I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fanfic

While editing recently, I was reminded of a phenomenon I saw relatively often while working in acquisitions, the “original fiction” fanfic.

For those not familiar with the concept, fanfic (short for fan fiction) is a work of fiction (unsurprisingly) that a fan (shockingly) of a story writes using the characters and/or setting of another writer’s universe rather than their own original creations. For example, a fan of Harry Potter might write a story using Harry, Ron, and Hermione that either makes sense in the canonical universe, or as an alternate reality. Alternatively, they could use the setting (Hogwarts, etc.) and write a story with their own original characters in that world.

I have absolutely nothing against fanfics. They’re actually partially how I got into writing (my friend had me help with her Harry Potter Fanfic back in High School). What is a little annoying, however, is the “original fiction” that really is a thinly disguised fanfic.

As fanfics use other authors’ characters and/or worlds, people, for the most part, realize that fanfics are not going to be published anywhere other than the several fan sites out there that cater to them (silly things like copyrights get in the way of traditional publishing). This doesn’t stop people, however, from changing a couple of names and submitting “original” stories that readers aren’t supposed to notice are strangely similar to popular books already out there.

Like The Big Bang‘s Sheldon would say to margarine, “I have no difficulty believing you are not butter” us in acquisitions tend to have very little difficulty picking out which stories are thinly disguised fan fiction.

As I have said before (twice) it’s very rare to have completely original idea/plot. etc. in fiction of any kind. Tell someone the basics of your story and they’ll more than likely be able to name something else that has at least some sort of vague similarity. That isn’t what I’m talking about when I talk about I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fan Fiction. I’m talking about stories that seem to have taken characters and simply changed the names from the original story, or have even lifted what seem to be full scenes from other books/movies. Often times the authors realize that their stories come from these sources as fanfics of sorts (or at least admit to having been heavily inspired by X work) but still it seems many, many I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fanfics still find their way out into the publishing world – as true fanfics (hopefully) never would – and stumble across acquisitions desks all over (if they aren’t simply self published to start with).

Since Twilight became popular (or whatever the series name is, is it just Twilight? The Twilight Series?) I have seen more than my share of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Twilight stories. To be clear, I’m not counting the many, many Twilight parodies out there. Satire/parody is its own category. No, these submissions/editing projects are completely serious novels that seem to have lifted  barely veiled characters and scenes out of the series, and are calling it their own. Now, I admit I have never read Twilight (tried a page and just couldn’t bring myself to keep reading…) but it is popular enough that even I have been able to pick out which books are I Can’t Believe It’s Not Twilight. One went so far as to name the main character Annabella who went by, wait for it, Ella (I suppose they just barely managed to stop themselves before calling her Bella). Another (not with Ella/Bella) had a scene at the end where Main Human Female Character (MHFC) gets bitten by an evil vampire intent on killing her because of Main Masculine Vampire Character (MMVC)’s attachment to her, and MMVC is forced to suck the poison (vampires have poison?) out of her to keep her from becoming a vampire herself. Or to keep him from having to turn her into a vampire to keep her from dying. I forget which. Now, anyway, I’m only basing this on having seen the movie once, but isn’t that vampire poison thing pretty much exactly how Twilight ends? With sparkly vampire not letting pathologically co-dependent girl become a vampire from evil vampire’s poison? (For whatever reason, though it seems like a logical way to get Miss Pathologically Co-dependent to be a vampire with Mr. Sparkles without him having to bite her.)

Anyway, I don’t know about other acquisitions editors/lit agents, but if the story is already published, I see no reason to publish something that’s the same story with names changed, no matter how popular the original is. In fact, the original story being popular might actually be worse for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fanfics. It means that I would be publishing something that people who have never even read the original would more than likely know is a rip off of another story. Not just a small fan base.

Do you want to write I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fanfics? Do it. Don’t take this as me saying you shouldn’t. In my opinion, anything that keeps you writing is a good thing. After all, the more you write, the better you get, and the more likely it is for you to keep writing. Just, if you’re writing I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fanfic, please be honest with yourself. I’ve done it, I completely admit I have, but I don’t expect anyone to read it and not see the similarities between it and the original. Something you’ve read or seen may have spoken to you, perhaps just one scene that you really like. Fine. Use it. Just admit it to yourself when you’re taking it, because more than likely, someone’s going to call you out when you do.

“Real” Writers

All right, here’s an interesting topic (once again brought up by the NaNoWriMo forums. Seriously guys, if you want to be a novelist, check them out): What makes you a “Real” Writer?

To be completely honest, I’ve always disliked this question, like there’s some criteria you have to hit as a writer before you have the right to call yourself one. Thus, I fully admit I bristled when I came across this “pep talk” from a user on the NaNoWriMo forums. For me personally, it would have been hard not to with the first paragraph starting:

A word of warning: this is a pep talk…aimed at people who like to think of themselves as serious writers, not for people who are doing Nano casually…This is for people who think they’re “real writers”, but are stuck.”

