Fan Fiction–Threat or Menace?

Yeah, I did a little J. Jonah Jameson there.  Anyway, recently the subject came up when Amazon announced the launch of Kindle Worlds, its fan fiction site.  Since I’ve never been one to let a chance to offer my opinion go by without at least a pat-down, here you go.

fanfic

Fan fiction: not even once.

So…fan fiction.

You know the idea; someone who’s a huge fan of either a novel, a movie or television series takes that setting and those characters and tells a story with them. Sounds a little dodgy, doesn’t it?

And it’s almost always horrible. When someone tells me they write fanfic, I usually have two reactions. One is to cringe. The other is to ask them why.

I cringe because inevitably they describe their latest “work” in vivid detail, usually giving me gas.

“Oh, I just finished up a 75,000 word novel about Buffy getting an oil change.”

“Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca go shopping for lawn decorations at Costco.”

“I felt like they didn’t explain enough, so I wrote a forty page short story from the viewpoint of the toilets on the Enterprise.”

Yikes. And the answer I always get when I ask them why they bother?

“Well, I like to write, and I like the show/movie/books.”

Really? Well, if you like the show/movie/book so much, why did you just take a steaming dump on it? And if you like to write, why aren’t you, you know, actually writing? You know, creating a setting, characters, and a storyline? Creating a conflict for your characters to solve? Letting us meet these characters and see them at their best—and their worst? You know, writing?

“But that stuff’s hard to do!”

Well, duh. You think the creators of your favorite what-have-you didn’t bust his or her butt for months or even years to not only create those characters/settings, but to learn the art of making them memorable and engaging? Assuming you understand that, do you think they did it so you could tell us all about Xena’s confrontation with a microwave or give us the episode of Charmed where the Halliwell sisters suddenly become overwhelmed with the desire to ravage the pizza delivery guy (who happens to resemble you) while arguing with a lamp post?

“But it’s an homage!”

No, it’s copyright infringement. It’s lazy fantasy-fulfillment and egotistical bullshit. What’s worse, it’s really, really shitty writing. Believe me, I doubt even the most hard-core Trekkie is dying to read “Captain Kirk Takes a Massive Dump.” And if such a sad, hopeless person does exist, he or she will probably happily trade you manuscripts so you can enjoy “Chewbacca Humps a Volvo.”

“Well, you’re a big MEANIE and a HATER!”

Probably.  Deal with it.  At least I’m not raping and pillaging the work of others for my own ego boost.

Fan fiction.  Don’t do it. Don’t write it. Don’t read it. For God’s sake, don’t support it. Not only is it copyright infringement, it’s just crap. Fanfic; not even once.

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Writing vs. Mass Production

After I published SMILING JACK, it seemed I couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who couldn’t wait to tell me they had written a novel or were working on one. Which is totally awesome, by the way.

Now, when you tell me you have written/are writing a novel, there is one question you can bet Aunt Maggie’s house slippers I’m going to ask you. “What’s the story?” A few have actually given me a pretty good synopsis or quickie breakdown of their story. But by far, the majority of answers I get are similar to this one:

“It’s a YA thriller/paranormal/romance/hodgepodge aimed at XYZ group, hoping to catch on the popularity of ABC bestseller, and of course it’s the first in a five-hundred volume series.”

Huh? I used to try and drill a little deeper, and actually get the answer to the question. Now I just smile, wish them a heart-felt good luck, and get back to what I’m doing. Because it becomes obvious very quickly that they don’t have a clue what their STORY is about; they just know who they want to sell it to. They’ve decided to manufacture the novel they think people want to buy, also known as targeted writing.

The time for figuring out your target audience is after you tell the story, not before. Of course, you have to know your target audience when you start submitting, but as any editor or agent will tell you, you don’t even THINK about submitting before everything is polished and at its best.

I’m not a fan of the concept of targeted writing; I write the best story I can, and THEN go back and figure out who the best audience is for it. For instance, with some tweaking and revisions, SMILING JACK could have easily been a Young Adult thriller. YA thrillers (or YA anything) are blazing hot right now. The only problem?

SMILING JACK isn’t a YA story line. TJ isn’t a take-charge, let’s-get-it-done, can-do scrappy little young detective in a world full of hapless adults and Keystone Kops; he’s a decently smart, good kid who spends most of the book right where any other teenager in the middle of a murder would be, which is in way over his head. To me, stripping away the elements of SMILING JACK that keep it from being YA-friendly would be stripping away the story itself. So despite the urging of a couple of agents who would have taken it on in a heartbeat if I just changed it to YA, I went independent and published it the way I intended it. I understand their viewpoint; YA is easier to sell, and very popular, meaning more sales and profit for everyone.

Far be it from me to get on a soapbox and beat my chest, wailing about “artistic integrity”, but there is something to be said for telling my story, my way. Nor is this about ignoring advice; much of the advice I was given about my second novel, SISTERS, was spot-on, and resulted in a total re-working of the beginning. Editors and agents know the business of writing better than anyone, and more often than not, the advice they give is fantastic. But you should automatically be alert when you’re being told “if you’ll just strip away the story to fit this genre, it’ll be great.” And to be fair, most editors/agents wouldn’t do that.

And before anyone threatens to dismember me for slamming the YA genre, I think there is a lot of good work being done there. But when I was in the target YA “audience,” it didn’t exist, not really. There were some juvenile adventure series like the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew stuff, and a slew of imitators, but if you were a reasonably intelligent reader at, say, age thirteen, you weren’t reading this stuff. You were reading the adult novels.

