So, for my Advanced Composition class this semester, I got to write three projects of my choice. my first project, written back in the beginning of October, was a memoir piece with bits of research mainly exploring my relationship with fan fiction, especially Pirates of the Caribbean. Fan Fiction Ruined My Life and Fan Fiction Saved My Life were vital to this, and I thought it would be nice to share this with you all to show you how I get top marks on papers as a nEnglish major. :) I hope you enjoy it and take something from it at the same time. This is my story - I could only wish it were fan fiction. PS - thanks to those of you who contributed to the paper by answering some questions for me! I cited you but took them out when I posted this. You know who you are!
x x x
This Isn't the Movies - This Is Fan Fiction
I met Captain Jack Sparrow on Saturday, March 20, 2004. He was sauntering about my living room with a roguish smirk, a bottle of rum, and an enticing mystique accentuated by risk and reward. Sufficed to say that after the onset of intense, unexpected infatuation, he stayed in my room where I delved into his thrilling escapades repeatedly in lieu of doing Algebra homework. He was my new best friend. I didn't feel like a quiet, overweight fifteen-year-old with a nonexistent social life anymore. In fact, I couldn't be bothered with trying to fit in; I was too busy being a pirate now. Yes, Jack and I were inseparable for the next four days until we had to return him to Hollywood Video.
I was upset to say the least, but my mind was still alight with this fantastic new world I had been introduced to. I felt, to some inexplicable degree of reasoning, that I belonged there, that I mattered more than I was ever accustomed to being. I fell asleep that night thinking about how funny it would be if Jack Sparrow were mistaken as a substitute teacher for my Algebra class. Then I might have a shot at passing.
When a friend from camp reunited me with Jack after several months of separation, what my mom called a problem, I called creative inspiration, and everyone else called strange intensified tenfold; he was back, and he was my consultant for absolutely everything. Jack kept me sane despite my mild mannered passiveness being a stark contrast to his impulsive antics, and we complimented each other nicely. The voice of reason and the imp of the perverse – partners in crime reunited at last.
My notebooks were filling fast. I was writing down all kinds of bizarre, altruistic adventures starring myself and my muse, and they just kept coming. My mom got curious when I broke my routine of opening the Internet as soon as I got on the computer after school; now, I was pulling up Microsoft Word and typing immediately so that I could post new chapters online for others who enjoyed reading my exciting tales.
"Fan fiction? What's that?" Her face was twisted, and her tone was condescending, like I was doing something wrong. It pricked my nerves to have her view something so negatively that made me happy when she didn't even know what it was. I was too embarrassed to explain. Writing up stories about bringing a pirate to school? What was I thinking? She told me to do something normal kids do and to go clean my room before my dad got home.
'Normal'? My mom liked to try to enforce the adjective on life in our little family and social networks, but I didn't fit the bill. I could not contain my inner pirate (or, as my mom called it, teenage hormones), but I was still not keen on sharing my work. So, I was still going to hang out with Jack as much as I could, but he was going to have to lay low. My fan fiction was very personal anyway, like a journal on fantasy-induced steroids. It was my secret to keep, a tool that allowed me to steal away to an alternate reality that I could control and that I loved far more for that reason alone – I controlled it.
I told no one around me about my stories lest they thought I was horribly flawed like my mother's initial reaction indicated. No, the only people who appreciated the time I spent writing fan fiction were the online authors and readers like me from all around the world at , the largest online archive of fan fiction. They were all, for the most part, teenage girls who had written an array of their own stories about being part of the movies, Elizabeth ending up with Jack or Norrington instead of Will, or the characters in the present day living as roommates, playing Truth or Dare, or attending high school. The possibilities were endless, and I loved it. I had the power to change endings, have characters make different decisions that affected the plot, introduce an original character of my own into their universe – it was all up to me and the thousands of others who adored this Pirates fandom so much that we elongated the happiness it brought us by continuing to write to every limitless corner of the realm our imaginations could conceive.
I had found an oasis. There was an overwhelming sense of relief in being exposed to this odd, secure community of people who obsessed over movies, books, and shows so much that they spent all of their time writing up unique accounts of them. One author, Anubhuti, known by her pen name Sentinal Sparow on , seemed to sum up exactly what I had been looking for:
[B]eing part of the writing community gives you […] a sense of belonging. Ever since I started reading and writing fan fiction and found out all the different terms that are used by writers, I felt like I was part of a secret world where I was free to be whoever I wanted to be, where I was accepted despite my dysfunctional obsession with unreality, where people understood it, even.
Yes, I was in the right place with these misfits and outcasts, as well as accepted by them. At first, I was leery of the idea of associating myself with these eccentric authors, but Jack wasn't going to let me pass up this 'opportune moment.' He put his hand over mine and guided the mouse to the 'Register' button where I chose a pen name, a password, and was officially documented as a member of the fan fiction community. While I knew it would be a rewarding experience to be a member of this community, I knew I had a lot to learn about what it meant to be a part of it.