All right, I can understand the writer of this post is trying to make a point, and has obviously dealt with the personal issue about whether he/she is a “real” writer (which he/she states later in the post: “I began to wonder whether writing was “my thing.” Whether I was actually a “real writer”, or had just pretended to be one all these years“) but honestly, what does that even mean? Apparently (according to this poster) I’m “snarky” since, my answer to “What makes a ‘real’ writer” has always been “To be someone who writes.” (His/Her first point on answers he/she’s heard about what makes a real writer is: “The snarky answer is that if you write words, you’re a real writer”).

Our poster goes on to give a couple of different suggestions he/she has heard (other than just writing making you a writer) about what makes a “real” writer:

1. If people read what you write, you’re a real writer.
2. If you make money on your writing, you’re a real writer.
3. If you feed yourself and pay your bills with the money from writing, you’re a real writer.

Before coming to the conclusion, “Being a real writer isn’t about just having fun, and it’s not about having a hobby. Nor is it about making writing your financial support. Because for a real writer, writing is more than all of those things. It’s more important than fun, or a hobby, or your material survival. For a real writer, writing is not just something fun or cool to do when you feel like it, nor is it just your livelihood…Being a real writer is about writing when it’s NOT fun. Being a real writer is about WORKING on your writing anyway, whether you feel like it or not. Because it’s that important to you, and if you don’t, you’ll go crazy. You must write. It’s WHAT YOU DO.”

Again, I realize (or at least think) that the poster is trying to be inspirational. He/She had a crisis of confidence about being a writer, and realized that he/she was one because he/she was willing to power through and still write, dagnabit. I also completely understand his/her comment about the compulsion to write. I do feel a little crazy when I don’t have time to write, but then again, writing is how I relax. Without it, I get sort of antsy. There isn’t any sort of “struggling for my art” when I write. I write when it is fun, when it makes me happy, and then set it aside when inspiration doesn’t come (which, luckily, doesn’t happen often).

Does that mean I’m not a “real” writer? The fact that I have fun writing? That I don’t struggle for my art? Well, if I’m not, then I have a good few people to tell to put down things I’ve written and give refunds to since none of it was written by a “real” writer.

If it helps our poster with his/her writer block, all right he/she can believe that. However, I maintain my earlier point: If you write, you’re a writer. I don’t care if you make millions off your writing, or if you just have a couple short stories you scribbled between classes in high school you’ve never shown anyone. You can call yourself a “real” writer as far as I’m concerned. You’ve written, and consider yourself a writer. Done.

Perhaps that is my biggest peeve with the “real” writer debate. It seems to imply that being a writer is to be in some special club. The laypeople who don’t reach the specific criteria of being a “real” writer aren’t allowed to use the term, after all, they would sully it. Make it less special. Whether or not the poster means it this way, the argument seems inherently elitist. The fact someone who has written something for fun once in their life calls themselves a writer doesn’t make my being a writer any less, I don’t know what they’d suggest, important(?) than it is if they don’t. I’m not sure what mythos there is around being A Writer, but it’s just something we do, for fun or profit or anything else. To consider being A Writer as something that needs to be protected from your commonplace “a writer” suggests that part of the reason to be A Writer is prestige. And that’s odd to me. Do we need some external validation that what we do is special to want to write? And, in that case, can you be a “real” writer if you’re writing, in part, to feel special? Seems like it isn’t that internal motivation the poster was talking about earlier.

If you need to feel like a “real” writer to have the motivation to write, ok. Motivation is nearly always a good thing. But don’t tell people they aren’t “real” just because they don’t match up to whatever criteria you have in your head that you use to justify why you are a “real” writer. At best it’s elitist and at worst just plain insulting.

And so, I’m back to my “snarky”, completely serious definition of being a writer. You write? You consider yourself a writer? You’re a “real” writer.

Progress

I got an interesting question today: How do you feel about your past writing?

And wow is that a loaded question. I don’t think it’s any secret that I have hidden my first novel away for the time being. I don’t know if it’s unsalvageable, but it’s bad enough that it would take a good chunk of time to bring it up to a standard I’d be ok sharing with the world these days. It goes back to the “Your first novel is never as good as you think it is” point I’ve made a few times before (such as at the end of my recent interview here [look around the 3-minute mark]). Well, you might know that your first novel is awful, but as someone who has worked in acquisitions I know there are plenty of first novels that get sent out that most likely won’t be considered up to snuff as you get better (like, well, mine…) As I like to say, you may think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written, but that’s only because it has been up to that point. Writing is a skill. You get better the more you do it.

With that out of the way, though, lets break out my dusty old writing folder and see what I have from early on.

