Editor-in-Chief of the Fanfic Revolution, “Worldshaking” Fanfic, Revolution! e-zine and staff editor for News from the Other Grove
Part 2: Making an okay story better
Right, so, you’ve got an idea, and you’ve begun writing it and it looks pretty good. It’s funny where it’s supposed to be funny, or tear-jerking where it’s supposed to jerk tears. And if you are the majority of fanfic writers, that will be good enough – your story, sans corrections or polishing will go up on Fanfiction.net, or sent to an archive or a mailing list, where someone will tell you that it was great.
Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but – it wasn’t. It was barely passable. If you had handed it in to a teacher, you’d have been lucky to get a ‘C.’ Because there’s a lot of things a story needs before it’s a good story. And then a lot more before it’s a great story.
Let’s take it one step at a time – first let’s make it a “good” story.
Basic needs for a good story:
1) Story idea – we covered that in the last chapter
2) Good opening – we covered that too – the opening should, ideally, set the place, tone, time and cast, as well as set up an intriguing “hook” for your reader.
Personal note: About 97% of the stories I receive as editor-in-chief for the FR I don’t read past the first paragraph. I can tell almost instantly whether a person has these two qualities right from the first words. If the author’s note is longer than the fic, then they don’t have either quality. If the first few paragraphs fail to grip me, they lack the second.
3) Grammar – The dictionary defines grammar as “the study of the classes of words, their inflections and their functions and relations in the sentence.” For instance – and this is a HUGE issue with beginning writers – noun and verb agreement comes under the heading of grammar.
Beginners frequently complain that a little bad grammar isn’t a bad thing…well, yes, actually it is. When you’re James Joyce, you can recreate the English language. If you’re Erica Friedman, you’d better be using it in a way that everyone can understand. LOL
“The Senshi was” and the “The Senshi were” imply two entirely different things – make absolutely SURE you use the one you mean. Nouns and verbs must match in both tense and number or the sentence hurts to read. “Uranus held Neptune’s hands, giving it a squeeze,” just sounds wrong. And rightfully so, because it is. Either Uranus held one hand and gave it a squeeze, or held both and gave *them* a squeeze.
4) Syntax – again, the dictionary describes it as “the way in which linguistic elements are put together to form constituents.” In our case, it’s how the sentence is structured.
Sentence structure is a lot more fluid in English than most people realize. One of the joys of writing in this language is that we can have one-word sentences that have nothing more than a verb, with an invisible, yet implied subject, i.e., “Come.” *and* something with multiple phrases and clauses – such as this sentence. And both can make perfect sense. But as a writer you need to know what it is you mean to say – and how you want it to be heard by your reader. If you haven’t mastered the difference between clauses and phrases, for instance, you’ll have sentences that don’t flow – or lack something (for instance, a verb. LOL)
For the sake of argument, I’ll add a note about Point Of View (POV) here, since sentence structure and POV are strongly related. Changing POVs in a story is a perfectly legitimate technique, but it should be a conscious effort, not a haphazard occurrence.
Here’s another section of my never-to-written fanfic example:
Space was never as dark as one hoped, Uranus mused, staring out the window. I want, she thought, to be sucked into the blackness, to never have to come back to the light.
Hmmm – a rather melancholy Uranus, apparently. You can see that the POV changes mid paragraph there. The first sentence is written in a 3rd person omniscient POV – we can hear and feel what she hears and feels, but are removed. The second sentence is written in a 1st person omniscient. We are above it all, hearing and feeling what she hears and feels – but the words are in first person. Let’s try the same sentences a few other ways:
I always think that space is never as dark as I want it to be. I want to be sucked into the blackness, to never have to come back to the light.
You always say that – that space is never as dark as you want it to be…
Got it? Each POV changes the way the reader perceives the scene and the characters within it. It’s a pretty common failing (and I include myself and everyone I’ve ever read) in this – because sometimes you write something and you just sort of shift into another POV and I forget where I was. Like that last sentence, for example. LOL This is why a good copy editor is invaluable to you as a writer. But I get ahead of myself.
Let’s see, we’ve covered, grammar, syntax, POV…those are the basics. With these few honed weapons in your arsenal, your story will stand out as “good” among the reams of dreck being published as fanfic.
Before I move on to some advanced topics, let me now step out and rant incessantly about proofreading and copyediting.
