Do not go to the elves for writing advice

(UPDATED with TWO pertinent quotes and a couple of fixed typos.)

For when you ask about fanfic, they will say both No and Yes:

On the one hand, this bothers me as being somehow analogous to a sort of intellectual piracy flying a flag of hommage, but on the other, I’ve never had much difficulty with Sherlockiana, or post-Lovecraftian contributions to the Cthulhu mythos. And I certainly think there’s a difference between giving away a song written in the manner or style of a band and uploading that band’s original work to a free torrent site (a frequent problem for musicians these days). But in that case, where does a cover band, or even more nebulously, a tribute band, fit into such a discussion?

So what does this naughty and neglectful¹ elf say? As you may guess, it’s No and Yes, but there’s an explanation. But first, we need a little background.

A lot of fan fiction, like a lot of everything else, is prone to its own tropes and lazy little shortcuts. The best-known is the dreaded Mary Sue, where the fictional framework really only exists to flatter a thinly-disguised avatar for the author. What would you say if you were forced to read a Star Trek story in which dashing young Leiutenant Flightny saved the whole Federation, with the principals of the show reduced to marveling one to each other how awesome that new guy is, and shouldn’t he be promoted to command that new invincible prototype ship, the USS Millenium TARDIS?

Hopefully you wouldn’t say anything, because no power on Earth could force me to write it for you. But if I did (and may you all hunt me for sport if it happens), it would be out there for you to read if you so desired. This is not always a good thing.

Come back with me, below the jump, to the dark days…

:::doodilly-doop, doodilly-doop, doodilly-doop:::

Once upon a time, o my children, there was no such thing as the Internets. Movies and television programs were broadcast not streamed, and no device, be it portable or stationary, could bring them into view on command. If you didn’t see the shows first-run (or, if you were lucky, in badly-edited syndication), and weren’t one of the blessed few with a VCR, then you were completely out of luck.

Further, the franchises themselves weren’t the astonishing cash cows they are now. Was there a Star Trek comic? Sure. It was generally very bad. There were tie-in products, but it was a weak trickle of extra stuff.

All that changed with Star Wars. Movies! Comics! Action figures! Lucas cleverly kept the exclusive merchandising rights to his creation, and in order to make cubic yards of cash, he exploited them to the fullest. And that got Paramount thinking.

Star Trek, you see, had one of the very first true cult followings in sci-fi entertainment. It had to be cult, remember, because these were the days before easy connection. There was no 24/7 access to the old shows; fan newsletters were typed by hand, mimeographed, and mailed; as a result, it wasn’t possible to have the kinds of well-funded, popular conventions that are practically a monthly occurance now. People had to really work at finding each other to celebrate odd hobbies together.

Well, Paramount was sitting on a gold mine if they could bank Trek the way Lucas banked SW. There was a series of book adaptations of some stories, but they wanted to shoot the works, so out came the series of movies (and eventually a new series to go with it). Battlestar Galactica hit television early into that run. Beyond the sudden increase in the amount of product, there were also new ways to get one’s hands on it: cable became more commonplace, and those stations needed content. VCRs became more affordable. The advent of the personal computer and home video games opened up two new media for exploitation.

What does this have to do with the fanfic question? Well, consider that before any of this was going on, the only way for you to get more adventures on the Enterprise or whatnot was to write them yourself. And nobody would care one way or the other because there was no way to get them into the hands of fellow obsessives unless you happened to physically meet them. (I’ve sat in on a few such gatherings.) How was Bob the Sci-Fi nerd going to find an audience with his epics? Paramount could scarcely do it with the real thing.

Not any more, though. The Internet tied all of these disparate threads together into a cord of geekerie, not easily broken. Now all this content could be had at any time, anywhere. You could own complete runs of the shows and movies, along with bonus content, screen tests, alternate takes, and a running commentary from three extras, the key grip, and the stray cat that hung around Studio B.

That’s a perfect storm, kids. A fiercely parochial fan base who came to feel a sense of stewardship (if not outright ownership) for their particular favorites, plus easy access to more content than ever before, plus a new and simpler way to share all these magna opera², meant that fanfic moved into the light along with the franchises it was written about.

And that brings me up to the point where I have to gently pick on an actual published author³ from my unassailable perch of anonymity.

