The Craft of Writing

By Seema

I'm occasionally asked about things that are important in the writing process and the steps I outline below are primarily based on a fanfic-writing experience but can be applied across the board to any kind of writing. Mind you, this is what works for me and every writer will have a different approach. There is no one formula to a successful writing project, other than time, effort and a whole lot of discipline and dedication. I hope there is something here you can take away with you for future use.

1. Know where you're going before you start. I admit, I break this one often. Sometimes the desire to write overwhelms the desire to plan what's going to be written first. Sometimes the lack of planning works out well and there are no problems. Other times, it's an unmitigated mess. Trying to figure out a fic is trying to accomplish during the writing process can be frustrating; most of the finished fics on my hard drive that will never see the light of day meandered away from original intent or never had a purpose in the first place. There's nothing more frustrating than writing oneself into a corner or at some point realizing that the initial desire and momentum to write isn't enough to carry a fic.

2. Find a beta reader (aka editor). Posting fic without a beta reader is like going out in public with one's skirt tucked into her pantyhose. I've posted a few times without a beta and sometimes, I've been lucky enough to get away with it; other times, I sorely wished that I had consulted someone before posting. And I'm saying this as someone who used to be a newspaper editor and one of my bachelor's degrees is in journalism. I admit it: I don't trust my own editing or perception of what I'm doing.

Finding a good beta reader isn't always easy, especially in a new fandom. A beta reader should be more than an 'amen corner.' I'm immediately suspicious if a beta reader can't find anything that needs to be improved upon in the fic. It can be as little as saying "Reword this" or "You need to add something here" to major things such as ripping out the guts of a fic and suggesting certain rewrites. When I do receive a beta that says "Great fic, post it!", I wonder if the beta is trying not to hurt my feelings and thus not pointing out any flaws. The truth is, I'd much rather have someone tell me what's wrong with a fic so I can fix it if I can; I have a tough skin, so bring it on ::grin::. "What's wrong" can include anything from minor grammatical mistakes, misuse of words to major breaches of canon or plot elements that simply don't work.

It's important to keep in mind that the beta reader isn't always right. Nine times out of 10, I take her advice because I agree. But in the end, I'm still the author. To illustrate, "All Things" would have never been posted and, in my opinion, enjoyed the success that it did if I had listened completely to my beta reader. He suggested omitting Kasidy Yates from the fic entirely. It took me six months to finally come to the decision that a story about Benjamin Sisko's "death" would be incomplete without Kasidy. The scenes stayed and it worked out for the best. So it's important also not to follow the beta's advice blindly.

3. Research. The old adage says to 'write what you know' but in the absence of direct knowledge, there's always research. I love research. I admit it. I probably spent more time looking up the Mazda RX-8 for a fic I'm working on than I actually spent writing the fic. It's important to get the details right. If I'm lazy about the details, it's going to show. Obviously, when writing about experience or things that I know very well, the fic is going to be better for it because I can infuse it with my own feelings. However, I know nothing about child birth or pregnancy (well, other than what former coworkers would tell me - in rather graphic terms - over lunch) and if I'm going to write a fic with pregnancy in it, I'm either a) going to research it well or b) find someone who has experienced it who can tell me if I have it right. That being said, just because you have all of the research doesn't mean you have to use it all. Fifteen years of Trek canon doesn't get regurgitated in every fic I write; it's simply there as a background so that I have a better understanding of what I'm doing and what motivates the characters. The more I know, the more confident I am about what I'm writing and it shows.

4. Don't rush. Yet another thing I'm guilty of - rushing through a fic to get to the 'good parts.' Unless there's a word-limit or size restriction, there's no reason not to take time to develop the characters and storylines. Add little details, even insignificant ones, to add dimension to a scene, explore a character's emotions, perhaps throw in a little extraneous background and tie it into the current situation. So many times, a story will be simply a 'here and now' thing - characters placed in a situation with little to no development as to how they feel about what they're doing or many times, with absolutely no indication of where they are. My general rule for handling a situation like this is to 'rush' through a first and second draft, but then take the time to add the details later on to flesh a story out more. The more fleshed out the story is, the more likely it is the reader will truly feel and relate to what's going on. Otherwise, it feels like the author is simply moving the characters around on a chessboard.

