Why ‘Write What You Love’ Means All Fiction is Fanfiction

Fanfiction gets a bad rap. Some of it is deserved, of course, but what else do you expect from amateur writers scribbling basically for their own amusement?

Of course you’re going to get purple prose, authors inserting themselves into stories as Mary Sues, and unrealistic and uncomfortable situations. But maybe the difference between ‘original fiction’ and ‘fanfiction’ is not that one is sadly ripping off other people’s characters, while the other is actually coming up with new stuff.

Maybe the difference is – ‘original fiction’ is just much, much better at hiding what it’s inspired by.

I started thinking about this issue lately because I’m currently working on two very non-serious bits of writing: one about the characters from The Iliad making havoc in the modern world, and the other re-imagining what Mansfield Park would look like if it was set today. (I have many more ‘serious’ projects that I’m procrastinating on, of course – don’t we all?)

Anyway, I started wondering – am I writing fanfiction? Or are they different enough from the original to be ‘original fiction’? After all, several authors have published books reimagining both The Iliad and Mansfield Park. Both The Iliad and Mansfield Park are in the public domain, of course, so that makes it easier for authors. No one’s going to sue them if their work is ‘not original’ enough. But don’t tell me that’s seriously the only difference between fanfiction and original fiction – that fanfiction is fiction about characters that are not in the public domain.

The next thought is obviously – everything is ‘inspired by’ something else. Authors love to talk about their influences on their writing. If you, as an author, want to see more of one type of story, you start writing them yourself. If you do this, you are a fan of something, and you are writing about it because you are a fan. Stretched to its broadest definition, this is what fanfiction is.

So at what point are these inspirations and influences far enough in the background that the world can acknowledge these authors as ‘real writers’? You can even tell, in some works, when an author models their character on another well-known character. And published authors are definitely guilty of inserting themselves into their own stories – both Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer have been accused of inserting themselves as Mary Sues into their plots. And in terms of plot – Shakespeare basically just re-wrote famous stories in his plays, and he is considered a master of literature. And many authors have made a career re-writing fairytales. Is this ‘original fiction or ‘fanfiction’?

Basically, I think my conclusion is, that like with anything else, the line between the two are not black and white. Fanfiction tends to be found on internet websites, tends to be of amateur quality, and deals with copyrighted characters. But that’s not always true – many fanfictions contain very high quality writing, and there are definitely writers who work with public domain characters. Also, ‘original fiction’ tends to be published by publishing houses, and contain original characters. But sometimes these original characters are clearly influenced by other characters. And sometimes published books could easily be described as fanfiction if they’d happened to be published online on a website instead.

Which brings us to that age-old question – what is originality? Does it even exist, or is everything just a recombination of old things that always existed?

In other words, it is possible that there really is “nothing new under the sun.” And if everything is just a recombination, maybe some writing is just a better and more interesting recombination than others. Which could lead to my radical title up there at the top – we could legitimately call all fiction writing fanfiction.

Provocative thought, no? Agree or disagree?

Note: check out my previous posts on The Iliad and Mansfield Park, if you’d like to know why I’d be enough of a fan of these works to write about them :)

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How the Sochi Olympics Illustrate the Value of Books

The big news when this set of Olympics started in Sochi was how much the whole thing cost – fifty billion dollars! – and cue predictions of how these fancy Olympics venues would all fall apart in a decade or so from lack of use. Okay, okay, I can definitely get in line with the thought that, however good for the ‘human spirit’ athletic competitions are, Olympics costs are ballooning to an unreasonable amount. I mean, couldn’t humanity find something better to do with fifty billions dollars than build some amazing venues that might be only fully used for a month?

But… humanity spends an insane amount of money on a lot of ‘useless’ things. The Olympics, at its heart, is entertainment for the masses. And don’t other forms of entertainment – movies, music, video games – need a gigantic amount of time and money to make too?

