Summer Camp Writing Challenge

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Ah, nothing says summer better than sweaty armpits and chafed inner thighs.

And here in Massachusetts, we’re in for a long stretch of hot, humid weather over the next 10 days.

If you’re crazy like me, you probably can’t wait to step outside into a swamp. But if you’re not, this might be a good time to go camping.

Camp NaNoWriMo, that is.

For anyone who is new to the challenge, as I was, it is “An idyllic writer’s retreat, smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” And it takes place during the month of July.

Unlike November’s NaNo, you get to choose the type of project you want to work on and how your progress will be calculated.

Want to write a screenplay or a poem? No problem. What about a series of short stories or a piece of non-fiction? You can do that too. You can even set up a revision project.

You also get the option to track your progress by word count, hours, minutes, lines, or pages.

No longer are you constrained to writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days because this is summer, and in the United States, July is synonymous with freedom and independence.

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I signed up for Camp and entered my project to finish a work-in-progress novel. It remains to be seen if that’s actually the piece I’m going to work on–I kind of want to write a fun murder mystery beach read (because nothing says fun quite like a murder in a beach resort town) or finish my World of Warcraft fanfiction serial. But it would be really nice to finally have this novel finished.

If you’re thinking maybe you should jump start your own prolific writing career or need a little motivation to try a new medium or genre, I encourage you to sign up too.

Another great feature of Camp is that you can choose to join a cabin of 19 other like- or maybe-not-so-like-minded writers for inspiration.

I’m planning to create a private cabin, so if you want to be bunk mates, send a request to clblacke for an invitation through the Camp NaNo message system and be sure to let me know you’re responding to this post.

Writers of all genres and mediums are welcome. You don’t need to be a mystery or young adult writer to join my cabin.

So grab your marshmallows and bug spray and meet me at Camp!

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The Benefits of Writing Fanfiction

 

 

I know, you’re thinking fanfiction has a bad reputation. Mostly because what you may have found published on the Internet is poorly written by emo-angsty teens blasting My Chemical Romance.

But there are definite benefits to writing fanfiction, even if you aren’t emo or plan on anyone reading it. Ever. So whether you’re going to write The New Adventures of Old Sherlock Holmes or The Lost Chronicles of Narnia, here are some ways to use fanfiction writing to your advantage.

1. Fanfiction is a low-stakes writing opportunity

If you recall in my previous post, finding low-stakes exercises takes the pressure off what you’re writing without taking the pressure of writing off you.

Sound complicated? Think of it this way, you can still be productive, you can still hit your word goal or write for your allotted amount of time without worrying if inspiration will strike or if you’re just throwing down words in your WIP, sending it off course all in the name of progress. Taking a break from “serious” projects to work on something you enjoy may just get you around that impasse and refuel your passion. fanfiction article 2

Fanfiction is also low stakes because you don’t have to worry about anything being good enough to publish. Plus, all the work has been done for you–the setting, the characters, the plot, the structure, the genre.

Because these elements come ready-made, they allow you to develop individual aspects of your writing in any number of ways.

2. Fanfiction helps you develop stronger characters

One way to write fanfiction is to use minor or secondary characters from your favorite book series, television show, or movie saga and make them the protagonists of the story. You’ll already have a basic understanding of the character you’ll want to use, but by making them the hero, you can develop a more complex character by exploring his or her backstory, internal needs, and external goals within the world that has already been created. You get to orchestrate how he will plan and act and react to a specific set of cirumstances.

Television series do this all the time. You’ll notice a few episodes every season that focus on one or two of the minor characters to make them seem like more than just the sidekicks. For instance, in one of my favorite television shows, Castle, you’ll see episodes dedicated specifically to exploring Detectives Ryan and/or Esposito, as well as Castle’s daughter, Alexis; and both Castle and Beckett take a backseat, appearing in only a few scenes in an ancillary capacity.

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You can also develop your character creation skills by insinuating completely new characters into the fictional world already made.

I do this with my own fanfiction serial, which is set in Azeroth, the world in World of Warcraft.

My hero-protagonist and all her little friends are completely based off one of my in-game characters and friends’ characters, but I maneuver them around the lands and landscape, the races and classes, the political factions and society of the world as built-in game as they embark on their own adventure.

 

 

3. Fanfiction helps you write plot

So you’ve got a cast of characters to play with, a setting set up, and a structure to work with. Now all you have to do is bring them all together in a plot completely your own. Give Nancy Drew a new mystery to solve or Nero Wolfe a special case to crack and work on how to incorporate clues and subplots into an original story.

