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Lessons from Fan Fiction

Personal Background

I have been writing (with considerable time off), in some form or another, for the past 4 1/2 decades, no exaggeration. My initial writings were crudely drawn images in old calendar books that would have otherwise been discarded. Inevitably, they were all about more or less the same thing – anthropomorphized dogs going on adventures.

I used to own (many of them are still in my parents’ house) little plastic farm animal toys.

English: Two plastic animals (a sheep and a st...
English: Two plastic animals (a sheep and a st…

Many of these came from my father’s business trips to Munich, and they were fairly well detailed. When not drawing picture books, I would play act stories for these toys. Usually, it was some sort of journey.

The toys still exist, but the old calendar books are long gone, in some landfill somewhere (they were discarded before recycling was really mainstream).

As a teenaged girl, I had diaries, but all of those are also gone to a landfill. I did not get back to writing anything resembling fiction until my senior year in High School, when I had an AP English teacher who encouraged such things. I took Creative Writing in college, and a Law School boyfriend also encouraged me to write. Then I set it all aside until maybe 2000 when I did some short works and then started writing fan fiction in 2004.

After a few more short works, I set it aside until 2010. Ever since starting up again (with Reversal), I have written something pretty much every day, whether it’s Star Trek: fan fiction, wholly original works, blogging and/or fiction outlining.

Lessons Learned (in no particular order)

Write to keep writing

While I suffer from writer’s block, just like every other writer, I suffer from it less than I probably should, because I make an effort to write nearly every single day. This keeps it all going.

Take and Keep Notes

I have a large timeline for fan fiction, spanning a few millennia. I have other timelines for wholly original fictional universes. These are kept with MS Excel. Timelines are incredibly useful, as you immediately know things like ages, and if character lifetimes overlap.

Fiction Stacks
Fiction Stacks

I keep wikis (more like informal detailed outlines, as I am the sole contributor) for all major series, and separate ones for wholly original fiction. These are for world-building, and they contain everything from character heights to birthdays to naming conventions for various items. It’s all decided once and the references are at my fingertips.

I also keep a list of plot ideas, which also contains possible titles, species ideas, possible character names, etc. (Eriecho was originally going to be Klingon). This ‘parks’ new ideas so that I can concentrate better on the story I am trying to finish.

Don’t Throw Anything Away

Character names from 1986 have shown up in fiction written in 2011, no lie. A quarter-century later, and in a different universe, the names still work.

Your Work Should be Shared

I belong to several writers’ groups online, both for fan fiction and for wholly original work.

Fan fiction in the making
Fan fiction in the making

There are a lot of people who are terrified of sharing their work with others. These are not people holding back because it’s work they want to try to have published. They just plain aren’t ready to share anything.

And that’s unfortunate, as their work can stagnate with no feedback. Fiction isn’t meant to be hidden away, locked in a drawer somewhere.

 

Constructive Criticism is Gold

English: Crystaline Gold
English: Crystaline Gold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone providing constructive criticism of any sort is fantastic. Being told that I need to define a character better, or provide more details, or that a scenario is not credible – any and all of these criticisms makes me a better writer. Learning to take constructive criticism graciously was an enormous lesson I have learned.

 

Destructive Criticism is Dirt

While not everyone will love what I have written, I’ve learned to separate critiques into constructive and destructive, and can tell the difference.

Vermont dirt, up close.
Vermont dirt, up close.

There are those who go into reading a fan fiction who are biased against a particular series, or character or character pairing, etc. They might dislike a certain plot point (e. g. not everyone likes time travel), or they just might dislike all fan fiction.

Most of what these folks say is not worth reading, or repeating. Fortunately, I haven’t run into too many of these folks in my travels.

As for those who engage in personal attacks, they should be blocked without a second thought. No one needs to be trashed in order to be effectively critiqued. Ever.

Do Your Research

In one of my first-ever fan fictions (There’s Something About Hoshi), I misspelled MACO as MAKO, and was corrected by a reader. At the time, I was overly sensitive and felt it was petty. I have since come to realize that of course this person was correct, and they were only trying to help me get better.

