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Fan-Fiction Goals vs. Own Fiction Goals - The Motive Center
September 17th, 2004
10:09 pm

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Fan-Fiction Goals vs. Own Fiction Goals
There was a fascinating question from rei_c, and my response was too long for a reply, which I think means it's got enough content to be worth putting here!

rei_c wrote:
I wanted to comment on this post in particular, as it concerns something I've found myself having to deal with. As both a writer of fan-fiction and a writer of original fiction, I go through periods of self-set deadlines and expecting to have produced such-and-such an amount. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it completely knocks me over.

I'm not sure why, but if I set a deadline for myself, say, 1,000 words a day of original fiction, I can do it. Fan-fiction? No such luck. I've tried, in the past, to say, "Oh, I can finish this chapter by Thursday, then the next by two weeks today," etc, and it never works. I just get hyped up about it, too wired to write, and the words refuse to come. I've learned that I just need to take my time with the fanfiction, to just say, "I'll write it when it comes, and no pressure to do so before." Granted, I once took a three month break from my WIP, but when I went back to it, I was refreshed and ready to write again.

I could be completely motivated to work on the fanfic, but not productive at all. But, when it comes to the original stuff, I can be unmotivated or highly motivated, it doesn't matter, and be productive. You've posted before about the process of setting fanfiction in already drawn-out universes, but that original stuff is your own, from the ground up, as it were. Any ideas on why my mind can behave so differently in two categories of the same creative outlet?


This is an absolutely fascinating question, and you've described the issue very clearly. The key issue is that while technically you are writing in both cases, in practice they are quite different. I'm going to recast this and see if I can sort it out in motivational terms.

From your description, setting a goal enables you to be productive in original fiction, whether you are motivated or not. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that when you say "motivated" it is in the sense of spontaneously starting to write as opposed to being willing and able to produce once started and setting a goal just to get started. That is, you aren't forcing yourself through every word when you're "unmotivated."

By contrast, you note that on fan-fiction the same word-per-day goal stresses you out--pushing you over the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve to "overmotivated and underproductive." So in fact you are letting the muse guide your fan-fiction--writing when you feel like doing it spontaneously rather than setting regular goals.

In other words: Steady goals leads to steady work on your personal fiction, whereas you do better writing fan-fiction more spontaneously, when impulse strikes; setting a goal there raises your anxiety too high.

Some might think that writing in your own universe takes more work, because you have to create the universe and write the doggoned story. If that were true, then you would expect that the anxiety of having to do both is higher than for the fan-fiction. Obviously this isn't the case for you, and let me propose a reason why.

I've been treating "motivational arousal," to use the technical term (which admittedly sounds kind of risqu��é) as if it is a single thing: you have not enough, roughly enough, or too much. I think what you are pointing up is that you might have a different level of engagement or arousal to start with, and this interacts with the external pressures. (That is, it might be an extension of my most recent post "Pay and Pay.")

Let's propose some theories we can test:
1. Perhaps writing your own world feels less stressful, because you aren't obliged to anyone but yourself--you don't have to strive for consistency with someone else's world. (I know some folks don't feel constrained by this, but perhaps you are. I'm the kind of person who loves satires in as close to the original language as possible, for example.) So forcing yourself (through goal-setting) to not only write, but to conform to another world may be pushing you over the top of the curve. If so, one solution is to set lower or differently mixed targets for fan-fiction production--set 500 instead of 1,000, assuming the time that would have gone to the other 500 is going to working over consistency, re-reading the source material, etc.

1a. An extension of this might be simply that you find it harder to even come up with ideas in someone else's world--so forcing yourself to do so on a tight schedule might be too stressful. Whereas your own ideas can be about anything at all! (I've got a historical mystery novel, an SF/Occult novel, and a fantasy novel all slowly developing...) Again, setting lower or more infrequent goals might be appropriate.

This is where the fine art of goal-setting comes into play. One writer (my wife, actually) set a goal for her first novel of 600 words per day, four times a week. But she also set a fallback goal of 2400 words for the whole week, in case she had a lot of bad nights or dinners out or whatever. Sounds to me that your "original fiction" works better in the 600 words per day kind of approach, whereas perhaps fan-fiction would work better with a 2400 words per week approach, or even a 10,000 words per month approach. Some goals might enable you to get the fanfic out faster, but allowing more flexibility should reduce the stress.

