This blog piece was actually prompted by one of my writer groups on Facebook (courtesy of the lovely Will Bly), and I am about a month late in its creation. Part of the reason I only started it this weekend is technically due to the slew of tests and projects that I have dealt with up until recently. But the other, more honest reason was that I just had no idea what to talk about. Nothing. I've been writing in some fashion since I was a child, constructing picture books of my imaginary friends and various pets. I bleed ink and devour words... yet I could not, for the life of me, summon a moment of incredible writing advice that I had experienced.
That is, until I read Fangirl, and remembered my fan fiction.
Short, clean disclaimer: from 2005 to 2009, I was an avid member of FF.net under the pen name of Twila Starla (which I wrote a longer blog piece about some time ago). I wrote Kim Possible and Pirates of The Caribbean fics primarily (plus some Teen Titans, Sky High, and Doctor Who stories that never escaped my hard-drive). I penned several novel-length fics and took home several awards before I officially retired from fandom writing.
For those of you keeping track, I was around thirteen at the time, which is an age that no one likes recalling. Being thirteen is like every gawky, awkward, and irrational moment we have in life, rolled into a single year. I was far from the exception, that kind of tweenaged girl who filled her school notebooks and journals with character ideas. Who frequently got bullied for liking comic books and Barbie dolls at the same time. My real life peers were the last people I wanted to share my writing with, which is what made FF.net so appealing. I could share my work behind a mask of Twila Starla, and no one could judge me for worse.
A couple of years and stories went by before I started putting down my 'magnum opus', a KP/PoTC crossover that would later earn me several Best Crossover awards from the community. I was genuinely proud of this piece then (still somewhat am, to this day), after all of the time I spent studying my source material and all of the historical research I had infused into the story. It was a glorious time to be writing!
And then, I got my first negative review.
FF.net is (arguably) known for its softer treatment between writers and reviewers, which leaves a lot of critique lackluster and summed up in “great job. Luv you! Next chapter!!1!~~~”. I can't speak for others, but I had never received a harsh word from my readers in all of my work. Not until one member, called CMY, appeared, chiding the story for being too close to the original material. “Uninteresting and formulaic.”
At first, I was annoyed. Really annoyed and disheartened, in typical writer fashion. How dare someone else tell me how to write. How dare you tell me what I want to write. I know what I want to write!
I was much calmer when I responded, and thanked him for the advice. Several more reviews from CMY would come through, with varying levels of genuine critique that pulled my whole chapters apart, examining them with more depth and finesse than a first draft usually gets. He eventually abandoned the story though (or maybe I did? It's been so long), on this last note that I never forgot...
“Though I noted your skill at detail and description, I didn't feel any anticipation or curiousity as I was going through this... I said it before, and I'll say it again: This is YOUR STORY, Twila. You can modify, upturn or churn the plot of the movie trilogy to suit your story. Remember, the main goal of writing is to simply enjoy it. Make it ridiculous or unpredictable as you want. You're the writer, Twila. It's ENTIRELY up to you.”
These words shook me to my core. Reading them even now makes my heart ache a bit. "Your story." Before that review, I had not even considered the world outside of my canonical limitations. I managed someone else's characters and idea with ease- I raked in a lot of readers for it. This statement required me to consider the alternative; a branch out into my own ideas, characters, and story. To build further and farther than most were expected to.
I recently finished reading Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, poetically enough. Without spoiling much of the novel, the main character, Cath, is faced with the same alternative during a creative writing course. She is confronted by her professor over an original piece, and Cath confesses that writing her own worlds and characters is something she feels incapable of. “When I'm writing my own stuff, it's like swimming upstream. Or... falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall.”
This is exactly how it felt to be questioned...
And it was absolutely terrifying.
Looking back now though, I realize just how much of an impact this reviewer made on my world and what I ended up doing. The switch over to traditional fiction was a painful one, so much so that I dropped writing for four years. Fan fiction was comfortable and safe; creating your own world is like wandering in the dark, disorganized, off-putting, and sometimes very frightening. It takes a great deal of confidence to say “this is my story” and own the idea of doing better. It still takes a great deal of confidence these days, after two books. It's easier though, and gets easier with every new story that's mine.
I do wish I could find and thank CMY personally, but the internet is much, much too big and our FF.net accounts have been long abandoned. So, if this ever reaches you, thanks CMY. Thank you for the best writing advice I ever received. You bettered one writer out there.
"This blog post was written as part of a Fantasy Writers and Readers writing prompt. Please contact me for an invite if you are an avid fantasy writer and/or reader and would like to participate in this closed Facebook group."
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.