Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Love/Hate Relationship with Fanfiction

     I was completely disdainful of fanfiction the first time I heard about it. Who did these random people think they were, completely coming up with their own ideas about special characters that authors had labored over? Who gave them the right to re-write something that didn't belong to them? It seemed disrespectful, selfish, and…weird.  I shuddered at the thought of one day someone doing that to my stories. And to tell the truth, I’ve found that most fanfiction is badly written junk that should never have escaped someone’s desk drawer or computer hard drive.

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my usual reaction when reading a fanfiction synopsis 
     While a lot of fans and readers find it mean or selfish that some authors dislike having fanfiction written about their works, I completely understand—especially when one browses a fanfiction website and discovers just how horrible some of the plots are. Completely free of any restraints (and often encouraged by anonymity) fanfiction writers have the ability to take other people’s beloved characters and completely twist them, often placing them in steamy situations or radically transforming the characters’ personalities to fit their own whims.  As a writer (and a reader) this is so frustrating. Honestly, while I think good writing naturally lends itself to “headcanons”--hopefully making characters so real that the reader can easily imagine more to the story— completely transforming someone else’s work just because you want to is, if not exactly plagiarizing, rather disrespectful. I find this especially apt when someone takes a clean, wholesome story and makes it R-rated. While most fanfiction sites do pretty well with allowing readers to filter out “mature” stories they might not wish to read, there are still synopses that  make me want to throw something at the fanfic author’s head yelling, “WHY?” And not necessarily because they’re immoral; some are just, to say it plainly, stupid. Thus, I find myself making this face:


or this one:

miranda sings

a lot.

     And yet, fanfiction isn’t all bad. There are some truly fabulous gems that feel more like an extension of the author’s story than anything else. Also, there are some franchises and stories that lend themselves better to fanfiction than others; I find that a show like Doctor Who does well, since the TV show is already written by a different number of people, thus making the “feel” of the stories a little better to emulate and is a little more accurate to the tradition of collaboration in such genres of entertainment. (It also seems less of an affront to a singular author) The same goes for comics and movies. As far as novels go, if fanfiction is true to the characters, I don’t have as much of a problem with it. (Accurate, well-written Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a major weakness of mine.) Heck, I’ve even tried my hand at a couple fanfiction stories myself.  And in a way, fanfiction has always existed, often in the form of retellings (Fairy tales, Biblical stories, and Shakespeare plays are usually the most commonly used for those), which is probably why the older a tale is, the more open I am to fanfiction about it. I’ll even go so far as to say that I like AUs in certain circumstances. Alternate Universes taking a familiar story, using the same characters, but changing one fundamental detail or throwing them into a completely different environment—Shakespeare in space, for example—can be really enjoyable while staying true to the author’s intent. I suppose that’s what it comes down to: if fanfiction stays true to the intent and integrity of the original, I don’t have a big problem with it. (although I admit I don’t think I’ve ever read any fanfiction without a vague sense of unease, as if the ghost of the original  writer was looking over my shoulder and ready to pounce, like, "WHAT do you think you're doing? I didn't write that.")

And scared the crap out of Scarlett. | Chris Evans Scared The Crap Out Of Scarlett Johansson On "Ellen"

     But too often, fanfiction is used as an excuse for overly excited fangirls (and fanboys, for that matter) to indulge in overly emotional (and sometimes sexual) obsessions over fictional characters. And honestly, that’s really weird and awkward and makes the writer (and hopefully the decent, rational human being) in me cringe.


     Basically, people are inconsistent. I say this because one day I’ll swear off fanfiction, decide it’s the worst thing to ever exist, and two days later I’ll find myself wondering what a certain character would do in a certain scenario and the next thing I know I’m actually writing a piece of it myself.  Or I’ll stumble upon a really well-written, imaginative fanfic that’s been recommended to me and I'll nod thinking, "yes, I could get used to this."

     When it comes down to fanfiction in general, there’s just so much of it. And part of me wonders if trying to find a “good one” is even worth it. But sometimes I begin to really miss a book series or a TV show…and I start looking for some fanfiction. *shakes head* Human beings. We're so irrational, hypocritical, unreasonable, and inconsistent, aren't we?

