Sherlock vs Dracula: How Characters outlive their Creators

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a series runs for long enough, sooner or later the protagonists will end up fighting Dracula.

No, really. There’s a TV Tropes page about it.

There’s some characters that just pop up everywhere. These are the characters that are so embedded in the popular consciousness that, like Madonna, you only need one word to remember them by: Sherlock, Bond, Dracula. They’re giants. Their names are so well-known that just to say it conveys everything – their personality, their appearance, their genre. They’ve continued to be popular long after they were originally conceived of – and, in some cases, over a century after the author’s death.

But why is this? What exactly is it that makes some characters last for hundreds of years, and some get forgotten within a decade or so? There’s plenty of fictional characters that stick in the mind, but why is it that only a handful of these keep popping up again and again?

Let’s find out, shall we?

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WOO YEAH (image: tumblr.com)

The one thing that characters like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Dracula have in common is that they’ve become archetypes. When you say ‘detective’, you might picture a guy in a deerstalker; when you say ‘spy’, you might picture a suave and besuited man with a predilection for explosions and shiny cars. Even though these characters were originally written just like any other, they have come to represent something much bigger than themselves.

This is really unusual. Archetypes are usually much more broadly-sketched – they don’t always have names attached (looking at you, ‘damsel in distress’) and they tend to represent characters in certain situations, rather than actual personalities. These are the kinds of characters that you find in fairy tales, myths and legends: in stories where it’s not always the character themselves which is important, but what they’re doing and what they represent. Fiction has, of course, moved on since fairy tales were originally conceived of, which is why it’s so unusual that characters with distinct personalities and development have been able to join this pantheon of clichés.

This is what happens when you write a really genre-defining character. When those kind of characters are written, they are not the only things being put on paper – what also gets written down are the things that eventually become the clichés that other writers will depend on. Everything that comes after these characters is, to a certain extent, a response to them. You can’t write a spy novel without people inevitably comparing it to Bond; you can’t write about vampires without the shadow of Dracula looming across the page.

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Much like this, actually. (image: blogs.exeter.ac.uk)

Let’s look at some examples. How many detectives can you think of who are described as ‘eccentrics’, who immerse themselves in their cases so completely that it eclipses everything else in their lives? That’s Holmes. How many spies can you think of with neat little gadgets, bevies of beautiful women in their contacts list and at least three international trips per book? That’s Bond. How many vampires can you think of who swan about in evening dress, with dark hair, pale skin and a tendency to go after young women? That’s Dracula. These were originally features of particular characters, but now these characters have become so widely-known that these traits have come to define the archetypes themselves. Of course, writers can choose to deliberately leave all of these things out – that’s where we see gritty, violent spy movies, or vampire stories were the undead schlub about in jeans and T-shirts – but that heavy-handed rejection of the archetype just makes you more aware of it. When you consume these types of stories, you’re constantly being reminded that these vampires aren’t like the ones you know, or that this spy movie is nothing like the slick, suave espionage thriller you usually get. It’s like ‘Not Like Other Girls’ all over again – something like that doesn’t work unless you know what ‘Other Girls’ are supposed to be.

Characters become archetypes when they step outside the bounds of what their authors originally wrote. A certain amount of ‘placelessness’ makes this process easier. You can put Sherlock Holmes anywhere in the world – the focus of his stories are the cases he solves, and these can happen anywhere. James Bond can go anywhere he likes too – he goes where the danger is, and that can be anywhere. Similarly, Dracula can go anywhere too (although he always comes from Transylvania) – all you really need for him to work as a character is a few blacked-out windows and a steady supply of necks to nom on and before you know it he’ll be flapping through every open window and buying up all your evening wear.

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Fun fact: all of those drawers are filled with cufflinks. (image: pinterest.com)

But to a certain extent, this needs to be possible for their characters too. It can only go so far, otherwise it ends up becoming the rejection of the archetype I described above, but a certain amount of wiggle room is necessary. In the original novel, Dracula started out as an old man with hairy palms – now, he’s being played by Luke Evans. He’s become a spooky sex symbol, which is really not what you’d expect to see if you read the description of the horrible moustache he has in the book. Likewise James Bond, once so typically stiff-upper-lip, has been increasingly portrayed as suffering from PTSD. The core elements of their characters are still there – Dracula is still sinister, Bond still blows things up for Queen and Country – but the way in which we view these things has changed. Dracula is still evil, but he’s been allowed to ramp up the charm as people stopped putting so much faith in the restrictive morality that is set against him. Bond still does his duty, but we see the toll this takes.

This is where adaptations come in.

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Holla holla get that dollar. (image: giphy.com)

Everyone’s been getting a bit sick of adaptations lately, what with all the constant remakes we seem to be getting, but adaptations are one of the main things that help characters outlive their creators. Characters and stories only survive if they retain the public’s interest, and if they lose it, they get forgotten. Adaptation plays a huge role in helping to avoid that. Characters and their stories are updated for a new era, or brought to new audiences via a new medium. Being able to transcend one type of storytelling is part of the reason why these characters have lasted for so long – they’re accessible to a wider range of people and they stay stuck in the collective cultural consciousness for longer.

Let’s look at a couple of examples here. We’ll start with Dracula. He first appeared in the 1897 novel, which was rapidly turned into a play (which by all accounts, wasn’t very good). Then Stoker died, and Dracula appeared again in a collection of short stories, then in Nosferatu (which was rapidly hit with many a lawsuit, hence the vampire’s hasty name-change to Count Orlok), then another play, then several more films which may or may not have existed, then the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi (which was actually an adaptation of the second play, which also starred Bela Lugosi), then several more Universal movies, then several Hammer movies with Christopher Lee, then more movies, then more plays, then a musical, an opera and a ballet and I haven’t even mentioned the TV shows, anime, manga, games, radio plays, cartoons and many a novel that have updated the original story since its publication.

My point is: it’s a lot. But it’s this kind of scatter-gun approach to adaptations that have made characters like Dracula stick in the mind. You can’t forget him, because he’s everywhere.

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I mean, yes. (image: imgur.com)

A large part of why this was possible in the first place is because of the time in which these characters were conceived. Sherlock and Dracula had their first appearances in literary works of the late nineteenth century. These characters have had time to disseminate through the popular consciousness and really burrow their way in. A certain amount of time is necessary to see if something’s going to last.

