Not Wordy Today

The toddler got me up early again – presumably the nasty ear infection is still causing her some pain – so I’ve been awake since four AM and I am not delighted or creatively stimulated by that. All the coffee has achieved is to make me feel queasy, as it often does when I’ve dropped below the Minimum Rest Threshold.

I’m also a little drained because I actually had a very small paying gig yesterday. A friend commissioned me to write a little piece of fan-fiction for his lady’s birthday, which I did. Even though it was just a small thing, it made me feel pretty good. I got something *done*, and I did it fast and, I think, reasonably well. And someone thinks I’m worth paying a small fee to, which is also a lovely validating experience.

But today my hands are a little tired. Typing 2500 words in two hours is apparently hard on my old-lady hands. Damn wussy knuckles. When I was in my teens, I could type all day without my knuckles twinging!

If you are a young writer, enjoy this time you have with strong, resilient knuckles, and get as much wordcount banged out as you can. Your hands won’t always be this sturdy! I mean, not everybody gets aching knuckles when they get older, but you might, so appreciate your hands while they’re at their best.

Oh, good, the kid’s gone back to sleep. Goodnight, all.

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Constructive Criticism, ‘Constructive’ Criticism, and Varying Mileage.

Okay, so I ranted a bit yesterday about a particularly noxious piece of feedback. I don’t want to give the impression that I think I shouldn’t be criticized – I should, and I am, and usually I can take it with little more than a wince and a grumble even though I hate it with the fiery passion of any sensitive egotist.

But I hate being condescended to. Oh, do I hate being condescended to. Nothing sends me into a fit of incandescent rage faster than being talked down to. And feedback along the lines of ‘oh, well, it was a super try and all, but you really didn’t do this thing to my standards and I think it would have been much better if you’d done it this other way, I know you’ll be grateful for my sage advice’ makes me personally want to reach through my monitor and rip the condescender’s face off with my fingernails.

This has caused some friction between me and my husband, now and then. He was raised in a family where criticism should be phrased ‘nicely’, whereas I grew up in two households that placed the highest value on reasoned plain speaking. So the few times he’s ventured gentle criticism, he’s wound up clutching at his verbal evisceration and wondering what the hell just happened.

In this, of course, as in everything, your mileage not only may vary, but will vary enormously. Some people are sufficiently emotionally mature and stable to shrug this stuff off, and I envy them. Some people, who think direct criticism is horrifyingly rude, would no doubt think that the email I received – and I’m not going to repost that specific one, because among other things I’m not actually mentioning here what name I write fic under – was phrased the way it was in an attempt to be nice. It’s just barely possible that it was, even, though I have trouble believing that anyone can be that smugly condescending without doing it on purpose.

But there are also a lot of people out there who use the phrase ‘constructive criticism’ as a means of justifying being unpleasant. Most writers of fan-fiction have probably gotten one of those missives at one point or another, the sweetly critical ‘now, dear, I know you don’t know any better, but you made some big mistakes and I’m just pointing them out to help you because you clearly NEED my help, so here’s my suggestion for how you can be better’ stuff that’s laced with a few feeble compliments and carefully phrased so that any negative response can be brushed off with a claim that the author is being oversensitive or, horrors, cannot take ‘constructive’ criticism.

It’s the exact same tactic used by a particular kind of bully – the ones who will, at work or school or in a writer’s group or wherever you find them, very gently run you down while asserting their own greater knowledge and correctness, over and over again, leaving you feeling powerless to protest because those carefully chosen words are never quite offensive enough to make a complaint sound legitimate to an outsider. It’s insidious, and it’s horrible. And it is hard to explain to anyone else that nebulous line between being ‘nice’ and being Dolores Umbridge, because when you describe it to someone else it never sounds that bad.

Sometimes you aren’t even sure yourself when it happens, because maybe you are being oversensitive and maybe they are just trying to be nice and getting it a little bit wrong and maybe they are right and you should just do what they say. And then you feel small and stupid and powerless and awful and start questioning yourself about everything.

Again, mileage on this subject varies enormously. But personally, this would be my definition of constructive versus ‘constructive’ criticism.

Constructive: Reasoned criticism of the story.

‘Constructive’: Emotive or condescending criticism of the story and the author.

I am sometimes upset but never offended by someone who says ‘This character’s behaviour in this instance seemed dubious to me because of this other thing from canon and the likelihood of X’ or even ‘this event seemed to come kind of out of left field, what was up with that’, and the upset often comes from realizing that either they are right, or that I didn’t make what I was doing clear enough and caused a misunderstanding. I am both upset and offended by someone who says ‘oh, sweetie, it’s a shame you got this so badly wrong, let me give you my own personal opinion with no reasoning or sources provided because I’m clearly right and you’re clearly wrong’. The first assumes that I am a rational human being who can examine her own work and criticism thereof with some sort of objectivity, the second assumes that I should be told what to do by someone ‘wiser’ than I am and that I should be grateful for it.