Pay it Forward by Reading and Reviewing Others’ Work

Sitting back and expecting everyone else to do the heavy lifting of reading and reviewing is pretty selfish. Writers, of course, should take care not to steal from each other, or plagiarize. But the building, nurturing, and sustaining of writer communities means that you, the writer, need to also become the reader, and the critic. Always be a constructive critic.

Practice and Edit

Not writing does not make you a better writer. Only writing, and reading, can make you a better writer. So do both.

Don’t Crowdsource Your Ideas

I see this a lot, where potential writers, terrified that they have a bad idea, ask their peers for a judgment about whether something is a ‘good’ idea.

This is bass-ackwards. Instead, writers should be writing. Their ideas are, likely, perfectly fine. Why do I say this? Because most ideas are fine; it’s their execution that demonstrates quality, or the lack thereof. Consider the following story idea.

Kafka
Kafka

A suddenly disabled man is late for work one morning. Ignoring his new infirmity, he tries to go to work, as he is the sole supporter of his mostly ungrateful family. When they become, by necessity, more independent, they abuse and neglect him and, unappreciated, he eventually dies. They go on without him.

Don’t know that plot? It’s Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, easily one of the top 100 (if not 50) works of fiction ever written. Ever!

But that plot summary isn’t too promising, eh? It’s in the execution where Gregor Samsa comes to life.

Your ideas are fine, except for the idea that you need others’ approval before you can start writing. Nonsense! Write anyway.

You’re Better Than You Think

Unless you are out and out plagiarizing someone else’s work, there is probably someone out there who will like your writing. That leads to my next point.

Find Your Ideal Audience

Sites which cater to, say, only Star Trek: Enterprise will not appreciate Star Trek: Voyager fan fiction as well as sites that focus on it. That may seem obvious, but it’s a point that people sometimes seem to miss. If your work isn’t being read, try other sites. You might do better elsewhere.

Fix Your Technical Problems Before Posting

Always look over spelling, punctuation, capitalization, word choice (e. g. make sure you are using the right words, and they mean what you think they do), and grammar. A few stray errors are fine, but try to fix most of it before posting. This is a courtesy to your readers.

Not Everyone Wants to read your entire Saga

Readers’ time is as precious a your own.

Busy
Busy

Their not wanting to read your entire 10 million word saga is less a reflection on your abilities (or their love of your work), and more on their own busy lives.

Expecting your audience to read your entire saga is a discourtesy; you are not being respectful of their time. Respect their time by mixing in some short stories as most people can find the time to read something less than 10,000 words (even better, less than 5,000).

Compete With your Peers

This ups your game considerably. Put yourself out there, and don’t expect to win. Competitions are also a great way to get more people to read and review your work.

Keep Track of your Stats

You don’t have to be as analytical as I am, but it pays to at least have a handle on what’s popular, and what isn’t. These findings will probably differ from site to site, and having objective data means you’ll have a better idea of whether a story will go over well or poorly at a particular site.

Use Your Time Wisely

We all have lives, so writing time often has to be rationed. Determine what you want and need, and how well various sites satisfy those wants and needs. Do an informal cost-benefit analysis – does a site offer ease of posting? Better critiquing? A bigger audience? A better-matched audience to your work?

Build a Readership

Book reader
Book reader

When I learned I was going to be published, I told pretty much everyone in my network. A lot of people said they were excited about potentially seeing my wholly original work in print. This is not only ego-gratifying, it’s also, potentially, a source of reads (and even sales) and reviews for professional work. I’m not saying to become a writing mercenary.

Rather, cultivate and nurture your most loyal fans.

That doesn’t just mean being kind to them (which should be a given), and thanking them (another given); it also means listening to them. Do they want to see more original characters? A new horror story? More time travel? Do they think your last book dragged in the middle? Take them seriously. They are really trying to help you succeed. Let them.

