Lessons from My Authors' Community
The above image is my most favorite meme about authors. I encountered it while hunting down images for a particular week of social media posts for Inkitt.com. I saved it for later, because it reminded me so very much of the community I managed at the time.
This piece has been more of a piece-in-progress for several months now, since every day in my former job was 3/4’s learning, and I had to grow with it each time I found something new. A bit of background info: in May 2015, I was invited to check out a very small, personable writing website named Inkitt. Having just started the final draft of Chimehour and wanting to build a readership for my planned indie novel, I was intrigued. My attempts at promotion with Wattpad and Goodreads had fallen flat, so I polished my first two chapters again and gave the site a shot. A very long and incredible road later, I became the community’s leader and popular reviewer, and my story hadn’t done too badly either. I assisted in the management of Inkitt’s authors (something the site had struggled with in the past)... so six months later, I had seen a lot. I experienced a lot. I spent every weekend in international conference calls that branched from Australia to Iraq. I had moderated AMAs with authors who were simply grateful for their ten followers who brought questions, or with Alan Tudyk, whose amazing, energetic personality alone drew crowds. It was a phenomenal, tireless, busy, annoying, and wonderful job in so many ways. It brings new surprises and incredible opportunities with every passing day.
Authors are just like all artists at the core: we are painters with words and sculptors of prose. But authors cannot be compared to, say, rock stars. They are a private and gentle company. They are quiet creatures who feed on late hours and passionate moods. They dwell, work, express, and share from under their quiet spaces, sharing little of themselves besides that. I am no exception to the rule, and often keep to myself as a creative type. Inkitt wasn’t my first community either, I had spent most of my early teen years lurking around Fanfiction.net, RP forums, and YouTube—to name a few. I had long been around the horse with other creative types. But it was never so obvious to me that other authors behaved the same way I did, not until I was the keeper of their corner of the Internet. We were the other to the Wattpads and FictionPresses of the net: a motley crew of authors who meant business, who loved literature. We were the foundations of a beginning; we were, for a moment, something tangibly different and beautiful. For a moment, we were writers, united in our solitude.
It was a tough job. It was early mornings for my Berlin crew and late nights for the U.S. It was presentation, prep, and a lot of pressure after I became the site’s sole American representative. Working with writers, so I learned, required a kind of bedside manner and humanity that companies can’t provide. Some days, I was organizer and hostess, always planning and presenting ideas to better my community. Some days, I felt like babysitter, keeping peace in a diverse and passionate community. Most days though, I felt like an author and equal, exchanging ideas and stories over Skype with my fellow writers, building ties for a strong community while we traded drafts. It never felt like work to expand my friendships, perhaps because it never felt like I was doing it for work anyway. I’m a big believer in finding one’s tribe; the people who are as passionate about something as you. I found that in Inkitt’s community, and we made for excellent company. My job became as personal as it was professional, and there was nothing quite like it. A realness ebbed through conversations and in every big project. It was incredible when you could reach out to so many people, from so many places, and make something work. It was the Internet’s magic at its finest.
I had to part ways with Inkitt not long ago, due to differences and school schedules. I have returned to my usual author business and hung up my manager badge for the moment, but its lessons and adventures promise to stay for a long time to come. There was something valuable and eye-opening to taking on such a challenging role, and I am wholly grateful for what it’s instilled in me since. I am equally as grateful for its community. I hope many of my companions have since stayed in contact, those connections outlasting the site and growing well past it. Perhaps we can form our own writing community some day. I can only be encouraged after the past year of experience, and hopeful for all the possibilities that have opened up since.
During Labor Day weekend, I caved, turned on Netflix, and watched it. You know very well what ‘it’ I am referring to- I know you do. Unless you live in a cave (or were out of the states during its release, like me), you saw the ripples of Stranger Things across the Internet over the summer. The title-card-turned-meme, the fanart, and the endless stream of season 2 theories. I sat down knowing next to nothing about the series; I finished it in two sittings, all teary-eyed and breathless by the last episode. I had laughed, cried, and left a little skittish to enter dark rooms.
The latest in the lineup of original Netflix programming, Stranger Things takes the viewer down the rabbit hole and back to 1983, where paranormal horrors are unleashed on the small town of Hawkins, whisking away a young Will Byers in the process. We follow several characters in the aftermath: the intrepid, geeky trio of Will's friends. his despairing family, the gruff town sheriff.a starry-eyed teenager, and a mysterious girl with a shaved head and love of Eggos. It’s beyond a decent description though. It is a love letter to Poltergeist, E.T., The Goonies, and the original Star Wars trilogy, but as universal a story as any those films put together.