From what I’ve read, pros get even more of this stuff than fan-fic authors do. There’s always someone who seems to genuinely think that their opinion is so damn important and brilliant that someone who’s spent months or years hammering out tens of thousands of words is going to drop everything and rewrite the lot just because His Or Her Gracious Majesty has deigned to point out where they have gone terribly wrong. I do not know that Ms Duane or Mr Scalzi actually wish to punch the Gracious Majesty in the face when this happens, but then I don’t claim to be on par with either of them.

I’m not sure where to really go with this. It’s a thing that happens, it really bothers me, but it’s incredibly hard to explain and the people who would benefit from being told all this are the very people who would never, ever listen because His Or Her Gracious Majesty is right and I am wrong, wrong, wrong. And oversensitive.

I guess what I want to say is that if this has happened to you, you’re not alone, you weren’t exaggerating, and it’s okay to be upset. If it hasn’t, it might, so be ready and try not to take it to heart too much. And if you’re trying to be nice about criticism, ask yourself ‘Is this how Dolores Umbridge would say this?’ and if it is, a rewrite is in order.

People Have Strange Ways

People handle stress in strange ways.

I know someone who has literal fainting fits when under extreme pressure. I know a couple of people who actually lose the ability to digest food properly, to the point of a doctor asking pointed questions on the ‘are you sure you’re not anorexic’ theme of someone who ate half a chocolate cake for breakfast but is losing weight anyway. I know one person who gets enormously constipated and one who gets nervous diarrhea, neither of which are even slightly helpful. I used to know someone who coped with sudden stresses by dying her hair. I know one person who develops crazy protein cravings (crazy as in ‘walks around muttering about needing a bucket full of meat’ levels of intensity)  and another who sucks down water continuously as if stress can be flushed out via the kidneys.

One of the above people is me. It’s not the chocolate cake one.

Point is, people handle things in non-standard ways sometimes.

So it drives me mad when I hear complaints about ‘weird’ or ‘unrealistic’ characterization choices in fiction because people aren’t responding to grief or stress or fear in a ‘normal’ way. Not everyone copes with pain by sitting down and having a long talk with a Possible Romantic Interest about their Innermost Feels, or getting very angry at someone who died for dying and being really unreasonable and then having a good sob. Sometimes they do, and that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re Loki and respond to being emotionally hurt with ‘You’ll all be sorry when everyone’s DEAD’ and just go completely off the rails. Sometimes they’re Tiffany Aching and go so deep into denial that they need perspective shipped in by broomstick. Sometimes they’re Dean Winchester and I don’t even know where to start with that guy.

You know what’s unrealistic? Sex-fixes-everything. That’s unrealistic. Romance does not cure all ills. Yes, sometimes sex can be reassuring or cathartic or a desperately-needed interlude of not-thinking, but it doesn’t fix you. It doesn’t cure depression or trauma or grief. It is, at best, a comfort, not a cure.

So don’t feel constrained by the tropes when writing a character in pain. They can get angry at the world, they can just BAKE ALL THE THINGS, they can eat or not eat or cry or not cry or go on a mad killing spree. Whatever works for the character. Some people faint when given a shock. Some people punch the messenger. People do what they do, and it’s not always what you-the-reader or you-the-writer would do, but that doesn’t make it an invalid response, as long as it’s consistent with the character, or even inconsistent in a plausible way.

In case anyone wonders why I am so insistent on this, I got a rude feedback message which called me on ‘poor characterization’ on the subject of how a certain character handled a stressful event. And told me smugly how much better my fic would be if I would just make my characters more ‘plausible’, by doing it right like this yahoo says I should. I AM RAGE. I am annoyed by this because not only was the smug condescension incredibly offensive, but because the yahoo in question was advocating a very limited and culturally inappropriate (to the character) set of reactions that would ‘work better’ on the strength that he says so. In case anyone is wondering, ‘it would have been better if you’d written it like this’ is a TERRIBLY RUDE THING TO SAY TO A WRITER. Pointing out that the plot flags a bit two thirds in? Fine. Suggesting perhaps that a character is a bit exaggerated? Sure. Calling me names because I’ve mentioned abortion in a less than totally negative way? Won’t be the first time.

