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What have you been writing recently?


The Loquacious Lord Grimm

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It's that time again.

 

National Novel Writing Month.

 

Hmm.

 

 

Everyone has a story; most everyone, anyway.

Sometimes it comes in the form of a novel, and some years, you might want to try to devote November to finally getting that first draft written.

But it doesn't always have to be a novel. Our greatest or most dear creations can take the form of short stories, visual art, music, the perfect D&D campaign, an RP, or (heaven help us) a Blades scenario.

 

So take a moment and share what you've been creating. You never know where it can go.

 

 

 

I, for one, am devoting NaNoWriMo this year to a webcomic that I've been stalling on for far too long, in hopes that I can turn the daily devotion into a habit.

 

The Silent Assassin doesn't plan on writing much this month, except perhaps a few scathing movie reviews, the next chapter of his autobiography, a few dozen post-it notes, one or two e-mails a day, and a long letter to Dear Abbey.

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Funny you should ask...

 

I was working on a BoE scenario. But I cannot stand the mess that is BoE nodework, and finally came to accept that I'd never get the stupid thing done as a game. So now I'm translating the outline into a short story, set in its own universe, with the Exile trappings entirely removed. I'm already liking it a lot better that way.

 

Assuming I ever finish the first draft, copies of it will be available upon request. I can't say exactly when that will be though.

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I am writing, to various degrees, about six physics papers. The 'various degrees' covers how much of the work is being done by my students or other collaborators, and also how much of a priority I'm making it to work on any particular paper. I have several backlog papers that I mean to finish Real Soon Now. I'm also writing at least one grant proposal that way.

 

I'm also still plugging away on my swords-and-six-shooters-on-a-fallen-colony-world sci-fi novel. I posted some early chapters in my blog here, and added a few comment posts after I decided to stop posting chapters. I finished a 130,000-odd word first draft after exactly (by a fluke) one year, back in June. Since then I've revised the longish first-of-four sections of the book, up to second draft status, and spent a fair amount of time thinking how to fix the problematic third section. I spent a lot of time thinking about that section in first draft, but it still didn't really work; most of the stuff I agonized over ended up being invisible to any reader, hypothetical possibilities canceling each other out to leave a lifeless stasis for far too many pages. The villains were patsies and a depressed narrator was a bad idea. Now I essentially have to invent two dynamic major characters and give them a short but thrilling life of villainy. All right; game on.

 

My impression at this point is that a first draft is just a beginning. Getting that far confirms that you have A story, but it's only step one in getting to THE story. What remains is a lot more than just trimming and polishing. Even if you do keep the basic story, and lots of good bits, you may really end up replacing most of the first draft. Cutting characters out, or writing them in. Dropping major scenes, or adding them. Some parts may get replaced several times. Some of the parts get replaced because they're good but don't fit. Others get replaced because they're just not good enough. No-one wants to read filler.

 

The average good novel, I'm thinking, has been distilled out of at least three bad novels. That you have to write, to produce that one.

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I am writing, to various degrees, about six physics papers. The 'various degrees' covers how much of the work is being done by my students or other collaborators, and also how much of a priority I'm making it to work on any particular paper. I have several backlog papers that I mean to finish Real Soon Now. I'm also writing at least one grant proposal that way.

That reminds me of my graduate student days. The research group I was in loved to do experiments except for the two theoreticians. We didn't even mind data analysis. But getting a paper out of us was a chore.

 

One time one of the grads needed peer reviewed papers published so he volunteered to write them and a half dozen came out within a few months with the rest of use getting tacked on as additional authors for our various contributions to the different research projects. Even a few years after I left, my name was tacked on for the computer programming I had done that was still being used.

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I finish my undergraduate degree in... sixty days. :/ Which means that right now I'm juggling work on a couple of shorter (3000-5000 word) papers covering topics such as 'the production of desire' and the 'importance of counter-cultural voices in post-War America', in addition to my dissertation. My dissertation is 10,000 to 12,000 words focusing on deconstructive readings of the Doppelganger in contemporary literature, and the notion of splitting/doubling as the result of writing. There's a bit of psychoanalysis in there too, because I seem unable to write an essay these days without quoting Jacques Lacan.

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I finish my undergraduate degree in... sixty days. :/ Which means that right now I'm juggling work on a couple of shorter (3000-5000 word) papers covering topics such as 'the production of desire' and the 'importance of counter-cultural voices in post-War America', in addition to my dissertation. My dissertation is 10,000 to 12,000 words focusing on deconstructive readings of the Doppelganger in contemporary literature, and the notion of splitting/doubling as the result of writing. There's a bit of psychoanalysis in there too, because I seem unable to write an essay these days without quoting Jacques Lacan.

 

How does Lacan fit in the notion of Doopleganger? I'm very interested.

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Well, the two main ways I'm going to be drawing on Lacan are both just extensions of other theorist's work, because that's where I think Lacan really shines.

 

For my first point, I'll go beyond Saussure's work with signs/signifiers/signifieds/referrents and explain how Lacan describes a system of language with no fixed meanings (using his arguments about the slipping of the signified beneath the signifier (which closes off access to the referrent), and the function of the objet a). With no fixed meanings, many potential meanings are created which are often virtually identical to one another, but which only have meaning due to their differences. I'll probably digress into talking about the Derridean trace here, but my point will be that language functions as literary doubles tend to do.

 

Secondly, developing the Freudian notion of the unconscious (which can basically be read as a second consciousness inside the consciousness that we're aware of (or as a double of our consciousness)), I want to talk about the various splits that the infant/subject is subjected to during it's ascension/descent into the Symbolic. In 'The Instance of the Letter', Lacan basically says that the subject is inherently split as a condition of existing due to the misrecognition/recognition that occurs during the Mirror Stage.With the frequency that mirrors (and other reflections of literary characters (like paintings) appear in the texts I'm studying, it seems like a no-brainer to chuck this in, even if it's not as interesting as exploring WHY these internal projections are externalised!

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I'm actually drawing on a lot of Lacan for an essay I'm writing on Lee Edelman's conception of reproductive futurism and violence against queerness and its application to the Cultural Revolution in China as well as power struggles over Mao's "spiritual" descendant in leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Do you think Lacan was more of a psychologist or a philosopher?

