Thursday, September 8, 2011

On the Validity of Fanfiction

This post is not about Brave New World, or classics. It’s about fanfiction.

There are authors in this world who forbid fanfiction about their books to be posted online. I respect their decisions, and don't care to discuss that. One of those authors, however, is George R.R. Martin (author of the Song of Ice and Fire series – writer of the Game of Thrones HBO show). Here is writing advice found on his website:

"And write. Write every day, even if it is only a page or two. The more you write, the better you'll get. But don't write in my universe, or Tolkien's, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else's world is the lazy way out. If you don't exercise those "literary muscles," you'll never develop them." (emphasis mine)
I like George R.R. Martin’s books (I read A Game of Thrones.). This post isn’t about him. This post is a defense of the validity of fanfiction. Martin's quote just helps to prove it needs a defense.

Stereotypes Debunked
1)      Fanfiction is the 'lazy' way out. If you don’t exercise those ‘literary muscles,’ you’ll never develop them.”

Fanfiction is all about following someone else’s rules. Rules are important when writing. I’m currently writing a story in which people astral project, and I’ve got about 30 pages of notes filled with rules about this world I’ve created. When I’m writing, I have to follow those rules if I want to convince readers my world is developed. Since I MADE those rules, this isn’t hard to do. Sure, every now and then I make a mistake, and I say, “Hey, it’s not possible for my protagonist to be thinking about sandwiches right now! He's on the astral plane - he can't get hungry!” and I have to sigh, and backspace, and write something else. But for the most part, following my own rules is easy. I made them. They’re hard to forget.

Following someone else’s rules is hard. You have to keep them in mind with every sentence you write. Since you didn’t make them, they don’t come instinctively; a lot of them you’re going to have to memorize. You'll find yourself stopping at inconvenient moments to look up facts. You may be opening a copy of Twilight rather than reading nonfiction, but you're still doing research. And researching is an essential skill for a writer.

It’s my hypothesis that if you’re keeping another’s “world rules” in mind while writing fanfiction, pretty soon you’ll have a better grasp of your own world’s rules. Your "research muscles" will be strong, and none of your protagonists will be thinking about sandwiches when they shouldn’t.

2)      Writing fanfiction is different from writing “more legitimate” works.

Here’s a lovely quote from Francine Prose, taken from her book Reading Like A Writer:  

“And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.”

             Because Prose is so quotable, here’s another:

“Among the questions that writers need to ask themselves in the process of revision – Is this the best word I can find? Is my meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut from this without sacrificing anything essential? – perhaps the most important question is: Is this grammatical?”

When you’re writing fanfiction, you’re performing the ongoing act of picking words out of a very large, very metaphorical bucket, and you’re taking those words and flinging them at a page with some other words, making sure they’re in grammatical order so that they’re smooth and transcend the dumb, nonsensical thought your mushy brain originally had. In other words: When you’re writing fanfiction, you’re writing. And writing is what it takes to be a writer.

3)      Fanfiction has no point.
The other day I was with my sister. On her coffee table was the book Lewis Carroll, Photographer of Children: Four Nude Studies. I said to my sister, “It’s not that I’m judging Carroll. It’s that I can’t fathom what would motivate a person to photograph naked kids. What gave him the idea?” And she answered, “What motivates a person to write a story about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole?”
Fanfiction has just as much a point as other fiction. There’s not much of a difference between the person who came up with Alice and wrote about her, and the person who just wrote about her. They’re both writing stories that others can enjoy.  I find that entirely noble and worthy of respect.   
4)      Fanfiction stories aren't like "real" stories - making one would never give someone valuable writing experience.

     Writing fanfiction gives writers more experience with plot. If I was capable of writing fanfiction, I’d probably start with changing facts about stories that never sat well with me. For instance, Voldemort’s “pure and irredeemable evil” never seemed convincing enough. I’d explore that, research his backstory, and fill in gaps until the reasons for his evilness satisfied me. Or I’d redeem him. I don’t know. The point is, I’d be asking myself questions like: “What’s wrong with this plot? Why don’t I like X or Y? How can I fix it? How can I enrich this character’s backstory? How can I tweak this scene, change this line, make this character do that?” And those are very, very good questions to ask if you want to become familiar with the natural flow of a plot or the study of character development.

This post is not an angry response to George R.R. Martin, nor am I denying that there’s a lot of crappy fanfiction out there. But most crappy fanfiction writers don’t plan to be serious writers anyway. Every person looking to make writing his/her occupation does, in fact, need to create his/her own worlds. However, that doesn’t mean fanfiction isn’t a valid hobby worthy of time and effort.

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