Keep it Simple Stupid: What My Son and Twitter Taught Me About Writing

I can hear my son, Logan, shouting “Don’t say stupid!” in my head as I type this.  That might be the most important thing he’s taken away from my 3.5 years of parenting him.  Don’t say stupid.  You see, I am a potty mouth, and somehow Logan has only managed to pick out the word stupid from among the myriad creative ways I have found to swear or say otherwise nasty things in his presence.  (No, I am not a perfect parent, or a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination, and if there is one absolutely terrible parenting faux pas that I have committed, it is swearing in front of my son.)  Stupid is the only word he has repeated.  I taught him that word is forbidden after he called his friend stupid.  So he reminds me.  Every single time I say it.  Because for him, we live in a black and white world, words have good meanings and bad meanings and if he shouldn’t say stupid, then darn it, nobody else should.

That’s the way it should be.  As one of my favorite characters, the eponymous character Angel, once said, “We live as if the world is what it should be to show it what it can be.”  Except, that’s sort of impossible.  We can’t live in a world where we react to things as though evil and good were very easily divided into their corners because the grey areas are where the conflict lives and where the interesting essence of a story can be found.  There are great mountains of complexity to be found in the space between good and bad and that is more than enough to make people’s head spin.  Your reader can be entranced and confused and compelled by what you write because of that alone.

You don’t need extremely complex verbiage to do that work for you.  And despite what E.L. James may have taught you with “50 Shades of Grey”, you do not need to chew, swallow then vomit a thesaurus up to do so, either.  (I know I pick on her far too much, but all I can think of upon examining her work is a very enthusiastic and, still simplistic, “ARGH.”  The occasional book reviewer in me cringes.)

Watching Logan grow up and develop language of his own has provided me with an opportunity.  As he struggles to define and understand new words, I also struggle to put my own thoughts into words that he can understand.  If one fact can be distilled from that experience, it would be that language is important.  You may be thinking, “No s&^t, Sherlock!”  And to that I can only reply, “Told you about my potty mouth.”

Logan is not only constantly in search of the right words, but I’m always constantly in search of language economy – a way to explain my ideas in simple, effective sentences that are not ridiculously verbose.  Logan is also a hyper child, and when I try to explain things in roving, complicated sentences, he reacts by walking away from me.  Which is what readers often do if you present them with long, twisty sentences that look like a paragraph when you really could have said it in one line.

Oddly, my use of twitter has taught me something similar.  If you look at my twitter account, it is filled with #WIPquotes, or, quotes from my works in progress.  These usually get posted as I’m writing my story.  I write a line, I like it, I tweet it.  But often times, the line does not fit in the tweet.  Since I like to share, I really want to make that line tweetable.  (Language can also be invented – tweetable?)  So I will try to find better words to streamline the sentence, and in that way, most times, I make the line stronger.

It’s true, that talking to Logan usually means simplifying too much, unless I want to spend the next hour explaining the words that explain the words that explain the words, etc., etc., etc.   But the idea that sometimes the simplest explanation, the simplest phraseology, the simplest term, can often be the best is something that is often tossed aside in the pursuit of “prettier” language.

Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule – there are always reasons to go for the more complex terms, the more interesting turn of phrase.  The idea is always to strike a balance between the two so that your work becomes more well rounded and not too bogged down.

Any thoughts on this topic?  To any of my writer mothers out there – Any fun things you have learned about your work from your children? Share!