Upshot

I have come a long way from picture books that I showed to no one, and stories that I left to rot in a trunk and are no more. Fan fiction has improved me as a writer, and has taught me to believe in myself. It has led me to becoming a published author. I owe it a lot.

Thank you.


You can find me on .

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Starts

Boldly Reading asks us, now, about Beginnings.

First sentences, first kisses, first missions, etc. – what are some of your favorite ‘firsts’ on Ad Astra? What sorts of openings and firsts and premieres get you to keep reading?

I enjoy a good beginning as much as anyone else does, I suppose. Crafting the perfect opening line is a challenge, and some writers do a better job of it than others, just like anything else. Here’s a great one.

“I was sure I was going to die, but was so afraid I wouldn’t in time.”

Little Black Dog’s Aftermath cuts right in, immediately, and you realize that something awful has happened, and is being (maybe) recovered from.

Here’s another.

He spoke flawless Federation Standard, possessed perfect visual acuity and hearing abilities unmatched by human ears.

kes7’s Year One opens not necessarily with a bang, but it’s obvious that whoever this is, he’s physically superior to humans. Is he an Augment, perhaps?

DHA Molecule
DHA Molecule (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And here’s one more, if you’ll indulge me.

“I … I think … I need to see a doctor.”

trekfan’s While You Were Unconscious pulls two people together, although the details are a little … tricky. Yeah, there’s a good word for it.

Bonus questions!

How do you convert blank pages and blank computer documents into works of art? How do you get first ideas? What gets you started, or re-started?

I find that, for me, getting a story started is difficult but of course it’s necessary. Otherwise, nothing is ever produced! But sometimes the ideal opening is elusive. When that happens, I try to write the middle, or even the end. And I will go over and over again, in my mind, when it comes to the opening line of a story. I want the reader to continue, of course, but what I also want is to set the tone.

Reversal‘s opening line was written on the fly (as was nearly all of that story). It is, simply, this –

It didn’t hurt.

I really, really hope the reader’s question is – what didn’t hurt?

It is, possibly, the best opening I have ever written, and it colored the remainder of the story. Other stories have had good openings. I particularly like the ones for Paving Stones (“He’s too young.”) and for Brown (They were both pregnant at the same time.). Both of these opening lines defined the stories that followed, and shaped them.

The Week Never Starts Round Here
The Week Never Starts Round Here (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often a good opening line can get me going, and can really sustain me. However, sometimes I need to get restarted, especially after I’ve had to leave a story for a while, for some reason or another.

One thing I try to do is to keep writing (this includes blogging). More or less continually getting ideas onto paper or pixels means that it takes a while for all ideas to dry up. But sometimes that’s not feasible. When it isn’t, I also like to just reread my work, and not necessarily the work I’m trying to finish. I just need to, I feel, review past successes, at times, to remind myself that I can still do it.

Here’s to new beginnings for us all.

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What’s Star Trek?

Boldly Reading‘s got another interesting set of questions for me!

Lucky prompt #13 asks –

To go along with this month’s AOS selection, here are some questions to chew on, since so many people feel that the JJ Abrams universe somehow is not Star Trek.

What does it mean to you when a story is described as being Star Trek? What are the characteristics? Is there a bright line between Trek and not-Trek?

What Does it Mean When We Call It Star Trek?

Gene Roddenberry
Cover of Gene Roddenberry

I think it’s mainly about Roddenberry’s general values. It isn’t ships, because people get off the ships (and who’s the say that they won’t stay off the ships for a while longer than just a quickie mission?). It isn’t just phasers and Vulcans and shuttles, because the time of Colonel Green could easily fit into Trek (hell, it’s canon!) and none of those things exist yet.

But maybe not … too much. After all, Roddenberry also, at times, had some ridiculous notions, such as that humanity would somehow be ‘advanced’ enough that mourning the dead wouldn’t happen, or at least not for long, and that trauma would be minimized.

WTF???!!?!?!?

