Curious: I’d love to know more about your process. How do you go about creating a story? I know that’s a really hard question.
Speranza: It is, yeah. I don’t know that I can answer that easily. I just did a post on Tumblr about it where I was saying that I try to think of writing as a verb, by which I mean it’s a thing that you do and I try to keep doing it. I know that sounds sort of dumb, but I think a lot of people want to not actually write as a verb, but they want to have written, which is a different thing. I think actually writing is a little bit like exercise, at some level you have to do the doing of it.
Curious: Do you write every day?
Speranza: I write as much as my life allows me to. A lot of it is literally I put one word in front of the other until it’s done, then I start something else. I’m a real advocate of actually not psyching yourself out too much. I think it’s really easy… I did psyche myself out at University. I went to college and I had been writing before that and then I was studying Literature and I was reading all these great sentences and I thought: “Well, my sentences are not as good as that.” You read the best sentences of all literature and you think: “I’m not as good as Fitzgerald or I’m not as good as whoever.” I think that’s a mistake, I think that one of the great things about fandom and about fan fiction is that so many people read it and think: “Yeah, I could try that.”
I think if you’re only reading the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of classic literature you think, “Well I can’t do that, I can’t be as good as David Foster Wallace, I can’t be as good as whoever you think is the best.” I think the beauty of fandom is that we read stuff … I wrote my first fan fiction ‘cause I’d been reading it and I thought: “Oh I want to do one. I want to give people pleasure like I’ve had,” like: “They wrote stories that make me happy and maybe I could write something that would make somebody else happy,” and then I thought, “I will just write one to pay back all this pleasure.” Literally, I thought I’d write one story.
Curious: 500 stories later!
Speranza: It’s almost like coming to a party and buying a round of drinks. I think it’s great actually that people don’t feel intimidated. In fact, I think one of the reasons to read a lot of fanfic is that it is really good to read a story and think: “I could do better than that.” I don’t mean that in a snide way, I mean that like, “I can play this game, I could make things too.”
I think actually the great thing about fic in general and what I try to do in my fic is actually just to keep doing it. I find that if you just keep writing, every few stories you write a really good one. Then you write another one and then you go: “Okay I’ll write another one and maybe the next one will be very good.” But you don’t get to the really good stuff unless you keep doing it.
Curious: Are you a meticulous plotter? So many of your stories are really complex in terms of multiple threads, and POVs, and plots. Especially your capers. Do you have the entire story in your head before you start, or do you just write and see where you go?
Speranza: I have a surprising amount of it, I am always surprised by how much the final thing resembles what I call my pitch. I must always pitch the story. I tell somebody: “I’m gonna write a story where this and this and this and this are gonna happen. Though of course execution is everything and–I’m just old and cranky, by the way. When people post their story outlines on Tumblr I’m like: “Don’t just post the outline, write the thing!” You also have to execute. It’s great to have the idea but every so often I’m like: “Oh that’s a great idea but…” People will do just the pitch and they won’t actually write the story.
Anyway, I do summarize but I also try to execute and try to think about how to create the effects. How do I put this? I’m going to sound super academic, but I actually think a lot about the effect the words are gonna have on the audience. I’m not just expressing myself, though I am. But I think about the way in which my writing will move an audience through a series of emotions. I think a lot about how well these words will move the audience from A to B to C. And sometimes you mess up, you try to move the audience in a particular way and they don’t get moved in that way. But, I’m almost always thinking about the effect that I’m trying to create on the reader.
Curious: Ah that makes a lot of sense. Thinking back to all of the stories of yours I’ve read, I can really see that deliberate part of your process. You always take the reader on an emotional journey through the stories.
Speranza: I think it’s worth thinking about it consciously and not doing it by accident. People talk a lot about betas… I’m a big fan of the beta reading process of fandom, which I think is actually better than the editorial process that you get in other kinds of writing. I think if you’re really lucky, a beta will narrate to you how they are feeling as they read practically word for word and you can then judge if your words have made them think the things that you want them to think. Betaing is not just proofreading!
