Tuesday, December 4, 2012

That One Op-Ed on FanFiction: Why it’s Good For Writing Culture

ginnerobot via photopin cc

This has been an article that has been sitting there in the corner of my brain for a looong time. It’s just been there, perched on stool, occasionally piping up and reminding me that it’s there on the stool. And I always go “Not yet, Fanfiction Article. Now’s not the right time. Here’s a juicebox, just stay right there.” Then I go back to watching cute stuff online while hammering out an article on something else at the last minute.

I’ve been avoiding it partially because fanfiction is this unusual creature within fandom that there are many opinions of. The authors themselves are divided on whether it should be scorned or encouraged; and there are horror stories of it ruining careers and getting out of hand. Every once in awhile you have someone voice their anti-fanfic opinions and are suddenly the focus of some not too positive attention. It’s seen as a threat, it’s seen as the most sincerest form of flattery, it’s impressive, it’s horrible, it’s praised, it’s mocked, “It’s illegal!”, “Are you an idiot?”, “It should be illegal!”, “Do you hate your fans/Are you an insecure crybaby?”. Its creepy, it’s a loving tribute, it’s PORN, it’s expression, and it goes on and on and on. It’s all of those things and more to those who know about it. In my time online I’ve witnessed every combination there of. The approach to fanfiction as an article alone is tricky to say the least.
Also it was for my own selfish reasons. I wanted to wait till I was published and then one day be able to talk about the subject of Fanfiction with some professional credibility as well as a wee bit of experience backing me. So I was not just as another fan and aspiring writer giving their opinion on this grey area topic. However it seems I can't get away from talking about it, or needing to write about it.

The Secret
So before we begin I just want to clarify this article won’t get into the pros and cons of fanfiction, it’s not about the ethics of fan works and the praise, ire and potential legal complications it draws. Because if I went there I’d be lost in a quagmire of perspectives. This is about the good fanfiction does for the burgeoning writer. This is advice that I have given out several times that I discovered some time ago. And I’m going to lose some people here, but that’s okay. Here’s the trick.

You want to better your fiction writing? Go practice writing fanfiction. Like, right now.

Crazy, isn’t it? I know a few people who would look at me like I’ve got gerbils falling out of my ears because fanfiction is the bottom of the barrel to them. So why bother with contributing to the bottom of the barrel? And there’s got to be some authors out there thinking it’s a form of cheating and that you should learn the hard way with your own characters and not theirs that they spent many hours slaving over.*

A Part Of Us
My opinion, while obviously not holding much weight as a non-print published keyboard monkey, is that fanfiction is apart of us. It’s woven into humanity’s fabric because we are a species that archives our own history and wishes to remember it. We are also storytellers because of our ability to be creative and our possession of an imagination. Our ancestors passed tale upon tale and historical account upon account orally, and eventually through the written word. Things were embellished upon, old stories evolved over time as storytellers took them and spun them anew. It’s so ingrained in us, this love of stories and embracing of them, that fanfiction itself can be in it’s earliest forms completely unintentional.

The example I will use if the very first story I ever wrote, which was when I was about seven. It was for school, and it was a "Jurassic Park" story. I can tell you the plotline involved a T-rex super clone called a Killasaurus Rex and I can vaguely remember that it was about five pages of the beast breaking out of the lab and going on a marvelously bloody rampage. There was accompanying artwork that involved a lot of red colored pencil. I was a very special little seven year old girl. 

I didn’t know I was writing fanfic. And every child I’ve ever babysat didn’t know they were writing fanfiction while they told me this story they made up about Belle and Ariel being best friends while going into the woods for find Chip (Cruella deVille took him! But don’t worry, it all worked out and everyone got a puppy.). Yet this act of taking an established story and building on it, expressing it in your own way, was there from the start. It was a part of our play, and it was what helped our imaginations blossom along the way. It was inspiration, it was a tool for us to flex our developing brains, and it was tapping into something much older than our own parents. 

And this is where some people are going to say “But that’s children, these are adults doing this. They know better (also they are *coughterriblewriterscoughcough*).” However I feel that that’s an errantly shortsighted view of the whole thing. Because if you look at our culture, the storyteller reimagining old tales prevales to this very day. 

Speaking of Storytelling: The Fading Industry Line
Fanfiction is really no different from any other form of literature. There’s good stuff out there, and there’s a lot of bad stuff out there, just like books. More often than naught the bad works of both published and unpublished get more attention than the good works, sometimes on the exact same website (this is where you wring you hands and you ask the elder gods why this must happen). The only difference here is that you do not own the copyright of what you’re working with and you can’t make a profit on it. 

via Broadway in New Orleans
But if you want to get into any industry as a writer, you’ll find this difference getting fainter and blurrier the more you push forward. It’s not all creator owned original works out there, Lovelings. Established franchises, for better or for worse, sell, and they sell well. This takes on many forms. In the world of books some people ghost write for authors long gone, or write stories for existing franchises. Even if it is your original work, you may want to take characters or tales that are now in the public domain and put your own fresh spin on them ala “Wicked” or “Pride, Prejudice & Zombies.” Working in TV or movies you’ll most likely be writing someone else’s show or a draft of someone else’s movie and playing in their sandbox. One of the first things you’ll do even is write a spec script off of an already existing show (Judd Apatow’s was a “Simpsons” spec script) to break in and get work. Working in comics for the big two (DC and Marvel) or on licensed work, you’ll be pitching and writing stories based on characters that may be older than yourself that you definitely do not own. 

