“Some people have to be very particular before they write. Some people are like: I have to organise my desk or my pencils have to be at 90 degree angles. Personally, I get into bed.”
Madeleine Vaughan (pen-name M.E Vaughan) published her first book, The Sons of Thestian, in March 2015 and its much anticipated sequel, Blood of Delphi, is to be released this November. She is also a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, host of the speculative fiction podcast Dissecting Dragons and head writer of video game company Enigmatic Studios. A few months back, when I asked her for an interview on an article I was writing, she agreed to meet up with me for a chat.
And I’m not going lie, I was excited as hell.
I met her at the university cafe and, once we’d settled down with our teas, I began by asking about the creative process of writing.
Everyone has their own way of getting the words down onto the paper – sometimes it’s written quickly and easily, other times it’s done slowly whilst slugging through six cups of tea. A crucial part of being a writer is making a rhythm for yourself, one which accommodates the type of writing you wish to pursue. These were the main points she put across and I agreed with her on many levels.
Our opinions soon diverged, however, when I moved onto the main subject of our interview: Fan-Fiction.
For those of you who don’t know, Fan-Fiction is the term given to stories written by the fans of T.V. shows, movies, novels, comics, just about any medium of entertainment. Ever since the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey hit the best-sellers list 2012 (a story which originated as a Twilight fan-fiction) the subject has become a source for debate between writers and the general public alike.
Is it helpful for writers to indulge in fan-fiction?
Is fan-fiction disrespectful to the source material?
Does it classify as a sub-genre of literature?
For teenagers just starting to write, or for people bored in their spare time, I could see the appeal. After all, it is rather entertaining to read about Iron Man glamming up for a hot date with Captain America, or to watch the cast of Firefly embark on a brand new adventure long after their show’s cancellation.
But that was as far as my understanding stretched: entertainment, a quick little story to read and then click away from. Writers who dedicated their time to, in my view, regurgitating already established worlds and characters, wasn’t as engrossing as the study of professional writers who created fresh stories for a living.
Yet as fan-fiction continued to expand to all corners of the internet, and found that a lot of my writer friends wrote fan-fiction alongside their work, I began to question my point of view on the subject.
What made so many people, many of whom have proven themselves to be dedicated writers, spend so much energy writing fan-fiction?
Madeleine, when I asked about the subject, happily admitted that she wrote and read fan-fiction. She treated the medium with as much respect as any book, mainly because “Someone cared enough about a story and had their own interpretation. I appreciate that. Everyone has to start somewhere.”
This enjoyment of fan-fiction, she went on, started out in her childhood. Being diagnosed with Dyslexia from a young age, Madeleine learned to read and write at a much slower pace to her peers. So, as an outlet for her overactive imagination, she found herself playing pretend. More often than not, these games involved her favourite characters from the films and books she read. She’d sprint around with Harry Potter or fantasise about joining The Fellowship of the Ring.
As she grew older, these childhood play times turned into fan-fiction, which she would post online for others to read. The response, she argued, helped to pave the way for her eventual career in writing.
“Writing fan-fiction allowed me to receive critical feedback for writing,” she explained. “It was the first time I actually felt encouraged to do better.”
The support continued as she began to develop The Sons of Thestian and gave her an advantage when the book was released: “I wrote a Sons of Thestian and Merlin [BBC 2008] fan-fiction that actually gained quite a lot of notoriety…Because of that, I actually got several readers of my book.”
Does this mean that writers like me are missing a vital trick when dismissing fan-fiction? I cannot deny the possibility.
Writing is a lonely pursuit. Through my own social media outlets, particularly twitter and facebook, I have found some wonderful voices. With them, I have been able to overcome a number of anxieties about my work – sometimes, their support is what gets me through the next hundred words.
Nevertheless, I felt conflicted when listening to Madeleine’s appreciation for Fan-Fiction. Mainly because, just like Madeleine, I had formulated my thoughts on fan-fiction from my own childhood experiences.
My foray into fan-fiction began when I started Secondary School. My love – perhaps obsession – with sticking my pen onto every piece of paper didn’t win me many popularity points. I’d often find myself hiding in empty classrooms, or in corners of the library, packing a second notebook in case the first was snatched from my hands.
In another method of escape, I turned to the internet and started reading fan-fiction about my favourite shows and movies. Soon I began to write my own, posting chapters before I went to school. The likes and the positive comments excited me, so I decided to write during lunch as well.
Then before dinner. After dinner.
When I went to bed. When I first woke up.
I was hooked by the attention and threw myself into the worlds of other writers. At the time, I felt I was being rewarded for doing so. Then as GCSE’s loomed and I found less time to write my fan-fiction, I casually returned to my old notebooks.
Only now, the urge to write was much harder to grasp.
All the time that I had been writing about my favourite shows, my notebooks had remained empty. I tried to jump back into my ideas, my worlds, my style of writing, and found the endeavour more challenging ever before. It was harder to write when the groundwork hadn’t been laid out by someone else.
I felt as though my own stories had suffered; that as a writer, I had suffered too.
The urge to write fan-fiction soon vanished and, to this day, I don’t feel inclined to write it.
As Madeleine praised the medium of fan-fiction, I still struggled to understand. How could fan-fiction possibly be a benefit to her now, as an established author, beyond the nostalgic feeling of playing pretend?
Thus, I asked Madeleine how she managed to balance the energy between her fan-fiction and writing The Sons of Thestian. Wasn’t there a struggle between the two? Wasn’t fan-fiction the result of procrastinating about her own, more well-crafted content?
She thought for a moment. “The two help each other.”
I asked her to clarify.
“Yes. When you’re only writing other people’s characters, it can stunt the development of your creativity. But at the end of the day, all characters are an archetype of something. Writing continuity, knowing the characters, getting their vocal tone, keeping it throughout, is actually even harder. I learned continuity through writing fanfiction.”
It dawned on me. With one simple response, I finally realised what fan-fiction, through all of the debate and infamy, the passive-aggression and complications, through both of our childhood experiences, actually held at its core.
The individuality of the creative process; that no two writers are the same.
Just like tidying your desk, or arranging your pencils, or climbing into bed, fan-fiction is another direction for writers to engage with their craft.
For some, like Madeleine, writing fan-fiction is a pleasurable way to participate with their favourite shows and stories while also harnessing the skills of a writer: characterisation, continuity, observation and, above all, the courage to put yourself out there. Thus, when the time comes for their own imagination to take the reins, they will feel prepared to show the world what they’re made of.
For other writers, like myself, we feel that fan-fiction, no matter how engaging, does not suit our method of writing. Rather than finding joy on the second step – the world, the rules, the characters – we prefer to whittle out the first step right from the start. This helps to shape our skills in a way which benefits us, as people, as writers of the craft.
Whether throwing ourselves into other worlds, or constructing those worlds around us, we can be sure of one thing: we all have different methods to our literary madness. Whether you’re in support of fan-fiction, against fan-fiction, or somewhere in the middle, I find it essential to remember that writing is unique to the individual.
For me, fan-fiction remains a realm which I leave very much alone. For Madeleine, however:
“It’s the most wonderful thing in the world.”
And, as two different writers, this is how it should be.