Sunday, August 17, 2014

Confessions Of A Former Fan Fiction Writer

I used to write fan fiction. Sneer if you wish, I don't care. Mark Twain's book, "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court," was a blatant piece of fan fiction and he openly acknowledged it as such. If it was good enough for Mark Twain, it's good enough for me.

There is a long history of debate about the subject of derivative works. Many people object to them on principle. Given the ongoing avalanche of reboots, revivals, sequels, remakes, and reprints that are flooding the current American entertainment market, I suspect that the percentage of people who think that way is shrinking.

Captain America, Thor, and similar movies have recently made a whopping pile of money. I strongly suspect that before the trend is over, every comic book superhero ever published will have at least one movie made about them. I also confidently predict that Blade, the death defying dhampir vampire hunter extraordinaire, will soon have a remake/revival/reboot on the screen. You read it here first. Or maybe not, but you read it here, anyway.

I defy anyone to tell me that a 'reboot' of a canceled series is anything in the world but sanctioned fan fiction that someone is getting paid for. The recent Star Trek reboot (shudder) although bearing only the most scant resemblance to the original series still made a staggering amount of coin.

There is a lot to be learned by writing fan fiction. One of its most valuable aspects is the immediate feedback that you get. Many sites, for example, allow you to post stories one chapter at at time. Anyone reading it can post a comment, either anonymously or with their user name attached. If they like it, you will feel that warm and fuzzy that encourages further effort. If they don't like it, you will lose hide. Serious chunks of hide, because those people do not mince words. But along with the standard insults and curse words, you will usually find thoughtful and helpful comments that you can take to heart and use to improve.

You won't get much experience at world building, unless you really go out in left field with it. The world, or city, or small town, or spaceship, or whatever is already in place and you mess with it at your peril. But if you really want to write a story that people will enjoy reading (and if you don't care about that, quit writing and turn on the tv) you will learn a lot about the details of keeping a plot internally consistent.

Remember that the people who read these stories are comparing them to the professionally written episodes that they saw on-screen. Their standards are fairly high. Sure, you can write tripe and post it. But no one will read it or offer any comments to speak of.

You also learn how to maintain adherence to an established pattern of character behavior. If you write a story where a well-known character veers too far away from the kind of behavior that they exhibit on-screen, your readers will rise in wrath to verbally scalp you. This is very, very useful when you start writing your own stories.

Your own original characters start out as vague, shadowy figures that creep closer as your story develops. You gradually get to know them by watching them behave, getting a feel for who and what they are as you see them act and react to the stresses all around them. Eventually you have a feel for what they will and won't do in a given situation.

Then you see them jump into a new kind of situation. What will they do? What does the plot call for them to do? The two are not always compatible. When you have to choose between making a character act unnaturally, or violate the flow that you had planned out for your plot, change the plot. Either that, or have a different character do what the plot calls for.

Every story (as opposed to vignettes and character studies and travelogues) is, in essence, a simple case of "Once upon a time, something happened to someone and this is what became of it." Once upon a time, two people met and this is what happened. Once upon a time, two races met in space and this is what happened. Once upon a time, a meteor struck the planet and this is what happened.

Once upon a time, the character you gave birth to got placed in a situation where they had to react. This is what happened. Ultimately, every story is about the characters. Events are only important in terms of how they effect the characters. Otherwise you are writing a history book. If it's fiction, you are writing a fictional history.

To get back to fan fiction, there is something else that it can teach you. How *not* to write a Mary Sue character. Or a Gary Sue as the case may be. These are characters that represent a kind of wish fulfillment for the author. They are the character that sweeps into the middle of things with all the answers, everyone in the story loves and admires them, they have the skills to handle every problem, etc.

You have seen them, I'm sure. So have fanfiction readers. Fan stories often introduce new characters, just as new episodes introduced new characters every week. But the Mary Sue cliche is a painfully familiar phenomenon to fanfiction readers. When they encounter a Mary Sue, the crap hits the fan in heaping fistfuls. You learn how to keep your characters human and flawed. In other words, not boring.

Like anything else, you get back what you put in. Sturgeon's Law holds as true for fanfiction as for anything else. But it can be a useful way to get started, and it has one overwhelming advantage that makes it superior to passing stories back and forth in a writer's group. On a fanficiton site, you are not getting feedback from wannabe writers like  yourself, who are second-guessing themselves just as much as you are. You are getting instant feedback from actual readers. The people that you are going to be selling to someday.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Maybe This Time

It start with a wheel bearing and ended with replacing the entire wheel assembly on both sides of the front. Now we are almost done. The new axle we need should be delivered to the Ford garage sometime early next week. Hopefully Monday.

But the hamburger tonight is fresh killed. It all balances out.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

There Is A Price For Everything

Our little home town (pop. 3200 plus pets and transients) is a peaceful and civilized place. It is filled with hospitable and generous people, and surrounded by some of the most beautiful country in North America.

It is also a hole in the wall when it comes to purchasing anything. After a week and a half, we have finally finished replacing the entire right front brake, wheel assembly, and steering rod on our car. The left front wheel assembly has been ordered from Virginia and should be here tomorrow, barring fire, flood, Teamster strike, minor earthquake, tornado, or any of the other piddling things that happen around here on a routine basis.

But at least I was able to get some writing done.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Always Another Adventure

There are worse things than being stranded 400 miles from home with a wheel bearing about to go out, and only one pill left of a critical medication. Many of them, especially when one is "stranded" at the home of an elderly parent with siblings and adult nieces underfoot. But being the grouch that I am, I tend to complain anyway.

