Listening to Myself

abed-evil-abed

The felt goatee is the most important part.

With one thing and another, I almost forgot to blog again.  S has finished a giant fanfic project, so she and I were reading her story aloud together.  As we’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog, reading aloud is an important part of our revision process.  I’d go so far as to say, in fact, that it’s the most important part.  Reading aloud is the best way to catch little typos, awkward phrasing, and inconsistencies of plot and characterization.  And, of course, it’s fun if you can do it with someone you like.

But what happens if you don’t have someone to read with?  Or what happens if your writing partner happens to be working on her own stuff at the moment, and you want to read something over again for the third or fourth time, and it seems like something of an imposition to ask?  Well, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a way around this.  You can make your computer read your story to you.

I’ve actually been doing this myself over the past few weeks.  In addition to all the other little revision and reference projects I’ve been working on, I decided to reread all our Myrcia books in chronological order, starting with Keara of Glen Taran and ending with S’s Oleg Omdahl mysteries (a span, in the internal timeline of the Myrciaverse, of more than 2,700 years).  Right now, I’m at A Fatal Humor, which is just over halfway through.  The point of doing this isn’t just to pat myself on the back for how much I’ve written.  It’s to make sure I can remember all those stories and keep everything straight in my head as I write more.

Now, I could just sit in my comfy chair and read them the normal way, off my computer screen.  But I’d also like to get some exercise occasionally.  So what I do is to connect my Bluetooth headphones and listen to the books, two or three chapters at a time, while walking.

The first step is to save a couple chapters of the book as their own PDF file.

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Next, you open the PDF and use the “Read Out Loud” feature (under “View”).  Choose “Activate Read Aloud,” then open the same menu again and choose “Read to the End of Document.”  (Note the “Pause” option here, too.  And once you’ve paused, you’ll see “Resume” in its place to start it up again.)  I’m using Acrobat Pro, but Adobe Reader has similar options, as well.

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If you’re in a hurry, you can change the speed, as well, under “Edit” > “Preferences.”

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I’ve got mine set at 280 words a minute, for example.  So if I do three chapters, each of which is, say, 3,000 words long, that will take me a little over half an hour.

Now, obviously it’s always more fun to read with S, but she’s got her fanfic project to work on, as well as—oh, yeah—her job.  So the “Read Out Loud” function is a good substitute.  And there is at least one benefit to reading aloud with the computer instead of by yourself or with another person.  The computer can’t guess what you meant, and can only ever read exactly what’s there.  Sometimes, when you read aloud, you can cheat; you can make a clunky phrase work by reading it with a certain intonation.  The computer can’t do that, though.  It reads what you actually wrote, warts and all, in a flat, utterly pitiless tone.

At my current rate, I figure it’ll take at least the rest of this month to get through all our stories.  Maybe a few weeks of March, too.  But in March, I’ll have to take a break to start planning my April Camp NaNoWriMo novel.  Yes, that’s right—Spring is just around the corner, even if it doesn’t particularly look like it just now.

J

All Over But The Wrapping

community-christmas

And of course we still need to decorate our Troy.

A Merry, if premature, Christmas to everyone.  A Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice, as well.  And to our imaginary friends in the Myrciaverse, have a safe and happy Seefest.

S and I went out yesterday and finished up our Christmas shopping, and I have to say I’m impressed at how efficient we were.  We couldn’t leave the house until well after noon, since we had an ice storm Friday night, and we had to clear away the small glacier that had formed on our steep driveway.  But even so, we managed to get all our presents bought in record time, and we got home in time to have a pizza and watch a few episodes of Rectify off the DVR (it’s a really good show, by the way).

We’ve already gotten ourselves a few gifts.  S bought herself some lovely new fountain pens that she’s really enjoying writing with.  Last month, the awesome Municipal Liaison of our local NaNoWriMo group loaned her one of these cute little fountain pens during one of our write-ins, and S loved it so much that she had to go to JetPens and buy herself a bunch of them.  (As an aside, how cool is it that there’s a website where you can order obscure Japanese pens from the States?  For those of you who don’t know, I lived and taught in Japan for three years, and yes, they really do take writing implements and office supplies in general to a whole new level.)

