Friday 25 November 2011

The value of fan-fic

As far as I am aware, no one has ever written any fan-fiction based on any of the worlds I have created. (I certainly wouldn't consider Al Ewing's Pax Britannia books fan-fic.) But I can see how such literary homages to your creation could be a double-edged sword for an author.

M'colleague Mathilda Gregory puts forwards a persuasive case for the defence here and it got me thinking. When an author like Sebastian Faulks writes a James Bond novel, or Michael Moorcock writes Doctor Who, is that not a form of fan-fiction? After all, I know that I would find it very hard to write 100,000 words of something if I was committed to it totally, meaning that, in the case of a shared world setting, I was a fan.

And to take my own case, is not the tie-in fiction that I write fan-fiction? The reason I ever tried to get a gig writing for Doctor Who is because I love the show, and always have done. The incredibly rich backgrounds of Warhammer and 40K constantly bring me back to writing for those settings too.

Admittedly, there is a lot of dire fan-fiction out there, in part because it's published having never passed the eyes of an editor. But if we ignore the dross, there are still a few gems out there (or so I'm told).

I was trying to work out what the difference is between fan-fic and tie-in fic (other than the fact that one's contracted and involves payment at the end) and considered whether it was all to do with characters. For Warhammer 40K I've created whole Black Templars crusader fleets and Imperial Fists squads, but my next Doctor Who story Terrible Lizards features the Doctor, Amy Pond and Rory Williams - all three Steven Moffat's creations. So it can't be that.

Perhaps it comes down to professionalism, the fact that there are so many editorial stages - including people responsible for the IP checking your work - but I am sure that many fans know the minutiae of Doctor Who history far better than I. So it probably isn't that either.

Maybe the conclusion we must conclude is, quite simply, that at the end of the day there is no difference between fan-fic and tie-in fiction, other than a possible perceived standard of quality, or lack thereof.

So, I throw this one open to the floor. What do you think?


David Drage said...

I think on the simplest level you are correct. Tie-in fiction and fan fiction are effectively the same thing.

However, I also think that the editorial input, IP control and contract issues also play an important part.

A tie-in novel is being sanctioned to become part of the whole body of work whereas fan-fic never will!

I suppose in theory a good fan-fic author could make the jump to tie-in author. In fact I am sure this has already happened. You give yourself as an example of this.

I would also suggest that Michael Stackpole, who wrote the Conan the Barbarian movie adaption was a fan of Robert E.Howard who landed the the writing contract. Yes he was already a respected author, but several years ago he was a member of the REH United Press Association, a amateur body that writes scholarly studies of Robert E. Howard's works.
Clearly he was a fan...

William King said...

I suspect the main difference between writing tie-ins and writing fan-fic is that you are commissioned by the owners of the property to do so. I agree with you about the need for passion in writing tie-ins. I could not write for a universe I did not really, really like.

Jonathan Green said...

Ah, I feel I should point out that I've never written fan-fic that wasn't already a commissioned piece of work (or at least a proposal for a commissioned piece of work), and therefore officially sanctioned tie-in fic.

But I have heard of cases of fan-fic authors making the jump to the professional gig.

Jonathan Green said...

Although, that said, I suppose the dozens of gamebooks I wrote as a child were Fighting Fantasy fan-fic. ;-)

Jonathan Green said...

Hi Bill!

Thanks for dropping by.

You're right, of course. It's a great buzz to be able to add to a part of an existing and well-respected mythos or universe in some small part as well.

An Inquisitor I made up for the colour text in the old Codex: Chaos ended up becoming a major player in the Battlefleet Gothic game!

Anonymous said...

Ah, now this is a topic I actually feel qualified to comment on.

Fan fiction has more variants and in some ways far more complex undertones than tie-in fiction. There are people who write fanfic for fun - the ones who parody and make light of an otherwise sensible/serious thing. Then there are those who write... *gulp* slashfic. Then there are those who write fan fiction because it's the only way they'll likely ever get to write for something they both like and enjoy writing about.

