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03 May 2010 @ 18:01
thoughts on derivative works and filing off the serial numbers.  
So I'd originally written this back in March 2008, at my pro blog. When I moved that blog to a different location, in an effort to segregate my pro work from my fannish life, I deleted it. But in light of certain meta recently, I decided to republish it here on my fannish LJ.

The thing about spending over an hour in a taxi with someone, is that you end up having conversations. And aside from the fact that it took us ages and ages to get where we intended to go, and then cost a lot of money, it actually gave us the opportunity to talk about fan fiction. And I came to a realisation that week-end, both about myself, and how I approach fanfic.

I argue with people all the time that writing good fan fiction (or any derivative work, whether it's DC Comics' Batman, or a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, or a retelling of a myth, legend, or fairy tale) is hard work. It's not less hard work than writing original fiction. It's probably not more hard work than writing original fiction. It's different hard work. If you don't think Shakespeare wasn't sweating blood writing MacBeth or Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream just because he was retelling stories other people had fictionalised and dramatised before him, then you'd best walk away from me right now because we're simply never going to come to a common POV. Best give up now.

The thing that excites me creatively with derivative fiction is the challenge of telling a new story set in an existing universe, and making it fit as cleanly into the original universe as possible. In terms of continuity, in terms of characterisation, I want the audience to feel satisfied that what they are reading could happen. But more than that, I want them to believe for the space of that story that it would happen. That if presented with these new circumstances, the characters we know so well would react exactly this way. I want stories to feel inevitable. That because of who these people are and how they relate to one another, everything that happens could not have happened any other way.

That requires a lot of research. It really does. It means knowing the source material inside out. It means knowing the characters, and being able to reproduce their voices accurately. It also requires skill. Because derivative work still needs to stand on its own as good storytelling. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an ending that satisfies. There have to be real stakes, and at the end of it, something needs to be gained or lost. Whether that something is knowledge, or a change in a character's fundamental views, or evolution of a relationship, the people at the end of your story need to have been changed by the story. Or at the very least, the audience's understanding of that world and those characters needs to be changed by it. And these are not skills unique to fan fiction. But they are skills you need to write good fan fiction. And in my eyes, that means fiction that succeeds both as fiction and derivative fiction. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

I have a passion for writing period pieces. I spent three months researching a story I wrote for a Secret Santa Fiction Exchange, based on Robert Altman's Gosford Park. Because my recipient had asked for an Ivor Novello story, I read a half dozen Novello biographies. Because the story was set in 1932, I read social histories of England between World War I and World War II, and biographies of Novello's peers. I read a dozen books on life in domestic service from Victorian times up through the 1960s. I stuffed my brain full of as much information as I could to accurately reproduce not just the period setting, but the attitudes of the characters, their social backgrounds and class differences. I needed to understand who these people were, in order to view the existing story from a different vantage point, and extrapolate beyond the film to try and say "and here's what happened next".

And I had a ridiculously good time. I really did. And I know that not everyone approaches fan fiction this way, but it's how I approach it, and that's what I find most enjoyable about the process of writing. Even if I only used a tenth of my research in the finished piece, I still enjoyed the process of learning new things immensely.

Some of my friends are proper authors who get paid and everything. It's hard for a lot of these friends to see all the hard work and passion that goes into writing a story like that, when there's no paycheque at the end of it, and understand why I do it. Where the motivation isn't to reach a mass audience, but to reach a niche one. The smallest niche there is, in fact. Because the story is not meant to stand alone, but in a symbiotic relationship to the original text. The effectiveness of the one relies on the context of the other, and the satisfaction the audience derives from it comes from their relationship with the original text.

And while fannish, these pro author friends tend to watch me go insane with tons of research for a story, and then draft after draft, and scratch their heads, and wonder why don't I try and turn that fan story into a professional sale? Because that's what makes sense to them, and I can't blame them. If I were wired differently, I probably would as well. Certainly my long-suffering parents agree with them, but that is neither here nor there.

The process is generally referred to as "filing the serial numbers off" and the idea is that you alter the characters and setting enough that they no longer resemble the original work your story is derived from. It happens all the time. But I can't imagine doing it myself, and I was really reaching as I tried to explain why. Then somewhere between LAX and Silverlake, I think I finally found a way to articulate it so that it makes sense.

Think about "alternative universe" stories.

Whether it's "Hitler won the war" or Star Trek's Mirror Universe, those stories work and are effective entirely because they rely on context. The story you're telling in that alternative universe may well be a cracking good yarn, full of romance and adventure and drama and pathos, with real stakes for fully developed 3-dimensional characters. But any depth and effectiveness that story has relies on the audience's knowledge of the original universe you are diverging from. You need to know the status quo, in order to appreciate how deviating from the status quo affects the characters. You need the knowledge of how those canon characters were shaped by their environment and experiences in the original universe, in order for the new environment and experiences to tell you fundamental truths about the original characters. You cannot fully appreciate the alternative universe without that context.

