Writing Good Fan-fiction

One of the joys of writing fan-fiction is that we are presented with a series of ready-made characters, backgrounds and scenarios that, if combined with care, will result in a very appetising end product.

Remove outer packaging, pierce film and place in a pre-heated oven (Gas Mk 5) for 40 minutes. Ensure contents are piping hot before serving.We have the ingredients prepared and ready for us to use. All we have to do is to mix them together. If we do it with sufficient thought, and follow the instructions then, in theory, we should be able to create a masterpiece.

If only it was as simple as that.

Take an apple pie for instance. Easy. You make the pastry, you prepare the apples, you put it all together according to the recipe. And you bake it.

BUT .. get one thing wrong.. not enough sugar, the wrong flour, bad apples, an oven that is too hot or too cold and you are left with an unappetising and inedible mess. Something that no one wants to eat. It might even appear perfect with its golden crisp pastry, the lovely smell of apples, but when you bite into it you discover that the cook has used salt instead of sugar. Well they look the same don’t they? Who is going to notice the difference? And .. once it’s made. ….will the chef care anyway? It’s out of the kitchen, out of sight, and on the shelves waiting to be sold.

And there will always be someone who will nibble the crust and smile and say..’Mmm, delicious’, without actually daring to be brave enough to tell the truth and say.. ‘Eugh, that is disgusting.’

So the chef gets away with it, time and time again.

It’s like the slovenly disregard and lack of respect for the reader that afflicts many fan-fic writers.

This is the problem with fan-fic. It’s too easy to try to use our own elements with characters, to make them into something that they are not. Like trying to make an apple pie when you only have gooseberries. It might look good and taste nice, but it’s not apple pie and if you ‘sell it’ as apple pie then you are lying. You are cheating your customers. And the word will spread so that very soon people won’t even bother to try what you produce, because they can’t trust you to create something good, something satisfying, something that people will want to ‘taste’ over and over again. It doesn’t bother me if people want to write 3D stories (Dire dross and drivel) but it eventually impacts on the rest of the writers who agonise over every phrase, and work to get their final product as well crafted as possible. If enough poor stories flood the market, people stop reading.

Then good writers stop writing and no one wins.

We need to look at some of the facts, the ‘components’ that make up UFO fanfic.

This is the ‘canon’ aspect. The basic grounding that all UFO stories should have. The ‘nuts and bolts’ for all UFO fanfic writers. And the stumbling block for them as well.

If you write your own original fiction you can create your own recipe, combine ingredients in whichever way you choose. Chocolate and Marmite (and it is actually very tasty!) or ice-cream and green beans. You have the freedom to ‘do your own thing’ to invent your own gourmet meal for others to enjoy.

But unfortunately, fanfic is too often treated as ‘fast food’. A quick alternative to slaving over a hot stove.

Let’s consider the worst mistakes made when preparing your fan-fic feast.

Ingredients: (Characters)

There you are, with all those wonderful ingredients just waiting for you to mix them together.

Ed Straker, cool, suave, insular. Alec Freeman, jovial, concerned, friendly. Paul Foster, keen, competent, and eager to learn.

How can you possibly fail? Oh boy… and yet so many have failed.

I don’t think anyone would write a story in which John Straker survived his accident ( oops .. I have, but it might never see the light of day!!) and expect anyone to take the story as canon. We KNOW that John died. Just as we KNOW that Ed Straker was once married to Mary and that he is now divorced from her. It’s there, on the screen. In front of you.

(Oh? So you don’t actually watch the episodes anymore? Are you still relying on those warped preconceptions you gained when you watched the series in 19……. whenever? Not good. Not good at all.)

It’s those certain ‘physical’ facts that are so easy to establish. Alec Freeman has known Ed Straker for at least ten years, (Confetti Check A-OK) and is a competent and reliable second-in-command (Survival and, yes, in Responsibility Seat). Straker suffers from claustrophobia (Subsmash), lives alone, (Responsibility Seat, Question of Priorities), was a Colonel in the USAF (Identified, Exposed). All easily verified, all clearly evident. As Straker said in Identified ‘Facts’.

It’s when we come to the less obvious aspects of canon that things so often fall apart, that the recipe no longer works.

Let’s take one small detail. Straker drinks champagne at his wedding and gets drunk. In Identified and Kill Straker he says that he doesn’t touch it, and yet we see him in another episode drinking alcohol in his office with Alec. In The Responsibility Seat he doesn’t drink the wine he has bought, and also drinks tomato juice in the bar while he is trying to track down Jo Fraser. So . Two instances of him drinking. Several others of him refusing. And some people have leapt to the conclusion that this makes him into an ex-alcoholic.

