5 Things That Changed the Way I Write (and also, I need some prompts)

First, a request. I feel sort of guilty about asking for this, since I've written all of 1 of the prompts I solicited a couple weeks ago. But, I really could use some ideas for my cliche bingo card, so if you would like to prompt me for it, please do so! The card, along with some info about which prompts I need help with is here in this post. Sorry the card is so tiny. I can't figure out how to fix it, but if you click on it, it will get bigger.

Anyway, the main point of this post. I was rambling to alder_knight about what shaped me as a writer, even though I feel rather awkward claiming that title for myself after six weeks of writing internet fan fiction. Still, I wanted to catalog these influences; ever since deciding that I would treat writing as my summer job, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I value in a story, and I wanted to set it down for my own reference when I feel bored or confused or uninspired. I think you should repost this in your own journal or give me your answers in the comments or something. I'll feel less pompous if other people are doing it too!

5 Things That Changed the Way I Write

1. Stephen King's spare, eloquent, wrenching account of nearly dying in a hit-and-run accident at the end of his memoir On Writing. I read it when I was in college, drifting for the first time away from canon and toward contemporary literature. I knew I wanted books that made me feel something, and a lot of canonical literature didn't. But I also knew that I wanted my emotional response to be honest, not manipulated, and that's harder to come by. So many "emotional" books and TV shows left me feeling bored and cold because they were so overwrought and cliched. That final chapter of Stephen King's book wasn't like that though; he'd chosen only the tiniest fraction of the words he could have used, and shared almost none of his emotions. Yet, I felt them all. In fact, the only reason I felt so much was that he had said so little. I can't remember ever being so moved by a piece of writing in my life, and I decided instantly that my goal as a writer -- should I ever become one -- was to make people feel a lot while writing very little.

2. More from On Writing: "kill your darlings." Don't include too many details; leave space for your readers' imaginations. No matter how much you love a word, a sentence, a scene, kill it if it doesn't serve your story. More than that, recognize that including too much exposition or detail or whatever actually clouds your readers' capacity to react emotionally to a story. People get bored when you tell them everything a character thinks, so try to show them instead. And people stop reading when you include too much stuff because it's too difficult and boring to wade through all of it till they find what's important. Besides, we read books instead of watching TV because books stimulate our imagination. Do you really want to get rid of that by telling your readers everything? Really, it's kind of ironic that Stephen King should claim the top two positions on my list since I cannot stomach his novels, but his advice is sound. Every time my fingers vacillate over the delete key, I whisper to myself don't be afraid to kill your darlings. I think that's integrity as a writer, to sacrifice something you wrote and loved because it's better for your story.

3. Kurt Vonnegut: throw away the first 1/3 of everything you write. I saw him speak the first week of my freshman year of college. He came to the Barnes & Noble across the street from my dorm, and we camped out for hours to make sure we had a spot. I disagreed with so much of what he said; he seemed old and crotchety, irrationally opposed to the Internet, a technological advance I knew was making my life better. But someone in the audience asked him for his best writing advice, and throwing away the first 1/3 of everything was what he said. I have no idea why it's stuck in my head for so long; my freshman year of college, I wasn't writing at all. But now I can see that he was totally right. The first 1/3 of everything I write is usually me thinking out loud, trying to decide where my story is going. It's dull, or at best, unfocused. So I combine KV's advice with SK's, kill the darlings in the first third, rewrite it or outright discard it, and move on.

4. Joss Whedon: the goal is emotional resonance. I heard this first my senior year of college on the DVD commentary to "Becoming," the second season finale of Buffy. The phrase stuck with me because it so perfectly encapsulated what I wanted from everything I watched and read. I feel like it barely needs elaborating on because the meaning is so clear, and I knew as soon as I heard it that if I ever produced something creative of my own, I would want it to be emotionally resonant. Usually, I try to get there by minimalism (see items 1 and 2 of this post), but I also try to remember that every story needs to be resonant, not just the dramatic ones. That's why I worked so hard on The Proper Treatment of Sexorexia. It started off as just a comedy, but I realized the story would never feel finished to me unless I could make people really feel something for Gaila, no matter how hard they laughed about her antics.

