How FanFiction Changed My Life: A Personal Writing History

I wasn’t one of those children that carried home delicately bound paper books full of my stories from school. I actually hated Writing class because I was (undiagnosed) dyslexic and couldn’t pass a spelling test to save my life. So any stories I wrote before I started using a computer were scoured, discouragingly, with red marks and tossed shamefully in the garbage before my parents could see them.

It was clear I had a natural propensity for math and not writing. I still score better on a math test, even after all this time.

But I never learned to love math. Math bored me. It was stories that I spent my time with, my face lovingly pressed deep into the pages of a book. I carried around volumes as big as I was, always another story waiting to be discovered like a lingering adventure. So I read a lot as a child, but it never much occurred to me that I could create my own books until I was older.

So while, clearly, I couldn’t write as child, I had a great affection for stories. I diligently spent much of my free time (of which there was a lot, the daughter of a working, single mother and a commuter father) making a terrible, terrible comic strip called The Bigheads.

My propensity for drawing rivaled my ability to spell, in that it was horrible and mostly consisted of heads, shoulders, and arms (the hands always hidden behind their bodies, I never got the hang of fingers). The Bigheads was about a small family: a moronic, dopey father who was a professional baseball player; a quirky family dog, who sat silently judging like a laconic Garfield; and a moralizing, do-gooder daughter. I remember them all quite clearly–I spent ages shaping them in my mind, albeit my terrible drawings could never quite capture them as elaborately as they were in my head.

The Bigheads is probably still squashed away somewhere in my mother’s attic. I spent ages drawing them out in my rainbow-colored pens. They were probably my most successful project from Fourth Grade, if not ever…

In middle school I was finally tested into gifted and no longer spent my time in class sitting bored in the corner, passing tests without ever opening the text books. I finally found a creative bunch of weirdos I could call my own.

We did nothing simply. Dress-up became a full-on soap opera re-enactment. Soccer practice became a musical song-and-dance. Our lunches had to be served in a separate room from the rest of the kids or else they’d come up and rub our heads while we ate: they called it the Gifted Petting Zoo.

We didn’t pass notes, we passed notebooks. Between each class, each of us would sneak our notebook into the next recipient’s backpack and they would spend the whole next class scrawling a long-winded missive about Phillip’s hair or whoever.

I didn’t care for boys. How could I? I was always at least six-inches taller than the tallest boy in class, and I still held a grudge because they were the same boys who called me gay repetitively in elementary school. I only had one crush in middle school and it was mostly fabricated (most popular guy in school, I hadn’t even the patience to come up with a creative lie!). I didn’t write about boys in our notebooks.

So I made things up. Lola the Lizard who spent much of her time living in our English teacher’s ratty hair. That sort of thing. My most popular stories were a strange brand of Harry Potter FanFiction that depicted multiple, almost episodical, scenarios in which Harry started falling in love with Ginny Weasley (called it–sorry, my inner-fangirl will never get over that I TOTALLY SAW THAT COMING!). Eventually, these became so popular that I started getting my own notebooks and filling them with these terrible FanFiction romances, which were passed around school like a John Green novel.

I became known for these. Oh man, I’d cringe to read even a single one these days, but people liked them. We giggled over them in the locker room. Sometimes I pushed the boundaries into the elicit.

We also used to play this game in English where we’d write for a while and then pass our story onto the next person and they would continue it. By the end of class, we’d read them aloud. It was always known which parts I’d written, everyone would turn to me and laugh as I’d take a perfectly dull story and turn it into something absurd. I loved that feeling–making people laugh with my own strange thoughts.

One day before soccer practice, I remember it perfectly, I was at my friend Kelly’s house and, while her mom was otherwise preoccupied (she was a helicopter parent), she took me into the computer room and promised to show me something. It was a website devoted to Harry Potter FanFiction (this was back in the day, FanFiction wasn’t even a term yet). It was like my Mecca. It was just a trove of stories about Harry Potter, hypothetical later books (the series was only on about Four at the time), short stories, minor characters turned into major. This changed my life. It was like giving a twelve year old the key to changing her world.

