Finding The Story Opening
Should A Pro Write Fanfic?
Previous parts in Finding The Story Opening:
The week before last, we looked at 3 novels, two widely published hardcovers from major Houses about International Intrigue, and one widely popular Fanfic novel about Interstellar Intrigue. One of the hardcovers had a ten year old girl in it, and the fanfic has a 10 year old boy in it.
I expect by now you've read all 3 and done your contrast compare study.
I assume most reading this blog are either Romance genre readers or Science Fiction genre Readers -- and some of the readers are writers.
Last week, the author of the (hugely) popular Fan Novel, The Ambassador's Son, about Sahaj, Spock's son who turns up in Spock's life for the first time when he is 10 years old, presented us with a
Her summary of the learning curve, and final summary of what she had to internalize to produce the gorgeously polished current versions of these stories (and with stories in her universe written by others, some of the most brilliant writers in ST fanfic), brought into focus many of the topics we have discussed here, and examined in minute detail.
I recently saw some news interviews and items on Venture Capitalists looking for products to invest in. Just like film producers, they are interested only in items that can be summarized IN ONE SENTENCE (or maybe two short ones).
The "pitch" has to be so short you can write it on a paper napkin, or the back of a business card. An "elevator pitch" -- you can say while the doors open.
Those brief words must be the concept, and it must "haunt" the person you pitch to, and do that in such a way that they know where to find you to get more. In other words, your Identity must be wrapped into that concept, without actually including name, address, phone number, Twitter handle etc.
Pitching is the secret.
It is the core of the dreaded "Query Letter."
Most beginning writers have an Idea and plunge right into WRITING, just too excited by their own interest in the Idea to stop and wonder why that Idea grabs them so.
That is what Leslye did with her first plunge into telling Sahaj's story.
And that, actually, is the core secret to writing vastly popular fanfic like Sahaj.
Story Telling is a craft, and all "craft" is boring to learn, just like beginning piano lessons and the incumbent practice sessions. Parents have to tie their kids to the piano bench. But ten years later, the college student is the toast of the dorm playing while friends dance in the hallways.
At that point, the musician is having fun, making the instrument talk for him, creating joy to gift to others, making memories and not thinking where to put fingers to make this or that sound. The years of practice create brain synapses that allow the adult to think the song, and it comes out into the air with no awareness of what the fingers did to achieve that.
Telling stories is the same way. At first it is laborious, boring, depressingly difficult, and you have to think about each move, force yourself to follow the metronome and hit the notes to the beat of the measure.
Yes, fiction has a beat, called pacing. Each genre has a rhythem, a "key signature" and "time signature." Each type of story, or novel, has a structure, like a poem. But each story set to that music is unique.
Sahaj was one of the first "Spock Has A Child" stories. And perhaps the first to rub his nose in it, and make him raise that child.
In other words, Leslye Lilker made a name for herself telling stories to a very specific readership segment -- the fanzine reading Star Trek-Spock fans who understood "life" is more than "adventure" and Romance running around the galaxy and writing scientific papers.
That segment of the TV audience that knew how incomplete the Galactic Hero's Adventure is without the "raise your children to be Heroes, too" part of the story read Sahaj and went on to produce many variations.
And that movement dragged many other Movies, TV shows and text-based-books into the question, "What happens AFTER the adventure?"
What happens after the Romance?
Lesley Lilker is working on how the Romance happens after the adventure, and plans to tell us some of those stories.
This is a clue about how to structure stories for our new genre, Science Fiction Romance - or Paranormal Romance - or a mixture of the two, Alien Djinn Romance.
So there are two problems all writers, beginning writers, selling writers, big name writers -- all writers -- have. Finding the Target Audience and crafting a Narrative Hook, an Opening Scene, that will rivet that audience's attention.
After you get their attention, of course you must deliver the goods, with style and substance and satisfaction. But no matter how satisfying your story, it will not deliver satisfaction if it doesn't first grab attention.
And you can't be polite about it.
You must "grab" attention -- yes verbal violence writ large. You won't get it by requesting attention, or politely pinging a silver knife on a crystal glass.
