Fandom or Fan Dumb?

First up, Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 make all your dreams come true. Except for the weird naked ones. (Unless you want them to…)

Second up, in February I’m teaching my first courses since I became a mama. I’ll be teaching folks at Quad in Derby how to write SF, horror, and fantasy, and how to create fantastic plots and characters. Tell your friends!

Third up, I’d like to share with y’all a few thoughts I’ve had lately about the topic of fandom. There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about fan entitlement, and fans’ attempts to change things they don’t like. The latest iteration of this is the petition by some Star Wars fans to try and get The Last Jedi movie excommunicated from the canon of the Star Wars universe because they didn’t like what the film did with Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, many Harry Potter fans were vocally annoyed about the failure of Magic in North America to address crucial aspects of American history, and – more recently – about the continued presence of Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts franchise.

These attempts to change things about beloved franchises can sometimes seem misguided – the originator of the Star Wars petition has now backtracked on the idea. But they show the depth of passion people feel about their favourite things, and if that’s sometimes uncomfortable for the creator, so be it.

Independently of all this, I was recently involved in a discussion on the Fantasy Faction Facebook group on the topic of fanfiction. Some people were pro, some anti, but what struck me most was the number of people who said something like ‘fanfic is fine so long as you don’t make the characters gay. If I wanted Character X to be gay, I’d have written him like that in the first place’. Which, well, anyone who knows anything about fanfic will tell you that making the characters gay is frequently the entire point of the exercise (see my own previous comments on the topic). And also, I feel these authors are deluded if they think they can control what fans do with their characters.

Once a book, or a movie, or whatever, is out in the world, then you as the creator to some extent lose control of it. We have copyright laws which mean people can’t just rip it off, but you can’t really predict or govern fans’ reactions. They might love it, they might hate it so much they start a petition to have it wiped from the face of the earth, they might decide it’s great but would be that *little* bit better if Harry ended up with Draco instead.
Various authors have tried in the past to exert a greater measure of control over their works’ reception, probably most famously Anne Rice, who has expended a great deal of effort trying to put a stop to fanfic of her Vampire Chronicles series (incidentally, there are currently 757 VC fanworks on Archive of Our Own, most of them gay). She also responded to poor reviews of one her books by posting a long rant on Amazon. Needless to say, this didn’t endear her to many.

My take on all this is simple: I would love it if people felt passionately about something I’d written. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with the direction of their passion, but hey, it’s their passion. Creators can start the fire – they can’t stop it spreading.

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Motivation and Procrastin – ooh, shiny!

I gave a version of this blog post as a presentation at my writing class on Monday. You should have seen their little faces. I’m not sure if they were expecting something a bit more ‘inspirational’ and a bit less ‘unvarnished truth’ but they all looked a bit shell-shocked by the end of it. So here we go.
Let’s start with a couple of classical quotations to get us in the mood.
Ancient Chinese Proverb:
“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Then the next step. Then the next one. Then all the other steps. What were you expecting, a travelator? This is ancient China, not Heathrow Airport. Put your back into it.”
Latin motivational motto:
“Memento mori” (remember you will die)

Are you a procrastinator?
Well, you’re reading my blog post rather than getting on with achieving your life goals, so I’m going to say yes. Unless your life goal is to read my blog post, in which case, yay!

What causes procrastination?
It’s easy to say procrastination is a result of laziness, or a lack of clarity around goals, or an absence of motivation. But in fact, the most common reason, among writers at least, is this: fear of failure.

What are you afraid of?
That your writing will suck and people will judge you harshly for it? Well, here’s a little secret for you. Everyone’s writing sucks at first. Tolstoy sucked. Jane Austen sucked. Stephen King sucked. EL James sucked. Oh wait… so, ok, some people’s writing still sucks, but there’s only one way to get better. Guess what it is? Yep, that’s right, write. Write write write. Try to get feedback so you can improve. If you’re too scared to show your writing to people you know, try the Internet: Wattpad allows to you to post your work pseudonymously and get feedback from complete strangers. I’ve also heard WriteOn recommended, although it is part of the evil Amazonian empire. If you’re into fan fic, there’s An Archive of Our Own. Even if you don’t get any feedback, you’ll still improve just by practising your writing. ‘How to write’ books, workshops, classes etc will also help, but aren’t a get-of-jail-free card: you still need to write. Think of it this way: if you write enough, you might, eventually, not suck at it. If you don’t write, you’ll definitely always suck at it.
But I’m just not feeling in quite the right frame of mind…
Neither am I. But I’m writing this anyway. If you wait until the right mood takes you, you might be waiting a long time. I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but writing is not always easy. If you want to have written something, you need to write something. So grit your teeth and get on with it.