Watch a couple of those YouTube videos on the making of The Hobbit movie… there’s practically a city’s worth of people, making practically a city’s worth of sets and costumes, to create a world that doesn’t actually exist and doesn’t benefit anyone except those who got a few hours of entertainment out of it. I can think back to the days of old Hollywood, when they built an actual Roman racetrack for Ben Hur, and put an actual chariot race in it to film. And then I compare it to today, where they don’t need to actually build every little thing they film. The special effects far surpass what was possible in Ben Hur, but everything else about movies have ballooned as well – actors’ salaries, production budget, number of people involved…

On one hand, previous generations of humanity would probably look at us like we were touched in the head to spend such enormous amounts of time and money on such fleeting experiences. Fifty billion to host the Olympic Games. Six hundred million to make The Hobbit. We can pour time and money and immense amounts of effort into fleeting experiences. Have you ever thought about how much actually went into your two hours of enjoyment in the theatre? How many thousands of people were involved in getting the product to you?

I’m not going to start ranting about how we should stop this and start using all these billions of dollars, and billions of hours of manpower, to go out and solve world poverty or something. Of course it’s more complicated than that. Of course all this money and effort drives the economy. Maybe it’s just our modern world is more complicated, and more interconnected, and everything we do tends to be on a massive and complicated scale (think the Internet… or the cellphone network… or global corporations…)

I’m just going to say – all of this makes me appreciate the simplicity of a novel all the more. At its heart, a novel is just one writer with a vision he scribbles on paper. Once the printing press was invented, and books were able to be mass-produced, the writer’s message could reach more people. But there’s something to be said for one person’s ability to create a whole new world inside the pages of a book, without hiring an orchestra to play the soundtrack, and without actually constructing something pretty to look at in the background of the action scenes.

Someone will come at me next and protest there’s editors, and copyeditors, and cover designers, and marketers, and distributors involved in book-making too. And there is, of course. But you can cut back the book industry to a writer, and maybe a printing press. The simplest form of a movie is still far more complicated.

Or think about it this way. If our modern world disappeared tomorrow, would you rather have a book with you, or a copy of your favourite DVD?

And the nice thing about our modern world still existing is that we DO have choice… we do have the amazing ability to entertain ourselves with expensive-to-make movies, or expensive-to-host Olympic Games. But I’d like to call for a moment to appreciate the simpler things in life – and appreciate them for being simple.

Simplicity is something our world lacks. It’s something overlooked and taken for granted. But it will never lose its value.

And, therefore, neither will the writers among us, who create these magical things known as ‘books.’

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Deadlines, Oh Dear

quotables button“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

  • Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Apparently this is me as well, even with arbitrary deadline I set for myself! In other words – no post on Stories and Stuff last Friday, even though I promised myself I would. Anyway, I always loved the humour in this quote. Douglas Adams was known for missing deadlines, so it’s nice for all of us procrastinating authors to know we’re not alone. Also, he wrote several popular and famous books, so if your (and my) motivation is letting you/me down, don’t despair. There may yet be hope.

Have a great Family Day weekend, everyone! (At least, those of you fortunate enough to live in a place that celebrates it).

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Observations on Being Single, Revisited

I wrote a post for Valentine’s Day a couple years back, and clearly felt I’d said everything I’d needed to say about it, because I never wrote another one since… and this year, I thought I’d look back on it and see if I still felt the same way.

I do. I still feel like there’s a gulf of misunderstandings between men and women that just cause frustration all around! Double-thinking what you do, and being cautious in what you say, are still so necessary… and yet they still build walls in what should just be easy, wonderful friendships. And then just – confusion all around if what you want is something more! So, without further ado, I’m going to re-post my old post below.

(I know. It’s Valentine’s Day on Friday. But I hope to post entirely new content on Friday, instead of slacking off with a re-post, so you get the re-post today!)

There are two types of Valentine’s Day posts that singles write: posts whining about how depressing Valentine’s Day is when everybody around them is in a relationships, and posts celebrating how singles get to spend the whole day spoiling no one but themselves (oh goodie). This is not one of those posts. I’m not going to rant, or write an ode to singleness here. I’d just like to point out a few things I’ve noticed, and this seems like an appropriate time to do it.

First, being single never excludes you from “the game of love.” You always get tugged into second-guessing, and misunderstanding, and awkward moments like anyone else. I can have completely normal conversations with a guy, and then hours later realize, “Oh, I hope he didn’t read too much into that…” or “Maybe he had ulterior motives for starting that seemingly innocent conversation…” When the most likely explanation is that it was an innocent conversation. And that’s the default explanation in my head, but waaaaaaaay in the back of my mind is a little voice telling me to be careful, because there’s a miniscule possibility it wasn’t.

