Talking about writing–S.S.Evans

Ta da! Another interview! It’s almost like I’m organized or something.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing S.S. Evans, an author, nerd, foodie, and country girl trapped in Washington, DC. She can often be found hanging out longingly at the dog park without a pet. When not writing fiction, she is a producer for an international news network and dabbles in the occasional freelance article. She spent two years working in Agriculture for Peace Corps Ecuador and came out of it with great stories and physical scars. She has a BA in Writing and Spanish from the University of Pittsburgh.

Thanks, Sarah, for volunteering your brain to science…er, for showing up for an interview!

You started out writing fanfiction. I didn’t, but reading it was one of the things that started me writing again. I’m not even sure I can articulate what it sparked, other than a sense of…liberation, maybe. A thrill from the energy of the writers there?

In any case, I just got Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, out of the library, and I read the acknowledgments first, as I usually do, and she says this: “Also: I decided to write this book after reading a lot (I mean, a lot) of fanfiction. Reading fic was a transformative experience for me–it changed the way I think about writing and
storytelling, and helped me more deeply understand my own intense relationships with fictional words and characters.”

So, tell me, what has fanfiction done for you as a writer? Technique, content, anything that feels of importance to you–I want to hear it all.

I love talking about fanfiction. I consider it the best tool for an aspiring writer, for multiple reasons. First, you get a reader base. That is a huge plus for a first time writer, knowing that hundreds of people from around the world are reading your words. You get reviews, and followers – there is nothing like the jump you feel getting a new review in your inbox. You have a community of people cheering you on, reading every chapter, giving advice. It makes you want to write more, it makes you feel connected in a way that writing solo doesn’t. Plus, the readers are strangers – I know personally I’m fine with strangers reading my writing but I cringe when a friend wants to read it. There’s no inherent judgement because all those people don’t know you, your face or past or personality. All they know are the words you write. It’s freeing.

And if you’re reading fanfiction – leave reviews. Some authors will respond and get to know you and you can start a dialogue. Same with when you receive reviews – write back, thank them, let them know you care. You can foster a real community and make friends and personally connect with people who are passionate about your writing. It might even help you find a great beta reader.

And that leads to a tip: Get a beta reader. You can find them on all fanfiction websites (Fanfiction.net, Archive of Our Own, etc). It’s someone who, for free, will edit your stories. Pick someone whose writing you admire, if you can, and who is part of the fandom you’re writing for. And listen to them. It’s hugely helpful to have that gentle voice critiquing your spelling and prose and even plot, especially if you’re just starting out.

Also: Write a lot, then update slowly, maybe about once every week or two. Leave people wanting more!

But here’s why it’s really helpful: Practice. So many hours of writing practice. You already have a world and characters set up for you. Want to see something happen in the show that didn’t? Want to add a new character into the mix and see how that changes existing dynamics? Want characters to hook up? Want to write them all in high school? Write it! Have fun! Go crazy! But whether they’re all now gay/werewolves/teens/gay werewolf teens, focus on still making it feel like the show/movie/book you love.

Focus on the cadence of the characters’ speech and make sure your writing reflects it. Make it match – how they move, how they express themselves. Is the character gruff? Don’t make them too effusive. Is the character relationship-adverse? Don’t make them fall in love immediately and become super lovey-dovey. Work within the framework to make something new. I’m not often a slash fan, but some of the best fic I ever read was slash that took the time to make me believe that these two seemingly straight characters would fall in love. It felt real, and it worked.

Also, pet peeve time, if you want a write a story where you want the villain to win and the good guy to lose, don’t make the canonically good guy a mustache-twirling, drunken rapist villain and the bad guy a misunderstood passionate lover. Just don’t. You can make it work while still keeping their basic personalities intact. I promise. (I’m looking at you, Phantom of the Opera fandom).

At the end of the day it’s just practice, practice, practice. The world is already set up for you. The characters are already fully fleshed out. All you have to do is play with them, so by the time you’re ready to write your own story, you’ll have pesky things like voice, dialogue, movement, and story structure all figured out.

