Crafting Stories, Creating Community

I’ll have to figure out how to get a subtitle field, because I would subtitle this entry “Another defense of fanfiction”.  In my first post defending fanfic I addressed some of the common misconceptions and stereotypes about people who write fanfiction.  But another defense came to my attention earlier today, and it is that aspect I wish to address now.

I checked my email this morning as usual, and found I had a message from someone on the BioWare Social Network.  It was another person who’d entered the fanfiction writing contest, and she wrote to let me know of her own forays into fanfiction.  I highly suggest clicking the link, because she shares her thoughts about her own fanfiction journey in a very eloquent manner.  But what I realized as I read her work (which she’d written because of mine) was that we don’t just write fanfiction because we enjoy the subject matter.  Fanfiction writing gives us an opportunity to create community while we craft our stories.

Fandom in general is its own community, and it’s a necessary aspect of my life and the lives of those who idendity as geeks or nerds.  It’s our social outlet; it’s where we can meet and discuss our interests and hobbies without getting raised eyebrows in return.  The internet has been wonderful for fandom, because it means we fans can find one another easily, and come together just as easily.  I discovered this my senior year of college and it changed everything for me as a geek/nerd, fan, and eventually as a writer.

I fell in love with Lord of the Rings and all things Tolkien during the second semester of my senior year of college.  My excitement knew few bounds; but one of those bounds was the fact that there were very few people around me in school with whom I could speak about this life-changing work.  My usual social group hadn’t read it, and my friends just sort of smiled while I tried to explain it to them.  I turned to the one place I thought I might find some outlet: the internet.  I found message boards, AIM chatrooms, and websites all devoted to my new love.  And most importantly, I found other fans with whom I could chat and discuss any and everything Tolkien.

This became monumentally important when I graduated in the spring of 2002 and came home.  Suddenly I had no social outlet.  If I went down the hall to ask someone to do a late-night CVS run… well, I’d have found my sleeping parents telling me that there was no 24-hour CVS nearby.  I’d drifted from many of my high school friends, I hadn’t started a new job, and in short, found myself slightly alone.  So I turned to our dial-up internet.

It’s images like this, of someone staring at the blue glow of the computer screen in the wee hours, that gives nerds the label of being antisocial loners.  Like any stereotype, there are those examples that lend credibility to it.  But in reality, I think a lot of fandom members, and particularly writers, are actually being incredibly social mentally and psychologically even though they are physically alone.

That year I went back to my old online haunts and felt far less lonely being able to chat with the people I’d come to know about the subject that brought us together.  Time passed and I discovered Harry Potter.  By then I’d started a new job and had some coworkers I was social with, and even some who knew about my obsessions, even if they didn’t share them.  As I dove into the Potter books, I discovered fanfiction.  At that time, late 2002/early 2003, the fifth Potter book was on the horizon, but wasn’t yet in sight.  Fans all speculated on what would happen after the climactic ending of the fourth book, and took to writing their version of events.  I was as curious as any of them, and joined the throng.

Now, fans need other fans.  That’s fact.  But fans who are writers don’t just need other fans, they need other writers.  Writing appears as a solitary activity, but the fact is, it’s intensely communal.  Feedback is a valuable and necessary aspect of the writing process.  Without it, we can’t grow.  As a result, writers build communities with other writers.  They find people whose opinions they trust.  The overall goal, ideally, is to improve, grow, and develop through the mutual giving and receiving of feedback.

Of course this is the ideal.  It can go wrong, as in the case of flaming or trolling, but like anything, it’s a matter of accepting the bad with the good, and looking more specifically for the good.  In her book Toxic Feedback, author Joni B. Cole explains that feedback needs to be balanced.  Scathing criticism can destroy an author, while nothing but glowing praise strokes an ego, but doesn’t help improve the writing.  As writers we want to look for that balance, and try to be a part of the balance ourselves.  This becomes especially important in fandom and fanfiction writing, where most authors aren’t professionals and many aren’t even considering a career in writing.  With the ease of internet publishing for fanfiction anyone can post, which also means anyone can comment.  This can tear community apart, but thankfully that’s the minority.  In general, it allows for a give and take of writing feedback that can end up building community between fans and writers.

