Disclaimer: Lord of the Rings mostly belongs to Tolkien and other bits and pieces belong to Peter Jackson. I'm merely borrowing some of their characters for a bit of fun and I promise I'll put them back nice and neat when I'm done.
Author's Note: I know—I have no business starting a new fic when I've got so many others to work on. However, a plot bunny bit me today; hence this fic. You can't just ignore plot bunnies…Anyhow, the usual rules for reviewing apply—that is, feel free to give constructive criticism and feedback and such, but please express your opinion in a civil manner. I don't shy away from constructive criticism, but flaming is rather pointless (though I suppose it works if your goal is to make me laugh).
A Written Penance
By Blue Kat
Chapter One: Charged and Convicted
It was Gabby's fault, of course. Jane would never have gotten into this situation without Gabby's involvement. Gabby accepted the blame with a shrug; after all, it really wasn't a big deal.
Not yet, anyway.
It was all very well for Gabby, of course—she had more experience and was able to resist temptation more often than not. Jane, on the other hand, found that her normally rigid sense of self-control had dwindled drastically (again, Gabby's fault). If it hadn't been for Gabby, Jane would never have known about it at all and the entire situation wouldn't even be an issue.
The situation in question is rather simple—a natural curiosity that developed into an interest and then something akin to addiction, though Jane would never admit that it had reached that point.
"It's just a hobby," she often rationalized to both herself and her critics.
"Yeah, a hobby that's taking up most of your waking hours," said the sensible part of her brain. Luckily for her, she had developed the ability to ignore such comments—usually with the help of her new hobby.
The hobby in question is neither destructive nor unhealthy, as the tone of this narrative might suggest. At times, it could prove to be an inconvenience, as it had a bit of an addictive quality that Jane couldn't quite ignore. It was intriguing and inspiring, amusing and addictive, and really quite fun.
It was fan fiction.
It started with a simple link.
"You have to read this," Gabby's email had said. "I know you're not really into this kind of stuff, but this is an absolute riot."
Jane, having nothing else to do, clicked on the link and was immediately swept into a side-splittingly funny Star Wars parody. She had to admit that she sort of liked it and thought perhaps there was a point to Gabby's seemingly obscure interest in fan fiction. Out of curiosity, she typed 'fan fiction' into her search engine. She was immediately bombarded by a plethora of websites devoted to not only Star Wars fan fiction, but all kinds of fan fiction. Harry Potter, ER, Spongebob Squarepants, Forrest Gump, Gilmore Girls, To Kill A Mockingbird, and (surprisingly) Teletubbies—everything seemed to have a fan fiction following.
After following a few random links and reading a few assorted stories, Jane stumbled into a section she would soon find herself spending most of her time in. She had meant to click on the Lord of the Flies link, but mistakenly clicked on Lord of the Rings. She thought she might as well give it a try—she had seen the movies and read one of the books and liked them well enough to have a minor interest in the trilogy. After all, she was only going to read for twenty minutes or so—she might as well read a section she was slightly familiar with.
Three and a half hours, five Oreos, half a bag of chips, a bag of Sour Patch Kids, seven carrots, and a glass of water later, she was hooked.
Additionally, she was more or less out of food.
"I don't know why it's so damn addictive," she said to Gabby on the phone the next morning as she made up a grocery list. "I was on the computer for well over three hours—I never do that."
"It's strange like that," Gabby replied. "You only plan to read a chapter or two, and then it turns into a fic or two, then two or three, then three or four. And then, of course, you want to write one of your own."
"Write one…" Jane mused thoughtfully. "There's a thought."
"It's a ceaseless cycle," remarked Gabby.
Jane couldn't ignore the fact that she wanted to write a fic. The idea had begun nagging at her several days after her first reading. At first, it was just a sketch of a character and a breath of a plot; nothing significant. However, the idea soon became wedged in her brain and she often found herself mulling over phantom chapters. Reading fan fiction didn't quell her urge to write—it only gave fuel to the narrative that swarmed through her thoughts.
The writing started one dreary Saturday afternoon a week or so later. The rain drizzled against the apartment's small windows and there was a leak in the living room ceiling. Jane had called the landlord earlier to inform him of the problem—he simply advised that she put a bucket under it and deal with it until the plumber fixed the faulty toilet in 3A.
Irritated and bored, Jane paced lazily throughout her apartment, idly shuffling through her belongings, looking to see if something needed her immediate attention. Her computer hummed quietly in the corner, the screen flickering slightly. She frowned and looked at the machine, seemingly puzzled. After a moment or two, she quietly approached the computer and sat down, staring at the screen.