My old slippers had given up the ghost (the insoles had departed), so I got some new ones which are warm and fuzzy, which is really all you want out of a pair of slippers, especially in the winter.

In other news, we’re still revising here, and S is still plugging away at her latest fanfic story (using those awesome new pens, of course).  We might not be able to post quite as regularly over the next few weeks, since we’ll be visiting family.  But don’t worry.  The long, frigid days of January and February are right around the corner, when we’ll be cooped up inside with nothing to do but write and revise!  Isn’t that exciting?  I think so.  (Seriously, though, this is the time of year when S and I always ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we decide to live somewhere warmer?”)

J

I’ll Fix It in Post

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“Fix it in post.” The most dreaded words on set?

Often when J and I are writing, we will borrow from the world of film the idea that we can fix what’s wrong in “post.” Of course, this is just our silly way of referring to revision, but I thought about the idea, and the trope, more seriously when I was working on my ill-fated NaNo novel. Granted, unlike a film, a novelist can always go back and “reshoot” (rewrite) a scene to get what she needs, but I think there’s something to be said for having the raw materials you need before you get to the revision process.

Now, I’ve never made an exact study of the numbers and percentages, but let’s say in a novel that has been properly outlined and researched ahead of time and is drafted thoughtfully, it will have 10-20% changed significantly in revision. When I start a novel knowing that eventuality is coming, that is something I can live with at this point, because I’ve written enough to appreciate that writing is rewriting. But then on a novel like The Queen’s Tower, my NaNo book from two years ago, I went in with a tenuous outline and characters I didn’t know especially well. I finished the first draft of that knowing I would be changing around 20-30% of what had been written, plus adding about 30% entirely new content. That’s pretty daunting, and probably why I still haven’t finished the novel.

And that brings us to this year’s NaNo novel, The Swift True Road. Not only did I not start with the level of detail to my outline I prefer, but I didn’t do as much character work as I would have liked, and being my first historical novel, I quickly realized I hadn’t done even close to enough research. Because it was NaNo, I kept plowing along, but around 35,000 words in, I realized I would be completely reworking at least 50% of what I had already written. Knowing I would be chucking half of what I was laboring so hard to write became discouraging to the point that I didn’t have the heart to continue writing the novel. It also seemed to be a supreme waste of time.

As J pointed out last week, I decided to set The Swift True Road aside, and I went to work on other projects to see me through the month of November, and make certain I still wrote 50,000 words for the month. At some point, I absolutely intend to return to The Swift True Road. I still think it’s a great idea for a book, a romance between two mercenaries in Renaissance Italy, but I’m not going to pick it back up again until I’m sure I can successfully draft a novel that will leave me with the pieces I need to polish a good story in post.

~S

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

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Or at least “chicken flavored.”

Actually it was a chicken lunch.  Or chicken flavored ramen, to be exact.  (Those Maruchan Bowl noodles are awesome!)  It’s cold outside, and we’re trying to stay warm and not get sick.  But it’s December now, and that means it’s time for Team Unicorn to brag about yet another double NaNoWriMo win for us.

I finished the two novels I planned to write: A Tincture of Silver and When Uppance Comes.  The first one (after some revisions) is 76,837 words long.  The second one is 75,623 words.  Right now, S and I are reading through A Tincture of Silver, though we’ve got other things we need to get done today, so I don’t know how far we’ll get.  As we’ve mentioned before, reading our books aloud together is an important part of our revision process.

Once I was finished with those two, I decided to get started on a third novel, which will be S’s Christmas present.  Yes, we write each other things as presents—it’s the ultimate in unicorniness.  I can’t tell the title of that one, because it’s a bit of a spoiler for S, and she wants to be surprised on Christmas morning when she looks under the metaphorical tree and sees it waiting for her.  It’ll actually be in the shared folder of our OneDrive account, but that’s sort-of like finding it in your stocking, yes?  As of this morning, that third novel is sitting at 46,380 words.  If I subtract the words I’ve written in the last four days, but I include all the prep work, like character profiles and character prompts, that I wrote for it, you come to my grand total for the month of November, which was 225,182 words.  That’s the most I’ve ever done in a NaNo month, I think.

As for S, she decided to set aside her historical romance and go back to writing an ongoing fanfic project that she has, and she became much happier when she did.  Perhaps at some point she’ll blog about that.  Sometimes it’s just not the right time for a particular project, and this November apparently wasn’t the right time for historical romance.  It happens.

She also wrote a short story for my Christmas present, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.  But I have no idea what it is, except that she’s admitted it’s set in the Myrciaverse, which is nice.  Other than that, I’m completely in the dark, and I haven’t tried to peek or metaphorically rattle the box to see what’s inside.  I want a surprise on Christmas morning, too.

J

Character Possimpibilities

Barney

Wait for it.

S and I are still at Camp NaNo, and we’re moving right along.  I finished my book, Written in Sand, and I’m still working on revisions of it.  S is working on her fanfic, and last night I helped her do some of the typing.  (If you’ve forgotten, S always hand writes the first drafts of her stories, so there’s always lots of frantic typing to do in NaNo months.)

I’ve talked before about my revision process, but this seems like as good a time as any to mention what I’m doing this time around.  I started by just rereading the whole thing, straight through.  This helps me see any gaping plot holes and judge the general tone and pacing of the story.  For instance, I decided that there needed to be a bit more tension before the big third act showdown, so I added some lines, and changed some lines around, so that the heroes were more worried about the villainess than they had been before.  Previously, they had been a bit too calm about the fact that she had successfully evaded them.  Now I’ve tried to make them seem a bit more anxious about where she’s gone and what she might be doing.  And I have them spending a bit more time trying to come up with a plan to beat her.

Now I’m working through the second read-through.  This is the one I do by character.  And I do this by alternating between the beginning and the end, working toward the middle.  So, to use a simple example, let’s say Bob is a POV character in a 20-chapter novel, and his chapters are all the even-numbered ones.  I would start reading at chapter 20, then go read chapter 2, then chapter 18, then chapter 4, and so on, ending at chapter 10, right in the middle.  I find this is really helpful for seeing character development and character arcs.

One of the main things I look at as I do this is whether a character acts believably.  And by that I don’t mean whether a character does the smart thing, or makes the best possible choices.  I certainly don’t mean that the character does what I would do in his situation.  What I mean is that the character should do something that seems in keeping with what we know about him as a character.  What matters isn’t the vast range of possible and impossible (or possimpible) choices he could make.  What matters is what he might actually do, given the sort of person he is.

This is something S has been thinking about lately, thanks to the third and last season of one of our favorite shows.  Perhaps S might write more on the subject here later, but I’ll just give a brief overview.  There has been, apparently, some controversy among fans of the show concerning how one of the main characters ended up in the last few episodes.  Part of the problem seems to be that some people think this character had more options in her life than she really had.

Yes, it’s true that there are all sorts of things that a woman in that particular time period could have done.  But that’s not the important question—the important question is what that particular character would have done in the circumstances in which she finds herself.  To use a real-life example, if S ever lost her job as a Librarian, she could, theoretically, become a wedding planner.  I mean, there’s nothing stopping her from doing it.  Other than the fact that she would absolutely hate that job, of course.

So that’s the sort of thing I’m looking out for in my own writing now.  I want to make sure that my characters’ choices aren’t just possimpible, but actually probable.

J

 

You Want Me to Do What with This?

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My silly edit of Tom Burke as Athos on the BBC’s The Musketeers.

So, a couple weeks ago J mentioned that I might pop in here and say something about revision. Of course, at the moment I’m drafting, not revising, so it’s not where my head is at all. Still, I’ve been practicing changing gears, and this will just be another chance to work on that skill. (Aside: My current writing schedule is an attempt to juggle my Oleg Omdahl novel I started during November NaNoWriMo and my fanfic. The worst part of putting down a project is always the time wasted to get back in the flow when you take it up again, so I’m trying to keep both my novel and my fanfic fresh in my head. To that end, I write two chapters of Oleg one week, then a fanfic story the next week, then back to Oleg the following week, then fanfic, etc. So far so good.)

But you signed on for a revision talk today, so let’s do that.

Revision is the part of my writing process that probably has the least, well, process. I outline my novels to within an inch of their lives (and I’ve even started doing a little more planning on my fanfic, too). And then I have my actual drafting habits—follow the outline, get out of the house when I get stuck, make a couple inspiring playlists, maybe make a folder of apt pictures, etc. But then it comes time to revise and I…? What exactly am I supposed to do with this thing?

