Whenever I tell people that I am a writer, I usually get asked one of two questions: first, anything I’ve read? And second, how do you come up with what your ideas?
Now, as of this moment, the first question is fairly easy to answer—unless you are a reader of Captain Swan/Once Upon A Time fan fiction, then no. The second one is a bit more complicated, and thus is the topic for my post this week.
While I was working on my Bachelor’s, most of my professors gave us the same guidelines: of a certain page length, on one of the books/genres covered over the ten weeks of the course (I went to a University on the quarter system), and be original. It was the greatest four years of my life, academically, because there was zero expectation for us to use critical or secondary sources; if you could provide evidence and analysis directly from the primary text, then you were not penalized for not referring to academic authorities. However, when I started my Master’s program, all of that changed… Oh, the page length was kept, but not only was I expected to provide the opinions of established critics, I was told that “there is not original idea or topic”.
Frankly, I think that that’s rubbish and more than a little cynical, because people are constantly changing and evolving; and if there’s anything else I learned by being an English major, it’s that you can pretty much prove even the most absurd and ridiculous of things about a text. This doesn’t mean that each author is without influence when they sit down to write their next piece. After all, language is built on a foundation of shared knowledge, so it makes sense that the books which have come before will in some way influence those that follow. Take any work in the Western canon as an example—especially ones from the Nineteenth Century or earlier; almost all of them will contain at least one (but typically many, many more) quote from the Christian Bible. Because the Christian religion was such an integral part of society for hundreds of years, writers took it for granted that their readers would not only recognize those references, but that their imaginations would supply them with the surrounding story of the reference and that it would enrich or inform their understanding of the newer piece.
Does that mean that any new material created is unoriginal, simply because it hearkens back to something already established and known? This is one of the fundamental arguments which surrounds the debates on the literary merits of fan fiction today. Many scholars openly embrace the idea of fan fiction while others shun it as a fad and as a repository for terribly written and terribly uninventive word-slush. As per usual, I’m sitting on the fence (metaphorically, of course)—the world of fan fiction is just as diverse and rich as the world of published literature; some of it is absolute drivel that has me crying due to the number of grammatical errors, and some of it is so brilliant and inspired that I wish some of those “amateur” writers were the ones running the shows I watch. But one thing that I will take an absolute, firm stance on: it is not my job, nor any critic’s job, nor any other writer or persons’ of authority on writing to tell people that they should stop writing or creating fan works (or even printing their own). (And I have had friends who have written some pretty sub-standard pieces which they ended up essentially self-publishing.)
Because, while some people put more time or energy or effort into their pieces of fan fiction—just as some established writers put more research into their work—there’s no telling when and where literary gold will be struck. Example: Jack Kerouac supposedly wrote On the Road in a seven-day whirlwind of typing all on one long sheet of paper. I tried reading it once, and in the words of Grumpy Cat: It was awful! And yet, it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest American novels ever written. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury… another book considered to be a GAM was one that I couldn’t even get through the first chapter. I somehow managed to go my entire secondary, undergraduate, and graduate education without having to read either of those authors (or Steinbeck or Hemingway), but they were on “The List of Books to Read Before You Die” and I felt obligated to at least try them. And yet, I have gotten more enjoyment out of reading a whole bunch of amateurs than I ever found in some of the accepted classics of Western Literature.
Call me a populist or accuse me of having plebian taste all you want, I’m convinced that some of these paragons of the pen were simply full of their own self-importance and enjoyed writing nonsense just to see if they could get away with it. (Side-bar: I did enjoy Hemingway’s works, which I read for fun; I also am a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald; but I would rather submit to torture that read anything of Steinbeck’s… I read The Pearl in 7th grade and that was more than enough to sour me on him forever.) Or maybe I’m a bit of an old soul, because I prefer the cadences and often poetical phrasing to be found in some of the older works. However you choose to classify me, I would say that I’m always drawn in by good writing, an interesting story or angle, and a compelling character; and oftentimes, I don’t even know if I’ll like it until I’m right in the thick of the book and devouring each page. So, I look for those criteria in the pieces of fan fiction I read as well (and, hopefully, I manage to convey the same in the pieces I write).
But how do I come up with my ideas? The smart-ass answer is alchemy. The long answer is a bit complicated, but I’ll try and give you a sense of how I get started. My current work in progress, His Dark Beauty, started because of a picture—just two isolated images really of different costumes for the characters of Emma Swan and Killian Jones (released not long before the premiere of Once Upon A Time’s season three finale); as a fandom, we had no clue what these new costumes meant, but we definitely had our theories. Mine was fairly simple: somehow, Killian becomes a prince and Emma becomes a peasant. So, then I did some brainstorming.
Of all the bits and pieces of writing, brainstorming has to be my favorite part of the process. I write out, usually with the help of a friend and fellow writer, some of the possibilities… And I throw some pretty wild scenarios out there at first. I always love engaging in the brainstorming process with other writers, too, because by throwing a lot of crazy their way it helps them refine the characters or situations, it makes them find an answer to logically refute whatever it is I’ve put in their way. Brainstorming is kind of like the basket of ingredients given to contestants on the show Chopped—you never know what you’re going to get, and you never know how they are going to end up using some of the crazy. But watching something beautiful (or messy) come out at the end is always thrilling to see. It’s this bubbling cauldron of potential poisons and antidotes that you have to sift through and refine and tweak and worry over, hoping that by the end of the day you have something creative, delightful, and (relatively) wholesome to share.
Back to HDB. So, Killian is a prince and Emma is a peasant… How did this happen? In what kind of universe would these alternative versions of themselves appear? The next question, as I was dealing with a fan fiction, was how do I get their personalities to be similar to the way they are on the show now? First, I needed to decide how closely I was going to adhere to show canon in terms of crafting their character/characterization. This was very important to me because I wanted to start out with them being as true to their television selves as I could make them, while still dropping them in a different setting. Because, if all goes as it should with a piece of fan fiction, the characters will start to grow and evolve in a different direction; in novels, as in life, you don’t want your characters to remain flat and uninteresting, which means that they have to react and change as a result of these new scenarios and situations that you as the author have placed them in.
Another big decision was what to do with Henry. In the show, Emma has a son and gives him up for adoption; because I knew that I wasn’t placing the characters in our reality but rather in a fantastical one, I knew that an unwed mother would come up against resistance and clash with other characters in a way that I didn’t want for my Emma. Yet, Henry has a huge impact on the narrative, so not only did Killian become a prince in my version, he became a father as well. I also decided to flip the genders, because I liked the photonegative symmetry of the choice. Next, in order to create a socially isolated Emma, I chose to have both of her parents be dead at the starting of my story; a lot of thought and rationale went into this choice, and given the popularity of the Snowing ship within the fandom at the time, I knew it was one that might scare off a few readers. But ultimately, it also dovetailed nicely into my (at that time) vague and nebulous theme of an individual’s actions having consequences—this theme really solidified itself for me once the finale premiered because of Regina’s lines in that two-part episode, one delivered to Snow and one delivered to Emma.
And, to be perfectly honest, I started writing this piece as a bit of a smut-war/dare with another fic writer on Tumblr and fanfiction.net named Anja. I didn’t have all of the answers mapped out in my head yet (and there’s still plenty of stuff that I am still in the process of refining). But the more I thought about this version of these characters, and in many ways I now think of them and write for them as my own, the more I knew that I had hit upon something really worth writing well. I decided to go all in, and for me, that meant a lot of research and world building. Given the mixed reactions, I know that not everyone was pleased with my efforts—the immediate feedback you get as a fan fiction writer can be both a blessing and a curse, because the amount of negativity and nastiness that gets sent to you under the guise of “constructive criticism” can be incredibly hard on someone who is not used to it. But the more I think about it, the happier I am that I decided to take my time and put out the best work possible rather than simply wing it and publish as I went.
I do need to say that I am incredibly grateful to my followers on Tumblr and fanfiction.net (and Archive of Our Own) for their support and their enthusiasm for this story, because without them I don’t know that I would have had the courage to keep writing and aspire to make writing my profession. Don’t get me wrong: there’s still plenty of doubt and fear, but having a bunch of strangers who have become friends validate what you are doing is an absolutely powerful and amazing experience. So, for those who have been patient and continue to be patient, thank you! I hope that I can continue to make you proud. And to anyone who is new to my world, thank you for taking a chance on (BF) Geek Girls! Telling stories and entertaining people is our passion, so we hope that we’ve brought a little brightness and a little creativity into your day.
And remember, stay Geeky, my friends! —J.J.