It’s also worth mentioning that for these two particular examples, part of the reason why they ended up being adapted to Hell and back is because both Sherlock and Dracula are in a slightly unique position with regards to copyright laws. In the case of Dracula, Bram Stoker didn’t fully comply with American copyright registration laws and made a mistake on his application – therefore Dracula wasn’t subject to normal term of copyright laws and was public domain in the US. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, there was a bit of a legal grey area about whether the author’s estate had copyright over the character of Holmes or just the copyright to the stories in which he appeared. It’s pretty complicated and I can’t say I understand it well, but I’m pretty sure that without this wobblyness around the copyright, we definitely wouldn’t have had all the adaptations that brought these characters into the popular consciousness.

Of course, these days copyright and intellectual property laws have been tightened up like nobody’s business – that sort of thing can’t happen again quite so easily. The spread of characters happens a lot faster now, too. Thanks to social media it’s easier to generate a buzz about a new character or story – before Twitter, this could’ve taken years, but now it takes minutes. But whether this will stand the test of time remains to be seen. There’s so much information out there that it’s difficult to say which characters are going to last and which are a flash in the pan. If I had to pick one, my money’s on Harry Potter, but even that’s not certain. It’s impossible to tell what will be able to transcend its original story and the author’s lifetime – despite its popularity, we may find that Harry Potter is just too tied into a specific place and time to properly last in the way that Sherlock and Dracula have done. Perhaps the same will be true for all modern characters, as storytelling has evolved to the point where fixing a story in a time and place – or fixing a character with very specific situational responses and traits – is generally seen as being a mark of what makes a book good. Who knows?

giphy shrug js
Don’t ask me please please PLEASE (image: giphy.com)

There’s all sorts of things that lead to characters outliving their creators and unfortunately, there’s no magic formula that can replicate that kind of success. I’ve tried my best to sketch out the boundaries but frankly, there’s no way of knowing which characters will stand the test of time. You could write a memorable character that could easily get transferred into a range of different situations and still not come up with the next Dracula. All authors can really do is write a character they feel passionate about and see what happens. (And lock that copyright down.)

Who knows where it’ll take you?

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Book Recipes: How to Write a Classic Boarding School Story

Time for another book recipe! This one’s on classic boarding school stories, so grab your boaters and pull your socks up. Let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • One plucky gel for your protagonist
  • A collection of grubby but well-intentioned misfits
  • One unreasonably cruel teacher
  • Silly nicknames
  • Very worrying standards of pastoral care
  • A teacher’s pet
  • One ridiculously sprawling castle-school
  • Hideous uniforms
  • Lashings of ginger beer
  • Some sort of pointless school competition

 

Method:

  1. It’s the start of a new school year! And who should arrive at our uber-fancy castle-school but our plucky protagonist.
  2. Ramble around the school for a bit so the readers can visualise.
  3. Time to make some friends! Introduce your protagonists to your grubby misfits. Get ready for japes!
  4. Ugh, lessons, I guess.
  5. Time to make some enemies! Here comes the teacher’s pet and nobody likes them. Here comes the mean teacher, too – they’re snooty at the protagonist and they’re just crushed.
  6. Sneak out of your dorm after hours for a midnight feast! It’ll be fine as long as you don’t –
  7. Get caught. Mean teacher strikes again!
giphy curses
Foiled again! (image: giphy.com)
  1. The pointless school competition is announced. Our protagonist could never possibly win it though, so let’s just leave this information here until step nineteen.
  2. Lessons, s’pose.
  3. Get in trouble again, because of hijinks.
  4. For convoluted reasons, the protagonist has to enter the pointless competition! It’ll be so embarrassing you guys, she’s totally 100% going to lose, definitely.
  5. Get into some more scrapes, mainly just for filler.
  6. OK, let’s actually have a little go at this competition thing. Hey! Turns out the protagonist is actually good at this! WHO KNEW.

  1. Have another run-in with the teacher’s pet. Be snide to each other.
  2. Oh boy, we sure have been working hard on this competition thing! It’d be a real shame if something were to –
  3. OH NO SOMEONE HAS SABOTAGED OUR THING MY GOODNESS HOW UNEXPECTED
  4. Mope.
  5. But oh look! Here’s the protagonist’s plucky misfit friends, here to save the day! They all pull together and help fix the thing – just in time for the competition!
  6. Stride back into the competition like a BOSS with your newly-fixed thing and get declared the winner. Watch the mean teacher and her minion seethe, then celebrate with a secret midnight feast.
  7. The school year is only twenty steps long so it’s time to go home for the holidays. Reminisce about what you learned about the meaning of friendship, but with sweets.

THE END. Serve on my desk by Monday morning, or it’s detention.

 

Tips:

  • Make sure to give all your characters stupid boarding-school nicknames – it’s authentic.
  • Don’t bother about making sure your teachers actually look after the pupils. There’s hijinks to be had! They should only turn up to provide the necessary drama, or failing that, a backdrop.
  • Make sure to give everything its own weird name. It’s not homework, it’s prep. It’s not a canteen, it’s a refectory. It’s not elitist, it’s select.
Cmow
Sorry, your ladyship. (image: gifer.com)
  • Never include any mention of sex, drugs, alcohol or naughtiness that could not be committed with a catapult. Keep the socks pulled wholesomely up – the darker stuff is a whole other genre.
  • Prepare for the inevitable series – you can churn one of these out for every school year!
  • Teachers must always wear big black gowns and mortarboards.
  • So much hockey.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

“Pocko! Stop shoving!”

“I wasn’t shoving, Biffy, your arm was in my way –”

“You were shoving, I saw you shoving, and Figroll saw you shoving too – didn’t you, Figgers?”

“Mmm? Be a brick and pass the electrical tape.”

Philomena ‘Figroll’ Atkinson did not pay attention to the small riot breaking out behind her. It was the traditional way to resolve conflict at St Curlicue’s in the first year, edged weapons being reserved for the Upper Fourth onwards and pistols strictly the preserve of the Sixth Form. Pocko and Biffy would come away with a few bumps and bruises and – yes, a missing tooth, but Pocko was going to be fitted for braces in the summer anyway, so no harm done. She bent a hairpin out of shape and used that as a screwdriver instead; it would have to do.

When she’d unscrewed the top panel of the trophy case, and Pocko and Biffy’s fistfight had devolved into some limp kicking, she said “I thought you two were supposed to be my lookouts.”

Biffy wiped her bloody nose. “We are, but somebody couldn’t just budge over –”

“I was not shoving, I said I wasn’t shoving, didn’t I say –”

Figroll glared at the pair of them, pinafores crumpled, shirts liberally spotted with blood. “Did either of you bring a screwdriver? You know why we’re here.”

Pocko rummaged around in a grubby pocket and handed her a slightly fluffy screwdriver. She gave it a quick wipe before handing it over; it did not help.

