Nerved Up… and up… and up…

I’m an MFA who writes fanfiction; that sounds like the opening to a support-group/twelve-step introduction, but it’s who I am.  It’s something I’ve come to identify with and accept.  Mostly I write my fanfiction for fun; the reviews are nice, but my big thing is writing the best story I can about an existing world I love.  My current fanfiction obsession?  BioWare’s Dragon Age.

Dragon Age got me back into fanfiction after a four-year hiatus, two years of which were my creative writing grad program.  In March it’ll be a year since discovering and playing it, and in that time I’ve done a lot of writing about Dragon Age.  I’ve played all the games multiple times, and I’ve read the novels.  I’ve read the wiki.  I research and write articles for GreyWardens.com.  And at the beginning of January, I entered a Dragon Age fanfiction writing contest, sponsored by BioWare.

The premise is simple: write a short story of no more than 2500 words from the perspective of a mage or templar.  The deadline was January 10th; I submitted January 2nd to get it out of the way, and have been on relative pins and needles since then.  It’s strange because I submitted some query letters and samples of my MFA thesis to some agents and publishers this time last year, and yet I wasn’t nearly as nerved up waiting to hear back.  And when I did get the polite rejection that my novel “wasn’t what they were looking for at this time”, I shrugged and went back to whatever I was doing.  I feel like I should have been more disappointed; after all, I spent two years of my life sweating over that manuscript.  It’s my original work; it’s my metaphorical baby.  And when it didn’t go anywhere I wasn’t bothered.

However, waiting on this contest has me really nervous.  The winners were chosen Sunday night (as per a Tweet from the lead writer of the DA series).  He forwarded the names to his community people Monday.  I spent Monday checking my email until I got home and saw another Tweet that they wouldn’t be formally announced until Wednesday on the BioWare Blog.  And here I am on Wednesday morning: it’s 3AM BioWare’s time, and yet I checked.  And was summarily disappointed when nothing was posted, even though to expect it is a little unrealistic.

So why could I shrug off my nerves with my original novel, and not even feel much disappointment when it was rejected, and yet with this I’m almost sick to my stomach?

I do value my original work.  I put a lot of effort into it, people who’ve read it generally like it, and I think it could go somewhere.  But I think I also value my fanfiction as well, and I value my love of Dragon Age pretty highly.  Also, the top 20 entries were read by David Gaider, the lead writer of Dragon Age.  Maybe because I enjoy the game so much, and know he read the entries, it makes me even more nervous.  Maybe because I value my role as a Dragon Age fanfiction writer, I feel like this would give me more credibility in the fandom (and then I wonder why such things matter so much to me).  Perhaps I just want to have the waiting over with and know for sure.

I’m not sure; I know I shouldn’t base my self-worth and worth as an author or fan on this one thing, but I can’t help it.  Will I be disappointed if things don’t turn out well?  You’d better believe it.  Will I move on? You’d better believe that, too.  But that doesn’t stop me from hoping, and I think it’s the hoping that keeps me nerved up… and up… and up…

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In Defense of Fanfiction

As a writer and a geek, it goes without saying that I’ve dabbled… okay, more than dabbled in fanfiction.  At one point I thought that once I started in on my original work in earnest I’d set aside fanfiction in favor of my loftier goals.  Now with my MFA under my belt and armed with the tools to get out there and make that work I find that I’m actually writing more fanfiction.  And if I feel like I get strange looks or polite nods when I say I write speculative fiction, I get them even more when I admit to writing fanfiction.

Urbandictionary defines fanfiction thus:

A piece of fiction within a fandom utilizing characters and situations from a pre-existing work including (but not limited to) books, television programs, films, and comic strips.

Typically separated into het, slash, and general genres. Often used to play out AU scenarios and/or various romantic pairings not found in the original work.

Distributed via mailing lists, blogs, and zines. Heavily archived online

Fanfiction raises some interesting issues for writers.  First and foremost, we can’t make money off of it.  For writers who write to pay the bills, it makes sense to eschew fanfiction.  Intellectual Property laws forbid us from selling our work; our only payment for fanfiction is self-satisfaction, wish fulfillment, and if we’re lucky, fans of our work reviewing.  Second, it’s not our material.  To quote bearonthecouch, “[they] built the sandbox; I just play in it.”  The world, many of the characters, the settings?  They all were created by someone else and someone else gets to make the ultimate calls and ultimately the money off of it.  So why would a writer want to write fanfiction?  And, does all of this mean that fanfiction is a lesser form of writing?