And Stranger Things is a, well, strange entry to the ranks of American television. Rounding off at just eight episodes for its first season, it’s quite short, especially when compared to its genre counterparts like Supernatural or The X-Files. But it works, and works where many, many paranormal series have failed in the past: it tries and succeeds in telling a story.
Not to say other series don’t have merits- they do. But in an effort to keep people hooked a little longer, many series lose their heart along the way. Recent trends find TV shows, and movies, and even books hyper-extended with convoluted plot-lines, unresolved character arcs, and cliffhanger finales thinly veiled as sales bills for the next season/film/novel. We are knee-deep in a media that relies very heavily on the sequel, second season, and whatever viewership can be garnered from a returning audience. The resulting content can be… lackluster, at best. The aforementioned Supernatural is often found guilty of stretching its story and characters to the point that Sam and Dean’s adventures mean very little after a few seasons. In the popular Once Upon a Time, its witty fairytale-based plot and sometimes dynamic characters became buried by cameos and romance plots. Game of Thrones veered off of Martin’s plot recently to keep the series going, and is fairly critiqued for overusing sex and violence to sell itself (this is also fair game for shows like Outlander, Penny Dreadful, and many of their MA-kin).
Stranger Things challenges this trend with bold, broad strokes, opening in cinematic fashion and capturing your attention for the next eight episodes. Finishing its story during that time, which surprised me. From all the anguished comments online about the ending, I expected a cruel and unusual cliffhanger. The ending is though, without spoilers, a tidy and complete thing. A few bread crumbs are left to keep the series open, but the majority of Stranger Things season 1 is wrapped up by the final episode. It occurred to me right then the Stranger Things doesn’t really leave you waiting; it leaves you wanting. You experience the show. You become enveloped in all its rich 80’s culture, music and pop culture throwbacks alike. Your heart wrenches for every character in some way, and you’ve picked a few favorites by the end (Joyce Byers and Mike are mine- and hey! Who doesn’t love Eleven?). You care deeply and wonderfully about what happens to these fictional people, and within a very short amount of time. I'm inclined to compare it, in more modern terms, to films like Guardians of The Galaxy. The Marvel-verse is often more about interconnected movies, and very few of its films stand alone. This is why I love Guardians above all of the the other Marvel films, because it maintains a simple story and uses strong, lovable characters to keep us entertained, rather than becoming tangled in an extended narrative.
Masterful solo storytelling is its own art form, and there is a lot to be gleaned from series like Stranger Things and its bravery. We are not staying for an over-teased romance arc or a long shot of the lead actress in a sheerer-than-needed dress. Something else draws us in. As a writer, you cannot help but notice that the series’ plot is simple, but deep. I think of plots a little like plots of earth, flat at a glance, but deeper and richer when we dig. Each character Stranger Things is a person with their own motive, each sweep of the plot is surprising and evocative. By allowing the story and characters to carry over to the audience, the series becomes more complex and enriching without extending beyond its means. We stay for three boys’ journey to find their friend, and we are rewarded for it.
With an expanding fanbase and the recently announced 2nd season, you cannot help but admire the little series for winning people over simply by telling a good story. It does my heart good as a storyteller, because it reminds us of something important in good writing. Maybe this show will do more than remind you that “Africa” by Toto is pretty awesome, or create a resurgence in D&Dcampaigns (c’mon, you know it’s about to happen). Maybe Stranger Things will set a new stage for entertainment, promising quality in the face of quantity. Because depth and heart are all you really need to draw the viewers in, and make stories truly memorable.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the little device you have sitting in your lap, or in your hands, or however you are reading this article. The advent of the Internet is wonderful, changing the way most of us live, learn, work, and generally function. I was around 11 when I first stumbled onto Fanfiction.net, roving the internet for fan sites about Teen Titans and Kim Possible. 11-year-old me had been writing for awhile, putting down small stories about unicorns and my pets on construction paper. Fan fiction was an eye-opener though, cracking open a wide, wild world of writing communities and editing teams. This is why I would spend the next five years working out of several fandoms and writing groups with my own creations. Fanfiction was a weirder spot for fans then and gets a bad reputation to this day. A wasted effort at best, and a niche corner for fandom smut at worst. Fanfiction writers still had a bad reputation with the publishing company I worked for, which was ironically inspired into existence of one of the world’s most successful fanfics, 50 Shades of Grey.
I’m far from alone though. The art of fanfiction dates back to old fanzines and stories passed around conventions. Many published writers talk about their early experiences writing fanfiction, and as the next generation comes into its own, many of its young authors describe similar early days writing for Sailor Moon, Star Wars, and Harry Potter bases. Fanfiction has changed into a sort of training ground for authors, allowing them to set their own building blocks for fanbases and inspire their own new headcanons. The experiences and efforts I personally had with fanfiction made my later transition into novelist a lot smoother, and my own first steps into real marketing easier. The fun, fandom-based things I did truly shaped the way I write and create today, and so, here are the five best things I took away from those days.
