Once Upon A Time...

Enough alphabet soup!

by LJC

Once upon a time, Hotmail deleted all of a columnist's email, and she couldn't write the column she meant to. Apologies all those (three) of you who sent me responses on last month's column. Please, if possible, do re-send them and hopefully they will become fuel for next month's column...

In the meantime, time to tackle a new subject, I say! One that confounds and fascinates, gets the blood pumping, and tempers and intellect rise from their sleeping places to join in the music of discourse.

What has happened to the state of fan fiction that when one asks for story recommendations— good fiction, with strong plots, characterisations, and dialogue, the recommendations come back in code?

Help! I can't find good Trek fic!
Well, are you into DS9, TNG, TOS, or VOY? O/K? K/S? P/T? P/K? J/P? JetC? yadda yadda yadda ad infinitum....

Now, having written 'shipper fic for many a year, I have nothing against it.

But it's only one sub-genre. Where are the dramas? The comedies? The adventure stories? The bountiful variety that fan fiction is supposedly famous for? Why is it that, as an insular enclave, we have fed on our conventions to the point where someone asks where the heck the good fic is hiding, and the response ends up looking like it's in code?

Now, if you're writing for a series that say espionage—yet you yourself are no Tom Clancy, I can understand writing a Nikita or Man from U.N.C.L.E. story that instead of revolving around global terrorists, focuses about something you do know more about. Or if you are a Trek fan, but not a Science Fiction (or even Space Opera) writer, rather than creating an alien and/or anomaly of the week and spending days trying to get the technobabble just right, you would instead want to concentrate on life aboard a starship from the human perspective, rather than the warp core.

If, as a writer, all you are interested in is getting your star-crossed lovers together, I by no means begrudge you your existence. But what I wouldn't give for a solid story, with a well-thought out plot, that isn't a romance novel. What about a mystery? Or even horror? A steady diet of romance vignettes— many of which seem to have been dashes off in two days and suffer greatly from their too-brief gestation may I add—is like eating nothing but cream puffs for three days. After a while, you can't think of anything except steak and potatoes.

I am well aware that there are fan writers out there who write incredible stories, with well-crafted and engaging plots that do not turn on a first kiss, first intimate moment, first anything in terms of lips and hands and the like... But finding them has become like trying to pan for gold. You spend hours sifting through pans of pebbles, searching for those tiny gold nuggets, and sometimes you throw in the towel and just head home, frustrated.

I've borne witness to a phenomenon in the past few years. I saw Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres, a couple whom I had only ever read about falling in love, enter into a committed relationship on the series itself. I was ecstatic. Overjoyed. Thrilled, because after two years or reading and writing fanfic on the this very theme, the series was actually mirroring the fanfic at last!

And what have we seen since the advent of canonised P/T? The number of fan stories written and published (on-line, in any case. P/T seems to have not quite caught on with the off-line 'zine reading and publishing folks to the extent it has on-line) about the couple exploded exponentially, while the quality seems to have taken a decided downturn. Oh yes, the gold is there if you can find it. But it's buried beneath a mountain of dross that seems to grow larger every day.

And Trek fandom is not alone in this. Having discussed the matter with my editor and best friend, who has also been in fandom for almost 20 years, we came to the conclusion that something got slipped into the water in 1994 or so. Some time in the last five years, we (the majority of on-line fan writers and readers) narrowed our focus to the detriment of the literary-sub genre of fan fiction to the point where newcomers to this fertile field seem to believe fanfic is nothing but relationship-centred fiction.

I have no problem with a story having a romantic sub-plot, or two characters in a romantic relationship being shown engaging in a little slap and tickle, or what have you. The romantic sub-plot—or even close, possibly flirting friends sub-plot—can often humanise a story that is otherwise very plot-plot-plot-plot... it can make it charming and involving rather than just a solid story that's *not* as interesting. Character interaction is still key in a well-plotted story. But I'm tired of the romantic pairing being the sole focus. Even when I write 'shipper fic, I try to make sure there is more going on than boy and girl making googly eyes at one another for 7000 words. Whether or not I succeed (and I can cite a number of examples—mainly in Earth 2 and Disney's Gargoyles—fan fiction where I failed in this respect) is up for you, the reader, to judge.

So, getting back to the topic, what changed?

Can it be that genre TV (which traditionally had inspired cultish, smaller followings) such as The X-Files and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer becoming mainstream mega-hits somehow changed the way we read and write fanfic? Certainly the sudden accessibility-to-the-masses of the World Wide Web— which coincided for many people with the premieres of both series—brought fanfic to non-convention-going and non-fanzine-reading folks for the first time. Could the influx of mainstream fans have demanded (and simultaneously generated) more mainstream stories, typified by 'shipper romance fic?

And then there's simply the change in tone and focus of television in the last decade. If the 1980s were a time for genre action/adventure (The A-Team, Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider, Manimal, etc.) and action/romance (Remington Steele, Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Moonlighting, Shell Game, etc.), the 1990s seemed to have been about leaving all the (sometimes excessive) fluffiness behind, trading it in for drama as well as (sometimes excessive) gritty hyper-realism and angst (Miami Vice, Wiseguy, The Equaliser, Forever Knight, Highlander, etc.) and post-modern self-aware horror and science fiction (such as X-Files, Buffy, and occasionally the overly-praised Babylon 5—which seems a bloated monster that tried to combined the 1970s and 1980s adventures series with the dramatic story arcs pioneered by Wiseguy).

So, my answer to What changed? is three-fold:

    1. We changed. Fan fiction writers and readers up until recently had a higher median age (when I got on-line in 1992, there simply were next to no teenagers and pre-teens on the Internet. They hung out in gated communities like Prodigy and AOL, but had no access to the Internet itself until very recently), and the on-line community consisted primarily of college students, government employees, and librarians. No, I'm not kidding. And frankly, age and education really is a factor. Sorry.

    2. Television changed. Genre television is suddenly big in the main-stream, so that you no longer have only fannish people writing fiction, but mainstream audiences writing fiction. And that does tend to change the product—but in terms of quantity and unfortunately, quality (see my column of Nov. 18). And with mainstream popularity comes more mainstream plots and foci. Romance novels are the fastest growing literary sub-genre in publishing, and the appetite for them in the fannish community seems to have grown as well, as has the number of folks who are drawn to writing 'shipepr fic.

    3. Society changed. Prior to the 1990s (and again, ease of access to the Internet) or so, fan fiction was relatively unknown outside of fannish circles. Then suddenly it became the focus of countless magazine articles and television segments. We're still spotlighted as loveable freaks, but the fact that we're spotlighted at all has brought lots of folks to the table that would never have written fanfic otherwise.

But the pendulum must swing back to centre eventually. Right?


LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts