The Pitfalls of Jumping from Fanfiction to Published Fiction

Awhile back, I read a blog post by a writer detailing how writing fanfiction had improved her writing abilities overall. While writing of any kind will improve our writing overall, I found myself adding a number of mental provisos to her post. Not long after that, a certain infamous piece of fanfiction was changed to ‘fiction,’ and became a worldwide bestseller (out of respect for the integrity of this blog, it shall not be mentioned by name here). So I thought I’d spend some time today discussing fanfiction and what it does – and doesn’t do – for writers.

Let’s start with a little personal history. When I was six I decided I was going to be a writer, and I started writing. I’ll reserve the nuances of that story for another day (or never, if you’re lucky). The point is that I wasn’t introduced to fanfiction until almost 10 years later, when I started high school. My two best friends were very into fanfiction, particularly that of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Suddenly I was swept up into this notion that I could contribute to the stories I loved the best, and put my own spin on them, and explore things that the author had left out. It was amazing, empowering, and it got me to write.

That’s what’s great about fanfiction. It gets you to write. You have a ready-made starting point, and from there you can go in so many different directions. It also comes with an in-built audience that isn’t afraid to tell you what’s good and bad about your story.

But.

There’s always a but.

Anecdote time again. When I left high school, I stopped reading fanfiction, more or less. I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, and it seemed less fun. When I stopped reading it I also stopped writing it, of course. There was only one fanfiction that I still read with regularity, and I was overjoyed to hear that the woman who wrote it was in the process of publishing a book. I followed her updates closely and, as a sign of support, I went out and bought her book the very day it was put on the shelves.

I enjoyed it well enough, but by the end I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. The best way I could describe the book was ‘fanfiction-y.’ Great word, for someone who calls herself a writer.

By ‘fanfiction-y’ I mean that the entire book felt like fanfiction for another book that I’d never read. Imagine coming across some Harry Potter fanfiction without knowing the premise of Harry Potter. By the end of it you might have a rough idea of Deatheaters, Lord Voldemort, and magic in the world around us, but you’d still be missing something. That’s how I felt about this book.

Descriptions of the world were missing, little details that I would have liked to know. The characters were underdeveloped, as though we were already supposed to know them. And the plot – the plot was probably what made me feel most fanfictioned. The main plot felt like it was happening somewhere else.

All of these points made me realize why writing only fanfiction isn’t going to make you a strong author. Fanfiction is great. Fanfiction has a purpose. But the purpose of fanfiction is highly limited.

When you write fanfiction, your world is pre-developed. Your characters are ready made. And your plot works around the main plot, which is what fanfiction is all about but seems rather anticlimactic if a reader is unfamiliar with the original material.

A lot of people use fanfiction as a way to get started with writing, and I think that’s perfectly legitimate. But just because a person writes good fanfiction doesn’t mean that he or she can write good fiction. Practice in the craft of writing original fiction is needed before you make that jump to published author.

 

How about the other authors out there? Any thoughts on how writing fanfiction helped or hindered you?

Picture Worth Your Words: Forbidden

I’m deviating from my usual ranting so that I can post the story I just wrote for the third Picture Worth Your Words contest, posted by the lovely Aisha.

I stumbled on one of the pictures in the contest when another entry showed up in my feed. All the pictures she posted were incredible and normally I write fiction more in line with the other three, but as soon as I saw this picture I knew what to write about.

I don’t feel that this story is at all polished, but I figured if I didn’t get out there and do it, it might never happen. I hope you enjoy.

Forbidden

There is a little room, tucked below the stairs of one of the long, thin houses in Amsterdam. It is a tiny time capsule, showcasing possessions. The snapshot of her life just before it was snatched away.

The girl must have thought she would get them back. She lovingly placed the roses so that their delicate petals would be in no danger from the other, heavier objects. She set her favorite toys to stand watch over her treasures, moth-eaten and helpless as they look now. She must have brushed her hair before setting down the brush, soothing her hair and her own nerves with the repetitive strokes. She removed the cameos from their case one last time (turning them over and over in her fingers, I imagine), but the way they lie so carelessly on the boards suggests that she dropped them in her haste to quit the room and thus keep it secret.

Surely she thought she’d return in a week or two. That her treasures would be safe until she could reclaim them. And how could she have known? That even if the next five years didn’t kill her body, they would kill that little girl who snuck down under the stairs that night and set aside pieces of her life, one by one. She thought they would be forbidden her in the camp. But she didn’t understand.

In the camp, her life was forbidden her.

I cannot help but wonder if she made it – whether her sickly, starving form was pulled from the wreckage of history or whether she slipped away, a ghost in the gas chambers. Perhaps the life inside made it impossible for her to experience life outside. Perhaps it was just impossible to remember her own life and she left the roses to crumble, the toys to molder, the ivory to yellow. Bent double in that little room under the stairs, twirling the dusky roses between my fingers, I feel so close to her that I can almost reach out and touch her ghost as she reverentially lays down her photo, rubs her thumb over the surface of the cameo.