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Ideally I'd like to say "philosopher who draws on/from psychology', but realistically he's probably slightly more psychologist. Zizek, on the other hand is definitely more philosopher, so you can have Lacanian theory both ways. :p

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i could always write more MLR. I'm sure everyone loves crappy pony fanfics :p

Fanfiction can be pretty good for creative writing exercizes and easier access to feedback (even though unfortunately most commenters don't say anything useful). While most of my out-of-class writing has been in the forms of various RPs, I had started on a fanfic of my own several months ago as a writing exercize. Unfortunately, a couple months ago I realized how much needed to be re-written and because of that and class I haven't touched it since, but perhaps at some point I will.

 

Of course, being a writer of fanfiction can also come with some stigma since fanfiction is almost always crap, so there's that, even if it is a tad unfair as some fanfiction is surprisingly good if you shift through the literary horrors.

 

The major downside to fanfiction is one I've noticed from reading writing that, while not terrible, is not particularly great. And regardless of that, there are those who will comment praise and such. I'm guessing they're just people desperate to see writing of their favorite characters doing such and such, or meeting such and such, or whatever, but it's still extremely harmful as it can trick the auther into thinking their writing is better than it is. While there are those you can seek out for decent feedback, it doesn't make the problem any less bad. I'm glad I realized this early on, but not everyone does if from what I observed is any indication.

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Fanfiction seems to be a newish medium. I wonder why it has emerged now. Fiction and fans are both old, after all. I guess it exists precisely because it's almost always unpublishable and everyone knows it. Publication in the sense of posting on an online forum has zero cost and no threshold, so now fanfiction is possible, because unpublishable writing can now reach an audience. Not even very modest paper magazines would publish fanfiction, so this wasn't possible before. And I'm guessing that few people ever wrote fanfiction, on paper, just so that they and the friends they could reach with photocopies would read it. Nobody wants the trouble of writing if they have no hope at all of finding a larger audience than that.

 

Fanfiction has in fact been published even in the old days, but it wasn't a thing. It was just that someone would write a sequel to a popular book, or a new installment in a popular series, after the original author had died. What occurs to me off the top of my head is The Seven Percent Solution, a decent Sherlock Holmes story by someone other than A.C. Doyle, though the main point of it was to re-write some significant Holmesian canon (turning Moriarty the master criminal into some sort of drug hallucination by Holmes, or something). And I faintly remember reading a sequel to Treasure Island that was not too bad. But these were works by fairly accomplished writers, ambitiously tackling classics. This kind of reboot of a dead author's universe wasn't something that lots of people who had never written a fresh story from whole cloth themselves would try instead of that.

 

Some guy wrote a sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld even though Jack Vance was still alive. I guess Vance signed off on that, but he later wrote his own sequel (Cugel's Saga) that was completely different (and pretty awesome).

 

I'm not sure I've even read any modern fanfiction. What are people trying to do with it? Why write it?

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The examples you gave are usually done with the permission of the author or estate while they hold copywrite to the characters. Sherlock Holmes is probably on the borderline and may have passed over into public domain by now.

 

Modern fanfiction is the Internet version of fanzines and other publications where people write about characters in ways not in the source material. By not getting paid and usually acknowledging the legal claims of the creators, the authors get to indulge and be able to get reviews from people familiar with the original material. From what I've seen it breaks down to how they wished something had gone or original characters in an existing fictional world.

 

Some of the better authors may get contracts to write either more about the same characters or original material. So for the lucky ones, this is a way to practice instead of submitting unrequested materials to publishers' slush piles.

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Fanfiction seems to be a newish medium. I wonder why it has emerged now. Fiction and fans are both old, after all.

 

I'd say it's because the idea of a piece of fiction with a single author in the first place is relatively new, on the scale of human history. For a long time it was simply the default state for multiple people to contribute to a myth or story as it was passed down, with the best additions retained by others and the rest discarded. As far as fanfiction as it's currently understood goes, people have been writing unofficial sequels to novels for as long as there have been novels.

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I'd say it's because the idea of a piece of fiction with a single author in the first place is relatively new, on the scale of human history. For a long time it was simply the default state for multiple people to contribute to a myth or story as it was passed down, with the best additions retained by others and the rest discarded. As far as fanfiction as it's currently understood goes, people have been writing unofficial sequels to novels for as long as there have been novels.

 

For example the first "novel" ever to be written was Perceval le Gallois by Chrétiens de Troyes, which ended on a huge cliff hanger. This had the effect of authors trying to end his Arthurian legend.

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Modern fan fiction was available for consumption in the 1970s if not earlier. There were plenty of little magazines publishing crappy Star Trek and Darkover stories. That led to paperback anthologies of the best of the stories (see Best of Trek (title) and Friends of Darkover (author)). Certainly the web has made it easier and far cheaper to put crappy fanfic out. While I can't speak to earlier, I am pretty sure that the Baker Street Irregulars were publishing Sherlock Holmes fanfic prior to the 70s. The big impediments to publishing fanfic were the price of printing and finding enough buyers to cover the cost of printing. Reduced printing costs and increasing population density made fanfic possible. The popular adoption of the web interface made it depressingly easy (finding alt.startrek.creative was a little bid harder).

What Randomizer said on "legal claims of the creators" is very true. A legal dispute between the series author and a fanfic author ended the official Darkover fanfic. Mostly as a teen I read the Star Trek and Darkover fanfic that met the standards of paperback publication. Since then I have found that there is plenty of great material from published authors out there and tend to stick to it. I have found interesting a subset of the shared universe genre, which in many ways is published author fanfic interesting. There are anthologies of stories from other published authors that take place in Eric Flint's 1632verse or David Webber's Honorverse among, I am sure many others. There are different than actual collaborations, but a reminder that published authors are fans as well.

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Robert Asprin started one of the first shared universes with the Thieves World series in the 1980s. A group of authors got to write stories in a fantasy setting and could share characters as long as they didn't kill them off.