“The least you can do is keep watch,” Figroll muttered, starting work on the bottom panel. “If we want to claim the Cup for House Boadicea we’re going to have to steal it now, before the others do.”

“All right, Figgers, all right. But I wasn’t shoving.”

Figroll turned back to the trophy cabinet with a sigh. Her plan was not going well. Prof and Cheddar had performed their parts nicely: Prof had used her glasses to start a small fire in the Refectory, thereby causing a mass evacuation; Cheddar was faking a convincing stomach-ache to keep Dr Cripskett, languages mistress and head of House Bathory, safely out of the way. In theory, Pocko and Biffy were supposed to act as lookouts at either end of the corridor while she took the panels off the trophy cabinet and stole the House Cup – picking locks was so déclassé. But now, she was wondering if she should have just taken Miss Snyde’s advice and worked on her lock-picking. It was taking a lot longer than she thought.

The House Cup glinted at her, big and shiny, and Figroll imagined the look on Mildred ‘Winky’ Stanton’s face when she saw the empty, glass-fronted cabinet tomorrow morning. She grinned. It would all be worth it to put one over on Winky – Dr Cripskett’s favourite and Form Captain, no less. If she could only get the bottom panel off –

“Footsteps!” hissed Biffy, “hurry up!”

Figroll panicked. She wound the electrical tape around her hand, whispered the school motto (“furor, ergo sum”) and punched through the glass. It hurt like the blazes, but the tape kept the worst of the glass out. She snatched up the Cup, sprang to her feet, and the three of them tore down the corridor. If they could just make it back to House Boadicea, they could hide the Cup in the Junior Common Room before –

“Philomena Atkinson!”

Figroll skidded to a halt. The jig was up. All their efforts had been for nothing. The Headmistress, Professor Alnworthy, was coming down the corridor. Beside her, Pocko and Biffy stopped too. The Headmistress could bring down a girl at two hundred paces, three with a slingshot – there was no point trying to outrun her.

They turned to face her.

Professor Alnworthy was striding down the corridor, black gown billowing out behind her. She marched up to them, face set. Figroll put the Cup behind her back, but she knew the handles were sticking out.

“Well,” said Professor Alnworthy, “I never thought I’d see the day. Look at the state of you! Elizabeth Johnson, brass knuckles are not ladylike. Maria Poccolino, if you’re going to get blood all over your shirt at least tuck it in.”

Biffy slipped off her brass knuckles and stuck them, guiltily, in a hidden pocket. Pocko squirmed about trying to tuck in her shirt in a sufficiently ladylike manner. Professor Alnworthy glared at Figroll.

“And as for you, Atkinson. Setting fire to the Refectory. Stealing a trophy. Destroying school property. That is hardly the behaviour of a St Curlicue’s lady. Why aren’t you wearing your burglary gloves?”

“Professor?”

“Your burglary gloves, Atkinson – a quintessential part of any good heist and, you will note, the fourth item on the school’s kit list. Where are they?”

“I think I must have –”

“And that is not regulation electrical tape – dear me, that’s barely a step above parcel, no wonder you’re bleeding. And where, might I ask, is your standard-issue lock-pick?”

Figroll shuffled her feet, feeling very small. “I think I lost it, Professor.”

“Was it named?”

“Yes, Professor.”

“Hmm. Well, pop along to Lost Property in the morning. In the meantime, get Matron to see to your hand. She’s got some Lower Fourths lagging in Field Remedies. They’ll stitch you up, but the whiskey will sting.”

“Yes, Professor. Sorry, Professor.”

Professor Alnworthy straightened up. “I suppose that’ll have to do for tonight. Poccolino, I believe this is yours. I won’t have littering in the corridors.”

She held out a tooth, still bloody. Pocko took it and shoved it in a pocket, very embarrassed.

“Get to bed, you three,” said Professor Alnworthy. “I daresay House Bathory will conduct a vengeance raid tomorrow; you’ll need your rest. No running, mind you.”

They all nodded and shuffled their feet, mumbling “Yes Professor,” and “Sorry, Professor” until it sounded convincing. They slunk off down the corridor, ears burning.

“Girls?” Professor Alnworthy called. “One more thing.”

They turned.

“This is St Curlicue’s,” she said. “We have a reputation to uphold. The next time you try and pull off a heist, do try for a little more panache. A classic ‘smash and grab’ is really not what I expect from students of your calibre. Remember, you are ladies.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

November is Coming: How to Survive NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us. Forget Halloween, this is what autumn is really all about: finding an excuse to sit indoors under layers and layers of blankets.

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I cannot create unless I am cosy. (image: giphy.com)

But let’s be real. NaNoWriMo can be a pretty daunting task. The goal is to write a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days. Fifty thousand. That totals out at roughly one thousand six hundred words per day, and the worst part is that you’ve got to make sure that they’re actually good rather than just stringing lists of adjectives together. It’s pretty intimidating, especially if you know one of those people who insists on comparing word counts.

Fortunately for you guys, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before and have picked up a few tips that might make things easier:

 

  1. Plan beforehand, and only beforehand

Trying to write roughly 1,600 words a day is going to be difficult. It’s a lot of words to get down in one go, particularly if you’ve only got one time window to do it in. But if you don’t know what you’re going to write it’s going to be twice as hard to actually get it on paper because you’ll be working out what you want to say as well as how you want to say it.

This is where your plan comes in. I’d recommend starting this a week or so before NaNoWriMo, assuming you’ve already had the vague idea of what you want your story to be about. Start plotting things out in more detail, including character and setting. If you do it every day, this can also help you get into the rhythm of regular writing. But when you start writing, stop planning. It’s easy to wind up with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot of your novel and no actual text, so don’t rely on this too much.

 

  1. Start your research in October

November is for writing. If you’re writing something which is going to require any kind of research, start it a couple of weeks before you’re going to write. Read as much as you can and get comfortable with the details before you launch into your novel. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been plodding along with a paragraph when suddenly, I’ll go “Wait, when were pyjamas invented?” and it’s off down the rabbit hole I go. If you’re writing anything historical, I’d recommend starting even earlier, but this blog post is going up with less than two weeks until November so NEVER MIND YOU’LL BE FINE.

 

  1. Writing nine to five

WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVIN’

No, seriously. It’d be great. But unfortunately it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have all that time just for writing. Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean the world will stop and wait for you to finish it. Realistically, you’re going to have to look at your schedule and try and work out when you’re actually going to have time to write. I’d recommend trying to find an hour each day, either in one go or in short chunks. Be a little flexible – if weekends are always really busy for you, try and find some time on weekday evenings. If you commute on public transport, consider taking a notebook with you and working there. See what works for you!

