The Truth About Fanfic

I was lucky enough to be asked to participate in a roundtable discussion about non-linear fiction. We talked about tools for creating nonlinear fiction, how one decides what stories to tell, etc. At the end of the evening, I was asked for my opinion about fanfic.

To most people, “fanfic” is something written mainly by sad, nerdy teenagers who spend too much time fantasizing about their favorite fictional worlds, or by middle-aged women who have no lives apart from the quasi-pornographic books they consume in huge quantities. They write awkward, terrible prose about the character pairings they wish they could see, or the scenes they feel have been left out of their favorite books. But to limit your notion of fan fiction to those scenarios is to limit your understanding of what fiction is and how writing works.

The first stories people shared were of two kinds: recounting battles, or explaining nature. When talking about defeating enemies on the battlefield, or about hunting difficult prey, they gave their opponents glorious attributes so that their own victories sounded that much more impressive. These stories became myths and legends that many of us still recount today, and those myths and legends became the seeds of other stories. Before people developed the tools and the disciplines we know as “science,” they made up stories about the natural world to explain things whose origins or causes weren’t immediately obvious. Again, those stories became myths and legends, and went on to inspire generations of stories. The point is, these tales were created from observation of an actual event.

Later, people made up stories that were based on those original stories, rather than on the events in those stories. And more stories were based on those first stories. This was so common that the Bible itself says “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Putting aside the notion of recycled plots, there is the notion of how we teach writing. One of the most important things any writer can do is to read the works of others. Reading critically, with an eye toward picking out exactly how authors achieve the effects that move their audiences, is the best way to make one’s own writing stronger. So, it seems a little disingenuous to tell people “study other writers” and then denigrate them for trying their hand at similar writing. There are great writers out there, like Lois McMaster Bujold, Meg Cabot, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card who started out by copying authors who came before them.

At the end of the day, the writing we deride as “fanfic” is often just fiction written by someone whose name you haven’t heard yet and whose literary influences are particularly identifiable. Does that make it unworthy of critical attention? Absolutely not! How are the great writers of tomorrow going to learn their craft, if not at the feet of the great writers of today?


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She is the author of many derivative short stories, and still reads under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime. 

The MFA Debate: What Are You Bringing to the Table?

Get any group of writers together, and sooner or later, you’re going to hear some version of The MFA Debate. Does going through the exercise of getting an MFA make a person a better writer? Does it make their work more valuable? Is is a way to guarantee writing success? We’re going to look at those questions in the coming weeks, and we’ve invited some guest bloggers to weigh in. I’m going first, though.

What Are You Bringing to the Table? 

When I started to apply to MFA programs, I had to ask my writing friends for letters of recommendation. I’d been working in and around writing for more than a decade, and my friends were more than happy to help me out – except one. In his refusal, he told me that he believed that MFA programs are all pyramid schemes that do nothing but train up more writing teachers who must, in turn, fill their own programs with unwitting dupes.

It turns out that my friend had gotten an MFA from a good school many years earlier, and all he had to show for it was a single novel-length manuscript that he finally finished years later and never (to my knowledge) submitted anywhere. He felt that he had wasted all this time and money on something that would never be more than a hobby for him. It made me start thinking very hard about exactly what I was looking to achieve with my degree.

I realized that, in addition to helping me hone my writing by giving me some better tools, I was looking for community. Too many times in the past, I had reached out to people on various message boards, in Facebook groups, etc., trying to build a community of writers who were not just interested in sitting around in coffee shops and doing the typing part of writing, but who were willing to look critically at each other’s work, and give suggestions about where that work could be marketed. Every time, those groups crumbled because people were too busy to make the writing a priority.

When I got to school, I made it my business to meet people. I joined the staff of the literary magazine, I joined the Facebook group so that I could keep up with my widely-scattered low-residency MFA peeps while we were all at home, and I participated eagerly in our online discussions. Now, a year and a half after I’ve graduated, I’m running an online workshop group with some of my fellow graduates and I’m still actively engaged in the community.

I am a firm believer in the value of an MFA program, but only for those who understand up front what there is to be gained – and, more importantly, what you have to do on your own.


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press and NonBinary Review. She received her MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and does all her work while binge-watching murder mysteries. 

Living Out Loud

This coming Saturday, editor Allie Batts and I will be reading at the Drunk Monkeys/Kleft Jaw event in Long Beach, CA. Allie and I have attended and participated in hundreds of readings over the years, but I know quite a few writers who don’t read their work – not in public, not in private, not anywhere.

