As many/most of you probably know, I’m one of the librarians over at Library of the Damned.  What you may not know is that my wife is an aspiring fiction writer who’s working on getting her first book completed and is starting to consider her publishing options.  She’s still a ways away, primarily because of a certain toddler who takes up a large share of the time she could be using to write/edit, but it’s pretty close.  I think she’s on like the second or third full draft.  From there it’ll likely be a matter of finding a good editor (read: affordable) and then publishing (either via an actual company or self publishing).

Anyway, I told you all that so that I could tell you this:

In trying to be supportive of her journey to authorhood, I’ve tried to think up the occasional writing exercise for her.  Specifically short-story projects and the like.  However, during my stint as one of the Snarky Librarians, I’ve come up with a more broad writing exercise/challenge that I thought I’d share with you.  It centers specifically around bad fanfiction.

Taco’s Re-Write Challenge:

This is a writing challenge for those of us who feel creative and masochistic: Rewrite the first chapter (Or a whole one-shot) of any work of fan-fiction that you view as absolutely horrible, and make it good. Note, I didn’t say “make it better” as that may setting the bar really low in some cases.

The rule set:

    You must keep the basic plot path and major points of the original story (such as they exist, anyway).
    You have a 7,000 word maximum; but may use as few as you like.
    (The killer)You must keep all ‘original’ characters from the fic, but may use the source characters as desired. The flexibility here is based mostly on what one considers a major plot point, as some source characters will be required depending on the plot of the fic. If the original characters have ridiculous names, you’re allowed to change them but they must be recognizable as the same character. For Example: Judgementdragon25 from one of the fics I riffed could be called “J.D.” for John Donaldson, or be named Stanley Judge, and called Judge by his team. Both can be traced back rather easily to the original character that way, or at least we can claim inspiration.
    You must keep the perspective of the fic. If there are many perspectives, or it changes constantly, you may use any of the perspectives at your discretion.
    You are allowed as many drafts as you want and may have as many people proof it as you want. Please draft at least twice, and have more than just yourself as a proof-reader.
    Research is mandatory.
    In situations where a major plot point directly contradicts canon of the source material, and the fic is not already noted as being AU, you may opt to abandon the plot point in favor of canon. If the fic is listed as AU you must keep the plot point and abandon canon.
    In situations where plot points directly and irreconcilably contradict each other, you may choose one and abandon anything that conflicts.
    The time limit of the challenge is 3 months provided that it is fairly difficult and may involve writing processes that the newer/aspiring author may be unfamiliar with.

This exercise is basically a contrast to NaNoWriMo, where in NaNo the focus is just on bulk word production, quality be damned.  This is the polar opposite in many ways.  A participant is limited to a very small number of words (7000 or less) and the focus is entirely on producing something of readable quality.  Not only that, but by re-writing a terrible piece of fiction, it forces the participant to write about themes and situations that may be way, way outside their comfort zone.

Further, since the focus is on quality, it will promote exposure to the parts of the writing process that are ignored in the NaNoWriMo challenge.  Things like research, storyboarding, character mapping, world building, proofing, redrafting, peer review, editing, critical self review, and, most importantly, an exposure to criticism.  That last one is important because budding writers often shy away from criticism, rather than seeking it out, learning from it, and growing as a writer.

Also in contrast to NaNo, this writing challenge would likely take much longer than a single month.  With all the proofing, drafting, re-drafing, and re-writing that a person is likely to do in this challenge, limiting it to a month would make it very difficult to ever actually produce a finished piece.  Even so, professional authors do have to work on a schedule, though they have access to many services that the new writer won’t have (like a professional editor, for one).  Thus, I set a time limit of 3 months for the project.  It’s pretty generous, but is mostly there because many of the steps of the writing process may be new to a fresh writer or it may be hard to dig up enough people who will read your work and provide the critical feedback to improve it.

So how do you know if you’ve succeeded? This is the most difficult part of the whole thing because it’s subjective. Professional authors have many ways in which to measure themselves: critical reviews, book sales, publisher contracts, etc. The aspiring author lacks many of these, so how do you know if you’ve written something good? Well, there are a few outlets, some of them better than others. First off, don’t bother with the reviews you’ll be seeing from places like FF.net. The readers there tend to gush all over everything regardless of quality. Getting useful critiques is going to be more difficult than tossing the writing up on the internet somewhere. More likely you’ll need to seek out critics. Find people you know who like to read and see what they think about it. Err on the side of co-workers, class-mates, and acquaintances rather than friends, as you need honest opinions more than you need fake praise designed to protect your feelings. If you have a friend or family member who you know will give it to you straight, then they may be a good resource, just be prepared for them not to like it. If you’re still in school, English teachers/professors may be a good resource, but also be prepared for them to be too busy to help. Social networking is a good place to find people who like to read and can produce a critical review of your work. This can be a double edged sword, because you’re more likely to find somebody who’ll be unhelpful in their review (things like “this rawks” or “this is teh suxors!”) as you are to find somebody who knows how to write a constructive critical review. However, the helpful souls are out there. Look for social groups devoted to peer review. Also, check your local area for writing clubs/groups. The library (or your school for the younger crowd) may have writing workshops, clubs, groups that are dedicated to writing improvement and may provide a good place to seek critical review.

Another thing you can do is fling it up on FF.Net and send a link to us at the Library of the Damned. If it’s really, truly bad, it’ll go up on our site as we rip it apart; which will provide useful feedback since under all our snark and silliness lies real criticism on what needs improvement. If it’s really good, you’ll see it as a weekend spotlight and you’ll know that you impressed at least a couple of us. If it’s somewhere in between, you’ll probably get a few words from some of us on where it could be improved. Now, as shameless a plug for our blog as that was, I will admit that we’re not the greatest critics in the world, for sure. We have our biases and our blind-spots. But, after a year of demolishing fan-fiction, we’re starting to get fairly good at picking apart literature and providing real criticism under the cloak of snark and slapstick. Better yet, we’re free and focus on fanfiction.

This challenge could easily be expanded to just general writing. You pick all your topics and characters yourself with the same aims. However, part of the point of this challenge is to write about themes that you normally wouldn’t, so picking your own project steers around that portion of the challenge. Alternately you could pick a genre and character type at random and write that, which would be interesting. I may consider making an alternate version of this challenge that provides a randomized way to build the basis of a story. Actually, I’m really starting to like that idea.

To the drawing board!

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?

NOTE: Yes, I am going to be taking this challenge. Yes, I’ve already picked the fan-fiction for the chapter I’ll be re-writing. Yes, it’s one that I’ve riffed. And yes, I will be handing it over to my fellow librarians to savage during the writing process. You all may even get to see one of the first drafts go up on the Library if it’s really bad.

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