 

even if we're only looking at modern novels with identifiable authors, the cthulhu mythos was a shared universe waaay before that

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Yes, I enjoyed the Thieves World series and its spinoffs a lot, though I did not succeed in getting into Heroes in Hell which was a shared universe by many of the same authors. And now that Lilith mentions Cthulhu, while I never read it, there are some authors that I read who got their start writing cthulhu fanfic well before the 70s.

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How much fanfiction only uses an established setting, and how much tries to use established characters as well? (Does anyone ever just take the characters and put them in another world?)

 

Repeating a plot doesn't seem to count as fanfiction. That's just repetition. It wouldn't be very interesting to repeat the same plot with different characters, even.

 

Shared world stories can be good. I quite liked the Merovingen Nights series when I was stressed out with my dissertation. It was also notable in establishing that, if you let her take twenty volumes to work up to it, C.J. Cherryh could manage to make one of her sudden violent endings actually make sense. But the shared world really is only sharing the world; people don't normally put each other's main characters in important roles. Sometimes the appearance of another author's character is more than a cameo, but usually not too much. And even then people are expected to expand the setting a bit with each of their contributions, not just maintain it. Agreeing to let each other all make canon is the main agreement.

 

Shared plot is hard. D.L. Sayers organized a shared-plot murder mystery once, The Floating Admiral. She got a galaxy of famous mystery writers to each write a chapter. Each author had to have a definite idea of what was really going on in the story, that was consistent with all previous chapters to theirs, and they had to reveal a bit more of that story in their own chapter. But the result was a hopeless mess. None of the expert hoodunnit writers could guess where the story was going from the previously provided clues, so the result was a sort of random walk through murder mystery tropes. The various authors all supplied explanations for their chapters afterwards, revealing that none of them were ever on the same page at all.

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I'd say it's because the idea of a piece of fiction with a single author in the first place is relatively new, on the scale of human history. For a long time it was simply the default state for multiple people to contribute to a myth or story as it was passed down, with the best additions retained by others and the rest discarded. As far as fanfiction as it's currently understood goes, people have been writing unofficial sequels to novels for as long as there have been novels.

 

There's clearly some truth to that, but on the other hand stories have also been settling for thousands of years into canonical forms that can't be changed or extended: Achilles dies, the fox gets the cheese, and so on. That's how the story really goes, that's all that character did, there is no more to tell. So perhaps there isn't so much a basic tendency to keep on expanding stories, as a basic tendency to keep on improving stories, until they're finally right. Once the right version is attained, people tend to recognize it, and preserve it.

 

From this point of view, fanfiction that tries to salvage the good parts of a bad story would be in the long tradition, but fanfiction that tries to extend a story, which everyone agrees is close to perfect as it is, would be a recent heresy.

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How much fanfiction only uses an established setting, and how much tries to use established characters as well? (Does anyone ever just take the characters and put them in another world?)

 

Most present-day fanfiction writers take a strong interest in established characters -- in some circles, giving too much attention to characters of your own creation, or "OCs" (for "original characters"), is in fact seen as self-indulgent.

 

In answer to your second question: boy howdy, do they ever. Sometimes a writer will take characters from one established fictional setting and put them in another, like how TV shows produced by the same network might sometimes have a character from one show appear on another: when a fanfiction writer does this, this is called "crossover fanfiction". There's also something called "alternate universe fanfiction", which can encompass anything from "what would the setting be like if this major event had turned out differently?" to "what if the main characters of this show about soldiers piloting giant robots all worked together in a coffee shop instead?" (This last example is not something I made up off the top of my head, but an established tendency within fanfiction communities.)

 

Come to think of it, I wonder if the increased emphasis on characters over setting in fanfiction (if we assume for argument's sake your claim that such a change of emphasis has happened is accurate) might be related to the rise of visual media such as film, television and animation. Perhaps characters become more "robust" and easier to imagine in new contexts when the idea of the character is associated with a specific visual image.

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I would think that using the established characters would be more problematic in terms of legal issues, but is certainly very common. The Trek community of the 70s-80s had lots of bad fanfic of Spock falling in love with a poorly disguised Avatar of the author, and so was often better when it stuck to the principal characters. The Darkover fanfic tended to have a lot more OCs in it. Trek was of course a visual media whereas Darkover was exclusively in print adding some data points to Lilith's third paragraph.

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I would think that using the established characters would be more problematic in terms of legal issues, but is certainly very common. The Trek community of the 70s-80s had lots of bad fanfic of Spock falling in love with a poorly disguised Avatar of the author, and so was often better when it stuck to the principal characters.

 

Yeah, this still happens a lot and is one of the big reasons why OCs are often viewed with suspicion. The other big way they can go wrong is when the OCs are so cool and competent as to outshine established characters in their own areas of expertise. Either way, one begins to suspect that there's an uncomfortable amount of authorial wish-fulfillment going on. Plus, it detracts from the sense of shared experience of media that I think a lot of fanfiction consumers are looking for: that flush of validation when you think "yes! your interpretation of that character makes perfect sense to me! there is someone else out there who thinks the way I do".

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I didn't mean to claim anything about fanfiction: I know almost nothing about it. Shared world series, which seem to me to be older, at least as mass market paperbacks, are all I can really talk about.

 

I guess I just don't understand the appeal of writing about someone else's character, except maybe just as a lark. I could see writing a fun pastiche in which half a dozen famous fictional detectives all work in a laundromat or something. But a serious, longer work? I don't get it. If you've got an interesting and original story to tell, and some good dialog, then whatever characters do and say that stuff are going to take on a life of their own, automatically. Some of the most famous characters of all time are figures in plays, defined by nothing at all but dialog and skeleton plot. So why voluntarily put a ball and chain on yourself, by constraining yourself to a character that belongs in a different story?

 

I guess I can imagine two theories for why people write fanfiction. One is that it's primarily an act of fandom. You're not really trying to write a story as such, but just to explore that character more, so you put them in a different situation and imagine what they'd do. It's not really so different from a kid making a drawing of Spongebob. You like the character so you represent them yourself. I find it a bit odd to be so fascinated by a character as to put that much effort into showcasing them — writing well is hard work; but maybe a lot of fanfiction is bad precisely because people don't really put much effort into it.