My first fan fiction took me three months to complete, and it was about Jack, Will, and Elizabeth running around with me and my two best friends in the twenty-first century. At the time, I thought that if I loved it, everyone else would, too. Not so true in fan fiction community. At , authors are able to submit reviews to stories to provide feedback, praise, or criticism. A correlation was evident in comparing the number of reviews your story had to its popularity on the site. My first story of twenty-seven chapters had fifty-seven reviews, or approximately two reviews per chapter. I can see why now: the story was nothing but inside jokes, a plethora of exclamation points, and no plot until chapter nineteen. Not very impressive for a rookie, but as I improved over the years – writing eye-catching summaries and titles, hashing out plots beforehand, writing stuff people wanted to read – my stats were shooting up. My most recent Pirates story, though incomplete, has nineteen chapters and 232 reviews (twelve per chapter). Stories that I had written for other fandoms had even more reviews; one of my one-shots, a one-chapter story, had sixty.
While this was one of the most welcoming communities of which I had been a member, they had demanding expectations that, to a novice fan fiction author, were intimidating, scary, and downright soul-crushing. There were strict attitudes and opinions towards poor grammar and punctuation, senseless plots (or lack thereof), Mary Sues ('the perfect girl' or 'overly flawed girl' in a story that plays the romantic interest opposite the author's favorite male character), canon characters like Jack who acted out of character for no reason, and unoriginal storyline approaches. I had every single one of these slip-ups in my first story which led to horrible feedback. They were demanding of these expectations that I had been called out on numerous times. But before I got too down and out over their blunt overreactions to my menial mistakes, Jack made the brilliant suggestion that I get a beta reader.
Beta readers were huge assets in the fan fiction community and to me as an author. Their purpose was to proofread another author's chapters before it was posted on the site, help the author generate ideas to overcome holes in their plots ("plot holes"), and to guide the author's story in the best direction so that it would be well-received by readers. This was typically done by email; I would write up my chapter, send it to my beta, and she would send it back with blue text scattered throughout, indicating the corrections and changes that she suggested I make.
More often than not, this was not a one-sided exchange. My betas would send me their works to edit and proofread as well, and this facilitated some very close friendships between myself and other aspiring writers over the years. Our emails were not just about our latest story ideas or epiphanies but how this cute guy asked us to Homecoming or details of our plans to go visit our out-of-state grandparents for Thanksgiving. It was a unique social experience as well as a rewarding partnership where we could watch each other grow into better writers that had gained invaluable skills and memories from one another.
Today, while email is still predominantly used for communicating with beta readers, has set up a system called Document Exchange (or "DocX") where betas can send files directly over the site. Not sure which authors are good betas or how to choose one? The site has taken the guess work out for authors in need by having site members fill out a beta profile separate from their author profile. The author's beta profile includes information such as which fandoms and genres the beta reader is specialized in, their experience in beta-ing, weaknesses and strengths, and what languages they can read. Authors new to the fan fiction community today still email me about beta-ing their stories even though I do not have a beta profile listed. But, when I have time, I am more than happy to help and offer them the advice I was given and learned as a fan fiction writer.
Forums and communities are also a great way to facilitate a cohesive relationship amongst other authors on . In a forum, authors can challenge each other to write a certain kind of fan fiction story with a set of guidelines, run polls to get opinions on which stories they should write, and have general discussion about the specific fandom. Communities, started by individual authors, are lists of compiled stories from a fandom with a common theme or character focus. Other authors may subscribe to the community if they would like to receive updates on the stories in the miniature archive. My works are part of several communities today, and I was an officer for one that one of my beta readers had set up. It is a great means circulating stories on the site to increase readership.
Obviously, my route of social networking was different from those who interacted face to face with their best friends everyday in the halls between classes. I was at a computer returning emails and writing in the library when I could slip away during lunch, meeting new authors from around the world everyday in my reviews, beta emails, or when simply browsing for a good read. For some reason though, as the years passed, I still couldn't expect those around me to understand why I was so keen to spend so much time with Jack. On occasion, I would accidently leave my notebook or binder of writing in the living room when I was sidetracked, and my mother would find it.
"You're still writing this stuff? There is seriously something wrong with you, girl."
"Why?" I asked when the voices of people like my mom's snagged my pirate garb to reveal it only as an old button-up of my Dad's and a strip of red cloth tied around my head. I would look at my notebooks and stack of rainbow floppy disks containing my adolescence with disappointment for myself curdling sickeningly in my stomach. There is so much good that comes from it, though, I would reason weakly, silently. Their negativity would cloud around me like a dense fog of disapproval, and I often thought that each time this fog set in, I was not going to be able to find Jack. But he would find me again somehow every time, hand me a pencil, and wink.