2. The flip side of the above comment is, perhaps you are more positively engaged in your original fiction, so you can push a lot harder before it becomes stressful. If you enjoy the process of writing your universe AND writing your characters, then you have a double positive. In other words, the double fun means you need to push a lot harder before the fun effort becomes stressful. One option to try is reducing the word-goal for fanfic again, but I have another idea here.

I don't know enough about how and where you write fanfic (relative to the original work, that is), but I know some people write around the "known" events, whereas others like to take an obscure corner and explore it. The more obscure the corner, the more it can be yours and not the original work, and the fewer constraints you have. If I have read you right, that might be a good thing--the more your fanfic partakes of your original vision, the easier it might be.

Let's take an example of what I mean from Tolkien. Let's say you wanted to write about the Sherriffs in the Shire--Hobbiton PD Blue!
1. You could write around the events of The Lord of the Rings, which would be difficult since there are specific day-by-day events, and you would want to avoid getting your character overwhelmed by Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam. Stressful.
2. You could write about the Sherriffs in an obscure corner of the Shire rather than Hobbiton at the same time--more freedom here, but still working around Sharkey/Saruman and specific events.
3. Or you could write about the Sherriffs during the Fell Winter, when wolves crossed the frozen Brandywine--because that's just about all we know about it. Bilbo was a small child, and could be tossed in, but is not by any stretch required to act. Easier still.

Of course, you are not obliged to write either original or fan-fiction, either--all this only matters if you want to keep writing both consistently! I am assuming you do. I can't tell you which, if any of this, applies specifically to you, but perhaps there is enough here to explore? Tell me what you think--does any of this feel right to you? If not, why not? We can try to narrow it down more.

Thanks again for a fascinating letter. Let's try and work it out together!

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From:kamenkyote
Date:September 17th, 2004 08:27 pm (UTC)
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Interesting stuff, Steve. I especially like the last part where you suggest working in a given world, but not in a part that's been at all deeply tread. Star Wars fanfic folks do this a lot, from what I hear, and the pasts of even the most esoteric of characters has been plotted to amazing degree.

One other reason one might have an easier time writing one's own fiction is that all the reference can generally be done in one's head. Besides not having to worry about "breaking the rules" of established work, the only person one has to worry about explaining anything to is one's self, if writing original fiction. Details can also be left out or dealt with later instead of having to do so before progress can be made.

I often find myself most motivated to paint while watching someone else do it (in a movie, biographical footage or whatever) or by flipping through books of paintings by accomplished painters. I wonder if there are certain things that trigger the same sort of response in the fanfic writer above and whether they're aware of it or not.

-mike
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From:rei_c
Date:September 17th, 2004 10:55 pm (UTC)
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Wow, Steve! I'm impressed by both the speed of your reply and the breadth! And also touched that you went to such lengths to reply to such a rambling comment, so thanks - you have a fan :)

To clarify just a little - most of my original fiction pieces are short stories, by which I mean 500 to 1500 words. The fanfiction pieces are mostly longer, chapter pieces, which is completely different writing as you've mentioned before, I think; the two elements in short stories instead of the three in longer works.

I'll take these theories one by one, hope you don't mind.

1. Writing in my own world is definitely less stressful - if I hate a character, I just don't write them. In the fan-fiction, important characters are almost expected to be there, and if they aren't, there better be a good reason why. I don't find myself necessarily constrained by someone else's world, but almost the opposite - anything can happen, and that can be almost overwhelming.

I also tend to write fan-fiction in more magical worlds, where strange things can happen and I can just make up an explanation why, so long as it doesn't conflict with anything already established. In my personal fiction, its much more based on reality, through a darker lens. No one can fly on broomsticks, conjure up wind by their eyes, or travel through dimensions with a knife.

1a. I think that with so many possibilities, I come up with a multitude of ideas, and then just have to sit down and write them, which seems to take forever. Cutting down to some of your later points, I set most of my fan-fiction around lesser-known characters or during periods that the authors don't write/haven't written. In the Harry Potter fandom, I typically write post-Hogwarts fic; in His Dark Materials fandom, I write pre- or post-text. Like I said earlier, its more a problem of just sitting down and actually doing the writing than coming up with the ideas. At first, giving myself a word goal per day or week worked, and I often exceeded that. Then, I slowly started falling behind, and stopped caring about the 'fic. Its long now, and over halfway done, but I can't get motivated to finish it. In my personal writing, however, things don't go unwritten for very long - a week at the most from when I start writing.

