Friday, July 26, 2013

The Value of Fanfic, Part 1

I read a lot of fanfic – that's fan-created fiction based on someone else's work, for the uninitiated. There are people who are relaxed by reading a novel, something new and different, but I'm not one of them. I don't mean to say that I don't like new novels, or reading something new that I've never read before. I only mean to say that often it's not relaxing. It's enjoyable, of course. But I do a lot of writing for business clients in the daytime, and by the time I get to read, it's often something I do right before bed. I'm tired, my eyes are tired, and having to remember new characters and what they look like and what they do and all their mannerisms, etc., etc., is . . . well, tiring.

So, when I'm tired, I read fanfic. It's like reading reruns. You already know the characters. You know what they would or wouldn't do or say. You understand their relationships with other characters. It's just a new story in an already-familiar universe, whether that's Scotland in the 1700s, on a space-station, or in the basement of the FBI.

There are a great many people who will say there is no value to fanfic, or to reading it, especially for writers. But I disagree. Most fanfic – I would guess about 95% – is written by people who never claim to be writers, merely people who want to imagine their favorite characters continuing on when the book or TV show ends. The other 5% (if that much), is written by writers who have the same desire to see their favorite characters have new adventures, and though they know there's no money in it, they write it anyway, for a variety of reasons aside from just love of the characters. The fanfic writers I know who write publishable-quality works do it when they are between their own work, when they need to escape, or simply because they've built a fanbase of their own, and those fans are waiting for the next installment. In fact, I've read excellent works of fanfic by writers who can and have written their own original works.

Those are the works of fan-created fiction that I enjoy the most, because they are usually like reading franchise-approved and published novels. Like the various series of novels in the Star Trek or Star Wars universes, these writers put out professional-quality work, only without getting paid. But, unlike the sanctioned novels in such franchises, they have the freedom to do things with characters that would never be allowed to happen in a Paramount- or (now) Disney-approved book. The interesting part is that the very skilled ones are able to take the characters past some invisible line that we, as readers or viewers, know must never be crossed, and bring them back unscathed. They find inventive ways to get around various taboos, and then return those characters without permanent harm, right where they should be for the next episode, or else invent an entirely new, alternate universe for them to live and work and play in, while leaving the ones in this universe safe and sound where they belong (see the J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies). The most frequent example of this is the consummation of a relationship that hasn't, and probably never will, happen in the series of books or TV shows or films. But there are many other examples.

But aside from sheer enjoyment, there is actual value to reading these labors of love. I have learned more about writing from reading fanfic than I have from reading Shakespeare.

Have you ever watched an Olympic or World Figure Skating competition? Everyone knows names like Kristi Yamaguchi or Michelle Kwan, and perhaps you even know the current Olympic and World champion, Kim Yuna. You watch them, and they make it look so easy, don't they? That's what it's like reading good, well-written fiction.

Reading well-written fanfic is like reading a lesser-known, but promising skater, like Georgian Elene Gedevanishvili, who currently is ranked at 10th place in the world. You love her style, her attack, her desire to skate her best. But she still hasn't reached her full potential. And you can't wait to see what she's capable of.

But reading the other 95+% of fanfic is a little like watching a local or regional competition. You watch as one young skater after another makes errors in basic technique that result in falls or stumbles, or simply just looking awkward, like they don't quite have their feet under them. You suddenly realize how very difficult it actually is to make it look easy. You develop instant appreciation for the Kim Yuna's, the Mao Asada's, and the Elene Gedevanishvili's of writing. Like their writing counterparts, they present a piece of work that is so smooth, so flawless, it's hard to imagine it isn't as easy to them as walking is to you.

And you realize that it takes an awful lot of practice to get to that point.

But as a writer, it also shows you other things as well. It shows you what can go wrong. Like watching a novice figure skater and seeing her drop her shoulder in mid-air while doing a jump, knowing that she'll never be able to land that jump because she's too tilted, a writer can see techniques gone wrong and devices inexpertly used. You often know what the author is trying to do, but for whatever reason, it doesn't work. But as a writer, you can take in that information and learn from it.

And I'll go into specific examples in a later article.