Reflections on Having Written a Fan Fiction Novel

Nearly four months after I typed out a breathy introductory chapter in December of 2016, I’ve finally finished “After This“, a fan fiction novel which continues the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending of game developer Dontnod Entertainment‘s episodic, choice-driven narrative Life Is Strange. I was inspired to do so by the lingering emotional vulnerability I experienced after completing the game; the bonds I had formed with the story’s protagonist and deuteragonist, Max and Chloe; and the myriad possibilities hinted at via the determinant nature of one’s decisions throughout the game.

My novel weighs in at ten chapters and exactly 50,000 words. Varying definitions of where a novella ends and a novel begins have long served as conversation starters over a pint; the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America set the threshold at 40,000 words, so that’s what I’ve opted to use. Prolific authors such as Steven King might place it at around 80,000 – then again, Mr. King’s phone books frequently clock in at 200,000+ words. I figure I need to give people something to complain about in addition to whatever they find in the substance of my writing.

Personally, I’m satisfied with what I’ve written to the extent that it withstands repeated read-throughs; the statistics kept by Word indicate that I spent 15,607 minutes, or just over 260 hours, drafting, writing, editing, revising, and proofing. That works out to 192 words an hour, or 1,596 words a day if we assume an eight-hour writing “shift.” But we can’t, really, because like other human beings I took time off and wrote in binges. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that one must write regularly in order to improve and remain comfortable with the art of sculpting statues out of thin air.

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To wit, some things I’ve learned from published, professional sculptors whom I follow on Twitter and whose writing I admire:

  1. Your first draft should be fast and shitty (Delilah S. Dawson)
  2. Writing in the second person (Alyssa Wong)
  3. At some point, characters must fuck or it’s trash (Sam Sykes)

The canon continuation of Max’s story, according to its authors, is the one that you write. My drafts were fast and shitty, my chapters alternate between first person Max and second person Chloe, and they eventually fuck in one of Max’s dreams. This canon that blossomed out of my heart and mind found its home on Archive of Our Own, a fan fiction website with a reasonably active readership and an agreeable layout. It boasts well over a thousand Life Is Strange works, a testament to the game’s popularity and its power to inspire storytelling. Readers can leave comments and “kudos”, a way of saying they liked something without having to type anything.

And so I left my story there, chapter by completed chapter, expanding on some of the darker themes that had been touched on in the narrative. I based my imaginings of Max and Chloe and Kate on what I had seen and heard while I was playing. I let them do whatever they wanted after long, thoughtful meanderings through mental landscapes on quiet, moonlight nights and, later, when I righted my sleep schedule, on sunny mornings. Sometimes scenes and chapters did completely unexpected things after I had taken the time to daydream about them. I didn’t even have a climax in mind until halfway through the novel. I wrote organically, not knowing what would happen in the next chapter. A terrible practice, from what I’ve gleaned – but I’m a novice novelist, so what do I know?

One thing that I would change if I were to do it again – and I am not inclined to write another fan fiction novel any time soon – is the manner in which I published it. I would either not release chapters serially or request the pre-publishing assistance of beta readers: people who read your polished drafts and give you feedback on all the things you’ve become blind to after your first ten thousand words. I say this not because I’m unhappy with the tone, consistency, and overall quality of my novel, but because there are some tenuous points in the first couple of chapters that I would have gone back and solidified with much more editing had I not blasted them out into the stratosphere as soon as they were done. As is, they remain milepost monuments to the evolution of my writing over the past four months.

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I’m genuinely appreciative of those who took the time to tell me they liked my story, just as I am appreciative of the people who were courteous enough to express their dislike (and educate me on how to improve) using constructive criticism. Probably the most heartening praise I received was in a DM on Twitter from an artist who is active on DeviantArt – I follow them there and have marked several of their fantastic works as “favorites.” They sent me a message telling me that they normally don’t read fan fiction because the characters are invariably written so OOC (out of character), but that they loved mine. This really made my day.

With all that said, this is what I learned from writing a fan fiction novel:

  1. Writing takes practice
  2. Writing at length takes lengthy practice
  3. Quality takes time (best aged like a fine wine)
  4. Structured drafting preserves sanity
  5. Fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity

So, when I say that fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity, here’s what I mean: you have to lower your standards. Like, really low. This is what I didn’t understand when I decided to start writing this novel (you can call it a novella if you like – I would agree): people are not looking to swoon over your references to Greco-Roman mythology and Hamlet and Edgar Allan Poe – they want characters to bang in the locker room, to have adventures, to engage in warm fuzzies and catfights and sleepovers. They want their favorite characters to do their favorite things, and if there’s any sort of drama or conflict, it can be tropified using quotes and catchphrases for all they care so long as their honeybuns are fucking rock stars at the end of it.

I understand this now, after having written to my heart’s content, and the lasting effect is that I probably won’t write anything else in the realm of fan fiction that goes beyond the length of a short story or maybe a novelette (7,500 – 17,500 words). I still balk when reading the author’s notes to some of Archive of Our Own’s most beloved works, however: they tell their audience how they wrote this 12,000 word chapter in a single four-hour caffeinated binge or how they cranked out their latest 10k monster while listening to the same Adele song on repeat 35 times in a row. I look at the sixty hours I spent on Chapter 8 (12,885 words) and make myself another coffee. What’s all this, then?

At the very least I’ve learned quite a bit about writing at length, even if some people would look at what I’ve done and chastise me for not having spent that time doing actual writing. I’d just reply that I did it because I enjoyed it. I’m like anyone who plays games for fun instead of learning how to play the piano or taking up martial arts – I’m not spreadsheeting my free time to find the optimal intersection of usefulness and enjoyment. I’m having fun, damn it. And it just so happens that my preferred writing milieu – those dark and mysterious midnight haunts in the realm between life and death – best manifests itself elsewhere. Lesson learned.

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