But how…?
If I’d give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, based on my personal experience, it’s this: set yourself a daily word target. And then hit it. Having a quantitative target provides clarity and encourages you to work quickly. It’s great to have a n-year plan, but plans need to be achieved day by day. And if you break your aims into chunks, they seem easier. Let’s say you want to write the first draft of a 90k-word novel in a year. 90/12=7.5. So that’s 7,500 words a month. 7,500/30=250. So that’s 250 words a day. That’s not so much, is it? You can do that in half an hour before breakfast, or on your lunch break, or when you get home from work. Now get on with it.
I’ll finish off with some general tips and tricks…
– Abstinence can be easier than moderation: try swearing off the Internet (or daytime TV, or housework, or whatever is your particular crack) altogether for a day, a week, a month, a year, or forever
– Scheduled time for writing is good if you’re busy. Make sure it’s focused time though – short bursts of eg 10 mins can be better for this than longer stretches
– Having two or more writing projects on the go at any one time can help since you can procrastinate from one by working on the other…
– Although working on only one thing at once makes it more likely you’ll get it finished
– Beware of ‘fake productivity’ ie spending lots of time on research, planning etc – sooner or later, you’ve got to get down to business
– And finally, when in doubt, write something. Anything. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap. You can always improve it later. Words on a page are always better than a void.

The best things in life are free?

I’ve been on holiday with my husband this week, staying at a cottage with no wi-fi in a remote corner of the Lake District. This experience has certainly taught me a lesson about what I truly find most valuable in life – ie, a decent wi-fi connection.

It’s annoying enough not being able to check Facebook or the weather forecast – or the tide-tables if you want to go bouldering at St Bee’s – but what especially got on my nerves was BlinkBox. Before departure, I’d downloaded a few things – the movie Interstellar and some episodes of Supernatural – thinking we’d be able to watch them offline. But when I settled in to see what oogly-boogly Sam and Dean have to deal with this time, the file refused to play unless it could access the appropriate media licence. Which it could only get via the BlinkBox website. Which I couldn’t get on, because no sodding wi-fi. Whaaat?! Dick move, BlinkBox. These were files I had paid for, files I had downloaded under the mistaken impression that I somehow owned them and would be allowed to watch them on my own laptop without any further trouble. Wrong! Stupid Digital Rights Management. I’ll bet you don’t have problems like this if you just PIRATE stuff.

Which brings me on to writing. While DRM is imho definitely evil – punishing as it does only those who have actually paid for things – many creators are understandably concerned about piracy, and that doing away with controls is just an invitation for everyone to help themselves to your intellectual property. On the flip side, an awful lot of writers have embraced the possibilities of the internet age to connect with readers directly, via digital self-publishing and websites such as Wattpad, which allows readers to comment on books and even help edit them as they are written. The problem with most of this stuff is that you don’t get paid for it, which I guess makes it a form of voluntary self-piracy. I’ve heard older writers – and the Society of Authors – complain that too many people giving their writing away for free has lowered prices for everyone and made it harder for writers to make a living. While I’m sure this is true, it also reminds me irresistibly of the case study in Superfreakonomics about prostitution in Chicago, which found that prices for sexual services had dropped dramatically over time as more and more women were prepared to sleep with their boyfriends without getting rings on their fingers first. Like the Chicago ladies of negotiable affection, professional writers can moan all they want about being undercut by the amateurs, but you can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle: everyone’s having too much fun.

And there are cases which show that it’s possible, if enough people like your writing, to monetise the giving-it-away-for-free model; bloggers and fan fic writers who’ve scored publishing deals, authors who’ve launched books via Kickstarter. My current obsession, the surreal comedy-horror podcast Welcome to Night Vale, is a good example: it’s available to download entirely for free, but they make cash via PayPal donations, live shows, and merchandise sales. Plus they’re bringing a book out later this year – the kind you have to pay for. Unless you pirate it, I guess, but don’t do that.