"I suppose I might as well," she said to herself. She opened the word processor and began to type.
It was slow at first—she had a bit of trouble with the introduction—but as she continued, her keystrokes slowly became quicker and her words more certain. The words themselves seemed to fly through her fingertips faster than she could type, every phrase, every sentence demanding to be written all at once. It was a rush; it was invigorating.
It was fun.
At five o'clock she scrolled through the document, realizing that she had written well over ten pages. She felt a great sense of accomplishment and her previous doubts seemed unfounded. Smiling contentedly, she hit 'Save' and shut down her computer.
The file sat in her computer for several days, drifting into her thoughts more often than not. She opened it from time to time and read through it, making the necessary adjustments and fixing the occasional typo. Overall, she thought it was pretty good, and she gradually began to entertain the idea of posting the story.
"You wrote one?" inquired Gabby over the telephone.
"Yeah…Lord of the Rings," Jane replied. "It's over ten pages." She added this rather proudly—she'd never thought she'd be able to write that much.
"Really? Are you going to post it, then?"
"I don't know," admitted Jane. "I'm not sure if it's something I'd want to post—I'm not sure how it will be received. I'd hate to work really hard on something and then have people tell me it sucks, you know? It kind of undermines the entire endeavor."
"I'll read it, if you want," offered Gabby. "Sometimes it helps, you know, to have someone read it before you post. It helps work out minor details and typos before you give it up to the public domain."
"We-ell…" said Jane, chewing thoughtfully on her lip, "you have to promise not to laugh—but I don't want you to sugarcoat it for me, either. You have to tell me what you really, truly, and honestly think, even if it's the most horrible thing you've ever read."
"Do you honestly think I'd let you post something horrible and leave you open to public ridicule?" asked Gabby.
"Winter Formal sophomore year you neglected to inform me that I had broccoli stuck in my teeth until after the last dance," stated Jane, twirling the telephone cord around her finger. "It's no wonder Brad didn't try to kiss me."
"Come on, he asked you out anyway," argued Gabby.
"Yeah…it only took him until senior year to actually do it."
"He wasn't that good looking anyway," said Gabby, laughing. "But I've got to go—email me your fic and I'll give you my honest opinion."
"So, I read your chapter," said Gabby on the phone the next day.
"Really?" asked Jane, eagerly. "What did you think? Honestly, I mean."
Gabby flinched. This wasn't making it any easier.
"Well," she began, "it was pretty good…you have some really good description."
"You're not just saying that?"
"No, I really liked your description of Rivendell. It was really eloquent…"
"Oh yeah," Gabby replied, "I also liked the whole part by the fountain—you had a lot of really good imagery."
"What about the character? What did you think of her?" asked Jane.
Gabby flinched again—this was the question she had been dreading.
"And your vocabulary was really great," she continued, as if she hadn't heard Jane. "And I didn't see any typos either…"
"But what about the character?"
"Oh, your description of her was really good, too. I got a really clear picture of her—"
"No, no, I mean, what did you think of her as a character. Her characterization and all that," Jane clarified.
Life is full of beneficial and detrimental coincidences; in Gabby's case, it was a rather lucky coincidence that at that exact moment, Jane's call-waiting beeped. It was also incredibly lucky for Gabby that the person on the other line happened to be Jane's mother, a woman well-known for her ability to make a two-minute conversation a thirty-minute ordeal.
Jane looked at the Caller ID and sighed.
"Gabby, my mom's on the other line."
Gabby mouthed a silent 'thank you' toward the ceiling.
"Oh…darn…" she said into the phone, trying to sound genuine. "I'll—er—call me later, then."
"Okay—then you can finish telling me what you—"
"Oh! Someone's at the door!" lied Gabby. "Ibettergetthatgottagobye!"
She hung up the phone before Jane had a chance to reply. She breathed a quick sigh of relief and plopped down on the sofa, contemplating how exactly she was going to tell her friend that her character was a blatant Mary Sue.
Jane, on the other hand, was not as preoccupied as Gabby (although talking with her mother always left her somewhat drained). Luckily for her (not so much for Gabby), her mother was in a bit of a hurry and had to cut their conversation short after about an hour or so. Jane called Gabby shortly after she hung up with her mother, but Gabby's answering machine picked up, leaving Jane without further feedback.
Frustrated and somewhat antsy, Jane sat down at the computer, and opened up her file. She read through it a couple times, her opinion of the chapter somewhat strengthened by Gabby's earlier praise. She called Gabby after her fourth or fifth reading.