Perhaps Jacqueline Natla comes back for one more go-round with Lara Croft. You already know there will be certain elements such as foreign lands with ancient relics, henchmen with weapons, and vehicles for all terrains. All you need to do is find a reason for Natla to return, add a chase scene or two, and put Lara in mortal danger.

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When you think about it, aren’t all sequels really just a form of writing fanfiction plot? It doesn’t even have to be that original. One of my favorite movies, The Mummy Returns, is basically just the same “take over the world” ploy as every other superhero movie. You can’t do worse!

4. Fanfiction helps you write setting

If your fanfiction du jour is a visual medium such as a video game, TV series, or movie franchise, you can work on describing the setting that has already been created visually, if not stunningly, for you. You can also work on using these aspects of description to create a specific atmosphere for your story. Read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper for a brilliant use of setting description to not only create a claustrophobic atmosphere but a vehicle for plot and character study. fantasy house

Take any short story you like, for example, and really ramp up the description. This could be in a story that doesn’t have a lot of description because of word count constraints, or it could be you choose to write a story that takes place in a little-utilized or  even new setting for the characters.

Once Upon A Time did this when they threw fairy tale characters into the modern-day town of Storybrooke, Maine. They also did it this last season when key characters set up shop in Seattle, Washington.

I’m not suggesting you have to write a 300-page novel to work on writing better description or even a complete story, but you will have enough material already created for you to write a few key scenes or chapters. And hey, it’s fun to travel!

5. Fanfiction helps you write better. Period.

As long as you’re writing, and it doesn’t much matter what, you are practicing. And that is what’s going to make you a better writer. There’s no pressure with fanfiction unless you plan on publishing it online, and most of the time you’ll probably be breaking some copyright laws. Just knowing this subconsciously will allow you to take risks with your writing. Try new things, not be afraid of failing, or worry if it’s “good enough.”

If you’re up to the task of working on everything all at once, try rewriting a simple story or novel. I’m currently thinking of rewriting the original Nancy Drew novels (well, maybe one of them). Granted, the 1930s were a different era, but the writing is pretty simplistic because they were meant to be read by young girls at the time. However, there is plenty of opportunity to explore character, settings (including building atmosphere), pacing, and suspense. Plus, they are relatively short as far as novels go.

Maybe you have a favorite book or series from when you were a kid or you’ve read something recently that you think you could write better. Well, why don’t you? What did you think wasn’t good about it? It probably falls into one of the aforementioned categories: character, plot, setting, etc.

Take a beloved fairy tale and rewrite it from another character’s point of view or put your own twist on it the way Jane Yolen does in The Emerald Circus.

The options for writing fanfiction and the benefits of doing so are boundless.

And I promise you won’t turn into an emo-angsty My Chemical Romance loving teenager.

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First Draft Mindset

In a May/June 2017 interview, winner of The 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, Travis Madden, offers this piece of writing advice, “Just get that first draft completed, knowing it’s not going to be anywhere remotely near the quality of your finished work. And be OK with that!”

So how do you get to be OK with that when you’re constantly thinking about how to incorporate all the things you’ve learned about storytelling?writer-1421099_640

First, forget everything you’ve learned about storytelling. Honestly, you don’t need to know how to create compelling characters, how to raise the stakes, how to pace, plot, hook the reader, etc. to write a first draft. That’s what revision is for. Instead, you need to just write. Maybe you have an idea for a character or a vague sense of setting with no plot. Maybe you have a plot but your characters are flat and cliché. Who cares? You write first drafts to explore these things and figure out what story you’re trying to tell. With that being said, you shouldn’t formally outline before you start a first draft either. Let the words and the plot and the characters come and go as they please without trying to mold them. Save the outline, character sketches, plot summaries, setting descriptions, etc. for revision. I mean, how can you make those things better before they’re even written?

img_0278-1024x683Indeed, first drafts are a lot like corn mazes– you don’t know how to get yourself out of them ahead of time. That’s why they’re so much fun. Sometimes you can only see a few feet in front of you at a time and never know whether the next turn will bring a dead-end or another path to the next fork in the road. You’re excited at the adventure of it and a little anxious about getting lost (and possibly afraid of a Bible-thumping 9-year old named Isaac jumping out at you), but it doesn’t stop you from entering the maze and having fun.