Where does all this leave me? Well, I suppose I sit in an interesting position; on the one hand, I’m trying to get a traditional publishing deal complete with actual, you know, money, and I’m certainly not about to post the full text of my novels online for anyone to download for free. On the other hand, I am writing these words on a blog, and I sure ain’t getting paid for them. I’m a firm believer in the right of writers to be remunerated for their work: and if you’re not prepared to pay for something, you have to be prepared to be given whatever people are prepared to provide for nothing. But there’s also something quite comforting in the thought that, if no publisher ever picks up my work, that’s not necessarily the end of the story.

Postscript: fear not, dear readers, I did eventually manage to jerry-rig an internet connection via my phone’s spotty 3G signal, and I got my fix of the Winchester brothers. But I’m never staying at a cottage without wi-fi again, that’s for sure.

The Fan Manifesto

Lately, I’ve been seeing a few arguments, in various corners of cyberspace, about what it means, or doesn’t mean, to be a fan of something – should you buy the special editions, read the fan fic, wear the T-shirt? Who are the true fans? How can you tell them from the fake? Who is, or isn’t, permitted to be a fan of a particular thing? How should a real fan behave in the face of criticism of their beloved book/franchise/medium/pseudo-religion? Can you be too into something?

As is often the way with online arguments, a lot of this discussion can get quite… emotional. Here, for posterity, is my humble contribution, in the form of a handy five-point fan manifesto.

1) You can be a fan of whatever the hell you want, as passionately as you want. Ain’t no such thing as a guilty pleasure baby. It doesn’t matter when you were born, where you live, what you look like, which school you went to, who you dream about, what colour your hair is, if you piss sitting down, if you piss standing up, or who you are on a Monday morning. If you love something, you love it, and nobody can tell you otherwise.

2) There’s no right or wrong way to be a fan. You can be obsessive, you can be casual, you can be anything in between. Everyone started somewhere, after all. Watch the movie but don’t read the book. Write the slash fiction but don’t watch the show. Play the Android game but don’t buy the box-set. Wear the T-shirt just because you think it looks cool. You can read/watch/play/wear/write/listen/draw/consume/squee over whatever combination of stuff appeals to you, and if someone else thinks you’re weird because of it, that’s their problem, not yours.

3) Sharing your passion with others is great. Discussing passions with others is also great. Telling someone they’re not a ‘real’ fan because they don’t accept your headcanon, or they ship the ‘wrong’ couple, or you don’t like their cosplay, or whatever other reason… I think there’s a term for that. Oh yes, that’s right, it’s called Being A Dick. Don’t do that, people.

Is this a real fan?

Is this a real fan?

4) You can not be a fan of whatever you like. Everybody else likes something else – so what? Doesn’t matter what those Amazon algorithms say, not everyone who likes X has to like Y. Deal with it.

5) It’s possible to love something, but not love every single thing about it: to find certain parts of it troubling or distasteful, or just not as good as the rest of it. It’s even possible to hate some aspects of it; just as you can love a person deeply, but hate their alcohol problem. Acknowledging problems with something you love isn’t weakness, it’s maturity.

And if someone criticises something you love, it doesn’t necessarily mean they hate it, or hate you, or that you should hate them. Everyone is, after all, entitled to their own opinion, and sometimes the greatest fans can also be the harshest critics.

Cappuccino dreams

On the 8th of September, straight after returning from FantasyCon, I sat my ass down and started bashing out a new novel, The Silvergreen Sea. Now, just under four weeks later, I’ve passed the 20,000 words mark, and I’m confident at least half the time that at least 25% of what I’ve written isn’t total dross. So it’s going pretty well so far *crosses fingers and toes, backs up document*. Writing is not, of course, just a numbers game: it’s a voyage in your own imagination, a tour of your very own castle in the air. Even if nothing tangible ever comes of it, you can enjoy the ride. But most of the time, the reality of it is not terribly glamorous. It’s essentially sitting in front of a computer all day staring at words on the screen (or, worse, blank space), then tapping at the keyboard to make more appear, then deleting half of them, then going to make a cup of tea.