Many fan fiction communities are incredibly supportive of each other's efforts. The Black Library Bolthole, for example as well as the Sugarquill (a Harry Potter-fic community) offers a number of exceptionally strong writers who are keen to work with each other to develop their skills. In that regard, the fanfic community is actually a great proving and nurturing ground for up-and-coming writers.

I *am* one of those who have made the jump from fanfic writer to contract, a fact I am exceptionally proud of. With my first novel now less than a week away from official release, the second one finished and any number of other projects in the pipeline, I am also discovering that writing professionally is Bloody Hard Work [tm].

I think that fanfiction has its place alongside tie-in fiction, if in part because it demonstrates such a love of the subject.

Some of it is... scary to say the least. But there are many stories that are better in terms of content and characterisation than others. If someone has sat down and written a 50k word story on a universe they love, they deservedly feel proud. It may not be the most technically well-written, or the Best Thing Ever - but it is *theirs* and they created it with love and affection. This cannot always be said of tie-in writers.

Jonathan Green said...

Hi Sarah!

Thanks for adding you two-penneth.

It's interesting that you say fan-fic is a good proving ground for writers.

George R R Martin - he of 'Game of Thrones' fame - has gone on record saying exactly the opposite.

By the way, for the rest of you, you can buy Sarah's novel 'The Gildar Rift' here:

Anonymous said...

GRRM doesn't need to worry though, does he? He's made his mark. For him, it's easy to sit on his perch and sneer downwards.

For many people, writing a piece of fanfiction that gets read by other people is perhaps the only literary opportunity they will ever get. It may be the only place they can receive any kind of feedback. Because, y'know, not everyone has an agent, an editor... or an extensive writing background.

Any writer who will do well can learn many of the technical skills writing fanfiction. They can learn how to pace, how to structure, how to build a story. If they have the competence, they can then port those skills to other worlds of their own making.

Anonymous said...

The difference between fanfic and tie-in is purely down to the fact that the tie-in stories are endorsed by the IP controller and by virtue of this are authenticated as being within the IP controller’s vision of the setting. No doubt the poorer fanfic pieces fall far below the least liked tie-ins, but I don’t see a ceiling on the quality of fanfic.

I think GRRM is wrong with what he says. He is the IP controller and the author and he will be precious of his work. It's different with Dr Who and Warhammer and others, where the IP controller is not a novelist, the novels aren’t the sole or even primary focus of the IP usage and there is a pool of authors that bring different things to the setting.

GRRM thinks that the use of an established world is ‘bad training’, but on the occasions that I have written fanfic I find the biggest hurdle in putting pen to paper is the constant line of questions regarding whether x and y exist in the setting and how does z work in the setting – care is taken to get it right. Writing fanfic provides a good lesson in research and pretty much any type of writing will benefit from honing research skills.

Pyroriffic also makes a number of excellent comments about the worth of writing fanfic. Fanfic forums are the place where a prospective writer can hone their writing skills and receive feedback. Indeed, by writing fanfic rather than an original piece, when you get it right, you already have an eager audience.

Anonymous said...

As a reader of fan fiction I completely agree with what Pyroriffic wrote.
I'm also aware that many established authors look down on fan fics and the writers but just like Pyroriffic, there are many who are proud about being former fan ficcers.

After reading what GRRM wrote there is even more reason to love H.P Lovecraft. He knew his fans and encouraged them to write stories based on his work. :D

Certain fandoms attract different types of writers and many are serious about their writing, people who move on to write their own original work.
I know of a few writers who had been published and the majority of these are the ones who write slash-fics.

Lastly, I must say the fan fiction communities are among the friendliest on the internet and that's says A LOT.

Jonathan Green said...

Hi Vivia

Good point about Lovecraft.

Angry Robot Books are doing a similar thing with their WorldBuilder initiative:

Jonathan Green said...

And here's m'colleague Sarah Cawkwell's own heartfelt take on the subject of fan-fic:

Abhinav Jain said...

As so many people have already stated, and like I believe, tie-in fiction is simply fan-fiction that the writer is getting paid for and is writing under the auspices of the IP controllers.

