Filing Off the Serial Numbers: Part One — Fan Fiction

Filing Off the Serial Numbers: Part One

Fan Fiction

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy, an erotic romance series that originated as a “Twilight” fan fiction. Beyond the discussion of the series’ spiciness (too much for some and not enough for others) are the raised eyebrows over the trilogy’s leap from a derivative of a popular series into a popular series in its own right.

I’m not a copyright lawyer, and therefore not an expert in “how much change is enough” to turn a fan fiction into a marketable story. But if you’ve got a hard drive full of fan fiction epics, and are debating following in the footsteps of “Fifty Shades,” here are some things to consider:

Can I create an original setting and still have the story work? Your lead character is a witch? Fine. Your lead character is a teenage witch attending witch school? Okay. Your lead character is a teenage witch attending witch boarding school and wins fame by participating in a witches-only sport played while riding on brooms… If your story falls apart without Quidditch-or any other signature elements of the franchise that inspired it-it’s not going to work outside of fan fiction.

How much can I change the characters and still have the story work? I suspect “Fifty Shades” would have been a harder sell if the romantic lead had remained a vampire-but the central themes could still be conveyed with a human character. This is nothing against vampires and everything about the amount of flexibility a writer would need to change her lead from a direct import of someone else’s character into a unique character in his own right-particularly a character who would logically fit into the new setting. If your tale of star-crossed lovers absolutely demands that the beleaguered couple be giant shape-shifting robots, or if your story is an in depth character study of Captain Kirk and therefore dependent on the personality remaining exactly the same, it might not be possible to make it work outside of fan fiction.

Wait, isn’t this going to involve an insane amount of editing? Yes, yes it is, more than just swapping out every “Mal Reynolds” for a new name of your choice. At this point, you might be asking yourself if it’s worth it, and if you couldn’t write something new in the amount of time it takes you to do that editing.

I can’t answer that. I can’t answer how much passion you feel for the story you’ve written or how much confidence you have in the quality of the end result. I can say that I’ve seen a writer (Christine Morgan) build an excellent novel (“Black Roses”) out of what was originally a fanfiction short story; the novel took the central plot from the fanfiction (a woman gets a supernatural stalker in the form of an incubus, which begins to murder her past lovers and now threatens her current love) and retold it with original characters and expanded details in an original setting. In this case the author’s passion for a plot concept-an idea that was not irrevocably tied to someone else’s characters or world-spawned a strong original story.

Part 2: What if I’m not borrowing from fan fiction, but from real life?

Life Block

You’ve heard it before. One of the wisest experts on craft first said it to me two years ago…

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

He’s right. There’s not. It’s a little thing called life block. You know what it is, we’ve all been there. It’s that day where you wake up and you just don’t want to go to work. The alarm clock mocks you with modulated laughter, you glance toward your phone and groan.

And call in sick.

Sure, you feel fine. Your eyes aren’t watering, you’re not hacking up a lung or bleeding profusely. You’ve been running about a hundred miles an hour 24/7 for the past six months, your boss is overbearing, the bills are piling up…and you’re just… There.

Everyone has off days, it’s human nature, mood swings, and everything in between.

But it’s how you deal with those off days that really bears importance.

I’ve had one giant life block probably for the past four months. And I haven’t been dealing very well.

If you take an unscheduled vacation at work there’s a good chance that your boss is going to come calling. Or wondering why you’ve been sick for the past four months. What do you do when you’re your own boss though? Do you yell at yourself? Do you fire yourself?

You just might have to.

There was a time when I was as serious about my craft as my career. They were supposed to eventually become one and the same. I would write for hours on end and spent every off day locked in my office happily chugging along. NaNoWrImO wasn’t a challenge anymore and I enjoyed every moment of overwhelming productivity. I was happy at work, making decent money and living two dreams. I felt like a rock star.

Then the market crashed. And misery loves company, so I watched as one-by-one everything tumbled over and out of control. My employer had to tighten its belt, people were freaking and a happy productive place transformed overnight into a roiling swamp of discontent. When I wasn’t miserable at work, I was spending my off days being miserable about going back to work. Every time I sat down to try and find a spark of creativity, I couldn’t get the fire started. My off days just turned into a countdown of time I have until I get to go back to reality.

It was bad. I had spent so much time thinking at work and then thinking about work on my off days that I just shriveled up. I found solace in mindless television and video games. I forgot what books were, I forgot what everything I used to enjoy was.

And then it clicked. Literally, just last night. Turns out I figured personal time was a luxury that I just couldn’t afford anymore. So just like a bad habit, I quit.

But that’s the wrong way to think. Don’t ever forget who you are or what makes you happy. If you take pleasure in the craft, then don’t think guiltily of it. Be proud. There’s dozens of other bad habits out there and addictions that are ten times worse.

If life blocks you, don’t give up like I did. Take the next shot. And the next. Hell, take the one after that too. Who cares if you shoot .00010% or you’ve got the lowest batting average on your team. Because in the end, every shot you don’t take is another shot that you missed.

I exist in a world where every shot counts. Don’t do what Dave did.

Take your shot.

Marsheila Rockwell: Tie-in Fiction

A Guest Interview with Marsheila Rockwell

Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell joins us today to talk about writing tie-in fiction. She is the author of three novels for Wizards of the Coast, all of which tie into the Eberron D&D Campaign Setting and/or the popular MMORPG, Dungeons & Dragons Online. They are: Legacy of Wolves (2007, rereleased as an ebook on 5/15), The Shard Axe (2011), and Skein of Shadows (releases 7/3).