My biggest solo revision project has been my first two Oleg novels, so I suppose I can talk about them a bit. There are several important steps I’ve done revising these novels, and I think it’s worked well enough that I will likely to continue to use it and refine it, at least until J sells me on another method.

Print it out
Anyone who can revise on a computer, more power to them. But if I like to handwrite my novels, I absolutely insist on revising with a hard copy. I need my lines and arrows and asterisks pointing to another page. All done in red pencil, preferably.

Reoutline
What did I forget to include the first time? What did I add half way through that needs set up at the beginning? Especially when you’re writing a crime novel with a mystery, there are bound to be structural issues on revision, and it’s best to tackle them as soon as possible, because you could spend a whole lot of time fixing problems that will become irrelevant when you’ve whipped the plot into shape and drop a certain chapter to replace it with another thing and added characters, etc.

Big issues
What are the fundamental problems that need fixed? With the first Oleg novel, I really focused on Oleg’s voice on the first revision. The novel still needs more work, but it took writing the second book and planning the third for me to really hear Oleg, so that’s where most of my revision efforts went. When revising The Queen’s Tower (which still hasn’t been completely revised. Sigh), I needed to focus on the title character’s slow decent into madness, something that’s much easier to see on revision than first draft. If there’s Something Big that needs fixed, I find it’s best to focus on it, and save the other problems for a future pass through the manuscript.

Read it out loud
No revision is complete until you’ve literally heard it. It’s not only great for finding sentence level problems (if you can’t say it elegantly, it’s not an elegantly written sentence, so go fix it), but you pick up writing ticks you don’t notice sitting quietly in your recliner. And I don’t mean that pejoratively. Yes, some of the ticks I pick up when reading aloud are my overuse of words and phrases, but also ticks I’ve given my characters that I didn’t notice before, and now that I do see that a certain character says things in a specific and interesting way, I can exploit it to make the character more distinctive.

Once more from the top
Repeat above steps as necessary.

And that’s my not terribly refined revision process.

~S

The Nuts and Bolts of Revision

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Sometimes it takes a while to get it just right.

Some people (who shall remain nameless) have been asking about our revision process, so for this week, I thought we might give some specific suggestions, based on what we do when we revise. Not all of these apply in every case, but here are some things to try:

1. Put it away and forget about it for a while.
Yes, I know this is probably the least helpful-sounding advice ever. It’s like when you were little and your parents told you that you just had to be patient on a long car trip. “Are we ready to revise yet?” “No. Just a little farther. Why don’t you look out the window and play the license plate game again?” But if you’ve got the time, I really can’t emphasize how much this helps.

By the time you finish writing a story, everything in it just feels perfect and right, and you can’t imagine how the text could be otherwise. And if your readers see any problems in the story, like a plot hole or a character whose motivation seems lacking, you just throw up your hands and say, “I can’t see how this could be different.” If you put the story aside for a few weeks or months, though, you can see it more clearly and objectively when you return. Suddenly you can see the flaws that readers can see. This is what we’ve done when revising the Quartet. At this point, six or seven years have passed since we wrote certain parts of the original story, so it’s quite easy for us to rewrite it from scratch without remembering what we wrote the first time.

Of course, it’s not always possible to step away from a writing project for six or seven years. As S is learning as both a reader and writer of fanfic, readers are eager for new material. In that case, you can get a similar effect by having two or more projects going at once, and switching back and forth between them. This is something she might talk more about in an upcoming blog, so I don’t want to steal her thunder. But anyway, assuming you don’t have forever, here are some more things you can do to revise your work.

2. Check it against the outline.
I’m assuming you use an outline. If you don’t, then you’re bad, and you should feel bad. No, I’m just kidding—if you “pants” your writing, that’s fine. But if you used an outline, check your story against it as you read through for the first time. Inevitably, no matter how detailed an outline I make for my stories, I end up deviating from it here and there. Often this is a good thing. But sometimes it’s potentially disastrous, because I’ve forgotten to include some important part of the story.

There it is, right on my outline: “Susan tells Bob the combination to the vault.” But Susan and Bob are so much fun, and I got carried away with Susan and Bob’s fun banter in the scene, and I forgot to have her actually tell him the combination. Now I have to find a place to put that in, or the reader is going to cry foul later on when Bob just magically knows how to open the vault.

