Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Fanfiction and Fiction Writing

A few days ago, the 15th anniversary of a milestone passed: I had my first fanfics published on a major fan website.  They were Daria fanfics on the now departed Outpost Daria, then the mecca of all things involving the MTV cartoon.  I remember trembling when I saw my fanfics listed among the two dozen under the "New Updates" header.  Now it was official!  I feared abusive comments, but mainly expected to be ignored.

Days passed and comments trickled in... and not only were they positive, but two of them even came from Daria fanfiction's top dogs at the time!  I printed out each email and tucked them into a folder, which I still keep around.  The positive feedback left me warm and floaty, and dying to write more!  Burnt out from revising my historical novel (ironically, a proto version of my current one), I found writing scripted "episodes" of my favorite show to be invigorating.

The stories in my head began to multiply and form the beads of lengthy plot lines.  Those plot lines took six years to complete.  You can find them here.

Fanfiction awoke my desire to write real scripts, and thus in 2001, my long odyssey in Hollywood began.  Now in 2014, I am no longer in Hollywood and haven't written a fanfic since 2007.  I look back on my fanfiction stage with both gratitude and regret.

Why Regret?

Maybe because unlike the fandoms of A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I chose a fandom that was treated like spoiled garbage by the show's overlords.  So while other fandoms had anthologies published of their works, other webmasters sold their sites for multi-million dollars, and other fandoms' creators praised their dedication, our passion and talent were ignored.

Another regret stems from my mistaken assumption that teleplay writing would be like fanfic script writing.  Fanfic script writing was fun.  It was liberation.  Even when I encountered story roadblocks and frustrations with rising fan expectations, I felt alive and in control.  My stories could be as long as I needed them to be.  I could do whatever I wanted with the characters.

Art I did for one of my fanfics.  I was dedicated.
Teleplay writing is a discipline.  You have a little more freedom when you're in the writers room, but if you're on the outside looking in, like I was, you must conform to certain rules.  In my case, I wrote "spec" scripts -- or pretend scripts -- of popular television shows that I entered into competition or sent to agents.  Spec scripts had to be 30 pages for a half hour or 60 pages for one hour, no exception.  They had to be on white paper.  They had to include as little scenery direction as possible because what mattered was the dialogue flow.  Yet they had to be better than a real episode of the show.  And they had to be of current popular shows, even if you rarely watched them.

While I felt moments of pleasure here and there, writing teleplays felt mainly like writing ad copy for soap or kitchen appliances: it was how I tried to make a living, but it did not feel creative.  With one exception -- a television pilot that I wrote in 2004.  Though it conformed to structural parameters, it was my story and characters.  Perhaps that's why, instead of being a finalist or semi-finalist in competition, I finally won first place.

My biggest regret is that I did not wise up sooner and start writing all original material.  I was never happy writing specs, and getting into a real writers room was always a slim prospect.  Maybe if I had started writing original pilots, screenplays, and prose stories, I would have found success a different way.  At the very least, I would have a longer writing resume -- somehow literary agents are not impressed by a background of fake script writing, even if those scripts did well in competition.

But Yet... There Is Gratitude

Yes, gratitude, because fanfiction taught me how to write stories.  Before those first tentative efforts in 1999, I knew how to create characters and write dialogue, but not how to carry a plot from start to finish.  Three-act fanfics gave me a structure to follow -- set-up, build up, payoff.

My first fanfic scripts were tentative, but (I'd like to think) grew more sophisticated with time.  As developing stories on a small scale became easier, I also became better at developing larger arcs.  I had already written a novel at age 18, but it lacked a true beginning, middle, and end.  Fanfic writing taught me how to make a storyline progress, to the point where I had multiple story arcs covering several hundred pages.      

Though practice helped me improve, I also had the wisdom of other fanfic writers to guide me.  While many fanfic readers were eager to blanket everything with a vague "That was great, more please!", there were some who gave excellent, incisive feedback.  It helped that many were talented writers themselves.  Some became my beta readers, helping to guide me around many narrative plot holes.  I applied what I learned to my teleplay writing, and most recently to my prose works.

I also think that fanfic and teleplay writing really improved both my pacing and dialogue.  Though it turned out to be a mixed blessing: because script writers are encouraged to avoid lengthy description, I still struggle to write description in my prose stories.  (Though part of that is the nature of what makes "good" description, which is worth an entirely separate post.)

Finally, writing fanfic put me in touch with several wonderful people, many of whom I still know.

So while I wish for a longer writing resume, or that I knew how to describe the sun rising in a completely new way, I believe that my life is better for having written my first fanfics 15 years ago.

Now where is our damn anthology, MTV?

The above Daria image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  The other image is mine so I can do whatever I want with it.  Mwahahaha!   


  1. It's interesting reading this. When I started seriously reading fan fiction and decided to move into writing some I specifically choose Daria, not only because I've liked the show since the first episode aired, but because it had this passionate fandom without the trappings, for lack of a better word, that some of the others had/have. But I wasn't there in the beginning, other than reading stuff occasionally, so I don't know what it was like.

    Still, would you really feel better about your fanfic if MTV or Viacom took an interest in what the people here do with words and art? If those companies praised the works?

    That probably sounds judgmental, but it's not meant to be. I just prefer the idea of fan stuff being for the love of the characters and stories more than for praise or the possibility of creating the next Fifty Shades of Grey.

    Also, I totally envy your ability with structure. I've never been able to structure things well. And while I may feel satisfied with a open ending that doesn't actually feel like an ending, most others don't seem to be. That's what I need to work on.

    Thanks for everything you've done for the fandom, even though you aren't in the thick of it anymore.

    1. At the time I wrote the fanfics, I definitely wasn't thinking of being discovered or turning it into something like Twilight or Fifty Shades (only good). I was -- and am -- still very proud of my work. As for the rest, I accepted that creators never read fanfics or otherwise took interest in fandom because they were afraid of being sued for using fanfic plots. Then over time, I saw that other creators interacted with their fandoms, were proud of them, and actually promoted them in some ways. I realize that "Daria"'s creators had the extra barrier of MTV owning everything, but even after it was "okay" to acknowledge the fans, we were still disdained and held at arms length. What makes me bitter is that it didn't have to be that way.