 

The other reason I can imagine that some people might write fanfiction, in principle, is that they are trying to write fiction, but want some help with it. Featuring a great established character is a way to try to spice up a banal story. When all you have to cook are leftovers from the fridge, you open a bottle of Tabasco®. I'm afraid I suspect that some of this kind of writing might be people kidding themselves about their basic ability to write. They manage to turn out something passable, but the truth is that the only actually good element in their story is the part they stole.

 

I don't really think that you have to be born a writer; I think you can learn it. My theory is, though, that the people who are meant to do something are the people that can't help themselves from putting effort into that thing. If you can let yourself do something without working hard at it, then doing that thing is probably not your calling. So if you can write with little effort — if you can resist the urge to look over that last sentence and try to improve it — then maybe you shouldn't try to be a writer. If anyone churns out lots of fanfiction, without really taking any pains with it, and thinks that this is helping them learn to write, then I suspect they're kidding themselves.

 

On the other hand I can see that careful fanfiction might be a useful training exercise, up to a point. Writing good characters is hard — I've been trying to do it, I'm not sure I'm succeeding at all, and if I do succeed it will largely be by cheating, with characters who are highly abnormal people. What I have learned, though, is that at some point characters can start helping to tell the story. You find that stories spring up just from asking, What would she do, in this circumstance? Or you discover that the story you planned just won't work, because your characters just refuse to do it. The exercise of writing a story with a good established character might help you learn what that feels like and how that works, and give you a standard to aim for, in making up your own characters.

 

I can see somebody doing that once or twice, as part of teaching themselves to write. I don't see it as an exercise that you can usefully keep on doing indefinitely.

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I guess I can imagine two theories for why people write fanfiction. One is that it's primarily an act of fandom. You're not really trying to write a story as such, but just to explore that character more, so you put them in a different situation and imagine what they'd do. It's not really so different from a kid making a drawing of Spongebob. You like the character so you represent them yourself. I find it a bit odd to be so fascinated by a character as to put that much effort into showcasing them — writing well is hard work; but maybe a lot of fanfiction is bad precisely because people don't really put much effort into it.

 

The other reason I can imagine that some people might write fanfiction, in principle, is that they are trying to write fiction, but want some help with it. Featuring a great established character is a way to try to spice up a banal story. When all you have to cook are leftovers from the fridge, you open a bottle of Tabasco®. I'm afraid I suspect that some of this kind of writing might be people kidding themselves about their basic ability to write. They manage to turn out something passable, but the truth is that the only actually good element in their story is the part they stole.

 

I think both of those motivations can coexist and reinforce each other in one person. The desire to express yourself creatively through writing, to do so in a way that also says something about your interpretation of a work of fiction that means something to you, and at the same time to have a ready-made audience of fans of that work to read what you've created... well, I don't think it's that hard to understand the appeal, is it?

 

Also, I think fictional characters can serve a similar function to celebrities: as ersatz mutual friends, they're a kind of societal glue that provides a grounding of common experience to bring people together. You and I, we were never strangers: Erika Redmark introduced us to each other. And fictional characters have one advantage over real friends -- since they can't speak for themselves, we can, through our own creativity, make them into whatever we need them to be. (Oh yeah: in case you were wondering, people write fanfiction about real-life celebrities, too.)

 

Not everybody writes because they want to become a great writer. Some people just write because they want to be heard by whoever will listen.

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I can understand wanting to talk about a book with other fans, but why do so particularly by writing another book with the same characters? That seems like running full tilt in an arbitrary direction. And if you're expressing yourself creatively, why accept the constraint of using a pre-established character? Isn't that like paint-by-numbers? I think the real spark must be the appreciative audience. People will do pretty much anything if other people will clap for it. And so the question seems to me to shift from writing to reading. The main answer to why people write fanfiction is probably that (enough) people like to read fanfiction. So why do people like to read fanfiction?

 

I think it's a good insight that popular fictional characters are like celebrities, though it probably says something disturbing about Our Society Today that this insight wasn't expressed the other way around (celebrities are fictional characters).

 

People do like to bond by knowing the same other people, even when the other people we both know aren't present and are unlikely to arrive. Perhaps it's some kind of evolutionary hangover that started with identifying common distant relatives, in a behavior driven by genes trying to determine whether we share enough genes for it to be worthwhile co-operating instead of competing. Or it's simply a good way to exchange relevant information quickly. If I can find a shared topic of interest I can quickly learn whether another person is an idiot, but if I can find a shared acquaintance I can learn that and a lot more. So perhaps chatting about shared acquaintances brings an instinctive feeling of security, that people like even when the knowledge they gain isn't practically useful.

 

Maybe I'm just a psychopath of some sort, but I feel almost no interest in reading fanfiction. The idea just doesn't interest me, I think because I'm hung up on canon. If I get attached to a favorite character, then part of that, for me, is that it's important 'what really happens' to them. A story about them that isn't part of their 'what really happened' canon is intrinsically annoying, like a deliberate mistake. I would be much more inclined to read a new book with a familiar character by a different author, if the original author had endorsed the new book as official. I don't think this is exactly because I attribute such authority to the original author, as that I really want some kind of authority to establish 'what really happened', and the original author is the best authority I can find, so they get the job.

 

Having said that, I could probably cope okay with a character who had a varied and picaresque career, into which some disconnected episode could easily be retconned, without any tension with a canonical story arc. It doesn't bother me at all to have many different actors playing James Bond or Doctor Who. I would also be quite happy with having a beloved character appear in a brief cameo in some other story, if the continuity were at all plausible.

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I think it's a good insight that popular fictional characters are like celebrities, though it probably says something disturbing about Our Society Today that this insight wasn't expressed the other way around (celebrities are fictional characters).

 

I was thinking it, but it seemed rude to say it outright.

 

Maybe I'm just a psychopath of some sort, but I feel almost no interest in reading fanfiction. The idea just doesn't interest me, I think because I'm hung up on canon. If I get attached to a favorite character, then part of that, for me, is that it's important 'what really happens' to them. A story about them that isn't part of their 'what really happened' canon is intrinsically annoying, like a deliberate mistake. I would be much more inclined to read a new book with a familiar character by a different author, if the original author had endorsed the new book as official. I don't think this is exactly because I attribute such authority to the original author, as that I really want some kind of authority to establish 'what really happened', and the original author is the best authority I can find, so they get the job.

