Ursula's Thoughts On Fan Fic
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by Ursula Vernon
"So!" said our fearless editor, Ellen Million, some weeks ago, when Yet Another Fan Fic Flame War was making the rounds of the internet, "Why don't you write something about fan fic?"
I'm for it.
This doesn't mean I think most of it isn't blazingly dreadful tripe, or that I don't understand authors getting bent out of shape about the notion of people writing fan fic of their work, or fear the occasional legal repercussions. I had to put a disclaimer on the webpage for my kid's book Dragonbreath because of those legal issues, saying in effect "I love the fan mail, but you guys really can't send me suggestions for books because the lawyers will kill and eat me."
But the fact is, I think fan fic serves a very valuable purpose, and I think it should be -- if not encouraged, I understand that may be asking too much -- at least overlooked, allowed with all legal caveats, and not blasted with withering contempt or hysterical claims that "You're stunting your literary growth!"
Basically, I think fan fic has a point.
Not the point that some claim -- that fic serves as training wheels for young writers, although that's probably true in some cases. Supposedly Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorksignian Saga started life as Klingon-centric fan fic and later had the serial numbers filed off -- if this is indeed true, then I doubt anybody can say the world is a worse place for it. But you can just as easily make the claim that fan fic writing leads to some sloppy habits of characterization and wish-fulfillment and only learning to write the good bits. This might also be true, although again, not as much as some people claim -- I recall A.C. Crispin saying that the difference between writing a Star Trek novel and one set in your own original universe was the difference between swimming in a heating pool and trying to stay afloat in a raging ocean. There is some truth to that, but again, it's not the whole truth. I have written things that flow as easily and elegantly and effortlessly as writing fan fic -- in fact, I said once that it felt like writing fan fic of my own work! -- and I have foundered on the shores of fan fic and not known what to do next and walked away. There is no universal truth. Writing fan fic is not always easy, writing your own work is not always brutally hard.
(Tangentially, I'll say that every time you discuss fic, somebody always shows up to yell that it'll stunt your growth, it has no redeeming qualities, you should be ashamed and it's a crutch and you should write in your own universe always and nobody ever branches into their own world who gets praise for writing fic, etc etc ad nauseum. I kinda suspect these are the same people who freaked out that playing Guitar Hero wasn't like being in a band and you should never play it, you should learn to play guitar for real, you'll never be a rock star this way and STOP HAVING FUN, DAMNIT!)
No, I think the point of fic lies a lot deeper.
Way back when I was quite young, I was writing what we'd call fan fic. I didn't call it that because we didn't have the internet and I didn't talk to anybody about it so nobody knew or could tell me what to call it. I just wanted to write stories -- and plenty of them I didn't write, I just went over them, phrase by phrase, in my own head, wearing the words smooth with repetition. I called it "daydreaming" since that was the word my mother had for it.
And the contents of these daydreams were all the stuff I'd read and seen in movies -- Anne McCaffrey* and Star Trek and Indiana Jones and horse books and Swiss Family Robinson and the computer games I played on my primitive Amiga 500, because those were the tools I had to crack the world with.
Dear lord, the things I did with those tools...!
An author friend of mind said something much the same about her daughter, who is young and currently obsessed with Plants vs. Zombies -- we'd like to think that kids are fonts of endless creativity, but in fact, they're very gifted mimics. They combine things in novel ways, but actually they're not that likely to create on their own out of whole cloth. Originality comes later. But they'll take what tools you give them and do unbelievable things with 'em, because hey, when all you've got is a zombie, everything looks like a brain.
I think a lot of fan fic is nothing less than a slightly more grown-up version of those daydreams. You take tools you know and trust and understand -- the characters you love and know so well -- and you do stuff with them. Sometimes crazy stuff. Stuff that helps you make sense of the world. There's undoubtedly a reason that so much fan fic goes close to the bone in ways that a lot of modern fiction doesn't. When I look for echoes of the real high-powered crazy stuff that came up in those early daydreams, I'm a lot more likely to find them in fan fic. Don't ask me why. There's a reason you see a lot of the same tropes over and over again in fan fic -- that's stuff that echoes in people's heads, and they're pounding on them over and over again, trying to get to the heart of it. There is a shamelessness to fic -- and I say that in the most complimentary fashion -- that is lacking in much published work. Often it's bad. Frequently it's shocking. Sometimes it's powerful.
Well. People do stuff with the tools that work for them. Nature of the species. And I think that's fine. If I'm hanging a painting, nobody insists I make my own hammer and forge my own nails. It's okay to use those tools (with permission, of course -- don't fic if the author hates it, should go without saying.) to make sense of the world.
And for lots of people it ends there, and that's also just fine. Not everybody needs to become a professional author -- as one, in fact, I'd prefer they didn't, it'd make serious in-roads on my income! -- and learn to make and market their own line of tools. But if we do, I think it behooves us as authors to at least try to remember what we did with those tools, and even if we can't embrace fan fic, at least not look down our noses too far at those who do.
*Who hates fic and would doubtless be horrified by my nine-year-old self. I make no apology, but I will apologize for not making that apology -- Sorry, Ms. McCaffrey, the dreams of children are bigger than both of us.
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