One of the ways to supply new content without the bother of pesky questions such as continuity was in books, which normally weren’t considered canon (even if they could fit). Star Trek published a lengthy series of such novels, some of them written by writers of impressive stature in Sci-Fi, such as Vonda McIntyre and James Blish. More commonly, dozens came from the pens of authors who wrote little other than such “official” stories – basically, they are sanctioned fanfic.

Well, sometimes the official stuff is just like the unofficial. Diane Carey wrote a good many, and the two I read, Dreadnought! and Battlestations!, were very entertaining, but her lead character, Piper, is a Mary Sue, and I’m very sorry but that’s the facts of the matter.

Well then. With all of this now out there, I am ready to explain my No and my Yes.

My “no” is simple. I am forced to concede a point to both the good Professors, Mondo and Tolkein: a writer’s worlds belong to him. As such, we the readers are guests – honored and most welcome, of course, and the more there are the happier the host – but mucking about the place, smashing the china and trailing mud all over the good carpets, is hardly the behavior one expects in repayment, the moreso since the carpets were in this case painstakingly woven by the author, specifically tailored to match the furniture and silver.

And Mondo’s further point – that it’s lazy to just borrow all your settings – is well-taken. In fact, it’s one of my biggest complaints about the recent re-gendering of Thor and the Master. These are already-established characters, and turning them female is simply a boring, stale shortcut to spare Marvel and the BBC of the challenge of writing original female characters to stand on their own in those worlds. In these cases, they are double-lazy, because if they didn’t want to be all that original, they already had female characters on hand to fit the bill: the Lady Sif and the Rani. But sure, by all means go for the stunts instead of doing your own work, folks.

This is gonna make my “yes” a bit of a corker, but here goes – properly executed, fanfic is not a way to skip out on doing good work, nor thumb one’s nose at those who came before. If I’m writing a fanfic, I am introducing new characters and settings, I am paying extra attention to the continuity established by the original work, and I am keeping myself well out of it, except perhaps as a joke cameo. There’s a saying (and I wish I’d put in in my quotebook, but I goofed) that a great work reveals a lot about the hero, while a poor work reveals a lot about the author. Well, fanfic or not, that is a wise saying to heed. Further, following all such sage counsel about writing, even in someone else’s fictive universe, can only strengthen and sharpen the work.

So why then bother with borrowing a setting or a couple of characters?

Everyone is going to have their own answer to that. David Gerrold, Hugo Award winner and writer of several Star Trek episodes, said in an interview, “I’m not a Star Trek writer. I’m a science fiction writer. I like building my own worlds more than sharecropping in someone else’s.” Contra this (and from the same source – my thanks to Kail Tescar for his wonderful site!) is the experience of writer Russell Bates, whose fanfic led to a paying gig and an Emmy for the animated Star Trek program.

Mine, for what it’s worth, is simple – there are a few stories I wrote particularly for fans of the worlds in question, to make friends happy. (In at least one case, my wife is the target audience.) There are also a few that I don’t think could survive the transition to a wholly-original setting, though I consider that perhaps a defect I should work harder on overcoming. In doing so, I admit the justice of certain objections, chief among them that the Mother of Unfinishable Stories won’t ever progress if I’m yutzing around with “Captain Caveman Meets Wreck-it Ralph.” (They meet, fight, then resolve their differences in time to save the day. It’s actually quite heartwarming.) Nevertheless, if all I ever get out of writing is a lot of enjoyment in my hobby and a bunch of happy friends, then I will be content.

¹ Naughty and neglectful because of the quite dusty and disused state of the Hive recently. I’m working on changing this, but of course don’t believe me until you see it happen.

² Or perhaps manga opera if it comes to Cowboy Bebop fan fiction.

³ Full disclosure – I am actually a published author in the most technical sense. When I was ten I wrote a parody of Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech about fast food franchises, and a magazine called Merlyn’s Pen published it. They even “paid” me, by giving me a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which I still own. I have never followed up on that dizzying success in the decades since, so feel free to discount it.

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One thought on “Do not go to the elves for writing advice

  1. CGHill November 15, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    I’ve done some sharecropping in a universe I probably ought not to identify, and a couple of incidents in my own existence have been thinly disguised therein — but to the extent that any fanfic creates an Alternative Universe of sorts, well, there’s a fair amount of pleasure in worldbuilding, even if it wasn’t quite your own world to begin with.

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