 

Having said that, I could probably cope okay with a character who had a varied and picaresque career, into which some disconnected episode could easily be retconned, without any tension with a canonical story arc. It doesn't bother me at all to have many different actors playing James Bond or Doctor Who. I would also be quite happy with having a beloved character appear in a brief cameo in some other story, if the continuity were at all plausible.

 

I'm not going to say it's pathological to care about fictional canon, but I'm at peace with the idea that in fiction, there is no "what really happened". I mean from a literal perspective that's obviously true, but more importantly I think it's also true from a functional perspective: whether you want your literature to entertain, to provoke thought or whatever, none of those goals necessitate a single authoritative point of view. And if as a writer you have something to say, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with piggybacking on existing cultural referents, including previous literary works, to help you say it -- in fact, to a certain extent it's unavoidable. Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy are essentially fanfiction of the Bible, and they couldn't have had the impact they had without drawing on that pre-existing cultural wellspring. Modern fanfiction is the same thing, but on a much smaller scale.

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You can entertain or provoke thought in all kinds of ways, but I'm inclined to say that the existence of a definite "what really happened" is one of the main things fiction is for. Real life is so ambiguous. You never really know what other people are thinking, in real life, but in fiction you do, because the narrator tells you. It's clear what happens, it's clear why it happens, and in the end all the loose ends are tied up. That's what everyone wants, and achieving it is a big part of why we pay attention to low-bandwidth worlds with bad graphics. A few successful books play against this, but they can only do this because the baseline of fictional canon is there. Ambiguous fiction is parasitic on the canonical norm.

 

I don't think it's fair to claim every possible kind of literary borrowing as fanfiction. Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy are remarkable in turning pre-existing cultural figures into characters, but those figures weren't previously fleshed out as characters with extensive dialog. No doubt there's a continuum but I think of fanfiction as a phenomenon clustered near one end of it. The puzzle I have is not why anyone borrows at all, but why people would borrow so much.

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You can entertain or provoke thought in all kinds of ways, but I'm inclined to say that the existence of a definite "what really happened" is one of the main things fiction is for. Real life is so ambiguous. You never really know what other people are thinking, in real life, but in fiction you do, because the narrator tells you. It's clear what happens, it's clear why it happens, and in the end all the loose ends are tied up. That's what everyone wants, and achieving it is a big part of why we pay attention to low-bandwidth worlds with bad graphics. A few successful books play against this, but they can only do this because the baseline of fictional canon is there. Ambiguous fiction is parasitic on the canonical norm.

 

I don't think it's fair to claim every possible kind of literary borrowing as fanfiction. Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy are remarkable in turning pre-existing cultural figures into characters, but those figures weren't previously fleshed out as characters with extensive dialog. No doubt there's a continuum but I think of fanfiction as a phenomenon clustered near one end of it. The puzzle I have is not why anyone borrows at all, but why people would borrow so much.

 

 

 

Actually in my theatrical profession we tend to say that literature is also very much ambiguous.

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One big, big motivation that I haven't really touched on except in passing (because, well, frankly it hits a little close to home) is writers reimagining characters from fictional works that have meant something to them, in ways that give them someone they can relate to.

 

As you may already be aware, most of the people who write fanfiction are are teenage girls or young women -- often deeply lonely young women who have been socially excluded for various reasons. A fanfiction writer may feel that she knows and respects fictional characters or celebrities better than she knows and respects anyone among her peer group (and also, writing stories where bad things happen to pre-established fictional characters or celebrities is a lot less likely to get her in trouble if anyone who knows her finds them than writing stories about anyone who could be taken as a disguised version of a real person in her own life).

 

Fanfiction is often about relationships between characters, particularly relationships that are unconventional in some way. Sometimes those are relationships between people of the same gender, sometimes they cross class or racial lines, very frequently they're about a seemingly unlovable person being loved -- in short, relationships in fanfiction suggest possibilities for a life beyond the often restrictive and depressing future that the people in the writers' own lives have laid out for them.

 

Maybe it's a lack of expressive skill and spontaneous creativity that leads them to use established fictional characters as their mouthpieces, or maybe it's a lack of self-confidence, or maybe using somebody else's characters creates a distancing effect that makes it easier to write honestly. Probably it's some combination of all of those things. But for poor teens, queer teens, teens from racial minorities or other marginalised groups, fanfiction can be the only outlet they have to express feelings about their lives in ways that somebody will listen to.

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While I haven't read much fan fiction written in the last 20 or so years, female authors were definitely in the vast majority. I don't know if they were lonely, but they covered all walks of life, but tended towards meeting the societal norm of successful. Of the groups that Lilith mentioned in paragraph 4, "queer" was probably the only over-represented group (other than the fact that almost all of the writers were female).

I got the impression that for a lot of the writers it satisfied their need for a creative outlet that they were not getting in their regular lives, and that it was a form of escapism. By escapism, i mean not just the folks who write themselves or who they wish to be into the story, but also what Lilith said about "give them someone they can relate to".

There are several very good female SF/Fantasy authors who got their start in fanfic. I am sure that their reasons for starting in fanfic varied, but I believe that lack of confidence, ease of getting published as an unknown female, ease of getting positive feedback (remember, my reading is prior to the web), and respect/enjoyment/desire to see what happened/relating to a respected author's characters were important factors.

Now, that the cost of entry into the fanfic world has dropped to nothing (use a computer at the library), it has become easier for marginalized groups to participate, but I suspect (but obviously do not know), that there are just as many non-marginalized writers of fanfic as their used to be.

I on the other hand am not part of a marginalized group, and could not write bad fanfic to save my life, much less good fanfic or good fiction.