50 Shades of Unoriginal – Should Fanfiction Be Marketed as Original Writing?

If I say the title “Fifty Shades of Grey” to most people, they know exactly what I’m talking about.  They may never have any intention of reading it, but they’ll recognize it.  Why?  Because E.L. James has become a household name and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

I have several real issues with this trilogy, and while only one of them is the focus of this blog, in the interest of full disclosure, the following is a summary: I’m sure that my time in fandom has led me to far raunchier pieces than this trilogy, some that I’ve enjoyed, other that have left me with the distinct need for brain bleach.  Some of the good ones are more well written than this trilogy by leaps and bounds.  I don’t need to read an entire book to know it’s badly written, I need only samples to feel the need to give some advice to James: You shouldn’t eat a thesaurus and then start spitting out words at random.  It just doesn’t make for a smooth writing style.  Never mind the complaints that I’ve heard that this book contains a false representation of a consensual BDSM lifestyle and instead throws an abusive relationship before the reader and claims that it’s BDSM – that’s one I can’t even remotely confirm, as I never plan to read it.

Despite all of that, my biggest complaint about this book is it’s origins.  Once named “Master of the Universe,” “Fifty Shades of Grey” originated as a Twilight fanfiction.  Now, I’m not a big fan of Twilight, so what I’m upset about isn’t something as basic as the bastardization of my favorite characters.  The issue is that it violates a basic tenant of most fanfiction writers – this work does not belong to you.

You may be thinking ‘She spent a long time working on this and the words were hers, how can it not be her work?”.  There’s some truth to that.  For instance, when E.L. James wrote her fanfic,it was an “AU Fic,” a fandom term for Alternate Universe Fiction.  Meaning she eschewed the world that Twilight’s Stephanie Meyer created, took her characters and placed them in a non-supernatural setting where they could meet, fall in love and have wild bondage sex together and not have to worry about that pesky vampire issue.

E.L. James isn’t the only fanfiction writer to become a published author.  Cassandra Clare, author of the NY Times Bestselling Mortal Instrument series and its companion series, The Infernal Devices, was originally a writer of Harry Potter fanfiction.  There are quite a few moments of deja vu to be had while reading her fanfiction – main characters Clary and Simon strongly resemble HP’s Ginny and Harry, while Jace is nearly an exact replica of Clare’s interpretation of Draco Malfoy.  The world is certainly not the same, but they are both Young Adult novels in which magic exists but is hidden from regular humans.  Potter’s J.K. Rowling names those regular humans Muggles, while Clare calls them Mundanes.  There are even a few passages that Clare wrote for her fanfiction to serve as back story for Draco and then lifted out to serve as back story for Jace’s character.  According to publishing website Galleycat, new writer Sylvain Reynard is about to come out with a new book titled Gabriel’s Inferno, also based on a Twilight fanfiction.  So this is becoming a trend.

The very basis of writing fanfiction is the idea that you are writing a story based in another writer’s world, so what’s the problem?   As both a fanfiction writer, and a writer of my own original work, there is a great deal of work I am not doing when I create fanfiction.  I am not dreaming up casts of characters, making them whole and seeing where they will go.  I am not creating a world and all of it’s facets.  I am working within the confines of an already existing world created by someone else.  And as such, while I will admit to being inspired by another writer to create a character or use certain themes that may vaguely resemble the work of another, that character or theme always takes a different direction, is combined with completely other elements and is molded into something new and different.  And there is a big difference between “inspired by” and taking somebody else’s characters, putting them into a different situations, changing their names, and selling it as your own work.

There is alot that goes into creating a very good piece of fanfiction – I’m not denying that.  But creating an entire world all your own from beginning to end takes alot more work.  I’ve done both, so I can tell you for sure.  Despite plucking Edward and Bella from the Twilight world and putting them in a real world situation, E.L. James wrote this work while envisioning another person’s characters in the role.  Despite a tendency towards purple prose and the fanfiction roots of The Mortal Instruments, I fell in love enough with the more original characters in that series to actually enjoy those books – yet I still bristle whenever I can tell Jace is really just a reproduction of Malfoy.

I bristle because, despite the fact that the day someone decides to write fanfiction about my work will be a day I feel like I’ve really made it, the day someone tries to make money off of that work will be the day the lawyers come out to play.  Not because my characters, my plot, my worlds are my bread and butter, but because they are my heart and soul, and taking a piece of that and pretending its yours crosses an ethical boundary that, I feel, cannot be denied.