Monday, February 10, 2014

Fanfiction Sucks and That's a Good Thing

Today's writing habit course topic is "Just show up".  It's all about the deceptive simplicity of simply doing writing on a daily basis.  It sounds really easy, but that's the deceptive bit.  Simple doesn't mean easy.  It means not complicated.  Like the old joke about Michelangelo, where he starts with a big block of marble and chips away anything that doesn't look like David.  Simple, but difficult.

I'm not here today to write about that.  I'm here to do it, but I'd like to chat about something else for a bit.

How about...fanfic?

Fanfiction, to use the full version that hardly anyone bothers with once they've gotten into it a bit, is exactly what it sounds like.  Fiction written by fans.  That is, you love a show, book, game, movie or whatever so much that you want to see more stories with those characters and in that setting that the creator hasn't, and probably won't, explored.  Often, this involves at least two of the main characters being gay, but while that might seem to be the dominant tone sometimes it isn't really necessary.

Fanfic isn't anything new, of course.  It's as old as fandom.  Hell, the term "slash" used these days to refer to stories with male/male romantic or sexual pairings goes back to the original Star Trek series in which Kirk and Spock were regularly put in bed together.  Those stories got photocopied in those early days before websites and email, and distributed through the mail or at conventions.  It was all very exciting and new, and in a way rather subversive.  And so the trend began (although the practice of fan writing probably starts even earlier the modern conception of it pretty much got its start around that time) and barrels on to this day.

So the big things to know about fanfic are as follows:

  • The creators usually avoid contact with it.
  • There's a lot of it.
  • Most of it really isn't very good.
  • It's worth reading anyway.

Got all that?  Those last two really don't seem to go together, but that's sort of what brings me to writing about the concept of fanfic in the first place.

See, I recently finished reading the novel Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  It's a bit of an atypical romance story that revolves around a Big Name Fan writing stories in the universe of a Harry Potter knock-off.  Part of the conceit of the story is that she's a really good writer and has this huge following, they even show one of her fans although they don't know the main character is actually the writer they love so much.  That sort of thing happens to some degree, although I haven't really encountered anyone like that online or in person.  

In any case, a lot of the story focuses on her writing this huge fan novel and trying to get it done before the actual last novel in the series gets released, and this puts her at odds with a creative writing professor who sees her huge talent and wants her to write real fiction.  Oddly, this gets muddied up with the romance bits which also have an element of fanfic (she reads to her boyfriend and he eats it up) and occasionally gets forgotten about, but nevermind.  The upshot is that she's this amazing writer of fanfic.

But let's take a different approach.  What if she sucked? Like I said before, most fanfiction isn't really very good.

What if she was a terrible writer and didn't have a huge following that thought she was as good as the actual writer of the book series she loved?  How does that affect the story?

Well, of course it throws the whole thing about the professor pressuring her out the window.  Or does it?  Sure, in the story the professor is especially interested in her because she's so awesome, but the whole writing fanfic (even terrible fanfic) versus learning the craft of writing without placing it in a pre-existing world still stands.  If the prof is really passionate about bringing more students into the community of writers, it still works.  

And of course one of the foundation ways to become a better writer is, as I said in the first place, to simply show up and do it regardless of quality.  Well, fanfic writers have that like crazy.

See, the reason I say most fanfic isn't written very well isn't a slam on fanfic.  I meant it when I said regardless of whether it sucks as fiction its importance as expression is more important.  Fanfic isn't about crafting a great piece of fiction, or creating great art although there are some really stellar fics out there that qualify as both.  It's a good thing to have, to be sure, but I don't think it's a sufficient condition for fanfic.

The thing that makes fanfic worthwhile, I think, isn't so much clever wording or plotting or characterization, it's communicating the enthusiasm the writer has for the subject matter.  That someone's Naruto/Sasuke slashfic is clumsily written and pretty cliched and doesn't have a good understanding of how gay sex works is secondary to how much fun the ficcer is having and how much they enjoy watching the show (or reading the manga) the characters came from.

Because let's face it, most fanfic writers aren't writers first.  They're fans first.  Most of the time, they're writing not for the craft of it, but the love of what they're writing about, whether that's Naruto or Portal or Pacific Rim or Sherlock or whatever.  And they share it not because of the writing, that's just a means to an end.  They're sharing something more important to them, their enthusiasm.

So to tie this back to Fangirl and the question of what if she wasn't a good fanfic writer but just a dedicated one, that's why the idea of juxtaposing fanfic writing with original fiction writing works in my mind.  Because even if you suck at it, you've still built your foundation as a writer no matter what.  You've shown up every day and you've written about what you want to write about.  The question is, are you interested in taking that leap into developing your writing as a craft and building on that foundation?  Or are you happy to simply continue with your life and sharing the things you love, and how much you love them as well, with people who also like those things?

Writing is hard.  Or rather, good writing is hard.  Original fiction writing is hard.  But simply putting words on paper or screen isn't really that hard.  Especially when you already have the hard bits like creating the setting, overall storyline and characters already prepared for you.  It's like making a sprite comic, you don't need to fuss over the art.  You just need a bunch of Final Fantasy II figures you can shift around as needed, and you're done.  No fuss, no muss, very little mess.

It's when you get away from that, and obviously only a minority of ficcers do, that's when you find yourself in the wilderness.  There's nothing to rely on but your instincts and experience, and you have to build everything more or less from scratch.  Or at least that's what it seems like, although as the novel Fangirl also points out, you don't have to start from absolute zero.  You can take your own experiences, people you know, events you've learned about to use as templates upon which to build your characters, settings and stories.  But even so, you're responsible for every choice and that can be daunting.

Does that mean there's something less about ficcers then, that they don't put themselves on the line like that?  I don't think so.  Certainly there's no shame in doing things you love to do.  Even if you're bad at it, the enjoyment you take from it, and the enjoyment given to those who feel the same way, is entirely valid.  

And believe me, that's coming from someone who used to complain about these damn fanfic writers, they suck SO BAD!  I've come a ways since then, and I'm not afraid to admit I was wrong.  Not that they suck, a lot of them do.  But that there's really anything wrong with that.

After all, they're doing something I haven't been able to bring myself to do until this past week or so.

Just show up.  

2 time units

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