Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fan Fiction Roundtable: Part One

 Fan fiction is a big part of some people's Star Wars experience. Fans have been writing their own Star Wars stories since 1977, in fanzines and then on the internet. With the increasing presence of fan fiction in the publishing world over the past few years, I sat some writers and bloggers down for a talk about their fanfic experiences.

My roundtable participants are Tricia Barr, the founder of Fangirlblog, who has also written for Star Wars Insider; Geralyn, co-founder of Roqoo Depot; and S.L., a professional gamer and one of my personal favorite fic writers. Find full bios under the cut.

This is the first of a two-part post. Come back in a few days for a more specific look at Star Wars characters, fanfic recs, and the darker side of the fan community.

How did you get into fan fiction? Was it before or after you became a Star Wars fan?

Star Wars has been a part of my life since I was a kid. I remember watching the movie and then spinning out all sorts of other adventures in my head. I’d work the stories over and over until I got them just so. And they were almost exclusively stories set in a science fiction setting. I loved Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and Star Trek. After The Phantom Menace was released, I discovered fan fiction online and realized I wasn’t the only person who imagined stories in an established universe, and that people actually wrote them down and shared them!

I have to admit to being ambitious: my first fanfic was a novel. Looking back now, it was full of writing horrors – POV shifts, way too much Tell instead of Show, dialogue beats run amok – but people really liked the story. The first fan fiction awards my story was eligible, I won some great awards. So writing was like chocolate – addicting.

 Geralyn:  I’ve enjoyed fan fiction writing since back in my highschool days, and that was before Star Wars even existed.  I started out with Star Trek because I actually watched all the original shows as they first aired (I’m always going to be an Original Trek over what came later fan -- you go, JJ Abrams), but with Star Wars, rather than the traditional fanfic route, I got into fanfic via play by post RPG.  I was invited to join a game by some internet friends.  Now, I don’t game and I knew nothing about pbpRPG so I had to learn the ropes and there are definite rules to it.  But calling the type of pbpRPG I do a game is something of a misnomer.  It’s really a collaborative writing process (with rules).  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d actually been doing collaborative writing since high school when a friend and I used to write fan fiction together.  I find that for me, writing with a partner really sparks my creative thinking.

SL: Everyone gets into it from different paths, and really, there are a lot of people who I know got into fan fiction because of Star Wars. But I’ll be honest about the real reason why I think a lot of us do it: it’s because we fall in love.

Fan fiction is a form of wish fulfillment on many levels. both as a way of allowing you to engage and interact with your favorite characters, as well as a way of inspiring writers who maybe don’t have the confidence or the know-how to build a fully fleshed out world to make-believe in. It allows want-to-be writers to become Writers. I’m not saying this is true of every fan fiction writer, so when I speak in these broad terms you have to understand that really, I’m talking about me, but I think that fan fiction provides those training wheels for getting your writing there to the next step: onto the page.

For me, it was a time in my life where I had just gone through a major breakup and my evenings felt pretty empty at the end of a day after work. I got into playing video games again and it was my form of therapy. I stumbled onto a CRPG called Jade Empire and discovered a whole world that was rich and full of characters that made me laugh and cry—and yes, fall in love—and when the game was done, I found that I really had not had enough. I wanted more.

What happened to the characters after the story was complete? Where there moments in-between the cut scenes where relationships developed that I couldn’t see? The more I thought about it, the more this burning need to know consumed me. I hunted online for other people’s fan fiction about the story, and I wanted to know what they imagined happened, but there were sparse few entries and hardly enough to satisfy my need. And then one day it hit me: why couldn’t I just tell the story myself?

So, I could ramble on about how I got into Star Wars fandom separately, but basically the two for me have entirely separate beginnings.

Megan: I was writing fan fiction before I had any idea what it was called, but it was only after I got into Star Wars as a teenager that I discovered other people did it too. A friend at summer camp recommended that I check out one of her stories on FictionPress shortly before it and FanFiction.Net became two separate entities, and of course as I wondered around both sites I came upon the Star Wars section, and that became the start of my online fandom. So, my answer to the question is really a little bit of both. I learned the word “fan fiction” through Star Wars, but I was writing stories set in other people’s worlds before that. 

What’s your favorite thing about fanfic?

Tricia: My favorite part of fan fiction is that writing is a continuous learning process, and it can be as easy or as hair-pulling difficult as you’d like it to be. Professional artists often learn to create art because they’re inspired to try to recreate an image they like. I think many fan fiction writers get their start that way, too. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words – or for some fanficcers a few thousand.

Another really great aspect of online fan fiction is the continuous feedback loop with readers. I’ve read interviews with novelists where they discuss feedback on their book after it’s published, and how they try to apply it to future books. But that feedback is so far removed from the writing, the author might be two or three books down the road. And when feedback is coming in on a published novel, an author is receiving only the largest impressions, not the nitty-gritty. In fan fiction, on the other hand, I could write an action scene one way, get the edits back with impressions from the beta-reader, then post it and immediately get a wide range of feedback from a large pool of readers. Every one comment on a post will reflect a very small proportion of the actual readers. Over time, though, a lot of different people will chime in, and that immediate reactive feedback can be a goldmine. I remember once when I was working on my action sequences, and I just tore down one scene to eliminate everything except flashes of emotions and a smell here, an impact there. The reaction from readers was that it played out like a movie, or that they could see it all in their head. But I hadn’t actually written anything in the way of description. That certainly clicked on a light bulb in my head.

