Beyond fan fiction, a personal account

As I mentioned in my post a week ago, my story telling was inspired by the example of my father reading to us kids and telling us his stories. However, inspiration is not enough. One has to take the initiative, and start working out stories of one’s own.

I have had trouble falling asleep since as far back as I can remember. As a child, I slept in a bedroom that had a closet that contained other people’s clothes. So I rarely went into it, and its contents were unfamiliar to me. I would lie awake at night, and wonder just what might be lurking in the closet. Or maybe under the bed. It would take me forever to fall asleep.

I needed a way to distract myself. So, when I was in elementary school, I began thinking up stories as I lay there, trying to get to sleep.

I wasn’t original enough to make up my own stories from scratch. I needed something to get me started. So I did what millions of others have done. I engaged in dreaming up fan fiction, although I didn’t know that was what it was called. Give me a little credit for creativity, though. I didn’t just start with one source; I combined two. There was what I guess would be called a young adult novel by Lois Duncan entitled Ransom that had just come out about children on a school bus being kidnapped. (I was nine when I read it, hardly a young adult, but I read well above my age level in those days.) And there was a television series, The Green Hornet, which was similar to the Batman series of the same era, but much, much less campy, more straightforward. (Here’s a link to its opening credits, which gives you an idea of what it was about, and why it might inspire a nine-year-old. Don’t confuse this with the recent movie remake.) So I took the book and the TV series, recast myself as a Green Hornet clone, assigned the Kato role to the girl on whom I had a secret crush, and went out to foil the bad guys in Ransom. And imagining that story helped me to get to sleep.

Well, you can only tell yourself the same story so many times before it gets old and shopworn. I set out to solve other crimes, to right other wrongs. But I never got that far from being the Green Hornet. No, breaking away, becoming original, that took time. It also took yet another television series, the Dark Shadows gothic soap opera, for that step. The main protagonist in Dark Shadows was a vampire who was trying to do good, but compelled by his nature to do evil. It was a challenging concept for a subteen boy. That time around, I didn’t just borrow the stories and cast myself in the lead. I made up an entire universe. I was going to dream my dreams. In truth, my universe and characters were threadbare copies at first. They weren’t complete copies, though. I introduced differences. To start with, my lead character was not a vampire, even though he was a deeply conflicted individual who dealt with the supernatural. Over time, those differences built up. Eventually, they became my creations, with very little debt to the originals.

One of the engines for my original development of stories has been the age-old question, “How did it get that way?” I’d work out a story in my head, and once I had it worked out, I’d start wondering about what happened before. And there’s always something that happened before. Asking this question made me a historian by inclination long before I became a professionally-trained one. Trying to answer that question (and its counterpart, “What happened afterwards?”) meant I had to think about the motivations and social conditions that created any story I developed. For example, those of you reading my story The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge as I post it, know it is set in the year 1886, and that Abigail Lane is one of its principal characters. Abigail was created to help explain elements in another story I have written, a story set in the year 2000!

That story set in the year 2000 represented the last crucial step I took in the transition from fan fiction in my head to original stories on the written page: writing. It doesn’t matter how lively your imagination is, you can’t write a good story unless you actually write it down. (Homer and Oscar Wilde are exceptions, I admit. If you’re in their league, don’t read my advice; send me yours!) Writing it down does three things for you. First, it forces you to actually define your story, set it in metaphorical concrete, make you translate your musings into something that has to have logic and coherence. Second, you have to consider how to tell the story, and what mechanics and strategies of writing you will use. To mention the most obvious example, because it is being written as a serial, The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge has to have some sort of climax at the end of every chapter, and I have had to try what for me are new strategies to create those. Third, you have to actually think about your audience. What you write has to be good enough to read, by someone. If it isn’t, you have to either revise, begin over, or admit you don’t really want to write. If it is, you then need to figure out how to reach your audience.

He’s an exception

The biggest day in my life as a writer was not creating that first story, back when I was a child. No, it was when I had the courage and desire to show my first written story to my girlfriend. That was the day I said I wanted to write something good enough for another reader, something good enough to be published. Writing in this blog has been another step. And if my protagonist, Rebecca Maxwell, carries a walking stick, just like the lead in Dark Shadows, I have the pleasure of knowing that it is only a resemblance, and that she and her story are entirely my creation, here for you to read.

Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell’s walking stick – E.J. Barnes

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Dragon Lady, Writing fiction and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

72 Responses to Beyond fan fiction, a personal account

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    …principAL characters! And it is indeed an honor and a pleasure to read your work. I hope that sometime soon the public will see the two novels you’ve already written!

  2. Brian Bixby says:

    Aye, how careless of me: I know the rule, and yet still made the mistake. It has been fixed. Thank you on both counts!

  3. fireandair says:

    “I wasn’t original enough to make up my own stories from scratch. I needed something to get me started.”

    So does everyone else who writes “original” work. We all have a common font. The key is to cite your inspirations.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Hear! Hear!
      One of the issues that then emerges is trying to figure out just how much you’ve distanced yourself from your sources. I recall H. P. Lovecraft saying how he still saw his work as derivative of Dunsany and Poe long after he had developed his own style and subjects.

  4. marymtf says:

    I’m sure you already,know that a lot of science fiction writers cut their writing teeth on fan fiction. good on you for taking the next step. Keep my fingers crossed. ps. there’s nothing I hate more than a badly researched background.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I knew some of them were in APAs way back when, but I’ve yet to look into the background of more recent writers, except those who published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s anthologies some years ago. I will keep an eye out as I look at more current writers.

  5. L. Palmer says:

    I wrote a whole post about fan fiction as my training wheels to my own fan fiction. The stories, worlds, and characters we love growing up are the models that we build from to create our own universes and ideas. Glad to see it put so eloquently and honestly.

  6. Soul Walker says:

    I like your thoughts on the use of fan-fiction in the development of a writer. Interesting.

  7. I think I started writing fan fiction in my head just like you, only i did it at every moment of the day. i actually still do it, and it’s from there that i create some of my best stories!
    By the way, I love your background.

  8. Brian Bixby says:

    Good to hear I’m not alone.
    The background is from John Dee’s writings. I picked it because it shows a seven-pointed star used for magic, just as a different seven-pointed star is used in “Dragon Lady.” It comes from a manuscript Sloane 3188, and you can find a copy of it here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sloane3188-john_dee.png

  9. segmation says:

    What wonderful inspirations to write about. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I totally agree with this post. I’ve always thought fanfiction was a really good opening for new writers, because it takes away the daunting problem of character (and sometimes setting) development and teaches the writer how to focus on the plotline first…then, obviously, when you branch off into your own writing techniques character and setting and everything becomes important, but fanfiction is a good gateway to help get started. It’s what I did! Thank you for this post.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      You’re welcome. I think you make a good point, that aspiring writers need to develop their creative skills incrementally. Few of us are born Dickens. One of the advantages of fan fiction, beyond what you state, is that by definition the writer has to eventually come up with something new to say about the characters, or recast them, which is a spur to creativity.

  11. Great blog! I think it adds to the story when you right from experiences or build off of stories you enjoyed. I usually make better work when I make something that had an affect on me.
    Congratulations on Freshly Pressed!

  12. Ace Arcanum says:

    I made up fan fiction about my favorite stories in my mind ever since I was a kid…I still do so today. And that helps me in creating my original stories.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Agreed. Thought the process seems to be a bit more conscious for me as I get older. It’s like a lot of writing. The more you do of it, the more you understand exactly what you’re doing.

  13. monica923 says:

    Ahh fan fiction! There are some truly amazing stories based in fan fiction! I never really gave it any thought that all my youthful fantasies and twist laden stories were all coming from the spring board of some book I had read. The first taste of fan fiction. I really like this blog. Nicely done!

