Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fen Fic Modeling

I worry that somewhere—in one of my friend’s houses, in a the back of a dark closet, in a disintegrating cardboard box—my fan fic survives.

Fan fic is, of course, fiction written by fen (plural of fan, though I have no idea why, since the standard plural would be fans). Maybe it got too complicated to figure out where to put the apostrophe when making it possessive. Does fen’s fic read any easier than fans’s fic? Possibly.

In any case fen fic writers hijack another writer’s characters, settings, etc. and go blissfully about augmenting the universe created by the original author. After all, there were only 78 or 79 episodes of the original Star Trek, depending on if you want to count the original pilot as one episode or two. Three books, plus a prequel (maybe) plus some other stories in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, depending on how many of Unwin’s publications you want to count as the original corpus. There are three, six, or nine stories in the Starwars’ trilogy, depending on if you count each cycle of three stories as a separate cycle and choose to include or not include the last three stories, which haven’t been made into movies—yet.

See, it’s not even easy to keep track of what constitutes the original work. And then, let the fen through the gate and watch what happens.

Traditionally, fen fic—at least in my day—was amateur-night only. Shared among friends. Published in zines. Stored in cardboard boxes. Needless to say, the Internet changed all that. Currently fen fic related to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight universe stands at somewhere around 574,000 Google hits, and they’re not just the written word. People are out there producing videos and movies in the comfort of their own home.

About twenty years ago, share-cropping entered the fan fic picture. Share-cropping is the practice of an author setting up a universe and inviting other authors to publish stories, “in the style of,” or “in the universe of” that author. Debra Dixon did it with her BelleBooks, Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes and the Mossy Creek series.

Then came the demand for prequels and sequels. Jill Paton Walsh was commissioned by Dorothy L. Sayer’s son’s estate to finish Thrones, Dominations, a book Sayer’s was working on when she died. Not only did she do a credible job with that one, she went on to add one more novel—A Presumption of Death—to the Peter and Harriet corpus.

And, finally, there is the transposition of a fictional character into a completely different series of stories. Laurie R. King, pairs Mary Russell with no less a partner than Sherlock Holmes. The Holmesian fan fic world has been bigger, for a longer time, than the combined Star Trek/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings triangle.

When I said above that fen fic was amateur-night only, I was speaking only about the distribution of the finished product, not the quality of the writing. I have read stunning fan fic, and gosh-awful, and much that was in-between. The value of writing in a known universe is that you can take that universe apart, study it, and in the words of the intro to the Six Million Dollar Man, “make it better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster.”

It’s a technique called modeling, and here are three ways it can be used.

Find a favorite piece of literature. What you’re about to do will reduce it to shreds, so maybe you won’t want to pick your absolute, all-time favorite. Some things are sacred.

Start by doing a number thing. How many words? How many words per sentence? How many chapters? What’s the sentence mix? How many pages per chapter? Are all of the chapters the same length? How many pages are we into the story before we’ve met all of the major characters? On what page does the main character bottom out—that dark night of the soul? On what page is the climax? How many pages does the climax last? Is there a double climax: you think the story is over, but wait, there’s more? Does the author try to tie up all the loose ends like a pretty package—the epilog, not quite as dreaded as prolog, but close—or are there unresolved issues that scream, “Sequel”?

For the next one, I recommend a book you can mark with abandon and a clear conscious. Pick something—theme, motif, character development, clues and red herrings, etc—and follow it through the entire book. Let’s say the theme is that how a person is treated under the law depends on how influential a person is. So every time you find two people or two groups being treated differently in similar situations, go ahead, mark up the book like crazy. Follow the thread from beginning to end. You’ll probably be surprised at how many tiny details convey that theme.

Finally, downright copy. Find a couple of passages you really love. Write them out or put them in the computer in a double- or triple-spaced format. Leave yourself lots of room for notes. Start by doing a construction analysis.

“They came to a bank of three elevators, whose brass doors were decorated with ornate scrollwork. A craggy-faced man, beautifully dressed, came out of one of the elevators with a marked, crabwise limp. He greeted Barber effusively, shook Spade’s hand as if truly delighted to meet him, and went his way.” (Joe Gores, Spade & Archer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p 177.

Movement—place—descriptive detail (money, stability, craftsmanship)—walk-on character—descriptive detail (money, craftsmanship)—movement—descriptive detail (crippled, exact opposite of money and craftsmanship used before)—action (reinforces positive feelings towards Barber that other characters have previously shown)—action (doesn’t know Spade from Adam, but is inclusive)—action (moves story along and disappears)

Now set up your own model. You could choose to use the exact same tone you identified or you could change the tone (the stuff in parenthesis above) but keep the sequence. Movement—place—descriptive detail—walk-on character and so on.

Now write your own paragraph. For a lark, you might try to write a paragraph that has identical linking words, verbs, and punctuation as the original. It’s harder than you think to do that. Authors quickly tend to wander off into their own styles.

We came to a small clearing, whose sun-parched trees were decorated with small, dry fruit. A old man, wrinkled like the fruit, came out of one of the huts with an elegant bearing. He greeted us with effusive, completely unintelligible remarks, shook my hand as if we were friends, and went his way into the jungle.

Jason turned to me, “Who the hell was that?”

Writing quote for the week:

In 1955, Stanford University refused me a Master’s Degree in English Literature because my proposed thesis was on the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. “Since these novels are not literature,” they said, “obviously graduate theses cannot be written about them.”
~Joe Gores, former San Francisco PI and author of Spade & Archer: the Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

(Six years later, Stanford did grant him his degree. His accepted thesis was on literature of the South Sea Islands.)


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting topic. I haven't read any fen/fan fiction, but I do think the devotion of the fans is such a compliment to the authors/screenwriters who create these series. Your tips for modeling are interesting, too.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Julia Buckley said...

Very interesting about Fen Fic. I had no idea.

And I LOVE that Joe Gores quote.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Elizabeth, I agree with the compliment idea. The downside is, of course, the people who try to make money off of someone else's copyright. I'm all for fen fic, as long as it's for fun.

Julia, isn't it wonderful what view some people have of the value of "real literature?"