Overcoming the Stigma of Creative Writing

I write a lot of fiction, and I’d like to think I’ve done some good work, but I’ve never done it under my real name. For a good long time I kept an almost daily blog on Dreamwidth that was (among other things) a writing journal for the story ideas I had, a log of the progress I was making, and my thoughts on narrative and genre fiction more generally. Starting this year I decided to quit using Dreamwidth and move everything to the blog portion of my professional website, but for some reason I’ve been nervous about associating my creative writing with my actual name. I have a fantastic post about my current story that I’ve been staring at for days, and I’ve hesitated to post it.

So I guess I have two things I really want to ask myself. First, what is it about academia that makes people feel as if it’s somehow unprofessional to share their creative work? And second, that whole nasty business with people like Anne Rice and Diana Gabaldon saying “fanfic is disgusting” happened more than ten years ago, so why is it that even now in 2018 writing fanfiction feels like it’s some dirty secret?

These are the sort of questions that seem as if they might be worth asking my friends and acquaintances on social media, but I’m not interested in hearing anyone’s simplistic takes on what are very complicated issues. For example, I can imagine someone who has never been through the soul-crushing trauma of grad school answering the first question with something completely off the mark, like, “Well, you wouldn’t want your students to read your fiction, would you?” as if it weren’t a challenge to get most undergrads to read the fiction actually assigned on the syllabus. Meanwhile, I can absolutely imagine the sort of responses I would get to the second question from people who’ve neither written nor read fanfic and can therefore only parrot stereotypes like “You have to admit that most fanfic is unoriginal and not very good.”

What I’m trying to say is that I feel strong pressure never to admit to writing anything, which in turn has prevented me from taking my writing seriously. I kept telling myself that I would keep my head down and go up for tenure and then do whatever the hell I wanted, but I’m starting to feel that life is too short for that sort of cowardly nonsense. Yes, I am a literature professor who writes fiction – some of which is indeed fanfiction – and I want to be proud and look good doing it.

Writing Is Hard

I’m about halfway through my current piece of Zelda fanfic, and I’ve come to the unfortunate realization that its themes may be more ambitious than I planned for. I’m tempted to abandon the story.

Sometimes I get really excited about an idea that seems fantastic and full of potential, but I always forget that it’s me who actually has to write it. Honestly I would rather someone else did the work so that I could just sit back and read the finished story.

Stephen King likes to talk about how people always come up to him and ask where he gets his ideas. This began to bother me when I started taking my own writing seriously, because I don’t understand how a writer would struggle to come up with ideas. Personally, I have a digital folder filled with titles and concepts and characters and plot outlines, but what I really need is the time and freedom and creative energy to sit down and write. What magical well do people draw that from?

In any case, I’ll do my best to keep going and write the second half of the fic, even though I’ll probably make a huge mess of it. Not everything has to be perfect; and, to tell the truth, I think that sometimes messy stories are better.

Ten Positive Art Exercises

(1) Find a picture of a cute frog, and give yourself ten seconds to copy it. Do another copy in thirty seconds, and then another in a minute. Repeat the process with a second frog, and then draw it with your first frog. Now they’re frog friends!

(2) Draw a piece of your favorite fruit. First draw it whole, and then draw it in slices. Now draw it as a topping on a cupcake or a parfait or a slice of pie.

(3) Draw a leaf from your favorite tree, both rightside-up and upside-down. Now draw one of the seeds, berries, cones, or fruit from this tree. Now turn the leaf and the seed into a Korok!

(4) Draw a speech bubble saying “You’re awesome,” and then draw your first anime boyfriend/girlfriend underneath that speech bubble. For an extra challenge, you can draw them in both the artist’s original style and in your own style.

(5) Draw Gozilla with huge sparkling Steven Universe eyes, and then color your drawing using a palette randomly selected from a color palette generator (like this one).

(6) Draw a video game system or control pad that brings back good memories from your childhood. Now color it with super shiny pastel shades!

(7) Design a set of three to five simple stickers that you would love to have received as a child. Please consider: dinosaurs, knights, planets, mythological creatures, fairies, and mad scientists.

(8) Draw the monster from your favorite horror movie blushing and being shy and adorable. Remember, we’ve all done crazy things to get sempai to notice us.

(9) Buddhist hand gestures used to enhance meditative practice are called mudras. Run an image search and try to draw at least two left hands and two right hands in mudra positions.

(10) Draw a piece of inorganic trash, which can be anything: a soda can, a shoe that’s falling apart, a worn-out tire, a plastic bottle, a discarded toy, an empty cereal box, and so on. Now draw fresh green plant shoots growing out of it, and add one or two flowers if you’d like. New life always emerges from the ruins of old mistakes!

