An extremely delayed reaction

Let me be honest, here: I write fanfiction.

Not a lot, or even primarily.  Most of the work I do is on my own original material.  But there is one fandom in particular that left me, when the story was done, simultaneously fascinated by the characters and asking myself a number of idea-spawning questions about where these people came from to make them this way, and what they could possibly do now.  I’m quite often left with questions after consuming media, and I usually spin these questions into fuel for my own stories.  Something about these characters, though…

But to the point.  Some weeks ago, I received a rare review on one of my pieces of fanfiction.  Rare, because my stories aren’t written to satisfy anyone’s prurient appetites, so they generally get passed over in the community.  It’s a matter of some excitement to me when I see that email alert informing me that another human being bothered not just to read my flights of fancy, but liked (or hated) it enough to communicate with me about it.

This review, however, turned out to be maybe the weirdest piece of feedback I have ever garnered.  And even though I’ve sat with it for the last few weeks, glad of the attention, it has finally become impossible to ignore the fact that a certain accusation/observation in this review has been wriggling at the back of my mind this whole time.

As the individual began by nervously wishing I had the anonymous review function turned on, I will not make with the naming of names.  And as I so rarely hear back from the void I’m constantly pouring my words into, I told myself repeatedly that I was simply glad that someone had taken the time to comment.  It’s even true.  I really am glad, even if what this person said made me scratch my head and reread the review several times to be certain I was getting the right idea from it.  Because on a first read-through, it wasn’t at all clear whether this person was congratulating me on a story very well-written, or informing me that I had done the single worst job of capturing these characters’ essences of all time.  That’s a pretty big dichotomy, I think.

A sample to illustrate my confusion:

“I was into it more than I thought I would. A little jarring. For… you injected everyone with a kind of normalcy that was almost TOO normal. Or was it realism? Maybe a mix. It’s just weird for me. I’m only familiar with awkward.”

Now, let me be clear.  I don’t mind if this person hated my story.  Hate is a strong reaction and I’d be happy to have inspired it, because it would mean I made that person feel something.  The purpose of this rant, the thing that upsets me, is the claim that I wrote the characters as too normal.  I mean, is that a thing?  Too normal?  Like I should be upset when a movie makes an effect seem too real, or when a pastry chef bakes a cake that is too delicious?  Isn’t that the idea?  Because let’s be clear here: it’s not that I wrote these people as boring or flat or lacking dynamism.  The review later confirms this while complaining that I made them too extreme in some cases.  So what I have to think is that the substance of the complaint lies in my having made the characters too much like actual people.

What?  Is that a thing?  Am I losing my mind?  Isn’t the goal of character creation to make people that feel real enough to connect to?  Isn’t the point of fanfiction to explore the inner workings of someone else’s creation and see if you can discover anything new about them that you didn’t get from the original material?  What kind of person goes into a story expecting – wanting! – to read about characters with alien motives and un-relatable emotions, doing things that make no sense and have no value outside of their badassery or sex-quotient?

This rant has been building because over these past few weeks, as I’ve been working on my novel in earnest, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of my attention to making my characters into something a reader can really bond with.  In fact, on the days when I’m willing to admit that I have any talent at all, I have to say that my greatest strength as a writer lies in my ability to make realistic empathetic characters.

And this is now a flaw?

My apologies, non-anonymous reviewer whose identity I am nevertheless protecting, but what?  I really do appreciate that you screwed up your courage to express your opinion of my work.  I just wish, while you were taking that leap, you could have said something that made any sense.

A reflection on 40K

I believe it was some time in the spring of 2009 that I began seriously considering the reality that I had written a good book based on a trilogy of bad books, and that something would have to be done about this if I wanted my future fiction empire to have any kind of foundation.

I was at that time just finishing up a long piece of fanfiction that was the first thing I had managed to write since concluding the principle writing on Faríel in 2004. I had been learning things from fanfiction and from editing other people’s work that no college course had ever taught me about what other people like — and expect — to read. It felt good to be constructing phrases and plots again, and coming within shouting distance of the end of that long fic had given me the confidence to believe that I still had it in me. Not just to write, but to write better. I was able to convince myself that I could rewrite my first novel, that I should rewrite it, that it would be great this time and furthermore I would breeze right through it because I knew the world and the characters and the plot so well.

At about… 2 a.m. on September 19th, 2011 (give or take an hour ago), I finally managed to crack 40K on this beast. A whole forty thousand words, two and a half years later, of what was supposed to be an easy, fun rewrite. This is a bigger deal than it should be.

Somewhere along the way, things went pretty screwy.

Maybe it was the fact that I peddled Faríel for three years without a single bite. Maybe it was depression, adulthood, overexposure to bad fanfiction, stored-up childhood insecurities, or sheer mental exhaustion; but somehow, somewhere, I lost my confidence in my words. The thought of writing instantly brings with it these days a sort of clenching in my chest, a greyness in my thoughts as I try to map out what I will write and am met by the unrelenting internal response: but I have nothing to say.

I never used to believe this. I can still remember the days — not so distant, surely — when you couldn’t stop me from writing. If I was going to be the passenger in a car for more than five minutes, I brought pen and paper. If I was supposed to be taking notes in class, I was actually writing about elves. Or trickster gods. Or warped fairy tales. Just not about the economic theories of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. or the failed military decisions of General Lee in Pennsylvania. I knew my work wasn’t great, but I always felt there was a yet unspoken in there. With all the writing I did, all the time, everywhere, whether there were other things I should be doing or not, there was no way I could avoid learning how to be not just publishable but famous. It’s great that I genuinely believed this. All children should have that kind of passion for something, that kind of self-confidence.

I lost it somewhere.

If I could just pinpoint the moment of initial decay, or find somewhere to point the finger, it might be easier to relearn to believe in myself. Problem is, I don’t know when it started or why. All I can do is try to stop, take a look at where I am now, and see that whatever else I might have been once, at this exact moment in time I am a woman who can string a damn fine sentence. Looking at the future raises the frightening spectre of doubting my ability to build a solid plot that other people would find interesting. Screw sixty thousand words from now, a hundred thousand. In my imagination, I’ve already failed at the story by then.

What matters is that right now, right now, I’ve got 40K I wouldn’t be ashamed to attach my name to, and I wrote them. I wrote them.