Secondly, adopt the mindset that first drafts should be like creative, unstructured child’s play. I grew up in a time when we didn’t have computers or video games or even VCRs. My parents never sat my sister and me in front of the TV to keep us entertained. We played outside in all kinds of weather, building entire houses out of snow or pine needles. We created menus and played restaurant with my mother’s dishes. I played Wonder Woman, paper dolls, Barbie, bank, shoe store, house, and school. I turned my bike upside down and pretended it was an ice cream shop. 4aeb9200a5c8eccce526a2c407f5ef60

There are no rules in child’s play–at least not in creative, unstructured play. You can be a superhero one moment and a gun-toting stagecoach robber the next. (Yes, I did have a cap gun and no, I didn’t grow up to be a murderer.)

Often when kids make up games, they make up their own rules as they go along as situations call for it. They don’t sit down and plan for every scenario ahead of time the way some writers do. They are true pantsers. Free and unencumbered. They never feel the need to go back and “re-play” what they did earlier because they changed something.

Next, start your story where you need to not where you have to. If that includes beginning with decades of backstory or a dreaded prologue, then so be it. Seriously, how ridiculous is it to try to start your story in the middle of things if you don’t even know where the middle is because you haven’t gotten to the end yet?

As humans, we literally start every day anew when we wake up. So if you have to follow your main character from the moment he opens his eyes until the time something life-altering happens, so be it. That’s what the Delete button is for.young-man-wake-up-morning-rub-eyes-stretch-89053809

This is also why NaNoWriMo is so popular. It allows writers to throw down anything and everything and just write with reckless abandon. Who cares if you followed all the rules? Who cares if it doesn’t make sense in the end? Who cares if your story started out as fantasy and morphed into contemporary realism? You just wrote 50,000 words! Fifty-thousand words you didn’t have time to deliberate over. Fifty-thousand words with a better idea of what kind of story you want to tell and what to revise to get it there.

And finally, don’t ask for critiques or share your first drafts with other writers. It’s tempting to want feedback to see if you’re on the right track. Only you don’t know what the right track is yet. You don’t know how your baby is going to grow up, if it’s even going to make it. This thing you’re writing is like a newborn. parentIt can be infected with other people’s germs super easily and get really sick. It can also turn out to be something you never wanted, depending on who’s taking care of it. So protect it (and your self-confidence) in the process. Remember, no one likes being called a bad parent

To recap, here are four ways to change your mindset around first drafts:

  1. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing and just write.
  2. Know there are no rules in creativity. (We never would have been able to send men in outer space unless someone dreamed it was possible. Only then did rules about physics and engineering apply.)
  3. Start your story where you need to, not where you’re supposed to.
  4. Protect that baby from backseat critiquers until it’s fully developed.

What’s your current mindset about first drafts? Do you get trapped in the never-ending cycle of editing? What other advice would you give someone about writing a first draft?

 

Just Another Dead Body

I know it’s tempting, but don’t let the victim in your murder mystery fall prey to Just Another Dead Body syndrome. This is when your victim becomes a means to the plot’s end. Meaning, you only killed him to create a mystery for your detective to solve.

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Victims are not props. They are characters.

And the more you can breathe life into them before they’re dead, the more compelling they’ll be after they’re dead.

So how do you begin? Just as you would with any other character.

Start by asking the hard questions:

  • What are his hope and fears?
  • What does he live for? Who would he die for?
  • What great and terrible things has he done? Will he never be able to do now that you killed him off?
  • Who loves him? Who hates him?
  • Who can’t live without him and who would kill to save him?

You may even want to get super creative and have your victim speak in his own words. It can be in the form of a monologue, a stream of consciousness, a letter, or a dialogue with someone important. It could even be a beyond-the-grave tirade to the murderer after being killed. (Seriously, dude? Wtf?)

Take this a step further and start interviewing important people in the victim’s life (even if they turn out to be suspects themselves) about what they thought of him. Avoid cliches like “everybody loved Jamie.” Instead, offer a scene, a vignette, or a personal anecdote involving the victim to show what he was like and how others reacted to him instead of just telling us. Chances are you’ll find some good stuff to use when it comes time for your sleuth to start conducting her own interviews.

Next, give your victim a sanctuary, a space in which he felt most comfortable. It could be his workplace, his favorite bar, his bedroom, his mancave, his mother’s basement, the diner down the street.

Fill the space with meaningful objects that symbolize what your victim was all about not just with clues your sleuth will use to piece together who shot him.

If you’re looking for ideas, look no further than your own sanctuary. Imagine a stranger walking into your space. What could she infer about you from what’s lying about (or hidden in drawers).