  14. Brian Bixby says:

    I’m glad I was able to illuminate some of your own development. This post is the result of my thinking a great deal about my own development. It seems many of us build layers on what we read. How many layers, or how different does it have to be, before it is our original creation? I’m pretty sure “Dragon Lady” is mine, but I could trace everything back to SOMETHING if I had to, just that it would be a great many somethings!

  15. danagpeleg1 says:

    Come to think of it, there must be an entire genre of GLBT fan fiction, due to the common oblitaeration of our stories… Mimi, my partner, and I, do it all the time when watching TV series, we just never wrote it. We usually start by saying “Don’t you think Cybill and the housemaid she helped finding a job could fall in love”? and we start a whole diffrent plot for Downton Abbey and so on…

  16. letscriticize says:

    I like this post. Perfect!
    http://alfjeremy.wordpress.com/

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Far be it for me to disagree with such praise from someone named “letscriticize,” though, like many people, I often forget that criticism can be positive as well as negative, as you have demonstrated. :)

  17. Hamza says:

    The wonderful imaginations of make-believe :) Drifts me back to such nostalgia! Those Superman, Gumby and TurboMan mind games !!

  18. Nice post. Good topic. Maybe all writers lift a little from here and a little from there. I’m guilty. Here’s a YaleCourses lecture your post-topic reminds me of. It’s a bit long, but worth a sit-in. And there’s a table of contents for sections of the lecture. It’s interesting to learn how even a heavyweight like Cormac McCarthy owes a debt to books like Moby Dick, Paradise Lost and the Bible – or, maybe more precisely, to their authors’.

  19. I agree with what you say about yourself in your ‘about’ lines. Me too. To me, all writing is about emotional journeys; a journey for the writer, and the journey they can take the reader on. I also think it applies to the historical non-fiction which I write and publish, as much as to any fiction. I’ve been working on a biography this year and it’s come home to me very clearly that all the structural techniques novelists use to draw out character are as valid with a non-fiction bio.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I’ve been making similar discoveries, Matthew, which I admit surprised me. Facts versus “stuff I make up:” why should they draw on similar techniques? Yet I’ve found that working out a plot and characters in fiction to be as demanding as facts and analysis in historical writing in trying to muster your points and lay them out in an order that conveys what you want to say.

  20. I’m glad I’m not the only one! I’m 20, and still dreaming up fanfiction for characters in other people’s work that I love. I’m currently taking that step you took with your girlfriend – revealing my writing publicly. But I also think that besides the wonderful medium that fan fiction offers to developing writers, it also allows us to extend our relationships with characters that we’ve put so much emotion into. For me, personally, fan fiction is a way to postpone the farewell given to a story and its characters when a writer or producer ends it. I’m always curious about what happens /after/ the story is over. It’s great for stimulating the mind into being a little creative. Thanks for posting!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      That same desire to keep going with a story after it’s over has sometimes guided me into reading a biography of an author whose work I like. Got into reading so much biographical material on the Bronte sisters after reading all their novels that I actually hallucinated an encounter with them while suffering from a fever.

  21. Very good article. I enjoyed reading it :)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Thank you.
      I’m surprised at the good reception it has received, myself. I guess I hit upon a common development among writers and would-be writers. Now if I only knew when I was doing that!

  22. This is so very true. Most artists begin by “replicating” whether they are painters, designers, or writers. My first novel was also heavily copied from two very influential books that inspired me, but in the meantime it has morphed so much that the only things shared are the names (which I couldn’t bring myself to change). Thanks for writing this and sharing your thoughts.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Ah, another person who started with two sources! I have to admit I named one of the comic characters in “Dragon Lady” Barnabas in honor of that character in “Dark Shadows,” even though there is absolutely no resemblance. Good names are hard to find!
      And thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  23. Judy says:

    This idea of having a seminal influence is not something negative to be sure. I think a lot of creative people struggle with their inspiration rather than rejoice in it. Whether in the arts or in science we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before. That’s what makes it so interesting. Maybe there are leaps in science and creativity which do stand beyond anything that came before but mostly we are creatures of our time. I love reading old poetry and I think it is fun that the style and vocabulary and even values of an era can be so consistent..so much so you have an idea when something was written by the feel of it. We gravitate toward ‘flavors’ that suit us and if they season our own personal voice a bit…well that doesn’t cancel out the originality!!
    Couldn’t help but comment but anxious to go read your stuff!! When I was a kid I had trouble falling to sleep and always imagined what was under the bed or in the closet…always dived into bed so my toes would not touch the darkness or anything that lived in it!!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Isn’t it remarkable how much the rhythms, sentence structures, word choices, and idioms change, but it’s still English, and you can date it! I find this especially true if you try to read out loud, having found this out when reading Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat.”

  24. ladyruby07 says:

    THIS!

    I’m such a light sleeper and falling asleep gives me so much trouble. Making up stories in my head and borrowing other characters is how I started (I was a Disney Princess being rescued by Cyclops from the original X-Men cartoon.) I still do that now to sleep. I write them down too, sometimes. Sometimes I try to work them into something original and sometimes I just write the idea floating in my head. I write mostly for me, though I’m always happy when others like it as well.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I can see a Disney princess and Cyclops, though I picture him with Jean Grey, because I read the Dark Phoenix saga first, and THAT was because I saw the cartoon series before I read any of the comic books.
      I hope you continue to enjoy your stories, maybe show them around a bit more, if you want. That said, I have to offer one ironic warning: I’m now so caught up in my characters that THEY sometimes keep me up now!

  25. gwynncompton says:

    I remember doing the exact same thing with various iterations of Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers and so forth when I was a kid during the 1980s and 1990s. Those stories sparked your own creativity and while you initially could only create adventures in their worlds, you gradually begun to adapt those ideas and develop your own new ones.

    As you pointed out, the major challenge hits when it’s time to write your own ideas down into a actual story that you intend for other people to read one day. I’m currently in the process of doing that and it’s a difficult task. Not least for the time it takes, but also that you are, often for the first time, actually working through the different aspects of your story and seeing if they actually work.

    It’s also important to acknowledge, just as you’re doing, that we never can quite escape those stories that influenced us growing up and those that capture our imaginations today. We’re adding to the rich tapestry of ideas and stories that those before us have created and we’re helping enable future generations to have their imaginations inspired in the same way to embrace their own creativity.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I agree.

      I want to comment a bit on your second paragraph. One of the great advantages of NOT writing them down is that you can “retcon” your stories as you go. Try to do that when you write them down, and it either becomes a mess, or reads like an Icelandic family saga. I started a story (the one set in the year 2000), wrote about 75 pages, then wrote 30 pages of back story. I ended up having to rewrite both extensively to fit them together, and in the process I turned a throwaway character into a major player in the story. It made it a richer story, eventually, after I despaired a few times about how the pieces didn’t seem to fit together. So, yes, getting the elements to actually work together is a major challenge.

  26. Hello, I find your topic one that many people look and/or frown down upon. The very idea of fan fiction to some is as taboo as walking under a ladder. I think everything that you have said is ringing true for many young and newly beginning authors– My self included.

    Thank you for posting this, for those who may read it after me know that just because they wrote or write fan fiction doesn’t mean they can’t aspire to something more– something of their own creation.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      You are welcome. I have to confess that I had the same dismissive attitude to fan fiction when I first heard of it . . . until I realized that I had done it, too! THEN I began actually thinking about it, instead of just offering a knee jerk response.

  27. birdnerd3303 says:

    wow. if your interested, please visit assassinscreedbookblog.wordpress.com

    i have been trying to change the name, but it’s real name is Gamer’s Hot Spot!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I did take a look over and notice you’ve done fan fiction based on some of the games you cover. That’s another reasonable source for ideas. Having grown up before PCs and gaming machines, I did use old Parker Bros. and Milton Bradley games as springboards myself.