 

  1. Just do it

When it comes to November the first, just start. There’s nothing more intimidating for a writer than a blank page. It can take hours to come up with a first line (mainly due to all those writing advice blogs which tell you to make sure you have a good first line). But you don’t have time to dither – you’ve got a fifty-thousand-word mountain to climb. Just start, and worry about whether it’s any good later. That’s what the second draft is for.

 

  1. Get on with it

Sometimes, inspiration does strike. Sometimes your synapses are flashing, your neurons are firing and an idea comes into your head like a beautiful sunrise. You seize your pen, your notebook, your laptop and don’t look up for hours – for you, dear author, are inspired.

Ninety percent of the time, that won’t happen.

There are going to be days when you just don’t wanna. You’ll be tired. You’ll get home late. You’ll have a bad day and want to spend your writing time curled around a hot water bottle in front of the telly. But when you’re writing to targets and deadlines, sometimes you’re just going to have to make yourself do it. You have to –

– yes, exactly.

 

  1. Just keep swimming

Resist the temptation to go back and rewrite what you’ve already done. Focus instead on progressing through the narrative and get your key plot points down. This is where your plan can really come in handy (although hopefully having a plan will have helped you thrash out any potential plot holes). If you’re having some doubts about something you’ve already written, make a notes section in your plan and add them to that. That way you’ve kept a record of your ideas and you can keep going without needing to slow down. You can always go back and redraft when NaNoWriMo is over.

 

  1. Keep an eye on your daily totals, but don’t stick to them

There are special NaNoWriMo calendars you can find where the ideal word count for each day is written on them. They measure out the month in chunks of 1,667 words and some people find them really helpful.

nanowrimo_calendar_by_reapthebeauty-d31npzj
Such as this one. (image: deviantart.com)

Personally, I don’t. Some days are going to be better than others, and some days I’m going to come home too tired to do a sentence, let alone like, 160 of them. On those days I write what I can and try and make up the total another day, and I find that works much better than keeping to very strict limits.

 

  1. Details, details

Don’t be afraid to fudge some of the finer points to avoid getting bogged down. Obviously the really important details (i.e., the plot) should be in your plan, but it’s perfectly fine to put in placeholder names for minor characters and places. Just remember to replace these with real names when you’re done and you’ll be fine.

 

  1. More like guidelines

Some people are real sticklers for the rules of NaNoWriMo. I’m not. I once extended my NaNoWriMo project until the New Year because November isn’t over UNTIL I SAY IT’S OVER. I always found I got a lot less stressed about NaNoWriMo when I didn’t take it quite as seriously and that way, it was easier to balance writing with everything else going on in my life.

 

  1. It’s not for everyone

I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times now and on balance, I’ve decided it’s not for me. I could do it fairly easily when I was a student, but that was because I was on a course where I only had ten hours of class time per week.

giphy nap
It was blissful. (Image: giphy.com)

Now I have a full-time job, I find it way too stressful. NaNoWriMo has taught me a lot about the discipline required to finish a novel, and writing every day has helped me get into some really good habits, but I find the obsession with word counts kind of counter-productive. The structure was really helpful, but now that I’ve taken that framework and made it work for me I don’t find the old model quite so useful any more. I learned a lot, but it stopped being something I did every year a long time ago.

 

 

And that’s it! My advice for surviving NaNoWriMo. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It’s very easy to get swept up in NaNo Fever – it can be really fun, and it taught me some good writing habits which I still use. But I don’t think anyone should take it too seriously. It’s a good way to get into writing longer projects, but it doesn’t have to be the only way you write.

Book Recipes: How to Write Folk Horror

Time for another book recipe! Because it is October, the spookiest month, we’re going to be looking at folk horror. Grab your most flickery torches, we’re heading to the country. But, y’know, the creepy bits.

 

Ingredients:

  • One creepy village
  • A hapless, city-bred idiot
  • Spooky trees
  • A grab-bag full of miscellaneous Celtic imagery
  • Sinister villagers, possibly with catchphrases
  • A beautiful woman who is totally not going to betray the hapless idiot, honest
  • A contrived reason to stop your characters going home or calling the police
  • A bunch of straw, just, like, everywhere

 

Method:

  1. Prepare your creepy setting. Your village should be isolated, surrounded by spooky trees and have a bunch of, like, straw bales and that lying around. Because it’s the country.
  2. Enter your hapless city-boy. It doesn’t matter why he’s here – all that matters is that he is 100% definitely going to die.
  3. Oh boy, sure is spooky in this spooky village! We’re not leaving though. There’s still seventeen steps to go.
  4. Let’s meet some spooky villagers! They like to stand around and say meaningless but creepy things. It’s a quaint countryside pastime.
giphy swan
That and chasing swans. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Introduce your beautiful woman to the hapless idiot. She’s not like the other villagers – she’s hot.
  2. A mysterious thing has happened! Better investigate. Ooh, look at how Celtically spooky things are.
  3. Have another encounter with some spooky villagers. They’ll say cryptic things at you, but it’s probably fine. This is just what passes for fun when you can’t get reliable internet.
  4. Have a brief moment of contact with the outside world. Your hapless idiot could go home, but he won’t, because I said so and this is my blog.
  5. But oh look, here comes the only babe in the village! We can leave later – once we’ve got her number, amirite??
  6. The village’s resident hottie agrees to help the hapless idiot investigate the spooky things. It’s not a trap.
  7. Uh-oh, things are definitely getting spookier! Uncover some sort of vaguely mystic Celtic nonsense that’ll set things up for the final act.
  8. Have an encounter with a spooky villager, but, like, a really scary one. If you end up running through the woods, you’re doing it right.
giphy snow forest
See, Snow gets it. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Oh no, someone has attacked the village hottie and NOW WE MUST SAVE HER. Celebrate by making out a bunch.
  2. One last encounter with the outside world! The hapless idiot is offered the chance to leave, but he doesn’t take it because the clue’s in his name.
  3. Spooky things are happening more often! Almost like there’s only five steps to go…
  4. Uncover the village’s spooky, spooky secret. It’s, like, totally scary.
  5. Oh no, a thing has happened which means you can’t leave the village!
  6. The village hottie reveals that she was working with the rest of the creepy villagers all along! You feel so betrayed – but mainly you feel scared, because they all want to kill you.
  7. Run away! Time for a last-minute dash to safety. Here’s where you find out if all your cardio paid off…
  8. Hooray, you made it! Back in civilisation, you’re totally safe from creepy straw bales and corn dollies – until HAHA SURPRISE THE SPOOKY GOT YOU

The End. OR IS IT??