She reread the chapter again and fiddled with a few sentences. She checked her email and deleted three pieces of junk mail from three different people who wanted to increase her manhood and another from an individual who was very interested in the stability of her bank account and needed her account numbers immediately. She replied to two others—one from her mother and another from her cousin. She reread the chapter twice. She called Gabby again.
Jane stared at the computer screen for a moment. She felt strange admitting it, but she really wanted to post her story. Sure, she and Gabby hadn't really talked about the entire chapter, but Gabby's general opinion seemed to be positive and that had really boosted Jane's overall confidence.
After a moment's pause, she typed in the address of her favorite fan fiction site and signed in. She hesitantly clicked on the 'new story' button and spent several minutes filling out the pertinent information. The 'Submit' button loomed tantalizingly on the screen.
"C'mon…" it seemed to say "click me. You know you want to."
Jane blinked and shook her head.
"Perhaps I ought to cut back on the Sour Patch Kids," she thought, noting the empty bag that formerly held a lot of sugary-sour goodness.
She stared at the 'Submit' button for a few more minutes before tentatively moving her mouse.
"Click," went the mouse.
At that very moment, Jane Baker disappeared in a cloud of blue smoke.
The next thing Jane saw after clicking the 'Submit' button was total darkness. She was sprawled rather inelegantly on the ground, but she wasn't quite sure how she got there. She certainly hadn't put herself there and she hadn't fallen—or, she admitted, at least as far as she knew. She rubbed her eyes, as though it would make a difference in her perception of the world.
She opened her eyes.
She was somewhat bewildered, to say the very least. After all, she was sitting alone in a very dark room on the floor with no recollection as to how she ended up on the floor or how the room got to be so dark.
She placed her palms flat against the floor in an attempt to raise herself. The tiles felt cool and slippery against her palms.
There were no tiled floors in her apartment.
This revelation was more shocking than the realization that she was on the floor. She tried to take a calming breath to quell her growing sense of panic. It came out as more of a breathy whimper. She didn't know where she was or how she got there. And 'there' was pitch black, tiled, and definitely not her apartment.
Jane was precisely two seconds away from screaming when something flickered at the corner of her eye. A long wisp of fog rolled lazily across the floor, seemingly unaware of the panicked young woman. As if that single strand were a cue, other long and smoky tendrils began to form in random clusters. The darkness seemed to lift a little as the fog grew, which brought Jane some comfort.
The fog slowly began to move in bigger clusters, slowly covering the floor in a thick white blanket. Jane stood up and the fog swirled around her ankles. It was becoming progressively lighter and Jane was able to see more clearly. The tiled floor beneath her feet was colored in beautiful swirls of hundreds of shades of blues and greens, with an occasional spot of yellow. It reminded her of Van Gogh's Starry Night—her favorite painting. Her father had bought her a framed poster for her eleventh birthday and had hung it in her room, just above her bookcase. The swirling colors on the floor brought her a sense of comfort in a frighteningly unfamiliar place.
The tiles extended in every direction, ending only at the line on the horizon, and Jane suspected that they went beyond that. She felt it was all too fantastic to be real—this tiled landscape could not be something of the earth she was familiar with—in all likelihood, it was probably a dream. She dug her fingernails into her palms, expecting such an action to wake her and bring her back to reality.
She stared at the crescent red marks on her palms. She was frightened to admit it, but everything appeared to be very real.
"Where am I?" she whispered.
"Here. There. Everywhere," a voice replied.
She spun around, startled, her heart pumping in her chest. An old man with white hair and kind grey eyes was walking toward her, the fog swishing around his ankles. He wore a white suit, a white bowler hat, and white wingtips that clicked merrily against the floor. He tipped his hat at Jane, who stared at him, open mouthed.
"Wh-wh-who are you?" she managed to sputter after a moment of inarticulate garble.
"Me?" he asked with a smile. "I am the Supreme Guardian of All Fictitious Fiction about Original Fiction." The title made Jane's head spin. "But you may call me Roger."
"I'm Jane," she replied, somewhat dazed.
"I know—I've been expecting you, Jane Baker," he replied with a wink.
"Wait a minute," said Jane, rubbing her temples. "This is all too weird. I'm still struggling with the fact that this place is real."
"Oh, it's quite real, my dear," replied Roger. "Although we mostly deal with fiction, everything here is very real." He chuckled to himself.
"Where is 'here,' exactly?" asked Jane.
"This," said Roger, making a sweeping gesture with his hand, "is my office. When I was promoted, I told management I wanted a lot of space and that I didn't want to feel walled in—they took it a bit too literally. Of course, what do you expect? We are a literary organization." He chuckled to himself again.
