Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why Wattpad Gives Me Hope (Lots and Lots and Lots)

Some days, the Internet is just awesome.

Some of you may have heard of Wattpad, the website where undiscovered writers can fling their stories out into the ether and hope for general approval. Others might have heard of Jukepop, which is sort of the same thing except with serialized fictions. In general, these sorts of sites cater to a very particular demographic: that of people who think of themselves as writers but just can't buy a book deal. (Oh, just kidding, the Christian Writers Guild has made that possible. ZING.)

I've mentioned these kinds of people before: the ones who talk a pretty good game about all the writing they're doing, but don't tend to, you know, actually write. The ones who treat an ancient and noble artistic pursuit as a hobby that anybody can do, because...really, how hard could it be?

The thing that I often miss when I rant about pretentious hacks is that, sometimes, there are diamonds in the rough. Every author has to start somewhere, and more often than not they start as pretentious hacks. How could they not, after all? Writing—and, more directly, making your writing public—requires an interesting degree of blind arrogance. Making your work public implies that you think the public might actually like the things you've written. Putting your work out there, even if it is just a website that caters to narcissism, is a step in the right direction. Heaven knows that writing you keep hidden in your desk drawer isn't going to change any lives.

Especially since, sometimes, self-publishing your work can pay off.

Beth Reeks (pen name Beth Reekles) is a 17-year-old writer who published a teen romance on Wattpad. She did what a number of authors have advised since the dawn of the written word: write what she wanted to read. She'd grown tired of vampires, werewolves, and fallen angels; she just wanted a teenage romance. So she made one, and she made it well, and it earned her a number of fans on Wattpad.

And then Random House heard about her, and now she has a book deal.

I only get to say this once because I hate needless repetition, so I'm going to say it as loudly as I can in typed words:


A 17-year-old kid getting published? Getting fiction published? That's the stuff of legends, folks. I just want to shake this girl's hand. What a champ.

It's stories like these that give me hope for writers and for starving artists in general. See, Barnes and Noble is on its way out. Borders is dead. Some nutcase author wants libraries to die. In short, the world of the printed word is in some pretty significant turmoil. Nobody's quite sure how everything is going to shake out. Will the next generation even care about stories when they can view all their stuff through neurological implants? Now that we've mastered video technology, are words even relevant anymore? Can the world of literature ever bounce back from Twilight?

The short answer is...yeah. Duh.

The world is changing, but this isn't the biggest change the world's undergone. It's just the biggest one we've been alive for. (Every wave seems huge when you're inside it.)

Maybe printed books die out and maybe they don't. (Here's hoping they don't.) And maybe the publishing industry is going to convulse and explode (which I'm not entirely sure is undeserved). And maybe my grandkids will think of books the way I think of vinyl records: quaint and romantic, but obsolete.

I doubt it. But, even if the printed page dies out; even if the book publishing industry goes belly-up; even if the libraries vanish....

The stories live on, and the storytellers keep appearing.

The Internet and its utterly public forum gives me hope for this. These days, all you need are 1000 people who desperately want you to keep making art...and you can. Artists have always survived on the charity of people who like their stuff; it's only in the era of Indelible Walt Disney Copyright that we've gotten the idea that "artist" isn't a proper job because only a few people get to make a lot of money at it.

Until the world settles, all we can do is keep on hoping. And keep on making good art.

What are your thoughts on the imminent death throes of Barnes and Noble, or the 17-year-old wunderkind publishing a book because of the Internet? Sound off in the comments!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Discovery Writing with an Outline: How to Grow the Parthenon (Just Add Water!)

According to some successful writers, there are two kinds of writing: architecture and gardening. Architect writers outline their plots meticulously before they put pen to paper. Gardener (or discoverer) writers are sometimes called "pantsers" because they write "by the seat of their pants." Both have their strong points—architect writers typically have room for more intricate plots, while gardener writers tend toward powerful ideas that they carry out well.