5. Make writing your job. I think, like, every famous writer on the planet has given this advice, but I probably heard it first from...guess who? Stephen King! Again, I have to repeat how mind boggling it is that he should have influenced me so much. Truly, I hate his writing, possibly because he sucks at taking his own advice. Unlikely source aside, the advice is indispensable, especially if you're a teacher like me whose summer job fell through. Unstructured free time is no good for me, so I decided that since I was interested in this whole fanfic thing, I'd get up every single goddamn morning and write something. For awhile, I was so terrified that my ability to write would dry up or waste away that I didn't allow myself to have a WIP folder; I worked on one story at a time and didn't leave it till I finished it. Early on, I think the goal was a story a day, which I now recognize was insane. But they say that if you do something for 21 days straight, it becomes a habit, and I can safely say that's true for me. I'm not sure what will happen once school starts again -- I usually become a crazed, overworked, control freak insomniac -- but I know that at least for now, writing is an institution in my life, and if I ever set it aside for awhile, I can come back to it.
4. Omigawd, and isn't Joss good at it? I can think of half a dozen lines throughout the Buffyverse, (beginning with "Close your eyes" and ending with "Would you like me to lie to you now?") at least one of which is going to make any Buffy fan whimper. Sorry. Fangirl moment over.

And I may steal from you on #5. Lord knows I'm ADD about my projects.

Anyway, Prompts: I'd say "You're Gonna Make It After All" (and dammit, now I have the MTM theme song stuck in my head again...) may have inadvertently filled 'road trip' with the research project, unless it's cheating to fill a prompt retroactively. If so... spring or summer break with Gaila and Uhura? (I'd LOVE to see it with Bones and Jim, but apparently he gives you trouble.)

And "What is this thing you call love?" seems like it could be made for a Gaila and Uhura heart-to-heart girltalk about varying definitions.

'Quarantine' -- Two characters with lots of friction, locked in a room together for a week. Hilarity ensues. (OMG. Do it with Spock and Gaila!)
Ooh! Those are all neat ideas. I'm especially attracted to the quarantine one - it reminds me that I can make it a character study instead of something plotty. Plottiness is always so much harder for me!
That is a really interesting writing technique. I'll have to try it out. I wonder how many fics about quarantine are floating around the ST communities thus far...
Hi! I hate to drag myself in late with comments, but I wanted to tell you that this post really spoke to me. My mind has also been very occupied lately with writing and what it is for me, and where that comes from--I've basically been mentally planning a similar post of my own. And it's unexpected, because although I've always loved literature and at one time intended writing as my career, my college experience trying to write fiction in classes was so torturous and painful that I basically abandoned it as something I enjoyed. So I've had this long period of time where writing was not part of my life. And it's sort of fascinating to me to recognize, now that I've started again--also with ST:Reboot fanfic--that I've never stopped thinking about writing, like I've just been collecting things this whole time, waiting until I'm ready to put them to use.

Anyway! That's a topic for my own journal but for yours, I want to say first of all ITA about Joss Whedon! I started watching Buffy in season 5, fresh out of grad school where I'd specialized in gothic literature with a professor who told us we should all watch Buffy because it was the best-written show on television. The first episode I watched was "Fool For Love" and 30 seconds into the Boxer Rebellion I was completely in love. It was ALL about the emotion for me. Reading what Joss had to say about that, and recognizing how beautifully and consistently he executed that idea in his work, helped me to understand why I loved certain stories and found others uncompelling. Buffy is actually my go-to example whenever I'm trying to explain my belief in the primary importance of emotion as the driver of a story, not circumstances or plot but how the characters are affected by them. If that doesn't feel genuine, there is no engagement for me, no matter how "interesting" the plot circumstances are.