 

Tips:

  • Always set it in autumn. It is the spookiest season.
  • Don’t feel you have to get specific about the kind of spooky stuff that’s going on. Just make vague allusions to Celtic-sounding things and you’ll probably be fine.
  • Make sure to talk about the full moon at least three times.
  • Keep the technology to a minimum. Googling the spooky stuff is all well and good, but it’s nowhere near as effective as looking it up in a mysterious old tome.
Vampyr
AKA The Buffy Principle. (image: buffy.wikia.com)
  • Always have your creepy villagers say something like ‘you don’t belong here’, or ‘we don’t take kindly to strangers round these parts’.
  • If in doubt, chuck in some vague paganism.
  • Make good use of your agricultural props. Corn dollies – check. Rusty old farm tools – check. Spooky scarecrows – double check. Blue plastic tarps and government-subsidised windfarms – maybe not.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

John turned up the collar of his jacket against the cold. Wind whistled through the trees as he approached the old pub in the distance. The lights in the windows were the only signs of life for miles around. But it would be worth it. In a place like Grimbrooke, he could write his masterpiece.

There was no better place for an aspiring writer. No Internet, no TVs and only one phone line in the whole village – in short, there would be no distractions. True, every time he passed an animal it turned its head and hissed at him, but that was probably just a countryside thing. He’d never been great with cows.

A shape loomed out of the darkness. John flinched and swung his torch around; it was only a scarecrow. Dressed in a ragged old smock and with a carved pumpkin for a head, it had one arm propped up to point towards the pub. Rustling came from the field behind it.

“How convenient!” he said.

He kept walking. The road was narrow and winding, and overshadowed by trees on both sides. Every now and then the path twisted, blocking out the lights in the pub windows, and he was left stranded in the dark. He wished he’d been able to get the taxi driver to take him all the way up to the pub doors. He’d asked, but the man had shuddered and said “Be nowt in Grimbrooke for the likes o’ ye,” and he’d driven off before John had worked out what accent he was supposed to have.

He passed by another scarecrow. For some reason, this one was hanging from a tree by a noose, pumpkin head grinning. He looked at it for a little while and decided that it made sense. It was definitely scarier that way.

There was some more rustling. John ignored it. It was probably just the wind – but then, a man dressed all in black stepped out of the trees. He was old, with a scraggly beard and wide, staring eyes.

He made a vaguely agricultural noise before saying “Tha’d best go home, stranger.”

“Hello,” said John. That was probably what the old guy had meant. “Can you tell me if I’m on the right path for The Grimbrooke Arms? I can hardly see where I’m going with all these trees.”

The old man wheezed at him. “T’Grimbrooke Arms? Aye, ‘tis yonder. But why ye should go tae such a dark and eldritch place, on tonight of all nights…”

John was still struggling with the accent. “Eldritch? Isn’t that just a sort of square?”

The old man waved a knobbly finger in John’s face. “Dinnae come roond here wi’ yer fancy city ways and yer Pratchett references! We Grimbrookers are a proud people, ootsider, and ye’ve no business here!”

“I’m sorry,” said John, wondering how far away they were from the Scottish border, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

The old man nodded and fell into step beside him. “Aye, well, tha knows nowt of the old ways.”

The pub was growing closer now. John could see the little round windows and the big bales of straw stacked up outside. They passed by some more scarecrows. They all had pumpkins instead of heads – one of them with a knife stuck in it – and their ragdoll bodies had been bent to spell out the word ‘NOPE’.

“What are the old ways?”

The old man chuckled, spookily. “If tha goes t’Grimbrooke Arms, tha’ll find out.”

“Look,” said John, finally cracking, “where exactly are you from?”

The old man ignored him and pointed up at the pub. The trees had thinned back to show a small, squat building hunkered down beside a river. There were two more pumpkin-headed scarecrows outside: one holding a long, red candle and a tall pitchfork, and the other holding up the specials board.

“’Tis yer last chance, stranger,” said the old man. “Tha stands at a crossroads. Doon one path lies the familiar, doon the other leads…well, doom. Only tha can choose.”

John shifted his backpack higher onto his shoulder. “I’m just here to write a book.”

The old man looked interested. “Will ye put me in it?”

“If you like.”

“Then I’ll give tha three pieces of advice. One: dinnae trust a crow. Two: keep away fra’ the auld Grimbrooke estate, ye’ll find nae comfort there. And three – ” and now, he beckoned John closer, and whispered in his ear “ – try the special. They’ve a kale and quinoa-stuffed butternut squash yonder that’s to die for.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Editing Tips: How to Do the Words

Let me paint you a picture. You’ve just finished your first draft. Corks have been popped, backs have been slapped, and you’re basking in the rosy glow of a job well done.

Except NO YOU’RE NOT, GET BACK TO WORK.

tenor scrooge
That novel’s not going to write itself. (mage: tenor.com)

There’s a saying that writing is re-writing, and that’s by and large true, in my experience. It’s very easy to miss stuff on your first go round. But it’s pretty daunting to have just got to the end of a project and then realise that you’ve got to go right back to the beginning again. Whether you’re writing a novel or an essay, you’re always going to make mistakes in your first draft, but often it’s quite tricky to know exactly where to start.

Luckily for you guys, I am a mild-mannered editor by day and I am, like, the best at making sentences. Here’s some quick and dirty tips to use as a starting point.

 

 

  1. Check your spelling and grammar…

All the editing lists say this, and it’s because it’s true. If you’re writing fiction, having proper spelling and grammar will help a reader get into the story – they won’t get snapped out of it every time they see a typo. If you’re writing an essay, correct spelling and grammar will make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. (Also one time, at university, our tutor told my seminar group that someone had submitted their dissertation with an accidental swear word in there, so CHECK YOUR TYPOS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)

 

  1. …but don’t stick to it too rigidly.

This really applies more to fiction than non-fiction, so if you’re writing an essay feel free to skip to the next step. Depending on the type of thing you’re writing, sticking to very rigid grammatical rules can sometimes work against you. By all means use the correct punctuation, but forcing all your sentences to fit into a very regimented pattern doesn’t always work well – it can be pretty boring. Mixing things up a bit in terms of sentence structure helps your writing feel interesting, so go ahead and start that sentence with ‘and’.