Both have some pretty serious shortcomings, though. Architects struggle with what some people call "railroading," where they become so desperate for their original ideas to bear out that they force them to happen, even at the expense of character. Gardener writers, on the other hand, can often struggle with their endings. It's particularly difficult if they're young, inexperienced writers: drawing every single plot thread together into a cohesive whole is tough to do, especially if the plot has wandered around quite a bit.

I suspect, though, that the two can be balanced. Steven James, Stephen King, and Patrick Rothfuss—all very talented, very dedicated gardeners—might disagree with me, and since they're way more successful than I am, you feel free to go listen to their thoughts. But here's the thing: James, King, Rothfuss, and a number of other gardener writers are geniuses. Their subconscious does most of the heavy lifting for them. Also, they don't necessarily spit on knowing where your story is going—just on planning out every single moment of it.

I propose, though, that—as the writer—you're allowed to know at least a little about how your story's going to end. No need to wait until the climactic reveal, right?

So, without further ado, here are the Three Steps to Growing the Parthenon (or, How Outliners Can Be a Little More Discovery-Oriented).

(I'm bad at titles.)

1) You don't need to know every step to know the destination.

A common misconception about outlining—or, at least, one that I held to pretty tightly for most of my life—is that it needs to handle every single event in the story. Every detail of it, from the opening scene to the last and every bit of backstory, character interaction, and stunning reveal in between.

As far as I can tell, that's just not true at all.

Knowing every single step of the story is wildly unnecessary, and frankly harmful to creativity. You've effectively drawn a box for your story, out of which you must not step. As Steven James is fond of saying, "Story trumps structure." Don't feel pressured to map out everything that will happen in the story; usually, knowing what's going on will help.

Suggested Fix: keep your outlining to the bare minimum (if you outline at all). Know how the story ends (mostly), know how your characters will be affected (mostly), and maybe know some of what will happen in between, but don't feel any great pressure to know every single detail. That's absurd.

2) Characters come first.

This was the hardest truth for me to learn. I'll be honest: I'm not really good with creating characters out of thin air. I don't have a whole crowd of people living in my head like some writers claim to. So, when I have to populate my stories, I tend toward making semi-sentient machines: they have a function in the plot, but they rarely have personalities, desires, or secrets of their own. They're an extension of the story I've made for them.

That's bad.

My inability to smite the earth and pull characters forth from the ether is my biggest weakness. (It's not just a writing struggle either; I'm not very good at understanding people.) Consequently, I need to keep forcing myself to write characters who exist independently of the story they're in; they're not just wave functions of the plot. The characters are the heart and soul of any story. Story robots don't engage readers.

Suggested Fix: let your characters behave as they want to. Give them foibles, quirks, failures, dreams. You can always make characters more realistic.

3) No outline is perfect.

Stephen King says that "outlining is a great way to immortalize a bad idea." Outliners will often get way too attached to their original outlines, casting them in stone rather than ink. Instead of letting the story be fluid and organic, it becomes forced, rigid, unyielding, and—inevitably—disappointing.

Here's a quick comparison to get across the idea: imagine that you've met someone you find interesting, likable, and at least smart enough to hold up a conversation. You decide that you'd like to get to know this person, and maybe develop a long-lasting friendship with them. The relationship will naturally consist of a sort of give-and-take; that's how all relationships work, after all. You'll jump in with expectations, and gradually discover that a number of things you initially took for granted are, actually, very wrong. This person is way more complex than you ever gave them credit for.

Now imagine that, instead of letting the person subvert your expectations, you demanded that they be exactly what you expected on your first meeting. Instead of complex and deep and interesting, they become an extension of you; they're just another thing you've conquered.

Stories should never be something you hack out easily. They ought to come at cost. There's an inherent struggle in all writing that makes it worthwhile. Without the struggle, it rings hollow. It doesn't feel right.

Suggested Fix: let the story direct itself. Give it a few guidelines, perhaps even a few road signs, but don't ever make it adhere unquestioningly to your first thought. Stories evolve in the mind; that's how it's always worked.

So, dear reader, how about you? Are you more a discovery writer or an architect? How do you balance plot, with all its intricacies, and characters, with all their needs and depths?