What you really want in a beta, you don’t need to be an expert, you just need somebody who is gonna super honestly say: “I’m reading and at this point of the story this is what I’m thinking, here’s what I’m thinking, here’s what I’m thinking.” Half the time it’s also the honesty that you need to have with yourself. “Okay well you’re thinking that and that’s not what I wanted you to be thinking so I did it wrong. Can I do that again?” I wanted to mean something else here.
Curious: What is your beta process like? Do you collaborate in Google Docs? How do you get that feedback?
Speranza: A lot of it is written through a chat window, a lot of it is given piece by piece and I try not to tell the betas what I’m doing. Because if I told them, then they’ll know. I give them the prose and I say: “Okay, well what do you think is happening?” I query them, I’m quite brutal. My poor betas, they’re the longest suffering, hardest working people in showbiz.
The main thing is to try to get them to tell you, without you telling them what they’re supposed to be thinking. Then I can judge whether I’ve been effective at that moment. Sometimes I will have several betas, because also at a certain point, it has happened to me, where beta one is giving you the wrong reactions. Not that they’re wrong, I’m wrong, I’ve done it wrong. They told me something and I’m like: “No that’s not what you should be thinking there.”
By the time I’ve worked it out with beta one and rewritten it, they know too well what I want. Now I have to give the whole thing to somebody else who doesn’t know. So when they say “wow, I’m really nervous at this point in the story,” hopefully I can say, “Yes, you’re supposed to be nervous.” “Yes, you’re not supposed to know this.” “You are supposed to wonder that, you are supposed to think this at this juncture of the story.” I often need a whole second person so I can take the part of it that didn’t work to somebody else to test it. It’s like developing – testing – your product, which sounds so cold. But by time I release a story I think I know what works and what doesn’t, and in fact this is one of the reasons I read and answer my feedback – to see what actually landed with the actual readers.
Every so often you have a moment, you’re like: “I think that was really funny.” You know what? If nobody mentions it in the comments, it wasn’t that funny! You gotta be like: “Okay that didn’t work well.” It’s very interesting, when I read my comments and you see people commenting on the bits. Then you’re like: “Yes that was the money shot; yes that was a money shot!”
Curious: Which of your stories do you feel the proudest about?
Speranza: Oh gosh, I don’t know.
Curious: Yeah, that’s another very hard question.
Speranza: It’s quite like you just feel it every so often. The metaphor I’ve used a lot is this baseball metaphor where you go out every so often and hit a homerun. You don’t always get a home run. Even the baseball players, you know, who have great batting averages, they don’t go out and do home run after home run after home run. But if you don’t go out and play you don’t get a home run. Even singles or doubles keep you in the game, they’re good for the team. The team is fandom. I am on team fandom! I am, I am so on team fandom.
At some point, it’s just useful to just go out there and keep swinging. I love everybody in this game, I love everybody in this ballpark, my friend. I do, I really love them all. Sometimes a single is the thing you have to hit and you just bunt. It is nice to get something that feels like a home run. Back in due South, I did a story “Chicago’s Most Wanted” that I’m super happy with. In Stargate Atlantis, “Written by the Victors,” which is a story that people like and I’m really happy with and “OK Computer.” Sometimes when you’re writing something you can just feel the bat crack and you’re like, “Yes, this is gonna be really good. I felt that myself with “All the Angels and The Saints” in MCU. I will confess, I know you wanted to talk about “4 Minute Window,” I was a bit surprised about “4 Minute Window.” I was surprised that it was as big as it was.
Curious: You didn’t feel like you were hitting a homerun with that story?
Speranza: No, I did. Somebody said to me afterwards, “You solved a problem that fandom didn’t know it had.” To me it was just really obvious. I think for me a lot of the MCU stuff, I am a native New Yorker and for me a lot of it has been a love letter to New York. Not that it was an obvious story. I love a caper, I’ve always loved a caper. You can go back over my whole fannish career: Speranza is the woman who loves a caper. It was really obvious to me that there was a world in which [Bucky and Steve] went and did this thing. I lived this kind of a life and I know where they would be. I know where the streets are. In a really visceral way I know what that life is like. I think a lot of people didn’t, so I think it was just more surprising to other people than it was to me. In a weird way, it was very personal to me. I didn’t realize that other people didn’t know what that world was like. If that makes sense.