3. Read out of order.
Currently my strategy, after I’ve done one quick pass through the story, is to go back and read through the story by POV character. But I don’t just go straight through from beginning to end.

Let’s say I’ve got a 25-chapter novel with two POV characters: Susan and Bob. And just to make this simple, let’s say all the odd chapters are Susan, and all the even chapters are Bob. The last chapter, 25, is Susan’s. So I start there. Then I go all the way back to the beginning and read chapter 1. Then I read chapter 23, then chapter 3, then chapter 21, the chapter 5, and so on, moving inexorably back and forth through all her chapters toward the midpoint of the story. And when I get there, go back and I do the same thing with Bob’s chapters: chapter 24, then 2, then 22, then 4, and so on.

I find this incredibly helpful, because it allows me to see how the character has stayed the same, and how she has developed over the course of the story. When you do this, you notice interesting changes. When you finish reading a character’s last chapter, and then go read her first chapter, you’ll suddenly notice if she seems slightly different. “Oh, yeah,” I say. “When I first started writing Susan, she asked a lot of questions and was really deferential. By the last chapter, she’s much more self-confident.”

Now I have to figure out exactly where that change happened. I have to pinpoint where she stopped being a doormat and started to assert herself. “Ah, that fight she has in chapter 13,” I decide. “Before that, she’s Old Susan. After that, she becomes New Susan.” And that means I’ll probably have to change some things as I continue reading her chapters. “She’s being too assertive here in chapter 5—she’s not quite that bold yet.” Or, “She’s too timid here in chapter 19—she would stand up for herself by this point in the story.”

4. Add missing details.
There are a lot of ways of doing this. One way is to think of the various senses—sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing—and ask yourself in each scene if there’s a way you could use it. You have to be careful with that, though, because if you do that in literally every scene, it starts to become obvious to the reader that the author had a sensory checklist.

Another way is to ask yourself what details your POV character would notice. For example, I’m a teacher, so when I go into a new classroom for the first time, I look to see where the remote for the projector is, and I check to see if there are markers and erasers at the dry-erase board. My students, in contrast, are probably looking to see if there are seats still open in the back, and checking to see which desks have good light, and trying to find where the electrical outlets are so they can plug in their laptops or charge their phones during class.

For a fantasy writer, this can sometimes get frustrating, because you’ve done a great deal of period research. But then you have to ask yourself if your POV character is actually the sort of person who would notice those things or not. It goes without saying that a trained knight would notice different kinds of armor and weapons. But if your POV character is a shepherd from the sticks, you’re going to have to explain why he had a copy of Jane’s All the World’s Crossbows under his bed.

Anyway, those are just a few suggestions. No doubt S will have some more sooner or later.

J

Winding Down Our Vacation

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Where we are now, metaphorically speaking.

S’s vacation is coming to an end. We’ve both been working on various writing projects. S wrote some more fanfic before doing a brilliant little mashup of The 100 and Battlestar Galactica called 100 Galactic Battlestars, and if you happen to be a fan of both shows, you should really check it out.

I just finished working on my Myrciaverse books and lit file. It took a bit longer than I expected, frankly, because I was trying to make sure to put down every place we’ve mentioned each of the books or stories or poems. The idea is that in the future, if we’re writing along, and we suddenly think, “This character should be reading a romance novel in this scene,” or something like that, then we can open up the file and see if there’s something appropriate among the fake books we’ve already made up.

I’m not really sure what I’ll be doing next. I’ve got some other reference materials I could be working on, or I could start thinking about what I’ll do for Camp NaNo this spring. It’s never too soon to start thinking about April, after all.

Tonight, as we watch the Golden Globes, S is working on Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg Omdahl novel.  And when she’s done with that, she’ll be carrying on with her epic Musketeers fanfic series.  Her fans can be assured that she hasn’t forgotten them—she’s just making them wait to heighten the anticipation.

J

The End is Nigh

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Tomorrow is the last day of November and hence, the end of NaNoWriMo.  It’s been another winning year for Team Unicorn: I finished the two novels that I planned, and S got her 50,000 words last night, though her novel is going to be much longer than that eventually.