But ‘I could have written your story better than you can, you silly person, benefit from my wise counsel’ or ‘you should have written it the way I like to envision the character because that would be better’? Not cool. If you think Snape should be written as a misunderstood snuggly kitten or that everyone in the history of time and space should universally accept that eighteen is the Right And Correct Age Of Consent In The Face Of All Logic And Reason, fine. YOU write it that way. But don’t tell me to!

I think the point I’m trying to make in my rage-fuddled way is that saying ‘your story suffers from these flaws’ or even ‘your story isn’t very good’ is fine. Ever, ever, ever telling another person that they should write the way you think they should, or what they ‘should’ write or what you ‘expect’ from them? NOT FINE NOT EVER FINE. SQUID OF ANGER.

I need some chocolate and a drink of water.

Writer’s Block And You

I am still super, super blocked, thanks to the Bucketloads-O-Stress that the fates have been dumping on me, but I am ridiculously proud of the fact that I managed a couple of hundred words of bad fanfic yesterday. Hopefully the dam is cracking!

When you’re truly stuck, sometimes it helps to fall back on my All Purpose Writing Advice, and just make some words. Any words. If you can get something down on the page, no matter what, it can start cracking the dam that Blocked has set up on your creativity. I used to get into haiku-exchanges with bored co-workers, that was fun. But whatever you do, don’t start beating yourself up over not being able to do your ‘real’ writing, because that almost always just builds the damned dam up even higher. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that writer’s block doesn’t exist, or that this or that method is the only way to get around it!

Your brain works how it works, and there are a million things that can affect it, from depression to tiredness to boredom to self-doubt, all the way down the list to diet and exercise. (An undiagnosed food intolerance, for example, can do a truly hideous number on your brain, I speak from experience). The best advice I can give is that you should read all the advice you can find, think about all the things that you do that might make it better or worse, then try everything and see what helps and what doesn’t. The scientific method is best! If powering through keeps you going, great, do that. If you need to take a break to write some Ratchet/Clank slash, sure, go nuts. If you need to stop and sort out some daily-life stress before you can create again, that’s fine.

Take the time to figure out what works for you, then keep doing that. I like long walks listening to my ipod, writing bad poetry, reading books in whatever genre I’m writing in to get the mindset going (and find tropes to subvert) and eating a lot of chocolate. Those are fun things to do and I recommend trying them, but they won’t work for everyone.

Everyone has their own process. You’ll do better with your own than with someone else’s, no matter how good a writer they are.

Fan-Fiction: Pros and Cons for Writers

Wow, I’m suddenly seeing a lot of views! Thanks to everyone coming over from Tumblr, I really appreciate it! Stay a while and look around – I’m updating every day, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep you amused. (The pressure to not suck has increased dramatically – okay, challenge accepted.)

So I’ve been reading about what the pros think about fan-fiction. (Gail Simone’s take is one of my favourites – several of my favourites, actually, she mentions it often, but try this one: http://gailsimone.tumblr.com/post/16734609373/im-curious-why-you-have-a-bias-against-fanfic-i-just ) Gail says, basically, fan-fiction is great and wonderful and you guys have a ball with it, but it won’t get you into writing comics. Ever. Which is fair enough. But what is fan-fiction good for, for a writer? Besides being delicious wonderful fan-fiction, of course.

So here’s my completely biased and unprofessional opinion. I’m not published (yet), and I’m not an expert by any means. Nevertheless, I’ve been writing fan-fiction for about fifteen years on and off, and reading it for even longer, so here’s my observations from what fan-fiction has done for my own writing, and that of my ficcer friends.

Pro: Writing is good practice for writing. If you do any kind of writing enough, you will get better at writing.

Con: You won’t necessarily get better at writing in a way that makes you more publishable. Fan-fiction has very, very different requirements to formal publication, and getting better at getting glowing reviews for your Frostiron fic will not necessarily mean you’re more prepared to write a deep literary examination of human frailty as exemplified by teenaged dyslexia. (It may be good preparation for non-fic slashery, though, and there is a market for that)

Pro: Feedback. Good feedback is awesome and makes a wonderful incentive, and constructive criticism is a boon to any writer. If you pay attention to what people tell you, you can improve enormously. Non-ficcers have to pay actual money for what you’re getting for free!

Con: Feedback. Bad feedback is miserable and soul-sapping, plus when writing your own works you won’t have feedback good or bad to motivate you, and if you’re used to that support it will be harder to forge ahead on your own.

Pro: You get used to churning out the words. If you can use fan-fiction to get yourself into the habit of writing every day, that will be a huge help to you when trying to create an original work. Discipline is majorly important. Even if you don’t write every day, finding out how many words you can write and how often, and what your best writing times are and how to avoid interruptions, will be a big help later. (NaNoWriMo is also great for this.)