I can't imagine "filing the serial numbers off" when I write fan fiction, because the effectiveness of those stories relies on who these people are, and the world the come from. If I remove that context, then I've lost what motivated me to write it in the first place. If I set out to tell a story about Robert Parks and Mary MacEachran, then I cannot fundamentally change those characters to the point where they are no longer Robert and Mary, and no longer changed by the events surrounding William McCordle's murder. Because the joy I get is by writing something specifically in that world, for those characters, building on Julian Fellowes' script and those actors performances, and Robert Altman's direction.

I probably will build my own world to play in, and will embrace those challenges someday. And I will be hard work, and it will be different hard work from writing derivative fan works, and work I'll enjoy, and will find satisfying. But right now, I derive tremendous satisfaction from writing fan fiction precisely because it requires me to be a good storyteller and an excellent mimic. And all those skills I use when I write something like Gosford Park or Doctor Who fan fiction, I will use to write original fiction.

But, for me, it has to be conceived of as original fiction.

Characters and stories have to be built with a specific purpose in mind, and trying to re-purpose a piece of fan fiction to create an original work is just something I can't get my head around. If I write something with the intent of selling it as original work, then it really would have to start life as its own story—not retrofitting someone else's. Otherwise, it's an endless game of compromise. How much of the original characters and world can I keep and still be satisfied emotionally by the story I'm telling? How much work would I have to do to make the story compelling for someone with no relationship with the original work? To me, that's an awful lot of work to build something that is neither fish nor fowl. In that specific instance, I'd rather come up with new characters and a new world, than try and retrofit someone else's and still have meaning.

So, anyway, this is what long expensive cab rides are for. Having a captive audience that forces me to articulate things I never could quite manage before, in a way that I hope makes sense.
AQ aka Syredronning: thinking_yul_brunnersyredronning on 3rd May 2010 23:17 (UTC)

I once tried to file off the serial number, and it doesn't work at all for me, no matter how much of an AU the fanfic was.

I have moments where I wish I'd get paid in money for all this writing work, but it's my hobby and if I changed that, started writing fic for money, I would pay in losing the fun with it :/
boosette on 3rd May 2010 23:22 (UTC)
Okay so the part where I love your brain and how it explains things so eloquently and put-togetherly and stuff.

Makes me go ♥
rubynye on 3rd May 2010 23:22 (UTC)
I cannot possibly agree more. I could write a thousand words but really, they'd all just boil down to "I AGREE SO MUCH."
getting the chocolate in the peanut butterdotfic on 3rd May 2010 23:29 (UTC)
This is a terrific essay.
R.J. Anderson: First Fandomsrj_anderson on 3rd May 2010 23:35 (UTC)
Wonderful essay; I've just posted a link on Twitter.

I believe that filing off the serial numbers can be (and has been, in some notable cases) effectively done, but it takes a lot of time and distance away from the original work. Not everybody is going to want to do that, nor is every story well suited to such adaptation. Only when the fic has a large percentage of original ideas and characters to begin with (say, a Harry Potter story heavily populated with OC's and AU elements) is it likely to make the transition successfully -- and sometimes not even then.
ClionaEilisclionaeilis on 3rd May 2010 23:45 (UTC)
Wow - the timing of this is spookily perfect. I've been thinking a lot about what it is about fan fiction and my attraction to and methodology for it, trying to find a way to talk about it. This weekend I went to a two-day writers conference (which was fabulous and I'll be posting about it soon, to make sure I don't forget my takeaways), because of the original fic inspiration I got after this year's Gosford Park yuletide piece. So, my focus was on historical fiction, and I was kind of freaking out about the parallels between the process/approach these historical fiction authors took with my own take on writing fanfic. It sounds like we are very similar in our viewpoints (although we already knew that, thanks to Ivor Novello!)

But the part that I can't explain, is the specific kind of context that's in play with most good fan fiction - the role or participation of the wider fandom. I can't really talk about 'what fan fiction means to me' without first talking about fandom, and painting that picture first, sufficiently enough that it's understood it's not a creator/consumer relationship - that it's much more interactive and fluid.

It reminds me of when I was at seminary/grad school, and I was open about my pagan/wiccan ways - one of my friends used to joke with me about 'so, when do we get to see a real witchy ritual'? And I had to explain to her that she never would, in a working coven, no one's watching while someone else is doing - it's a co-creation, so to speak. I feel like fan fiction is like that for me - even if I'm writing something insanely obscure (and as it happens, I always seem drawn to the most obscure fandom or pairing, without fail!), I'm still thinking of the reader as a partner rather than just a consumer.