Jack even found me in what I considered my bleakest moment in my history of writing fan fiction. Other than pirates, I loved music in high school and decided to enter college in hopes of becoming a music education major. I had to perfect and perform an audition first, though, and I knew I wasn't paying enough attention to it because I was still writing fan fiction and original works that would assault my brain until I extracted them with a pencil or keyboard. So, in retrospect, it was no surprise when I received the letter informing me that I did not get into the music education program. My heart leapt to my throat, pumping tears to my eyes at the news. Not surprisingly, the first thing I did to pacify my ragged emotions that night was write.
It was a monster of a rant. I essentially blamed my failure on Pirates in the whole thing, reasoning that if I hadn't been so obsessed that I could've paid more attention to my audition pieces, had friends to eat dinner with, and not have been so awkward through junior high and high school. I concluded in this rant of mine that I was giving up fan fiction for good. And that's when Jack found me again; his voice appeared on the computer screen and argued with me, confused about why I had made such an outlandish decision. And he wasn't the only one – all of the other Pirates characters probed me with the same questions and confusion, conveying that they were stung by the fact that I was no longer going to be spending my free time 'hanging out' with them.
Well, my mind had been made up. Life came first from now on. Yet, by the end of the rant, I compromised to 'still visit', but only after I was done doing important things in my life, like picking a new college major. When I had finished writing this long rant in one sitting, Jack had nudged me.
"What?" I asked moodily. "I don't want to talk to you."
He smirked, nodding to the computer screen knowingly. "You've contradicted yourself."
I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously before scrolling to the top of the document to read what I had written.
Lo and behold, my rant about giving up fan fiction was indeed severely contradictory – it was a piece of fan fiction. Decidedly, it was the best I had written because of the pure emotion that drove its energy. I posted it to the website. My reviewers sympathized my situation as well as praised my writing.
That single piece of writing led to the revelation that was a saving grace for me: if it had not been for my extreme love of writing constantly about Pirates, I would not be an English major actively pursuing writing. I would have made the music department, having to deal with the overwhelming sense of disquiet, constantly feeling this agonizing void that only writing could fill. I even revisited the rant and wrote a second part. In it, I reconciled with the Pirates and thanked them for all they had done, including helping me to avoid making that big mistake. Some pros and cons of the fan fiction trade were clear to me after writing these two pieces, and I found that other authors have similar feelings on the issue.
It is easy to see why I love fan fiction so much. Firstly, I spent five years continually striving to better my techniques, form, and style to become a better fan fiction writer which has helped me become a better writer overall. Sure, you could do that with original fiction, but I enjoyed critiquing my writing skills in the company of my closest friends. Fan fiction, as aforementioned, also gives writers a unique community to be a part of and to participate in, allowing them to get involved and make many new friends with whom they know they already have something in common. Several authors that I have talked to also love that sense of detachment from reality when they write as well as the entertainment it provides. It is convenient as well to know that everyone already knows the basics of the characters in your stories, the world they reside in, and the storyline from which you are deriving your own work. Every writer needs feedback from people who know what they are talking about; who better to know the characters than the adoring fans? With so many people having such a vast expanse of knowledge about the story before they ever read it, I sometimes find it easier to write fan fiction than original fiction.
There would be no pros without cons sadly, and the biggest con is simply that fan fiction is addictive. So addictive, you can end up not passing your audition if you're not careful. Due to copyright restrictions, fan fiction is hardly ever published, so no one gets paid for indulging in these fantasies obsessively. Readers might also press you incessantly for updates and demand perfection right off the bat, but take your time by getting to know the fandom you write for by reading others' works (no plagiarism!). There is also that looming cognition that fan fiction writing is completely strange and unacceptable by those around you that don't understand it, making you sometimes question if you should even write. Well, the answer is yes. You should write until your little heart bursts open and you can no longer lift another finger to type. The pros definitely outweigh the cons.
When I finally came to this realization, I was able to resolve my rocky relationship with my consuming hobby. While used to be a tab on my browser as soon as I clicked the icon to open it, but I still visit it from time to time and even get an occasional random review on my stories. I swore to give up fan fiction once, but I can't help but to write the occasional one-shot or chapter for a story I've neglected for months on end. I feel its lack of presence in my life somewhat sad now, like my own handwritten coming-of-age tale. I have friends on Facebook that were my fan fiction friends – authors, readers, reviewers, people I beta-ed with. And my notebooks and binders are all tucked safely in the top of my closet at home where I can pull them down to leaf through if I feel the nostalgic need to do so every few months.
Fan fiction shaped who I am today. Jack and I are still inseparable despite our little tiffs, and I would not be who I am today without the peril, chance, and possibilities he instilled in my life on that Saturday, March 20, 2004. My psychology major of a roommate says he's either my subconscious or my alternate ego. Well, no matter what anyone says, Jack is real. To make such a profound impact on my life, he deserves to be real, and he is. I made him real. Subconscious, alter ego, muse, call him what you will; I suppose best friends, in a way, are those things when we need them to be. They look out for you as they push you beyond your limits to better things, handing you a sword and encouraging you to give the world hell. Most importantly, they will always stay with you, even if you don't write that they do.
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