Leslie Howard ForeverLeslie Howard Forever

I don't think anyone really understands how deeply I relate to Henry Higgins *ahem*

     So perhaps, honestly, fanfiction itself isn’t my problem: bad writing is. And while many fanfiction authors really are just excited about the things that they love and want to express that through writing, many of them aren’t writers. That’s totally okay: not all of us are, nor are we all meant to be. And fanfiction is a marvelous way to practice writing and get better at it--none of use are Shakespeares or Miltons our first try. I get that. But when you have a site dedicated to writing that’s free for anyone to contribute to, there will be fics done by people who don’t really know what they’re doing, and sometimes that can be painful.  I’d never seen so much bad writing until I was introduced to the fanfiction world, with some pieces so horrible it’s made me (literally) feel ill. And yet, I’ve also found fanfiction so well-written that it’s put traditionally published works to shame.

From the archives of the Timelords

     Yet the actual mechanics and grammar of writing cannot be my real problem with fanfiction, since I know people have to learn and grow in their writing. It's the content and storylines themselves that I find to be "bad writing." Or maybe it's just that people nowadays have wicked morals, and it naturally translates into their writing. Maybe that is what bothers me the most.  Because really, my main feelings about fanfiction are as follows: when I like it, it's acceptable. When I don't, it's not. And obviously, not being the fandom police, I can't do anything about that. And I don't think it would be exactly right if I was, because whether I agree with them or not, people can believe and think what they want, even if they're terribly, woefully wrong(although free speech or not, some people really shouldn't talk type. They just shouldn't.)

     Either way, this crazy thing called fanfiction-- something I'd never even heard of until just a couple of years ago-- is a tricky, messy thing. Honestly, I'm not sure if "love/hate" is even the way to describe my relationship with it. Perhaps "hate/tolerate" or even "aggressively neutral " or "I-haven't-a-clue-what-I-really-think-anymore?" At the very least it's definitely, "I've-Talked-About-It-Way-Too-Much-Already-So-I'm-Going-To-Stop-Now."

(Also, one thing that I am DEFINITELY against is “fanfiction” about actual (and still-living) people/celebrities. To use a fangirl phrase, “what even?” Just don’t. Trying to re-write someone’s life story is creepy, offensive, and should not be done under any circumstances. Thank you.)

Friday, January 15, 2016

What's in a name? Well, a lot.

     As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite steps of writing process is the planning/brainstorming stage, and the act of naming my characters is no exception to this.

     Part of this is because names and their meanings have always fascinated me, even aside from using them in my writing. There's such a variety to them, and while classic English and American names are the ones I'm definitely the most familiar with, over the years I've found myself researching Welsh, Norse, and Germanic names as well. 

     Recently I've been branching out even further, wandering into India and Russia, while "ancient" names from civilizations such as the Mayans and Incas (and the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, too, of course) have also posed interesting.

     But in writing, names are only as "good" as they are fitting for the characters who wear them, and the most fascinating, unusual, or pleasant-sounding name might not be the most appropriate for a particular character. As a historical writer, I find it helpful to look at census records, or lists of popular names during certain time periods. Often, if you read a lot of books written during different time periods, you'll get a pretty good feel of names used during those times. (There are exceptions, such as when authors completely invent - or at least make popular- a name. That name might have become popular because of the book, but it wouldn't have been used before the book was published.)

     One rule you’ll hear many authors say about naming is not to use up any “saved” names you have for your future children. I, too, usually follow this rule with one exception: guy’s names. This is probably because I’m ridiculously picky about boy names and tend to like strong, traditional ones like Edward, Henry, Thomas, Charles, etc. There’s really so few male names that I like that I tend to cave and use them. Hopefully my future sons won’t mind.

     As for girl’s names, on my list you’ll find a lot of quirky names I really like but I'm not quite brave or certain enough to use on my own theoretical daughters.There are also MANY that were on my “names for future children” list from eons ago that I still like but don’t quite make the cut anymore.

