Editor-in-Chief of the Fanfic Revolution, “Worldshaking” Fanfic, Revolution! e-zine and staff editor for News from the Other Grove
Part 3: Polishing Your Story
Story idea – check
Strong beginning – check
Good grammar – check
Good syntax – check
Beta-and proofread – check
Copy edited – check
Right, we’ve got a winner here, right? Nope, not yet.
But why, you ask – we’ve done everything you wanted, even dealt with some seriously painful C&C on our masterpieces of fiction…what’s left? Actually, it’s not what’s left – it’s what left out. Now that you have the basics down, it’s time to start again from the beginning, this time including some of the more advanced techniques for making a story work. These include, but are not limited to, character development, plot and my personal favorite, voice.
Let’s start with character development. This is distinct from plot, but most people don’t realize it, so they use the plot to force development in tacky and ultimately (to me) unsatisfying ways.
All stories are contrived. This is a basic fact. All crises, plot points and other significant moments in a story are contrivances – they exist only to make the story move ahead. Because the driving force of any story is conflict, most people rely on REALLY HUGE conflicts to make a really small story move ahead. When you learn to do a physical skill, say painting, you do the same thing – you start with really BIG strokes which, after time and practice, become finer and cleaner, until you learn how to temper your strokes to exactly the size necessary. The same holds true for fanfic.
Many stories that involve an established anime couple (or an established fanon couple) will start off by killing one of the characters in order to force a reaction from the other. That’s a really big stroke to start with. It takes a lot more skill to create a conflict out of much less – say someone eating the last of the breakfast cereal…and carry it over into a real, more life-like conflict. This is not to say that large crises don’t make good stories – it’s just that they are easier to write, because we all know how awful death is. But a great story can take a little thing (and here I am referring to a scene from Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen,”) like a meal of katsudon and make it the center for an amazing scene full of emotion, conflict and crisis…all in a quiet scene with hardly any dialogue.
The key to this kind of writing is character development. All stories start with some a priori conditions…some of which should be established in the strong beginning we discussed in Part One. Others should be distributed throughout the story, in flashbacks, discourses, dreams, etc – there are any number of ways to establish what the characters consider to be status quo. All of this establishes the character in the reader’s mind. And all the while, the plot should be pushing this envelope, creating the vectors that are forcing the reactions that cause the development.
So, back to my little example fic: Uranus, the melancholic little thing, is brooding once again:
Uranus thought back to her home, the home she remembered from her childhood – not the cold, loveless place she had lived recently.
Wow – she’s really miserable, ain’t she? Well, in one sentence, I’ve given her quite a history – once upon a time, she lived happily somewhere, but recently she hasn’t. Hmm, that calls for more detail.
She could clearly picture her mother’s smile, that smile that had warmed the hearts of everyone who saw it. But when the smile had gone away, when her mother passed into infinite space, it seemed that no one in the palace would ever smile again.
Aha!! She’s already getting a history. And status quo, for our little miserable Uranus, is to be all Hamlet-like and ansgsty. Tacky, but not uncommon at her age.
Let’s add a few more lines and see if we can push that envelope now that we’ve established it:
When the summons had come, Uranus had jumped at the chance to leave. She had expected to find hardship, she had expected to find battle and duty…but she hadn’t expected to find what she had found. She hadn’t expected to find…love.
Uranus turned away from the window to look at her partner – her companion on this journey. Neptune caught her eye and gave her a shy smile….
OK, I’ll stop here. It’s trite, but it gets the point across. The point is – we establish the status quo, and the level of tension…then without having to say, KILL one of the two principles, or crash the ship, or destroy the Moon Kingdom, or any one of a hundred huge, crude brushstrokes, we push gently on the situation, turning it slightly, guiding it into a different path.
Because –and this is key, the story isn’t *about* the melancholy Uranus – it’s about the lovey-dovey one… and her (and Neptune’s) arrival at the Silver Millennium.
