Musings on Pern Fandom

I’ve been active in seven different Pern Fanfiction clubs during the fifteen years I’ve been involved in fandom. (Whoa. How did I ever find a husband?) Never more than two clubs at any one time, and only one most of the time. But with that many in my pocket, I’ve observed a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t to keep a club alive and happy. My comments will be pretty specific to Pern fandom, but roughly apply to most varieties, I suspect.

Let me start by saying that “what works” depends a lot on what you expect to get out of joining a fanfiction club. My personal motivation is to be able to write easily and freely in a world that is comfortable to me with a group of other folks whose company and writing I enjoy. Simply: to have fun. In support of that particular goal, here are the lessons I’ve learned:

Let people make mistakes.
So a character just walked into a room and commented on the ugly decor. Well, you very plainly described the decor in a post three months ago, and it was *not* ugly then. Who’s this new writer to redecorate your room?? A new writer, that’s who. Or an old writer who got confused. Rather than writing them a public scolding saying “you’re wrong! fix it!” you might do well to consider rolling with it. Make up a mini-plot to explain the change in decor, then fix it so it’s fun and satisfying for both of you. If this simply cannot be arranged for whatever reason, consider just ignoring it. If you put up a new post two weeks from now praising the glories of the wondrous decor, probably no one will notice that it went through an ugly phase. If you can’t handle ignoring it, a nice, private message calmly explaining the need for a change goes a lot farther toward goodwill than a public lambasting.

Let people write stupid characters.
They exist in great quantities. In clubs I’ve been in, they’ve been called Mary Sues and Twinkies. They have it all: gorgeous looks, charming character, a tragic history, a beautiful singing voice, a long-lost twin sister, a talent for communicating with animals, and they’re horribly misunderstood. Et cetera. I’ve seen clubs try to control the impulse to write these characters, with varying success. While such characters should be discouraged in seasoned members, they’re completely harmless in the end. Once a new member has written a few of them, they’ll develop a taste for more complex characters and no one will be worse off for an extra doe-eyed, red-headed orphan running around the Weyr.

Make special honors available, then give them out liberally.
In Pern fandom, it’s the gold dragon. Everyone wants one. Unfortunately, they do need to be somewhat limited to keep insanity to a minimum. I’ve seen this problem partially solved in a couple clubs by putting the bronze dragon on a roughly equal pedestal: rather than just giving bronze dragons away to anyone who asks, certain conditions have to be met – say, you have to have been a member for x long, or you have to help the club admins with some chores, or you have to win an in-game contest. These are great incentives. They give members goals to aim for and make them feel great about themselves once achieved. But here’s the key: those incentives should be obtainable for all. A club that only has room for three members or one member to have a Really Special Character is not a fun place for anyone except those three or that one. Withholding privileges because a member isn’t a good writer, because a member might flake out and leave in a month, or because you just don’t like a member? That sucks. Reward loyalty. Reward participation. Reward effort. If you can’t give everyone shiny dragons, that’s okay too. But seek out ways to make your members feel appreciated, and they will return the favor.

Make it really easy to join the group.
When last shopping for a club, I sifted through dozens of well-established clubs that were probably a ton of fun. I rejected all of them because their websites were confusing or I found novel-length pages of rules explaining the seventy-five ways I could get myself expelled from the club or joining in required me to write three drudge-level characters and pass a background check. Who wants to deal with that? Wait to spring the really deep stuff (like the judicial process the BoD undergoes to excommunicate power-posers or the dice mechanic for determining hatching colors) for some secret members-only page that no one can see until they’ve already been suckered in through the front door. This is important, because…

To keep a club alive, you have to have a constant stream of new participants.
It’s really great to have a core group of writers you know and love and write well with. You are the heart of the club and you keep things moving. However, new writers are what keep things interesting. They bring enthusiasm and ideas that you never have access to if you don’t bring them in. Recruiting is dirty business, though. Finding new members is hard work. Then, when you find them, you discover they’re not all gems. For every 10 people you get, only two of them will stay longer than a month (or past the first hatching). For every 10 who stay, only two of them will be people you really enjoy writing with. It doesn’t matter! Having the bodies and the input does matter. If you don’t like to write with them, chances are good someone else will, but a club goes stale without fresh blood now and then.