Con: Abandonment. Fan-fiction carries few penalties when you leave a work unfinished – mostly just lingering guilt. But if you get into the habit of abandoning stories halfway through for something more exciting, you’re creating a huge block that you’ll have to struggle to get over when writing original work. FINISH STUFF.

Pro: Beta readers. Good beta-readers are gold. If you find them, hug them and love them and remember their birthday and thank them for their hard work forever. Yes, they’re enthusiastic amateurs rather than pros, but they’re still giving you what any non-ficcer has to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for – step-by-step analysis, con-crit and editing. FOR FREE. Seriously, send your betas a thank you card right now. Something cute. And if you’re really good to them, they may even be willing to give your original work a pass-through, for which you should thank them on bended knee. They know your work well, they’ll point out anything from typos to plot-holes, and will in general give you exactly what you need for your big self-edit round – a fresh pair of eyes. Can they get it to final publishing standard? No, probably not. Most of them won’t be pros. But a good beta-reader will always leave your manuscript at least a bit shinier than you could get it on your own, and that’s a huge help.

Con: Trolls. Some people get their jollies out of making other people miserable. Putting your writing out there is like putting out a plate of cupcakes with a sign that says ‘TROLL SNACKS HERE’. There’s an excellent chance that at least one of these vile, vicious creatures will find you, and they will eat your self-confidence for breakfast. Agents may be harsh, but they’re not actually trying to make you cry. Trolls are.

Pro: Practice at writing to length/genre. Story pacing is very different between a 2,000 word short and a 150,000 word epic. A 60,000 romantic tale and an 80,000 action adventure, likewise. Fan-fiction lets you explore different lengths and genres and find what works best for you and what you’re good at.

Con: The market for short stories is extremely limited. You cannot make your living there, although the experts say they’re a good way to get a foot in the door. Fan-fiction can lull you into a bad habit of writing exclusively short – 20,000 words at most. If you’re looking to publish anything but romance novellae (romance is pretty much the only genre still publishing the novella, at least from novice authors), you need to buckle down to a couple of serious epics. Likewise, you can mix your genres at will in fan-fiction, but that’s poor practice for selling an original work, where the publishers are notorious for wanting a very clear genre choice.

Pro: Practice at characterization, dialogue and plotting. These are some of those things you just have to practice and practice and practice. Nothing marks the amateur – or bad – writer like patchy characterization, weak dialogue, and a limping plot. The more you do these things, and the harder you work at getting them right, the better you’ll be.

Con: Characterization, dialogue, and plot with the training wheels on. With fan-fiction, the characterization is usually already strongly established – that’s kind of the point. Ditto for speech-patterns in dialogue – hopefully nobody is writing Tony talking like Thor, or vice-versa. Even plot is easy, since you can just rewrite a plot-line from the source material or dip into the well-established pool of tropes, dares and so on. Getting into bad habits here, I speak from experience, can make creating your own consistent characterization and original plot much, much harder.

Pro: Fan-fiction is awesomely fun, you will make lots of new friends and share stuff with fellow fans and it’s great.

Con: Fan-wars and fic-controversies are not fun. I got stuck in the middle of a fic controversy once. It was not delightful and I spent very little time in the fandom after that. Fandoms are like koalas – they’re cute and fluffy and irresistible and can turn savage very quickly if provoked. Or looked at funny. Or if you’re between them and the leaf they happen to want.

SUPER BIG CON: World-building. In fan-fiction, you need to do very little of this, if any. Even re-settings for time and space still use the basic world-template. It is hard to do and you need to practice and fan-fiction will not help you. If anything, it makes it harder, because it’s this whole big huge lump of work you’re not used to having to do.

Basically, you get out of fan-fiction what you put into it. If you treat it as serious practice as well as fun and use it to get better at plotting and completing long works, polishing your characterization and dialogue, mastering the editing process and honing your short-story skills, it will help you enormously. If you get into bad habits like story-abandonment, shoddy characterization and wish-fulfillment, or over-dependence on support from others, you’re essentially shooting your writing in the foot. Personally, I know my writing has improved a hell of a lot since I started, but I’ve also picked up a couple of bad habits that have been hard to shake.

So, have I missed anything? Let me know!

Fan-fiction is good for sales. Really.

 

So, everyone is talking about fandom and real fans vs. fake fans and how fan-fiction should come out of the closet or possibly stay in and what’s the point of it anyway. Well, I covered the ‘why’ on Friday – because there’s never enough of the Source Material, and there are always more possible storylines they didn’t do or couldn’t do or whatever and there’s never enough pictures and because love that’s why. So let’s talk about why I think it’s a good thing.