So I think there are some limits there. I think repairing older and antiquated ideas, too –  I have no problem with doing that and still calling it Trek. For example, our current smartphones and tablets are far more sophisticated than they ever dreamed of in the 1960s. Why not have the technology reflect that? I have characters sending and receiving email, and performing what are essentially Google-style searches. I do not imagine those behaviors ending any time soon, and I do not believe that Star Trek loses anything by slipping those bits of reality into the mix. Hell, I think it makes the stories stronger.

Bonus questions!

What are some of your favorite explorations of AOS on Ad Astra? How do you think these stories would change if they took place in TOS or one of the other series?

I like Niobium‘s take on the AOS, and I also enjoyed ErinJean‘s take. I’d love for her to continue in her explorations.

I believe many of us also grab bits and pieces of AOS and dovetail them into ENT or TOS

Original Captian Pike
Original Captian Pike (Photo credit: Dallas1200am)

writings. Captain Pike, certainly, got considerably more depth in the new films. Personally, I now see and hear Bruce Greenwood far more than Jeffrey Hunter in that role. I’ve tried to reconcile the two timelines, at least in part. Melissa and Doug‘s middle son, Tommy, dies in the service of his captain, George Kirk, on the Kelvin, a direct nod to Star Trek 2009.

Upshot

I find questions of what is and isn’t Star Trek to sometimes be a bit disingenuous. People said that ENT wasn’t Trek. They said that DS9 wasn’t. I think a lot of them will come around to AOS being Trek. As for me, the distinction is fairly clear albeit not perfectly. I know, for a fact, that Jane Eyre is not Star Trek. After that, though, sometimes, I’m not so sure.

 

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Where Did it all Begin?

Meta

A Google search for “meta Star Trek” turns up all sorts of weird stuff, so I’m just going to put this image of various incarnations of the Enterprise up instead.

A bunch of Enterprises
A bunch of Enterprises

Just like no one is born knowing a language, I don’t suppose you’re born a Trekker. Trekkie. Something like that.

I think we’re made. Fandom is a product of the time and your environment. So let me let you, dear reader, of my environment and my time and I suppose you can then judge for yourself.

The ’60s

I could lie and tell you I was engaging in free love, protesting the Vietnam War and marching in Selma.

Or I could tell you the truth, that I was born in late 1962 and don’t really have a clear memory of any current events until about 1967 or 1968 or so as I rather vividly recall hearing on a radio that a heart transplant had been successfully performed. I also remember the Moon landing. We had horrible reception, so it was fuzzy and strange, and that made it all the more mysterious.

MTV on the Moon
MTV on the Moon

Seriously, I first saw a clear image of the Moon landing when MTV initially started broadcasting.

I also remember seeing the Vietnam War on TV, often during dinner. I don’t remember the specifics of it so much, and maybe I was shielded from them and certainly the worst of it wasn’t broadcast, anyway. But I do remember it, out there, naked, for all to see, and wonder about.

Star Trek in the ’60s

I remember watching TOS. Some of it was first-run, and some was in what were likely the first rounds of reruns. I was also watching Lost in Space at the time, and The Outer Limits (I recall having nightmares about one episode). I don’t think The Twilight Zone was in reruns at the time, in southeastern Pennsylvania, which is where my family lived then.

One rather big difference I noticed between Lost in Space and TOS was that the women on Lost in Space did laundry and cooked. There seemed to be an unending supply of space laundry. Will Robinson got to do cool stuff and have adventures (and get into trouble), and Penny did, too. But, in the end, Will got to tinker on the ship or talk to the robot. Penny did the dishes.

Things were not like that on the NCC-1701. And while Uhuru was, in many ways, a glorified receptionist, and Rand was a glorified secretary (and Chapel the RN was in another traditionally female role), at least they did things. I’m still not so sure how their space laundry was done, but none of them seemed to be in a hot hurry to take care of it at the end of a day. And they generally did not cook for, or serve, the captain or Mr. Spock, etc.

I was surprised to see Uhuru working under a console and fiddling with wires that sparked. She was doing repair work, and Spock even said she was the best person for the job! What the hell?

The times, as they say, they were a-changin’.