  28. Apparently my thinking up fanfiction like stories in my head a night to ditract me before I started writing is not only something I used…thanks for this I truly enjoyed reading it :)

  29. I find both this post and its back story beautiful.

  30. I enjoyed reading this article. Good thoughts!
    http://alfredo239047.wordpress.com/

  31. Inspiration is so hard to find sometimes, but I agree that writing FOR someone or with the intent to show someone really helps. I love sharing my work now because if it is good enough for me to show my friends then I must be getting confident, which is always good as a writer. Great post, I really enjoyed it, congrats on FP!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Thank you.
      For all that I’m posting it here, I have to admit I still have very mixed feelings about sharing my work. My deeds are outrunning my own confidence, if you can believe that! Or maybe I just alternate between confidence and lack thereof, I’m not sure. Good luck to you in your writing.

  32. Andrew Lang says:

    Hello Brian. Your post has peeked my curiosity to see how you’ve developed your serial on The Dragon Lady. I’m glad, in fact, that you mentioned the usefulness of fan fiction for honing your ability to write. Like you mentioned, it’s hard to develop a logical basis for your work sometimes, and fan fiction helps build on this. It’s no different from sitting down with a picture in front of you and attempting to recreate it to full proportions. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I find it difficult to fit all of the details I want to include without making my writing too convoluted. I often wonder how the realists like Henry James once did it. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Kill your children, Andrew. There’s no better place to do it than in a blog.

      OK, now that I’ve got your attention, first things first. Thank you, and welcome aboard.

      Now, as to the children, I’m talking about story material that doesn’t fit, just so no one calls the DSS on me. I wrote a post back near the beginning (“Writing fiction at length, at length” http://sillyverse.com/2012/08/29/writing-fiction-at-length-at-length/ ) where I mentioned how I had removed one of my favorite scenes from a story I was writing, because it no longer fit. I’d changed the premises of the story, and the episode was no longer accurate. It hurt, but it was necessary.

      The same principle extends to material in your story that fills it out, but that you don’t need. There’s a passage in “Dragon Lady” where I introduce Abigail Lane. It originally recounted 30 years of personal and institutional history in detail. I eventually cut it back to one short bit of description and one episode, because that’s all I needed to tell my story.

      But the great part is that with a blog I can recycle that material to show it to people who want to know more! Part of what I excised turned up in a post entitled “Dragon Lady chapter 9 and the Secret Service” ( http://sillyverse.com/2012/10/26/dragon-lady-chapter-9-and-the-secret-service/ ). People here who want to read it, can. It provides some illumination on the story, but it wasn’t necessary for the story. I get to prattle on, readers have their choice of experience, and we all come out ahead.

      So consider using a blog as a writing tool, Andrew. Give yourself the chance to play with what you include and exclude, knowing you can put the excluded material in a place where people can still see it. It’s a suggestion, maybe not appropriate for you, but I offer it.

      • Andrew Lang says:

        Thanks for taking the time to write what you have for me, Brian. More and more I’m coming to realize that our imagination as readers plays a big part in the development of a scene, as well. It sounds like you provide just enough detail to give readers a taste, then let their imaginations run with the thread. I guess my uncertainty for writing lies in how in-depth a scene must be developed for the reader to capture it to its fullest sense.

  33. S. L. says:

    Great post. Now that I look back, I used to imagine fanfiction in my head while I was reading the Animorphs series back in the day.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Ooooh! Books from Scholastic Publishing. I remember one entitled “The Mad Scientists’ Club.” I so, so wanted to join! But I read them just before I started imagining fan fiction. Sigh. Lost opportunity.

  34. Until today, it never occurred to me that the trouble I have always had falling asleep, and the habit I have of telling myself stories since I was a child, might be a trait common to many of us that have turned to writing. I started by telling myself stories, then telling others, then writing fanfic to brush up my writing skills, and finally writing my own work. I love this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  35. Brian Bixby says:

    It is nice to find you’re part of a community, isn’t it? And as it turns out, you’re writing supernatural fiction, too. I need to spend some time seeing what you (and others) who have been reading my blog are writing/have written, a matter I’ve neglected while keeping up with the “Freshly Pressed” surge of visitors.

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