2. I wouldn't say I'm more positively engaged by choice in my original fiction - it just sort of...happened, once that became the only thing I could sit down and write. It can be stressful, at times (I'm a compulsive reviser/editer - is that the Beethovian? I think...maybe?) but I know that the end result will be decent, or at the very least, a learning experience. I approach fan-fiction as having these ideas about what is possible within or extra-canon and want to write them, but often don't have the motivation or patience to follow through. I can start like no tomorrow, but I just don't have the motivation to finish. Now, this probably says a lot more about my level of involvement in the fan-fiction, that I'm not interested or whatnot, but I honestly want to finish the 'fics, I honestly want to write these pieces, and when its going, I honestly enjoy it.

I hope this helps, and thanks for all of yours!
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From:stevekelner
Date:September 18th, 2004 07:57 pm (UTC)

Working in other worlds...

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Thanks, Rei! Nice to be appreciated. The easy question first: yes, a compulsive reviser/editer is Beethovenian. It sounds as if you and Mike and I are on the same page regarding how writing at the fringes of someone else's universe makes it easier. And to Mike's comment, I don't know if this is true of all fanfic writers, but it is certainly true of me: I get inspired to write by someone else's work, or by listening to writers talk about their work at cons. I tend to take it in my own direction, but the principle is the same. I find some writers are more inspirational for this than others. For example, after reading Jim Butcher's great "Harry Dresden, Wizard" books set in modern-day Chicago, I went to town writing my own slant on this, based on a character I had designed years ago but who had gone nowhere. But unlike many people, I can't imagine going into J. K. Rowling's universe, because I am in awe of her scope and detail--I couldn't help but think that she has already worked out anything I could come up with! Furthermore, I don't know enough about English boarding schools...but I digress.

I do think that your description of not being constrained makes the same point as I did in a weird way--that "anything can happen" but at the same time "important characters are almost expected to be there" suggests that it is the tension between those two things makes it difficult--even if you deliberately broke all the rules of that universe, on some level perhaps you think you shouldn't, and that increases the stress of the writing.

I could be wrong on this, Rei, but it seems to me that you said you are losing interest in the fan-fiction as you get more interested in your own. You say you enjoy it "when it's going" but it sounds as if you don't like it as much as you did. Saying you "honestly want to finish the 'fics," sounds to me more like a conscious value rather than nonconscious emotional engagement. That is, a "should do" rather than a "want to do." Nothing wrong with that, but working out of a value costs energy, whereas writing out of your motives generates it. So you might have to structure the times more strictly, using that awful "discipline" thing, and hope that the pleasure of the process kicks in. Or at least set smaller goals.

So let me put the elephant on the table and ask: why do you need to finish the fan-fiction piece? Is it because you don't want to leave something unfinished, or because readers are waiting, or you hate to waste effort, or...? Leaving something unfinished doesn't mean you're less of a writer, you know. Nothing is wasted in writing--you can recycle, or at least you have practiced your craft. Your answer dictates your next steps. I can think of two main options:

1. Set the fan-fiction aside. You can always go back to it another time.
2. Set yourself on a "push" to complete the fan-fiction piece, so you can step away with a clear conscience. You could set your own writing up as a reward for finishing a chunk of the fan-fiction! Now, that assumes you don't have fifteen novels in partial form. But it could work for one or two: force yourself into it, and let the pleasure of the process takes over. Saturating yourself in it might help to re-ignite your interest and spark ideas. Again to Mike's point, if you re-read the book which inspired the fan-fiction, would it help?

A third option is a more committed form of #1: Abandon it. Period. I know of one writer who rewrote the first chapter so much he could never get to a second. He dropped that book and started over on a new one. Lots of writers have "trunk books" they couldn't sell, and they just moved on until they got one that does. Anne Perry wrote historical novels in several different periods--the Edwardian one happened to sell. After ten years, I shelved an SF epic I had worked on since college, and it was amazingly freeing removing that albatross from around my neck. I might go back to it someday, but if I do it will be with considerably more experience and a new perspective. But I'm not obligated to do anything with it if I don't want to. You can give yourself permission to do that, too.

Just some more thoughts...
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From:rei_c
Date:September 19th, 2004 10:35 am (UTC)

And then in my own...

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Before I comment on your comments, I just wanted to say that I read the first Harry Dresden book and adored it!