 

  1. Take a break.

Go for a walk. Look at some clouds. Have some dinner, or maybe a nap. Anything that will give you fresh eyes, because if you go straight back to the beginning after typing your final sentence, you’re going to be reading what you were going for instead of what’s actually there. Obviously this works better when you’ve got time to take a proper break, but even if you’re writing to deadline this will really help. Maybe just go for a run instead of taking a full week of R&R, otherwise your teachers will be mad at me. 

 

  1. Invest in a thesaurus…

Check your work for repeated phrases. It’s OK to use the same phrase a few times, but if it’s popping up every paragraph you need to re-assess your choice of words. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I used to be so bad for this and only realised I was doing it when one of my friends pointed it out. I was leaning on those phrases so often that they were actually getting in the way of the plot. Fixing it was difficult, but when I did my writing became a lot better.

 

  1. …but don’t pay it too much attention. 

Look. Thesauruses (thesauri?) are great and everything, but they do have a tendency to turn all your prose completely purple. By all means switch up your choice of words, but don’t choose anything that sounds daft.

 

  1. Get some outside feedback.

If you’ve got time, see if you can get someone else to have a quick look through your work. Even if it’s just your mate proofing your essay at the kitchen table, it really helps to have a second pair of eyes. I’ve got my family and friends to read bits I’ve written for as long as I can remember, and they pick up stuff I wouldn’t have even thought of. (Thanks, guys!)

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Ron learned NOTHING without her. (image: gfycat.com)

 

  1. Read it aloud.

Seriously, do it. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of putting stuff down because it looks good on paper, particularly when you’re writing essays. Don’t make the same mistakes I made, and always make sure it sounds like something a human could conceivably say out loud before you hand it in.

 

  1. See how it all flows together.

How are you progressing from one idea to the next? Are you following a chain of argument or a narrative thread when you’re moving between topics? This will really help it feel natural, as opposed to checking things off a list. I always find that reading it aloud helps here too. If new topics are introduced in a way that feels jarring when it’s spoken, that probably means I’m not doing something right.

 

  1. Be picky.

You don’t need to have a cast-iron reason to cut something if you want to get rid of it. It’s your work, and if you decide that it’s time to hack and slash at something you’ve written then chop chop.

original
Calm down. (image: weheartit.com)

It’s enough to decide you’ve gone off something – and if you keep the original version, you can always put it back in if you change your mind.

 

  1. Trust your instincts.

You know what you want to say, so write it down. These tips are just tips – they are by no means the be-all and end-all of editing. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. Equally, if something else on a different list works better, add it to your list of things to look for. Going over your own stuff can be an incredibly personal process, so you’ve got to do it in a way that works for you.

 

And that’s it! These are my extremely basic, starting-point tips for anyone looking for some advice on how to edit their own stuff. Hopefully they’re useful. The most important thing is to find a process that works for you. It may take some doing, and you may want to try a few different approaches, but it’ll help you find a way to make your writing really shine, no matter what it is you’re actually putting on paper.

Now get back to work.

Book Recipes: How to Write a Time-Travel Romance

Time for another book recipe! Put on your corsets and make sure you’ve had all your jabs – we’re going BACK IN TIME. Sexily.

 

Ingredients:

  • One feisty heroine with a wildly detailed knowledge of history
  • One mega-hottie from THE PAST
  • A largely-irrelevant historical backdrop
  • One modern boyfriend, purely for angst
  • Buckets full of drama
  • A convenient historical event
  • A shakily-explained means of travelling backwards through time
  • Some sort of ticking clock plot device, which is utterly pointless because you have a time machine

 

Method:

  1. Put your feisty heroine with an incredibly detailed knowledge of history in the present, living a normal life with her normal, modern boyfriend. Sure hope nothing happens to them.
  2. HAHA TIME TRAVEL!
  3. Oh no! For convoluted plot reasons your heroine is now stuck in the past! However will she return to her one true love?
  4. Introduce the historical mega-hottie as dramatically as possible.
  5. Your heroine must spend a bunch of time with this historical mega-hottie, for plot reasons. She hates it, and it’s not because she like, likes him or anything, oh my God, why do you have to make this so weird??
giphy omg mom
I mean, why would you even say that? (image: giphy.com)
  1. Throw in some hilarious time-travel japes.
  2. Angst about the modern boyfriend for a bit. He’s probably frantically searching for the heroine right now, even though that’s not how time travel works and she can literally just bamf right back to the exact second she disappeared.
  3. Foreshadow the historical event!
  4. Your heroine and the historical hottie share a tender moment. Angst about it, then him, then the modern boyfriend, and then about the inevitability of history. It’s time for some serious brooding.
  5. Uh-oh! This historical event is not going to be good – and for reasons best left unexplained, you have to do a thing right before it happens!
  6. Distract yourself by staring at the historical hottie for a bit.
  7. More angst.
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No-one understands. (image: giphy.com)
  1. The heroine and the historical hottie at last admit their tender, squishy feelings for each other. Then they make out, like, a bunch.
  2. Give up on getting back to the present. Your modern boyfriend is probably fine, and besides, in the present they definitely don’t make cheekbones like they used to.
  3. That historical event is coming closer! Time for aaaaaaangst.
  4. Finally tell your historical hottie that you’re from The Future. It’ll be a bit weird at first, but eventually he’ll decide he’s into it.
  5. Use some of your incredibly detailed historical knowledge to attempt to alter the course of history. That always ends well.
  6. You manage to do the thing right before the historical event! Phew. Guess that’s finally sorted out the –
  7. OH NO IT ALL BACKFIRED HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED
  8. Now that the history books have been proved right, the heroine must return to her own time. Say a tearful farewell to your historical hottie, then waltz off to the smallpox-free present.

THE END. Serve with a generous dollop of wistful staring.

 

Tips:

  • Make sure that you pick the right kind of historical backdrop. A little bit of grime is allowed, but it’s got to have some clean and pretty bits where the heroine can chill. Ideally you want to pick one that also comes with its own little outfit.
  • You can give your historical hottie an old-timey scar, but it must be the result of some brave and manly deed and not just smallpox.
  • No plagues. No-one likes a plague.
  • The heroine never tells people she’s from The Future unless it’s the hottie, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to influence what happens in the past. She just gives a bunch of really specific instructions and then gets very vague about why she’s doing it. It is the most subtle way.
  • Do not forget to describe your heroine’s outfits in rigorous detail.
  • Always make sure your heroine has an excuse to spend most of the plot in a rich dude’s house, so that the reader can see all the cool bits of the past. No-one wants to spend the whole novel in a mud hut.
  • Don’t forget to let your heroine spout off a bunch of pointless facts for no reason!
  • If you want to really ramp up the drama, have a random character accuse your heroine of witchcraft, and then your historical hottie can swoop in and save her. Everyone believed in witches in the past, obviously (no-one had invented telly, there was nothing else to do) so this is 100% bona fide historical fact.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

Dr Julia Knight paced up and down her bedchamber, the long hem of her beaded yellow stola brushing the floor. She had to find a way out of here. The door was not locked, there were no guards outside, but that was not the problem.

