I’m sure many of you have stopped going back to check my earlier post on fanfic for new comments, if you ever did so at all, so I thought I’d a) mention that the discussion is still going on there, and b) start a new post.
The reason for the new post is that my thoughts have had some time to compost, or marinate, or whatever the metaphor I want is, and I think I can articulate some things now that I couldn’t before. Most particularly, a few things I found myself saying to ancientwisdom over there.
There’s a difference between saying to someone, “have you thought about writing original fiction?” and saying “why don’t you write REAL fiction, instead of wasting your time with that fanfic rubbish?” Some people say the latter. Some people say the former, but really mean the latter. But some of us say the former and mean it: our intention is to express admiration of the writer, and to invite/encourage them to try something new. (The analogy this was built on is asking a LARPer if they’ve considered trying out for a play, as opposed to asking why they waste time with LARPing instead of real theatre. Nothing wrong with the former question, as far as I’m concerned, and they can always respond, “thanks, not interested.”)
The problem I’m seeing of late is an increasing tendency of people in the fanfic community to assume I mean the latter, insulting question when I ask the former: the presumption of condescension and patronization where there is none. This automatically casts me in a role I resent (because it isn’t true). I’m capable of acknowledging, thank you, that fanfic can be well-written, that it can be a valid use of one’s time, that one may engage in fanfic writing for reasons which do not translate over the divide into original fiction, and therefore that one might not be interested in writing original fiction. But can I please be permitted to ask?
And here’s why I want to ask: I want to feel like these two communities can talk to each other. Right now, a lot of times I’m made to feel that I can play in my sandbox over here (professional fiction), and you can play in your sandbox over there (fanfiction), and if I want to I can come join you in your sandbox, but I may not invite you over to mine. The traffic, if there is any, must be one-way, and any attempt to make it two-way is an insult on my part.
But, you ask, isn’t it two-way anyway? Nothing’s stopping somebody from deciding to write original fiction. While this is true, it’s true only up to a point, because there are barriers to writing original fiction that don’t exist in fanfic. Or, to put it in other terms, original fiction intimidates people in a way fanfic doesn’t. Perhaps most prominently, it’s less immediately rewarding. Instead of posting something online and garnering positive comments in a short span of time (yay egoboo!), you put it in the mail, wait months, and then get back a form rejection letter (no egoboo for you!). And this will happen a lot. Even Jay Lake, a wildly successful short story writer by anybody’s standards, has a 25% sell rate for his submissions; his stories garner an average of three rejections before selling. That gets depressing, folks, especially when you aren’t Jay Lake, and a story may get rejected twenty times or more before finding a home.
Which is why mentoring is a big part of the spec-fic community, whether it’s organized formally or just through friendships. People bootstrap each other up into the industry with technical advice (here’s how to write a cover letter), market tips (hey, that looks like a good story for City Slab), critique (okay, you’ve got a good idea here, but you need to rework it from the ground up), networking (I recommended you to a woman putting together an anthology), lessons in rejectomancy (JJA said it “didn’t work” for him; that’s great!) and general hand-holding and reassurance when that twentieth rejection letter for the same story arrives. Absent that, this is a depressing life and often an opaque one, and so new writers may not even give it a shot if somebody doesn’t encourage them to do so.
And so we try to pay it forward. I mentored someone through AbsyntheMuse, an online program aimed at teens. A published novelist friend sat with me at World Fantasy and listened to me bitch about a situation I didn’t feel comfortable mentioning publicly. Folks on the Rumor Mill trade information about markets constantly. We try to help each other succeed.
To our eyes — temporarily assuming here the authority to speak for, well, the entire professional writing community, at least those of us who aren’t jerks about fanfic — there are probably people in the fanfic world who would write original fiction, if they were encouraged to do so. If they had somebody to help them over a few of the barriers. And we want to read that original fiction, we want to see other people succeed in our world, and so we try to pay it forward to them. Not because we think there’s something wrong with what they do, but because we think there are good things about what we do, even with all the pain and suffering along the way.
But more and more, it feels like we’re not welcome to do that. Instead of being able to connect with the people who are interested in what we’re offering, we run headfirst into the closed ranks of the people who want us to go away.
Offers of help don’t have to be patronizing. The assumption that they are saddens me (or irritates me, depending on what I had for breakfast that day).
I guess what I’m arriving at is this: I have for several years now been nudging/encouragement/kicking kurayami_hime in the shins (yes, dear, I’m outing you a little bit; I’m running out of new forms of blackmail) because she made the mistake of telling me about a story idea she had in her head, and the idea sounded really cool, so I’ve been trying to get her to write it, because I want to read it. This is the same impulse I feel toward fanfic writers I try to encourage, though in their case it’s usually an interest in their skills rather than a specific original story idea (unless they happen to tell me about an original story idea and it sounds good). I mean it as a compliment, and it implies no disapproval on my part. But whereas kurayami_hime usually looks a little flustered and guilty (because I keep pestering her about this on an irregular schedule, and haven’t given up yet), lately the fanfic writers seem more offended than anything else, as if I must have something against who and what they are.
I don’t. I just want to give them any assistance they might want or need. Because this sandbox over here can seem like hostile and unknown territory, otherwise.
And I wish it were possible for those of us trying to pay it forward to find those of them who might want to cross over, without evoking the specter of the elitists who spit on fanfic, or stepping on the toes of those who are happy in their sandbox and have no interest in going anywhere else.