     I’ll also look up names based on meaning, depending upon the story. A lot of times I’ll come up with a large-ish list of names that have a certain “feel” and sound good together, and then use that as the name pool for a particular story. (This is especially useful when writing a science fiction or fantasy story where you’re creating a culture, because you want the names to be somewhat cohesive.)

     The thing is, just like story ideas can come from anywhere, so do names. I have a list of them in my Book of Secrets, and I’ve gotten them from a variety of places. Basically, I’m always on the lookout, and when I find a name I like, I write it down. Then, when I’m in the first stages of planning my story, I’ll look on the list and see if a name pops out at me for the character.

     I have a similar list on a different page for last names. I steal last names from EVERYWHERE. From old yearbooks, from other authors off of Goodreads (I mean I steal the actual author’s last name, not their character names), from random people that I meet, from the phone book, browsing through "friends of friends" on facebook, and from my own family history. I also love looking at obituaries and graveyards for both last names and first names. Once I even googled “strange real last names” and got a few keepers.

     So basically I have three lists: one of female names, one of male names, and one of last names. Then comes the really exciting part- putting them together. When I find a first name that I like, I then try to match it up with a last name that sounds good with it. I once learned this tip from a baby naming book, and with a few exceptions, I stick with it. It’s this: if the last name is common or simple, use a more unusual or complicated first name. If the last name is a bit more commonplace, go ahead and use a first name that is more unusual. There are exceptions, but usually I find that names flow together very well if you do this. Of course, with my lists, sometimes I isolate all other factors in my name choices so that I unintentionally put together names that…well, have already been used. Recently, I came up with a list of characters and then accidentally found out (when I was googling something unrelated) that I had unknowingly raided Lord Byron’s family tree. #awkward

     Sometimes, it’s a good idea to google your character’s name to make sure that there’s not a semi-famous person with the same moniker. I know this from experience. 

     Fellow authors, how do you go about naming characters? Is it a task you enjoy, or one you dread? While most of the time naming is not a hassle for me, there have been a few characters who've driven me crazy in this regard. Do you find naming characters easy or difficult? 

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Impact of Reading

this is a posting of an essay I had to write for my English class last semester.    
Some of my childhood books. You can tell I was a re-reader. And yes, The Magician's Nephew is an old library book. I don't think anyone in my family actually knows where it came from or how we got it...
     The words taunted me in the dentist’s office. Amid the sounds of orthodontia installation and friendly greetings from the front desk, I had buried myself beneath a pile of magazines in the waiting room. While flipping through the pages of a rather average “family” periodical—the name of which I’ve since forgotten— I discovered an article that irked me. The subject matter of the article was optimistic enough, that of encouraging children and young adults to read. But the line that set me off? “It doesn’t matter what they are reading, so long as they are reading.”
     Perhaps from a purely pragmatic point of view, this was in a sense true. If the ultimate goal of the statement (and article) was to familiarize children and young adults with the letters and sounds of the written word, then I suppose mindless reading of any material has merit. However, no reading is truly mindless, and while a working knowledge of the English language is all very well and good, words are not just words: they are ideas. The vowels and consonants do not exist in a vacuum, and their educational value is worth only so much as their meaning. A single word may be benign, but a string of them together, combined with the correct punctuation, can become magical, or even dangerous. It’s the very reason that literature of various types has been lauded, revered, banned, and censored throughout the ages. And the books we read as children stay with us as perhaps no other words do.
     Often, I wonder if my love of history was born from the American Girl books checked out from my elementary school library. Was it Felicity Merriman’s brave (and sometimes foolish) escapades that gave me such a deep and abiding fascination with the American Revolution? A quick look through my closet shows that even my clothing choices as an adult seemed to have retained the influences of Samantha Parkington, Kit Kitteridge, and Molly McIntire—even without my conscious thought of doing so.
     The books we read as children become a part of us. They affect our perception of things. To this day, mentions of “the moor” give me a thrill as I remember the gloomily beautiful landscape of The Secret Garden. It was Mary, Colin, and Dickon who gave me, if not a love for gardens, than an affinity for secrets—and old English manors. It was for Anne Shirley’s sake that I put up with poetry in high school, and my own secret wish to own a massive tree house and “live off the land”—a desire seemingly at odds with the rest of my personality—can be completely blamed on The Swiss Family Robinson. Perhaps that desire is childish, but I haven’t grown out of it yet: I’m still waiting to own that private island. And while I’ve always loved writing, it was Jo March, scribbling away in her attic, who encouraged me to become a writer myself. From an early age, even before reading the unabridged version of Little Women, she was my role model and inspiration.
     But not all of my childhood reading has been strictly beneficial, morally or educationally. After all, I still have an appreciation for flawless schemes, even if illegal and somewhat questionable, thanks to that conniving Tom Sawyer and his effortless manipulation involving the fence and whitewash. I still can’t get rid of that juvenile admiration for the boldness and brilliance of his plot.
    But if I hadn’t grown up on classics and fairy tales, if I hadn’t devoured non-fiction filled with Ancient Egypt, American heroes, and famous artwork, I would be a completely different person than I am today. Is it true that among the countless books I’ve read as a child that there are some that I don’t remember, some that had no impact upon me other than assisting my journey into literacy? Yes. But at the time, it’s unclear which books will fade into oblivion and which will stay with a child forever. If it doesn’t matter what children are reading, it’s very near to saying that reading itself is worthless. Because if the meaning of the words themselves don’t matter, then what is the point of reading them anyway?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