With particular respect to 40K, I have found some instances of fan fiction to be massively more fun and enjoyable to read than some official works from BL. Not just in the general quality of the work, but even in its tightness with respect to "canon" lore.

I write fan fiction for 40k. I have been working on a crossover fic for star wars/40k as well. I am also trying to get published by BL. I simply use my fanfic as training to getting published. Because it really does help.

Tapping into a community of critical readers like the one at Bolthole is simply a great opportunity. My fanfic is not directly 40k, it is a spin-off alternate verse fic for 60k but that doesn't change what I am writing about. It is still within the realms of the setting created by GW at large.

And I have a fairly decent response to my work, especially with regards to my main character and his cronies. Frankly, it is far more than I expected because I had low expectations of my own work.

But that has changed now. Now I am actually more confident of my writing. I have dabbled with plot ideas and a large cast of characters. I am still a little uncertain with the style and all, but that I can iron out in time.

Writing the fanfic has also inspired me on writing my own original fantasy novel. And I'm using the stuff I have learnt from writing the former to write the latter. Not to mention that writing a full-on piece, I have to make that much more effort at writing proper dialogue and doing the scene transitions and just having a coherent plot overall.

I wouldn't look down on fanfic ever, because I think it is the best training ground for any aspiring writer. Especially when the community is as great as it is at the Bolthole.

I do understand the reluctance of some authors with regards to it though when they are the sole IP controller. They have their own views and their own projections of characters and when other people take these characters and attach their own views to them, then it can be a mess.

But hey, if you are writing solely to make money and be so rigid with respect to fan reaction then why write it at all? The authors should be doubly glad that people are taking their characters and their settings and writing their own stories with them, whether they stick true to the established lore or deviate from it.

As Jonathan pointed out, these people wouldn't be writing fan fiction if they didn't like the setting and the characters and what not. I see fan fiction therefore as an homage to the writers themselves.

All that said, there is some terrible fanfic out there but then we are not all good writers. Some people can write good, some not. But the core principle is same: we write fanfic because we love what you have created.


Mossy said...

An interesting topic to debate, certainly. You touched on the character-versus-setting aspect of shared world stories, which is certainly leans far more toward the setting side in 40k and fantasy--I can only barely fill a single hand with 40k or Fantasy fanfic that I've read that include 40k special characters or BL characters.

Personally, I would hold that writing fanfic based on characters, a la most Harry Potter fanfics, is closer to the "write-by-numbers" hypothesis that GRRM espoused. That said, one can still interpret characters in different ways and invent new ground to flesh out, and I quite disagree with the sentiment as a whole.

Fanfic is what many people have said in many ways--the everyman's way of connecting to the characters and worlds they care so much about; unvetted and uncompensated; written without IP approval; etc. What it represents to me additionally, though, is the freedom to experiment. As a fanfiction author, I can write stories that would never be published for no fault of their technical skill level or story execution--I can sketch the recesses of the Warhammer worlds that are just begging to be filled in.

I have read a story that was a collection of interviews with survivors from a Tyranid invasion. I have read the tale of two old, bitter veterans far past the primes of their lives confronting a horrific, daemonic evil on its home turf--and winning. I have read stories in which young girls are fused into ancient Titans, stories where a blasphemous, inebriated inquisitor reels through missteps and coincidences to uncover deeply buried rot, and a story following a young psyker as her soul is fed into the emaciated Emperor's eternally ravenous maw.

I have read and more, and my view and understanding of 40k is, to me at least, far broader and more engaging for it.

Skeats said...

I think this blog alone is a great confidence boost for fanfic writers as you have essentially closed the gap between fanfic and tie-in writers. Whereas GRRM’s comment does the opposite. Whilst I get that GRRM is encouraging would-be writers to conjure their own world/universe, he shouldn't poopoo those that are inspired by existing work to think up their own take on it. But there isn't really much more for me to add to what was already said above.