It’s mildly embarrassing to admit that I started writing because I was a huge Harry Potter nerd. I was a Fangirl, plain and simple. I used to like to write myself into the books. Tall and awkward, I craved a place where I’d be accepted–maybe writing could be it?

I got carried away with the whole FanFiction thing. By high school, we’d all stopped passing notebooks, and Harry Potter had been replaced by Jane Austen. I had fewer and fewer friends and more and more stories. I finished novel-length works that were really just modern adaptations of classic novels.

I fed on reviews. I honestly believe that FanFiction was the perfect place to start for a young writer–hopelessly regurgitating the same plot, fleshing out classic characters over and over again. I can still repeat Pride and Prejudice to you scene-for-scene. I learned what a good story consists of by repeating these stories on message boards. I learned through reviews how people would react to every word I typed. I learned how to write on a FanFiction forum.

Eventually things morphed and I wasn’t even, without even noticing, writing FanFiction anymore. I was just writing. They weren’t from a novel updated or adapted, they were from my own head. Some loosely held the plot of the book I’d posted them in, but they were a whole new thing entirely.

I was becoming my own writer.

It’s weird that I still feel the burn of shame for something that took up so much of my time and childhood. I didn’t want to go to a party on a Friday night, I wanted to stay in and write FanFiction. I wrote it until around the time I graduated college, but I’m not sure I ever intentionally told a soul; every now and then someone would use my computer or look over my shoulder and I’d snap at them as if they’d just offended my mortal being (or rather glimpsed my biggest secret).

I was (still am?) really embarrassed about the whole thing, but, in a way, grateful. I am the writer I am now because FanFiction made me really passionate about sitting down and creating a story.

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Day Fifty-One: Could A Computer Write A Novel?

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Skipped yesterday’s blog because… Well, by the time I started writing a friend and El Novio showed up so we ate dinner instead. The good news is I did write a few 1,000 words which far surpasses what I’ve put in for the week prior to that. At least I’m no longer dragging my feet through the mud.

Anyway, during a very well-crafted meal of shrimp pesto (I am a cooking goddess) my friend asked El Novio about his work. El Novio is a computer programmer and very hush-hush about his work. I think he genuinely believes no one outside of another programmer would comprehend what he’s talking about, but it’s frustrating to try and pry information from him about his daily activities so I just assume he’s in an underground Fight Club and we move on.

However last night, as he does on occassion, he tries to put it in layman’s terms. Clearly, it made no sense (no offense, but he’s not always able to convey a simple greeting, yet alone complex programming). But I posed a question inspired by his over-simplified description:

Could you program a computer to write a novel?

(Or, to complicate this even more, could I enter a plot, a series of events and let it connect the dots? My own outline looks like an incomprehensible list of unrelated events. My job as a writer is to know how to unfold those events into each other.)

He says, “Short answer, yes. Long answer, it’s complicated.”

But while I actually believe that through computers anything is possible, I had to disagree (naturally, I’m a writer). While I think a computer can analyze words and stick them next to each other in a way that relatively makes sense, I don’t quite believe that through random idea generation or even linking two separate events a computer could write a good book. It could write a book, maybe even a comprehensive one, but not a good one.

A computer can’t tell you what it’s like to wake up on your birthday and find that no one you loved remembered it. It can follow grammar and find a meaning, but the thing that makes writers great are the connections between things that no one had ever seen before, the unique descriptions, the flawed sentence structure, the unseen plot twists. As a reader, my favorite part, is thinking that someone in the world was brilliant enough to create such a broad and whole story.

(Naturally we also discussed the idea that you put 100 monkeys at 100 typewriters and eventually you get Shakespeare, but I disagree with that as well. Shakespeare invented 1,000s of words with intention… A monkey can’t do that!)

