Sunday, April 7, 2019

Vampires, Dragons and Dreams: The Rewards of Fanfiction

I thought this week I'd talk about what fanfiction—specifically, Dragon Age fanfiction—has meant to me, and how it has inspired me outside of the fandom.
This is going to be a slightly odd post from me, but it's one I feel deeply about, so thanks for bearing with me.

This past week, Archive of Our Own (“AO3”), that many-tiered palace of fanfiction magnificence from the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), received a Hugo Award nomination, for 2019 Best Related Work. It's a truly historic moment in fanfiction—one that, for the first time, grants a new level of legitimacy, recognition and value to fanfiction writers while also publicly and openly acknowledging the ways in which fanfics can transcend fandoms to enter the larger entertainment and cultural landscape.

Understandably, the reactions across social media from the fanfic community and fandoms (including, of course, Dragon Age, where I take part) were unabashedly delighted. The social media aftermath did, of course, include a few inevitable snide comments from some who felt the juxtaposition of the words "Hugo" and "fanfiction" sullied the works of "real" writers, but the fact remains that it's a huge deal for those who write fanfiction. If you published fanfiction work on AO3 this year? You can now say, albeit with a glint of humor, that you are technically a Hugo nominee.

I'm part of that fanfic community too, and proud to be. So I thought I'd talk about what that has meant to me in this post.

Not least, how much pure fun writing fanfiction can be. 

Variations on a Theme

One of my favorite things about playing Early and Renaissance Music back in college was the idea of "ornamentation." Musically, ornamentation is when you're given a relatively simple stretch of music, but you 'ornament' or 'decorate' that passage with your own twist, often to intensify or add aural texture to (for instance) additional movements or repetitions after the first one. It's basically the centuries-old version of riffing in rock or jazz today—of taking a melody and running with it, giving it your own voice.

When you ornament a melody, do you own what you create? Not usually. Bach or Purcell (or Gershwin or Davis or Sondheim etc.) are still the authors of that original melody, and that's as it should be. But you can change it, play with it, adapt it, and it's your performance. Your own particular variation. You can even use a single ornamentation as inspiration—as a jumping-off place for an entirely new, original melody.

It's fun to play with a melody, to see what you can bring to it. And that's really what fanfiction is, at heart—a chance to riff on a melody you love.

Vampires in Cyberspace

Back in the 90s, just out of college and still trying to find my voice as a fiction writer, I joined a group of Anne Rice enthusiasts writing fanfiction inspired by her universe. At the time, I'd been enchanted by the beautiful writing, and by her florid, Baroque, larger-than-life characters, as well as by the combination of classic Gothic literary elements with ageless, beautiful, wealthy and glamorous figures forever cut off from the modern world. (I wasn't such a fan of the series after book four, but those first four were superb.)

So we started writing together. We were a group of about a dozen writers (aspiring and published), editors, and more who started interweaving shared, individual "journal-type" entries into longer fanfic works on an ongoing basis. We were driven, delighted, and serious about the work. The writing was terrific, and the feedback was steady and consistent. 

And the writing just got better and better. It started with high drama and gothic vampires in the modern world, but in the end, a surprising amount of the work was pretty good stuff—original, distinctive, and evocative. Soon, the fangs weren't even an ongoing element at all. We'd just needed the inspiration of fanfiction to get us going.

As this took place during the Internet's Medieval period, we started out writing together on AOL, then after complaints from Rice's lawyers (Rice was and is staunchly against fanfiction, even though we were a private group and the work was not accessible publicly), we moved across several online services. We went from AOL, to Prodigy, to Genie, where (to silence Rice's people for good) we grudgingly changed the names of all our characters and continued to collaborate happily for several years. To this day, the crackling screech of an old-fashioned modem gives me nothing but a smile of nostalgic joy.

The entire experience was a milestone for me. Not only did we create some good work, within a few years we began to meet up in real-life too, both in New Orleans, as well as individually and in smaller groups through the years. The core group has remained close in life as well as on social media, and several remain treasured friends of mine even decades later.

That experience gave me my first taste of the fun of participating in fandom—one that I was to discover even more powerfully in Dragon Age two decades later. But I'd never quite appreciated just how prophetic and important this experience had truly been for me as a writer.

Until this year.



Words by the Year

At the beginning of my vampire fanfic period, I worked in entry level production and animation for a year or two, then spent two years as a magazine editor (during which time our group's vampire fanfic project naturally faded as we all went off to do our own separate projects). Following that, I spent most of the ensuing two-plus decades as a working freelance writer, on press releases, brochures, media kits, and more. And I'm proud of that. I'm not a household name, but I've published a decent amount of fiction, hundreds of articles and features, and been paid by Writer's Digest and The New York Times Company. In some ways, I did what I had set out to do.