Looking back at my past and what I was like growing up, I think I was writing fanfiction as early as third and fourth grade.  We had young authors’ day back then, where we spent a unit learning how to write stories, and then the culmination was writing it out in our best handwriting, getting it plastic-spiral bound, and displaying it.  Fourth grade was the height of my Legend of Zelda love.  My best friend and I had storylines and original characters.  Well, I did, she always played Zelda or wrote about Zelda.  My story was about my original character in the Zeldaverse trying to save the day, while harboring unrequited love for Link.  Oh the angst (and I was only 10). 

I remember that most of the other kids’ stories were original and because a lot of them didn’t know about Zelda, or weren’t into it the way I was, my story didn’t get a lot of hits.  It was disappointing, but a good early lesson for an aspiring fanfiction writer.

I began writing fanfiction in earnest when I finished with my BA in English back in 2002.  I’d discovered Lord of the Rings that year, and shortly after started in on Harry Potter.  At that time the latter series ended with book 4, with a promised book 5 on the horizon but nowhere in sight.  I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to speculate; I wanted to see what other people thought.  In short?  I discovered fanfiction.net.

Fanfiction.net, or FF.net, is I think what generally gives fanfiction as a genre, and fanfiction authors a bad name.  It’s nice because anyone can post there, but it’s not nice because anyone can post there.  The site is so huge there’s no real way to enforce quality of work, so visitors to the site often run into stories with poor grammar and spelling and ill-conceived, iller-executed plots.  When this is coupled with the general attitude that fanfiction is ‘lesser’ writing because it’s not original, it’s natural that fanfiction gets a bad name for itself.  It takes a discerning mind and patient attitude to sift through the chaff in order to find those rare kernels of well-done writing.  And when you do, it’s worth the time and effort you took.  You learn to be more discerning.  But in our society of instant gratification, few are willing to put such time and effort into something like finding a story that will be well-written and appeal to their tastes.

There are those gems on the site that are on par with, if not better than the original work.  There are authors who gather a huge following due to their talent and grasp of the material.  There’s work that’s silly, work that’s bad but the author really tried and meant well.  It runs the gammut.  And a lot of authors are willing to be in that gammut because, plain and simple, they’re writing for the love of the fandom and of writing itself.

I tried to explain fanfiction to some coworkers once.  Though they were skeptical about the whole thing, especially about why writers would write about someone else’s work while knowing full well they’d never get paid and it’d never go anywhere, they did listen.  One asked if fanfiction/fanon ever makes it into canon, and saw that it might be useful for the owners of the original IP.  One said, “It’s just practice writing then, right?”

Both arguments have given me pause on a regular basis.  Currently on the BioWare Social Network boards (BSN), there ae those of us who entered a Dragon Age short story contest and are nervously awaiting the results.  Some have suggested that it would be really cool if the writers took some of the concepts from entries and made them codex entries or side quests in future game installments.  The argument arose that perhaps if that occurred BioWare would have to make reparation for using our ideas; however, since we’re writing about their intellectual property in the first place, they don’t really owe us anything.

And somehow that led to the discovery of a very interesting now-scandal.  Apparently there was a DA fanfiction that had a large following.  The writer of it allegedly even sent it to David Gaider asking for it to be published under the auspices of EA/BioWare, which he naturally refused.  Shortly thereafter it appeared on Amazon.com as a downloadable Kindle book, though it was ‘original fiction’.  As fans looked into it, it became painfully clear that it was a case of “find/replace” with the names of people, places, and things.  That wouldn’t have been too bad, but when called out on it the author insisted she’d never heard of nor played Dragon Age.  Even when confronted with evidence that she wrote the fanfiction first, she denied everything.  Now David Gaider himself is involved and there’s a huge discussion going on on the BSN boards about it.