"Why am I here, then?" asked Jane, rather confused by the strange old man.
"Existentially?" replied Roger.
"No, I mean in your office," said Jane. "I don't know how you know my name, why I'm here instead of home, and what your…department has to do with me."
"Ah! Precisely what I was going to tell you!" exclaimed Roger. "Let's sit down, shall we?" He gestured to a desk and two chairs Jane had not noticed before. The more she thought about it, the more she began to believe that the desk and chairs were not actually there when she last looked.
All this distortion of reality was giving her a headache.
"Have a seat, have a seat," said Roger, ushering her into the chair on the opposite side of the desk. Jane sat down and Roger took the remaining chair, placing his hat on a box marked 'Book Crooks.'
"Now, Ms. Baker," he said, removing a manila envelope and a pair of reading glasses from a drawer, "you and I are going to have a chat about Nightingales Sing Arias."
Jane's mouth dropped open.
"How did you know about that?" she sputtered after a moment.
"How could I not know about it? I'm the Supreme Guardian of Fictitious Fiction about Original Fiction!"
Jane stared at him blankly, still somewhat shocked. Roger's eyes twinkled.
"Or, more simply, the Supreme Guardian of Fan Fiction."
It was a few minutes before Jane could say anything.
"You're…the Guardian of…Fan Fiction?" she repeated.
"Precisely, my dear. I monitor, guard, and manage the entire world of fan fiction. All sections, all genres—they're all my responsibility," said Roger. "It's a wonderful job—and to think I almost went into business!"
"So…why do you need to talk to me?" asked Jane.
"We'll get to that in a minute—I'd like to talk about Nightingales Sing Arias first."
Jane nodded, too bewildered to question Roger any further.
"Now, myself and a panel of judges have reviewed your first chapter," explained Roger, removing several sheets of paper from the manila envelope. "We review all fan fiction after the moment the story is submitted. As a general rule, we don't publicize these findings, or allow the authors to see them—though some of the more mischievous judges will sometimes place an anonymous review. This process is kept to ensure the overall stability of fan fiction. It also helps me monitor fan fiction as a whole." Roger placed his glasses on the bridge of his nose and squinted down at the paper. "Now, the review is comprised of six sections. The first section is Grammar, Spelling, and Overall Mechanics. The Review Board feels that this category is one of the most important parts of what we call 'good' fan fiction—after all, brilliant ideas don't seem as brilliant when they're incomprehensible."
Jane bit her lip nervously. This was all rather intense for fan fiction.
"Don't look so worried, Jane," said Roger. "You did very well here. The Grammar, Spelling, and Overall Mechanics score is a twenty point scale; your score was nineteen and a half out of twenty, though that half-point was disputed." Roger looked irritated. "Sergeant Simile thought you had a comma out of place somewhere on the third page, but the rest of the panel thought it was acceptable. You can't go changing the Sarge's mind though—he's as stubborn as mule when it comes to punctuation—so we deducted half a point.
"The next section is Vocabulary. Your score on this section indicates the quality of your overall vocabulary used in your chapter and whether or not you used the words correctly. Vocabulary is a twenty-five point scale—your score was a twenty-five. Madame Malaprop was very impressed."
"Oh," replied Jane. "Er…well, thanks."
"You also did very well on Description, earning thirty points out of thirty. In Canon Accuracy—that is, how well canon characters and places are written and described and how true they are to their original nature—you earned twenty out of twenty-five. The panel suggests you review several passages marked in your manuscript.
"Now…these next two sections were…not your best," said Roger, looking at Jane over the rims of his spectacles. "On the Original Character section, we ran your character through a litmus test. Your score was a fifty-two—meaning your character is a full-fledged Mary Sue."
Jane looked at Roger blankly.
"Well…what do normal characters score?" she asked, having only a vague idea of what the 'Mary Sue' assessment meant.
"The range for normal characters is usually between zero and fifteen," said Roger.
Jane blinked, somewhat taken aback. She hadn't done well at all.
"Okay…well…this is going to sound stupid, but what does that mean?" asked Jane.
"Mary Sue is a term used for a kind of character reviewers will describe as a cliché," explained Roger, folding his hands on top of his desk. "She often is described as the perfect character—she is usually physically attractive and adored by all the main canon characters (in both platonic and romantic senses). Some authors are able to write wonderful stories using such characters, but more often than not, the clichés of the character manage to make their way into the plot and the story as whole becomes…well, unbelievable."
"A cliché?" questioned Jane, somewhat taken aback. "I thought that there was some original stuff in there…"
Roger chuckled good-naturedly.