I've been dabbling in fanfic for a little while now. Nothing finished, but it is, as has been mentioned already, a great way of honing my writing. I’m currently working on a fanfic short in the 40k universe, which I’m looking to finish and post on the bolthole when done. And here is the best example I can give of how it is good for honing your skills: I’ve had a number of friends review my work, all of which are putting their hand to writing themselves, and it seems that with every new piece I’ve written their comment has consistently been “this is your best yet”. Granted, friends are usually going to have a bias opinion, but I like to think I’ve carefully selected my reviewers to give honest feedback. Now I’d like to take that to a wider audience to get more feedback, and seeing the amount of feedback for fanfic on the likes of the bolthole is a great way of doing that. During the last few years of writing bits and bobs, I’ve also managed to get some writing down for original stories. So if I should ever get that work published, then I will owe gratitude to the experiments in writing that I did to get there, i.e. fanfic.

I know I'm going off on a tangent here with what I'm about to add, but I think the human race evolves by bouncing ideas off each other. And whilst authors over the years have developed their own worlds, a lot of them can be seen as reflections of already pre-existing stories; Lord of the Rings reflects Icelandic sagas, Star Wars the old cult Sci-fi TV shows/movies/comics such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, etc. And these reflections then take on an even bigger following. So then it can be argued "where would A Song of Ice and Fire be if it weren't for Lord of the Rings?" I don’t think it can be argued that Tolkien’s work immensely inspired the fantasy genre. Okay, I know A Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings are different, but I believe the catalyst is there. And is that kind of catalyst any different from the one that inspiring fanfic? I don't think so.

Sorry, I’ve totally gone off track on what the original post was about, and my main comment was the very first line. Somehow it degraded into a meagre attempt to put GRRM in his place. But there is relevance somewhere in my ramblings. Tie-in writers and fanfic writers, the difference: one is allowed, the other isn’t.

Jonathan Green said...

Hi Skeats

Thanks for your kind comments!

When I sat down to write this post I didn't have any great Machiavellian masterplan in mind to bridge the gap between fanfic and tie-in writers, but the more I worked the problem through in my own mind, the more and more apparent the connection became.

Surely many people (whether they have any intention of becoming writers or not) spend a certain period in their lives (between the ages of say 7 and 13) when they write stories, or draw comic strips featuring their favourite TV/movie characters.

And why not? We all have to learn our trade somewhere.

I think this blog alone is a great confidence boost for fanfic writers as you have essentially closed the gap

narrativium said...

There's a whole bunch of sides to this. I'm still trying to see GRRM's point, exactly.

Is Eastenders a tie-in/fanfic of Coronation Street (Charity crossovers notwithstanding)? Perhaps I'm fortunate not to recognise that amount of murder and violence from residents of the same street as being in my own universe, but it seems to be more prevalent in theirs.

Margaret Thatcher wrote a piece of Yes Minister 'fan-fiction' once. I don't know if any President would've written West Wing fan-fiction - but I'm pretty certain other people have. Which is 'the universe' of the story - the characters, or the setting? A lot of Star Trek fanfic involves new ships and new crews.

We use familiar tools to explore our surroundings. David Gemmell's novels may be very different in tone to Guy Gavriel Kay's, and the empires and religions and cultures and rules of magic all vary, but I still know what a sword is and I can still see the heroism and conflicts of the characters. I don't have to imagine they're set on different planets to enjoy the stories. A lot of the ground-work's done.

I remember writing fanfic when I was younger. Oddly enough, I wrote rip-off-fic first - creating my own versions of characters I'd read or seen, and making stories about them. It's not easy to file the serial numbers off. If I wrote about a mysterious stranger who travelled in time and space and had adventures, would it be better accepted if I was writing for Doctor Who officially or should I name him something else and face the possible accusations of opportunistic plagiarism?

I think I'd prefer to be part of the community than outside of it. And I like universes where the sense of community is present and inbuilt - allowing people to join in and make up their own parts of the story. One person cannot be a choir; a wealth of voices can create something richer.

Jonathan Green said...

Narrativium - very well put! And interesting that you raise the issue of potential accusations of plagiarism.