The shared experiences of fandom bring people together, but writing about it keeps them together.  I saw this most clearly throughout the duration of the Dragon Age fanfiction contest.  I have a BSN account, but I don’t really use it.  I dug it up when a friend told me about the contest, and did participate a little bit in the thread.  Over the course of 70+ pages the conversation ranged from our writing processes, to languages, to curiosity about the contest, to our literary and writing influences.  The thread opened in late December, and by mid to late January, members who rarely posted crawled out of the woodwork and jumped into the conversation.  Other members expressed a desire to remain together and encourage each others’ writing endeavors.  Our love of Dragon Age brought us together, but it was the community of writers that emerged that kept us together.

Perhaps my favorite example of how fanfiction fosters community is that of me and my best friend.  Shooting back to that fall and winter of 2002, I remember reading a Harry Potter fic that popped up in the “just in” page on fanfiction.net.  It was different from what I normally liked, but I read it anyway and enjoyed it.  The author had her email and AIM name in her profile, so I shot her a message to say I liked it.  She messaged me back, and we started talking.  We discovered we had a great deal in common, and through frequent and extended conversations became friends.  She read my fics for me before I posted them, and was always there to bounce ideas off of.  I read her work and gave her feedback before she posted.  Eventually we met in person; she came to visit me, then I went to visit her.  And it continued.  She was one of the first two people who ever saw new content for my MFA thesis, and was always there when I needed to vent about it.  In 2009 I was a bridesmaid in her wedding; two months after that she and her husband came to my MFA graduation.  We even share the same birthday.  She’s my best friend, and if it hadn’t been for fanfiction and the community aspect it creates, I wouldn’t have her in my life.

Our motives for writing fanfiction may vary, and our writing styles will differ.  But as fans we will always seek out the fandom, and as writers we crave a community in which to grow and develop.  As we craft our fanfiction, we wind up creating a community held together by a mutual love of the fandom itself and our urge to write about it.

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6 comments on “Crafting Stories, Creating Community

  1. “I think a lot of fandom members, and particularly writers, are actually being incredibly social mentally and psychologically even though they are physically alone.”

    This! I have never been able to properly explain this feeling to save my life, but you are exactly right! I feel like everyone around me views writing/sitting at a computer as something I do because there is absolutely nothing else available for me to do outside in the world with people. Because “I’m being mentally social” is not something that anyone looking at you is going to understand, obviously…

    So then I sometimes go out so that I can pretend to be doing something more “social,” when in fact I’m just Writing In Public: “The obvious solution is to head to a coffee shop and write from there, except you’ve been to a coffee shop full of idiots poking away at their laptops, and you hate every single one of them. So do I. Showing up at a coffee shop with a notebook or laptop, I always feel like I have to apologize to everyone who sees me. Or else I just pretend I’m not writing.”

    Read more: 5 Great Things Co-Opted by Douchebags | Cracked.com http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-great-things-co-opted-by-douchebags_p2/#ixzz1lPpKVB9m

    • I had to do a lot of justifying in those early days. My brother still lived at home with us and I got a lot of criticism from him about how I “didn’t do anything”. The reality is my “doing something” just varied from his. My “being social” just varied from his, and from a lot of peoples’.

      During my MFA I was really fortunate that intensive workshopping was an integral part of our program. Working with other writers, face to face, with hard copies of our work, was a really good experience. It definitely has helped me become better when it comes ot the internet writing community… as has Joni Cole’s book.

  2. Thanks so much for the link and the shout out.

    I’ve been thinking a bit about what you wrote about balanced feedback. When David Gaider wrote judging the Asunder competition, he said, “many fanfiction writers insulate themselves in the safe cocoon of an appreciative audience so that they never receive the criticism required to grow.”