Grab the attention of those (always very few) readers starving for this particular story you know and they don't.
Your opening lines and opening scene are your elevator pitch, the whole series in ONE SENTENCE.
The real implications of the payload you are about to deliver may be hidden, wrapped in symbolism and iconography as we've discussed, but all of it, including the inevitable END, and the very inevitability of that END, must be wrapped into that opening.
From then on, you unfold that package, like decompressing a program you've downloaded, then installing it in the reader's mind, then customizing it, then running that program.
Writing a story is the opposite of reading a story.
Note how Leslye Lilker's post last week starts with the oft repeated fact that everyone is a story teller. When you answer a friend's question, "How have you been doing, lately?" you are "telling a story." First you live the story, then you edit it down, select specific facts and couch them in specific words chosen specifically for the individual person you are speaking to.
But, though you may say only true things, you are weaving a fictional story from the facts of your life. First you lived, step by step, through the last few weeks, then you met your friend again, and EDITED OUT (deleted) what you thought would seem irrelevant or TMI to this person. Then you embroidered the high points and displayed them in a "light" (oh, pretty good lately -- or oh, it has been so hard).
In other words, you added in the emotional textures of your own point of view to convey to your friend the reality of your life (or to conceal it by saying things were fine when they actually weren't). Very often, when we summarize our life experiences for a friend (or enemy) we select what to tell and what to withhold based on what we want that person to FEEL - about us, about themselves, about the world.
This is fanfic. This is sharing a viewpoint, and as fanfic often does, "fixing" what seems to need fixing.
Everyone does this - some better than others, but everyone does it, and everyone puts effort into learning how to do it from the teens onwards.
You are a "fan" of your own life. You are a geek who knows more details than anyone else wants or needs to know. EDIT.
OK, since you know how to talk to friends (and enemies, bosses, co-workers, etc), why should you write fanfic of a TV show? Why not just leap directly into professionally selling fiction, pitching at the biggest publishing houses?
Well, some people do seem to do that successfully (usually there's more to their story, but yes, the direct leap has been done successfully.)
But most people need those years of boring practice at the keyboard that produces a piano player you can dance to.
You can edit your life because you know all the details. You can edit your life FOR a particular person or group because you know those people. So you know the process. You can play chopsticks. But can you play Chopin? At Carnegie Hall, filled with piano virtuosos, and those who believe they are virtuosos?
That "wider audience" target is the tricky part. You can edit your universe for those you know, personally -- and you can leverage that skill to where you can edit your Imaginary Universe for an Imaginary Audience, but producing polished prose for such a large, Imaginary Audience takes practice.
To sell to those larger Publishing Houses takes practice. Such publishers are not interested in the one-time-wonder who is presenting "my book" -- as if there is one and only one in a whole lifetime. Such publishing houses need authors who are productive -- who know what they are doing and can produce to deadline.
In other words, those publishing houses are looking for writers (not authors) -- writers who are ready to "take the show on the road" and produce large numbers of copies of a particular performance at the scheduled time and in the scheduled place. Like a road show.
You may adopt a number of bylines, one for each genre you write in, but each byline must be associated with a uniform product produced efficiently (not labored over). Writing is not hard. Learning to write is very hard.
How do you know when you're ready for Prime Time? When you are ready to reach wide audiences because you understand how to edit your Imaginary Universe to "grab" the largest number of people who have a single trait in common, and little else?
You know you are ready for Prime Time when you can find "The Story Opening" to ANY STORY -- yours, someone else's, or just make one up and recognize it as an opening. "Oh! That is a springboard into a story."
How do you get to where you can create story openings that hook specific, but very large, audiences?
You work in universes that hook very large audiences. That is, you read, write, and discuss, analyze (beta read) fanfic in a universe that has an audience that you want your fiction to reach.
You either pick an existing TV or movie fanfic base to join, or you create one by self-publishing. Self-publishing works best if your byline is already known to an existing fan base, but studies have shown that fanfic readers don't easily follow their favorite fanfic writers into prof fic.
One beginning professional writer who learned a lot from this Tuesday blog series, took my advice and absorbed and studied the SAVE THE CAT! series by Blake Snyder, whose books explain the structure of Blockbuster Movies.