1. Your Plot; Someone’s Else World
In Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, there are several great pieces about ‘playacting’ and the costumes authors wear while they are learning their craft. The articles describe the importance of recognizing that we will emulate in order to come into out own voice. I’ll be frank when and say no one is original to start: we do not come into creativity like gifts from God, we learn it by way of imitation. We are Dr. Frankensteins in our own right, taking pieces and parts from the stories we love and clumsily stitching them together, Fanfiction might be the safest place to practice this art since it is not only embraced, but considered a major part of said writing. Characters and landscapes can be borrowed in favor of crossovers or AUs, giving young writers a space to experiment with their own ideas, masquerading under a story that already has the stage set. The same rule applies to RP writing in ways (something I’ve also done), which allows participants to craft stories in a pre-crafted world, giving them the freedom to experiment and make mistakes as needed. Good writing, after all, only comes from the lessons we learn about how not to write.
2. Early Critique
No one likes critique, I suspect. We, at best, understand that critique is important to improvement and not usually personal. Nevertheless, there is always that moment before you open a new review or a message from a beta-reader- that second where your blood runs cold with dread. Fanfiction was no exception to that rule, and depending on where you found yourself in a writing community, you could expect as much critique as the average editor. There is art to giving an honest critique, and a humbleness you learn by taking one. Some of my earliest criticisms came from writing fanfics, and they were hard to take for awhile, though they benefited my work in the long run. I learned what was an important critique and what was not. They also toughened me up by the time I started sharing my original work, which still gets its fair share of critique; I was much better prepared at that point though (…mostly anyway).
If one thing gives authors more anxiety than critique, it is the prospect of marketing. The complicated, technical, and infuriating world of promotion has only grown with the advent of social media, opening avenues for wider audiences with every new profile we build. One of the earliest lessons you gather when writing on sites like Fanfiction (and even bigger sites like AO3 and Wattpad) is that marketing is key. Outreach is your friend and community building as much your strength as the words you write. Without realizing, I got very good at planting roots and gaining readers, making efforts to be a part of the fandom and making connections along the way. A finger on the pulse of your readers and fellow fans means you can predict what they may want, and what’s more, how your voice fits amongst them.
4. The Mary Sue (or Marty Stu)
You’re looking at that title, and probably thinking: “There’s nothing remotely positive about a Mary Sue! They suck as characters!” And I agree with you, which is why they need to be written. At 13, I had two original magically-inclined characters for both my fanfictions and RPs that were almost identical in power, personality, and appearance (including colored highlights/black hair, since “you won’t let me do that myself, Mom.”) The Mary Sue and Marty Stu are natural parts of creative process, since all first writing endeavors become autobiographical- you don’t escape that. In a lot of ways, you never really escape it, since characters continue to represent parts of yourself: the Mary Sue is just hyperactive, undeveloped version of this. Much like borrowed landscapes/stories, fanfics are one of the safest places for young writers to unleash the self-insert character, giving a space to cobble together early characters and learn how characterization works. We may flinch at them now, but Mary Sues are the just early steps toward truly interesting characters. Expressing them is how we to grow out of them.
5. Writing for You
While a tad contradictory to all the previous talk about marketing, it’s good to remember that all writing is first and foremost about you, and what makes you happy. Stories are often thankless, tireless, busy things, with little reward for efforts (even when it comes to published work). Fanfiction is written for free and sometimes, in the wake of big numbers and larger readerships, we get wrapped up in putting out what we know will bring crowds. The few times I tried this almost killed my interest in any writing, given how passionless my fanfic work became. Readers are amazing, and popularity is always fun. Still, no matter the base you work with and no matter how popular you are, it is so important to write what you love. That spark is what keeps us writing through fanfiction and well beyond it, when all else fails. And really, skill reflects best when we are true to ourselves.
What are your experiences with writing fanfiction, and do they still reflect on your writing now? Are there any other benefits (or drawbacks) to a background in fanfiction?
A Summer Abroad: Berlin
The first time I flew on a plane, I was seven-years-old and headed to Disney World with my family. It was a pre-9/11 world, but flying still frightened me enough that I burst into tears as we prepared to take off. I still vividly remember a flight attendant handing me a plastic winged metal to mark my first time in the air, all smiles and cheer. I haven’t been scared to fly since.
Still, I said goodbye to my family and crossed through the TSA on June 19th, 2016. I was bawling by the time I found my gate. Some things don’t change, I suppose.
