A wife, mom, and IT analyst by day, Wendy S. Russo enjoys inquisitive characters, slow reveals and snowballing climaxes. She keeps a blog and is actively seeking publication for her YA Sci-Fi romance, January Black. Her blog is called simply Wendy S. Russo: Writer in wife/mom clothing.
The best thing I’ve ever done for my writing? That's easy … Zoloft!
I’m really not joking. What I’ve found in recent years is that when I have a difficulty in my life, regardless of what it is, it’s usually a symptom of something larger. Where there is one symptom of a problem, there are usually others. I struggled with one particular WIP for ten years. Toward the end of that stretch, I started taking Zoloft to deal with episodes of anxiety. Within six months, I had shelved the WIP, edited 80,000 words out of my first novel, and written my third novel. I dealt with my anxiety … my writing problem resolved itself. Coincidence? I’m not a believer in coincidence within complex systems.
But, that’s not a fun answer, is it? So how about I tell you about the second best thing I have ever done for my writing? I hesitate to mention it because it usually triggers this question: “Slash?” No. Sorry to disappoint you. Yes, I have written Star Wars fan fiction, but no…I did not have Luke and Lando crossing lightsabers on The Brokeback Falc—
[Wendy fires off a quick email to Marie Sexton about a gay Luke/Lando parody. Marie replies, "That’s been done every which way…and yes that is an innuendo."]
I’m sorry, where what I? Oh yes…Star Wars. I claim my fan fiction masterpiece with pride; I really do. Also, I encourage anyone who wants to write a novel but doesn’t know where to start to try it.
Writing a novel is a lot like building a bookshelf from scratch. Whether you’re throwing stuff together, or planning it out to the very last detail, you still have to know how to safely use the table saw. Think of fan fiction, then, like building from the pieces of an IKEA box.
I’ll talk about Star Wars because that’s what I know. The back story is provided. The alien species and worlds, the weaponry and advanced technology, the ships, the characters…it’s all provided in “Essential Guides” published by LucasFilm. They have a dozen series set within a timeline that covers thousands of years. It has a supporting cast of thousands.
This is what I did: I rewrote “Sleeping Beauty” in a setting 24 years after Return of the Jedi. I set her up as an Old Republic Jedi Master who’s come out of suspended animation with retrograde amnesia, so she has no idea who she is. I put her on a ship with Mara Jade and then crashed it on a world where Luke Skywalker and Han Solo just happened to be at the time. I tossed in some romance and some planet-hopping terrorists, and just had a really good time. And you know what I got out of it? A lot of great lessons in composition, world and character building, and how to use dialog.
Was it good? Does it really matter? I got a trilogy out of it. My second project was a two volume fantasy epic; it weighed in at 280,000 words and took me only ten months from start to finish. Without those Star Wars novels, I may never have finished a first novel at all. Without them, I wouldn't have had the confidence to start an epic, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this post now.
This is about when I did the worst thing ever for my writing. I took a Short Novel Writing class. Oh, no, no, no! Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret taking the class. I got an “A.” Given a chance, I’d take that class again in a heartbeat! Where it went wrong had nothing to do with the instruction and everything to do with what I did with it. There were things I had done wrong with the SW trilogy. I continued to do these things incorrectly in my fantasy epic. And there I was, in a formal setting, with a very respected Southern Lit author explaining to me why these things are wrong. The professor gave me some cool new tools, like story types, timeline variations, foreshadowing…. She taught me how to keep from bouncing from one POV to another, to cut excessive detail, and to avoid deus ex machina. And you would think these are pretty good things, right?
They are splendid things, and they’ve done great things for me. But at the time, I didn’t simply add/replace tools in my storytelling toolbox. I let the tools rewrite me. I used to write by the seat of my pants…(280,000 words in ten months, remember?) I plowed right through that epic like it was nothing. Now, I'm a plotter. I look at that shelved WIP I have, and I see another epic-length fantasy. I'm five chapters in and I've already worked it to death. Just looking at the old scenes frustrates me because I love them, but even after years apart, I just don't care enough about what comes next to pick it up again.
There really is something to be said about doing things in moderation.