Yesterday I told you why I sucked at telling stories. Today is about how I stopped sucking.
I spent 2011 trying – and failing – to get poems published in magazines or considered in competitions or something to validate my existence as a poet. Never happened. I entered 11 different contests and never made a short list.
In the beginning of 2012, fueled in part by my failure as a poet, I decided I wanted to try telling stories again. By that point, I was more than two years out of college and I knew what made me a bad storyteller. Creating underdeveloped characters. Not letting them get into messy enough situations. Purple prose.
To improve, I decided to isolate the variables. If I could work with pre-fabricated complex, interesting, non-Mary-Sue characters, could I improve the other two? Would having prompts for situations help me get the characters dirty?
I did the only thing I could think of. I Googled “Harry Potter Fanfiction Challenges.” Turns out that’s the name of a forum on a site where I’d been registered as a reviewer for years. So I joined the forum and got started. I wrote about Ron. Hermione. Remus. Tonks. Easy, well-defined characters. I wrote less than 2,000 words per story. I got decent reviews. Finally, I branched out.
Molly and Arthur became my favorites. I’ve written nearly 25,000 words about them, spanning 100 years. And, with them, I started what I became known for – interconnected one-shots.
Not only are those 25,000 words all in the same “universe,” so are a total of no less than 200,000 words written over the past two years. I wrote about the last year at Hogwarts and the final battle from the perspectives of ten different people. In one, Colin Creevey’s little brother sneaks in and takes pictures of the battle. In another, Anthony Goldstein is looking for his friend Michael. When he finds the body, he hears a camera clicking behind him. In one, I kill off a first-year student during the Carrows’ torture sessions. In another, taking place at Harry’s funeral in 2100, I mention that student.
Anyway, all that to say I learned I could write 200,000 words in the same universe. My old excuses of not having the patience for that kind of intricate storytelling were broken. And best of all? In two years, I went from writing short stories about well-known characters to novellas with entirely OCs for the cast.
So could I write a novel with my own characters? Absolutely. I already had. In late 2012, I began publishing a story set firmly in the Harry Potter universe… but that takes place in the year 3003. The only character from the series that even makes an appearance is a ghost – Professor Binns. The rest were my own characters, and the story was prompted not by a challenge on the forum but by a self-imposed challenge to attempt what some theorize has been JKR’s and Suzanne Collins’ reasons for success: writing in the tradition of literary alchemy and chiasm.
One of my last reviews for the story says, “The whole story reads very much like a canon piece, using many plot devices that come from the original or draw on its style and purpose.” I laughed when I got it. She has no idea.
More recently, I wrote a story in the nearer future, when the children of canon characters are in their 20s. The adults in their lives are canon. The rest are mine. And it’s not firmly set in the Harry Potter universe at all. I might one day adapt this 30,000-word novella into a modern novel. Who knows?
So part of my learning to write came specifically from getting to play in someone else’s imagination sandbox.
The other part – one I started honing when my stories started to reach 15,000 words and longer – was far more intentional than just trying to reach my “million words.” I read books. I read books on outlining novels, on archetypes, on plot structure, on main characters. I read books on literary alchemy and chiasm for the story I mentioned above. I took notes. I highlighted. I let it all absorb into me.
And, over time, I slowly figured out how to plot stories. I learned to let my characters loose. I learned to put them in life-and-death situations. After all, there’s always AU fanfiction in which I can revive them. 🙂
So when an idea for a real story came to me – a story set in my own world with my own characters – there was nothing left for me to do but write.*
*Technically, I mean start to plan. I brainstormed and outlined for four months before I began writing. But I did that planning by writing it out, so it’s close enough.