Interestingly I found myself talking about this just a couple of weeks ago, while explaining to a screenwriter friend why I loved the new Star Trek film so much--the admiration I had for certain choices the filmmakers made, and how it was all about the emotional impact of events and relationships on the characters. It's no accident that the first time a story and characters spoke to me enough to make me write fanfic, it was Buffy. The second time is now, with Star Trek. The gap between my Buffy fanfic and the ST story I'm writing now is like, 7 years without writing a complete fictional sentence. So it's powerful, when it happens.

I also want to say that even though I've heard some of your other points before, about throwing out the beginning (Kurt Vonnegut spoke at my college years ago and that's what I remember too, that and his story about the firebombing of Dresden because gah!) and not falling too in love with your own words, but it's timely for me to hear them again. I am very big offender in the "in love with your own words" area! Also, I literally just put the "throw out the first third" in action yesterday and it was very satisfying. :) I'm a few steps behind you because I still don't have a WIP folder and I'm very much in the place of just trying to write one thing at a time, and also trying to put everything in one story, which I realized kind of suddenly is really an expression of lack of confidence--that every idea needs to be in the one story because it might be the only one you ever write. It's creative undermining, disguised as thoroughness!

I don't always leave as many comments as I want to for stories, so I don't know if I've fully expressed my appreciation yet, but I really love your writing and your Gaila stories in particular. I tend to picture authors whose work I like as very experienced writers, just doing what comes naturally and easily, so I especially appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I don't really know you, but I like you!
Wow! Thank you for such a lovely and detailed comment and no need to apologize for taking a couple days to make it. I've been itching for a few LJ friends who would occasionally like to discuss writing, so this is nice.

like I've just been collecting things this whole time, waiting until I'm ready to put them to use.

I had no idea I was doing this either. It's kind of a nice realization, like maybe if there's some other ability I'd like to have but I can't seem to summon it yet, maybe one day it will just appear when it's ready and I'll realize I've been quietly preparing for it all along.

helped me to understand why I loved certain stories and found others uncompelling.

Yes! That is the perfect way to explain it! I knew that I loved character-driven stories above plot-driven ones, but Joss' emphasis on emotional resonance made it much clearer.

The gap between my Buffy fanfic and the ST story I'm writing now is like, 7 years without writing a complete fictional sentence.

When I saw ST, I remember thinking, "this is what I've been waiting for since Buffy went off the air" and also "this is the ST that Joss Whedon might have made." Seeing Joss do ST used to be a real longing for me because I grew up loving ST, but was then forced to admit how poorly it treated women and how much of the writing was sloppy. I wished someone like Joss would come along and make it all cool and character-driven. And I feel like I got my wish, except possibly even better, because let's face it: Joss is not up for optimism, and the film probably would have been darker, possibly sexually perverse, and definitely would have included the death of a beloved character.

I really love your writing and your Gaila stories

Thank you! I really love Gaila, and I'm so glad that my portrayal of her has resonated with so many people.

And I feel like I got my wish, except possibly even better, because let's face it: Joss is not up for optimism, and the film probably would have been darker, possibly sexually perverse, and definitely would have included the death of a beloved character.

HAH! So true. I love Joss but his fondness for bringing the pain is somewhat at odds with my Jane-Austen-y need for happy endings. JJ Abrams I think is a lot better at being an optimist. I watched an interview with him yesterday where he was all, "yay, the future! we survive and do humanitarian stuff!" As opposed to, "Then the Hellmouth opens and demons walk the earth-- okayseeyabye!"
throw away the first 1/3 of everything you write

Shit, that's so true. I usually start writing something, leave it for a day or so, and then start over without even referencing my first draft. Otherwise things sound stiff and... just bad, really.

This is all really good advice! Thanks very much for sharing it, because it's all interesting and useful.

I imagine Gaila wouldn't have celebrated birthdays growing up. I would be overjoyed to read a happy fic about her new Starfleet friends throwing a surprise party for her... particularly if a certain Jim Kirk jumps out of her cake.