No. An ex-alcoholic would not have alcohol in his office, would not pour a drink for his friend, would CERTAINLY not have just one drink at the end of the day. In fact there is no such thing as an ex-alcoholic, just an alcoholic who is not drinking – today. THAT is the reality.

It is far more probable that, as a USAF Pilot he simply didn’t drink, that it was easier not to, especially with the strictures on flying times and alcohol.

So, no ex-alcoholic Straker. NOT because I personally don’t like the idea that he was an alcoholic, it is because the facts as we know them DON’T FIT.

That is the crux of the matter. Are you writing about the characters we see in the episodes, or are you writing about your own personal vision of Ed Straker/Alec Freeman/etc. The man in your story might have blond hair, chiselled lips, a cleft chin, be tall and slender, but he might be YOUR vision, seen through rose-tinted glasses, or even worse a skewed viewpoint that is based on your own secret fantasies (Don’t tell me.. I really don’t want to know).

I might be expecting ‘apple pie’ and instead I get gooseberry ..or even worse, rhubarb with too little sugar.

I don’t like reading stories that leave a sour taste in my mouth. And you will have cheated me.

© LtCdr Feb2011

Settings and Situations

A serious look at places and people, and how lack of research can lead to some ‘painful’ situations!

So, you have your ingredients, all properly weighed and measured, now you need to prepare them.

Get out the chopping boards and the sharp knives! (and you might just want to check that your first-aid kit is handy!)

What has that to do with Fanfic you might ask?

Well, this section is about putting people in the right settings. Treating then with due caution and care and making sure that you don’t do something unpleasant to them by accident. I have sharp knives in my kitchen. Very sharp knives. Extremely sharp. And because they are razor sharp I treat them with respect. As the saying goes. ’Blunt knives cause most injuries.’

I try to treat my characters with respect as well, oh yes….. I KNOW I am mean to Ed Straker, but I don’t put him in impossible or ridiculous situations! If I want to get the best out of him, then I have to be sure that he is not being treated with careless disregard, like a blunt knife. A knife that will end up hurting someone accidentally.

The classic mistakes:

Our hero (or heroine!) is alone with the woman (or man) of his (or her) dreams.. (this is getting too complicated to write.. I shall stick with Ed Straker as my example!)

There he is.. …woman in his arms……. in bed. Fine. No problems. Until you read that the bed is actually a hospital bed. And there must be at least a dozen different stories with this scenario.

I work in a hospital. In England. I know what hospital beds are like. And believe me; it’s not practical to consider having sex in one. They are narrow. They rattle. They have plastic covers on the mattresses. They are on wheels. They have bars along the sides to stop patients falling out.

The doors don’t lock. EVER.

And nurses are nosey. Very very nosey.

Need I say any more?

So, with the combination of narrow, rattling, squeaking, jolting and frankly very easy-to-fall-out-of beds (unless you have the side bars raised!) and the Ward Sister popping her head around the door every few minutes; sex? No chance.

And if you have an IV in the back of your hand.. ouch..

Oh course it might be very different in hospitals in the US, but…. back to the point of this article. We are talking about England here. And I think I am the only UFO writer living in England at the current time.

Sex in hospitals happens. All the time. But it’s generally between staff, and usually somewhere discreet and LOCKABLE! Linen cupboards (which are small rooms, not cupboards! ) medical rooms, again, discreet and private.

So, please. No sex in hospital beds. It’s silly, it’s impractical, and above all it makes a knowledgeable reader laugh. (and a good sex scene should NOT have that effect!)

What other settings need to be treated with caution? Ah yes.

The office.

Well, would YOU?

Really?

Oh my!

With Miss Ealand outside, with Keith Ford buzzing you at what might be a MOST inconvenient time? On the desk? (that white sculpture might get knocked off). On the floor? While the room is descending? (It would have to be a real ‘quickie’ then!)

Forget it.

And finally, the last place on Earth – I am not even going to THINK about Zero-gravity sex. All I will say is ‘Chicken leg syndrome’

The beach. All that wonderful imagery, rolling water, setting sun, rippling wavelets; no wonder sex on a beach is a favourite setting for Fanfic writers.

Okay. Take a deep breath and prepare yourself for the next word…… ready?

Sand. Sand everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE.

Just think about it. ( and are you wincing – because you should be!)

Exfoliating certain areas that most certainly do NOT want to be exfoliated!

Bacteria (err.. fecal bacteria at that!) abound in sea water and sand and, once that has been forced into places where it most definitely should NOT go, can lead to delightfully romantic outcomes such as dysentery and UTIs.

Don’t forget the sand fleas either.

So. Give them a groundsheet, or a sleeping mat. But NOT SAND.