On the other hand, we had venison last night and pork tenderloin today. The more I think about it, the more appealing the thought of selling the car becomes.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Realism Versus Believability

I wish I could recall who it was, and if someone who reads this knows the answer, please tell me and I will gladly give credit. But a while back someone mentioned the issue of making a world seem real to a reader when so many people have unrealistic ideas about things. It's a subject well worth spending time on, in my opinion. Hollywood and tv are prime culprits in promoting this state of affairs, but they are not solely to blame.

The article I read used caves as an example. Someone who is a spelunker might be thrown out of a story when they encounter an unrealistic description of a cave, as for example describing a volcanic type of interior when the hero is actually going into a limestone cavern. Things like that.

But we have been conditioned to think of certain things in certain ways, and sometimes when you put them realistically, it throws people out of the story worse than if you just went along with the erroneous assumptions that the mainstream clings to. Swords for example.

Nothing on earth is any farther from realistic than the depiction of swordplay as it is presented in movies, on tv, and on stage. It bears very nearly no resemblance at all to actually using a sword. All you have to do is watch an Olympic fencing match, which itself is as fake as a three dollar bill in terms of actual combat, to see that dramatic representations of swordplay are a joke. Scenes where two men are banging huge two-handed longswords against each other like they were fencing foils? One man standing off three attackers, out in an open field with no cover anywhere around? Right.

Even one man holding off a group on a narrow stairway is iffy, if one of the group has a crossbow and a clear shot at his leg. But you can put a scene like that in a story and a lot of people will swallow it without bothering to think it through, because they are so used to seeing things like that.

So you have to meet people's expectations. I got a review recently where someone thought the dialogue in my fantasy book sounded too modern, and it grated on their ear. The setting is  not Earth, it is another human world, in a kingdom with a technological level approximately equal to that of late Middle Ages/early Renaissance Europe. Not exactly, but close.

The people don't speak English, but rather than do what some writers have done and try to invent an entirely new language, I simply offered their speech in modern colloquial American. The reader was subconsciously expecting, in that setting, to hear archaic speech patterns.  Even though it wasn't Earth and they weren't speaking English, reading the dialogue with words like 'guy' instead of 'fellow' or 'sirrah' annoyed them.

It isn't a matter of right or wrong. It's a matter of effective story telling and audience appeal. The small details like that make a difference to people. And it's not the job of the reader to adapt to the writer's story. It's the story teller's job to reach out and snatch the reader so tightly that they can't escape.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Here's A New Review

A blogger named Jefferson Smith wrote a review of "Athame". He has a somewhat different approach to evaluating books. As I understand it, he reads them during his exercise routine, and gives them up to forty minutes to hold his attention. Each book is allowed three misses, or three WTF moments as he puts it, before he quits with it.

A somewhat interesting approach, I thought. So I submitted my work. The review is HERE.

My book made it to 34:40, which is actually better than most. Considering that it was my maiden effort at a commercial novel, I am not complaining. He finished the review with a complimentary note:
Note: Despite the WTFs, I really enjoyed this. The forest folk live in a very well thought out world, and their existence felt like a believable balance, pitting their lore and hedge magics against the roaming predators of the night. The characters are well drawn and have some charm. And there’s an underlying thread of unrevealed secrets that kept me wanting to learn more.
It could have been a lot worse. Some of what he cited was subjective, but that's a big part of any review. One point in particular, the dwarven sword and how Peteros gets it, was entirely understandable, since the significance doesn't become clear until the second book. Overall I have to say it seemed like a fair and objective assessment to me. I'm glad I sent it to him.

People Need To Calm Down About Amazon

They really do. I'm getting old, and I've seen this before. Trust this doddering old fossil. Amazon is not going to take over the world, run every publishing company out of business, and end up chaining us poor hapless authors to the walls of its dungeon so we can write 23 hours a day under the whips of our overlords. Not gonna happen.

Today I saw someone growling about how a person absolutely HAD TO join up with Amazon's new book sharing service (In which they are imitating Scribd, Oyster, and a bunch of others that are already operating and have been for some time.) The person was of the opinion that if they didn't join Kindle Select and sign up, they would be left behind in the dust. So they decided to go with another sales option than Amazon.

Permit me to reiterate this:
1) They think that Amazon is on the verge of establishing an inescapable monopoly, that there is no hope of anyone escaping Amazon's grip, and that not joining Amazon's new program will destroy their chance for success.
2) Their response to this is to avoid joining Amazon's new program. Instead, they are going to sell their book using one of Amazon's competitors.


Chill, people. This kind of economic shift and rearranging goes on all the time in a free market. Always has, always will. It's not worth worrying over. If Amazon gets out of hand, it's not a problem. New competitors to Amazon are springing up already.

IBM once ruled the computer world with an iron fist. I remember those days. Until Microsoft came along. And Apple. For a time those two behemoths stomped anyone who dared to stick their head up. Then some college kid designed his own operating system. Then some upstart company took a flavor of that operating system, called it Android, and slapped it on some cheap hardware. Now Microsoft is going door to door with a tin cup, begging people not to throw it out in the street and let its children starve.

This kind of constant innovation and shifting of power is a good thing, not a bad one. Seize the day. Or the evening, whichever time zone you happen to be located in. More change means more options. More options means more opportunity for the mavericks like us indie publishers. This is a good thing.

No, I am not in kindle select and have no plans to join. I might do it someday, I might not. I was in the Smashwords version of the loaner program, and had no luck with it. Maybe Amazon's arrangement will work better. But I will wait and see. Meanwhile, I have two books underway, and a third one pending. I am too busy to worry about it.