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I had no idea that fanfiction writers were predominantly women. Insofar as writing fanfiction is self-therapy or solace, it's a good thing, regardless of whether anyone will ever want to pay to read it. But I retain a bit of suspicion about any case where a lot more women than men are working for low pay. My suspicion is that the women may be doing that because of some kind of inefficient constraint, such as a lack of accurate information. In this case I can't help wondering whether there's a big ghetto of female fanfictionists who could and would be writing entirely original fiction, and earning royalties, if it weren't for their own false belief that they can't. Or maybe that's a true belief, in the sense that the publishing industry does not well serve the market that their fiction would find. Obviously it's quite possible that this isn't the case, and that fanfiction is just a hobby that happens to be popular among young women (or at least more than among men). But I wonder.

 

Imagining events and situations that seem impossible in real life is the whole point of fiction, so there's no reason why anyone who finds real life bleak shouldn't write about more interesting scenarios. But why do so with pre-established characters? One factor that occurs to me is that pre-established characters lend legitimacy. Even if Sherlock Holmes only says whatever because I wrote that he did, some of Sherlock Holmes sort of rubs off on my little story. Between the lines you can read, "I'm Sherlock Holmes and I endorse this message." You may be appalled at my story and not believe for a moment that Sherlock Holmes would ever do those things I wrote, but you still have to take my story seriously, in a way that you wouldn't if my great detective were named Abel Fudd. So if a particular part of one's bleakness is the feeling that no-one takes you seriously, then the theatrical mask of an established character is a good way to make your voice big.

 

Would it perhaps be right to think of fanfiction as something almost as different from first-instance fiction as, say, theatrical performance? Actors don't normally write their own lines, after all. So maybe fanfiction is somewhere in between those two art forms, and it's a mistake to think of it as a (possibly defective) subset of original writing.

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I can understand wanting to talk about a book with other fans, but why do so particularly by writing another book with the same characters? That seems like running full tilt in an arbitrary direction. And if you're expressing yourself creatively, why accept the constraint of using a pre-established character? Isn't that like paint-by-numbers? I think the real spark must be the appreciative audience. People will do pretty much anything if other people will clap for it. And so the question seems to me to shift from writing to reading. The main answer to why people write fanfiction is probably that (enough) people like to read fanfiction. So why do people like to read fanfiction?

Part of using established characters is similar to a writer doing a series with a previous character he has used, the world and character are established and the story can continue without needing to spend a long time giving the back story. A few paragraphs explain where the story lies compared to previous ones and some description of the characters for new readers.

 

Murder by Death was a Neil Simon written film where the host brings 5 famous detectives to a mansion to solve a mystery for a monetary reward and avoid being killed. Each detective solves the mystery in the style made famous in books and films that used them leading up to an ending with a series of twists. You get to see the reveal at the end as one by one they solve the mystery with stereotypical explanations that you would see if they were the sole detective. Each explanation is plausible, but wrong.

 

This is a fanfiction of both the detective genre in general and of the 5 specific detectives. But since this is an established author, you get to see it as a film.

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Would it perhaps be right to think of fanfiction as something almost as different from first-instance fiction as, say, theatrical performance? Actors don't normally write their own lines, after all. So maybe fanfiction is somewhere in between those two art forms, and it's a mistake to think of it as a (possibly defective) subset of original writing.

 

I wouldn't say it is that different, I would keep it in the general category of fiction writing, and I am struggling to think of a non-pejorative word but I think I need to go with it is an incomplete form of fiction writing. That is not a reflection of its literary quality or how engaging it is, but the fact is that the author provided less of the necessary creativeness for the work. Of course the next discussion could be how many original plots are there. Doing the comparison thing, I liken it to acting in live theater versus tv/movies. They are both acting, but in live theater you get only one take (and may have to sing or dance) and so it has been considered a more complete form of acting (despite not paying as well) than acting in tv/movies.

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Actually in my theatrical profession we tend to say that literature is also very much ambiguous.

 

I'd like to expand on this point to provide my insight into another reason why people write fanfiction. If we start from contentious point that the author is dead and that the show, book, or whatever other work is now in the possession of the community-audience, fanfiction can actually be understood to be an active act of interpretation that resolves underlying ambiguities in the work. The author (or set of authors in the case of a show) may indeed be dead, the show cancelled, the final word written in an unsatisfactory way, leaving a more definitive interpretation of the work up to the community-audience.

 

One fanfiction I read (out of a very limited number) was an append to the movie Inception, which I believe is the reason I'm taking the interpretation that I am. When the work ends on a cliffhanger as in that film, fanfiction is a natural way to satisfy the urge to know. Did the top keep spinning or did it fall? What happens to the children of the Harry Potter universe? Essentially, then, fanfiction can help tie up loose ends.

 

Of course, I don't think this is the only reason people write fanfiction, but I do think it's a reason people write a particular kind of fanfiction.

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One notable motivation for fanfiction is to fix problems. If the work is compelling but the author didn't live up to its potential, it's tempting to go and fix it. That can be another Alternate Universe form of fanfiction; it's also likely to lead to problematic reading when the original was fine and the author is delving too much into wish fulfillment, some kind parochialism or censorship, or completely missing the point of the work in question.

 

Another major aspect of fanfiction, which you cannot get with original fiction, is community. There are entire online groups for fanfiction; there are groups dedicated only to specific fandoms, like Harry Potter. You have a lot of common ground and a clear common interest, and the writing is in many ways just a shared activity. But it's also one that, when done well (or sometimes not), can earn approbation from the community. For people whose writing talents go unrecognized, that's instant gratification. Maybe they could be published instead, but publication is hard to break into. Self-publication is no cakewalk either. And even just releasing your own fiction on the internet is like casting pebbles in the ocean and hoping someone notices. When there's already a community that cares about the characters you've taken up a lot of the work is done for you.

 

I can even see the appeal of fanfiction as constrained writing. You want to tell a story, but you have to make it fit with the personas of the relevant characters. You might have to work around magic or technology or other matters of world-building. It could be a fun exercise.

 

—Alorael, who says all this as someone who does not write fanfiction and who does not, and has never, habitually read it. He does have some friends who are active in fanfiction and fandom, though, and some of this is pulled from them. And for full disclosure, one built a website as a kind of fanfic clearinghouse that eventually got him a job, then another job, and now he's a Google engineer on that sound foundation.