She was trapped in the past.

She had no idea how it happened. One moment her fiancé, Blanden, was daring her to touch a mysterious glowing orb, and the next, she was wandering around the Forum. It made no sense. Luckily, she’d been taken in by Flavius Marcellus Barbarus, the wealthiest man in Rome, but still – nobody had any toothpaste here, and her three degrees in Romanology could only take her so far. She had to get back to her own time.

There was a knock at the door – a strapping, manly knock that made her heart flutter. And that, of course, was the other problem.

She patted her hair and tried not to sound too flustered. “Come in!”

Maximus strode into the room, eyes flashing, muscles rippling, still sweaty and breathless from his gladiator training, and Julia had to have a little sit down until she regained the ability to stand up. His legs looked great in his strappy sandals. Not for the first time, she wondered if making out with a super-hot gladiator would alter the course of history. Hopefully not, but she was prepared to risk it.

“Oracle,” he said, smouldering, “you have a client.”

“Oh. Yes, right!” Julia put on her most mysterious face. “Send him in.”

Maximus bowed, sexily, and Julia splashed her face with cold water. Moments later he reappeared with a man in a toga, who had a large nose and a receding hairline. Julia recognised him instantly, and tried not to freak out.

“Oracle,” he said, “I am –”

She held up a hand and tried to look spooky. “I know who you are, Gaius Julius Caesar.”

He frowned. “You do? How?”

Because I wrote my dissertation on you, Julia thought. Out loud, she said “Who in all of Rome does not know Caesar?”

Caesar looked pleased and pulled up a stool. “Exactly. Well, Oracle, I wish to consult you on –”

“Yeah,” said Julia, “I’m gonna stop you right there. Got some super important Oracle stuff to tell you. Have you got a pen?”

“What is this strange…pen you speak of?”

Julia blushed. “Stylus, I meant. Obviously. Something to take notes with.”

Caesar snapped his fingers. A slave sprang forward with a tablet and stylus and started to write.

“Right, so,” Julia began, “don’t go to the Senate on the Ides of March, don’t trust Cassius, Brutus, or the other Brutus who was also there –”

Caesar looked shocked. “But they’re all friends, Romans, countrymen…”

Julia laughed delightedly. “You said the thing!”

“I…what?”

“Never mind. So, yeah – Brutus one and two, and also Cassius – oh, and don’t accept the crown if you get offered it. Ever. You’ll thank me later.”

He blinked at her. “Why? I think I’d like a crown.”

Julia waved a dismissive hand. “More trouble than it’s worth. Also, it’ll give you a headache; those things are heavy. That’s it, Oracle stuff over.”

Caesar frowned while his slave scribbled down the last of her advice. “You seem to be very well-informed. Oracles are not usually so specific. Tell me – where have you learned such secrets?”

Julia caught Maximus’s eye. He smouldered at her.

“Oh, well, you know,” she said, waving Caesar out the door, “mystical Oracle stuff. The gods, obviously. And, like, significant dreams, goat entrails, reading bones and that. It’s all very technical. Ta-ta now.”

Caesar inclined his head. “I will think on your wisdom, Oracle.”

“Yes, yes. Off you go. Lovely to meet you, don’t get stabbed.”

“What?”

Julia shut the door and leaned against it, breathing hard. She’d just saved Julius Caesar’s life – and altered the course of history altogether. On retrospect, maybe that wasn’t her best idea.

When she opened her eyes, Maximus was staring at her. “Truly, you are wise, Oracle,” he murmured. “Do the gods have any advice for me?”

Julia hesitated. If she was going to be stuck in Rome, she may as well enjoy the view.

“Yes,” she said, in her most mystical voice. “They said you should take your shirt off.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

In Defence of Fanfiction

Ah, fanfiction. What a beautiful dumpster fire it can be. If there’s one kind of writing that never fails to get it in the neck, it’s this. I’ve been in rooms full of book lovers who will happily discuss minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy until they’re blue in the face, but mention the word ‘fanfic’ and there’s a tangible recoil. Eyes are rolled, smiles go very fixed, and you can see the other person filing your book-opinions under ‘Not To Be Trusted’. Even working in the publishing industry, where everyone has read everything, you don’t always know what kind of reception you’re going to get when you say you enjoy reading or writing fanfic. It has a bad reputation.

But is it deserved?

EbonyWay
I mean. (image: myimmortal.wikia.com)

When fanfiction is bad, it’s really, really bad, and this is what a lot of people tend to think of when they hear the term. There are some infamously bad fanfics out there. My Inner Life, which contains some of the absolute worst sex scenes I’ve ever read in my life (seriously, the word ‘gushing’ should be banned). Forbiden Fruit: The Tempation of Edward Cullen, which sports some of the worst poetry I’ve ever read and some of the most entertaining typos. And of course, who can forget the goffik granddaddy of them all: My Immortal. They’re all awful. Like, really, really awful, albeit with a silly, slightly Muppet-ey kind of charm.

But this is not the be-all and end-all of the genre. Fanfiction is tied in with a lot of ‘internet culture’ stuff, especially trolling, and it’s often pretty difficult to tell if the really bad fanfics are actually genuine. My Immortal itself is the perfect example of this, because nobody knows who actually wrote it. There’s all sorts of theories. Various people have claimed to know the author in real life, but this mysterious author seems to have been everything from a wannabe-goth schoolgirl to a trio of teenage boys poking fun at fangirls. This all came to a head last year, when someone claiming to be the real author of My Immortal got a book deal about how she wrote the fanfic to cope with the difficulties of the American foster system – and was then exposed as a liar.

As a result of this fanfiction is exposed to a lot of snobbery. People look at stuff like My Immortal and assume it was genuine – which it may well have been, I don’t know. But the difference between fanfiction and other types of writing is that the so-called ‘big names’ aren’t necessarily big because they’re good. Even those fanfics that have managed to break into the mainstream – I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey

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NOT THAT I’M BITTER. (image: coolspotters.com)

– aren’t exactly celebrated as masterworks of literature. As a whole, fanfiction is seen as a weird quirk of the Internet Era, like eating laundry pods and obsessing over Shrek. It’s not really seen as something that should be taken seriously.