    Do you find this with the fanfiction community, or do you think the feedback you receive from fellow fans is generally quite balanced?

    So far with my one little story on FF.net I’ve found that people are far more supportive and encouraging than critical, though as a fairly shy writer who’s her own worst critic I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing so far. The boost in confidence is helping me push myself to send things out more.

    • I think in any writing community it all depends on whom you seek out. My grad workshops were really good about supporting each other, but also being critical when we needed to be, all with the understanding that we’re looking at the writing and not the writER–bit difference. As far as fanfiction goes, there are a lot of fandoms and areas of fandom where people go into it with the attitude that “this is just for fun” and don’t care about improving. There are many writers who will see anything constructive as a flame; there are reviewers who will have good intentions, but come across the wrong way. And there are still more authors who want nothing but praise.

      With any writing you’ll get out of it what you put into it, but with fanfiction that’s even more true in my opinion. It takes some writers time to realize that once their work is out there it’s out there for everyone to see. Some, when they realize it, do shoot for the insulation thing; others realize it as a golden opportunity to grow as writers. I’ve been lucky to get balanced feedback from intelligent readers and reviewers, but I also take my writing seriously and try to put in the absolute best I can before submitting it to the public eye.

  3. I love the idea that fanfic writers write partly to foster a sense of community. I think the LJ comms are the most visible sign of this. When I used to write Bleach fanfic, I specifically wrote Renji x Byakuya fic, and so I posted on the bya_ren comm quite a bit. I got to know several other readers and writers and even added a few to my gmail or other IMs … which is a huge step for me, since I’m notoriously shy online.

    I can’t say I grew close to any of these people; one I thought myself somewhat close to ended up being quite the, erm, weirdo (not other way to really put it). Plus a lot of the other writers and readers were mainly interested in writing rated M stories, and that’s all they could really talk about, something I didn’t have much interest in. But I suppose it was fun while it lasted?

    Now when I (very rarely) write fanfic, I do so in the dark, posting it to communities I am not really a participant in. I write a fanfic because I suddenly get an idea and feel deeply inspired by the characters and series, so I write the fic. (This includes Dragon Age.) I then dig up whatever communities I can find and post it there. Perhaps this is why I get so few reviews on these fics in comparison to my Bleach fanfics, which regularly earned 20-30 reviews for shorter fics and over 100 for longer ones.

    Meanwhile, my Dragon Age fic has 2 reviews lol

    About receiving criticism: I am not a fan of giving criticism when it isn’t asked for. And I never ask for criticism on my fanfic. Fanfic is just for fun, for me, and for the other fans. I do ask for criticism on my original fiction, but I rarely get it. Most readers are not great writers (sorry, tis true). A posse of FFNet readers does not a critics’ circle make.

    • I’m very similar when it comes to writing fanfic. Some writers have lots of things they write stories for, but I usually root myself deeply in one fandom and stick with it. If you tend to write for a smaller fandom, there’s a chance of less reviews, and as far as getting more reviews, I’m not sure what the secret is. I’ve wound up just writing what I love in Dragon Age, and if other people like it, I feel fortunate. Oddly enough my collection of one-shots about Cailan is my most popular, while fics about Anders or Alistair pop up to wave, get a few reviews, and then get buried. Part of me thinks it’s because Anders and Alistair are SO popular that there are many fics about them, whereas us Cailan Lovers have a very limited selection so we devour all we can about him.

      As far as the giving/receiving criticism, I’d agree. Most writers I give concrit to are writers I’ve been working with and mutual reviewing for some time, so we understand one another’s philosophies on writing. On occasion I’ve given concrit that wasn’t asked for because I honestly believed it could make the story better. My intentions and suggestions sometimes worked, other times not so much. I aim to be balanced in my feedback, but like you’ve said, most readers on ff.net are not critical readers and won’t be able to give back the concrit we need if we want to improve. The ego boost is nice, but the pointers are nice as well and more helpful in the long run. In that case it’s good to build up a community with writers you respect and can work with.

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