Colette: What, exactly, is tie-in fiction?

Marcy: In technical terms, it’s fiction that “ties in” to some other media property, like a television show, movie, video game, or role-playing game. It’s also known as “work-for-hire,” because you can’t just decide to write a novel that ties into one of these properties on your own (unless you want to get sued) – you have to be hired by the property owner to do so.

Colette: How did you decide you wanted to write tie-in fiction?

Marcy: I started reading fantasy when I was three, began playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in the third grade, and penned my first fantasy story at the age of twelve. When TSR (later acquired by Wizards of the Coast, aka WotC) started publishing novels set in the various D&D campaign worlds, I knew that’s what I wanted to write. Of course wanting to do it and getting hired to do it are two very different things.

Colette: So how did you get hired by WotC?

Marcy: Back in 2003, WotC put out an open call for one of the books in the Forgotten Realms “Priests” series, called Maiden of Pain. While I didn’t win that open call, my writing did bring me to the attention of the WotC editors, and I continued to submit to them over the next several years until one of my Eberron proposals caught their eye (the book that later became Legacy of Wolves), and they offered me a contract. So, basically, they let me write a book just so I’d stop bugging them. And I just finished up my third book for them, so I guess it worked out pretty well for both of us. 😉

Colette: What has writing tie-in fiction taught you that has helped your overall writing career?

Marcy: The first and most important thing tie-in work has taught me is how to write to a deadline. When you are doing creator-owned fiction, you write your story, sometimes taking years to complete a book. Then you submit it, and maybe you get lucky and sell it right away. Then, all of the sudden, your new publisher wants another book in 9 months. And then you panic, because you’re used to writing whenever the inspiration strikes, and with a deadline looming, it’s nowhere to be found.

There’s a reason a lot of authors’ sophomore efforts don’t live up to their debut novels, and it’s largely because they’ve never had to write on deadline before. I’ve written 30,000 words in one week to meet a deadline (because of the tight schedules associated with virtually all tie-in writing), so I’ve learned that inspiration comes when butt is applied to seat, and there’s no such thing as writer’s block when the mortgage is due.

Colette: Would you suggest writing tie-in fiction to other authors, or only those that have a passion for a particular property?

Marcy: Writing tie-in fiction isn’t for people who think writing is an art, it’s for the folks who know it’s a business. You have to be able to work under pressure, absorb a lot of information quickly, change gears on a dime, and abide by strict rules, like non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, chances are good that writing tie-in fiction would just leave you frustrated and with only half a head of hair. If, on the other hand, it does sound like fun, I’d suggest a visit to your doctor – they have medication for that now, heh.

Seriously, though – it can be very satisfying to contribute to a property you love, but, generally speaking, it’s a lot of work and it’s not for the faint of heart. If it still sounds interesting to you, you also need to know that it’s largely an invitation-only business. Watch for open calls (Warhammer has one every year), and get some publishing credits out there, in the same genre as the tie-in work you want to do. Go to conventions where tie-in properties are featured, listen to what the editors are saying, and do what they tell you to do. And, if you get the chance to submit something, get it in early. Editors love good writers, but being good isn’t enough. They hire – and keep hiring – the ones who consistently meet their deadlines.

And actually, that advice is sound regardless of whether you’re doing tie-in work or writing creator-owned fiction. Be focused, be flexible, be professional, and never, ever miss a deadline if it’s within your power to meet it. Good luck!


Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell is an author, poet, editor, engineer, Navy wife and cancer mom. In addition to her tie-in work, she has a new (creator-owned) series of Arabian-flavored, female-centric sword & sorcery stories coming out from Musa Publishing, Tales of Sand and Sorcery. The latest installment, “Both,” released on 5/18. She’s also penned dozens of short stories and poems, and several articles on writing tie-in fiction. You can find out more here:

Sunday Reads: 20 May 2012

June is going to be a big month here at The Fictorian Era with a special focus on publishing. We have guest posts from a publisher, an agent, and writers who are at a variety of stages of their careers, as well as posts by some of our regular Fictorians. We’ll be spending the month exploring publishing options, looking at both traditional and independent publishing. More info in a few days.

In the meantime, here’s 10 reads worth your time:

Jane Friedman has 3 Possibilities For Defeating Writer’s Block.

Tonya Kappes talks about how to boost your creativity in Creative Flow: Scene by Scene.

DiYMFA identifies 5 Pockets Of Time You Never Knew You Had.

The Millions discusses The Appeals and Perils of the One-Word Book Title.

Over at The Bluestocking Blog, they’re talking about The Chasm Between Intentions and Execution.

John A A Logan talks epublishing in Fending Off The Next Dark Age.

Interested in writing contests? Writers’ Village has an ebook on How To Win Writing Contests for Profit.

For some motivation, check out Writers Digest’s 23 Timeless Quotes For Writers.

Listen to screenwriter Michael Arndt talk about writing Little Miss Sunshine.

And head over to Musa Publishing to check out Fictorian Nancy DiMauro’s new release, Paths Less Traveled.


Missed any Fictorians articles this week?

Ann Cooney – The Great Spring Migration

Matt Jones – Motivations

Leigh Galbreath – How To Be A Better Tease