Keep Going, You’re Doing Great!

This is what I did today:

– I worked on a book review (of Shion Miura’s novel The Great Passage) that very few people will read.

– I finished a translation (of a page from Breath of the Wild Master Works) that very few people will read.

– I worked on the final chapter a story (of the experimental Majora’s Mask AU I’ve mentioned before) that very few people will read.

– I inked and laid base flat digital colors onto a three-panel comic (about university-level teaching) that very few people will read.

– I sent final presentation evaluation emails personalized for each of my students, which I highly doubt they will read.

– I updated my CV and departmental annual progress report to reflect all the professional work I did in April, and let’s be real – no one is ever going to read either of those documents.

Yesterday I saw someone around my age in my professional cohort tweet about someone else around my age in my professional cohort, saying that he is emerging as the most refreshing voice in our field. Even though I know this had nothing to do with me, her tweet hit me right in the gut. Is my own work not original or impressive enough to be commented on? Will it ever be? It can be difficult to keep doing all sorts of creative, intellectual, and administrative work day after day while knowing that it’s unrealistic to expect that anyone will care or even pay attention in the first place. Not everyone can be the brightest witch of her age, after all.

This sort of existential angst can easily lead to depression, especially when coupled with the sort of mental exhaustion that can result from doing the kind of daily work I outlined above. I’m going to have to admit that I’m not always the brightest ray of sunshine, but I try to counteract the encroachment of despair by scattering small seeds of positivity within my communities. Every day I try to leave a review on the work of an academic or small-press-published author on Goodreads, or a short comment on a small-fandom fanfic on AO3, or a glowing review of someone’s craftwork on Etsy, or a line of appreciation on someone’s post on Patreon, or enthusiastic tags on a reblog of someone’s post on Tumblr, or an encouraging comment on someone’s picture on Instagram, or some combination of these acts. There are a lot of creators out there who are doing good work but don’t get enough support, and I strongly believe that we have to support one another. Knowing that maybe I was able to add just a tiny bit more fuel to someone’s fire helps me sustain my faith in the validity of creative work and creative communities.

But let me tell you a secret – when I write to someone else to encourage and support them, really I’m writing to myself. “Keep going, you’re doing great,” I might comment on the work of another writer or artist, but I’m saying it to them because that’s exactly what I need to tell myself.

So, if you’re reading this, keep going! You’re doing great!!

Fanfic and Commissioned Illustrations

I’m currently writing a Majora’s Mask AU in which Termina only exists because of Link. In my story, after Link “saves” Termina, it begins to disappear. The only two people who are even marginally aware of that anything is strange are Zelda and Ganondorf, who have been drawn into Termina by the strength of Link’s dream. Zelda is seeing it in a vision, and Ganondorf is experiencing it from where he’s imprisoned in the Sacred Realm. Neither of them realizes this until the end of the story, when they figure out that they have to wake up into the “real” world of Ocarina of Time, which is a much harsher reality than the one contained within Termina.

At the moment Tumblr seems to be the main platform people are using to engage with fandom; and, unlike LiveJournal or even Twitter, Tumblr exhibits an extreme bias toward images. What this means in practice is that fan art gets a ton of love, while fanfic receives relatively little attention. People complain about this all the time, and I routinely tell fic writers I’m friendly with that they should stop trying to write for fandom. Instead, it might make more sense for them to file off the serial numbers of their work so that they can publish it as original fiction.

This is easier said than done, of course, and in fact I declined to follow my own advice when I began outlining the plot and character details for this story. Two people trapped in a fading dreamworld is a fairly broad and open concept, and the characters obviously don’t have to be Zelda and Ganondorf. It would be fairly easy to change the names and smudge the identifying details and thus write a completely “original” story… but I don’t want to.

I recently finished my third playthrough of Breath of the Wild, and instead of moving on to something different I decided to pick up Majora’s Mask, which I hadn’t played since the game was released on the Nintendo 3DS back in 2015. I love the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the game, and I’m fascinated by all the many ways that Termina is falling apart at its seams. I read Majora’s Mask as a deep dive into the trauma that Link experienced in Ocarina of Time, especially his guilt over the fact that, even with the ability to travel through time, he couldn’t save everyone. I’m fascinated by Majora’s Mask, and I want to spend more time in the world of the game. I also want to explore its themes from a different perspective.

Specifically, what trauma did Zelda experience in Ocarina of Time? And what about Ganondorf? Who would these two characters be if they weren’t trapped in their respective roles? And what does it mean that they are trapped?

What I’m trying to do with this fanfic is to read Majora’s Mask through a critical lens. I’m a big fan of analytic meta essays about the game and its story, but I want to do something a little more creative in the way I examine its themes. For example, Majora’s Mask strips away Link’s identity as the “Hero of Time” and places him into a new environment, but the core of his character remains – he’s still a hero. So what would it look like if Zelda’s identity as the “princess of Hyrule” were stripped away? Who would she be? And who would Ganondorf be if he weren’t the “Demon King Ganon”? I want to play with these archetypes, but I’m also interested in the challenge of adding greater depth to seemingly one-note character tropes.