So I thought I’d pose the question to you guys.

Could a computer write a book? Or, to make things more personal, could a computer write YOUR book?

Day Thirty-Three: Sad Stories For Children

I’ve had a blissful weekend disruption in which I didn’t even open my iPad or computer once. Le Novio visited for the weekend in my den of shame to help me finish my Harry Potter Marathon properly (also, to take his movies back because they were, in fact, his). I am sorry to have not blogged though.

I have been reading a lot of children’s novels lately. Naturally. I’ve done my best to submerse myself into this world. And I can’t help but think that children’s literature is a bit… bleak. I’ve read more terrifying stuff in the Juvenile section of the library than in some (emphasis on some) Stephen King novels.

I worked with kids for the past few years. Young kids. The oldest was five. They loved to make me tell the same stories on repeat. Mostly (because it was kill-me-now o’clock in the morning), this just meant I summarized Disney movies for them. That wasn’t so bad, except you can only tell the story of Cinderella so many times before you want to drill holes in your head.

So then I started making up stories. These were sometimes great, but mostly impossible. Because it’s hard to french-braid a wiggling three-year-old’s hair while creating a valid plot. Children are exhausting and brilliant and hilarious and horrible all at once. It leaves very little available mental capacity to try and keep up with that all day.

I read a bit of Harry Potter to the oldest and she was astute enough to understand, although our practice was always cut-short. Then one day the kids begged me to tell them story of A Series of Unfortunate Events (I had an old t-shirt with the orphans on it). I made it about halfway before their mother stopped me and told me it was too much for them. This struck a chord with me… I hadn’t considered the story too bleak. There’s a blatant morose element to it, but the overall theme is quite positive (the idea of children solving problems when the adults don’t even realize there is one; the Baudelaire’s always rescue theirselves).

After that incident, their parents decided they didn’t want me to tell their kids stories where the parents die at the beginning (not a rule I’d personally go on, but understandable in a way, they were quite young) or with any death in general. If you really sit down and think about it, that means just about every Disney movie is off the table. Ok, that’s fine. Harry Potter is out, too. For some reason their father still told them Star Wars, which seemed a little hypocritical to me, but I blame myself for that because I’d tried to explain an Ewok to a curious girl and the story kind of grew from there. Really, without death, I had a very narrow field.

I told a highly abridged version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where… where really four nice kids go to a magical land and meet a mean witch and a nice lion. No longer able to share the bad things with the kids, I found there was nothing to share. I could make characters for them, but I couldn’t make them do anything. If nothing bad could happen… then nothing at all could happen!

Somehow there’s a huge hole in children’s literature from picture books to chapter books… Read a picture book. The worst thing that happens is that maybe a kid gets in trouble with an adult. Once a real plot is introduced, even in earlier readers like Dahl, things get dark.

Childhood is vibrant, colorful, bright, and frightening. Everything is a bit scary when you’re small. You’re learning all sorts of horrible things every day, and trying to deal with all of that emotionally. And when you’re a teenager, everything is a bit angsty. But to try and keep everything happy and good for your kids is perpetuating nothing but a lie. A bold lie. The kind of lie that makes being a teenager (and realizing it’s such a lie) seem so impossible. I think children’s literature is the gentlest way for a child to realize that bad things do happen. I think, without qualms, that it’s good for kids to be introduced to some horrible things through literature. They’re going to learn it eventually… all they are really being protected from, then, is how to cope when these bad things do inevitably happen.

I wanted, when making my world, to make it eccentric and wonderful. Harry Potter’s magical world is quite dreary, but magic illuminates it. My world is the magic. That’s the fun and beautiful part. The story, though, is dark. It’s always going to be dark. It has to be dark. But I’m starting to feel… Most of these stories border on complete hopelessness far beyond the realms of reality.

Does the story have to be bleak to make it good? Everything has to be at stake? Do or die? Everything on the line? Is that what keeps the pages turning?

Ante up. Guess I’m all in.