Since finishing my second book back on the 22nd, I’ve been revising.  I’m checking for consistency of voice and just generally smoothing out any wording that seems a bit rough.  Sooner or later, S and I will read through what we’ve done, and then I might revise some more based on that.  It’s funny how no matter how much revision you do on your own, when you go to read it aloud, suddenly there are glaring errors that you can’t believe you missed.

I’ve also been updating some of our reference materials.  For example, we keep a running list of all the in-verse music and literature that we’ve made up over the years for our books.  That way, if a character in some future book needs to hear a song, or read a book, we could look through the list and see if there’s something that already exists that would fit the bill.  That kind of consistent imaginary world of arts and literature gives the ‘verse a sense of realistic depth.

Anyway, both of the novels I wrote this November mention some of the in-verse books that we’ve mentioned before, and I even included summaries of them and even “excerpts.”  Those were fun to write.  So now I need to update our list of literature so that it indicates where I can look, in the future, to find those summaries and excerpts if I ever need to find them again.

Hopefully, if you did NaNo, you’ve won or are at least close to winning.  And if not, then there’s always Camp NaNoWriMo in April to look forward to!

J

Who Knew Sex Could Be So Much Fun?

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Warning for Explicit fanfic at AO3.

Back when I wrote the #PelvicSorcery blog about what I was learning from reading smutty fanfic, J started teasing me, saying a lot of things that began with, “When you start writing fanfic….” I thought the notion ridiculous, but guess what? I’ve started writing smutty fanfic. I’m still dedicated to the Myrcia ‘verse, and in fact, I just finished my revision of Dock 29, the first Oleg Omdahl book about a world-weary detective living in Annenstruk, Myrcia’s southern neighbor. I often dislike what I write, and at best I can usually live with it, so know it means something when I say I kind of love Dock 29. In about a month, J and I are going to read through it, and I’ll probably make a few more changes before moving onto revisions of the second Oleg book, The Science of Fire. Hopefully I’ll finish that up before November, and I’ll be ready to write the third book, which is already outlined, for NaNoWriMo.

But in the meantime, yep, I’m writing smutty fanfic. I’ve even posted my first story to Archive of Our Own (AO3). Now, I am not going to link to the story or reveal the pen name I’m using for my fanfic. I don’t want anyone to think I’m embarrassed of my sexually explicit fanfic, but for the sake of keeping the JS Mawdsley brand about Fantasy, I think it’s best that my fanfic persona live her own separate life. However, that doesn’t mean JS Mawdsley can’t learn something from Anonymous’s experiences in fanfic.

1) Instant feedback is the best.
At AO3 readers can leave comments and Kudos, which is essentially a Like system. My first story hasn’t been up long, and yet it already has a fair few number of kudos, as well as some sincerely touching comments from people who enjoy the story. I’ve never written something that had this many readers or received this much feedback, and I have to say the ego boast has been fantastic. As I said earlier, I’m pretty hard on myself, so a positive response to this had been tremendously good for me.

2) Know what the reader wants.
Naturally, J and I have spent a lot of time over the years discussing the expectations of fantasy readers. And readers of other genres for that matter, including mystery readers when working on Oleg Omdahl. But there’s something great about writing smutty fanfic for having some really specific expectations and desires to shoot for. For instance, more than one reader has commented on a specific kink I included in my story, which only received as much focus as it did thanks to my beta readers encouraging me to play it up. As I’m working on my second story, it’s aimed at fanfic readers with a slightly different bent, so I am finding it a fun challenge to make certain I deliver on the promised kink of the story.

3) Writing is fun, dammit!
I haven’t had this much fun writing in years. It’s in large part the fanfic, but the Dock 29 revisions also went so well that they have much to do with my current good mood. I remember when J and I started writing, we didn’t care what eventually happened with our work, because it was something we did because we enjoyed it. Truth be told, I have disliked writing far more often than I’ve liked it for a couple years now, and I’ve been thinking about what J and I said back at the beginning—we’ll do this as long as it’s fun. Since it had stopped being fun, I’d seriously thought about packing it in more than once, but that isn’t the case anymore. In fact, you would have to pry my pen out of my cold dead hand. I’m having a helluva good time, and I’m going to keep writing to make myself happy, no matter what anyone might think of what I’ve chosen to write.

Huzzah!

S