One of the nice things about working in the discursive space of fandom is that there’s a pre-existing community of readers who might be interested in a story like this. There’s also a large community of artists, especially in the fandom of a well-established gaming franchise like Legend of Zelda. Even though I don’t have much artistic talent myself, I’m primarily a visual person, and I find it inspiring to collaborate with artists on illustrations. This generally works in the same way it does in the independent comic publishing business, namely, the writer commissions an artist. Although most of the actual labor of illustration is done by the artist, it’s the writer’s job to find someone whose style and interests would be a good fit for the project. In fandom, this is relatively easy, but it’s still very cool when sparks fly and magic happens.

I’m very lucky to be able to work with Thali (@snoozeforever on Twitter / @ponthion on Tumblr) to create illustrations for this story, since I’ve been a fan of her art for years. In fact, it’s her critical engagement with the Legend of Zelda games as expressed through her artwork that encouraged me to start engaging with the Zelda fandom on Tumblr.

It’s a little embarrassing to commission an illustration for my own story, especially if it’s fanfiction. On the other hand, it’s an incredible experience to watch my ideas and characters come to life in visual art. The process of communicating with artists about design elements is also a lot of fun. It can sometimes be a challenge to try to express a complicated character concept in just one or two sentences so as not to overwhelm people with long emails full of extraneous details, but I am continually amazed by the brilliant interpretations created by the artists with whom I’ve had the honor of collaborating.

In any case, Thali has created as created multiple incredible designs based on the character concepts I sent her, and you can see some of my favorites below!

( Character designs by Thali )

Overcoming the Stigma of Creative Writing

I write a lot of fiction, and I’d like to think I’ve done some good work, but I’ve never done it under my real name. For a good long time I kept an almost daily blog on Dreamwidth that was (among other things) a writing journal for the story ideas I had, a log of the progress I was making, and my thoughts on narrative and genre fiction more generally. Starting this year I decided to quit using Dreamwidth and move everything to the blog portion of my professional website, but for some reason I’ve been nervous about associating my creative writing with my actual name. I have a fantastic post about my current story that I’ve been staring at for days, and I’ve hesitated to post it.

So I guess I have two things I really want to ask myself. First, what is it about academia that makes people feel as if it’s somehow unprofessional to share their creative work? And second, that whole nasty business with people like Anne Rice and Diana Gabaldon saying “fanfic is disgusting” happened more than ten years ago, so why is it that even now in 2018 writing fanfiction feels like it’s some dirty secret?

These are the sort of questions that seem as if they might be worth asking my friends and acquaintances on social media, but I’m not interested in hearing anyone’s simplistic takes on what are very complicated issues. For example, I can imagine someone who has never been through the soul-crushing trauma of grad school answering the first question with something completely off the mark, like, “Well, you wouldn’t want your students to read your fiction, would you?” as if it weren’t a challenge to get most undergrads to read the fiction actually assigned on the syllabus. Meanwhile, I can absolutely imagine the sort of responses I would get to the second question from people who’ve neither written nor read fanfic and can therefore only parrot stereotypes like “You have to admit that most fanfic is unoriginal and not very good.”

What I’m trying to say is that I feel strong pressure never to admit to writing anything, which in turn has prevented me from taking my writing seriously. I kept telling myself that I would keep my head down and go up for tenure and then do whatever the hell I wanted, but I’m starting to feel that life is too short for that sort of cowardly nonsense. Yes, I am a literature professor who writes fiction – some of which is indeed fanfiction – and I want to be proud and look good doing it.

Writing Is Hard

I’m about halfway through my current piece of Zelda fanfic, and I’ve come to the unfortunate realization that its themes may be more ambitious than I planned for. I’m tempted to abandon the story.

Sometimes I get really excited about an idea that seems fantastic and full of potential, but I always forget that it’s me who actually has to write it. Honestly I would rather someone else did the work so that I could just sit back and read the finished story.

Stephen King likes to talk about how people always come up to him and ask where he gets his ideas. This began to bother me when I started taking my own writing seriously, because I don’t understand how a writer would struggle to come up with ideas. Personally, I have a digital folder filled with titles and concepts and characters and plot outlines, but what I really need is the time and freedom and creative energy to sit down and write. What magical well do people draw that from?

In any case, I’ll do my best to keep going and write the second half of the fic, even though I’ll probably make a huge mess of it. Not everything has to be perfect; and, to tell the truth, I think that sometimes messy stories are better.

Ten Positive Art Exercises

(1) Find a picture of a cute frog, and give yourself ten seconds to copy it. Do another copy in thirty seconds, and then another in a minute. Repeat the process with a second frog, and then draw it with your first frog. Now they’re frog friends!

(2) Draw a piece of your favorite fruit. First draw it whole, and then draw it in slices. Now draw it as a topping on a cupcake or a parfait or a slice of pie.

(3) Draw a leaf from your favorite tree, both rightside-up and upside-down. Now draw one of the seeds, berries, cones, or fruit from this tree. Now turn the leaf and the seed into a Korok!

(4) Draw a speech bubble saying “You’re awesome,” and then draw your first anime boyfriend/girlfriend underneath that speech bubble. For an extra challenge, you can draw them in both the artist’s original style and in your own style.

(5) Draw Gozilla with huge sparkling Steven Universe eyes, and then color your drawing using a palette randomly selected from a color palette generator (like this one).

(6) Draw a video game system or control pad that brings back good memories from your childhood. Now color it with super shiny pastel shades!

(7) Design a set of three to five simple stickers that you would love to have received as a child. Please consider: dinosaurs, knights, planets, mythological creatures, fairies, and mad scientists.

(8) Draw the monster from your favorite horror movie blushing and being shy and adorable. Remember, we’ve all done crazy things to get sempai to notice us.

(9) Buddhist hand gestures used to enhance meditative practice are called mudras. Run an image search and try to draw at least two left hands and two right hands in mudra positions.

(10) Draw a piece of inorganic trash, which can be anything: a soda can, a shoe that’s falling apart, a worn-out tire, a plastic bottle, a discarded toy, an empty cereal box, and so on. Now draw fresh green plant shoots growing out of it, and add one or two flowers if you’d like. New life always emerges from the ruins of old mistakes!

Writing Het Romance in Fanfic

The more I study shōjo manga, the more interested I’ve become in romance tropes. Based on about a month of observation throughout about two dozen fandoms on AO3, here are my notes on the sort of stories that get hundreds of kudos within the first day of being posted. I’m not judging, just observing:

(1) Ideally, one should be writing for a popular pairing in a popular entertainment franchise.

Even more ideally, the writer should also have a huge following on Tumblr because of their artwork. I actually think that the single most effective thing you can do to improve the reception of your writing is to develop your skill in visual art, but writing for a popular pairing definitely helps.

(2) The story needs to be at least 3,000 words, and 4,500 words is ideal.

The most effective structural balance seems to be 800 to 1,000 words of setup, 1,500 to 2,500 words of erotica, and maybe around 500 words of postcoital conversation. If an author can consistently put out a 4,500 word chapter of a slow burn novel every week (or, in a best-case scenario, twice a week), then the story has the potential to get massive numbers of hits and kudos, but intense sexual tension still needs to be incorporated every four chapters or so.

(3) The male lead needs to be scary.

If he’s murdered people, that’s good. If he’s murdered entire geographical populations of people, that’s even better. The idea is that he’s misunderstood and really a gentle person, but that he will only show this side of himself to his female love interest.

(4) The male lead needs to hate himself.

“I’m a monster,” he needs to think. “I’m a terrible, terrible monster, and no one will ever love me.” This is the cue for the heroine to step in and heal him with amazing therapeutic sex. She is special because her hidden depths allow her to see past all the murder. Basically, this is a way to flatter the reader, who also possesses hidden depths and is able to love the male character despite the fact that he’s scary.

(5) Both the male and female lead need to have tragic pasts.

Even if one or both parties haven’t been abused or mistreated in canon, they still need to bond and express vulnerability by revealing their secret trauma to one another. This creates feelings of mutual understanding and sympathy that pave the way for sexytimes.

(6) One or both parties need to feel intense guilt about their intimacy.

“No, I shouldn’t” and “No, we shouldn’t” are common phrases. One party needs to either convince or coerce the other party into a sexual situation. The “I’m a terrible monster” trope ties directly into this, especially if the male partner gets a bit angsty or violent. The more dubious the consent, the better. Obviously this is not a good model for relationships in the real world, but it’s precisely because it’s fiction that things can get a little rough and kinky without anyone getting hurt.

Again, I’m not judging, just observing. It’s easy to look at some of these tropes and pass them off as simple self-imposed misogyny, but I really don’t think that’s what’s going on in a lot of the fanfic I’ve read. Based on the quality of the writing, I also don’t think most of these authors are young and inexperienced. Obviously this is a very shallow summary of these narrative patterns, and I’m interested in conducting a more detail-oriented and nuanced study.

A Woman of a Certain Age

It’s so strange how Tumblr culture fetishizes youth, like, it’s all about promoting creativity and social justice until a woman is older than 21, at which she should really get a life and stop messing around in fandom. And this is especially bizarre because most of the content creators I know on Tumblr are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

Instead of trying to fight this attitude, I’ve decided to embrace its weirdness wholeheartedly and start hardcore lying about my age.

From now on I am going to tell people that I am 57 years old and got into fandom when I retired.

…But actually, though. About a year ago I commissioned a drawing from an artist whose character designs I admire, and when I found out (from her profile on Paypal, of all places) that she has an online portfolio, I visited her site and realized that she had worked as a successful commercial artist for decades and decided to only draw self-indulgent fan art once she retired.

That woman is awesome, and I aspire to be exactly like her one day.