And, of course, if you’re actually interested in whomever you’re having a conversation with, it makes things a lot more complex…

I guess I just wish interactions between guys and girls didn’t have to involve second-guessing and misunderstandings – that every friendly conversation was just a friendly conversation unless we both actually wanted something different – and additionally, that we didn’t have to eternally test the water if we actually do like someone.

Singleness shouldn’t involve playing games. No more gushing about how much we love being single if we’re actually keeping our eyes wide open for a special someone. No more “we’re just friends” when you’re secretly wishing you’re not, or insisting “we’re just friends” because you’re afraid the other person is getting the wrong idea. Don’t know why, but singleness seems to involve second-guessing, over-analyzing, and pretending to a better version of ourselves.

I don’t like fakery, and I don’t like playing games. Sometimes it seems like the process of being single involves too much of both.

Anyway, hope everyone has a good Valentine’s Day!

Note: Being in a relationship is not necessarily a solution to the above… I know it brings its own set of problems!

Did I offer a solution in the above? No, because I didn’t have one. I still don’t have one. Except – try to take every opportunity to be honest. Treat everyone with respect as a human being – every single human being deserves to be treated with respect. And… if you have anything better to add, please put it in the comments below!

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Rant on “Ruining the English Language”

All those crazy kids on the internet, jibbering in text speak and handing in essays with hashtags in them, are a menace to the venerable old mother tongue, the tongue we all speak and most of the world speaks… a language known as English. A respected language that is beginning its slow slide into decline, because of the ignorance of grammar, complete unawareness of sentence structure, and the mangling of words. When “lol” is used commonly by the masses, is it not a sign of society’s decay?

Wait, wait, wait, back up a moment. Is anyone seriously nodding along here?

This is the worst kind of paranoia, technophobia – nostalgia for a past world where grammar teachers stared down through their spectacles at you and made you write “do not end a sentence with a preposition” fifty time on the blackboard.

How on earth is the internet ruining English? Just because English might possibly turn out to be different? Just because it might follow a different set of rules than the archaic ones you grew up with, the language is ruined? What, you really think the language they used fifty years ago was orderly and rational, and, thus, worth keeping?

Look, the internet understands each other. We might type LOL, and TTYL (which are ancient abbreviations in internet time by now, by the way), and make jokes referring to memes (“In a CAVE. With a box of SCRAPS!”), but do you think in the least that we don’t understand each other? Or, that, because you have lost all ability to understand us, the words we use should be regarded with scorn and disgust? If we want to use new words – make up new words, throw useless grammar rules out the window, try out new grammar rules and see if we can’t have fun bending the rules inside-out – why should we be barred from doing with English what English has always done – evolve?

Why should our tech-obsessed crowd be barred from something tech does so incredibly well – create?

Oh, but we won’t be able to get jobs. We won’t know the proper place to use text speak, and we might use it in places where the established rules for centuries has dictated that we write in complete sentences, with subjects and predicates. We might look stupid, because we veered too far away from being formal.

Fine, you can clearly see I’m willing to bend. I can spout out as many paragraphs of the most sleep-inducing, formal, mostly-grammatical-correct writing as you could require. I’ve always BELIEVED in writing so others can understand, and if the other does not want to be presented with the language of the internet at a certain point in time, I will refrain from using it. I adapt. I change my tone of voice depending on the context and circumstances.

But if other people don’t, will the pillars of our society come crumbling down?

If you hired someone who described themselves as “social media savvy,” would it inevitably mean that person will be unable to cope with the job?

Because people use emoticons, or decide not to capitalize words, does that in fact mean they are functionally illiterate? Even when others understand them?

Let’s stop wailing about the decline of English. Let’s stop pretending young people don’t know how to communicate, just because they communicate in a different way. Let’s not always act as if the sky is falling down.

English will change. It might look a little more chaotic, or maybe it will just find a new set of rules. Either way, it’ll survive. It lasted for hundreds of years without any standardized spellings of any words. And life went on.

Relax. We’ll survive.

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E-books Have Not Killed the Printed Book (Yet)

Two years ago, I asked the question, will e-books replace the printed book? Will we turn into a world of readers who stare at the glowing screen, instead of burrowing our noses in the musty pages of a hardcover? And I predicted that the good old printed book will never go extinct. Not completely. If vinyl records are still being used by music lovers, why wouldn’t printed books stick around for all of us book lovers? And it looks like, so far, the evidence bears me out.