And yet, just about everyone who dispenses writing advice will tell you that reading your own work out loud is an invaluable tool for making your work as strong as it can be.

You can click through and read all those other articles that will outline for you why reading aloud will help you identify and correct rough spots in your own writing, so I’m not going to waste time elucidating that. What I am going to tell you is what it can do for your ego and your audience.

  1. Everyone thinks their own voice sounds strange. But once you get over the weird, you can listen objectively for intonation, cadence and vocabulary. And with time, you’ll begin to appreciate the wonderful instrument that is your own human voice. Who doesn’t want another reason to feel good about themselves?
  2. Dramatic reading is a thing. If you’ve listened to enough audiobooks, you know that there’s a huge difference between a competent reading and a really inspired reading. Great voice actors use different tones, accents and cadences to mark out different characters. They pace their reading to give dramatic scenes more tension and make descriptions come to life.
  3. Reading out loud makes you friends. When my kids were little, I would bring a book to restaurants so that I could read to them while we waited for our food. They loved it, other patrons loved it, the waitstaff loved it. Kids from other tables would want to join us to hear the story. Nowadays, when my kid is trying to memorize something, she recites it out loud to me while we’re out running errands or out for a meal. And it still never fails to draw a crowd.
  4. Finding venues to read your work expands your network and helps you get published in more places. Once you’re out of the Big Five, the world of small, independent presses is very small. It’s one of the phenomena that makes AWP less intimidating and scary. The very talented writers that we’ve published in NonBinary Review and Unbound Octavo are also editors at their own small presses who have published us and other people we haven’t met yet but will soon, and those people are likely editors at yet other small presses. If you get out in public and let people hear you, those people will know that you’re someone they want to publish. The bigger the audience, the more editors and other writers you’ve made aware of your work!

You may have rationalized not reading – you don’t need to do it, your work is fine. Your work sounds better when somebody else reads it. You don’t work in a genre that works when read aloud. But they’re just that – rationalizations. Excuses for not getting your writing to where it could be. And it’s a shame, really, because I would love to hear your work.


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind NonBinary Review. She is a writer who specializes in making people uncomfortable and has serious conversations about syntax with her dog, Dalziel. 

The Importance Of A Balanced Diet

Just as it’s normal to reflect on one’s mortality after the death of a loved one, it’s normal to reflect on the state of publishing and the literary world after AWP.

One of the popular topics of conversation at every AWP is the VIDA count – a sort of scorecard of how many women are being published and hold editorial positions at various publications. Places like The New Yorker continue to underrepresent women both as authors of the pieces they publish and as authors of the books they review, whereas Tin House, which was slightly skewed toward men in 2010 has achieved parity by 2014.

Gender parity in publishing is the kind of issue that provokes such strong feeling that it’s creating a schism that might destroy the Hugo Awards, with Connie Willis declining to present and authors declining nominations. There have been other venues where white, heterosexual men have felt that the inclusion of more people who are not them is some kind of discrimination against them, and their cries of “Unfair!” baffle those of us who have been fighting for some kind of level playing field for so long.

At one panel on women in editing, a woman in the audience gave an anecdote about a middle-aged white man in a class saying that he now felt discriminated against, since so many publishers publish only women, or only people of a specific ethnicity, or only people who identify as genderqueer. She wanted to know how to gracefully respond to that man. Most of us in the room nodded our heads, because that feels like the conversation we’re all having in one venue or another. If we don’t include heterosexual white men they cry discrimination, but if they don’t include anyone else, they claim it’s because no one else measures up.

When I had my first kid, I fed her all sorts of stuff – sushi and tofu and weird vegetables – and she developed a taste for all of it. She would try just about anything, because that’s what she had been accustomed to. I know of other parents whose children will eat nothing but chicken nuggets or mashed potatoes, and so they feed their children nothing but chicken nuggets or mashed potatoes and figure that they’ll deal with the consequences later.

That’s exactly what’s happened to the literary canon – as school kids, we’re fed the chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes of heterosexual white male literature and told “this is what’s good and important.” It means that when we encounter a chayote squash or a star fruit, we have no idea how to approach it, and therefore reject it as not being as good as what we’re used to. Never mind that both chayote squash and star fruit are more nutritious than chicken nuggets or mashed potatoes, or that their delicate flavors demand a little more attention to appreciate – most people will never know, because they don’t even see those things as they’re making a beeline toward the chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes.