And you know what? It made me a better reader, and a better writer. By forcing me to step up into the “grown-up” world, it made me think (and therefore write) about themes not addressed in the work aimed at me.  One of my only real issues with the YA genre is that a lot of it seems to assume that the reader can’t grasp adult themes, and sets forth a set of rules to follow:

  1. You can’t deal directly with the death of a relative or friend, only as backstory.
  2. There is no such thing as sexual attraction as a teenager.  
  3. Nothing bad can happen to the main character.

Again, that isn’t the whole genre, but there’s a good chunk of it that follows those very rules. To me, it assumes the reader isn’t smart or capable enough to think about these things for themselves, which is at best condescending and at worst, insulting.

One of the big draws for adults who read YA is that there’s little to no profanity, sex, or gore. That’s fine; I don’t feel you must have these to tell a good story, but there are times when they’re appropriate to the story, and if you start to change your story to fit any particular mold, you’re already in trouble. Yes, this includes adding these elements where they aren’t needed as much as taking them out when they are.

Write the best story you can. Polish it until it shines. Once you have that, then you can figure out who it’s for. If the idea you have sounds perfect for YA (or any other genre) by all means, tailor it to fit. But never compromise the story to fit a mold, or you may as well be writing fan fiction, one of the lowest forms of writing in the world.

BRING BACK THE MONSTERS!

I’d like to know when this happened.

Vampires, particularly those in a series, have changed. Gone are the undead stalkers of the night; the monsters who’ll drink human blood with no more thought than we’d scarf a burger. The badass, mess with me and I’ll drink from your brain stem vampires are in hiding. The vampires that have taken their place?

Angsty, guilt-ridden wimps who still somehow find the motivation to ravage a woman who, on more than one occasion, gives us ample reason to question her intelligence. Of course, said ravaging is always done in a sensitive manner, with buckets of over-wrought emotion.

Of course, our “heroine” usually finds herself threatened at some point, usually by another vampire that inexplicably wants her for himself (and, we get the feeling, would probably show her a damned good time) and won’t take “no” for an answer. But of course, he can’t be too manly, or he’ll just stomp the juice out of our “hero” vamp.

In other words, we’re surrounded by “romantic vampires.” Where, I ask you, have all the monsters gone?

That’s not to say there wasn’t a fair amount of romance in the classics. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was, for its day, rife with sexual tension. In the scene where the Count attacks Lucy in the graveyard, Stoker tells us—in an incredibly classy way, mind you—that Lucy is coming her brains out the whole time. Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde is, at least on some level, about letting the inner beast run wild. While it’s not necessarily addressed, one gets the feeling that, if she survived, the woman who took Mr. Hyde to bed would have to be peeled off the ceiling. In Shirley Jackson’s excellent The Haunting of Hill House, I came away feeling very sorry for Eleanor, even though she’s a classical narcissist, mostly because she was so incredibly repressed that I got the feeling one good roll in the hay would have made her head explode.

And action, too. The final chase scene at the end of Dracula still rivals most fiction today in terms of pulse-pounding, edge-of-your-seat action. I dare any reader to stop turning the page in this final scene. Even though the story in Jekyll and Hyde is told second-hand, the scenes seem to jump off the page, and when Hyde walks over the little girl, you can practically hear her scream as her tiny bones snap.

So why the change? I tell you, old Bram Stoker must be spinning in his grave—assuming he’s still in it, of course.

I say let’s bring back the monsters, and let ’em do what they do—have fun, fight, kill things, and even get lucky once in a while–all without boo-hooing in their O-negative about it for weeks on end. In that vein (pun not intended—unless you laughed) I’ve reluctantly started a series that features vampires, werewolves, a drunken hitman, and lots more assorted wackiness. The only thing you’ll find missing is the brooding, I’m-so-deep-and-dark, let’s-have-awkward-sex moments.

Who’s with me?

Okay, I Give In…

For some time I’ve toyed with the idea of a series. I’ve looked at several ideas. Action series. Detective series. Vampire series.

Now, those of you who know me know that I have a major issue with most series, in that they tend to become formulaic (or worse, written solely to continue the series without ever telling a story of their own.) For these reasons, I’ve resisted the concept of writing a series.

I’ve given myself every excuse. Not the right character, not the right concept, not the right story. But, all those have gone away with my latest work in progress..

Book one is finished and polished, and book two is in the rewrite stage. I have plans for three and maybe four, but we’ll see where it goes after three.

So those of you who’ve asked about a series from me, it’s coming. But there are some warnings attached.

  1. This is NOT a “romantic adventure” series.  There will be plenty of both, but none of the books will exist solely for the purpose of either.  If you’re looking for those, you’ll be disappointed.
  2. Yes, there will be vampires.  No they will not “sparkle” or be all touchy-feely.  The monsters may be the main characters, but they are still monsters.
  3. Yes, there will be werewolves.  No, there will be no ridiculous love triangles centered around someone with no personality or self-esteem.
  4. I offer absolutely no promise that this will go beyond three books. The moment the story needs an excuse to continue, it’s over.  To be honest, book two only exists because my wife liked the characters in book one.  Three will come about simply because I’m curious to see what happens.
  5. I don’t shy away from sex or fight scenes, but I don’t use them to fill pages. I know some of you read series looking for both. If it fits the story, it’ll be there. If it doesn’t, it won’t.
  6. I have no intention of letting this take over my entire life. If other stories want to be written in between these, they will be written.
  7. And last, I can’t promise a happily-ever-after for anyone. When and if the series ends, all bets are off and no one is safe.

So there it is. Book one will be out later this year. Book Two probably early next year, and book three when I get it written. Beyond that, we’ll see how it goes.

Your thoughts?