Benevolent dictators are good for business.
If I ever decided to start my own club (haha), I would be a benevolent dictator. With a dictator, someone’s word is always law. If you join a club with a dictator you don’t like, you just leave and find some other club. Easy. When things are too democratic, club politics can get very, very messy. Members try to pit one club admin against another, or campaign to win in- or out-of-game favors. Admins can quarrel endlessly about a plot, wind up compromising to get it approved, and in the end no one is really happy with it. No… if I owned a club, I’d get folks to help me out with the chores, and I’d appreciate them and reward them and love them forever, but when tough decisions came up, I’d say “We’re gonna do this” and that’s the way it would be. In cases where I’ve been a club admin, I’ve always been known as the one who wants to let the members get away with everything. So I guess you’ll know whether or not you want to join my imaginary club based on that. 😉

And that’s what I believe about running a successful club in Pern Fandom.

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Roadkill Cafe

Things we have almost killed on our roadtrip thus far (* indicates which have been successfully smucked – the rest were just close calls):

  • Generic birds eating grasshoppers who are sunning on the road*
  • Grasshoppers – any many grasshoppers*
  • Butterflies*
  • Mosquitoes (extra icky)*
  • Turkeys
  • Pheasants
  • Prairie Chickens
  • Peacock
  • Bunnies
  • Possums*
  • Raccoons aplenty
  • Cat
  • Traffic cones
  • Hitchhiker

Happily, most of the wildlife escaped our careening vehicle. I feel bad about the ‘possum (though it was his fault) but not about the bugs or the bird (way too dumb for their own good). And they won’t have to make I Know What You Did Last Summer 7 because of us. Whew.

Brilliant road trip update, isn’t this? I’ll do better once we’ve finally arrived in DC and I have a little more time and comfort to sit down and type. Not to mention pictures. I’ve gotten some good ones.

And no, “peacock” is not a typo.

Crazy Is as Crazy Does

http://neekole.com/photoblog/archives/2004/05/twisted_phone_cord.php

I’ve been talking about “crazy” a lot over the last few days. First, I happen to know a surprisingly large number of people who are in the Crazy Business: psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and so on. Second, I’m writing a character for my nerd club who is what I keep describing as “crazy.” Talking about her to another writer who’s considering writing her son, I ask if he inherited any of his mother’s crazy. This leads into a conversation about how crazy manifests.

What a fascinating question!

In the case of my new character, we’re talking a kind of bipolar crazy where she’s delightful one day and terrifying the next. She dumps her man one day and is stalking him the next. She indoctrinates her children to be fiercely loyal to her and suspicious of the motives of everyone else. In other words, I think that if she was a real person, she’d be certifiable.

But thinking about it, I’ve decided that “crazy” covers a really wide spectrum. I worked for a psychologist for awhile, and I got to see just about every flavor of crazy you can imagine. “Crazy” is a handy word because it includes any sort of behavior at all that is not the statistical norm. This means that every single one of us can be crazy somehow or some time.

Here’s my crazy list.

Compulsions:

  • I am compulsive about my phone cord. I can’t stand for it to be twisted even a little bit. I unplug and dangle it a couple times a day to keep it straight. If I borrow someone else’s phone, I have to untwist their cords too. If the cord has become so twisted that it can’t be undone, I almost can’t stand to even use the phone. Just looking at the picture I posted above makes me feel twitchy. I know. Crazy.
  • I have a chalkboard at home and a whiteboard at the office which I use to write funny quotes or Notes To Self. When I change the message written on either, it has to be completely cleaned off. No spreading the chalk dust around or letting the marker smear. I insist that my slate be completely blank before I start something new. Water and soap if necessary.

Addictions:

  • I can’t keep my hands to myself. Apparently, I have a tactile addiction. At the store, in homes, at work – I want to touch everything. I shop for clothing by touch, as a result of which I have a drawer fully devoted to fuzzy clothing. I have a soapstone rhinoceros I play with at work so I don’t wind up fiddling with things that aren’t mine or I can’t afford to lose. I keep silly putty in my purse so I have something other than destroying my fingernails to do while I’m supposed to be sitting still. (Clearly, I don’t have a germ phobia.)