I really disagree with this.

First of all, allow me to put on my history nerd hat for a moment. Fanfiction is not a modern phenomenon. Modern fanfiction goes back to at least the 1970s – we’re coming up on around fifty years of it now. But if you go further back, you’ll find that people have been using other people’s characters to tell their own stories for centuries. The Victorians, for example, used to re-write the endings to Shakespearean tragedies so that the heroes would survive to get a happy ending. That’s not so different from writing a fluff fic where your OTP get to live happily ever after when one of them gets killed in the show, thanks for nothing, Game of Thrones, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME.

But it goes back even further. Look at the Arthurian legends. There’s no one source for stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – as the centuries passed various writers and storytellers added to the legends, gradually building them up into the often-contradictory pantheon we have today. The most fanfic-ey example of this can be seen with the character of Merlin. Before The Vulgate Cycle – which is a group of stories from the thirteenth century, adding to pre-established Arthurian canon – Merlin was a mysterious and ambiguous figure, with no real clarity about his backstory or goals. But then, Robert de Boron wrote a poem all about Merlin which rounded him up to a full-blown edgelord. According to de Boron, Merlin was the result of a demon trying to make the Antichrist by getting a virgin pregnant, but then she had the baby baptised which somehow gave little Merlin perfect knowledge of the past, present and future, plus a bunch of magic powers. This established Merlin as a vital figure in Arthurian canon, setting him up as Arthur’s teacher and advisor, as well as adding famous elements of the mythology like the sword in the stone. And it goes back even further – all the way to the classics, in fact. The Aeneid is essentially fanfiction about one of the minor characters from The Iliad – it just happens to be incredibly well-written and dealing with big, serious subjects like the founding of Rome. When you’re dealing with material like that, it’s kind of hard to remember that it was also written in order to gain favour with the emperor Augustus, and is basically just a toga-wearing NOTICE ME SENPAI.

So fanfic is far from a modern phenomenon. Writing your own works set in someone else’s universe is a fine literary tradition going back thousands of years. Once you acknowledge that, it becomes pretty tricky to keep holding onto the perception that it’s no good as a genre. There are a lot of good fanfics out there – and I’m not just talking about The Aeneid – which get unfairly overlooked thanks to the reputation of titans like My Immortal.

But there’s something else we need to acknowledge about fanfic as well: it’s incredibly useful for writers.

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Along with tea. (image: phrases.org.uk)

Fanfiction is a great way to start off if you’re interested in writing but don’t really know where to begin. Writing is a weird, isolating hobby that has a tendency to attract a certain tweedy kind of snob. That’s really intimidating. If you’re faced with a room full of people talking about how they write about the intricacies of life and death, or the fundamentally Marxist nature of the human condition, or a controversial take on the banality of mankind, admitting that you want to kind of want to try it too can be excruciatingly embarrassing. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery about first-time writers, or genre fiction, or women’s fiction, or YA, and wading straight into that before you’re really sure what you’re doing can be a really horrible experience.

But fanfiction has far less of that. Yes, fandoms as a whole can get pretty weird – I’m looking at you, Superwholock – but when you start writing fanfiction you’re starting off in a place where everybody already loves the thing you want to write about. That’s a huge confidence boost. The overall world you’re working in isn’t going to be questioned on principle, because everybody else is working in that world, too. This is hugely helpful for a first-time writer because it allows you to focus on other elements of storytelling.

So: what can writers actually learn from fanfiction?

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Yay for learning! (image: giphy.com)
  • Characterisation: Fanfic teaches writers how to write consistent characters and stick to an already-established personality. It’s essentially an exercise in character-writing, with the added bonus that you already know the character really well before you start.
  • Setting: Fanfic shows writers how to fit within the boundaries of an already-established world and in some cases, how to expand on it, too. More importantly, it allows writers to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Worldbuilding is hella difficult and it’s actually extremely tricky to put together an original and coherent world with its own set of believable rules. Working in a pre-established setting is excellent training for this.
  • Plotting: Fanfic allows writers to push the boundaries with their plots and try new things. You can experiment – see what works, see what doesn’t, and see what completely blows the universe apart. These are important things to learn, and you’ll likely have to learn them all over again for original projects, but having an established framework for your first few tries makes it a hell of a lot easier.
  • Structure: Fanfic sites encourage users to post stuff on a chapter-by-chapter basis. This encourages writers to think about structure – you’re thinking about how to write a strong opening, how to end a chapter so your reader will want to keep going – and this is something that isn’t always considered when writing original projects.

Are these things that you can learn from writing your own original projects? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that fanfiction can be a really valuable tool for writers and you can really learn a lot from it. The instant feedback you can get from fanfic sites is really valuable because it’s actually pretty difficult to get feedback as a writer. Asking your friends to read your stuff is really nerve-wracking and unfortunately, even if you do ask they just might not have time to read it. You can always submit to competitions and magazines, but that’s a hugely scary thing to do and these types of publications don’t always have the time to give you constructive feedback if you don’t get far in the competition. This is where fanfic sites can really give you a leg up, as you can get encouragement and advice on every chapter. It’s impossible to improve as a writer without constructive criticism, and if you don’t take that first step you aren’t going to get any better.

But there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned so far.

It’s just fun!

tenor
Here to point out that the day needs saving, did you know? (image: tenor.com)

Writing doesn’t have to be a super-serious thing – neither does reading. Yes, talking about craft and feedback is important but you can also just have a good time. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy fanfiction and anyone who makes you feel bad about it is being a snob. It’s still reading. It’s still writing. You do not have to be a tortured artiste starving in a garret in order to produce anything of worth, and you do not have to be wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and smoking a pipe in order to have valuable opinions about what you read. If you want to read or write fanfiction, you go ahead and do it. If you find that it starts up a love of writing or reading that you want to take further, that’s great! If not, that’s great too! Just enjoy the stuff you like to read or write and don’t let anyone try and make you feel bad about it.

Don’t get me wrong. Fanfiction, when it’s bad, can be an absolute pile. But to say it’s bad as a whole is an unfair characterisation of a genre. You get good and bad fanfic in the same way you get good and bad sci-fi. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that a) it’s not the misunderstood brainchild of Tumblr, we’ve been doing this for centuries and b) it has some very real benefits. Things don’t have to be deep and meaningful to have value – they can be fun, or silly, or over-dramatic, or just really really smutty, but if you enjoy them, that is all the value they need. Some people find fanfiction gives them some really useful tools as a writer, and can start themselves off down the path to original fiction – I know that was the case for me. Some people don’t. Either way, that’s fine. You do you.