Tension, Fanfic, MFAs, and the joy of writing — A Monday hodgepodge

Listening to Danika Stone‘s Keynote speech last night about using fanfic to rediscover her joy of writing reminded me again of how much more of an advantage fanfic writers have to writers aiming to write as a profession. Like her, I spent hours and hours writing fanfic in the second half of 90s and early 2000s before I just lost my taste for it. But I’d written across multiple fandoms and millions of bytes of stories.

It was in fanfic that I met the editor who told me I was really great at telling stories but my writing was practically illegible. She wasn’t wrong. ADHD brain, ftw. Not only does it jump verb tense and idea mid-sentence, it “helpfully” fills in the missing words and fixes the typo so you swore you saw the missing words the first nine times the work has been reread.

Fanfic practiced the bits about stories that readers love — the characters, the playful language and mastering different points of view to match not just the character’s voice but the way a character looked at the world. Authors can focus on what’s on the surface of the story because the depth of it — the world, the interpersonal relationships, the premise conflict, magic or science systems, they’re all pre-established. Original fiction needs to do all that hard work first.

Fanfic authors still have the advantage, though. Professionally minded writers probably lack the hours and hours in the saddle that writers who write as a hobby enjoy. Fanfic writers have what professional writers may write for decades and still not reach — an energetic and encouraging audience. “Success” in publishing is a story sold. “Success” in fanfiction is paid out in instant feedback. Since the greatest motivation to future successes are past successes, Fanfic authors learn to hone their skills and the reward for their growth is tangible.

Writers can have that much growth in their work and still get form rejections.

But while the fanfic writers learned by doing over the past two decades, the absolute, literal meaning of “there are no rules” got an ugly foothold in the pro-writing community. Writers are taught as long as they know what the structures are called, they’re not needed in fiction, MFA programs don’t know how teach their learners how to use them, manipulate them, or break them because their instructors don’t have the first clue themselves how any of that happens.

They were talented enough that it just happens. And if they are that talented that tension just appears in their first draft, how can they teach a learner how to manipulate what doesn’t just appear in theirs?

In any skillset, the best way to learn is to want to do your best for hours and hours, dedicated to a single task. Writing isn’t any different. But I remember the years between 1998 and 2003 when I gave up fanfic as a hobby.

It was around the time I realized that I thought I “chose” to break the rules. But I couldn’t have chosen to do something I only knew how to do one way. Seven years of hearing I’d just taken shortcuts instead of wowing the reader finally broke through my thick skull.

Unless someone is supernaturally talented in writing, I really think a million words is the bare minimum for figuring out the parts of writing that didn’t come naturally to the writer. Writing isn’t one skill. It’s a complex system that has to work together seamlessly to present to the reader something that is worth their investment of time and money. They don’t just want to know what the character does and says, they want to know how they feel, how they struggle in a way that the journey is worth more than the destination.

I was just smart enough to realize that just having an above-average level talent wasn’t nearly enough to succeed when I saw writers with far more talent than I had still hadn’t reached the level their talents alone should have propelled them if talent alone was an accurate representation of future success.

I still had so many structures of my craft I had no idea how to use, let alone manipulate. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve truly even realized how important tension is to the point where I do a rewrite just to escalate it and then I do a rewrite focusing on every other aspect of craft.

But writers don’t get to that point of being able to manipulate the tension unless they can manipulate every aspect of craft that is used to build tension up. Unlike conflict or character development, tension doesn’t happen on the page. It’s a balloon controlled inside the reader. Writers don’t write tension; they create it with craft.

Without control of craft, there is no control of tension. Tension either exists in first drafts or it doesn’t.

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