Another thing that interests me is authorial reaction to fanfiction. To me, one of the fundamental lessons of writing for publication is that your world, your characters, cease to be yours, at least in the way they are when you hide away and write for yourself. My assumption is that choosing to write as a fan in someone else’s world is an expression of love for someone’s creation. Do you think that’s true? What drew you to the worlds you wrote (write?) in?

It drives me crazy when authors don’t like fanfiction, or even worse when they won’t allow it. I loved The Dragonriders of Pern growing up but I never liked that Anne McCaffrey had problems with people writing fanfiction. Fanfiction is a labor of love, and fandom fosters interest in your world and characters that would otherwise dull with time. When people can write and talk about their fandom, they buy more books, they make cosplay and attend conventions, they want products and signatures and photos – they’re making you money! They are putting money directly into your pocket and you deny that because of some idea of purity of story.

Here’s the thing: Once you put your story out into the world, it ceases to be yours. It will never be yours again. Every single person who reads it will take something different away, and it won’t be what you intended. Authors who go on record saying people are interpreting their books wrong don’t get it. What the author meant to say doesn’t matter all. It’s all in the interpretation, and you can’t tell someone they’re doing it wrong.

So let people play! Why wouldn’t you get joy out of seeing people love your work? My greatest dream would be to have a panel at a con and see people dressed as my characters. There is so much love out there and people are bursting to share it. It’s the best thing about the internet.

A good example is Supernatural, a show I’ve written copious amounts of fanfiction for: It should have ended years ago. It’s pretty much dead on its feet now (sorry, SPN fans, you know it’s true). It was just a little show about two dudes in an old car fighting monsters with often-cheesy dialogue, but the fandom took hold of it and now it won’t die. It’s been on ten years! Fans will not let it go and they’re so, so passionate that the show keeps getting renewed. Those actors and writers are kind and interact and cater to their fans, and it puts money in their pockets.

I write fanfiction for different reasons. I wrote Supernatural fanfiction because I wanted to add a female into a completely male cast and play with how that would affect the world, and also because I wanted to try my hand at writing dialogue in very specific character voices, a realistic relationship, action, and end-of-the-world stakes. I wrote my biggest Phantom of the Opera fic because I wanted to write something gritty and dark and awful to counteract all the “abduction is love” fanfics that dominate the fandom. I wrote a quick Thor fanfic because I felt that his time on earth was too short to make any sort of realistic difference to his personality, so I juxtaposed a long period of time with a very short story. I got something different out of each of my fics, but they all helped to make me a better writer.

Ah, too many things to talk about and too little time! That’s the trouble with these interviews–I want the chance to discuss much more than time allows.

So, what was the point at which you decided that you wanted to work on your own world and characters? Was the story something you’d carried with you for a while, or something completely new?

I started writing fanfic when I was 14, a long time ago. I’d been writing short little stories of my own since I was a kid, but my first real attempt at a book came when I was about 19 or so. That book was inspired by a dream. It never saw the light of day, but it’s dear to my heart and gave me the gumption and the knowledge that I could write a whole book and actually finish it. During and after that I wrote a lot of fanfiction, especially when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and had little to do. It helped me shape some ideas and improve my writing so I could start on something real.

My latest book, Left of West (represented by the wonderful Alice Speilburg of Speilburg Literary), came out of that time period. I’d actually played with ideas before I left for Peace Corps – it was a very different book then, fantasy but very political. Over about two years things shifted in my mind and I dropped the politics and settled into urban fantasy. I always wanted to write a story with group dynamics, something I wasn’t good at – fanfiction helped with that. Writing a team of already existing characters in fandom allowed me to figure out how to write my own group of disparate people thrown together. I also figured out, after I wrote pure escapist fanfiction with a smartass, asskicking heroine, that that wasn’t what I wanted to convey in my books. I didn’t want my books to be straight wish fulfillment.