1. Librae
Here we go, the infamous first novel. Written at about 15, it’s the first longer work I finished. It still has a special place in my heart, but…shutter. Let’s look at this a little closer.

Length: 200,000 words. Yep this one got away from me, and that’s after a couple of rounds of edits. I’m sure it would have clocked in at at least 225,000 when first written. For some perspective, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is about 170,000, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is about 190,000. Yep, this is hundreds and hundreds of pages of first-time writer fun that outdoes the later Harry Potter books.

Plot: Ok, the plot isn’t too bad. I mean, it’s cliche, but not irredeemable. It’s about a bunch of teenagers who can control different elements (oddly enough, a common topic for first novels for some reason. I’ve seen a ton come through submissions and have edited many more). Honestly, it’s some sort of Harry Potter, Star Wars, The OC mix. Semi-enjoyable clichéd goodness all around.

Characters: Well, I can’t be too harsh on the characters here. They’re my babies. I mean, I spent 200,000 words talking about them (not including the completely useless conversations that they had in the middle of the book that I cut out and pasted in another document when I realized how insanely long it was). Main character is a bit off a Mary Sue–though I’d like to believe she isn’t completely unlikable. And not to be outdone, she has her male counterpart, the Gary Stu (or Marty/Larry Stu if you prefer). A good few of Miss Sue’s friends are based on friends I had in high school, which is always a good idea… Still, for all their problems, I still love them all. Even if hidden away, they are still my first cast of characters and will be defended beyond reason.

Writing: Gah. Prologue wreaks of having just watched the beginning of the first Lord of the Rings movie. It has so many beginning writer problems it makes me cringe. Yeah, I would definitely have to take a hatchet to that to make it anywhere near presentable. I have other projects I’m working on, and am not being paid to tackle that, so that’s not happening anytime soon.

2. Two or Two-Thousand: Next up, the yet (and more than likely forever) unfinished novel that was started after Librae in an attempt to keep up the writing pace. Again, a high school (junior year?) project.

Length: 40,000 when abandoned. If I remember correctly (again, this was a high school project, so it’s been a while since I’ve thought about it) it’s one of the “I thought of a better idea” casualties that plagued me up until NaNoWriMo in college gave me a reason to stick to project (and taught me all my writing didn’t have to be giant wannabe epics). 40,000 isn’t too bad (about halfway to a proper novel) but I’ve just finished all the beginning stuff, so it’s likely this would have stretched out to something completely unruly if I ever truly got into the main plot.

Plot: Again, not a completely awful idea. Clichéd again, but somewhere between fantasy and sci fi about a society where water is inaccessible and has to be manufactured (thus making it amazingly expensive). Not nearly as original as thought it was at the time (see my “Accidental Plagiarism” article) but not without merit.

Characters: Generally unlikable. Again, we have some Mary Sue/Gary Stu problems, though not as much of a problem as in Librae. Even without leaning more Mary Sue, the main characters see entirely unlikable reading it now.

Writing: Same beginning writer problems. Same awkward prologue right at the beginning (had to keep “my style” consistent for when these got published, don’t you know) though I suppose you can argue I’m learning a little.

3. Just Farrah: What I abandoned Two or Two-Thousand for. I believe this was senior year of high school. I might be wrong, however

Length: 20,000 when abandoned. I didn’t get far enough to have some idea about what it might have ended up at, but I at least have some hope that it wouldn’t have ended up as some 200,000 word behemoth

Plot: Eh, could be interesting. Not fantasy this time, but about a girl who secretly wants to be a singer, against her parent’s wishes, and thus moonlights in a club. Nothing special, but nothing awful.

Characters: No Mary Sues this time, but the majority are stock characters/two-dimensional. Main character is stock good girl who secretly isnt’ so good. Love interest is stock bad boy with heart of gold…and it goes on. Would need some serious character development if I were to revisit this.

Writing: Getting there. Not great but it doesn’t make me cringe at least.

And that, I believe, takes us through high school. If any of you are career writers/have been writing for years, I have to say it’s really interesting to go back over your old writing. Feels good to know you’re advancing. Perhaps if people ask nicely, I will be persuaded to share a couple of samples of just how much mine has changed in the future…for now, that file is closing again.

Self, Vanity, Traditional Publishing

With my second review going up today on ePublishaBook.com, I have started reading another novel for future review–one sent to me by its author. Though I haven’t nearly read enough to give a proper opinion (and I’ll save what thoughts I have on the story/the writing’s actual merit for the actual review) reading the first few pages has made me pause to think about all of the different forms of publishing out there, be it ebook, paperback, hardback, self, traditional, or even vanity.