This is where I tell everyone the differences between that "X-Men" fanfic you wrote on LJ and the "X-Men" script you wrote for Marvel comes down to the fact that the script is formatted properly and they’re gonna pay you for it because it’s your job

Which means your job is to write really good fanfiction. 
ladies & gents, the highest grossing fanfiction of the summer

Question Your Usage Of  That Stripper (Write Like You Mean It)
I’m not saying to go out and write a story where Han and Chewbacca get accidentally thrown into a wormhole that lands them in 1970’s LA. Then after finding there way into a club Chewy does a ton of coke off a stripper’s boobs and Han meets Harrison Ford and proceeds to get into a fight with him for no apparent reason... and then be inexplicably turned on by mutual hotness and have sexy times with him backstage up against a bunch of sound equipment. I am not telling you to do that. No. By all means if that is your deal, there are places for it (and I guess there's evidence that you can sell it), however that isn’t our approach here.

I’m telling you to play in another person’s created universe in a way that challenges you. Keep close to canon. Study whatever fandom you like in particular. Study it well. Study how the characters deliver their dialog, study how the story is usually structured, study the theme, read the book or the comic over and over, watch an episode you love over and over and break it down. If it’s TV or movies you like, try to find a script and read it a few times. It’ll be exercise, but it’ll be fun exercise.

When you’re writing fanfiction to better your writing, your goal is writing a story that feels like it belongs in that universe. Again, canon. You’re figuring out how this creator worked all of these components into a good story, and you’re trying to do that yourself with the plot you came up with. 

And it’s hard sometimes. It is hard to get the voices down just so and it’s hard to write the story just how you think it would unfold on the page or screen. Sometimes it’s hard to get critiques because the most ardent fans of the original work are judging yours and just slamming you without saying why your work is a travesty. Or sometimes you may feel like the comments are just there to be polite and encouraging. My goal was always to get comments that said whatever I wrote just felt like an episode or vignette of "TV Show or Movie Fill In The Blank". But that didn’t always happen, because that’s high standard to hit. 

However with practice you get better. It’s creative mileage. I once had a instructor who said you have one thousand bad drawings before you get to that great drawing, and the same applies to writing. You have one thousand pages, so the more practice, the closer you get. And with practice you’ll see the difference as you get closer to the thousandth page; you sound better, you learn to take critique (you must learn how to take critique, you guys), your dialog rings truer, your stories become stronger. It becomes easier and easier to write. You will never be perfect, yet you now have experience playing with other people’s toys, and that will make you more valuable as a storyteller.  

Furthermore if you don’t wish to work on other’s shows, movies, or licensed works in the long run, fanfiction will help you too. This is all very similar to a learning technique in art called the Master Copy. You study a work, and then you try to duplicate it as accurately as possible. It’ll make you a better artist because it will teach you how the masters worked, and in return you can apply it to your own work. This is doing the same with writing. In particular it tends to help with writing characters. It you can nail another person’s character; get inside their head, write believable dialog and keep them true to canon; creating your own characters simply becomes an easier task. You know how to build a good one, because you’ve spent all this time perfecting the ability to duplicate another’s.
JohnONolan via photopin cc

The better you get, the more you'll want to create your own, because as you learn you'll be finding yourself amongst all of the work. What you like, what you don't like, the themes you want to explore, and so many other things will begin to rise up out of all of it. Out of another's style, you develop your own.

My Silly Little Metaphor 
And this is all where fanfiction really shines. It's a community within fandom that encourages and can help cultivate new talent that is trying to better their craft. Once when I had a lowball glass that had been refilled one too many times I likened it to an stellar nursery. There are these spheres of star stuff (RIP Sagan) just forming, full of so much potential,  feeding off of the matter of older ones. They grow stronger and stronger and bigger and brighter and some emerge to become the new stars. That's how we grow as artists, and that's what fanfiction can be to those wanting to grow. We learn from those before us, and it makes us better at our craft.

Maybe that's a reach; it was certainly my whiskey soaked brain trying to beautify a subject that is marred by so much scrutiny. However I’d like to think that this next generation of writers (particularly female) will have a more than a few authors who grew up cutting their teeth on internet posted fanfiction. Some of them will be very open about it (“Yeah, actually I got the bug writing Degrassi fanfic when I was in junior college. It was terrible! So embarrassing to go back and read! But man it made me want to get better!”) and there will be others who did get there start in fanfic, but will either deny it or never own up to it. But that’s okay, what matters is it was there when they were learning, and they used it as a tool to better their craft and to improve upon writing as a whole.

pedrosimoes7 via photopin cc

Asher Powell’s oldest memories are reruns of the Adam West Batman show. By day she is a mild mannered geek wielding an art degree and a heavy caffeine addiction, but by night she is known as a writer who’s work has been featured on Autostraddle and Bleeding Cool. This Op-Ed is of course her opinion alone. You can follow her on twitter where she rambles about the nerdier side of pop culture as well as her kitties and what she’s procrastinating on. She apologizes profusely for any and all grammar or spelling errors.

*First of all, if any author does have a major issue and requests that no one write fiction about their works, respect them. I'm not here to tell you to do whatever the hell you want. 
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  1. Wonderful article! Favorite line: "Which means your job is to write really good fanfiction." And the image that goes with it is awesome.

    Plenty of great authors do acknowledge their roots in fanfiction -- Lois McMaster Bujold comes to mind -- so I'm going to guess that ten years from now people will get over being embarrassed about starting with it. I hope so, anyway. I posted on Quora today about how fanfiction changed my life! :)

    One last thought -- you had the nice idealistic writer take, but there's a practical business advantage, too. If you write fanfiction, you're developing an audience of people who like your work. I wrote for a teeny-tiny fandom (the television show Eureka) but I'd guess that half of the first twenty reviews on A Gift of Ghosts, my first book, came from people who read the book because they liked my fanfics. I still get reviews that comment on it. If you want to be a successful author, developing an audience as you learn is a great strategy. (Entirely accidental on my part. But still a really good idea!)

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