I wanted to write something that usually wasn’t seen – I didn’t want to follow the status quo. I knew from the beginning that I wanted characters that were not idealized – no sexy, asskicking heroine, no super hot mysterious dude, no love triangle. That shaped a lot of my ideas. I wanted a weak, average heroine who felt real, who makes terrible mistakes, and who could really grow and change without romance, so she could focus on her own wants and needs. I wanted the mysterious dude to be flawed, often wrong, and an asshole. The person would have been the third wheel in the love triangle, the upbeat best friend boy, is still an upbeat best friend – but the frivolity is a mask and he’s struggling with his own inner cowardice. The adorable child character is a rotting corpse. Another main character is a sickly doppelganger of the heroine. The final battle is less about fighting external enemies and more about defeating that terrible voice in your head that tells you’re worthless.

It’s everything I practiced – gritty writing, fleshed out characters, group interaction, worldbuilding, everything. It came together into a book that I’m really proud of, and I don’t think I could have done any of it without fanfiction.

I understand the desire to leave the ass-kicking heroine trope behind for something more real. There’s a different alphabet of understanding used when we write characters who stumble and struggle, who aren’t irresistible to everyone they meet and who lack the perfect comeback to every line they hear.

It sounds as though you had a sense of what you wanted from your characters from the beginning. Is that true, or was it a messier process to reach that point? I ask that because I tend to overwrite, to document all those steps that get my main character from point A to point B before I reach a point where I understand them and am ready to pare the excess away.

I had a sense of what I wanted from the characters at the beginning but like everything they evolved. Actually, originally June, my main character, was going to be a lot darker, to the point where I worried she would be hard to empathize with. Smoothing out her character also forced a slight change of motivation and personality. My biggest desire for her was to be unwanted and unable to see her own strength – ignored, alone, unloved, unattractive, often how people feel as a teenager or at any age. It’s why I didn’t want romance in the story, because it’s her story, how she comes to be (and feel) strong and brave and worth something, internally. To triumph over self hate.

The other characters went through their own changes as well, especially that of Chess, the super smart mad scientist nerd extraordinaire. He’s every smart nerd that is just dying for the zombie apocalypse. He thrives on a sense of purpose. But as I wrote him, this culmination of every dorky dude I know and love, I found an unexpected thread of cowardice in him. He’s trying so hard to be brave and live up to his dreams, but inside is the kid who played D&D and got beat up by football players, his own inner anxieties he wants to suppress, and his own prejudices he has to come to terms with. And so much of his journey became shaking off that show of bravado to become actually brave.

It’s amazing how much changes when you start to write and characters take on their own personalities – the realer they feel, the more the plot has to shape itself around them, and not vice versa.

There is something incredible about the moment characters step off the page and start dictating their own actions. It’s possibly my favorite part of writing.

Which brings me to my last question: what do you enjoy about writing? What is the thing that makes you get up and continue writing, despite the low points of it, or of work, or of life? Why write?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember – don’t all writers say that? I taught myself to read at a very young age, and my first “book” was written when I was about six, rose-bordered pages stapled together into a soap-opera story of love, where everyone ended up dead at the end.

Writing keeps me grounded. I’m very caught up in my head, always daydreaming, and when I don’t write all of those thoughts get stuck there. It gets to the point where it’s difficult to pay attention, to interact with people and enjoy my daily life, if I can’t get those thoughts on the page and out of my head. Once I write it down, I can enjoy my life in the moment.

Writing is never a low point for me. I don’t love editing, and the process to get published sucks, but the writing part is always magical. I totally tune out the world, crank up my inner TV, and transcribe what I see playing in front of my eyes. I walk around and enact the scenes out loud, speaking for different characters, to figure out how their dialogue should flow. I’ve written death scenes and sobbed while writing. It’s the closest to magic that I can get. There is this overwhelming joy to putting words on the page and seeing these people that live in my head jump out and become tangible.

It’s awful thinking that your book will never see the light of day. It’s painful to keep editing something that might end up stashed in a drawer. It can feel pointless. You have to really love the act of writing, not just the finished product, to be able to keep going despite all the disappointment.

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