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I had no idea that fanfiction writers were predominantly women. Insofar as writing fanfiction is self-therapy or solace, it's a good thing, regardless of whether anyone will ever want to pay to read it. But I retain a bit of suspicion about any case where a lot more women than men are working for low pay. My suspicion is that the women may be doing that because of some kind of inefficient constraint, such as a lack of accurate information. In this case I can't help wondering whether there's a big ghetto of female fanfictionists who could and would be writing entirely original fiction, and earning royalties, if it weren't for their own false belief that they can't. Or maybe that's a true belief, in the sense that the publishing industry does not well serve the market that their fiction would find. Obviously it's quite possible that this isn't the case, and that fanfiction is just a hobby that happens to be popular among young women (or at least more than among men). But I wonder.

 

Relevant data point: 50 Shades of Grey began its existence as a Twilight fanfic, and got pulled off the internet and rewritten with the serial numbers filed off once people told the author she'd made something of publishable quality.

 

In general, though, I'd say fanfiction is as good a way as any to get through those "first million words" before you start to write anything that can capture more than a niche audience. Even if you're on crutches as far as plot and characterisation are concerned, you're still learning how to produce readable prose, and that might be the thing that takes longest.

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Haven't written much in the past year outside of Rebirth posts, but I did take Creative Writing as my final college class and had a couple of interesting assignments. My favorite submission was for the task of providing a hook for the beginning of a book. And if not a fanfic, it was at least inspired by X-men...

 

Goodness... let's see if I remember how to do this.

 

 

Fly Away

 

 

She walks among the crowd, always looking over her shoulder, paranoid at the world; and for good reason. Sarah is being hunted and she knows it. The dirty streets of downtown Chicago are packed with businessmen and transients, taxis and buses, street art and refuse. Normally she’d feel safe here – so many faces to hide behind – but now nowhere is safe. She hurries against the flow of people staying close to the building and trying to blend in. Strands of burnt umber hair peek out the sides of her slate grey hood. Trembling hands shoved deep into her blue jean pockets, she passes an elderly woman going the opposite direction… and vanishes.

“Still moving south…” It crackles over the short-wave radio in Seth’s hand. “She’s changed her appearance. Old lady, moving too fast.”

He peeks around the doorway he’s hiding in. One old lady shambles north towards him while the back of an identical cornflower-tinted perm hurries away. She’s not looking so he shoots out to the next doorway down. Only the breeze of his passing is noticeable by the others – not that anyone gives the gust a second thought, his movements are too fast to see with the un-evolved eye. He could catch up to her in a heartbeat if he wanted but he needs her alone, out of the crowd.

He looks again and the blue-white hair is gone. “Report,” he radios to his lookout.“Changed again… A business man with a briefcase… she’s crossing the street.” He scans the crowd and picks her out as the only businessman nervously looking behind him. “Gotcha.” The cross traffic blocks his view for a second and the business man is gone. Frustration boiling up, his voice draws the glances of passers-by. “Where’d she go? Where!?” The pause for an answer is only seconds but they tick by so slowly as he searches the crowd at top speed. “The bus, the bus! She’s on the bus!”

Perfect.

Seth walks past the frozen crowd. This is the opportunity he’s been waiting for. Sarah can hide all she wants but she can never out run him. The bus driver glances at the rattling door but doesn’t notice the new sports-jacket-with-jeans teen that sits in his front seat and the suited businessman that sits at the back. One split second and Seth appears next to the man blocking any exit. “Hello, Sarah.”

She morphs back to the familiar face he’s spent the past two months training as fast as he himself can move. A sliver of pride wells up in him at her progress; she is one of his favorites. But the open fear in her eyes breaks his heart. Why did she have to be so stubborn? “You shouldn’t have run away like that,” he coos.

Deflated, she looks away. “I’ll never be able to run fast enough, will I?”

“Not while I’m around.” He lifts her trembling chin and gives her a small smile. Don’t be stubborn. Please don’t be stubborn. “Boss wants you to come back with us.”

She squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head, obstinate resolve in her voice. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“You won’t have to.”

“He’ll make me!”

“No he won’t.”

Tearful eyes meet his as anguish steals her breath. ‘I don’t want to watch anyone get hurt, either… I don’t want to watch you hurt anyone.”

Stubborn to the last, he wouldn’t persuade her. “You have to come back with us. You don’t have a choice.”

“I’d rather die!!

The willful whisper is a dagger into his heart. No! Please… Don’t make me do this. “That has been… authorized.” Change your mind! You have to! He takes her hand in his as the first tear rolls down his cheek. “Sarah, please, just come with me.”

Longing is written on her face as she squeezes his fingers. “How about you come with me?” The breathy proposition caresses his hopes, coaxes his wishes, tempts his desires.

But he is stubborn, too, and killing his soul for it. “I… I can’t. I don’t have a choice either.”This is the last chance. I’m begging you… save me from this. “Won’t you change your mind?”

She shakes her head slowly, rivers shaken loose from her eyes. Sarah embraces him, cheek to cheek, and whispers into his ear. “Can you at least make it quick?” The snap of her neck punctuates her plea.

Husky emotion comforts her last exhale, “Already done, love.” He leans her limp frame against the seat with unseeing eyes angled out the window and kisses her forehead.Goodbye, Sarah. I’m sorry.

The bus door rattles again startling a robin that had been hitching a ride on the roof. It flies west leaving Seth to mourn what might have been. He returns to his lookout who has put away the binoculars. Neither of them notice when the girl’s body dissipates into dust. Neither of them follow the robin.

 

 

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That definitely has something. The reader certainly isn't expecting that Sarah can transform into a small creature like a bird, or do it at just the right instant, or leave the old body behind as a dusty simulacrum that persists for long enough to deceive the killer. Yet it's plausible enough, I think. Even though her ability has been described by another character as merely changing her appearance, if this is the beginning of a book then neither the scope of paranormal powers in this world nor the reliability of the watcher's judgements has been established. And this all means that it's also plausible that Seth and the watcher are deceived, that they are as surprised as the reader is by Sarah's last transmigration.