Speaking of phobias:

  • Wind. Seriously, it terrifies me. The psychologist I worked for once told me that wind used to drive pioneer women mad. They’d listen to it, blowing around their tiny prairie home all day, and start to hear voices or become convinced that the wind would carry them off. I believe it. I’m pretty sure it’ll happen to me one day. I’ve had several near-brushes with tornadoes, and many more imagined brushes with tornadoes. It even has a name: anemophobia. If a tornado really does sweep through my house, you’ll find me splatted up against a tree three miles down the road because I was too petrified to hie myself to a safe location. (Dustin has been informed that it is his duty to pick me up and haul me to safety in the event of said tornado.)
  • Crowds. I’m demophobic! In high school, I used to play a game with myself as I walked down the halls between classes – I’d see if I could get from one place to another without having to touch anyone else. No bumping. I got to be very nimble about swerving out of the way. The noise, the smells, the bumping and getting squished? No thank you. Unfortunately, this makes things like big parties or concerts rather difficult. Oh well.

Moods:

  • I have a very hard time with Thursdays. What the heck? But it’s true. I think it’s because that’s the point in the week when I’ve been working the longest and still have to go back to work for another day. My circuits are simply most likely to short out on Thursday evenings. This often manifests while I’m standing in my closet after work, looking for something to wear to the Kingdom Hall. I’ll decide I hate all of my clothing, I can’t find the skirt I want, and I’ll just burst into tears. Boom. Poor Dustin.
  • I’m pretty sure I’m seasonally affective, which means that I suffer from lack of sunlight. I get crankier in the winter than I am in the summer, even though I love the snow and doing things like curling up on the couch under a pile of blankets. I treat this problem by camping out in front of the window in Dustin’s office during lunch. Usually I have to share the space with the cat, but that’s okay.

I think that pretty much rounds me out. I’m just garden-variety crazy. I’m sure anyone else could come up with a comparable or even worse list. Even people who seem perfectly normal are sure to be hiding some serious quirks that would probably make you laugh if you knew about them. Or cry. Whatever works.

I Heart Books – REAL Books – Especially MY Books

I’ve read two e-books, both while I was in Belgium and didn’t have access to a well-stocked library of English-language literature. I found the experience rather irritating, but also rather pleasing. It was irritating because I couldn’t curl up with my book in bed or shove it in my purse to take with me, but pleasing because I got to read the full text of a couple books for free free free without having to go anywhere to get them.

But I will never give up the pleasure of reading hard copies of books. There are a lot of things I do read online, and would rather read online than in hard copy. Newspapers, for example. The effort it takes to drag 60 pounds of old newspapers to a recycling center hardly makes being environmentally responsible about reading them worthwhile. USAtoday.com is way easier, AND I don’t have to even shuffle the sports pages off to the side.

But books, ah! books. They make me happy in so many ways. Usually weighing in at less than a pound, they contain hours of portable entertainment, worlds to uncover and characters to love. You can dip in and out of them at your own pace, gobble down everything your favorite author ever wrote or choose just as easily to never, ever read something by a certain author ever again. Books are the ultimate in user-friendly.

I’m an aspiring author. Who isn’t? Well, I guess I AM a writer already, but I aspire to be a published novelist. Since, so far, all my fiction is unoriginal (and some directly ripped off other people’s ideas), I’m going to have to wait awhile before I can get anything into print that will actually earn me some money.

Until then, I can print books myself!

My pretty Zine.
~
Contents.
~
Inside.

Even knowing that no decent publisher would take the stuff in my self-printed books, I am proud of them. This is the first book I’ve printed, a Zine (Fanzine) for my Nerd Club. It is a compilation of stories written by a total of 17 different authors, full of artwork by 5 or 6 different people. I edited, printed, and bound the whole sucker by myself, and by gum if I don’t think it’s the best thing ever.

The satisfaction of holding a bound book in your hands is double when it’s something you helped write yourself.

Nerds Running Amok

Flame War Ahead!

Last night was an absolutely classic moment in Nerd Club Crisis Management. I find it not only entertaining, but a moral tale, so I’m going to share.

There are many many clubs in Pern Fandom. By and large, it’s a non-competitive environment. Many people belong to several clubs, and different clubs cater to different interests. There are clubs where anything goes. Gophers riding purple dragons? You bet. There are clubs where the canon is very strict and traditional. My club is much closer to the latter than the former.