I obviously have a vested interest in whether e-books are read by anyone – I’ve published several short stories in this format. But, as a reader, I will never lose my fondness for actual pages. And recently Time magazine reported that printed books are not dying, despite all dire predictions. And, as a bonus to me, e-book sales are still increasing alongside. So the conclusion basically is – e-books are a great, portable complement to printed books. People don’t feel like they have to choose only one or the other. And really, that’s great. There’s no reason this has to be an either-or situation. It just makes a good story to declare this an all-out war.

Of course, this study is just a snapshot of how things are right now. Everything and anything could change in the future. People might start exclusively buying e-books. Or e-books might just turn out to be a fad after all. But at the moment, it looks like both the printed book and the e-books have staying power.

What about you – do you find you read both E-books and printed books, or only one or the other?

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Writing Is Difficult!!!

quotables button“A writer—someone once said—is a person for whom writing is difficult.”

- peptalk from Lev Grossman, during Nanowrimo

A writer with real genius makes writing a book look easy. When you read the book, you don’t feel all the blood and sweat and tears the author poured into the manuscript – you just follow a good story. Which leads to a persistent belief of writers that writing itself should be easy too. That, when the words just aren’t flowing, something must be wrong with you, as a writer.

I always get discouraged when writing gets difficult. Sometimes ideas just flow, and you know what you want a story to be – but when you sit down and write it, you just can’t squeeze out the words. Every sentence is agony, and you just think, at this rate, this novel will take ten years to finish. And then you give up.

But writing is difficult, and that’s okay – you are a writer as long as you keep stringing one word after the other. Not because you find it easy to do so. But because you keep trying to do it. (And it’s always comforting to know “real” writers don’t define themselves by how easily the words flow for them either.)

So I’ve got to break out of my procrastination funk I’ve fallen into since finishing my NaNoWriMo novel! I’ve barely written anything (because Christmas is so busy, I told myself), and haven’t edited anything at all. So hopefully I can do better!

My writing goals for this year:

  • type and edit my Nanowrimo novel, and decide whether it’s worth showing the world or not
  • write something new
  • edit and publish some old stuff that I feel pretty sure is worth publishing, but which I haven’t gotten around to yet

How about you – any writing or reading goals for the new year?

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Filed under -- ON WRITING (well?), -- RANDOMS that don't fit into other categories.

Stories and Stuff’s Top Posts in 2013

Three years in and this blog is still going strong! And that’s all thanks to all of you, my dear readers, who keep coming back and reading, commenting and sharing. Virtual confetti, balloons and champagne to all of you! Here’s a summary of the top five most popular posts Stories and Stuff had this year:

 1.) Creativity is the Residue of Time Wasted

Creativity – we all want it, we’d all like to know how to have more of it. This was clearly a pithy little quote that explained creativity in a way a lot of people liked.

 2.) Ranking Jane Austen – Is It Possible?

Jane Austen – an ever-fresh topic, no matter what the year. My Jane Austen vignettes were popular this year as well, even though I didn’t get around to publishing a new one in 2013.

 3.) Abusing Punctuation: The Ellipses…

I guess everyone loves rule-breakers, and here’s my post about my addiction to this piece of punctuation.

 4.) Tolkien’s “Take That!” to Shakespeare

We all remember being forced to read Shakespeare in school, and hating it. So clearly this post about one of our favourite authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, taking a stab at bettering Shakespeare struck a chord with readers.

 5.) “You Too?” What Friendship Is, and Why It’s So Hard to Find

That “moment of connection” that’s so necessary to friendship, as C. S. Lewis explains it, and my own take on how I fail sometimes when it comes to this area of friendship. And anyway, we all wish we understood this whole friendship thing better.

So this list features Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, AND C. S. Lewis… regular readers of my blog will not be surprised! (And, oh look, I abused another ellipsis in that last sentence!) The rest of the list covers aspects of good writing: how to be creative, how to write on friendship, and what a good long sentence without an ellipsis might look like.

In conclusion – thank you so much for supporting this blog in 2013 (and buying my ebooks too – I know some of you did!), and I wish you all the very best in 2014! Happy New Year!

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Two Impossible Things to Get in Life

cup of tea

“You can’t get a cup of tea big enough, or a book long enough, to suit me.”

