I don’t typically talk about the writing process here, mostly because I’ve little evidence to back up my purported wisdom. I’ve written a great deal, actually, but just not in what is considered ‘respectable’ fields. Mostly, fanfiction is what I’m speaking of and only really noteworthy stuff in the last four years.
But really, the rules and discipline that goes into fanfiction is no different than traditional fiction, it’s just that due to the perceived illegitimacy of the writing that falls into this classification, there are no reliable mechanisms for calling out authors who break the rules and show little discipline.
There used to be some, I’ll admit, when fanfiction could only reach people through fan magazines (fanzines) or public gatherings where dozens of fans swap tales. The sense of ownership was greater then, and editors of the fan magazines provided a filter for the truly atrocious stories, at least as far as they were able to identify them. But despite these mechanisms, the concept of the ‘Mary Sue’ and the more notorious examples of slash fiction date back to the fanzine era, mostly in the Star Trek realm in the seventies and eighties.
But today, there are fewer sources a fanfiction writer can turn to for critical analysis and, frankly, there is even less encouragement to do so. With online publishing accomplishable though a few clicks, any old Word document sitting around the hard drive can end up on FanFiction.net or LiveJournal.com for public consumption without even the benefit of an automated spellcheck.
But, despite the above, there is gold to be found in the mountains of dirt. Not everyone likes the easy way, and good stories that rival some modern literature have been produced in the name of fan fiction. They are the piddling minoring, and even Sturgeon’s Law doesn’t accurately depict the ratio of the crap versus the truly great, but if you can find them, if you put in the effort, you can be richly rewarded.
Or you could go the bookstore and pick up nearly any book there and get a decent reading experience. Not everyone likes the easy way, though.
In any case, this isn’t what I had intended to talk about. What I wanted to talk about is an author’s theme. Many authors have them, and it’s often phrased as what the author is trying to say about the ‘human condition.’ Some authors are skilled enough to present many themes throughout their body of work, and I think this is one way that an author can avoid feeling stale after a while. If you theme is always ‘overcoming the burden of technology’, after a while people will begin to get bored. The characters change, the setting is different, the technology advances, but the same general theme is present every time. If you like the theme, it’s often good, but even a fan will probably foresee the twists before they come.
I’ve read a few Dan Brown books by this point (although I haven’t gotten to The Lost Symbol yet) and I can say pretty confidently that his theme is ‘secrets only harm us in the end.’ Digital Fortress, Angels and Demons, and DaVinci Code all center around one person unraveling a tightly protected secret and declaring in the end that things are worse off now than if the lies had never been told. I’m not sure if Brown himself is aware he infuses this theme into his books, it’s possible he just likes attacking the establishment and this is his tool to do so, but I think by now he must have a clue. Whether he has decided to change this theme or not is actually one of the reasons I haven’t gotten around to reading The Lost Symbol yet is because I’m already sort of bored of Brown. I suspect that the book starts with Langdon being exposed to some minor but ominous secret about a powerful group and then chasing that secret into the heart of that group’s domain in order to learn an even greater secret that changes how the world views that group. But maybe not! The possibility that he’s changed his theme is one reason I intend the read the book eventually, he may still surprise me.
I’ve been somewhat hung up about the concept of theme recently as I’ve been trying to make progress on the Never-Forever novel, and struggled to figure out what the book says in the end. I was trying to find a fitting theme so desperately that I neglected to look at what I’ve written before. Perhaps I already had a theme? It turns out I did, in fact, and it actually relieves the burden quite a bit to know that every story I’ve written shows it to different degrees. I was spending too much time consciously thinking about something I didn’t want to forget only to find that I was subconsciously doing it all the while.
So what is my theme? Well, it’s not filled with as much intrigue as Brown’s, but it appears that my theme is that ‘happiness and peace must be purchased with life-altering hardship or loss.’ It’s a little fatalistic, I know, and it is surprisingly close to the theological idea of redemption, but it doesn’t always play out that way. Written a little more lyrically, it really means that only once you’ve stripped away the distractions in your life are you in a position to understand what will truly make you happy.
In my massive fan story, A Period of Silence, it’s demonstrated towards the end when the protagonist has lost much of her family and her lover is uncertain whether to remain that she is able to understand that her past has shackled her future and only by making a clean break will she be able to find peace.
In Full Circle, (once I screwed my head on right and gave the story direction in its final half) it’s even more apparent, as the protagonist struggles with his purpose and desires until he is separated from the rest of the cast and then almost fatally injured. Only then does he reset and look more critically at what he needs to live happily in the world he’s ended up in.
I like to reward my characters, but I feel that just giving them what they want is cheap. Thus, all of my character driven work deals with the idea of throwing enough adversity against them in order for them to earn their reward. It’s a mutable enough theme that most of my stories involve entirely different settings and characters, but behind them all is this basic theme.
In fact, one could almost call it one of my values. Randy Ingermason – who runs a blog about fiction writing – says that all characters have at least two values that they cannot rationalize or explain but which they believe in without question. He advises budding authors to make these values conflict during the course of their story because it creates good drama.
His example of this concept comes from the first Star Wars movie (or Episode 4 for the younger crowd). He says Han Solo has two main values that conflict near the end of the film. His values are ‘nothing is worth dying over’ and ‘your reputation is everything’. At the end of the film, as the Rebels are preparing to strike the Death Star, but Han Solo says it’s a suicide mission and he won’t be part of it, but then Luke says he’s a coward for not fighting against he Empire. At that point, Han has a conflict of values, because he knows attacking the Death Star will likely get him killed, but he can’t have people going around calling Han Solo a coward because reputation is king. Whether or not Han helps in the attack is a values conflict that creates tension and tension is good in stories. Of course, resolving the conflict is also good, and, thus, Han shows up in the end to save Luke and help destroy the Death Star.
When I think about myself as a character, I have to admit that I have no real reason for believing it, but I do believe that cheap happiness is worthless. True happiness can never be bought at discount rates. This value infuses my works and it is probably the case for many other authors out there.
So I’m glad that I’ve come to this revelation, and I hope that it results in more progress on the Never-Forever novel front, because it seems like I’ve been stalled on this project for just about eternity.