Fan fiction can be indulgent at times, but no less so than fan art or fan films. The fanficcer is writing the story he or she would like told, so it can be a tool to learn what your base instinct is as a writer. If readers respond poorly to an event or the story, then as a writer you can decide if your instinct was wrong or if you’d still write it that way given a do-over. At times I’ve seen lengthy conversations between the writer and the readers over their choices and reactions. Fan fiction also helps a writer understand his or her tendencies. For instance, I used to go into great detail about clothes, but in my novel there are only a few instances where I discuss what someone is wearing. I’ve learned over the years of writing fan fiction to trust the readers’ imaginations. The more free rein you give the readers, the more they will invest and self-insert. World-building to me is about the characters. How do the characters see the world and the other characters? That’s what the readers want to know, or at least what I’ve picked up from pay attention to reader reaction.

I’d say that most novelists I’ve followed over their careers learn and grow as technical writers, but it’s the storytelling – what works for the readers and what doesn’t – that is often where the pros are slower in keeping up with the wants of their fans. Television and film writers seem to adapt better, but they interact with the audience on a much different level.

Geralyn: Well, I definitely agree with Tricia about it being a continual learning process.  Over the years my writing has gotten leaner and definitely much more 'show, don’t tell.'  Even I got tired of reading all the thoughts going on in my characters' heads.  But honestly my favorite part of the process is the characters and their stories that I create.  I only write my own original characters, never canons, and I tend to do generational characters that connect across the Star Wars eras.  I really enjoy creating original characters and even original eras.  I’ve got one -- which is sort of on the back burner right now -- set in 600 ABY.  The fun of that is you are unbound by canon restraints and you can let your creative muse fly.  But even in a known era, it’s very easy to work around the canon.  Also hinting at canon characters is always fun.

Tricia is also right that fanfic can be indulgent, but that’s also part of the fun of it.  It’s great to indulge yourself but so often indulging yourself has a price.  This is indulgence that hurts absolutely no one.  Plus you hopefully become a better writer in the process. But ultimately my philosophy could be summed up as this: if it isn’t fun, you’re doing it wrong.  I’m definitely in it for the fun.

SL: I really agree with what Tricia said about the “continuous feedback loop.” Traditional writing groups were an important component of a writer’s life, and this is still true for people who are able to form those kinds of bonds with writers in their immediate area. But a lot of people in my generation want to write and don’t necessarily have the social circles that support it. Fan fiction provides both a built-in, supportive community as well as an audience for your work. And it’s one based off of a shared interest everyone is already deeply passionate about.

 To expand upon that idea of community that both Tricia and Geralyn mention, I’ve also found that there is a huge amount of dialog that goes on between fan creators, whether writers or artists. And that’s a core component of what makes working in fan fiction fun—writers who have in-jokes with each other in their works, or an artist who loves your writing creating a picture about it, or writers who see an artist’s work and writes a story based around that image. Not only does the writer get immediate feedback from readers, but readers can have an impact on the writing as well.

Moreover, because everyone is using a shared reference base, there is a creative and exciting exchange of ideas that flows between the participants. That kind of loose, collective collaboration can’t be found in any published, commercial medium because it’s something our legal copyright protection system has largely stifled. All of this works under the understanding that no one in the community owns the IP of the works that their writing is based on, and everyone is welcome to play on this playground on those conditions. There are no rules about how one participates other than that it cannot be for commercial gain. That egalitarianism is key here because here, genuinely, you are in an environment where anyone can comment and engage in discussion with the creator. It also forces an inherent meritocracy based on the author’s abilities: whether that be in writing or in promoting themselves.

Megan: I love the community. That egalitarianism creates a free exchange of ideas, and fans can encourage and validate each other’s work by taking it on and making it their own. Fanficcers share a common language and sensibility that can create friendships, like everybody said above.

Fanfic is also more than what’s being written today, or was written in fanzines: Hamlet was a reworking of an original story. Fandom is not new, and some classic works of literature are actually re-works of earlier stories. That to me says that fanfic is no less capable of containing important meaning and unique ideas than original fiction.

I think the culture of fanfic writers is fascinating: we have our own grammar, our own slang, and fanfic is such an easy glimpse into people’s minds. It is the art of looking at something, wanting more, and writing exactly what we want. It reveals human proclivities and trends and at the same time doesn’t take itself very seriously.

On that topic, it’s just a fun way to get more of what people love. Star Wars especially is such a huge universe that books and books could be written about all the different planets, aliens, and people in the back of cantinas. The EU maps that universe out, but fanfic finds all its crannies and corners.

Find more in the upcoming Part Two.

Tricia Barr created FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She also writes about Star Wars for and Star Wars Insider magazine and is a contributor for Her Universe's Year of the Fangirl. In her spare time, Tricia puts the finishing touches on her first novel, Wynde. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to For updates on all things FANgirl follow @FANgirlcantina on Twitter or like FANgirl Zone on Facebook.

Geralyn writes: Along with my co-admin, Skuldren, I'm the co-creator of the (mostly) Star Wars blog, Roqoo Depot.  My introduction to Star Wars came in 1977 at Grauman's Chinese Theater, and I've been a fan ever since, particularly of Obi-wan Kenobi.  A nurse by profession, I raised three sons who thought I was a dork, but now think it's pretty cool that I get review books and comics.

SL writes:  I'm currently a Jill-of-all-trades working at a start-up gaming company in smoggy Beijing, China. When not preoccupied with the fiddly bits of running the team, I spend my time playing games, reading Pride and Prejudice, catching up on movies from the US, and (rarely) writing fanfiction. I also like cake. 

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