One of our members used to belong to several clubs, but eventually quit all the others because she liked us best, and we are rather full-time (as in, it takes a bit more time to keep up with what’s going on). Let’s call her Lulubelle. One of Lulubelle’s old clubs (let’s call them Cookie Club) asked her to come back and help them get active again, which she did with the best intentions and very bad results. Our club’s high standards had influenced her, but Cookie Club wasn’t interested in giving up their laid-back style in favor of a more structured one.

And thus began the Flame War at Cookie Club. I didn’t read it all myself, but I understand it was pretty vile. Lots of name-calling, swearing, shouting, and on and on. Poor Lulubelle, needing to vent, put up a post in our forum bemoaning the happenings at Cookie Club, and made the mistake of calling them by name.

You can guess what happened from there. Members of Cookie Club found her post in our boards and got even more upset. Internet Skills 101: Don’t insult people who can find your insults by searching.

One member from Cookie Club (let’s call her Sarafina) came to our forums to give Lulubelle a piece of her mind. Fortunately, myself and one other moderator were online and were able to put the fire out before it started. We took down Lulubelle’s posts, and then, lest we be accused of trying to hide our bad behavior, I added a disclaimer that Lulubelle’s post shouldn’t have been posted in the first place and that we are very interested in staying on good terms with all other clubs.

From there, the discussion with Sarafina about why she couldn’t defend her club on our boards moved to Private Messages, and it was all very civil. I think Sarafina had a badly bruised ego, and she didn’t want to cause trouble, she just wanted an apology. Well, we found out that Lulubelle was in a very similar boat. Half an hour later, apologies had been passed all around and the formerly disgruntled Sarafina was asking about opportunities to join OUR club, with Lulubelle happily providing suggestions on how best to accomplish this.

Well why not?

The primary lesson I’ve learned from managing this club so long is that if you respect people, they behave. On Cookie Club’s forum, the argument got very quickly out of control because accusations were made publicly, and it didn’t take long before everyone with an opinion joined the fray. Here’s a lesson from People Skills 101: if you publicly air someone’s shortcomings or mistakes, the effects will be much more damaging than if you confront them in private. 99% of the anguish caused by personal disputes happens when other people get involved and start adding their opinions. (I made that up, but I’m convinced.)

So the first thing we did when Sarafina showed up was take the discussion out of the public forum and she immediately calmed down. I was pleased with that result, and absolutely tickled pink when the situation completely turned around and the two members at odds started helping each other.

This art of online diplomacy doesn’t seem so very difficult to me, but apparently it is not easy for most people to grasp. In a world composed of nothing but words, it is so easy to create misunderstandings. There is no body language to be read, or facial expressions to be studied to help figure out whether a person is trying to be funny or really did just insult your goldfish. Here’s a lesson from Internet People Skills 101: adding a smiley face to a rude or offensive comment does not make it better.

As with all other walks of life, when attempting to communicate with someone online, you do well to ask yourself, “if I was the person reading this, how would it make me feel?” Or, when something someone says to you seems inappropriate, offensive, or uncalled for, ask yourself, “is there another way I could or should try to understand this?”

Though we online folks don’t really have faces, we all have feelings. Recognizing and respecting each other as humans, despite the text veneer, is just one more way to make the world a better place.

Despotette In Training

Haha. Okay, well, not so much famous. But my co-schemer Lindsay just discovered a very interesting entry on a blog called Wordlustitude, an urban dictionary blog that is full of really fantastic words. Allow me to quote for you:

despotette-wannabe

noun. A poser with feminine wiles, not yet capable of making a grown man pee his panties, romantically or otherwise.

Related term: despotette-in-training.

Real citation: “As the local creative genius extraordinaire and Despotette-Wannabe, being a bit flaky just comes with the territory. In her free time, Laura lives amongst the Dutch, plays in mud puddles, pines for the Stateside love-of-her-life, eats a lot of waffles, and plot-plots evil things for the club.”
(2004, Dawnsisters Weyr, http://www.dawnsistersweyr.net/club/meet_bod.html)

Made-up citation: “A despotette-wannabe in the dungeon is worth three proctologistettes in the parlor.”