Yet... I'd really always wanted to tell more stories. Unfortunately, far too often, the fiction always had to give way for the other work. It was just one of the side effects of freelancing. So I worked on my stories or infrequent plays at night, and that was still satisfying, although I lagged far behind my other writer friends who were overwhelmingly focused on fiction. Still, I got some work out there, and I was happy about doing that much.

Until three years ago. 


The Deep Roads

I'd had a pretty challenging decade, caregiving my stepfather through terminal cancer, taking a year or two in New York, then returning to battle my Mom's foreclosure while nursing her through a brain tumor that would also ultimately prove terminal. This was followed by the loss of her home and most of its contents and memories, and I moved back to the Northwest to regroup and recover.

It's probably not surprising that, in a kind of delayed reaction, I wasn't exactly creative for awhile after the move.

Even a year or two after relocating, I was still blocked. Not just from writing, but from dreaming. I've always been a daydreaming fool, to the extent that my Dad used to tease me by asking, "What color is the sky in your world?" and I'd laugh. No matter how bad life got before this point, I could always shut my eyes and think of potential worlds and characters. Those dreams were where my stories came from.

Then I stopped. 

Losing the Dreams

Looking back, of course, I realize that I was depressed and traumatized and still coming to terms with everything I'd been through. But within the moment, I couldn't understand it, and didn't know how to deal with it. 

So I didn't.

I ignored it. I worked on my PR and freelancing. I edited stories for others, and was even able to do some editing on unpublished works I had previously drafted or completed in the past. This work gave me the faintest breath, now and then, of the creative impulse, of my desire to tell stories, but it wasn't much.

The hard truth was, for all intents and purposes, when I stopped dreaming, I stopped creating fiction. I had lost all investment in my own work and all belief in my writing abilities when it came to stories or worldbuilding. I felt stale and stagnant. As a storyteller, I just felt like I'd lost something precious. I have a lot of friends who are writers, but I couldn't even share this with them—there was something almost embarrassing about it for me. It was too personal, too painful.

Then last year, for extra frustration, after nearly a year of editing and revision on a new novel draft, for the first time in my life, I lost an entire work (and series of files). In other words, my novel Van Gogh Sky was toast. Missing. Kaput. I'm normally obsessive about backups, backups and more backups (mirror drive, DVD, cloud, and external drive) but the novel was just gone. The only draft I had left was the one from three years earlier—before a full year's work of revision.

The worst thing about it? Honestly, I didn't even mind that much. I wasn't even sure it was worth publishing. For all I know, it was subliminal on my part (it's never a good sign when you're more excited about the cover of your book than about the story inside).

Then came a silly video game, of all things. And it woke me up.

Getting the Magic Back

To the mystification of my family and friends, I fell for the Dragon Age universe two years back, and I fell hard. I am absolutely sure that some of my loved ones are still scratching their heads over the sheer, odd specificity of it.

It's not a mystery to me. Because when I fell in love with the world of Dragon Age, I rediscovered a spark and fascination that took me back to those Anne Rice fanfic days, and even farther, back to my childhood days of falling into Tolkien and Middle-Earth, scribbling runes in spiral notebooks and dreaming of other worlds.

Soon, it wasn't enough to be an enthusiast. I wanted to join in. So a year and a half ago, I began this blog. I wanted to try for an almost literary take on analyzing the characters and stories of Thedas that I hoped might be new and different, and to find a place for myself within that fandom—and I've been humbled and delighted to have achieved that, to a small degree. It's been so satisfying, and I've treasured the friends I've made and the interactions with the amazing fan artists and creatives, as well as with many on the BioWare team, who have been so generous, patient, and accessible with us fans.

Then something unexpected happened. As part of diving into that world in a really deep lore-oriented and character-analysis basis, I began to get story ideas about some of the characters from the games and novels. I went from headcanoning characters and situations for my analyses to imagining entirely different ones.

I began to say those two words every writer loves more than anything: "What if?"

I hadn't said them in a long time. It felt good.


Full Circle

And just like that, for the first time in years, I wanted to write fiction again. I was imagining stories; I wanted to explore alternate universes and options, to imagine romances between opposite or even unromanceable characters, to use my knowledge of the lore to create new potential situations, tensions, even villains, if I could. Just like every other fanfic writer. 