Having a competent proofreader and copy editor is *not* a luxury – it is a necessity. Without a person – preferably several people – who are willing to risk your wrath by pointing out all your flaws as a writer, you will stay in the middle of the bell curve – at best.
Using myself as an example, I know that my rough drafts are ok – better than some people’s final drafts. But I am not a good typist, nor am I perfect by any measure and I crave meaningful and personally hurtful criticism. LOL In fact, my motivation for starting the FR wasn’t to create a group of notable fic writers – it was to find a few people who had a decent grasp of the English language who would challenge my usage, my characterizations, my everything. I needed people who didn’t just write and say “that was great – do more!” I wanted comments like, “You changed POV right after the second sentence.”
In order to get good critical comments, you need to find people with three *separate* skill sets:
Beta-readers – betas are people who, after you’ve gone over your rough draft yourself, will tell you where the story seems weak, or point out obvious flaws – missing words, horribly obvious misspellings, etc. A good beta-reader may not be any help at all in correcting your work – s/he may simply say, “that doesn’t sound right.” Nevertheless, a good beta-reader can be a BIG help in those pesky places where something sounds wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it. My best beta-reader happens to be my wife, so I simply read my stories out loud to her. This helps me “hear” how the words sound too, so dialogue doesn’t come out sounding stiff. I recommend this highly as a beta draft, self-correcting technique.
Proofreaders – in the publishing world, they simply check for typos, missing words, incorrect spacing, etc. They use what are called “style sheets” that is, if I consistently use the word “website” but the dictionary says the correct spelling is “web site,” then a style sheet will allow my proofreader to ignore that little foible and not have to correct it every single time I use my spelling. In the case of fanfic proofreaders, they pretty much do the same job – without the style sheets, so it’s a little more difficult. Having a consistent proofreader makes it a bit easier because they’ll get used to you – but that’s a problem in itself. Its not a bad thing to point out that you’re using “Serenity” instead of “Selenity” so that your proofreader knows which you want. That way if you accidentally insert the wrong one, they know they should correct it.
Personal note: This brings me to yet another personal fanfic-specific note – pick a version! Consider the case of Sailor Moon, which has several distinct versions: Japanese anime, Japanese comic, American dub anime and we could also include the American comic, since Usagi has yet another name in that version, which gives her, what, three, four possible names – not even including the Serenity/Selenity issue. I kid you not when I say that I have received submissions that freely bounce back and forth between naming conventions…in a single sentence. This is NOT good, unless you’re playing it for laughs – and even then it gets tired pretty fast. Pick a name and stick with it, for everyone’s sake! LOL
Copy Editor – Once you’ve had your story beta read and proofed, then it’s time to find a copy editor. CE’s are not the same as proofreaders. Copy editors are the ones who will note your POV and syntactical errors, incorrect usages of words and other larger, more language-specific issues. A good editor is like gold – if you can find one who really takes a scalpel to your work and understands what you’re doing, then don’t let go! Hold onto them, they are precious.
Conversely, as an editor, it is crucial you not insist on your standards of characterization or language on your author. Everyone has their own style – let the author have theirs. Don’t keep insisting “I’d say it like this” because then you might as well write the story. Since we aren’t paid to do this, we can get carried away with this a little, but on the whole we have to be careful of this failing. The ONLY legitimate exception to this rule that I can think of, is when you are the originator of a character. If Naoko Takeuchi emailed me to point out an inconsistency in the language I used for Haruka, I’d bloody well listen to her! LOL And if I tell you “Yuriko wouldn’t say that” well, I think I know what I’m saying. ;-) You might choose not to listen – but do you really want to tell Naoko Takeuchi to go to hell? Or me for that matter? LOL
One of the advantages of having the FR as my editorial staff is that each person functions differently – some are more proofers and beta-readers, while others challenge me carefully and really make me stretch to fix my work. And for different stories, different people take on different functions, which is kind of neat. :-)
Lastly, as a stepping-stone to the next writer’s workshop article, let me say one last thing. I frequently get people emailing me stories of theirs and asking for “comments.” I do not do this anymore at all – the only stories I will comment on at all are submissions for the FR and I no longer make editorial comments. Why? Because people do not want “comments.” They want praise and I cannot, in good conscience, praise a story I think is written poorly. If a story lacks any of the above qualities then I don’t care how many other people have said a story is good – it simply isn’t. Without these basics, a story will be okay at best. Even with all these things, all you’ll have is a “good” story. The next step is to take that story and make it “great.”