But as close as I feel, I can never truly know her. Only wonder at the knowledge that is forbidden me.

The Art of the Invisible, the Beauty of the Complete

One of the ways in which I try to keep an active writing life is by meeting with other writers in the real world. We don’t spend much time writing when we meet, but it’s a nice way to remember that there are people behind those mysterious blog posts, short stories, poems and discussions that I get embroiled in online.

One of my friends is a guy who’s been working on fantasy stories. He’s very passionate about writing, and very dedicated to fantasy. But he despairs at his chance of publishing traditionally, because he perceives that he writes fantasy that’s too untraditional for the publishing world.

When I incredulously but politely inquired as to the thought behind his reasonings, he gave me a number of answers. Some were good, some were bad, and one stuck in my mind. “I don’t do world building,” he told me loftily. “I do action, and characters, and people.”

This statement intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, this guy writes in a fantasy, otherworldly setting. So if his world is poorly constructed, it’s gonna show. Doesn’t he want his work to be the best it can? Secondly, revealing the world is kind of like revealing exposition. It should be done a little at a time, at points of relevance, so that by the end of the story we have a complete picture without any boring word dumps. Does he think that the people in his story have to bum around with someone like Tom Bombadil for fifty pages or so in order for a publisher to give him the green light?

Ah, Tom Bombadil. People either love you for the world you reveal, or hate you for impeding the story.

Of course, Tolkien is the Grand Maestro of worldbuilding. But we don’t have to be like him. We don’t have to invent loads of different languages, stories, races and religions that never show up in the completed work. Even George R.R. Martin didn’t do more than write key phrases of his languages. HBO hired a linguist to work the rest of them out.

In October 2012 I wrote another post on worldbuilding, detailing the sorts of things that we often forget but which make the world we write in so much richer. My friend is clearly of the opinion that the world doesn’t matter. How true is that?

My first reaction to his statement was that it was preposterous. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to think about it –

Yep. Still preposterous.

If you’re a fantasy author who writes about people in a world different to our own, then you’ve already started to build a world. The magical rules they follow imply a different kind of physics. The social rules they follow imply their traditions, their politics, and to some extent their history. Even using vague monetary denominations such as copper, silver and gold pieces implies mining practices and the social value of these metals.

As fantasy authors we ask readers to accept our new world rules. So we’d better know what they are ourselves. If it helps, we can think of our world as yet another character that needs development.

Whenever I come to an understanding of how something works in my world, I write it down. Let’s take the money example. Is it metal money? How do they get it? Do they make coins from it, or do they use pieces by weight (such as the anglo method of clipping pieces off an armband)? If people use paper or other kinds of money, how is it printed/made? How can they ensure that no one will counterfeit it?

How much of that information gets used in a piece? Almost none. But if you mention the mines down south, or the Grand Treasury, that’s all you need to hint that those procedures are in place and that you’ve thought about them. It enriches the world without shoving the worldbuilding aspect under a reader’s nose.

All authors look upon certain writing chores as unfavorable. Sometimes you just have to buck up and do it. Worldbuilding is one of those times.

Otherwise, urban fantasy could use a refit from all those sparkly vampires.

Missed Opportunities

Today I was reminded of one of the benefits of self publishing – you do things on your own time and don’t have to feel like you missed an opportunity.

In this morning’s email sat a message from one of the publishers I follow, declaring that they were now accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I read the post two, three times, racking my brain for possible submissions and cursing myself for each one’s inadequacy.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to get myself out there and prove to myself that I didn’t have to be afraid to show others my work. It’s not that I think that the writing on my blog is a masterpiece or even necessarily publishable. But I did think I might get some feedback and encouragement. And at the same time I made a rookie mistake. I treated writing like it was a hobby, something casual to do when I had the time.

My hard drive is full of half-finished pieces, barely-started novels, outlines, character sketches and all the little things that mark the beginning of something. I don’t think I have anything that signifies the end – something that could be sent out as, say, an unsolicited manuscript.

It’s easy to say that I’ll finish it later, that I need more research, that I need to be in the right mood. But the reality is that writing is a test of fortitude. It’s easy to write the beginning of something, when the possibilities stretch out before you in all directions. It’s less easy to finish something. And then there’s the really hard part: going back and tweaking, untangling all the inconsistencies, turning it into something that a stranger could read an enjoy.

I’m trying to establish a writing regimen so that I actually get things done. I want to re-flesh some of the old skeletons buried in my hard drive, and turn them into submissions. Where I’d submit them, I have no idea, but even if I change my mind and take steps toward self-publishing, well, that would be an opportunity I created for myself.

My fellow writers, I salute you! Be steadfast, and good luck with your submissions, if that’s the kind of writing you go for.