"A common mistake in most new authors—we did find some original traits, but they were often overshadowed by elements of cliché," he explained.
"Oh," said Jane, feeling somewhat hurt—she had worked hard, after all.
"However, we will discuss this more in a moment," continued Roger. "The final section is the Plot. Your score in this section is based on the plot's originality, creativity, and overall believability. Your score on this section was a three."
"Three?" repeated Jane, somewhat dismayed. "Out of what? Ten?"
"Fifty," clarified Roger.
"Yes. Now, I know you must be a little upset," said Roger, patting Jane on the hands.
"Well, of course I am!" sputtered Jane. "First you take me to this…place and scare me out of my mind. Then you tell me that my story has absolutely no creative merit whatsoever! I think I have every right to be upset!"
"Now, Jane, calm down and I will explain everything," soothed Roger, removing a small box from his desk. "Truffle?" he asked, extending the box toward Jane.
"No, thank you," she muttered darkly.
"Suit yourself," said Roger, popping two into his mouth. "Now," he said through a mouth full of chocolate and nougat, "your score on the Plot section is not reflective of your skill as a writer. The panel feels that you have a great potential."
"Gee, thanks," she replied sarcastically.
"Your score," continued Roger, ignoring or not catching her sarcasm, "is reflective of two factors, the first being your character. Poor plot is often a side effect the presence of a Mary Sue." He paused to dab the corners of his mouth with a white handkerchief. "The second factor is that, by our count, you are the millionth person to write this story."
Jane paused for a second.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean," said Roger, "that you are the one millionth person to use this plot, this setting, and this character. Granted, there are some minor differences between your story and the nine hundred thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine others, but the general idea is all the same. So it's technically not your fault."
"Then why am I here?" demanded Jane.
"The panel feels that the phenomena of similar characters, plotlines, etcetera, has become a problem for the fan fiction world at large," explained Roger. "We decided that the millionth person to use the Elrond's-adoptive-rebellious-but-sweet-and-attractive-elf-daughter-with-the-voice-of-an-angel plotline would be brought here and charged with a task."
"What?" exclaimed Jane indignantly.
"It's in the Rules," stated Roger. "The Cliché Clause, page two thousand and twelve, section 758#GR, paragraph two: it is the will of the panel that the millionth person to use—"
"All right! It's in the rules!" snapped Jane, feeling more irritated by the minute. "But I don't see why."
"It is our mission," explained Roger, "to better the world of fan fiction. The rampant use of clichés has caused the panel as well as the readers of fan fiction great distress. Our intent for this task is to achieve greater quality of fan fiction through character and plot development."
"That's all very well and good," said Jane, "but I don't know how you'll get that done."
"That's where you come in," replied Roger. "Your task, Jane, is to develop your character and your plotline."
There was a pause.
"So…I just have to write a better character?" asked Jane.
"Oh heavens no!" exclaimed Roger with a hearty chuckle. "That would be too easy. No, you must go into your fan fiction with your character and develop her from there."
"What?" exclaimed Jane for the second time that evening. "That's impossible! You can't just enter fan fiction!"
"Anything is possible, Jane," said Roger with a wink.
"How am I supposed to do this? I can't just disappear—my family and friends will be worried sick, I've got a job, I've got rent to pay…"
"That has been taken care of," said Roger, waving his hand dismissively. "Your family and friends all think that you're on an extended vacation in Bermuda. The panel will take care of your rent. You will also be outfitted with the proper clothing and other such essentials."
"But…but…" protested Jane.
"There are two rules," interrupted Roger. "The first is this: only your character may know who you are, but she may not know your purpose. Secondly, try not to meddle with the plot too much. Some things can be changed (after all, it is fan fiction), but readership dwindles if you start changing things too drastically. I once read a story where the author gave Frodo the ability to change into a telepathic golden retriever and he had to destroy the Biscuit of Power and the Magic Toast of Kettleland. Dreadful story—and it wasn't even a parody!"
"I never agreed to any of this!" exclaimed Jane.
"Jane, this is something that is out of your hands. You have no choice in this matter," stated Roger. "Now, you're due to arrive in Middle-earth in," he looked at his watch, "thirty seconds. Your character, Aria, is expecting you. You're scheduled you to arrive a day or so before the Council of Elrond. Remember your rules and your mission. Good luck!"
"But I don't even know how to—"
"When in doubt, develop!" advised Roger.
And for the second time that day, Jane Baker disappeared into a cloud of blue smoke.
A/N: Just to clarify—I have nothing against Mary Sues. I just get strange ideas fairly frequently. Anyhow—review and tell me what you think!