I am utterly in favour of fan-fiction (and I’m including fan-art in this, because it’s awesome too). I am aware that many people are not. Some people just don’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around the concept of non-official additions, and that’s okay. Some people just want to watch the show or read the book and leave it at that. Your call. Some people get snotty about how it’s not ‘real’ and mock the people who do it, and that is not okay. Everyone fangirls in their own way. Be polite.

(That’s good general advice, by the way. Even if you disapprove of someone’s life and fandom choices, be polite about it. Don’t be a dick, as Mr Wheaton says.)

There are also those – often the authors/creators themselves – who object to fan-fiction on both moral and fiscal grounds, likening it to file-sharing music or pirated movies and television. I don’t agree with this point of view, but I do understand it, at least from the authors/creators. It can’t always be comfortable, knowing that the characters you’ve created and nurtured and brought up to be contributing members of fiction are being borrowed when your back is turned and made to have random sex in supply closets – or killed off, or both, or worse. But I would certainly argue the idea that it costs authors or creators money. Which brings me to my own opinion.

(In explaining my own opinion of fan-fiction, I will be using a truly gigantic alcohol metaphor, so I apologize in advance to anyone who is or knows an alcoholic. While I know it can be an incredibly miserable, debilitating illness, and I don’t mean to make light of it, the references to addiction are entirely serious.)

Okay. Let’s just imagine for a moment that there is this incredibly amazing, wonderful brand of red wine, right? It’s called Hairy Otter, and it’s the most popular red wine ever. People will line up for hours at midnight just to buy a bottle. People dress up as that guy on the label, and write songs about Hairy Otter and join Hairy Otter fanclubs and generally love Hairy Otter to pieces.

There’s a drawback, though. Hairy Otter is wonderful, but it’s not easy to make. There’s a wait of months or years between every glorious shipment. This is a long, long time to go without a drop of wine, even if the bottles are really big when you finally get them.

So the people in the fanclubs start producing their own knockoff of Hairy Otter. Everyone knows it’s not the real thing, and some of it’s really awful, but Perry Trotter wine is at least reminiscent of Hairy Otter… and some of it’s pretty decent, plus it’s free and there’s lots of it, so you don’t have to wait.

Does the production of Perry Trotter mean that sales of Hairy Otter will go down?

Heck, no. Because the important thing about Perry Trotter is not that it’s a replacement for Hairy Otter, because it isn’t. The important thing is that, in that long, long spell between shipments of Hairy Otter, all these people were still drinking red wine. It may not have been quite as good, but their taste for red wine was kept alive.
Fan-fiction’s primary function is to feed obsession. To vent the creative impulses of a writer-fan, then to feed the hunger of more fans. The more they get – if it’s passable quality – then the more they want. I compared it to alcohol for a reason – other writers or readers of fanfic have compared it to chocolate, cigarettes, crack, heroin… and booze. (And I know more than one writer/reader who is an alcoholic, and ought to know.) The sole purpose of the free stuff that people keep handing out is to focus attention on the thing you will have to pay for.

This is why I simply do not understand authors/creators/publishers/networks who actively try to eradicate fan-fiction set in their universes. I mean, I get it on the emotional level – these are their toys, their babies, their Precious One Ring, and they don’t want to share – but on the practical level why on earth would you want all these potential sources of cashy money to be less emotionally invested in your work?

I know Harry Potter fic-writers and readers who have two copies of every single Harry Potter book – one for reading, one for keeping perfect forever. I know Star Wars fic-fans who have bought every single version of every movie… and I need only look to my left and over a bit to note that a certain comic-book fan-fic-reader in this house who is neither me nor our child would buy every statue of every superhero Marvel or DC will authorize if only he had enough money. I have friends from my days in X-Men Fandom – more than ten years ago now – who still buy every X-Men title printed, religiously, every month. They’ve spent most of those ten years complaining about the decreasing quality and increasingly frantic search for ‘edge’, but they still buy them. (The deteriorating quality and constant cancellation of my favourite titles did drive me off eventually, but I still miss it, and sometimes I linger in front of the racks in the comic shop and want another hit, even though I know they’ll just disappoint me.)

I know it’s not especially romantic or in keeping with the free-creativity thing, but I’ve been hanging around these fandom-junkies – and been one, I’ll happily admit it – for over fifteen years now, and what even semi-decent fan-fiction does is support and nurture and grow the reader’s obsession with the source material. If the people who sent me feedback in the old days are to be believed, I upped the readership of Generation X by at least twenty people all by myself, although that obviously wasn’t enough to keep it from being cancelled.