Sometimes, it’s good to remember why I’m doing it, to remind myself of what this dream I’m pursuing really is, why I’m getting up each morning and sitting at my desk. Now, it’s easy to fantasise about becoming ‘the next J.K. Rowling’, selling millions of copies, ascending the heights of the best-seller lists, getting a series of star-studded movie adaptations, sparking bitterly fought online shipping wars, being condemned by the Catholic Church. But there are other dreams, of slightly more attainable things, which I can indulge in with a sliver of hope that some day at least one of them might actually come to pass. Such as:

1. Seeing a book of mine, an actual book made of paper and glue, sitting on the actual shelf of an actual bookshop. Of course, if physical bookshops are on their way out, then this might be a dream with a limited shelf life (pun intended) but I’ll keep dreaming it for now.

2. A stranger telling me they’ve read my book, and then saying one of the following: ‘How could you kill that character? He was my favourite!’; ‘I don’t think that character would have done that, she’s just not that kind of person.’; ‘What are you doing here talking to me? Why aren’t you getting on with the sequel?’

3. Getting to sit on a panel at a convention and be all like ‘yeah, I’m a writer’ like it’s no biggie. Then getting asked questions about the stuff I’ve written. Even if they’re stupid and/or awkward questions. Hey, they’re showing an interest!

4. Being interviewed by Radio 4. As above, but with added ‘whoa I grew up listening to this station and now I’m on it and people are listening to me while they potter around the house.’

5. Hearing that my characters have been shipped and slashed. Especially if there’s a fierce online argument about who is *really* destined to be with whom.

6. Being condemned by The Daily Mail.

7. Buying a round of drinks with money I’ve received for something I wrote. Even if the amount is paltry, it’s still payment for words which have spilled out of my brain, and there’s no better encouragement to go and write some more and maybe get a less paltry amount next time. And even if my royalties never stretch to anything more than coffee for one, you know what, that cappuccino is going to taste So. Damn. Good.

Smells like…?

So… those developments I mentioned last week, which I was hoping would have developed by now… they still haven’t developed. Oh well. That’ll teach me to tempt fate. So I’m writing about smells instead.

Last weekend I went on a hen do, down in Birmingham, which was extremely exciting as it was the first time I’ve managed to get out to an actual nightclub since BMBWB (Before My Back Went Bad). The only negative was that I struggled to sleep, finding the pillows in the rented apartment too hard. So when I got home on Sunday, the first thing I did was flop onto my bed and let my head sink into my own deliciously soft pillow. And the funny thing was, I immediately noticed the smell: after two nights on synthetic bedding, my feather pillow had a distinctively organic odour. Now I hasten to clarify that my bedroom does not smell like a farmyard. But after spending the weekend away, there was definitely a detectable aroma welcoming me back to my own bed. Smells like home.

Trying to describe this sensation to my husband, I was struck by the paucity of the English language to describe smells. And then I saw a post on tumblr, gently mocking the cliches of fan fiction: “he inhaled his scent. he smelled of (ingredient 1), (ingredient 2) and something undefinable, that was uniquely (name of buttsex partner).” * This made me laugh out loud, because it’s so true – not just for amateur slash, but for professional writing. I recently read a book in which the heroine was described as smelling of strawberries and cut grass. Now I’ve never met anyone who smelled of either strawberries or cut grass, unless they’d been eating the one and rolling around in the other, so I didn’t find this terribly convincing, but, as anyone who has ever borrowed clothes from someone they fancy will tell you, people DO have a unique scent.

But there are only a few words – sour, fresh – which actually describe odours, and fewer still – musky, heady – that specifically refer to smell. Hence resorting to claiming that someone smells like cinnamon and honeysuckle when they clearly don’t (it’s curious that these descriptions are nearly always of sweet things, when humans are surely more likely to smell like, well, meat). Compare that with the myriad number of ways we have to describe the way something looks. I’m not sure whether other languages are similarly poorly equipped, but I have noticed that Proust, the master of sensory evocation – the taste of madeleines, the sound of a piano sonata, the sight of the sea or of the sunlight playing on a bedroom ceiling – doesn’t dwell much on scent, which suggests that either French isn’t much better, or he was too consumed with hay fever to smell very much.