5. Take the time to edit. This goes hand-in-hand with the not rushing through a fic. Even with betas, things get missed in initial edits. I am known as the Typo Queen. My basic approach to editing is "Take the old typos out, put new ones in." But I am very aware of this short-coming on my part and for that reason, I usually sit on a piece for a couple of days before posting and look it over a few times. Time and distance often bring to light things I might have missed on the first go-around or even things my betas may have missed. Sometimes I come up with a snippet of dialogue or a scene descriptor that I didn't have before. Invariably, slowing down the posting process makes a fic better because there's more time to think clearly about what has been written. There is no deadline for posting fics (unless trying to get it in under the wire for an Awards eligibility) so there's no reason not to slow it down. Of course, this could also be a knee-jerk reaction on my part due to having to write on deadline at the newspaper. It's a pure luxury to sit back and take my time to figure out what I'm writing and whether I like it or not. It's very different when you have the managing editor standing over your shoulder, tapping her watch.

6. It's okay if the fic doesn't work. I had an interesting conversation with jemima once where she told me she had no finished fics languishing on her hard drive. I have a bunch. One of these days, I may consider posting them just for grins. The fics are basically complete from beginning to end and in most cases, have been beta'd several times. But there is something about them that isn't right and I'm not sure how to fix it. In those cases, I'd rather hold the fic back and not post it unless I'm sure it's really what I wanted in the first place. I don't regret any of these fics; yes, I wish they had worked, but at the same time, I did finish them and probably some of the material is salvageable for another fic. I view it as yet another way of practicing. And speaking of…

7. Practice, practice, practice. It sounds pedantic but it's the only way to get better. What is written doesn't have to be good, it doesn't have to be postable, and it doesn't have to make sense. The only way to know what's going to work and what won't work is to give it a shot. And if it doesn't work, as I said, that's just fine.

8. Write what's difficult. My friends tease me about the fact that I haven't met a challenge I didn't like. Tell me it can't be done and I'll be right there, trying to prove that yes, in fact, it can be done. This advice was given to me by a writing instructor. I had a penchant for writing the same kind of story in the same kind of style over and over again. Finally she said, "This is all good, but you're not challenging yourself. You're taking the easy way out by writing what you are comfortable with over and over again." She was right; I was afraid to take risks. Now I'll try anything once. Second person POV? Sure. Present tense, alternative first person POVs? Sure. When I experiment, I'm pushing and stretching the bounds of my abilities. Half of these experiments never make it off my hard drive, but I always come away with a new appreciation for writing style.

9. Read. A lot. And it's not just passive reading either. Read to analyze what is good about a fic, what is bad about a fic. Feel free to borrow stylistic tricks and note the pitfalls to avoid. I don't sit there and consciously mark what I like about a fanfic or profic, but there are elements that make an impression, things that make me say, "I want to do that." Sometimes it's something as simple as a theme or something more complex like a writing style. Reading and absorbing what other people have done - either successfully or not - is always illuminating.

10. Don't forget the grammar. I admit that grammar and I aren't always on the best of terms. It's why I have a Webster's Grammar Guide next to the computer. I tend to slip back into Associated Press Style every now and then since it's pretty much the only grammar/punctuation that I learned formally. But just because I didn't learn it in school is no reason to avoid learning it and using it properly now. If I'm not sure, I will find out. Some people might argue that it's just fanfic and thus, only a hobby and not important. Yes, it's been a long time since I've written for publication and I'm not sure that I'll be going back to that kind of writing, but that's still no reason not to polish a fic to the same standards I would use for professional publication.

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