Once Upon A Time...

Canon Fodder

Ah, the joys of writing for a 'living' series...

by LJC

Once upon a time, I only wrote fan fiction for "dead" (i.e. cancelled) television series.

This was back in the Palaeolithic era, when we communicated via smoke signals and stagecoach. That is to say, when print fanzines were the only way you got fiction, and they came out once a year at MediaWest or some other convention. This was back when e-mail was something only students, librarians, and government employees seemed to have, and the earth's crust had not fully cooled. My life was simple, then. Easier by far. You fell in love with a show, you watched all of it, you took notes, you got ideas, you wrote them down, taking great care that what you wrote fit seamlessly into the series canon.

When you wrote for a series that had finished its run, you didn't hold your breath with each new episode, waiting to see if it would blow your story apart. This is something that comes with writing for a 'living' series, i.e., one that is still in production. There is a level of "acceptable risk" that authors and readers are familiar with and by their very nature must take into account, when it comes to fiction written while a show is still on the air. And this isn't exclusive to fan fiction--the pros have the same problems, pitching tie-in novels. However, they have one benefit that the rest of us poor fan folks cut off from the insiders don't have: the Powers That Be will generally let a professional tie-in author know if the story they're pitching is close to or will be rendered apocryphal by an upcoming script.

Every spring and summer, as the season finales air, we hold our breathes, wondering "Will they completely bugger my story?" as season finales are wont to do... Come June, many fan writers gear up for a summer of writing, having waited until they had that three or four month break before the whole race to the canonical finish line begins anew. Used to be, if you wrote fiction between seasons during the hiatus, you fully expected that later episodes might contradict yours. The cycle took a year or more, but you and your publishers and your readers took into account, and if you picked up a 'zine published between first and second season, and the show had just finished airing its seventh, well, you adjusted accordingly.

However, the immediacy of the internet has changed all that. As the volume of fan fiction has increased a hundred-fold, the timing has become crucial, and stories are literally being turned out so fast that something written after the first episode is suddenly "alternate universe" by the sixth. It's become so common as to be the norm in many on-line fandoms. The current generation of fan readers and writers often don't bat an eyelash, because that's the familiar, comfortable world they know. Of course, we dinosaurs tend to open a story and if the disclaimer reads something like "Alternate Universe that picks up after episode four, where Doyle never died, and Cordelia and Doyle have been dating for a year and Riley never happened, etc." we tend to drop it like some kind of diseased fruit crawling with maggots. But hey, that's just a brontosaurus talking... And maybe a couple of early primates. And I think I see some Classic Trek fans crawling out of the primordial ooze over there who are nodding their heads at me... You get the picture.

Let me give you a real world example... Right now (this second, in fact. I have it open on my desktop, hidden behind the Lotus Notes screen that's reminding me I have real work to do), I'm writing a novella. I started it in December, and had hoped to have had it finished by the end of May. It's an Angel story, set during the week between Christmas and New Year's. It's a sweeping epic of love, loss, ice-cream, and a shirt from another dimension. It's my baby, and I spent three months doing nothing but slamming my head against the wall until I bled, working out the plot. Then right about March or April, spoilers start trickling down the grapevine to my ears. Spoilers about Angel's season finale; spoilers about what they intended to do to Zan and Jayna, the Deus Ex Machina Twins (that's the Oracles, for those of you who haven't been around me since I Will Remember You) and gosh darn it if it didn't sound awfully similar to what I was planning to do to the Oracles.

So, I waited. And I was both pleased, because the episode was right in line with the logic I had assumed in my story, and annoyed, because since my story won't be out until later this summer, there will be folks who assumed I ripped the idea off from the show. But I figured that was an acceptable risk. Not unlike the resigned acceptance I have of the fact that a story I wrote ten days before Parting Gifts aired had the exact same dialogue, verbatim even as the tease of Parting Gifts. The email I receive on that story now, for example, compared to before the episode aired went from "Oh my God, I can totally see this scene! I wish the show had done this!" to "Why did you re-write the tease of Parting Gifts?"

Note that resigned acceptance. Note the stiff upper lip. Note how I'm not ripping something apart with my bear hands, to satisfy a primal urge to destroy something and purge the violence from my system. Gosh, I'm stoic.

So the question becomes short-term versus long-term. Do you wait to write the story you want to write so that you at least have a season's worth of episodes to work from? Or do you write as you go, and risk your work being dashed upon the rocks of canon, and hope your readers take that into account as that story is read months and years into the future. Do we take to dating our work, or adding author's notes, explaining when the story was written as well as when it's set? Or should we just throw in the towel, and only write for "dead" series, because it's safe?

The answer, of course, varies by author. Some authors do only write for series that have finished their initial run. Some authors see the risks as acceptable, and will even go back and re-write earlier work, so that it jibes with series canon. And some authors write what they write, canon be damned. There is no "right" way, although authors should always take into account their audience, and be aware that in the world of fan fiction, most fans pick up a 'zine or novel or story expecting to see the same people they see on the screen, and will judge your work according to how closely your universe parallels the show. Sure, we all treat ourselves to a little "alternate universe" fun every now and again--but few make a steady diet of them.

Just some food for thought, as we enter the three or four month break from first-run episodes, and write like fools, and pray that the season premiere doesn't blow us out of the water.

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