To go back to my wine-metaphor, those people who are sitting around every night, for hours, drinking Perry Trotter and thinking about Hairy Otter and talking about Hairy Otter and making their new Hairy Otter costumes are not drinking anything else. They could be out sampling a nice D. Hesden Fine Beer, or a Tina Drake naughty vodka drink, or sipping a Sparkling Angst by Dusk, or sitting at the Perry Tatchett bar drinking scumble (mostly apples), and all of those other fine alcohols are direct competition for the Hairy Otter dollar. Perry Trotter is not competition. Perry Trotter is not only free, but represents an active campaign to keep people drinking red wine even though there are other nice drinks available.
If I am ever fortunate enough to have one tenth of the fan-fiction written about my work that there has been about Harry Potter, then I’ll throw a huge party and run down to the local pub and buy everyone there a drink, because I would then know that I never need to worry about sales ever again. I would know that there were thousands of people out there who not only want to buy my book, in hardcover because they simply cannot wait for the paperback, but who would continue buying my books even if the first chapter of each consisted entirely of out-of-focus photographs of my bum. (And though my husband is fond of it, my bum would not feature on any ‘Million Hottest Arses In Australia’ lists) Sure, they’d complain, and there’d be a lot of online analysis of my suddenly developing bottom fetish, but they’d still be paying money for it. My only financial worry at that point would be spinning whatever series it is out to about fifteen books without running out of bum.

So yeah. Of course this is all my own personal opinion, and I may be completely wrong about the whole thing, but as far as I can determine the logic seems sound. Fan-fiction = increasing obsession = greater willingness to spend whacking great gobs of money on even the most ridiculous merchandise. (I could say I don’t know why there’s a Hufflepuff scarf hanging on my wall even though I live in a sub-tropical city that never gets cold enough to warrant wearing it, but I would be telling a dreadful fib) I’m a bit at a loss as to how this can be a bad thing.

Oh, and in case anyone wants to argue that people who are getting Perry Trotter for free won’t pay money for Hairy Otter, I invite you to go question every single reader at fanfiction.net and find even one who so much as considered just reading fan-fiction instead of buying Bottle 7. Really. Go on, I’ll wait.

 

An Extremely Abbreviated Explanation Of Fan-Fiction.

From personal experience as well as much anecdotal evidence, I know that many people don’t really get fan-fiction – why it exists, why people write/read it, or why anyone cares. This post is intended to be a simple explanation of the three extremely basic categories of fan-fiction, why they exist, and a few hypothetical examples of what I mean. These are all entirely made up out of my head and are not based on any real fan-fiction, I promise. Those already familiar with the concepts involved may wish to wait for installment two (in which I compare fandom to alcoholism, but in a good way), perhaps to show this to the Muggles who question them, or alternatively to go through this post and point out all the places in which I am wrong. Whichever is fine. And for the record, I write fan-fiction, and have done for nearly fifteen years. I’ve won several awards. I know a little something about the subject.

For those who are new to the subject, I will note that fan-fiction can be written about pretty much anything, including books, tv shows, movies, computer games, comic strips, comic books, radio shows, the private lives of celebrities, and Minesweeper. (No, I did not make that last one up) Some of it is very good, some of it is excruciatingly bad, most of it is in between somewhere. It comes in a bewildering variety of flavours, from canon-compliant to alternate reality to g-rated to pornographic to just-like-the-real-thing to what-were-they-drinking-when-they-wrote-that… but they boil down, mostly, to three very general categories. These are:

1. You’re Doing It Right

2. You’re Doing It Wrong

3. You Can’t Do That On Television

 

1. You’re Doing It Right.

Into this category falls all forms of canon-extending and canon-compliant fan-fiction. The Doctor and Rose have a thrilling adventure involving alien invasion and 300 chickens. Kit and Nita fight the Lone One. Buffy slays the Monster of the Week – this time with extra noses! The sort of thing that you see/read/hear in the source material, that might work as an episode or an arc or whatever. It also includes Plausible Futures, wondering what the characters would be like in ten years or twenty, since it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that the Source Material will cover that in any detail. Unless it’s one of the long-running soaps, in which case you’re bound to find out someday but may not be willing to wait that long. (Implausible Futures and Alternate Histories go in category 3)

This category is written and read by people who liked the Source Material so much that the existing quantity is insufficient for their needs. The wait for the next Harry Dresden or Song of Ice and Fire novel, or the new season of Doctor Who or Once Upon A Time, can seem almost infinite while you’re suffering through it… and a little supplementary material helps that wait go a bit faster. Ditto for series like Harry Potter or Firefly that are now finished… once you’ve gotten through all the official stuff, there’s nothing to do but make your own if you want more.