Right, so in a few sentences, we’ve established a character, given her a past, a “backstory” and developed the character past that backstory. Then we added a vector, moved the character off the original path onto the one that contains…tada!…our plot.
Personal note # 417: Backstory is the single most important thing to me in any given story. Not only should character development imply a backstory (and frequently the backstory makes great chapters of flashback and stories within stories) but the author, if pressed, should know the answer to any question that might be asked about the backstory. If you, for instance, asked me what killed Uranus’ mother – I should know. Better, I should have her tell Neptune, so we *all* know. :-)
Let’s move on to plot. Everyone knows what a plot is right? What’s the plot of this story?
If you said, “what happens when the new Senshi of Uranus and Neptune arrive at the Moon Kingdom” then you are…wrong. That’s not a plot – that’s a plot *idea.* The plot is the actual steps in the story, from beginning to end that drive the characters through the narration.
In this case the plot (which has become a little richer than when I first envisioned the story) now involves two totally different strands. The first side of the plot is the life (status quo) at the Silver Millennium, and the hubbub caused by the arrival of two new Senshi – all the interactions, all the scenes that contain those characters and brings them to the docking bay to be present to witness Uranus and Neptune kissing, is the first half of the plot. The second half is made up of the backstories and interactions between Uranus and Neptune, that drive them to be in each other’s arms when they arrive, is the second half.
I won’t beat this to death, suffice to say that a plot idea isn’t enough – you need to follow through and “plot out” the entire story, at least in a general sense. How many stories can you name where the author clearly had an epic plot idea, but the story simply crapped out about halfway and was never finished? (A very good reason not to publish a story until it’s complete, btw.) Save yourself the guilt and work out the plot first – then start writing. Or at least have a general sense of where you want to plot to go before you start writing.
Another personal note: I play fast and free with my plots. Sometimes the characters simply don’t go where I intended for them to go – sometimes my mood changes mid story and I head somewhere else. I don’t fix myself into a specific path, but I usually have a sense of where I’m headed before I begin. If the story changes, I let it, but sometimes I have to stop and rewrite bits if it gets completely out of hand. (I recently had to cut out 20 pages of a 40-page story to make it work. But it was much better for the cut.)
Now – onto “Voice.” This is my big rant. I cannot stress this concept enough! I argue about it all the time with other people. And above all things, it is the one thing that will sell me on a story more than anything else. (And it is the single thing that turns me off fastest when it’s used badly or not at all.)
Voice is an idea that for me carries two separate, but intricately intertwined concepts:
1) Each story has a different, appropriate, sound.
2) The characters *within* a story are given separate voices from the author and each other.
These are not the same idea – but they are linked.
First – the voice of a story. I am a 36-year old, middle class, white woman of Jewish descent and pagan by religion. I’m gay, intolerant and have a sarcastic sense of humor. This, in a nutshell, is *my* voice. I have decided to write a story about teenaged nobility from an ancient, fictitious lunar kingdom. It would be ludicrous for the characters to sound like 36-year-old sarcastic women. LOL For instance:
“Great – new blood.”
“Can’t wait. Yawn.”
“Wonder if they’ll suck or what?”
This hardly reads like happy, entitled, and enthusiastic teenagers – noble or not. It reads like me and my co-workers talking about a new hire. You see the point. The same thing goes for my little Hamlet-like Uranus. I don’t brood…not in a teen angsty way. I get peeved. So if I wrote her like she was me it would read like this:
Sigh. What the hell did I expect anyway? Like running away helps. Feh. I’m about as happy now as I’ve ever been.
LOL So you can see that my voice as an author needs to really change from my normal internal voice to convince my readers that these characters are actually teenagers.
Next up – nobility. I’m not. No one I know is. I’ve never been in the presence of royalty or nobility in my entire life. But, here again, there are literary conventions that assist us with changing voice. A certain formality in the language implies a “proper” upbringing – mind you, we never see Sailor Uranus use formal language. Note: Japanese has a specific set of words that imply formality – they are called “Keigo.” “Watakushi” instead of “watashi,” or “atashi,” et al. In English, we have something similar to Keigo, although we have no formal word for it.