If you’re a writer, you probably have some idea what these different things are, but if you aren’t (or you just stumbled across this page–in which case welcome) I’ll give a short rundown.

ebooks, paperbacks, and hardbacks should be pretty self-explanatory. ebooks are books in electronic format (like for Kindle, Nook, iPad, or any other digital format) paperbacks and hardbacks are print books, the only difference being their binding (and generally price).

Now, for the different types of publishing.

Traditional Publishing is generally what people think of when someone talks about “getting published.” Here, an author submits their manuscript (either by themselves or through an agent) to a publisher. If the publisher likes it, they offer the author a contract and then helps the author edit, publish, and market their book.

Self Publishing is really more a recent trend in publishing, with the internet, social media, and cheap alternatives for getting a book out there, many authors have started cutting out looking for an agent and/or publisher altogether and produce their books themselves (often through a platform such as createspace.come [a NaNoWriMo sponsor, for the record] or lulu.com).

Vanity Publishing, also called “joint” or “subsidy” publishing, is a publisher who charges the author to get their book out there, either charging them up-front, or slipping a clause into the author’s contract that stipulates they buy a certain number of books once published for “self-promotion” (If you get the question “How many copies of your book are you planning on buying” right up front from a publisher, that should be a red flag. You can read more about “back-end” vanity publishers here.)

Of the three, I fully support all but vanity publishers (if you’re going to pay money up front to publish your book–something that should never happen in traditional publishing–just self publish. It will be most likely be cheaper and I, at least, find it infinitely more respectable). Self publishing, for the most part, still has a relatively bad reputation, which I can understand with the number of unedited, semi-readable books that have made it out there without picky publishers acting as gatekeepers. Some self published novels, though, are wonderful (and I admit, a good number of the people who hire me to edit books for them are planning on self-publishing). If you are willing to act as your own publisher (edit your book, do your own cover art, etc.) I see absolutely no problem with self publishing.

There’s an odd sort of middle ground, though, when I see a book that says it’s from a publisher–not a known vanity publisher–but looks self published. As previously stated, createspace.com is a popular self publishing platform, it is also a NaNoWriMo sponsor. Though it changed its policy for last year’s NaNo Winners’ prize, in previous years it offered a free proof copy to winning participants. Since I’ve done (and won) NaNoWriMo a few times, I have a couple of these proof copies lying around for books that were never actually put up for publication (it’s sometimes nice just to have things bound, and hey, it was free). With something  like three or four proof copies of things lying around my house, I’m pretty well acquainted with how the books look. Another plus, for some self publishers, is that createspace.com has a cover-maker. You put in a picture (or chose one of theirs) put in your title and name, and there you go, you have a cover. Since I wasn’t actually publishing those proof copies I mentioned, I’ve used more than my share of these easy-to-make covers. Holding the book I got today, it looks like a createspace.com book.

Like I’ve said many times, I have no problem with self published books. I encourage both traditionally and self published authors to contact me for review. What was odd, then, is that a publisher was listed on the back cover. As my point here isn’t to besmirch an author or publisher, I won’t name any names, but already it seems suspicious. Beginning to read, there are some very simple formatting errors that even I, with my short, short stint in layout as an intern at Leucrota Press before moving to editing full-time, can pick out right away. The most condemning–the 0.5″ indent for the paragraphs. It seems much too big on smaller pages, almost always means the book was reformatted into a 6×9 standard book from a word processor (such as Word or Publisher) without changing the standard indent you use on a 8.5×11 page.

After a couple of typos, I finally check the permissions page. Final nail in the coffin. Though there is the author’s copyright, and a pretty standard “All rights reserved” paragraph, there’s no publisher listed, even though there is one on the back. Likewise, no publisher logo on the title page. Either this is someone making up their own company, or it’s a publisher that has no idea what it’s doing.

A quick google search shows that the publisher website is minimal at best, only listing this one book in its catalogue, making it the publishers one and only release going back a good few years. If they are a fledgling publisher, that’s a pretty bad business model.

Now I’m torn. I’d be fine if the author had said they had self published. I’d be fine if the book had come from a small publisher that’s just getting their footing. I have the sinking feeling that this is neither, just an author who went to the trouble of making up a business name and buying a domain to make their book look traditionally published when it isn’t.

I may be wrong, of course. As a legal procedural would have to say, I only have circumstantial evidence. But, with everything combined, that’s what it looks like. And, at least in my own personal opinion, that’s worse than either a new press or self publishing. Every small press has to start somewhere, and there are plenty of fine, or great, self published novels out there. It’s the pretense–a not very well pulled off pretense–that gets to me.

I’ll still read it, give it a fair review either way. But for anyone out there thinking of self publishing–if you’re going to self publish, do it proudly. If your story is interesting and your writing good, it will speak for itself. Should the thought have crossed your mind, there’s no reason to try to hide behind an odd, one-book publisher, much less pay for the domain name. I’ll review you either way. And, if you don’t, I personally will think more of you for it.

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