The ’70s

This was the era of the rerun. We moved to New York at the start of the decade, and TOS competed for my attention with such offerings as an afternoon movie. The Planet of the Apes films would be shown, one after another, all week during a typical week. They were cut to fit a two-hour window and I would watch from 4 to 6 PM, folding laundry or starting dinner or otherwise helping with chores during the commercials. My brother and I were latchkey kids, so someone had to do the rather down to earth wash.

Our mother, of course, wasn’t the only woman in the workforce. I had more and more friends whose mothers worked, at least part-time. I had friends whose parents were divorced. And I was in the last class year in my junior high where the girls were required to take Home Economics while the boys were required to take Shop.

At the end of the decade, I took Advanced Placement English and the teacher required a creative writing assignment that she would read to the rest of the class. I did it, and was pleasantly shocked that I did not actually die from embarrassment.

Star Trek in the ’70s

I got to know this old friend even better.  When I attended a wilderness summer camp, a fellow camper brought a cassette tape recording of an episode – it might have been The Trouble With Tribbles. I’m not sure. I recall being struck by the use of so many sound effects. I suppose I was beginning to understand, a little bit, about how the whole thing worked as a production.

The ’80s

My life changed quite a bit during this decade. I spent the first few years in college and then Law School, and the mid part was devoted to finishing Law School, with the end to practicing law, which I hated. However, during Law School, a boyfriend suggested to me – I bet you could write something if you put your mind to it.

And so I did.

The stories (there were a few) were not great. They were murder mysteries taking place in Boston. My Miss Marple-type character was a Midwestern Philosophy student at my alma mater. While she was not a Mary Sue type of character, I can honestly say now that she was mainly not too terribly believable. But I did come up with two character names that I have grabbed for my fan fiction – Thomas Grant and Shelby Pike.

At the end of the decade, I met my husband, who has always been there for me, for writing and everything else.

Star Trek in the ’80s

I recall, in 1991, going with my family and then-fiancé to see Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It was not planned, and I cannot remember what we were supposed to be watching instead; perhaps the competing film was sold out. I do remember liking it very much and just thinking, yeah, I like this stuff.

But when The Next Generation began to be aired, I didn’t watch it, and it all kind of fell off my radar. Some of this was due to the show not starting off too well, some was due to so many changes happening in my life.

The ’90s

In 1990, I up and quit practicing law. I had been miserable for far too long. But it was hard to find other work, so I instead concentrated on planning the wedding. In 1994, we moved to Providence, and then in 1995 we moved to Boston, and into our house in the middle of that year. I took a job auditing and traveled around the country, and was away for a good 200 – 250 days every year. I had little time for anything, let alone Star Trek. The center obviously could not hold, and I was transferred to different work and finally left that role at the end of the decade, for more lucrative pastures as a data analyst.

Star Trek in the ’90s

For me, it was nearly nonexistent. While others were watching TNG, and then Deep Space Nine and Voyager, I was, well, working. A lot. One show we watched, pretty religiously, was Quantum Leap. And we did see Star Trek: First Contact in a theater. And then in ’97, we got a computer with Internet access.

The ’00s

We were settled in a happy home life when 9/11 happened and the bottom dropped out of, well, everything. The financial services market collapsed, and took with it my job. My parents had a neighbor who died in the Twin Towers. It was personal, and it was scary.

A ray of hope was knowing that there was going to be new Star Trek. My husband and I vowed to watch it.

Star Trek in the ’00s

From the first scene of a young Jonathan Archer playing with a model starship, to the three starships signing off at the end of the series finale, we were hooked. It was must-see television, so far as we were concerned, and I even joined the campaign to save Enterprise.

And then, on February 26th, 2005, I wrote and posted my first fan fiction – More, More, More!, also called the disco Trek story.

I had a few bursts of creativity that year and then shelved everything for five years, returning to it on October 21st, 2010, with Reversal, a story that I spun out as I was posting it, with no plans whatsoever.

What about now?

That, gentle reader, is for the next meta blog installment. Stay tuned.

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