Recently, after years of studying SAVE THE CAT! and writing to the "beat sheet" revealed in those books, she Tweeted me:
Kimber Li @KimberLiAuthor
I can't watch a t.v. show now without seeing something I need to fix, like the structure fell apart in the second act. @JLichtenberg
Well, that's how you know you've made the leap over the vast divide between reader and writer. You can't not-edit, can't not-see flaws.
Sometimes millions spent on advertising can push a product to the top sales rank, despite flaws. But it costs less to push a product with fewer flaws. However, no product is worth pushing at all unless it is delivered on time.
Kimber Li also asked, some months ago, about writing fanfic, especially after having begun to sell.
It used to be that if a Major Publishing House discovered you wrote fanfic, they would never buy from you.
As you have noted, if you've been reading this blog a while, I was a professional writer before I began placing Star Trek fanfic stories in the ST:ToS 'zines - my Kraith series.
At the time, all the members of SFWA I knew advised me not to use the same byline on fanfic as on profic - such as my Sime~Gen Series
But I did it, anyway. Now the world has changed, and a number of writers are widely known for both prof and fan fic. Writing fanfic is not a stigma anymore.
The reputation of "geeks" "nerds" and fen has changed. Maybe STAR TREK LIVES! had something to do with that.
Now ponder what Leslye Lilker wrote last week, about theme.
If you can't state your theme in one sentence, you will not have an anchor onto which to hook other elements. In other words, theme is the glue that holds the story together.
Theme provides the title, and IS the hook for your audience. It is the story in one sentence - it is the version you can write on a napkin or business card.
The same Imaginary Universe you have created (from scratch or from some Movie or TV Series) can produce Characters, Situations, Settings and THEMES for any audience. You edit your whole Imaginary Universe to extract the particular details that will intrigue your intended audience, and leave out the rest.
Can't emphasize that enough -- Art is as much about empty white-space as it is about the words. Music is not music without "rests" -- the little pauses between beats. What you leave out depends on your audience.
"Steamy" Romance gives every detail in a sex scene. "Adventure Romance" just "goes to black" and hard-cuts from first caress to the shocking awakening in the morning when the bad guys attack.
How do you know what to write and what to leave out? By knowing your audience.
Like Kimber Li noted, if you study Film (via SAVE THE CAT!) then go to movies, you will see things you never saw before. Those who can't see those things will still enjoy the film. So study the audience. Instead of watching the film, watch the people respond -- listen to the breathing, (and watch for secret-cell-phone texting because they're bored).
Those people may be your intended audience, people to buy your books in the genre of that film.
Find something like that - a film, TV Series, Netflix Original, Google to see if there are published stats about the size of the audience, pick a film or series that leaves you bursting with IDEAS - write fanfic for that audience, showing them how you would fix the flaws you see (that they don't) and how much more enjoyable the story would be if the flaws were fixed.
That's what Sahaj does for ST:ToS fen -- note that years later, they provided Kirk with a son, and Spock with a sister (they did read Kraith, you know).
The lack of family, of ancestors and descendants, of cousins and wives, was seen by that particular audience as a FLAW.
It was not considered a flaw by Hollywood-circa-1966.
Science Fiction was thought to be a genre that only teenage boys would enjoy, so it had to be devoid of complex emotional webs creating tight-knit family structures. It had to be full of danger, fast movement, and the specialness created by being THE FIRST to ever see or discover something.
Hollywood had no idea that Science Fiction was always and would always be the Literature Of Adult Women, and that the lack of Romance would be considered a flaw not a feature.
Hollywood has learned, since then.
But as I have pointed out, Romance readers and fans are among the best educated people and have stringent requirements for their fiction, just as science fiction readers do.
How does a writer meet such requirements?
Practice. Boring hours of practice.
If you study how to teach piano, you will find that there is a method that gets you to effective and efficient practice. The method is to just play-through your mistakes -- don't stop when you miss a key, but rather just keep the beat and pick it up. Then repeat the whole piece or at least a section as a single whole.
That method is akin to learning writing by writing fanfic.