As I started reading this post, I was thinking to myself, “someone stole my word!” But then I realized that no, no… that’s me they’re talking about there – my quote!

While the definition is a bit more on the sexy side that I’d originally intended (I was going more for general tyranny, imposed by a person of the female gender, implications about my stature acceptable), I find myself proud to imagine that I coined a word, even if it is a bit scandalous. A little scandal is good for the soul, right?

Fiction Writing Pitfalls

Before I go too far, let me put up a disclaimer about my credentials. I am not a published fiction writer. I have had several non-fiction stories published in fairly obscure journals, but no one has ever paid me to write fiction. I hope that changes some day, but for now I do it for fun.

That being said, I do it for fun and I do it a LOT. As one of my favorite professors once said, quantity must come before quality. I see an incredible improvement in my writing over the past ten years, which is about as long as I’ve been writing any kind of fiction. My characters are more interesting, my plots less shallow, and my form much less gross.

Writing in a club, I also get to see other writers go through this transition. Sometimes, I even get to help. I really enjoy doing that. Over the years, I’ve noticed several very common problems that new writers have, and here I am to tell you all about them, in hopes that if you are also a new writer, you might be able to benefit a little.

Following are my Top Five Pitfalls of New Fiction Writers, in order of most irritating and, coincidentally, easiest to correct.

1. Not Proofreading. Proofreading is so important. This is perhaps a bigger problem in fanfiction writing than in regular fiction writing, because if you plan to submit something to a publisher, you wouldn’t dare hand it over without proofreading. When “only” fellow club members will read a piece, I suppose sometimes writers feel that it isn’t as important, but it is! Whether we mean to or not, readers judge an author on how technically correct her writing is. I mean the basics here: spelling, simple grammar, punctuation. If you proofread, you will catch all the silly mistakes and even some of the less silly ones. You will sound more intelligent and more invested. I’ll never be able to stress this enough. Practice by proofreading everything, even your emails to ma. You’ll never be sorry.

2. Making Yourself the Main Character. I’ve talked about this before. Each of us is the most interesting person we know. This is because we know ourselves better than anyone else. The problem you run into if you try to fictionalize yourself is that you are less willing to take risks with the character. This can be harmful to a character whether you’re writing interactively or alone. Your character will react to situations the same way you would react, and if you never push beyond yourself, your character will probably never appeal to anyone other than yourself. The biggest problem here is that it is almost impossible to see for yourself that your personality is stunting your character. She looks just fine to you, because of course, she is you. I think the only way to really get around this is to try writing a character (as a protagonist) who is very different from you. I mean it – think of the one person in the universe you most despise and write a story where that person retains all of her qualities but becomes the hero of the story. If you don’t find that infinitely more satisfying than writing about yourself, I’ll eat my socks.

3. Excessive Description. For the most part, this is just what it sounds like. I think many times, writers new to fiction underestimate what their reader is capable of, imagination-wise. Describing things is one of the delights of writing. Well-done descriptions can really awaken the reader’s interest, pull him in and capture his heart. Descriptions that are bulky or unnecessary serve only to annoy your reader, causing him to either question your description or lose interest entirely. There are a couple specific ways that over-descriptiveness causes trouble in writing. I’ll specifically mention my two favorites: Adjective Abuse and Metaphoric Mayhem.

Adjective Abuse: When we write, we have very specific images in our minds, and we want to convey them to our readers. Long strings of adjectives may cover all the sensual bases, but they also get in the way of letting the image form naturally in your reader’s mind. Could your “grove of maple trees whose rustling leaves had all turned red, orange, and yellow, glowing as if on fire with passion for the fall” just be a “grove of brilliantly colored maple trees”? Could your “large, grey, wrinkly, old elephant” just be a “large old elephant”? Are the images conjured really very different? The need for complex or multitudinous adjectives may depend on how important your subject is. If the subject is unimportant, drop those extra adjectives like hot potatoes. Or just potatoes. If your subject merits extra descriptive attention, ask yourself “why?” When you know the answer to that, focus on describing it in a way that will give the reader the information she needs to know without beating her over the head with images she could have conjured up for herself. Maybe that grove of maples is where your bad guy is hiding? Try “the grove of maples was aflame with color, making it difficult for his eyes to focus on what might be lurking inside.” Let your reader paint the trees with their specific colors, replete with shadows and gently blowing breeze. If describing is one of the joys of writing, filling in the descriptive holes is one of the joys of reading.