This one is, I should think, fairly self-explanatory. If you liked something a lot, more of it is good. It is also likely to include Deleted Scenes – the stuff like sex or secondary-character development that wouldn’t necessarily be included in a real issue/episode/whatever, so in some cases it will be more comprehensive than the real thing.

Category 2: You’re Doing It Wrong

This category is probably even bigger than Category 1, but it’s basically the reverse – not to put too fine a point on it, it’s what gets produced and read by people who don’t like the choices made and directions taken in the original. The ‘it’s broken and it needs to be fixed’ approach. Lorelai and Luke get together in season one or two. Jean Grey stays dead the first time she dies. Sirius Black survives to book 7.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Sometimes it’s the loss of a beloved character – say, because the actor quit the show and had to be written out, or because the novelist couldn’t plausibly let everyone survive. Sometimes it’s a general dissatisfaction with the direction a show or series has taken. Sometimes it’s because the creators of the Source Material have fallen into the More Of The Same Trap and can’t seem to get out again.

The More Of The Same Trap consists of any situation in which the status quo is infinitely extended because the creators are afraid that if the characters are allowed to change and grow, the audience may lose interest. For example: tv shows in which the two primary adult characters have Unresolved Sexual Tension prolonged by a series of Silly Misunderstandings or Irrational Fears long past the point where any sane person would have either taken their clothes off or just moved on; James Bond; any Source Material of episodic nature in which no character growth lasts past the end of the episode, and will probably be rehashed next season. In comics, it often shades into the even-worse Rebootitis, where characters, teams, and often whole universes are reset at the drop of a sales point, because alienating your remaining fans will DO WONDERS FOR SALES OBVIOUSLY.

Now, this is not always the fault of the creators of the Source Material. Sometimes they have studio execs or editors or agents leaning on them to produce more of what does sell, not what might sell. Sometimes they’ve only been brought in for a couple of issues or episodes, and aren’t allowed to make any permanent changes. Sometimes the company announces a reboot and they just have to do the best they can. But whatever the reasoning, it can be annoying as all get out for the long-term reader/viewer/listener. Category 2 fan-fiction allows an escape from irritating characters, a series that has lost or changed direction, plot arcs that you just don’t like, or the More Of The Same Trap.

Again, I don’t think this requires too much explanation. If something you love becomes something that makes you want to cry, reading some fan-fiction in which the characters don’t behave like idiots purely to increase the angst-levels can make you feel much better.

Category 3: You Can’t Do That On Television

This one is for the things we all know are never going to happen in the real story. It’s the biggest category of all. The subcategories here are by no means complete – these are just the ones I’ve run across the most. There’s more. There’s always more.

Category 3A: They’ll never get together – Clark Kent and Lex Luthor are never going to confess their love in the back of a limo – or in the upper atmosphere (certainly not on the WB, anyway). Draco is never going to be redeemed by a relationship with strong-willed, sensible Ginny. J.D. and Dr Cox are never going to get it on in a supply closet. Raven and Kory are not going to live happily ever after despite their brief island fling. There’s still hope for Sherlock and John, but Moffatt is a cruel and capricious god, so I wouldn’t get excited.

Raven and Kory are, for reference, both female. While I did include an unlikely heterosexual pairing in there, a *lot* of Category 3 revolves around those mysterious, rarely televised creatures known as same-sex relationships. Why? Because there aren’t enough of them. Whole fictional universes exist without a single gay person to be found. Until you start reading fan-fiction, and then why hello, they’re everywhere. Not unlike real gay people. And Captain Jack.

Of course, there are a lot of unusual het pairings in fan-fiction too. Snape/Hermione (it’s all about the intellect), Starbuck/Admiral Adama (we all KNOW she has issues), Simon/Inara (they just want some tea and a civilized chat, damn it!)… it goes on. Sometimes it’s because two characters just work together. Sometimes it’s give a relationship that failed in canon another shot. Sometimes it’s because the character’s canon partner is a twerp and requires the falling piano treatment. Sometimes it’s a way of redeeming a ‘bad guy’… or trying to. Sometimes you just want to mix things up a bit and play pin-the-tail-on-the-relationship, or put all the names of the Enterprise (any Enterprise) bridge crew into a hat, pull out two, then put them in a turbolift that gets stuck. Ship Darcy with all the things, am I right?

Some pairings gross some people out. Some of them gross me out – I know there’s Dumbledore/Dobby fic out there, and I really wish I didn’t. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with people having happy relationships with someone who happens to be twenty years older than they are, or a different race, or a ‘working girl’ or Slytherin or other social undesirable, or a bit weird, or the same gender… and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to read about the above, either. Human relationships have a much broader scope and variety than what we usually see in popular media, and fan-fiction gives them a chance to come out and play.