So I began writing those imaginings down, simply because I wanted to read them myself. I had zero aspirations beyond telling stories based in that world that wouldn't leave me alone.

Once completed, I began publishing my works over on AO3. I was a little shy at first, like I was doing something nefarious by the dark of the moon. I'd spent most of my adult life insistent that I should be paid for my words, and now I was sharing them for free.

But the more I posted, and the more I read the works of my friends and others within the fandom, I just felt proud. I was reminded again of how proficient fanfiction writers can be. And while it's true that, yes, the writing proficiency of a few AO3 posters I encountered demonstrated a somewhat shaky and colorful grasp on actual sentence structure, the vast majority of the works I read ranged from competent to lyrical, startling, and better than the latest books that filled my Kindle.

And all of it was fantastically imaginative. I was exhilarated at the sheer range of ideas and stories, at the collisions of fandoms and fictional universes. If you want to dive into a story in which Buffy Summers takes part in the Mass Effect universe, or where Leia has a fling with The Iron Bull or Spock, or where Legolas falls in love with Gimli, or Tony Stark, or Captain Hook, or Jaal... AO3 is the place for you.

Me, I was having a blast. I loved returning to fiction writing, and finding that the lamp had always been lit in that window, waiting for me to come back home. Just watching those chapters rack up week after week, much less getting reader comments and interactions, gave me a security and satisfaction I hadn't felt in years. 

The works I posted meant something to me, and I was genuinely proud of them. Not only did they complement my attempts to build a point of view for myself in the Dragon Age and fandom communities, but they were exhilarating and fun. Incensed when Solas actually dumped my poor Inquisitor, I wrote a silly fanfic play about her desire to drink herself silly and take petty revenge), then surprised myself with a Dragon Age: Origins novella, and then over the past year have further been publishing a full-length Dragon Age: Inquisition AU novel that's now 75% posted (48 chapters and 156,411 words so far). In creating and posting the novel over the past year (entitled The Breakers and the Broken), I've worked with a terrific beta editor, the invaluable Eryn Earls, who's every bit as talented as those I've worked with in professional publishing, and whose input has saved me from errors, repetitions, and egregious out-of-character moments, and overall, improved my fiction as only the best editors can.


Unexpected Outcomes

So that's my story. Over the past year, thanks to Dragon Age and AO3, I suddenly found myself a writer again, the way I'd envisioned it when I was young. I wasn't just a cold wordsmith, connecting phrases for press releases and brochures, I was writing nonfiction with heart and imagination, and writing fiction—fanfiction or not—that energized and challenged me.

Fanfiction gets a bad rap, and it's undeserved. But it hasn't only resurrected my writing soul, the entire experience has completely revitalized my fiction, both commercially and artistically. And on a commercial level, my fanfics have led people directly to my other stuff, and I have sold more works on Amazon in the past year than in the previous five combined.

And on a personal level, I'm doing the best writing of my life, I'm writing with a richer and more mature voice. I've challenged myself and evolved in the stories I'm telling, even if they're about characters I didn't invent. And (best of all) I've found an audience for my work, and gotten the encouragement I needed at a low point creatively.


Getting Back the Dreams

Sometimes writing can be tough because it's a solitary endeavor, one in which we hunch over a keyboard or pad of paper and transcribe our dreams or nightmares, then send them out into a silent universe. No longer. AO3 means readers echo back, asking questions, starting dialogues, arguing points, sending kudos. Because of the serial nature of the fanfic posting process, as with blogging, I'll often get reactions from people on social media with surprising rapidity. In addition, I participate in closed social media groups with other Dragon Age fanfiction writers (many of whom are far more prolific and successful than I am), and they not only provide community, support, criticism, and reassurance, but they too report a similar sense of joy at the organic way writers and readers interact on AO3. There's nothing like knowing you have an audience, right now, that is waiting for your next update (or, best of all, asking impatiently, "What happens next?").

Fanfiction has given me that. And nobody will understand this better than my fellow fanfic writers out there.

So I'm proud of AO3's Hugo Nomination. I'm proud to be a fanfic writer, too, and no matter what else I create in my own original fiction going forward, I plan on continuing to write fanfiction too, just for the spark it gives me. It has improved my craft, given me a readership, and inspired me when I needed it most. It has also further enhanced my enjoyment of the fandom communities I love.

Besides, to bring it all full circle, I have this great idea for a new Dragon Age/Anne Rice crossover. (I'm thinking... what if the vampire Lestat ended up at the masked ball at Halamshiral and wreaked a little havoc? Imagine the possibilities!)

Thanks for letting me ramble. I'll see you in my dreams!

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