Writing Het Romance in Fanfic

The more I study shōjo manga, the more interested I’ve become in romance tropes. Based on about a month of observation throughout about two dozen fandoms on AO3, here are my notes on the sort of stories that get hundreds of kudos within the first day of being posted. I’m not judging, just observing:

(1) Ideally, one should be writing for a popular pairing in a popular entertainment franchise.

Even more ideally, the writer should also have a huge following on Tumblr because of their artwork. I actually think that the single most effective thing you can do to improve the reception of your writing is to develop your skill in visual art, but writing for a popular pairing definitely helps.

(2) The story needs to be at least 3,000 words, and 4,500 words is ideal.

The most effective structural balance seems to be 800 to 1,000 words of setup, 1,500 to 2,500 words of erotica, and maybe around 500 words of postcoital conversation. If an author can consistently put out a 4,500 word chapter of a slow burn novel every week (or, in a best-case scenario, twice a week), then the story has the potential to get massive numbers of hits and kudos, but intense sexual tension still needs to be incorporated every four chapters or so.

(3) The male lead needs to be scary.

If he’s murdered people, that’s good. If he’s murdered entire geographical populations of people, that’s even better. The idea is that he’s misunderstood and really a gentle person, but that he will only show this side of himself to his female love interest.

(4) The male lead needs to hate himself.

“I’m a monster,” he needs to think. “I’m a terrible, terrible monster, and no one will ever love me.” This is the cue for the heroine to step in and heal him with amazing therapeutic sex. She is special because her hidden depths allow her to see past all the murder. Basically, this is a way to flatter the reader, who also possesses hidden depths and is able to love the male character despite the fact that he’s scary.

(5) Both the male and female lead need to have tragic pasts.

Even if one or both parties haven’t been abused or mistreated in canon, they still need to bond and express vulnerability by revealing their secret trauma to one another. This creates feelings of mutual understanding and sympathy that pave the way for sexytimes.

(6) One or both parties need to feel intense guilt about their intimacy.

“No, I shouldn’t” and “No, we shouldn’t” are common phrases. One party needs to either convince or coerce the other party into a sexual situation. The “I’m a terrible monster” trope ties directly into this, especially if the male partner gets a bit angsty or violent. The more dubious the consent, the better. Obviously this is not a good model for relationships in the real world, but it’s precisely because it’s fiction that things can get a little rough and kinky without anyone getting hurt.

Again, I’m not judging, just observing. It’s easy to look at some of these tropes and pass them off as simple self-imposed misogyny, but I really don’t think that’s what’s going on in a lot of the fanfic I’ve read. Based on the quality of the writing, I also don’t think most of these authors are young and inexperienced. Obviously this is a very shallow summary of these narrative patterns, and I’m interested in conducting a more detail-oriented and nuanced study.

A Woman of a Certain Age

It’s so strange how Tumblr culture fetishizes youth, like, it’s all about promoting creativity and social justice until a woman is older than 21, at which she should really get a life and stop messing around in fandom. And this is especially bizarre because most of the content creators I know on Tumblr are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

Instead of trying to fight this attitude, I’ve decided to embrace its weirdness wholeheartedly and start hardcore lying about my age.

From now on I am going to tell people that I am 57 years old and got into fandom when I retired.

…But actually, though. About a year ago I commissioned a drawing from an artist whose character designs I admire, and when I found out (from her profile on Paypal, of all places) that she has an online portfolio, I visited her site and realized that she had worked as a successful commercial artist for decades and decided to only draw self-indulgent fan art once she retired.

That woman is awesome, and I aspire to be exactly like her one day.

We Are Our Own Trolls

I got an email from Tumblr at 5:18pm on Friday, March 23 titled “Update on Russian-linked activity on Tumblr.” Apparently, Tumblr discovered that 84 accounts on the site were associated with the Internet Research Agency (link), a para-governmental arm of the Russian government linked with the spread of “fake news” on social media platforms (link). “While investigating their activity on Tumblr,” the email I received from Tumblr stated, “we discovered that you either followed one of these accounts linked to the IRA, or liked or reblogged one of their posts.”

Let me try to put this into context.

Many of these troll accounts were employing African-American personas, often claiming through suggestion or association that they were young black men. They posted cute memes and reblogged each other, thus using Tumblr’s cultural trends and internal algorithms to achieve a sizeable following. These accounts also piggybacked off of the energy generated by the 2015 Black Lives Matter movement to circulate angry opinions about American politics. These opinions were expressed in various ways and with various tonal voices (including parodies of Black American English), but the gist of them was that white people are awful.

I am not here to discuss whether white people are, in fact, awful, but what’s pertinent to the conversation at hand is that these accounts were not expressing disgust and irritation with white male politicians and male white supremacists, but rather with white women. Especially young white women. Especially the sort of left-leaning young white women who use Tumblr. Especially the sort of young white women who could have used Tumblr as an effective platform to create grassroots support for the white female candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This misogyny disguised as social justice was intended to split what could have become a cohesive voter base, and it did not occur solely along racial lines. Starting in around 2015, there was a sudden tsunami of vent posts about straight women, women who self-identify as feminists, women who self-identify as queer, neurotypical women, able-bodied women, women older than college age, women who are not financially precarious, and so on. Because most of us despise racism, homophobia, ableism, and neoliberal capitalism – and with good reason! – of course we liked and reblogged these posts when they first started circulating. Unfortunately, what this ended up creating was a pervasive atmosphere of furious political radicalism in which it was impossible for anyone to act as an ally to anyone else.

Speaking from personal experience, I had a number of mutuals in my tiny corner of fandom who not only reblogged posts that originated on these troll accounts but also bought into the idea that anyone who did not correctly signal and perform a minority identity was by default over-privileged and therefore deserved to be alienated and harassed. Cultural critique is a major component of social justice, but this constant stream of hateful invective was difficult to confront on a daily basis, and I ended up unfollowing a lot of people whom I formerly saw as friends. Meanwhile, a distressingly large percentage of young American women of all races felt so disenfranchised that they didn’t even register to vote in the 2016 election.

When compared to the crackdowns on Twitter and Facebook, there weren’t that many accounts that Tumblr was able to target as being associated with the Internet Research Agency, but there didn’t need to be. We did this to ourselves.

Notes on Writing Fanfic

Get rid of nine out of ten of your adverbs. Most of them are unnecessary, and the rest can be substituted by a more specific verb or adjective. I like to use ctrl+f for “ly.”

It’s normal to use contractions in fiction, especially in dialog. A story that uses no contractions at all reads like a term paper written by a college freshman.

In 95% of all situations, you want your dialog tags to be unnoticed by the reader. Simple words like “said” and “asked” are your friends. Most of the time, however, you don’t need a dialog tag at all, as it will already be clear who is saying what.

Use the names of your characters! The rule of thumb in English is to avoid repetition, but the names of people are an exception. This is especially relevant in situations when pronouns can become a problem. For example, instead of “the blond kissed the dark-tressed man,” just say “Steve kissed Bucky.”

If you’re using a particularly flashy word, take care to only use it once. If someone’s eyes are described as “crystalline” once, it’s striking. If someone’s eyes are described as “crystalline” more than once, it’s silly.

It’s not the nineteenth century anymore, and page-long paragraphs have fallen out of fashion. When in doubt, start a new paragraph.

Forget what you learned about structure and formatting in high school. Look at professionally published online writing and take note of how it handles things like indentations and spacing. Fanfic is a reader’s market, and you’re going to lose a lot of potential readers if people click on your story and are confronted with a strange and confusing layout.

Do your research on specialist terms and modes of address, especially if you’re writing historical fiction or historical fantasy. Be especially careful when writing about a culture you’re not already familiar with, and try to consult more than just one or two sources.

On that note, do you really need to wax poetic about the color of someone’s skin. Do you. Really.

Don’t be afraid of being “formulaic,” but don’t feel as if you need to follow a given formula laid out in a writer’s guide, especially if it’s a screenwriter’s guide with a male author. You’re always going to be balancing tradition and originality, as well as the expectations of a potential reader with your own self-indulgence. You have to find a balance that works for you, and it’s going to be different in every story you write.

Sex sells. Include a highly specific kink or set of kinks in your story and tag it appropriately, and you will find readers on AO3, I promise.

If you’re obsessed with a rare pairing, scrub off the serial numbers and replace the names so that you’re writing about a popular pairing. Your readers aren’t stupid, but people love what they love, and you might be surprised by how accepting people are of your new and fresh take on an established pairing.

Write that Hogwarts AU. Write that mermaid AU. Write that “the dark brooding hero/ine is actually a shapeshifting dragon” AU. Fanfic is not and will never be a judgment-free zone, but it’s been my experience that even the most niche AU stories can find an audience. Treat yo self!

Try to finish things. If you’ve only written bits and pieces of your dream novel, post them as their own separate short stories. If you write three chapters of a fic you planned to be thirty chapters long but then get stuck, figure out a way to wrap up the story in just one or two more chapters. It’s always good to end on an emotional climax, like “and then their eyes met” or “and then they left on their journey.”

Leave kudos on other people’s stories, and leave comments if you can. Even a short comment, like “I love this,” will be appreciated. No writer writes alone, and this is a great way to make friends through your writing.