I’ve been struggling lately. Struggling with commitment to my novel. To world-building. To character development. To creating language and mannerisms and ways of thinking for the people who live in it.
It’s a lonely place, writing fantasy. Even when my head is filled with alternate history and magic systems, with geography and theology, languages and learning, Matthias and Livuina and two temples and three heavens and plots and plans and disasters, I am the only real person who lives there. The only one who is figuring it all out. The only fan.
My first readers have been fantastic. They read some or most or all of my first draft and made great comments. Some difficult observations that I hated to hear but needed to, and some that I can smile and laugh about and fix with a stroke of the delete key. They devoted a lot of time and effort to slog through a 100,000 word, very imperfect book because they love me and they’re fabulous.
But now I’m editing. And if world-building is a lonely place, editing is a Bog of Eternal Stench where it’s always 2:30 in the morning, and it’s dark and raining and muddy, and no one in their right mind would want to hang out with me there. And neither do I.
I spent decades as a fan fiction writer before I attempted my own work. I’ve written a 100,000 word Stargate SG-1 story that includes a new world, new characters, plotting, planning, and all the bells and whistles. (Here’s link if you’re interested and have about 35243 free hours and the firm intention not to call me on the obvious errors https://www.fanfiction.net/s/4574925/1/SG1-Best-Intentions ) But, even though that story won awards and was a major accomplishment, I was borrowing everything that mattered from other writers, from actors, from television production companies. So, does it count? Well, yes, of course, and this is not the place or time for that discussion.
But, is it the same as writing a new, completely original work? Not at all.
Writing fan fiction is a horse of a different color. In fact, it might not be a horse at all. It may be a zebra. Or a giraffe. Or a hippopotamus. Besides the obvious, besides the fact that the world you’re writing has been handed to you on a platter, the characters established, their mannerisms and looks and names, the way they talk and think and act have all been written by teams of writers, adjusted by editors, and added to by actors you can watch on the screen, besides all this, fan fiction is written for fandom. And fandom is all about community.
Fandom is community. It’s a place where people meet who are prepared to love what’s offered because they are coming from a place of love. Of interest. They’ve already made the choice to invest in this world and these characters. They’ve spent significant time among them, talking about them, watching them, reading and writing about them. They’ve done research, had long, intricate discussions about back-stories and science, about how an alien race came to exist, how the magical systems work and when it fails to make sense. They throw around terms like “hand-waving” and “show bible” and “OOC” like the current intern pool at Microsoft uses acronyms. They speak the same language, cry at the same plot points, and have a feral devotion to their particular OTP. (One True Pairing aka romantic partnership)
When I write Stargate or NCIS I know that people will read it. Not because I’m important or awesome or people are crouching in front of their screens waiting for my next opus. No, I know people will read it because of fandom. Because new Stargate stories are few and far-between and we fans gobble them up as soon as they’re offered. Because, now that MW has left NCIS, competent!Tony stories have dwindled away. Because fandom wants these stories and these characters and these worlds to continue.
There’s no community waiting out there for my next chapter of Matthias’ story.
And, even worse, there’s no Beta. Or Alpha, for that matter. No, no, not the Greek alphabet. Or game testers. Let me explain.
Smart fan fiction writers rely on other fans, not just to read their work, but to offer advice and correction. Stargate SG-1 was on television for ten years, NCIS is still going at fourteen. Not even the most attentive fan can remember everything that happened, every planet designation, every case, the name of that friend of Teal’c’s we met that one time on that one planet, or can parse the many, myriad, ridiculous back-stories for Tony DiNozzo. We need help. We need our community.
Wikipedia can only do so much.
When the story starts to gel, when the muse is excited and you have a sort-of plot and a partial-kinda-iffy plan, you go to your Alpha. You chat about the concept. The characters. If the story makes sense within the Stargate or NCIS world. When it should take place. Before Daniel dies? After he comes back? During the Kate years or the Ziva years? These are the fans who can help you with the big problems, with the monkey wrenches that will certainly be hurled your way. That can nail down the science or the law. With your Alpha – or Alphas, if you’re lucky – you know you’re speaking the same language. You don’t have to explain who the Tok’ra are, or why McGee shouldn’t be left alone in the woods. And, bonus points!, you are getting immediate feedback. You get to talk about your story with someone who is bound to love it almost as much as you do.
If the story’s a long one – like most of mine (Yes, I hear you shouting out there! It’s hard to write a short story, okay?!) – your Beta can help with editing. For making sure the words are spelled correctly, the sentences are, in fact, sentences, and that the story hangs together. She can remind you that, in Chapter 3, Daniel lost his glasses so he shouldn’t have them on again in Chapter 5. If the story’s shorter (meaning, apparently, it’s written by someone else) you can send the whole thing off to them in one attachment and get it back all shined up and spiffy.
Again. Immediate feedback.
I’ve had the luxury of having some truly wonderful, knowledgeable, and highly argumentative (in a good way!) Alphas and Betas. Cheryl. Char. Anja. Darcy. Jill. Denny. Janice. Many, many more. They’ve helped me as much as I’ve let them. Suggested great twists. Held my hand while I’ve excised entire subplots. Reminded me how to spell Selmac (Selmak? Selmack??) and which of Gibbs’ wives came in which order.
In case you haven’t gotten my very subtle point here, there are no Alphas and Betas for my original fiction. That doesn’t mean there aren’t cheerleaders. Pom-pom waving friends who are totally invested in my success. Family, friends, fellow fans of various franchises. They are on my side and loving and supportive. BUT, and it’s a big one, unless I am willing to explain roughly six years of research and world-building and character development – and, even less likely, they’re willing to sit still long enough to listen – they aren’t Matthias’ fans. They don’t know him like I do. They don’t walk down the streets of Iconia with me. They aren’t able to argue from knowledge. They can’t remind me of the way the heavens work, or how aethereal magic leaks into the physical world. And they can only give me feedback if they read the whole bloody thing.
I miss my Betas. Especially now, when I’m editing. Questioning every word choice, every twist and turn, every decision my character makes. How do I know it’s going to work? Who can I ask? Alicia, my first first reader and lovely, smart, annoying daughter is in her first year of her OB/GYN Internship in a Philadelphia hospital. Laura has a bit on her plate, ready to fly off to China to meet her new daughter the day after Thanksgiving. (Tears of joy!) Until I implement the changes Mike and I have talked about, I can’t really send him any more chapters.
And I shouldn’t. My faithful and longsuffering husband – my first and best cheerleader – gave me a stern talking to the other day. “Finish it,” he said. “Finish it the way that seems best. And then ask for feedback.”
He’s right. Of course. AGAIN. My book is not a group effort. Neither was my fan fiction. It’s time to put my metaphorical foot down and do this thing. My way. The best way I can. And I will. Matthias’ story will be told. It has to be.
So, bear with me if I miss my Betas. If, sometimes, at ten-thirty, when I’m looking at the clock over the edge of my laptop and Matthias is not cooperating, I wish I could send a paragraph – a page – two little chapters off to a friend for a little feedback and back slapping and a couple of “attagirls,” a few “it’s goods!” and a couple of spritely “you can do its!”.
I wonder if Lois McMaster Bujold went through this when she created Chalion? Or Frank Herbert when he was first thinking about giant sandworms? All I do know is that they did it. They slogged through the smelly bog and got it done. And those are a couple of pretty dang good fantasy writing role models to emulate, don’t you think?
Gotta go now. Matthias is waiting.
(Is that a pom-pom-waving cheer I hear in the distance?)