Hmm - I was thinking out loud there, so I'm not sure how coherent that is. Back to another of your points that I've been thinking about - I have tried to repurpose stories I've written too, with no success. Finally, after this year's yuletide, I decided to hang around in the time period, in my character's neighborhood if you will, to see if I could find something there to spur some original fiction. That spurred me on to a huge amount of reading, and some various notions of character and plot which started coalescing recently (hence my decision to keep the spark going by attending this conference). Perhaps that might work for you as well? Stay in the characters' setting, rather than attempting to rehash the story or character that resided there?

Anyway - lots of rambling, sorry. Can you tell I'm fairly bowled over by this post of yours, and it's food - no, more like a feast - for thought?
Whoniversal aunt.pontisbright on 3rd May 2010 23:49 (UTC)
Brilliantly put, and dead right.

I've had the most riotous time researching for fanfic: spent an age confirming which edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica was current so I could quote it correctly. It's part of the fun.

In my other life (as a 'proper author who gets paid and everything'), I make stuff up. I think my pro-writing is aided by being a ficcer, no doubt, but I've never felt the urge to file off the serial numbers: those stories work because they're part of something the audience already recognises and adores. I wrote them, but they're not mine: they're community-owned. (If I could just figure out a way to have time to really, truly, do both, I'd be golden.)
R.J. Anderson: Campionrj_anderson on 3rd May 2010 23:58 (UTC)
Hello, Allingham-derived LJ name, Amy icon, fellow Five fan, and pro author who writes fic? Friending right now.
ljc: love (campion)taraljc on 4th May 2010 01:14 (UTC)
heh. I was thinking the same thing!
renisanz: s/u laprenisanz on 4th May 2010 00:04 (UTC)
Oh wow. A lot of interesting points to ponder here. One of the main reasons I started writing fanfiction was to get "practice" with my original fic, since I couldn't seem to get any of the stories that I had in my head down on paper.

But I agree that writing good fanfiction is just as hard as writing something original. You have to consider whether you're keeping everyone in character, and you must also be well-versed in the source material so that you can make your story believable.
Merlin Missy: As You Wish (Vader)mtgat on 4th May 2010 00:07 (UTC)
Exactly. The point of writing fanfiction in a particular universe (for me) is the context the audience is already bringing. The shared experience is part of the fun.
Dances With Vampires: bewilderment pugyahtzee63 on 4th May 2010 00:15 (UTC)
IMHO, "filing off the serial numbers" can work -- but only when the author has already moved so far away from the original, into such a dramatic AU, that the source context is no longer necessary.
ljc: stealing heartztaraljc on 4th May 2010 01:22 (UTC)
I didn't say it couldn't work--as clearly people do it all the time. Cassie Clare, for example, repurposed the Draco saga as original fiction and seems to sell just fine to YA audiences. And I'm still convinced that the Maisie Dobbs novels owe a lot to Gosford Park, tho there's zero proof to support that claim.

Just that for me, I don't think I could do it because for me as a writer, the effectiveness of good fanfic relies so heavily on context and the relationship to the source. It may stand alone as a story, it would lose some of the depth and breadth, as well as the appeal of writing it for me, personally.

Edited at 2010-05-04 01:22 (UTC)
Carbonelcarbonel on 4th May 2010 02:58 (UTC)
Is this posting inspired by the Diana Gabaldon thing? Someone just sent me the link.

The stories where I want the author to file the serial numbers off and repurpose as original fiction are the ones where I think the author has moved away from canon and it's nevertheless a good story. Have you read helenraven's The Cook and the Warehouseman? It's a Pros a/u, but just barely. There's a fascinating invented culture that mostly takes over the story. Yes, the characters are interesting. But I'm not sure they're truly Bodie and Doyle -- there's enough divergence that it wouldn't take much to rewrite it as an original work. And yes, I've mentioned this to the author a time or three. :-)
fannishliss: samnrubyfannishliss on 4th May 2010 10:59 (UTC)
o hai, I followed a link and love what you have to say.

What you say about the "context" makes me very thinky in my women's studies brain.

I guess it's old news that the last forty years in literary criticism/cultural studies has been about rethinking the idea of the Solitary Genius -- this very masculine idea about creating epics from nothing in the isolated garrett.

And for a while now, folks have been trying to understand more about fanfic, and especially, why it's so much a women's community. (while nodding politely at Jeff above)

Do you think that the idea of working within a shared context is a feature of a gendered conversation? I'm not trying to say anything so reductive as "staking a claim with original fic sounds like a guy thing" -- but, historically, the idea of the Solitary Genius was in fact used to culturally promote men writers and sweep women writers aside.

What does it mean that we as women writers choose to devote so much energy to building our castles in a shared sandbox?

I totally understand what you mean by the shared context we would lose if you "filed off the serial number"-- but we would also gain a certain amount of pride and cachet and other cultural kudos outside the community -- when we would point and say "look at this excellent work! this IS the best of fanfic!"

just ruminating!! and thanks for sharing your essay.
Gunbunny: belle hmphburntcopper on 4th May 2010 13:22 (UTC)
Oh yeah. My nanos? I've done just as much work - if not more trying to write my Jack Harkness does WWII (ask my dad - I nearly sent him mad asking war details, then there was the chocolate details, what was available... you name it.) than the damn original nanos. Because the fanfic worlds had set details that only really work if you get them right. I agonise over my fanfic in a way I really don't over my original. Because you have to get the characters sounding like the characters. And your audience will be able to tell.

I've got one I'm working on which started as a QAF au, but the voice of one character really doesn't seem to be that character, so time will tell if I have to post this as original rather'n AU.
merisunshine36 on 4th May 2010 14:21 (UTC)
I spent three months researching a story I wrote for a Secret Santa Fiction Exchange[...] And I had a ridiculously good time.

I want to to print this out on a t-shirt and wear it everywhere I go!
Weeping Naiad: Gandalf Thesaurusweepingnaiad on 4th May 2010 15:23 (UTC)
Beautifully expressed! Hubby's right there with your paid author friends and parents wondering why I don't just write this stuff to get paid. :D

I totally agree and thank you for putting it into words for me!
Juliaskogkatt on 4th May 2010 16:55 (UTC)
This is an awesome essay, and it basically explains why I only ever do fanfic for Yuletide. I put a *lot* of work into it when I do, and the rest of the year my hard working story brain wants to hang out in original to me worlds. I have super amounts of respect for people like you who consistently work hard to tell stories in worlds I know and love.
mikkeneko on 4th May 2010 19:43 (UTC)
As someone who has both written and read a large amount of Alternate Universe fanfic, I couldn't agree more.

The good AUs -- not all AUs, of course, just the good ones -- are the ones that reflect the original. The plot isn't the same, of course, because that would be boring. But the really enjoyable part of reading - or writing - an AU are the moments where the adaptation and the original come together in a moment of synchronicity. Something happened in the AU which happened in the original, but for a completely different reason, taking a completely different path of events to get there. Nevertheless there's a feeling that the moment of similarity was inevitable, because this is the same story, but in a different universe. How could it have happened differently?

Likewise characters in an AU are reflections of themselves. They were born in a different place, a different time, raised in a different way, and yet fundamentally they remain themselves. The moments of recognition give us that feeling of connection to the character we have come to love, and creating that similarity in a believably way is the mark of a master AU story teller. If they were strangers, why would we care?

I'm not expressing myself as articulately as your entry, but I just wanted to say that I feel the same way. :)
etlhoyetlhoy on 4th May 2010 22:14 (UTC)
I think that there is another essential difference between fanfic and original fic. One of the main prerequisites for writing fanfic is getting to know the characters, to really *know* them well enough to predict them, but that is part of the original fic process too. You still have to get to know your characters and their voices, the process is just slightly different.
On the other hand, I don't think there is any better school for storytelling than being a fanfic *reader*. The most oft-repeated advice in writing is to read a lot and write a lot, but reading fanfic is, in my opinion, even better because you get to see it done *wrong*. Fanfiction is like a vast laboratory, and because there are so many different perspectives on the same characters, you can really see what works and what doesn't.
luvtheheavenluvtheheaven on 29th July 2014 13:15 (UTC)
That is such a good point. ;)
MechTurtlemechturtle on 4th May 2010 22:46 (UTC)
It's different hard work.

So much YES to this.
mary_j_59mary_j_59 on 5th May 2010 02:29 (UTC)
Very good essay (I am here from R.J. Anderson's blog). And I agree that good fanfic deserves respect. But - I am not sure it can't lead to original fiction. The question, for me, is: does your fanfic lead to original characters in a world and circumstances you have devised? In that case, you have the germ of something that is no longer fanfic, and that might well, given time and care, grow into something of your own.

Otherwise, all I want to say is this: good writing is good writing. Which is pretty much what you have said.

I hope you don't mind me jumping in this way, btw.
ljc: dream (stormer/riot)taraljc on 5th May 2010 02:56 (UTC)
I actually write very few OCs these days. But even when I do, they are still placed in a landscape and situations that exist because of the source material. So I understand what you're saying, but for me the joy of creating derivative work is that relationship between the writer and the audience, and the source and the extrapolation of the source in new stories. Fanfic does have original stories and original characters, but that doesn't make it lesser or more. It is what makes it very specifically fan fiction.

Edited at 2010-05-05 02:57 (UTC)