About your comments and ideas...I suppose at some level, yes, the fan-fiction doesn't interest me as much now that I've become so consistent with my own writing. When I started writing 'fic, it was more of a guilty pleasure that I justified to myself as writing practice, but became more involved in that than my own writing. And once my own picked up, the level of involvement in these huge WIPs kind of slipped off.

At some level, I think its because I've become so involved in fandom. Since I started writing fan-fiction, I've read hundreds of stories, beta'ed more than my fair share and have joined many communities of writers where we all talk about plots and problems and so on. I've had more time to realize just how many wonderful (and not so incredible) 'fics are out there and in some respects, feel myself unable to measure up to the standard I see in some of my favorite fandom writers. While I know this is irrational, because I know (without sounding pompous, I hope) that I am a decent writer and that I have original ideas and methods of storytelling, it still has an impact.

Now, with this massive WIP, I want to finish it for probably all of the reasons you suggested. I hate leaving things unfinished, especially when all I really need to do is take fifty pages and tie up all of the loose threads. I feel as if I need to finish it because there are people that have been with me through the process and to let it go would almost, for me at least, be a shoddy way of saying thanks. As for the wasted effort, thats not so much a problem. Whether I finish it or not, I know its helped to improve my writing, as well as my appreciation for the beta'ing system.

I've been doing #1 for months now - just letting it go and not worrying about it. But I don't feel like I can do that indefinitely. What I'll most likely do is #2, at some eventual point. I've had this problem before, and pushing into it, just making myself do it, actually helped me become re-interested in the world and finish the piece. Of course, I went back and compulsively revised and edited for weeks, but as long as I have a bare-bones skeleton to work with, I'm all right.

Perhaps, if its another six months and I haven't done any work on it, I might consider just abandoning it, but I'm not at that point yet. I really do want to see it finished - someday, because of the pride I get at knowing I've actually written something and this is what it looks like, isn't it amazing?

Thanks again, Steve!
From:seventines
Date:September 20th, 2004 06:46 am (UTC)
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Very interesting discussion that's close to my own heart. I write original fiction but recently I've been writing some fanfiction (for reasons you have touched on else where in your lj). That's how I found my way here and started reading and enjoying your analysis and suggestions.

I am a combination of the writer/rewriter (chapters endlessly revised) and the spontaneous producer (5,000 words in a sitting). Unfortunately for me, I'm also a psychologist, so I spend rather too much time considering which factors determine the mood I'm in at a given time. I've a few ideas but no firm answers just yet.

I returned to writing fiction about a year ago after about 20 years writing "academic style" so I never doubt that I can write. What I've found that I do miss is peer feedback and initially, that's what attracted me to fanfic. I've since discovered, though, that it's not the feedback at all: it's the reading, the constant analysis of the effects different writing styles and different handling of similar situations have on me. Also, the willingness of people to discuss their own writing, tieing in to my reading of their work.

Now I find that I've started to teach myself a craft in a way that I didn't expect (and that I very much enjoy). The fanfiction I write has now become an exploration of the way I write and a broadening of the things I feel able to write, testing and refining the tools I've found.

My current plan is to feed my personal discoveries into my original writing idea as it ticks on alongside the fanfic. I intend to use the NaNoWriMo as the last big push on the current novel: it's not so much the number of words written but the ability to say to people: November's mine.

That's a few thoughts inspired by reading what you and the other commenters have written. I'll check back in due course to hear more about how you and they approach writing - thank you for initiating a thought-provoking discussion.
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From:stevekelner
Date:September 20th, 2004 06:29 pm (UTC)

Impact on You

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Sounds as if you are using writing as a way to have an impact on yourself--which still fits with the idea of writing-as-influence, but with a rather narrower audience! Of course, you are also refining the tools with which you write to others. What I find particularly interesting is how you have shifted over time in terms of what you get out of writing in general and fanfic in particular. That strikes me as very important--too many people blame themselves when in fact it is the situation has changed. (A number of writers I know have used the idea of "giving themselves a vacation" or "giving themselves permission to be bad" in special situations. I think that's a good idea.) Also, as people develop, there are things they can do now they couldn't before. It's silly to assume you stay the same when you are practicing something regularly!

Clearly you are very self-aware, and being a fellow psychologist probably exacerbates that--perhaps too much, as you suggest, but it also sounds like you have applied this very effectively to managing your writing. I'd be interested to know how it goes in November!
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