     I have lately gotten away from writing a lot of film reviews, but The Force Awakens is kind of a big deal, and since Star Wars does lay some claim to my heart (being the first “fandom” I was ever a part of) I decided I couldn’t help but write something about it. It was a family affair the day all seven of us went to see it the Friday it came out. My ten-year-old brother clutched my hand in the seat next to me as soon as we heard the epic opening of the prologue music, and it felt unreal. The logo STAR WARS was there just as I’ve seen it millions of times, only there were new words underneath in the prologue. How weird and surreal was that? I didn’t cry, but I might have blinked a lot at that particular point. (I get strangely sentimental over certain things, all right?)

     I wanted to wait a little while for this post until a good many people got the chance to watch it, since I am not going to avoid spoilers in this review. I will be somewhat discreet with them, but well, you can draw your own conclusions. Also, a warning: this is not going to be a complete gushing of, “this movie was perfect in every way,” but it’s not going to be a complete bashing, either. I really did like this movie, but unlike most of the Star Wars fans I’ve been around, there were some things that I distinctly didn’t care for.

     First, the good: there was a lot to love about The Force Awakens, most highly on the list being how “real” it felt.  Unlike the prequel trilogy, which was oddly clean and filled with CGI (of which I’m not much of a fan) you could tell that TFA used a lot more sets and real explosions; it had more of the original trilogy “feel” to it and I greatly appreciated that.

     I also loved the new main characters. Another thing I never cared for in the prequels was the lack of likable characters (except for my beloved Obi-Wan, who was the only one with any sense in those movies) but Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8 were likable and easy to root for. It’s been a long time since I immediately latched on to new movie characters like this, but I can honestly say I think they have enough potential to become just as loved as the original three. Rey was a great heroine who was tough but vulnerable, Finn was hilarious and lovable, and while Poe doesn’t get as much development time, what I have seen of him I really like. BB-8 was also much more likable than I was expecting…and yes, I like him more than R2-D2. Sue me ;)

     The humor of the movie could be a little cheesy at times, but it was still really funny, and it has a lot of great, quotable lines. Honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that made me laugh so easily.

     But then we come to the plot, which is where I have a few (*cough, cough*) problems. I will say that I loved the first half of the movie. Sure, there were a few rehashes of some of the plot devices of the original trilogy but honestly, I don’t think I really mind that. I was sitting in the theater thinking, “YEEESSS, this is exactly what I ever wanted.” However, as the movie progressed I started feeling less and less satisfied. While there were about two times during the rest of the movie I could put a name to my dissatisfaction, my thoughts remained rather nebulous until I began talking it over with the family (My parents were rather disappointed with the entire thing, and while I think I liked it more than they did, several of the flaws they mentioned clicked in my mind with why I wasn't as happy with the movie as I wanted to be.)

