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How writing Fan Fiction CAN make you a better writer
With International Fanworks Day (February 15th) fast approaching, I recently found myself rereading an essay by Robin Hobb. During my reread, I remembered why I once declared, quite loudly and in the presence of witnesses, that I was boycotting her work. I have yet to read a single word of hers (besides this essay) and long may that continue.
Because I am a strong supporter of fanfiction, up to and including being a paid up member of the Organization for Transformative Works. Yes, like all things it has its good and its bad. I'm not as supportive of so called "Real People" fics and I will NEVER understand the appeal of Omegaverse (!) but on the whole I will support fanfic, and the rights of people to produce fanfic, until my dying breath.
I'm not going to waste this hub arguing about why I think Robin Hobb is wrong about her feelings on fanfic. I imagine she's heard every argument I have to make a hundred times already, and quite frankly I have better things to do than to engage in the writing equivalent of banging my head against a solid brick wall. So I'm just going to leave it at that. Ms Hobb is within her right to hate fanfic, and I am well within my rights to boycott her work in response, as I imagine she will soon be boycotting mine.
But there is one element of her essay that I do want to dissect and argue against, not only because I do not agree with it, but because what she says is actually, potentially, quite harmful.
from The Fan Fiction Rant by Robin Hobb
“Fan fiction is a good way for people to learn to be writers.” No. It isn’t. If this is true, then karaoke is the path to become a singer, coloring books produce great artists, and all great chefs have a shelf of cake mixes. Fan fiction is a good way to avoid learning how to be a writer. Fan fiction allows the writer to pretend to be creating a story, while using someone else’s world, characters, and plot. Coloring Barbie’s hair green in a coloring book is not a great act of creativity. Neither is putting lipstick on Ken. Fan fiction does exactly those kinds of things.
The first step to becoming a writer is to have your own idea. Not to take someone else’s idea, put a dent in it, and claim it as your own. You will learn more from writing one story of your own, no matter how bad it is, than the most polished Inuyasha fan fiction that you write. Taking that first wavering step out into the unknown territory of your own imagination is what it is all about. When you can write well enough to carry a friend along, then you’ve really got something. But you aren’t going to get anywhere clinging to the comfort of saying, “If I write a Harry Potter story, everyone will like it because they already like Harry Potter. I don’t have to describe Hogwarts because everyone saw the movie, and I don’t have to tell Harry’s backstory because that’s all done for me.”
Fan fiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking. Fan fiction is an Elvis impersonator who thinks he is original. Fan fiction is Paint-By-Number art.
It's an argument that has been thrown out there before which says that fanfic writers are not "proper" writers. It comes from the same "Higher than though" mindset that basically says that if you are not making money from your writing, then you are not a proper writer. If you enjoy writing, then you should be working towards it as a career, not wasting your time writing fanfic.
On that logic, if you enjoy having sex, then you should be working towards a career as a high class prostitute, not wasting time with your significant other.
So let's get rid of this notion now that there is a strict definition of what a writer is. If you write, if you put words on a notebook or a screen and those words are intended to be read by either yourself or others at a later date, for the purpose of entertainment or information, then you are a writer. Whether you write just as a hobby, or intend to make a career out of it, you are a writer. If you are making up stories or situations and describing them with the written word, regardless of how much of the character and world building is your own, then you are a writer.
And writing fanfic CAN make you a better writer. I wrote fanfic throughout my teens and still write and read it now. Today I'm a published author. I've exhibited at conventions. I've been asked for my autograph. And before you say anything, Ms Hobb, my novels are original worlds, with original characters and are my own work. But the fact remains that I started out by writing fanfic. So I consider myself living proof that writing fanfiction can make you a better writer. Even by YOUR apparent definition of what a writer is...someone who actually makes money by writing.
I am not saying that I would not be a published author today if I hadn't spent my teens sending the crew of Farscape's Moya on adventures of my own design, but I don't think I would be as good an author (And yes, that sentence sounded less arrogant in my head). Reviews of my work have identified certain strengths over and over, and I firmly belief that they are strengths that I have honed from "learning my trade" while borrowing from Rockne S. O'Bannon and J R R Tolkien.