Eight months ago, I got one of those “golden opportunities” that everyone likes talking about. The kind that don’t happen to people, realistically anyway. The CEO of a indie publishing website I had long inhabited offered me a community management job. I often joked that this job was “$11 an hour to play on Facebook all day”, but I managed the entirety of the company’s social media, most author-related projects, and generally kept their community happy. Big job, and it got even bigger when I was invited to spend two weeks working at the home office in Berlin. Another two weeks to do whatever I wanted in Europe. A few months of extensive planning later, I had flights and hotels lined up for Berlin, Rome, Paris, London, and Dublin. I was traveling abroad for the first time, and I was going it alone.
“Are you sure about that?” I got asked this question (and variations of it) a lot. I got asked if my longtime boyfriend couldn’t join me. I got disbelieving looks, because I’m 5’2, a young woman, and generally considered what we would call a "country mouse." In the small percentage of Americans that travel abroad, less travel alone and even less of those are women.
I remembered that while I sat at my gate, wiping my eyes as I blared Amanda Palmer over headphones and watched the plane I was about to board.
“Am I sure about this?” The answer was no.
I boarded my plane anyway.
Since that first flight two months ago, I have become hopelessly in love with transit days. The in-between days of trains, airport transfer buses, and plane seats. They are slow, and draggy, yet enthralling for the simple act of travel. The anticipation of a new country and an imagination running wild for what you’ll see when you get there (you are always wrong, and it is always awesome). When I finally made the hop from Newark to Berlin, I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn't know Berlin was so diverse, beautiful and so very huge. My first stop in Europe, with the least amount of English of all my stops. Two weeks there on my own. No pressure.
The first three days were the scariest. I quickly discovered my former employer was disinterested in helping me navigate the basics of living in Germany, so early hurdles such as the U-Bahn (Berlin’s metro system) and figuring my way around signs dotted my time in the city. To a tune of wicked jet lag, I worked long office hours and commuted back and forth across the vast city. One night heading back, the German writing in the metro turned me around and I ended up on the opposite side of Berlin around midnight. The metro shuts down at 1am. It was a rather unnerving adventure getting home. I also had the pleasant experience of finding out that my train ticket, which my employer picked for me, was only worth a week’s worth of U-Bahn rides, but only after after a 60 euro fine and an anxious trip to the German equivalent of the DMV. I had never gotten a ticket in my life: this one makes for an interesting story, at the very least.
At the same time, I quickly discovered how beautiful Berlin was. Majesty and creativity marry beautifully in the streets, where street art dots anything it can touch and history seeps out of the city's pores. Brass stolperstein mark Jewish lives on the cobblestone. East Side Gallery sprawls around its block with flooring imagery. I went to Brandenburg Gate on the same day as a football match, so the whole are had been transformed into a viewing area, complete with a truck-sized screen and food vendors. There was a thrill about joining the crowd of a thousand Berliners, passionate and joyful for every goal their team scored. Germany won the game, too.
There is a peace to Berlin, too. Due to its central position and policies, Germany has one of the most diverse populaces of any European country. Every day at my flat was a new one, sharing a building with college students from Germany, France, Haiti, Norway, Russia, South Africa, and yes, even America. We exchanged stories in the elevator, held doors, and offered helping hands where needed. I was offered food and, more often, beer when coming in at night. I found the same in the office, where my co-workers had flocked from all over the world. Our neighboring restaurant was run by a Russian family, who spoke only their native tongue and German. They called me the “pretty North European girl”, and smiled whenever I came in to order lunch with rough sign language. I also frequented a kiosk down the street (which are like gas station stores in America): the Turkish man that worked there had come from Istanbul two years before, with his young daughter. Our exchanges were awkward and messy until one day, when I apologized for my bad German while buying ice cream.
He shakes his head and says, “In my country, we say that when you eat and drink in a place, it is your home too.”
I think I visited him every day after that.
The instant understanding and compassion of Berlin was incredible, and humbling, because I kept thinking back to my home. Back where there had been screaming over immigrants from Mexico and Syria, whichever was the latest ‘threat’ to the American public. I thought about that as I wandered around this big city with little to no German experience, in a culture vastly different from my hometown of 10,000 people. I thought about the challenges I had living in such a place, on my own, for a mere two weeks. And then I considered what it would be to move here- to pack what I could carry and settle where no one spoke my language or knew my customs. Where everyone screamed for me to ‘go back where I came from’.
By the time my two weeks in Berlin were up, I had seen and done a great deal in the city. I had experienced so much of the beauty and strength of the city, and still, there was so much more left to experience. It was worth every second, difficult or otherwise. Given the chance, I would love to return to Berlin one day, and I'm so glad it was my first European experience. It helped set the stage for my next stop, Rome, and helped prepare me for the next two weeks of incredible travel.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.