Pick a fandom that contains the readers you want to buy your books.
Pick a skill to practice.
Now ask yourself why you like this fictional universe? A portion of the fans of this universe will like it for the same reason you do - most have other reasons.
The people who like it for the same reason you do are your Readership.
Show don't tell them why you like this universe - and that is your theme.
A professional writer is not wasting time or creativity writing fanfic if the fic being written practices the skills that still come awkwardly.
I was not proficient at Theme-Everything-Integration -- all the various series of Integration posts I've done here to explain what I've learned -- when I wrote the first Kraith story.
Here is the opening I concocted way back then.
----------quote SPOCK'S AFFIRMATION----------
The Admiral's office was quiet, efficient and so neat it resembled an unoccupied hotel suite. Admiral Pesin sat with both hands on his desk calmly reviewing the curious orders he was about to issue. In the guest-chair to the Admiral's left, sat a Schillian security officer. The Schillian looked rather like a man-proportioned toad, or perhaps lizard. The Star Fleet uniform pants and tunic only emphasized his differences.
Presently, a transporter beam built two figures in front of the desk. Captain James T. Kirk and his First Officer, Commander Spock, of the USS Enterprise, presented themselves with proper formality and then Admiral Pesin introduced the Schillian as Lieutenant Commander Ssarsun of Star Fleet Security.
"Gentlemen," Pesin said, "be seated."
He looked from Ssarsun to Kirk and finally to Spock where his gaze became unreadable. After a long thirty seconds, he said, "Commander Spock."
"It is . . . with regret I must inform you that Sarek is still missing, and the Vulcan authorities insist that, though there is still hope, your father must be declared legally dead."
But somehow, mysteriously, I did manage to get most of the required elements into the first few paragraphs.
A) The best thing about Trek was ALIENS
B) The Most-Best thing about Trek was TELEPATHIC ALIENS
C) The missing element about Trek was Vulcan, and Family
Spock is being called upon to step up into his father's sho
es. But it is complicated.
That opening hooked legions of fanfic readers when it appeared in T-Negative, and as with Leslye Lilker's mailbox, my mailbox burst with Letters (typed on paper, sent in an envelope with a stamp) explaining A) why this is a great story and I love it, and B) why this is a terrible story and just plain all wrong, or C) how to fix it.
"How to fix it" is fanfic.
And fans of Kraith wrote a lot of fanfic in the Kraith universe.
I used what I learned to craft the opening of House of Zeor, which was the first novel in the Sime~Gen Series, and fans have written a lot of Sime~Gen fanfic, most of which is professional quality writing, and is now being published in the Sime~Gen Universe by a professional publisher.
So fanfic breeds fanfic.
If you want to create a Classic, a series that other writers will be inspired to adopt and write in, then writing fanfic is the best way to learn how it is done.
The fans of the Intellectual Property that turns you on will be able to tell you what you do right -- and wrong -- in creating in "their" universe.
You may not learn writing, but you will become proficient at executing the craft. It is practice, and only practice (with feedback just like the piano teacher correcting the angle of your wrists, and the straightness of your back) performing before an audience (a recital) can bring your craft skills to concert pitch.
Once you have found how to captivate an audience and inspire them to their own Art, you will be ready to take your show on the road.
One sign you've made that transition from passive consumer to active producer of fiction will be, as Kimber Li noted, that you can't not-see the errors that others make.
We used to use a blue-pencil to mark up books as we read -- today, on Kindle, you just highlight and sometimes make a note. No writer can resist editing someone else's work.
The most compelling fiction to "edit" like that is fiction that somehow strays from the THEME showcased in the opening.
The story opening is the theme. Any detail or scene or character that strays from that theme will be seen as an error to be fixed. Readers may be aware of the "error" and lose interest because they don't understand the story, but writers will just wade in and fix the "error" -- recast the Character, rewrite the dialogue, imagine missing scenes.
Find the story opening by asking yourself why you want to write this story. The answer to that question will be the reason readers want to read the story. And it will be your one-sentence pitch to an editor who wants to publish the story - because the readers of that imprint like that kind of story.
You get to Carnegie Hall by practicing.
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