It brings up the point about fanfiction being “practice” writing for people who want to be “real” writers.  Only I wonder, does it have to be?  Even if we’re using others’ IP we still have to craft our own story utilizing those parameters.  One of the things Gaider mentioned in a respose to a review was whether or not fanfiction translated to original fiction was a good idea; he gracefully said it was up to the readers of the work to decide, and it was clear his stance was against the denial of plagiarism.  The idea brought me to this blog post and brought me to some thoughts about my own history with fan and original fiction writing.

Since I’ve been out of grad school for almost three years now and my thesis passed, I have no problem admitting that Seven of Wands started life as a Harry Potter fanfiction.  I’d belonged to an RP that was original characters only, and we had some good storylines going.  I crafted my character and her backstory, and we had a lot of fun playing in that sandbox.  I decided it’d be interesting to write her story from beginning to where it ended in the RP.  I posted it on ff.net where it was largely white noise, but that was fine because I enjoyed writing it, which was the important thing to me.  But when I wanted to write a sequel in roughly 2005/2006, I thought that maybe if I was going to spend so much time with these characters I could try fitting them into my own world.  The more work I did the more the world built itself, and I had a sequel that was very original and bore little resemblance to the Harry Potter world of the fanfiction-first novel.  And when I thought to go back and rewrite the original, I wound up being in grad school.

In my case fanfiction was a means to an end, but even though I have an original novel written and in the process of queries and such I’m by no means done with fanfiction.  When I discovered Dragon Age, its emphasis on story and character gripped me so much that I couldn’t help but dive back into fanfiction again after a five year hiatus.  I think it was just a matter of finding a fandom that I felt comfortable writing in.  But also, I’ve found that just because it’s fanfiction, I don’t slack off.  I put as much effort into the writing craft in my fanfiction as I do my original.  Why?  Because in both cases I’m writing for a public audience, and they deserve my best work.  It’s about integrity as a writer.

While fanfiction can help aspiring writers improve, it’s not just practice writing.  It can be a means to an end, but it can be an end in and of itself.  Just because it’s fanfiction doesn’t mean that the story has to suffer, or tenets of writing can be ignored.  Just because we’re not making money off of it, nay we can’t make money off of it, doesn’t mean that as writers we aren’t bound by our integrity and duty to our audiences to give the best we have to offer.  And it doesn’t mean that fanfiction as a form of writing should be disparaged.  There’s as much good fanfiction out there as there is bad original fiction.  It takes talent to tell a good story, and to tell it well, whether that story is original or not.

The Dragonborn Comes… and he’s kind of a jerk.

I was on Christmas vacation for this past week, and spent a good part of it sick: with Skyrim Fever.  While the game was released on November 11th, putting me six weeks behind most other rabid gamers, receiving it for Christmas was perfect timing.  And I’ve realized that even if I had gotten it on the release day, it wouldn’t have made any difference.  The game is so vast that there’s not much more of a dent I could have put into it than I did this week.

So far my Nord, Cailan, is a level 10 specializing in dual-haded weapons, but he’s also good with a lockpick and sneaking about.  Nothing like a little cross-class work there.  He’s also Dovahkiin, “Dragonborn”, and basically the equivalent of Skyrim’s “chosen one”.  Many other Nords believe that the Dovahkiin will help quell the rebellion that has rocked their country and help restore peace to Skyrim.  As a fan of fantasy, and a person who gets paid to analyze conventions and cliches of fantasy, none of this surprises me.  But what is surprising me is how seriously I’m taking the moral ramifications of the game.

This isn’t a new concept for me, personally.  Around this time last year I picked up BioWare’s Mass Effect.  As Commander Shepard, you are tasked with saving the galaxy from a rogue operative named Saren.  You are the first human SPECTRE ever, a high-level operative that represents the best humanity can offer to the alien races of the universe.  Mass Effect employs a morality system that defines some choices as “Paragon”, or inherently good and noble; or “Renegade”, which is usually equated with bad.  Throughout my game I began to realize that many of my choices were based on my own personal morals.  In general, I like to make everyone happy.  I try to be a people pleaser and do the right thing, and not cause much of a ruckus.  So I found my Shepard doing that.  When it came time to make the agonizing choice of which character to leave behind on the planet Virmire, I had to decide between my romance and someone else.  Now, the other character, Ashley Williams, was a good character.  But it was her or Kaiden Alenko, with whom I was in a romance, so I left Ashley.  I felt awful, as if the choice my character had made in the game said something about my own personal morals.  Besides, here’s Shepard, supposed to represent all that is good about humanity… and she’s leaving a comrade behind in favor of continuing the romance.