As I said above, writing fanfic can be just a hobby, and something you do for fun and to let off steam. But if learning how to write is your goal, then there is no better teacher. Get to really KNOW the world and the characters. Learn how John Crichton thinks and how Frodo Baggins speaks, and adapt your writing style to suit. Try to picture the character speaking in your mind when you write dialogue. If you find it difficult to imagine HOW a character would say your line (tone, accent, emphasis), then go back and look at it again. This can help you to become conscious of the differences between characters. "That line of dialogue doesn't work with Meriadoc, but it would suit Gimli". "No, Zhaan would never say that. Delete delete delete".
Once you become conscious of these nuances, and hone your skill in using them, it can make coming up with original characters all that easier. You are now conscious of how dialogue can separate different characters. A sentence said by one will not sound the same if said by another, if indeed they would dare to utter the same sentence at all. Decisions they make and actions they take are unique to them. If you need the story to go a certain way, you need to make sure that a certain character is present in that scene.
One of the best bits of feedback I think that I ever gave someone's original novel was that there were points in his work where it did not specify who had said a line, but it didn't matter because it was quite clear who was speaking by what they were saying and how it was said.
One of my first original novels was a small tome called "Rogue Elaren". It was basically a Gundam Wing fanfic that used the same adaptation algorithm that got the name HAL 9000 from IBM. Maybe one day I will get incredibly drunk and upload it somewhere, but in the meantime it is an example of using some else's work to help inspire my first foray into building an original world. Fanfiction 2.0 you might call it. And that world, as a result, was complete with history, society, government, laws, and little nuances that were unique to that culture, Because I had taken an existing world, and adapted every inch of it into my own original take.
Subsequently, when building the fictional world of the Castle City Territories, featured in my novel "Queen of Alendeortor", I had that mental check-list ready. What is the society? What is their history? How prominent is religion? What things are unique to their culture?
Some of what I came up with didn't get used. I designed a complex biology for the Roanen people that used myoglobin instead of haemoglobin in their blood (and designing that biology got me through a high mark question in an AS Biology exam, because I knew myoglobin inside out) but it never got mentioned. On the other hand, the idea of people in Alendeortor giving gifts to secure a promise went on to become an important plot point.
Yes it is possible to produce original worlds without a background in fanfic, someone must have told the first story after all, but I believe that fanfic can help you to gain the internal check-list that helps to make your worlds richer. And I expect that few original worlds exist today that don't take their inspiration from somewhere, even if they don't call it fanfiction.
No one wants to admit to it, but it's true, we all love reviews. It's not uncommon to find a fanfic which begs for reviews, or even states quite clearly that they will not post the next chapter until they have received ten reviews. It's actually a behaviour that annoys me, and I try to avoid following it myself, but I do still get a childish giggle when I receive a review (and I'm 29 years old) and it is still the fact that fanfic is a great way to get instant feedback on your work. And that gratification can go along way towards cementing your confidence in your own abilities. Writing is a lonely profession, and it is one that requires perseverance. A novel does not write itself in a day, it takes weeks. Maybe months. And in that time you have only your own thoughts, and your average human being tends to be quite self critical, especially in the creative world. So what a boost to the confidence to be able to go back over old fanfic reviews and say to yourself "I can do this, There is proof that I can do this." "I am a good writer." And yes, I have done this in dark times, and no I am not ashamed.
Alas, trolls do exist in the fanfic world, but a level of maturity can rise you above them.
Go Forth and Multiply
So whether you write fanfic as a hobby, or as a way to develop your writing skill, continue on. You are a writer, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Yes, even you omegaverse writers, you are writers. I don't understand you, but I acknowledge you.
And if you are a writer who aspires towards a career in original writing, and is using fanfic to practice, then think of the above. Concentrate on the characters, and picture their voices in your head. Does it sound right? Think about how an original take on your favourite world might work. Experiment. Play.
The next Lord of the Rings may be inside of you, just waiting for a bit of Norse Mythology to let it fly.