Metaphoric Mayhem: This is the one that causes me to groan aloud as I read. Metaphors and similes are beautiful things. Sometimes they can do a job that straight description simply cannot. “When he told her the news, she wavered a bit from the shock of it, looking pale and sad.” Or, “When he told her the news, she shivered where she stood like a candle flame about to go out.” Both accomplish the same thing, but the second implies so much more. The danger of metaphors is twofold, however: they can easily become too silly and can easily be used in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’ve all see those email forwards that list the best of high school metaphoric disasters: “McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup;” “The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.” You get the picture, but it’s so ridiculous, you stare at it and completely forget what was supposed to be going on. Even a good metaphor, when used in the wrong place, can do damage to the story’s flow. “Across the ballroom, the princess spotted Lady Mavis, dressed in a gown that was brown like horse poop.” Again, you get the picture, but it completely contradicts the setting and mood.

4. Over-Wordiness. This is like point 3, but applies to every single word in what you wrote. I read some very good advice somewhere (I think perhaps it was from Stephen King’s On Writing) that said, essentially: write your story, then cut a third of it out. What’s left is what you meant to write in the first place. Here are a few very specific ways of using too many words:

Excess Inner-Monologuing: This is something I see a lot around my Nerd Club, and is one of the reasons we don’t focus too hard on the “try to avoid short posts” rule. In order to make their contributions seem important, many of our writers are inclined to add too much information about their characters’ thoughts. If describing your character’s thoughts serves no purpose in the plot, drop it. “She took the piece of pie and was reminded of childhood at her grandmother’s house. There was always a fresh pie on the windowsill every Sunday morning. Usually it was rhubarb, but sometimes it was apple. She loved apple the best.” Unless Grandma’s Pies will come back in Chapter 16 as the murder weapon, we probably didn’t need to know all that, and now we’ve lost our train of thought about what was going on in the present. This is the greatest danger: distracting your reader from the actual storyline. If the train of thought is important to the story, give it proper attention by not placing it at a point that distracts from the flow of events. “She went back to her room and sat down at her desk, heart pounding fast with the realization she’d just made. Grandma’s pies! They had been fresh on the windowsill every Saturday morning. Not just some Saturdays, but every Saturday. That was the key!”

Constant Catch-Phrasing: This is a habit we learn from speaking and sometimes forget to filter out of our writing. Many of us like to preface our statements with words like “well,” or “so,” or similar words. They add nothing except to give the narrator a hesitant voice. Such phrases can appear at the ends of sentences in the form of rhetorical questions (“isn’t it?” “right?” “don’cha know?”) or in the middle of sentences as any number of useless words. That might mean that the writer is particularly fond of a certain way of phrasing something, and although it’s okay the first time he uses it, it becomes irritating if used repeatedly. The same can be said of large or uncommon words; sprinkling them throughout a story can add flavor, but overdoing it is like over-salting your dinner. The words “just” and “actually” are my two biggest pet peeves. When proofreading your work, if you come across either of those words, ask yourself “does the meaning change if I leave it out?” You might be surprised how often you answer “no.”

5. Did I mention Long-Windedness? Okay, it’s the same as Over-Wordiness, but it’s a big one and bears repeating. In 3 and 4, I mentioned specific ways people include too many words in their stories, but after deleting excess descriptions, inner monologues, and useless adjectives, sometimes there are still too many words. This leaves your story feeling slow or bulky. The best way to catch yourself falling into these traps is to ask someone else to read your work. It can be difficult to get honesty out of a reader, but if you tell the reader what you are looking for, then it will be easier for him to tell you what he finds because he knows you aren’t expecting a report of perfection. First drafts are always too wordy. If you want to try something fun, take a story you’ve written and try to cut out half of it without damaging the plot. I don’t mean for you to save the full flavor, but see if it is possible to cut out half the words and still keep the plot – bare bones though it may be – in tact. You might be amazed.

So she says 1800 words later. But I am referring to fiction, and I think I might have at least one or two worthwhile points. Good luck!