The “chosen one” is a convention of fantasy that’s older than the genre itself.  Usually the chosen one is, like Commander Shepard, someone who represents all the hopes of the people.  His or her coming heralds the coming of hope, and is the harbinger of change for the better.  Perhaps that’s why, then, I aimed for Paragon status with my Shepard.  But after Mass Effect came another BioWare title that has since consumed me: Dragon Age.

Once again, regardless of the origin you choose, you are left as one of the last two Grey Wardens: in effect, one of only two people who can end the Blight that is destroying your homeland of Ferelden.  While the system of morality isn’t as clear-cut as Mass Effect, I found my character making choices that were for the general good, and tried to please the other party members.  One time I had an NPC kill her demon-possessed son, only for Alistair, a main character, to yell at me once we got back to camp.  You better believe I reloaded and replayed that scene so things would have a better outcome.  Sometimes I made choices that I thought were in the best interest and for the common good of most people, only for the end result to come back and slap me across the face.  For example, I crowned Pyral Harrowmont during my first play through the dwarven realm of Orzammar, only to find out in the epilogue that he shut off the city and made the dwarves isolationists.  When I did it again and put Bhelen on the throne for the betterment of Orzammar, he immediately had Harrowmont executed.

I shouldn’t let it bother me so much.  It’s just a game, right?  I’ve talked with other gamers about their choices in Dragon Age, and many find it fun galavant around a fantasy world where they can act with abandon, unencumbered by the morals and consequences of our own world.  But to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy doesn’t nullify reality; if anything, it raises it to a higher level.  If there were no consequences, would we make the same kinds of choices to kill, or believe that the ends justified the means no matter what?  Is it only consequence that defines our morals and forces us to make moral choices?

Or perhaps it is because in these fantasy situations, I am playing as the Chosen One.  The hope of entire nations rests on my shoulders, and because in reality I like to please people and do right by them, when I enter into the fantasy world I feel the need for my characters to live up to those expectations.

Which leads me back to Skyrim.  My character did a contract kill that resulted in a group of elite and mysterious assassins contacting him.  One of my tasks was to kill one of three people.  I wasn’t told which one.  I had to guess, which effectively meant their lives were in my hands.  I made my choice and did the kill.  Afterward I had the conversation option to ask if I’d made the right choice, and found I didn’t want to know.  Because if I’d made the wrong choice I’d have felt terrible.  Yes, it’s just a game, and I know I didn’t kill a real person.  But the world of Skyrim is so huge and involved, that somewhere, somehow down the line in my game I fear that kill coming back to me.

By making that kill, I was invited to join the Dark Brotherhood.  I went to check it out and figured, why not.  My first task was a set of three contract kills.  I killed the first man without talking to him, even though he was a beggar squatting in a shack.  I was chased down and arrested by the guards… and just paid my bounty to go on and do my next contract.  But with that one, I made the mistake of talking to my mark.  I said, “Someone wants you dead.”  And she said, “Yeah, probably my husband.  The feeling is mutual.”  Somehow that made her more human, and it’s a good thing my xbox froze the game because I had a serious moral dilemma that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

In Skyrim, I am Dovahkiin: the Dragonborn, the Chosen One.  My ability to absorb dragons’ souls and hence their power means that the people of Skyrim will look to me to tip the scales for either the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebels.  And I feel I have a duty to them.  I wonder what they’d think if they knew their Dovahkiin killed people for money, or picked locks and snuck into homes and stole coin purses.  Would it matter, so long as the rebellion and/or war ended?  Would it matter so long as the dragons were once again destroyed?  Yes, I am the Dragonborn and I’ve come… and I’m kind of a jerk.

Perhaps it’s just personal biases about the Chosen One convention/cliche.  Or maybe I think about these things too much.  But either way, when it comes to moral dilemmas in RPGs, it’s clear that it’s more than just a game.