-C. S. Lewis

Don’t you love it when people know you enough to get you something for Christmas that’s just perfect? Here’s something that combines three things I love: C. S. Lewis, tea, and books. Isn’t it a great mug?

And yes, despite my admitted addiction to coffee, I will never say no to a cup of tea. Or to a long book, unless it is so poorly written as to not be worth the effort.

What about you? Get any perfect gifts this year?

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When Fantasy is Self-Indulgent

Note: This should’ve gone up Friday. In fact, it would’ve gone up Friday – was all ready to go up Friday – when my computer experienced internet connectivity issues. So, you get to enjoy it today instead!

A major part of writing fantasy is world-building – everyone agrees about that. What’s the point of setting your plot on another world, if everything that happens could’ve occurred in the very city you live in without anyone blinking an eyelash? Characters have to act in a realistic other world, a world that is somehow different than the world we live in.* This is the fun part of fantasy, but also one of its pitfalls.

And not just the realistic part. It’s tough to think up another world all on your own, and not even Tolkien’s world is without its flaws (Tolkien, by the way, admitted once or twice that the geography of Middle Earth was sadly unrealistic). Another pitfall is, after putting all your effort into dreaming up a wonderful alternate reality, you want people to know how much thought you put into it.

Shown their work” is one name for this, and don’t get me wrong, this can be done well. But everyone’s heard of historical novels where characters spend pages explaining the political situation of their time to each other, just so the reader knows how much effort the author put into this. And, you know, the exact same thing can be done in fantasy novels, and is definitely one of the reasons non-fantasy readers find them boring. Because there is usually a LOT of back story about the setting, characters and society that somehow has to get across.

I’ve certainly got the feeling before, while reading fantasy novels recommended to me as “good,” that these particular characters are chasing this particular MacGuffin into this particular country, just so the author can show off the fact he/she actually INVENTED another country/society/setting in their fantasy world. That their world has breadth and depth, just like the real world. But in reality, those scenes could be cut from the book and the only result would be that the plot would move along a little faster.

Or, the feeling that a particular fantasy series is going on forever because the author wants to explore the outer edges of his world, while the reader would be perfectly satisfied for the plot to just get on, already!

In these cases, the reader feels like the world was created far more for the author’s own pleasure than for the readers’. That we are just being dragged into a very long trip into someone else’s imagination – someone who is very proud of their imagination, and thinks the sheer scope and force of their imagination will convince everyone else it’s good too. When, in reality, the story is lost behind dense layers of self-indulgence.

I’m speaking here as a reader and not a writer, obviously. I know it’s a tricky balance, getting out everything you need to say in a story without destroying the illusion by saying too much.

Anyway, I’d just like to point out at the end, instead of listing off every terrible fantasy book out there (which would really just be tearing other authors down, rather than saying anything useful), one author who does not fall into this pitfall. You can pick up any of her books and feel the full force of disorientation of falling into a fully realized world in the first chapter. Very little is carefully explained, but none of it feels like it was hurriedly thought up at the last minute. She’s done her world-building, but she doesn’t tediously show it off.

I’m talking about Diana Wynne Jones here, of course.

According to her, the reason she doesn’t feel this urge to precisely describe every aspect of her world-building is because she spent so much of her career writing for children. In her own words, here’s a brilliant quote that explains why this is:

 “When I was asked if I’d like to try my hand at an adult novel, I most joyfully agreed… I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand… I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.”

 This is, perhaps, why I have such trouble finding new fantasy books to read, despite my love of the genre. I don’t mind if every little detail isn’t explained – as long as there’s enough details for me to put things together. I don’t need every book to be a doorstopper. So I often find myself reading children’s fantasy, and I’m not ashamed of it. I still hold out the hope, though, that I’ll find more fantasy novels that I truly enjoy.

* I recognize many fantasy novels are set in our world, but by this sentence I mean in those novels our world has to be our world but different, for it to truly be a fantasy novel. You know, like in Harry Potter, where wizards and witches live hidden under our very noses. And so on. In this case, using our world as a setting is using it as more of an alternate fantasy version of our world.

** After complaining about the above at length, I realize it’s almost hypocritical of me to still love Lord of the Rings. But I’m willing to make an exception for Lord of the Rings. Because it’s – well, it’s Lord of the Rings.

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