Informal – Thanks
Polite – Thank you
Formal – Thank you very much
Overly formal – Thank you very much, I greatly appreciate it
Note that the last can easily imply sarcasm – the same is true with Keigo. I’ve noticed that quite a few fic writers assume that “noble” implies a grandiose mode of speech – as if nobility comes with a need to use only polysyllabic words. I’ve never noticed Prince Charles use only large fifty-cent words, but perhaps that’s my own failing. Nor does the Prince of England eschew contractions. As far as I can determine, nobles are just people with more polished manners. Write them like they are used to their station in life – not as if they are uncomfortable in their skin.
Can you ever imagine Venus speaking this way?
“Lady Mercury, perhaps you should relax and enjoy life a little – it is, after all, so very short.”
Not unless she was being *very* sarcastic, I imagine. LOL Or seductive. Or both.
It behooves you to make your characters speak like the characters they are – based on what we know of them (since we’re assuming that you and your reader both have a knowledge of the source material) and in a way that sounds true to how you want to portray them.
And don’t forget – if the story is set in a medieval-type setting it should have a completely different voice than one set in the present.
Which brings me to the second type of voice. This is a major polish job.
When I encounter a writer who can do this, they usually go right on my shelf of “best of” at home. Damn few writers of any kind do this. I attempt to, because I think it gives the characters a verisimilitude far beyond what most writers bother with.
An example of why this kind of voice is so important is an author for whom I have immense respect who has written many excellent fanfics – each and every one of them sounding like a young, intellectual, male in his 20s. Which would have been great, except he was supposed to have been writing about 14-year old girls! LOL
If a character typically uses a more formal approach, then the language used should have a different sound than the language used for someone who speaks less formally within that story. Uranus, for instance should be a little gruffer and cruder – but not so vulgar that one might mistake her for a peasant, or a Yakuza. LOL Neptune, however, is always heard speaking at a politer level – not quite Keigo, but not casual either. It behooves me as author to write them correctly. For instance:
“Well, what do you think Neptune?” Uranus asked with a smile. “Do you think we can shock the Senshi of the Silver Millennium?”
“I think,” Neptune said as she touched her lips gently to Uranus’, “that it doesn’t much matter whether we do or not.”
If I had written:
“Who cares?” Neptune responded as…
they would have both sounded casual, almost gruff. Neptune of the show is never written that way. This way her voice is distinct from that of Uranus.
And, as one *final* note to this section, and since it has so much to do with voice…
I want to mention the use of Japanese in anime/manga fanfic. Don’t.
It does NOT give a good feel to a story – it simply makes your characters sound like old WWII movie Germans who had ridiculous accents –”Vee haff vays off makink you talk.” Shudder.
Almost anything you can say in Japanese – especially if you are NOT a fluent speaker – can be said in English too. Good morning, I love you, how are you – the list of phrases for which English has perfectly acceptable analogs is endless. Using simple phrases that have English analogs only screams “amateur!” in a story in a way that very little else can.
OTOH, if an item or concept simply doesn’t have an analogous term in English, (and there are many) feel free to use the Japanese term. You can italicize it for emphasis, or add a glossary at the bottom, but both those things take away from the story – they emphasize the word, rather than the idea. IMHO, that’s counterintuitive. If you write well, then the use of the new word will be seamless and the description of the item within the story will suffice. (And I also like to assume my audience is intelligent and will look up words and concepts that they don’t know.) But in case you have really weird ideas or words – short glossaries work fine. If your glossary is beginning to look like a vocabulary quiz in Japanese class, it may be time to rethink your use of Japanese.
And there you have it. None of the qualities discussed in this section are simple or easy to do – otherwise everyone would do them. But using some, if not all, of these concepts will very definitely catapult your story away from the pack. If you have solid basics, having strong voice, a solid plot and good character development will make your good story great.