Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Ethics of Reworking Fanfiction: An editor’s opinion


Addendum:



Due to the amount of confusion that has stemmed from the blog post below, as well as the mischaracterizations of the opinions expressed within it, I have decided to include this addendum.  My hope in writing the article was to simply encourage writers of fanfiction to find creative ways to turn fanfiction into original fiction.  Unfortunately the article has now been quoted out of context and misconstrued on several other blogs.

Also, some of my opinions have been attributed directly to Dreamspinner Press.  Dreamspinner Press did not endorse the article or the opinions expressed therein, as the article expressly states.  Any attempt by others to directly attribute my opinions stated within the article to Dreamspinner Press is simply another mischaracterization.

I have realized upon re-reading my original post - considering some of the criticism that has been voiced - that some of my ways of phrasing things were not entirely clear.  I should not have used the word “we” anywhere; I was speaking from my own perspective and offering my own personal opinions on the subject, not as a member of Dreamspinner Press.  What I intended while writing this was the encouragement of creativity and originality, which I frequently see in many works of fanfiction, particularly Alternate Universe (AU) and celebrity-based fiction (RPS) for those of you familiar with the genre.

Many writers begin with inspiration drawn from existing works, which leads them to create genuinely original plots, stories, and characters.  I don’t think such stories need to be thrown out simply because they were originally conceived as part of a fan’s homage.  There is some good creative work in the fanfiction realm that I think should be encouraged.

I had no intention of telling people how to “disguise” unoriginal characters and storylines.  That said, there are many common tropes, stock characters, and settings which exist across wide swathes of creative fiction, movies, and television, that do not belong to any individual person and to which no one can claim intellectual property rights.  I intended to encourage writers to use their fanfiction as a jumping off point, but ultimately to create their own characters and stories.  Writers should take their original inspiration and build on it to turn their fanfic into a fully and completely unique and original piece that no longer has any fan references.  In the work I have done and currently do in reviewing submissions, I have no interest in any piece that bears any substantial similarity to another’s work, or that could be viewed as copying or replicating someone else’s creative ideas.

If I expressed these thoughts poorly, it was because I conceived of this as an informal blog post, not as a formal opinion, and certainly not any sort of statement about Dreamspinner Press’s policies.  Again, I apologize for my imprecise language and the confusion it has created.


Julianne Bentley


Photo credit: Louisa Stokes

One of the many quirky and interesting things about Dreamspinner Press’s staff is that many of us first discovered m/m romance through the world of slash fanfiction – “Harry Potter,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Supernatural,” and many many others.  In general, if a work submitted for publication was originally fanfiction, we’ll notice unless the author has done an outstanding job of removing every single little detail.  Now, don’t let that make you fret; we don’t discriminate.  A good story is a good story, and what a publisher cares about is whether the story can stand on its own, out of the fanfiction-universe context, and also have original enough characters and setting that no one gets in legal trouble.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the “ethics” of fanfiction, and while I can only speak for myself on this matter, I think that it boils down to ownership of creative materials.  A writer can’t steal/borrow obviously unique characters or worlds, but they can make their own; after all, there’s nothing outstandingly unique about tropes like an orphaned boy who stumbles into an exciting new world, a compassionate vampire, or a fantasy-world elf.  The key is to change enough of the details so that a non-obsessive fan won’t recognize it.  (An obsessive fan will recognize anything – even if sometimes they get it wrong. I once read a submission and would have sworn that it was Arthur/Eames from “Inception,” except that it was a novel-length story that was submitted less than a month after the movie was released, making it highly unlikely that someone would have seen the movie, thought about the pairing, and written a novel over 60k words so quickly.)

So yes, I think that it’s fine to cannibalize/rework your fanfiction and send it into a publisher.  Many of our authors work like that, and why not?  As long as you’re not infringing on anyone else’s creative material, use whatever tools you have to inspire you.  Tolkien and Shakespeare both borrowed from real historical events and folk tales; I think I once read an interview where Anne Rice said her character Lestat was modeled on the actor Rutger Hauer.  If they can do it, why can’t you?

All right, so now that you’re feeling good about turning your fanfiction into original fiction, let me tell you what I think it takes – making the characters and their world you own.  All of it.  If you’re writing a story about two guys who are hunting demons, and they have an “almost-brotherly” relationship, well, I’m going to catch that it’s Sam and Dean from “Supernatural.”  If your contemporary characters are both over six feet tall, from Texas, shockingly good-looking, and have parents/siblings/best friends who all share the same name and occupations as the real life family and friends of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, I’m going to notice – I read “People” magazine in the hair salon too.  You need to not only change the physical descriptions and names of the main characters, but the names and occupations of their friends, family, settings, etc.  I know this seems onerous, but it’s these sorts of details that I, as an editor, pick up on and that pulls me out of a story I approached as an original work.

Photo Credit: graur razvan ionut
So what do you need to do?  Let me spell it out.  First, come up with a new name for all of your characters.  If one of them is named Jack or Will, you can potentially leave it, but don’t leave more than one because someone will probably know that Jack and Will are from “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  Use the search and replace tool, but please go back and read through it afterward – I once saw a story where the character’s name had apparently been changed from “Jack” to “Dan” which resulted in the character “Daning off” a few times.  Hilarious, but kind of a give-away.  Also, beware of nicknames and names broken-off in the heat of the moment.  Second, look at the physical descriptions – what can you change that’s not important to the story you are telling?  Hair color?  Height?  Build?  Age?  Accent?  Any obvious physical tells, such as a lightning-bolt scar on the forehead?  Third, if you’re revising several works with the same characters, make sure your revisions are all different too – not always a young man with long curls paired with an older man with blond hair and an accent.

