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Thursday, May 6, 2010

To fanfic or not? What's the right answer?

There's been something of a kerfluffle going on around the blogosphere this past week, which makes it different from any other week... in no discernible way, really. But this is kind of an interesting kerfluffle in the questions it raises with respect to fanfiction. Author Diana Gabaldon [OUTLANDER] has some pretty strong opinions on the matter, which is, of course, her right. Especially as it concerns her work. But it kind of didn't end there. She made some pretty broad sweeping generalizations about the writers of fan fiction that were really at the root of said kerfluffle. (Just Google Diana Gabaldon & fan fiction and you'll no doubt get lots of links, but here's the original post.)

My biggest beef was with the implication that fan fiction writers can't possibly be "real" writers. Personally, I think that's a load of hooey. I know many fine writers who have no interest in pursuing publication (for my purposes, publication meaning producing original work for which they're given a contract and royalties from an established publishing company) who nevertheless practice their craft within the realm of fan fiction simply because they enjoy writing and they enjoy playing the "what if" game with established characters.

And here's the thing, I can't exactly point the finger at fan fiction writers and get my self-righteous on, because that's exactly the medium I used to relearn the craft of creative writing after too many years spent in academia. It found that it gave me a framework within which to practice dialogue, situational writing, and a little bit of character growth, within established characters and settings. I only wrote fan fiction for about ten months or so, because it only took that long for me to get twitchy and want to do something that was purely "mine" where I could control every aspect of the creative process and not feel constrained by someone else's work.

Was it right? That's up to the individual, but because fan fiction wasn't just about personal enjoyment, but also something I did as "practice" before moving on to my own work with the intent of eventually being published, I did have a few personal rules that governed my foray into fan fiction:

1) I only played with television characters. To my way of thinking, they were already being written and shaped across episodes and seasons by multiple writers, so mine was just another voice, adding another layer, if you will. I also stayed firmly within their established universe. Crossovers never appealed to me.

2) Yes, I wanted feedback. I'm human and I wanted to know I didn't suck. So I did put my work "out there." Maybe not the smartest thing, in retrospect, given my ambitions, but I was very new to the internet (it was over ten years ago) and all things considered, it was only exhibited in a very limited scope to a very small circle. You won't find any of my efforts on fanfiction.net or any of the other big archives.

3) I never, ever pretended these characters were in any way mine. Meaning I tried to stay true to the characters as already established. I tried to use clues that the show writers seemed to be leaving for the viewers on which to base my "what if" scenarios. Or I played fill in the blank, writing "missing scenes." But always, always, I tried to respect that I was only playing in someone else's sandbox with their toys.

4) I never, ever thought my work was the equal of the original creator or that I should be considered as some sort of "professional writer," simply because I had written fan fiction. I was a writer, but not a professional.

I think where fan fiction writers kind of get themselves into hot water is when they start feeling as if their work is somehow the equal of the original creator and that they somehow are entitled to the same measure of respect or acknowledgment. And thing is, they're not. I'm not saying that with respect to craft, they might not be equal (heck, in some cases, they may well have surpassed the original-- I've certainly seen examples of fan fiction that's better than the original, but that's neither here nor there). However, so long as they are playing with someone else's creation without their permission a fan fiction author is not and never will be considered the equal of the original creator. And for the love of all that's holy, don't go up to a published author and say that your fan fiction is better than the author's. Yes, I've seen that happen and the response wasn't pretty.

Which actually leads me to my next point: most authors don't want to hear from fan fiction writers about the work based on their material (it's actually a legal liability); most authors are actually pretty darned offended by it and too many fan fiction authors don't respect that. They desperately want to be seen as a peer, but the only way for that to happen is to leave fan fiction behind and establish yourself as a writer of original work. Or somehow find a way to make the fan fiction pay off for you-- it's actually great practice for screenwriting or for writing licensed novels. (Or even for finding a way to put a new spin on a classic. *ahem*) Seriously, I think it was my background in fan fiction, in part, that allowed me to think outside the box when taking the idea of Carmen and crafting it into the story for STARS.

These are just my opinions and frankly, it's not something I expect to deal with any time soon. I think there are some genres that lend themselves far more readily to fan fiction than others. (Sci-fi/fantasy, most definitely) But given my history with fan fiction, it's definitely something I take into consideration.

I can honestly say that if someone felt compelled to create fan fiction based on any of my work, I definitely wouldn't want to see it. Again, the legal liabilities coupled with the fact that I'm wicked protective of my characters and it would probably bring on a case of Hulk! Smash! Rage! if I were to see any examples of them behaving in a manner in which I never intended. Which makes it kind of ironic, I know, that I even delved into fan fiction, but it was actually writing fanfic that started developing those defensive feelings of protectiveness. I wanted to have my own characters to play with—my own situations—and I didn't want any other influence beyond that of my own twisted imagination.

As a final note, yes, I still have a few of the word docs on my computer and they are appropriately cringe-inducing, but you know, at the same time, I can see glimmers of the writer I was going to become, so one thing I'll never say about fan fiction is that it's a waste of time.

What about you guys? Anyone been faced with the question of fan fiction with respect to their work? How do you feel about it?


Susanna Fraser said...

I used to write fanfic. In fact, if there's one single moment that made me realize writing was what I was supposed to do, it was a compliment I got on the first fanfic I posted. I'd written an original character who's a middle child, and one of my readers wrote to praise me for nailing the experience so well that she was certain I must be a middle child too, just like her.

I'm a youngest child. With a 13-year gap between me and my next-youngest sibling, so I essentially grew up as an only child. So when I read that comment, I thought, "Hey, maybe I'm actually GOOD at this."

I probably would've tried to write my own fiction eventually anyway. I've been telling myself stories as long as I can remember. But fanfic helped.

And I'd consider it the ultimate compliment if anyone loved my characters and world enough to write fanfic about them. Not that I'd read it. The stories I write are complete in my own mind, so I don't need anyone else to expand them or explore alternate possibilities. Also if it happened that my fans anticipated a sequel I really was planning, I wouldn't want to be accused of stealing from my own fanfic. Oh, and I've written at least one antagonist where if anyone tried to redeem him and/or pair him with the protagonist...let's just say that the idea is so icky to me that I don't even want to think about other people imagining it.

But if I can write something where the fires in in my imagination burn bright enough to set off sparks in someone else's? Nothing could possibly be more flattering.

Jennifer Echols said...

I agree with Susanna--I would consider fanfic based on my work the highest compliment. But I wouldn't want to see it--no!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

I actually did, due to Google alerts, see a piece of fan fiction based on Ballads of Suburbia where the writer had my Ballads characters meet characters from the TV show One Tree Hill, which I am not familiar with at all. The writer was clearly a teenager, so I just thought it was sweet that she liked my characters so much that she wanted to think about other storylines for them. That book is definitely not ever going to have a sequel so no big deal. I felt it was a compliment, though since it was a little weird I really only skimmed it and then sent the link on to a CP of mine.

She and I both as tweens/teens wrote fan fiction based on TV. I was a Star Trek Next Generation geek so I used to write Star Trek episodes and my CP wrote Beverly Hills 90210 episodes (as she likes to say in hers the geek finally won and Andrea and Brandon dated, lol). It was fun to stretch the writing muscles at a young age and I think that is why I was okay with the teen playing with my characters. THough the internet does make things different. When my CP and I were writing fan fic it was before that and I don't know if I would have posted it because it was more just for fun.