This all presents a problem for the writer, trying to evoke this most elusive of the senses. But then, that is perhaps the joy of smell: even in an age of Yankee Candles which claim to capture the scent of anything from fresh cut roses to camouflage, it isn’t easy to pin down. It bypasses the more rational parts of the mind and plunges us straight into a sensation, whether a long-forgotten memory from childhood, gut-wrenching repulsion, hopeless lust, or that deeply joyous feeling of coming home.

* in case you’re wondering, yes, quite a lot of fan fiction really is like that, as I’ve previously chronicled: https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/fan-fiction-under-the-rock/

 

Peony

The smell of a garden after rain…

Fan fiction – under the rock

After a couple of recent Facebook conversations with friends on the topic, I’ve decided to lay down a few thoughts about fan fiction – although it’s quite difficult to write about something so huge, varied and frequently deranged within the confines of a single blog post. Fan fiction is generally little-seen by much of mainstream society, but use the lever of the Internet to lift the rock of the original work and you’ll find a writhing, teeming mass of fanfic creepy-crawlies beneath. Alternate universes, unlikely crossovers, flipped genders, male pregnancies… it’s all there. Quality also varies wildly, from eye-gougingly awful to actually really good (in some cases, superior to the original). Some things, however, are reassuringly predictable – as one of my friends put it, ‘I think I remember where 99% of these fanfics end up…’ ie, with some man-love. I’ve heard a few theories as to why ‘slash’ fiction* has become so popular – something to do with the lack of well-drawn female characters in many works, or women’s desire to write romantic pairings free of gender-based power dynamics, or teenage girls exploring their newfound feelings about BOYS in a safe context, blah blah. Personally I think it’s because guy-on-guy is hot, duh, but that’s just my opinion.

From the point of view of a writer, fanfic is an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, it’s a fun way to get started as a writer, and a while back I did actually start developing some Harry Potter fanfic into a fantasy novel. This book was subsequently abandoned and I’ve since written only wholly original stuff, but there have been some high-profile cases of books which started life as fan works eventually becoming published in their own right – ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series (Potter), ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Twilight), and ‘Temeraire’ (the Aubrey-Maturin series). On the other hand, it must be a bit weird to see your beloved world and characters getting mashed around by some ham-fisted and possibly drunk amateur scribbler. Robin Hobb compares the experience to seeing a family picture photo-shopped to put everyone in compromising positions, and other writers have expressed their horror at discovering first-hand that Rule 34 (‘If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions’) does indeed have no exceptions. And in the worst case scenario, there can be legal wrangles which end up destroying part of the author’s copyright, as happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is why most writers, even if they tolerate the existence of fan fiction, make a point of not reading any, especially if they’re writing an ongoing series – things can get very messy if a subsequent installment has a resemblance to a previously-published fan work.

What’s my attitude? Well, Patrick Rothfuss was completely delighted when he discovered some slash based on his books (and it’s pretty well written too, in fact), considering it proof that he had truly arrived as an author, and I think I’d agree with him. Fanfic, after all, is evidence that your story has affected someone. Even if they hated it. So they felt the need to bring your dead character back to life, hook him up in a three-way with Harry Styles and Wolverine, and then get him pregnant by both of them at once? Well, why not eh – in the happily delirious world of fan fiction, anything is possible.

Links:

Patrick Rothfuss’ blog, with his delight at finding some slash: http://blog.patrickrothfuss.com/2008/02/yes/

A summary of the Marion Zimmer Bradley case: http://jimhines.livejournal.com/507999.html

Robin Hobb’s blog, with an excellent summary of the case against from an author’s point of view: http://web.archive.org/web/20051124223715/www.robinhobb.com/rant.html

 

 

*the term ‘slash’ derives from writing the names of the couple with a / in the middle, as in ‘Kirk/Spock’. It has nothing to do with the guitarist from Guns ‘n’ Roses. Although, if you were wondering, yes, Slash slash is available. These days, many fandoms create cute portmanteau names for couples instead, like ‘Johnlock’ (very much not to be confused with John Locke) or ‘Merthur’. Or ‘Slaxl’.