  • Do you own a preponderance of CDs, DVDs, books? What genres? What titles?
  • Is your mail scattered all over the dining table or organized in a command center?
  • Is your bed made with hospital corners or are the covers just thrown over it? Did you even make your bed this morning?
  • What kind of clothes are in your closet?
  • What kind of art, if any, hangs on the walls?
  • What food is in the cabinets and the refrigerator?
  • How clean is your toilet? The kitchen counters?
  • What do you hide that you don’t want anyone else to see even if you live alone?

All these little things make a person, a person.

This may also be a good time to start jotting down the must-have scenes that involve your victim.

  • For instance, do we meet the victim before he’s killed? When? Where? In what context?
  • What was he doing on the day leading up to his murder?
  • What does the crime scene look like? Where did it happen, how is his body positioned, what is he wearing, what objects did he have on him or are conspicuously missing (like a cellphone, wallet, etc.)?
  • What does his sanctuary look like to the detective investigating?
  • Who is going to be interviewed about him and what do they say?

I want to remind you again not to get into the habit of only killing off innocent little kitten victims. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people too. So make your victim as bad as he wants to be.

Once you’ve got a pretty detailed character sketch of your victim, go ahead and start to dive into his relationship with the villain.

  • Where did they meet? How long have they known each other?
  • How well did they get on? Were they best friends, adversaries, co-workers, family members, business partners? (Remember, not all murders are motivated by hate, and you can still be jealous of your best friend.)
  • Did your victim stand in the way of your villain’s goal or did they want the same thing that only one of them could have?
  • Was your villain’s perception of the victim’s ability to get in the way overrated?
  • How long did your villain and victim get into it before murder was the only option? (Unlike real life, fictional characters don’t resort to murder just because someone bought the last big screen TV at Walmart on Black Friday.)
  • Did your victim fight back on previous attempts with his own brand of vindictiveness like blackmail, bullying, insults, maybe a murder of his own?

In other words, what commodity, perceived or otherwise, did your victim hold that led to his murder? Was he the last person standing in the way of a corporate takeover?  Would her paternity ensure she would inherit the estate before your villain did? Does the murderer think your victim knows too much or is he just being used as a pawn for something bigger?

Many of these questions you’ll be able to answer or will have already pondered as you explored your villain, but by giving your victim a life before he gets killed, you’ll be able to create a more complex character rather than a stark chalk outline.

Remember, victims are people too.

Which technique did you find most helpful?

What did you learn about your victim that you wouldn’t have known otherwise?

Interview With a Killer (or not)

While we’re on the subject of villains…one way to get a handle on your mystery is to get a handle on your villain.

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Your killer (or any other criminal) should be fully developed before your story even opens. That is to say, he won’t be changing over the course of the novel. Everything that has contributed to your villain’s life of crime has already happened, especially because, by the time your story opens, the crime will have already been committed or will be committed very soon. So it makes sense to create a comprehensive character sketch of your villain before he sets foot on the page.

The best place to start is with the most significant event in the killer’s life that directly affects your story–AKA the murder or other terrible crime that needs to be solved. You can learn more about this event and get a feel for your villain’s voice by conducting an interview with him.

A few ways to do this is by establishing the scene as:

  • A police interrogation after being arrested
  • A written statement after confessing to the crime
  • A courtroom trial with testimony and cross-examination
  • A deathbed confession
  • A confession to a clergyman
  • A confrontation with the sleuth (amateur or otherwise), possibly in the moment he’s caught

Or you can get creative and have your villain apply for a job with Killers For Hire and get called back for an interview.

The idea with any of these interviews is to establish not only your murderer’s character but the details of the mystery as well.

Consider asking the following questions in your interview to establish the motive, method, and opportunity of the crime:

Who was the victim and what was the nature of your relationship?

Where did the murder take place and why this particular place? 

What time did it occur? What was the weather like?

What were you wearing? Were you trying to blend in or avoid being seen?

How did you get there? How did you get away?

How much planning was involved?

What weapon did you use, if any, and why that particular one? 

Where did you get it or who did you get it from?

Have you ever used that weapon before? Did you need special training to use it?

Did the weapon deliver a swift death or a long, slow, tortured process?

What wounds were inflicted?

How long have you planned the killing or was it a crime of opportunity?

Were there any accomplices?

Were there any witnesses that you know of?

Was this your first kill? If not, how old were you when it happened? How did the killing make you feel?

What did you do with the victim? Did you leave the body there, mutilate it, bury it, drown it, burn it, pour chemicals over it, leave it for the vultures?

I know this may sound scary to some of you pantsers out there, but trust me, once you decide who your killer is and figure out the what, where, why, when, and how of your murder, writing the rest will be cake. Even Dame Agatha Christie knew her killers and how she wanted her novels to end before she began writing.

So what does your killer have to say for himself?