Category 3B: Heroes don’t die – well, we all know that one, right? We all know, really, that Harry Potter wasn’t going to die at least until Book 7, that Dorothy Gale will survive Oz, that Hook was never really going to kill Peter Pan. (Of course, Song of Ice and Fire is always an exception, and the 3B category for that fandom is ‘someone didn’t die, everything is different’) There are some major characters who are allowed death, or the appearance of it – wise mentors, troubled secondary heroes, the lesbian, the black guy, the fat one – but primary characters are supposed to survive. We expect it.

In fan-fiction, there are no safe characters. Anyone can be killed off, and it’s almost certain to be permanent. Mal can die. Hiro can die. Cinderella can die, and that can go to some interesting places… not to mention Little Red Riding Hood, who doesn’t even survive in all the ‘real’ versions. Evil can win in fan-fiction. Our heroes can die alone in the dark in fan-fiction. In fan-fiction the safety-protocols are off the universe, and so in some ways it can be much more thrilling or viscerally terrifying than the real thing.

Category 3C: Alternate Histories, Improbable Futures and Recasting for Time and Space.

Victorian Era Harry Potter? We have that. NYPD Blue in space? Gotcha covered. What if all the characters in Doctor Who were mice? It’s probably out there somewhere!

Retelling the same story in a different era, or writing about what happens twenty years before or after, or moving one character back and forth in time just for the heck of it, can be a lot of fun. Steampunk Harry Dresden? I would read the heck out of that. It can get particularly convoluted in comics, where characters actually were around during WWII – but in very different incarnations. So you’re rewriting a story that actually happened with a later incarnation of the same character and incoporating several historical reboots but not others because they were stupid and… yeah. Comics continuity is a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff to start with, but it is always possible to make it even stranger.

Category 3D: The Next Universe Over – canon, all canon, is almost always restricted to its own universe. There are a few crossovers (Marvel and DC comics occasionally work together, for example), and Diane Duane has inserted a sly wink or two, but by and large it’s one reality per reality.  Captain Kirk and Admiral Adama are never going to have a drink together. Spike and Angel will never beat the flawless stuffing out of Edward in an alley behind a bar. Wonder Woman and Xena will never chat about cute girls during a hunt. Anita Blake will never meet Sookie Stackhouse in Luke’s diner for a burger.

Wouldn’t it be cool if they did, though? What would they say to each other? What would happen? Would Mulan make a good Slayer? How would Beauty and the Beast fare in the 24th and 1/2 Century? What if Serenity was one of the ships in the Battlestar Galactica’s fleet? Fan-fiction in this category can range from the hilarous to the terrifying to the wonderful to the insanely cute (and, as always, plenty of it is just plain awful), and the stories could never happen anywhere else.

Category 3E: The Weird Stuff.

Yeah, I won’t go into a lot of detail on this one, because there may be children or other impressionable persons (or people who are eating) reading this. Let’s just say that when a writer can use any characters, have them do anyTHING they want to/with anyONE they want anyWHERE they want and anyWHEN they want, with or without implements, scenery, or ratings requirements… yeah. There’s some weird. There’s a lot of weird. Oscar the Grouch and the Comedian celebrating their love by stabbing Barney the Dinosaur to death with toothpicks in a Satanic ritual in the Acropolis weird and believe me, even weirder than that.

Some of it is terrifying, some of it is awesome, and some of it will scar you for life. Unlimited freedom can go to some strange, strange places. So if you’re a child or impressionable person or just don’t want to have to pour bleach onto your eyeballs, trawl through the mountains of fan-fiction *carefully*.

 

Whew. That took a while… and that was the Incredibly Short, Simple version of the whys and hows of Fan-fiction. Believe me, it gets way more complicated than that, as does fandom in general. (There was a schism in the fandom of My Little Pony once, I am not kidding, between those who believe that ponies are for playing with and those who think they should be preserved forever in the original packaging as a treasure of Our Cultural Heritage. People went out and bought ponies just to open them, as a pony-political statement, which I can swear to because I have seen these actual ponies in person. You can’t make this stuff up.)

But boiling it right down… fan-fiction exists because there is not an infinite supply of the Source Material. It exists because sometimes the Source Material starts to suck, or because some people don’t like how it ended, or because it could have gone another way and didn’t. It exists because there are things that will never happen in the Source Material, and it’s sad that they won’t.

It exists because if you really love something, you can’t get enough of it. Fan-fiction may get a little kinky sometimes, but it is a work of love.

Points to anyone who can identify every fandom referenced in this post!