     For me, there were a lot of “coincidences” that just made a lot of the plot seem too easy. (For instance, one of the two points I mentioned while watching the film was the scene where they got Captain Phasma to shut down the shields of the base. It just seemed kind of like a let-down, like, “Wait- that’s all? This is a serious organization we’re talking about that is literally in the process of DESTROYING AN ENTIRE PLANET. It shouldn’t be that easy to break into.”) There was an awful lot of things going on in that last half, and they didn’t always mesh together very well and sometimes they had a complete disregard to what is physically possible to do within a certain period of time. It just wasn’t as well put-together as the original trilogy. The originals have had some plot holes too, but they just aren’t as noticeable to me. (Although I admit bias: I've grown up with the originals, so I don't look at them very objectively.)

     Then, the villain.

     I am not a huge fan of Kylo Ren. It’s not that I don’t understand what they were trying to do with him, but it was hard to take him seriously after a certain point. It really fell apart during his lightsaber battle with Rey. I will say that the battle itself was a good one- well choreographed and exciting to watch. But if Kylo is a sith (my brother calls him a “sith walk-on”) how can this untrained girl beat him? I mean, yes, I think the idea is that he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is. (and as several people have since pointed out to me, he was also wounded) But it’s hard to respect a villain like him-  why does The First Order even put up with him? I certainly wouldn’t. He’s a tantrum-throwing child. Maybe that’s the point, and I do have hopes that his character will be better developed in the later films, but I just felt really lackluster and disappointed in regards to him. Plus, there was The Thing that He Did that I will never recover from. It’s not so much that The Thing happened, but *how* it happened…it wasn’t fully satisfying to me. (I was really emotionally exhausted after this movie, ya’ll. I just had to lie face-down on the bed for a few minutes afterward and I still can’t look at a picture of that Certain Beautiful Favorite Person without feeling…depressed.) It's not even the actor's portrayal that I really have a problem with; it's more of the actual writing of his character. I don't know; maybe if when I see it again I'll feel differently.

     Rey’s use of the force was also a little baffling. Given her staff-swinging skills, it could be argued that the lightsaber battle made some sense, but not the Jedi mind tricks. All things considered, she really shouldn’t have been able to use the force to the extent that she did. She’s an awesome character and I love her, but she hasn’t had any Jedi training, which makes it a bit unbelievable and sort of cheapens both the originals and the prequels, which focus so much on learning to use the force correctly. Perhaps we will learn something later about her backstory that explains this ability, so I’m trying to hold off judgement, but if the lightsaber experience scene is all we’ve got, then I’m going to be disappointed.

     It’s also difficult when you have a story that’s been around for as long as Star Wars has been, because I know I’m not the only one who has “headcanons” of what happens to the characters afterward, and then when actual canon events happen that don’t correlate to that…it can be kind of disappointing. I’m not necessarily blaming the movie for that, since it’s not like I expect J.J. Abrams to see inside my head and follow my own personal, unprofessional ideas, but it does take some time to get used to. Anyway, I could name some other, smaller inconsistencies, but I know a lot of people adore this movie and I don’t want to be a complete Johnny Raincloud and ruin it for everybody.

     Besides, aside from the “too-easy-ness” of the some of the points (and some plot rehashing) I do have hopes that some of my issues will be resolved in Episode viii, because despite all of my problems with The Force Awakens, it was an enjoyable experience. There are a lot of unanswered questions and who knows: maybe some of the “plot holes” will be revealed to not be plot holes at all. Maybe more about Kylo Ren will make sense. (Although I can’t say I’m rooting for a redemption arc. With the things that have happened in The Force Awakens, I don't think that one would make sense, even aside from the fact that its would just seem like Darth Vadar all over again) I certainly am curious about Rey’s backstory. The Force Awakens was exciting, it had some truly great scenes that rivaled some of the best in the other movies, and it made me laugh.

     But to sum it all up, I’ll repeat the first words I said to my mother after exiting the theater: “I enjoyed it, but I’m not happy about it.”

P.S. - I totally recommend checking out IMDB's cast list for The Force Awakens, because there are so many familiar actors who got bit parts or cameos. It's like a treasure hunt. Can you spot Fanny Dashwood? Edmund Sparkler? Ferb?
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