This is not to say that nobody should ever have chicken nuggets or mashed potatoes. This is only to say that there is a wide world of other things out there – from paella and tiny presses that publish the most esoteric, hard-to-read experiments to arugula and imprints of huge conglomerates that publish names you just haven’t heard yet – that one can incorporate into one’s own literary diet. And yes, it means that in some places, white heterosexual men won’t be first in line when they’re handing out bylines or book reviews, but it’s not like they won’t be in the line at all. With more books being published than ever before, and more than 7 billion people on the planet, I think there’s room for everybody.

lise-quintana


Lise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press, the author of a considerable number of short stories, and the kind of person who will put jalapeño tabasco on just about anything. 

 

AWP: Obliterator of Intentions

I went to AWP with the best intentions – I’d see every booth and table at the book fair, I’d attend every panel even tangentially related to my interests, I’d hunt down all the authors I like and make them sign stuff, I would hang out with friends I don’t get to see very often.

Well, I got to see most of the book fair, and I hung out with friends (both old and new), and I even saw a couple of panels, but let’s be honest – AWP is BIG. Like a lot of writers, I’m an introvert, but I’m also the head of a small press and someone who’s deeply interested in the intersection of writing and technology. How do you find others of your kind, network on behalf of your business, and let people know you support their work without making yourself crazy?

Here are a few of my own strategies:

  • Have enough business cards. You don’t have to spend a lot on them, because nowadays, people will only hang onto your business card long enough to get the information into their phones, but having them is key. And while you’re at it, have a pen handy so that when someone hands you theirs, you can jot down why you want to contact them later.
  • Liquor is a wonderful social lubricant. Have a drink with a new friend at the overpriced venue bar. Bring a flask and offer a drink to a nervous speaker. As long as you don’t overdo it, liquor can be a conversation starter, a way to bond with people, and take away just enough anxiety to allow for that first “hello.”
  • Say yes anytime someone asks if you want to do something. “Do you want to put this rubber mask on your head and pose next to a cardboard cutout of a mountie?” YES. “Do you want to try this tiny letterpress?” YES. “Do you want to explore this interesting landmark on the other side of town?” YES. Don’t let swag be the only thing you bring home from AWP – take some chances, do some goofy stuff, make some fun memories.
  • Compliment people. Tell the editors at your favorite publication that you like them. Congratulate all your author friends on their publications (which you should also buy and read). Let people know that you love their writing, the way they dress, the fact that they are alive in the world. Make AWP your chance to bond with your tribe.
  • Know the signs that mean you’ve had enough. I’m still bad at this one, but an inability to process what I’m seeing, a feeling of profound fatigue, irritability and apathy are all signs that I’m done. I need to head back to my hotel and have a little down time so that when I come back, I’m ready to embrace the Disneyland-scale crazy of AWP.

If you’re an introvert who went to Minneapolis this year, how did you handle it? What advice to you have for the first-timer? What essential do you recommend everyone bring?


lise-quintana

Lise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She is a fiction writer, head of a publishing empire, and owner of a legendary collection of taxidermied houseplants. 

 

 

2015: Year of the Poet

One of the pre-AWP rituals is the viewing of the schedule, where you try to balance going to the enormous book fair with getting to see all your friends and literary heroes at their panels, readings, and events. As I perused this year’s offerings, looking (mostly in vain) for electronic literature-themed panels that are about more than just letting grade school students use computers, I noticed that there were an awful lot of poetry events. More than I’ve seen in previous years. Which meant that if 2014 was the Year of Craft and Letterpress Books, 2015 is the Year of the Poet.

About time, too. While I myself am a fiction writer, I know lots of poets, and what I know is that good poetry requires a level and type of discipline that longer forms don’t. I’ve written in other venues about my search for what I call the “pixel of narrative” – the smallest fragment of text that can contain narrative meaning. I don’t think that it can be the word, because nearly all words carry multiple meanings and so rely on other words for context. The miracle of poetry is the poet’s ability to exploit that multiplicity of meanings to convey layered, nuanced, surprising imagery with a very small number of words.

Are you a writer of both prose and poetry? How does the one discipline inform the other? What do you get from each one? Tell us!


lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She is a fiction writer, software mogul and the sort of person who can totally pull off pairing plaids with polka dots.