Finally, one of the most difficult aspects to alter is the world/setting.  If your fantasy-world shares some fairly unique attributes as one in a movie or book or TV show, it’s going to be difficult to strip off the fandom elements and replace them with something wholly your own.  Generally speaking, while contemporary settings translate just fine, anything too specifically sci-fi or fantasy takes more work to revise.  It’s difficult to get out all the elements that signify a “Star Trek” story, for example.  (Not impossible, though.)  A good question to ask while working on your revisions is “What other examples of this have I seen, other than my source?”  If it’s an element that has only been used once (or only once in an obvious way), you should probably change it.  If it’s a more general trope, go for it.

From a publishing perspective, what I think publishers don’t want to see is something that’s a screaming red flag of copyright infringement.  Publishers are fairly intelligent, well-read, pop culture savvy people, and they’re a diverse enough group that there’s a high probability someone will recognize your fandom (heck, they might even have read your story in its fanfictional incarnation).  That’s okay, but it means that your story needs to be revised a little more before they’re going to feel comfortable about publishing it; after all, if the submissions reviewer or editors recognize it, your readers/reviewers might too, and they’re going to be a lot more harsh about your brilliant Victorian-era detective Edmund Shamrock and his good friend Joseph Wilson.

Just in case I’ve given you a complex and made you feel insecure, let me take this opportunity to reveal that several of Dreamspinner Press’s stories started out their lives as fanfiction.  Some even by our best-selling authors.  I’d never “out” anyone by name, but rest assured that the author used someone else’s characters/world/personalities as the foundation for telling their own story.  That’s okay - the more alive a character or world is in the mind of the writer, the more alive and real it becomes for the reader.  It’s not a shortcut, and it’s not a sin.  It’s more common that you think, so go for it – polish up your old fanfiction stories, tweak and revise and make the details your own, and send them in!



Julianne Bentley is a member of the submissions team for Dreamspinner Press.   She’s also an obsessive slash fangirl with omnivorous tastes.  (Opinions expressed herein are not necessarily representative of Dreamspinner Press.)

19 comments:

  1. Nice. *has idea and scampers off to write it down*

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  2. Verra nice post.

    *Chants* *I wiill not rework my "Criminal Minds" fan fic and sub it to Dreamspinner.* *I will not rework my "Criminal Minds" fan fic and sub it to Dreamspinner*

    LOL.

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    1. Why not? Did I scare you? :)

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  4. I agree. As long as I cannot "see" the original fandom the book was written in, I am good as a reviewer (and reader) to buy that. Some of my favorite m/m novels started out as fanfic. *g*

    Great post!

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  5. Hi Julianne, thank you for your insight about turning fanfiction into an original fiction. I have a question, when your finish reworking your fanfiction into an original fiction and you query a publisher, should you mention that the story was previously published as a fanfiction? I'm thinking of reworking a Bleach fanfiction that is quite liked by some readers into an original fiction myself. Thanks!

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    1. Different publishers have different restrictions regarding "previously published" work. What I have often seen is authors remove or severely restrict the fandom version, so it's not in copyright violation. The terms should be spelled out in the contract.

      As for whether publishers want a heads-up at the very beginning... I would mention it at some point but maybe not before the story is accepted. ;)

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  6. Great question Cleon!

    And great post Julianne! Thankfully, I've only got one story that I want to make original, just because I like the plot, so it should transfer with little problem. *crosses fingers*

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  7. I've never had the urge to rework my fanfics for publication, but they were mostly shorts. I've read a couple of novels I would've never guessed for reworked slash if I wasn't told. The only thing the author kept were the character essences.

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    1. And sometimes that's what makes the characters so real - they were fully-fleshed out for the writer and that shows. :)

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  8. I haven't ever written slash or fanfic, but if I had I could see the allure of reworking it for publication. It's a lot of work to write anything. Once the hypothetical me had made the decision to jump from fanfic to original those slash pieces might look like diamonds in the rough for my purposes.

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  9. Definitely - everyone has different motivations for writing and for publishing certain things, but there's no reason to eliminate a story from the running if you publisher doesn't. :)

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  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Because I'm the worst blog admin ever, I accidentally deleted Ali's comment. She was gracious enough to send me a version, which I'm pasting in:


      "Onerous"? Character development, including the background and circle of friends that makes a character who is is today, is an integral part of story telling. The same goes for world building. Changing a few details of someone else's work does not create something original..

      We've all met characters we love and want to see more of. Anyone with an imagination can provide that for themselves. By all means, write your imaginings down. Share them with others. Gather feedback. It's good practice. But don't think putting words together in a pleasing way is what makes the story yours.

      And Publishers, if readers want fan fic, they know where to find it -- for free. At the very least, be honest. Tell the reader what they're getting before they lay their money down.

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. This is a thread that was, for the most part, dormant until DA linked its readers to it. Because the author is not a regular collaborator of C&D and not available to address new comments we have decided to not allow any more posts.

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