 

I do have a worry, though, that the twist of the robin getting away is somehow happening too quietly. It works, but it might not work reliably for every reader. Some readers might just not understand what has happened, because the bit about the body dissipating into dust is kind of a distraction, that raises odd questions. A fair amount of re-evaluation has to be done quickly, to figure things out. In a screen version you could do a dramatic focus on the crumbling body, a little slo-mo, and then cut to a bird's-eye view; but it's hard to do that in prose.

 

I'm not sure what to do about this, exactly, but my feeling is that the final transformation needs to be louder. It's too quiet. It just flits away, like the robin. But it's Seth that needs to be given the slip, not the reader.

 

Maybe just add some more sentences to draw out the emphasis on the last transformation. Describe the body crumbling, drawing it out a bit. Describe the bird flying, again just to add focus and emphasis, signaling that this is really important, and worth thinking about.

 

Or alternatively perhaps, add a short teaser line at the beginning, that won't make much sense where it is, but that gets picked up later. The girl thinks about how nice it would be to be a bird, or something like that. That's a stock thought, so it wouldn't be a spoiler.

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Yeah, the 'ending' was actually an adaptation to meet the assignment's word count rules. It's supposed to go more into what Seth's group's preconceived notions are and what her actual abilities are before the end of the chapter. I really had to preen it down. Hmm.. I should type up the original.

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I'm a bit late to the topic, but that's hardly anything new... I do think I have to add something to the fanfiction discussion. One very important detail that none of you seemed to have realized could use mentioning which is that: some people write fanfiction because they enjoy it. For some the mainpoint isn't getting readers, or reviews, or connecting with others or anything, except the story itself. They write stories because it's fun. Like actually, really, plain good old fun. Not practice or something they just do on the side until they get to the "real" thing, the "proper" thing, the "generally accepted" thing, where it's only real if you do it the right way and get money. Maybe I'm spoilt from having found many authors who just write whatever they want because they love writing (whatever they're writing, fanfic or original) and they do it well.

 

Another thing was that incomplete form of writing, because of less creative work? I honestly don't understand how someone might think that. Because the characters are pre-established doesn't mean the author hasn't had to think about how they work - how they would act in a certain scene, or how they would feel about something, or what their motivations are. And really, that action of having to think about what a character is like is THE EXACT SAME PROCESS as what they would have to do with original characters. There's a story to draw from for sure, but they will still have to think and read between the lines to get a handle on a character. It's not given automatically anywhere. (except maybe in wikis, but I'd say those are still reader offered perspectives, rather than word of god sort of things.) And depending on the story format the world someone wants to use isn't necessarily all too specifically defined - there's still lots of playground to imagine how things could work. Again, same process as one would have to do with original fiction. But what, it doesn't count because someone else named the characters first?

Honestly. Don't really understand. The creative spirit is present whatever is being written. (not taking into account crappy fanfictions so much and we all know there's plenty of that... but it also doesn't mean that's all there is.)

 

Mostly I feel baffled, though. I've been sort of hanging around a lot of authors who, like I said, just enjoy writing for its own sake, and the usual message I've seen from them is that... Welp. Eff 'should'. Be a pirate. Do what you want. And if you want to write a story that's fanfiction? Do it. Enjoy it. And they do! They just... write and fricking love writing. It really can be that simple too! That's literally all of it. Being baffled is sort of my own fault though, I suppose. I've gotten so used to reading their thoughts that I forgot not everyone gets that.

 

Also. I'm one of them. I write fanfiction, you guys. And I love it! Because I love writing more than anything else in the world. Stories make my soul feel warm and happy. And also? None of the stories I've written in the last few years are online - in any form. (includes both fanfic and orig, so...) I don't have any particular intentions putting them online. It's not the point, you see? All I wanted was to write them, and then read them, and I've done that. It's perfect and I need nothing more. You don't get to say it's not real enough or good enough or anything, because it's not up to you to decide what's proper enough writing and what isn't. Only stories matter, and I've got them. Arrrr!

 

Also also... I'm writing an Assassin's Creed fanfic for Nanowrimo this year. :) I'm well ahead with words, but we've got four countries as opponents this year and we mean to beat all of them. Germany's one of them. (We're winning. Guess you shoulda taken part afterall, huh, Aran? Too late now! :p )

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Writing is fun, or at least much of it is. Some of it is quite a pain — like deciding that two pages of carefully crafted, lyrical prose are bogging down the story, and cutting them; or realizing that your plot's timeline requires your villain to be using precognition but then forgetting it, and racking your brain for a way to fix the problem. I guess what strikes me is that writing isn't just fun the way eating Smarties is fun. It's fun the way playing basketball is fun, which is that it's not really so much fun until you reach a threshold of skill, and then it gets more fun the better you get at it. So to me there's a built-in motivation to improve.

 

I figure you can play basketball for a while just accepting that you're not good at three-pointers, but if you're into the game then at some point you're going to feel that's a weakness, and want to practice it more. You may accept that it'll never be your forte, but you'll want to make it less of a gaping hole in your game. In the same way, although I can totally see that there are lots of aspects of writing that you can practice using somebody else's characters or world, I can't imagine doing too much writing without feeling the urge to bring up those parts of your own game, and try to make your own characters and setting from scratch.

 

The other thing I feel is that fanfiction must usually be writing under a fixed ceiling, because the really great story involving established characters, the story in which they were born to appear, has already been written. The best juice has already been squeezed out. What's left to write, at least usually, will be second-best at best, no matter how well you write it. Of course, if I start from scratch, I may not actually manage any better than third-best. But at least I'll have a clear shot at aiming higher.

 

But I'm an obsessive perfectionist type. I have a hard time doing anything at all without convincing myself that it's a quest for ultimate achievement — which means that it's either feast or famine with me; I pour a lot of effort into a very few things, and let everything else go with minimal effort. I do understand that not everyone has to be like that. I just have a hard time understanding, really, how they can not be like that.

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I wouldn't compare writing to a sport's performance, it's a profession where the players have different styles and where performance (in terms of quality) is never an indicator of skill. For all I know, a good athlete is good at sport because he or she practiced everyday through specific exercises and is good at thinking these exercises in terms of quality. But what I postulate from what I know is that a writer has no measurement to compare his skills to another: there is no thermometer can measure creativity. Yet we say that some stories are better than others.

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