Or your poor hero or heroine will be hobbling around for the next week or so with red raw skin where it hurts most as well as a nasty case of cystitis and dysentery.

SOOOO sexy!!

You might want to rethink that beach scene. Honestly.

Fillings!

You know the feeling. You pick up a KitKat, or some such biscuit (and yes, you convince yourself, the diet will start tomorrow!) and you unwrap it, crumple the paper up and toss it into the wastebin.

You take a bite and, just then the phone rings. So what do you do? You put it down and go and chat to Great Aunt Maude. When you return … no biscuit. It’s not really a problem. There are at least ten more waiting in the box, but it’s not the same … you want THAT biscuit. That particular one. And you feel bereft, lost … your hand searches for it, that elusive missing half of a biscuit.

Got the idea? And I bet there are people out there nodding their heads in agreement! It’s the same with stories. You start reading … all looks good … and then it just seems to disappear. No plot, no development, as if the writer started and then lost interest (or some evil plot bunny thief sneaked off with all the ideas!).

I’ve read so many stories where the writer promises a detailed involved tale full of intrigue. Great I think! Something to really get my teeth into, all those little subplots, all the hints that the writer is about produce a story that is really satisfying. Then, it’s like that biscuit. It vanishes without trace.

We are left with a feeling that something is missing, that the story hasn’t been planned or thought about, or worse, that the writer can’t be bothered to actually put the effort into the ‘boring’ parts!

But those boring parts are the filling. The bits that make the story real. I WANT to read about the way the characters feel when they wake up, about the everyday minutia of their lives, however humdrum. I want to know more about people that are mentioned, however briefly.

And I want the whole thing, not just that first bite. I want to finish the story with a feeling that all the questions have been answered, that all the details have been considered and added. That the author has put all everything into writing that story. I want the cherry on the icing on the cake.

Perhaps it’s like making a chocolate cake. You can buy cheap packet cake mix. Add water and one egg. Easy. But not satisfying. It tastes of what it is. A ‘quick fix’ for people who either haven’t got the time or the skill to do it properly.

A good story takes time. It takes effort. It takes commitment. And I’m not talking about short stories here, or stories such as Loopstagirl’s Flyboy. That is a deep look inside the mind of a character. No plot, no action, but it’s jam-packed with images, with feelings, with emotions. It’s short, but very intense. And incredibly good. Like eating Chocolate Ganache (ever get the feeling I like chocolate?) … Small portions are more than sufficient. It’s simply too ‘filling’, too rich, too good. But it’s something you revisit time and time again.

So, there are the stories that promise a lot, but don’t deliver. The ‘thin’ stories. What about the others? The ‘fat’ stories. And boy are there some FAT stories out there in the world of Fanfic! (some over 300,000 words and ongoing!)

Go on … you’ve all been tempted. That HUGE doughnut … with the pink icing and the little sprinkley bits on top. Looks impressive. Looks good.
Then you bite into it and it’s pretty much tasteless. Instead of being rich and creamy and moist it turns out to be dry and difficult to swallow, full of unnecessary E numbers and monosodium glutamates and anything else that is available to pad it out.

I know I like details in my stories, but not a ream of techno-babble that is both incomprehensible and irrelevant. It makes the story bland, flavourless, boring. It happens in a lot of sci-fi fandoms; great long explanations of technical details that we either don’t understand or we don’t care about, and generally the details are not pertinent to the story. If I want to read about the science of time travel, or parallel universes, or computational astrophysics, I will get a book to read; E=Mc Squared for example, or perhaps Classical and Quantum Black Holes (which costs £121.00 – knowledge doesn’t come cheap)

But who needs to spend that much money? We are writing UFO/ Thunderbirds/ Captain Scarlet fanfic. Not a treatise on ‘Jets from Black Holes and their effect on High Performance Computing in Rotating Star Clusters’ (and sorry to disappoint some readers, but there is no acronym in that title.)

Aquaboi’s wonderful story ‘Traitor’ has an explanation of time travel, in one sentence: ’The time corridor opened out in space, triggered by a sonic/antisonic crash and Greg and his space ship were thrown out in a purplish haze that stretched like a rubber band and snapped the ship thirty years into the past.’

Simple, readable, and actually understandable. It’s all the information we need. And now we can get back to reading about Greg and his butchered brain and his desperate need to kill Ed Straker. Far more interesting. The reader is pulled into the story, and whether you understand time travel or not it doesn’t matter. That short explanation is sufficient.

After all, this IS Sci-Fi, believe it or not!
LtCdr.

(trying to complete her thesis on ‘The Search for Galactic Compact Massive Objects using Positive Microlens Gravitational Forces’ )

LtCdr  April 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *