story, having to constantly read sentences like "the Autobots creep around the sides of Decepticon Headquarters and prepare to attack" sets the reader on edge. It very quickly becomes tiresome and annoying, and simply doesn't work in many stories. Furthermore, it it's functionally incorrect in some cases. If your narrative says "Shockwave lives to serve Megatron", well, what if Shockwave is killed half-way through your story? Obviously he doesn't live to serve Megs anymore! Narrative person (him/you/I) should likewise be kept consistent; don't go from "Megatron had killed every living thing present" (third person) to "You saw a staggering number of dead Autobots" (second person). It is a rare story indeed that can accomodate a second-person narrative tense, and first person requires careful attention to detail and tone if it's going to be successful. As a default, plain old third person works best for most stories -- though first person is best for getting inside a character's head. Trickiest of all is keeping a consistent narrative voice. Narrative voice includes ALL the words of the story that aren't spoken or thought dialogue. Narrative is commonly objective - - it doesn't call the Decepticons dastardly or the Autobots heroic. That's for the characters to do. Narrative doesn't crack jokes, get excited, or make judgements; characters do. The only time narrative commonly steps outside the objective is when it serves in place of a character's direct thoughts; it can reflect the character's impressions or appraisals, ie: "Optimus sighed. Megatron's evil genius was sure to find another opportunity to strike soon. And the tremendous burden of stopping him fell squarely on Prime's shoulders." Note the difference between that, and the following, where the narrative makes inappropriate judgements: "The evil Decepticons swooped down from the sky, firing their lasers and decimating the courageous Autobots. The Autobots fought back like the heroes they were, but they were helpless to stop the treacherous onslaught of their enemies!" Blech. Third person narrative voice is also pretty formal. A third- person story shouldn't be written in the casual tone of voice that I've used in this essay... it will sound sloppy and amatuerish. A story's narrative should avoid contractions, slang, interjections, addressing the reader, and opinionated commentary on the action. Don't be lured in by the appeal of using a casual narrative voice to make your story seem cool... it's very hard to do. Finally, there's narrative perspective -- how much knowledge the narrator has and gives to the reader. As narrator, it's natural to reveal things beyond the basic physical action of your story. As I said, narrative can sometimes serve in place of your character's thoughts; a common technique is to tell a story from a single character's point of view. It can also detail past events, a character's motives, or even mention things that haven't happened yet (as foreshadowing or as a tension- building device.) But when doing all this, be careful not to jump around too much. It can be disconcerting to go abruptly from one character's thoughts to another, or from the limited knowledge of the characters themselves to an omnicient narrator's point of view, unless there's at least some kind of "buffer" or transition between the two. My personal rule of thumb is normally to stick with one character's thoughts per scene. It sounds limiting, but it actually can help produce a stronger scene precisely because it forces one to edit carefully. What point of view should the writer take to tell a story? Generally, stories that are closest to the action (describing it in careful detail,second-by-second) are best; they make the story more immediate, the outcome totally up in the air. One reason television is such an exciting medium is that almost by default it puts the viewer in the middle of the action, and shows that action directly. How exciting would the space battle in "Return of the Jedi" be if we didn't see it, but were instead told about it by Han Solo later on? Pretty dull, huh? Same thing holds for text stories -- retrospective points of view are things that should be used *very* cautiously. Dave Van Domelen's "Sky Link" story did this very well -- the retrospective angle added a sense of heavy sadness to the story. We knew from the start how it was going to end; the ending wasn't the point. But such exceptions are... well, the exceptions. * Explication is evil. To put it another way, "show, don't tell." As much as possible, avoid long, static paragraphs describing situations, environments, histories, and back story. Instead, take the reader through events as they happen. Fill in the environment as the action and dialogue proceed. Have the character's back story come out in pieces, through dialogue perhaps. * On the other hand, you don't have to show everything. You have to decide what parts of your characters' lives to show. What's important, what's not? Do we really need to be told that the Autobots transformed at the end of the battle and drove home, or can we just cut directly from the aftermath to a scene in Autobot headquarters? As tempting as it may be to detail every last moment of a character's life, careful selection is sometimes a more powerful method of relating events. It might mean cutting out things you've written, but it'll make the story tighter. In my list of "fanfic cliches", I complain about people writing stories that focus on incidental details from the Movie that don't really relate to the plot of their story, and about characters with odd speech patterns being written phonetically: "Wazzzzzzzpinator talks like thizzzzzz!" One of the great powers of a written story is that it leaves a component up to the imagination. Therefore, part of the trick of writing is figuring out how far to describe the details. A great amount of detail can add mood and focus to a story. But it can also muddy things up. Beyond a certain point, the reader is not going to "see" or "hear" things the same way you do in your head, no matter how much you describe them. Remember that before you bog yourself down in trying to capture Ironhide's every last nuance or explaining just what the deal was with that pebble in the lower-left corner of the screen beneath Huffer's foot in the barricade scene from the Movie. Keep in mind what the reader really needs to know -- the important thing is that Ironhide's a rough-n-ready ornery guy with a Southern drawl, not the exact way he pronounces Optimus Prime's name. * Know the difference between an essay and a story. This one, I confess, is pretty vague. It's related to the one above about explication. If you don't zoom in enough on the story you're telling, at some point it ceases to be a story, and becomes an explanation. In general, a story should be chronicling events up close, as they happen, or recalling them in great detail. If you really want to examine Warpath's philosophy of life in extreme detail and don't have any kind of plot to go with it, you might try writing an essay instead. Exceptions to this can include stories told as excerpts from journals, stories told by characters within a story, and general flashbacks. Like I said, it's a pretty vague suggestion. * Listen to how your characters speak. Most real people don't give long speeches, nor do they give the sort of atrocious explication that is so rampant in the comics -- especially in the middle of a battle. Before you settle on any dialogue, try to imagine hearing your characters speak out loud, and figure out if it sounds like something someone would actually say. This works especially well if you're writing about characters from the cartoons. While we're on the subject of dialogue: 1) Make sure the reader can figure out who's speaking. 2) Be careful how you use slang such as "gonna" and "goin'" in a character's speech. It's okay to do it some, but it can quickly become annoying and distracting when it's done to excess. An Aside: What Do I Mean by "Bad Writing"? There are several levels of "bad writing". The most common "bad writing" on the Internet is due to errors of spelling, grammar, and usage --these are careless or unknowing mistakes in the application of language, things that are for the most part indisputably wrong in a technical sense. These are also the most easily corrected... and for native speakers of English, the least forgivable. The rules for grammar and spelling are pretty much concrete -- if you don't know them, you can look them up. Learn your native language, and learn it well -- it's an amazingly powerful tool. Yes, the grammar they bludgeon you with in high school DOES serve a purpose. But there's more to "good writing" than just mastering the technical skills. In order of increasing complexity and difficulty, weak writing suffers from the lack of: 1) proper spelling 2) correct grammar/sentence structure 3) correct useage of words and phrases 4) organization (presenting ideas or plot in a coherent and understandable manner) 5) ideas contained within the writing, including plot, character, setting, etc. -- in short, what you're trying to say 6) levels of meaning within the expression of the ideas - subtleties, shadings, foreshadowing, implications, room for interpretation, social relevance, themes, etc -- things that evoke emotional response from the reader, and tie the material into their own life. It is this last level that raises great writing to the level of literature, by the way -- gives it meaning beyond the actual events of the story. A lot of fanfics never make it past the first four items, which are all things that must be overcome by practice and study. The average 'fic stops at #5. The rare ones that achieve some degree of #6 are most often the ones that leave us all going, "DAMN that was good!" #5 is the basis of writing -- you can't write if you don't have some sort of idea to express. Personally, even if I *do* have an idea I feel is worth writing about, I won't turn it loose until I feel I can also infuse it with some degree of #6 -- so that the idea isn't just expressed, it's expressed in a way that I find pleasing, with some flair or creativity or double meanings or some such. Someone on alt.tv.daria once said that it's important that the writer include details and sublties that the reader/viewer might not be aware of. I can't say just why, but I agree. Lacing your words with subtle meanings or references can add a nice extra dimension to a story... even if you're the only one who sees it.
Back to Rob's Pile of
Or, onwards to the infamous list of fanfic cliches.