However, knowing how not to do this sort of garbage accidentally doesn’t fix the problem of the willfully ignorant or bigoted. It doesn’t spare us McCaffrey’s ignorant homophobia or Card’s malignant homophobia and warmongering. It doesn’t save us from Rowling’s transphobia or Dahl’s antisemitism.
But it does make it a little easier to understand how people whose fundamental worldviews are so profoundly warped can nevertheless produce works with characters whose experiences and difficulties resonate with our own. They’re painting a picture. They just aren’t always understanding what they’re painting. Does the camera know what it captures?
The thing these four authors have in common is that they are or were adept and evocative storytellers. But there is nothing inherently benign about storytelling.
Storytelling is a blade. Blades can be used to cut down grain, cut food, or slit a throat. The blade doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective. And sometimes even the blades that are useful to us hurt us. Sometimes the dullest blades hurt the worst when they slip.
I’ve recently seen several posts with tens of thousands of notes circulating around Tumblr that are extremely critical of the idea of fanfic writers accepting donations to support their activities. Many of them, such as the one excerpted above, refer to the guidelines of AO3, which are meant to defend the right of the site to exist on the basis that the content it hosts is purely transformative and not intended for profit. The undertone of these posts, however, is a strong pushback against the idea that fanfic writers might aspire to the same levels of professional success and support as other creators in fandom.
I would like to argue that the idea that fan writers deserve to have a choice whether to receive compensation for their work is reasonable, especially since many highly visible fan artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars every month through donation sites like Patreon and Ko-fi.
Yes, intellectual property is protected by law and legal precedent, and it’s important to understand fandom history and to respect the ongoing battle AO3 has to fight. And yes, fan writers use copyright-protected names and scenarios. At the same time, fan artists use protected names, scenarios, and images, while YouTubers and streamers use protected sound and video – and sometimes the entirety of the protected work. If the “transformative work” and “added value” and “critical commentary” and “performance” arguments of fair use laws apply to visual artists, video creators, and streamers, why don’t they work for writers?
There are three things going on here.
The first is that AO3 is an independent NPO, not a giant media conglomerate. Even if YouTube is forced to take down certain videos that violate intellectual property laws, YouTube itself is not in danger of being taken offline. AO3 is in a much more precarious situation and therefore has to be extra cautious. This is an issue specific to AO3, however, and it’s not universally applicable to other hosting and sharing sites.
The second is that many media corporations in the United States consider digital images to be ephemeral, meaning that they have a short shelf life in the popular consciousness. Fan art and video streams shared on social media will help to promote a piece of media while it’s still trendy, but they also tend to be quickly consumed and discarded and thus aren’t perceived as being in danger of becoming long-term competition for the original media property. Because it used to be published in the form of physical books and magazines, fanfic was considered to be competition, but this perception has changed, partially due to the support fanfic has received from commercially successful writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.
The third is sexism. This is complicated; but, to make a long story short, fanfic has been treated differently because, unlike illustration and video editing, it is primarily associated with communities of women.
Media industries overwhelmingly dominated by men, such as comics and movies, have always provided ways for younger male fans to enter the industry as professionals. There is a long history of commercial studios actively scouting emerging talent from popular fan artists and amateur video producers, so media corporations have a vested interest in not completely shutting down spaces in which these creators can develop and exhibit their talents. For example, an aspiring comic artist can take his portfolio of X-Men character illustrations to a comics convention to show to an industry representative, and Marvel will hire him if they like his fan art. Because these industries have traditionally been male-dominated, however, the work of women was seen as derivative and embarrassing. A male artist who drew a fan comic would get a job, and a woman who wrote fanfic of the same media property would get a cease and desist letter.
Moreover, women have historically been expected to be the keepers of public morality. For instance, a male professor who writes mediocre novels about cheating on his wife with underage female students can easily be promoted to the head of a prestigious creative writing program, while a woman in any profession can be in danger of losing her job for writing any novel at all. Because of this, many female writers have had to hide their creative careers in a way that male artists and video producers have not. Even though these prejudices are fading, many fic writers are still very serious about protecting their real names and identities. At the same time, many fan artists and other creators use their fanwork to promote themselves while using their professional names – and, thanks to social media, we can now see that not all of these creators are male.
Because a new generation of female and nonbinary fan artists, animators, video producers, and streamers are now comfortable pursuing their creative careers while using their professional names and accepting donations while they establish themselves, it only makes sense that fan writers would want to do the same thing. After all, if people like Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson can go from posting popular fan art and fan comics on Tumblr to becoming mainstream showrunners, why couldn’t a female or nonbinary fanfic writer go on to become an actual scriptwriter for the next, say, Star Wars or Pokémon movie? If illustrators, comic artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive donations to support their fanwork while they establish their careers, what arbitrary rule says that writers can’t do the same thing while still respecting AO3’s legal guidelines?
There is an entire generation of younger writers who have come into fandom with ambitions of professional success and no understanding of why they should feel pressured to separate their fandom identity from their professional identity or why they shouldn’t have the choice to receive the same support as creators working in other mediums. Instead of mocking younger writers for not knowing fandom history – and instead of shaming older writers for resisting outdated prejudices – I think it’s worth it to support them and hopefully change the culture.
Most people don’t want donations and only think of fandom as a fun escapist hobby, but writers should still be able to access the same choices as other creatives. I’ve already shared my thoughts about the issues I personally have with Patreon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to explore that option for themselves. After all, writers have to be supported for fanfic to survive.
I feel like I could write an entire book about this – and I have! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the publisher can stick to the May 2020 release date, because I’d really like to talk more about fandom and cultural change, as well as what the achievements of artists might suggest about the future of fiction.
Haunted Haiku collects of 147 horror-themed haiku. Some are eerie, some are elegiac, some are homages to cult horror films, and some are just weird.
This zine is fifty pages long and standard half-letter size. This was my first time printing a zine with perfect binding (in which the pages are glued instead of stapled together), and I underestimated how large the interior margins need to be. I’m almost sold out of this zine (although there are still a few copies left on Etsy), but I’m going to change the font size if I ever end up doing a reprint.
The cover art is by the Australian writer, illustrator, and comic artist Sarah Winifred Searle (@swinsea on Twitter). It was an incredible honor to be able to work with her! It was actually Sarah who came up with the title of this zine. I was going to call it “Horror Haiku” (like my other two haiku zines), but Sarah suggested that “Haunted Haiku” might sound nicer. She was right, of course, which is one of the many reasons why it’s always wonderful to collaborate with artists on projects like this.
In any case, this is the first zine I took to be sold at Atomic Books in Baltimore, which is one of my favorite independent bookstores in the world. One of the reasons I love Atomic Books is that their shelves of zines are the first thing you see when you walk in the door, which makes you feel as if you’re stepping into a unique and special space. Anyone can buy books on Amazon, which is why I appreciate when independent bookstores use their physical location as a way to bring an actual community of writers and readers together. Getting an email from Atomic Books saying that they would be interested in receiving a few copies of this zine is definitely one of the coolest things to happen to me this year.
Although I’ve written fanfiction on and off for decades, I got really serious about fandom around November 2014. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of fic since then; and, for the most part, it was a positive and rewarding experience. Although I’m still wrapping up a few ongoing fandom-related projects, I’ve started to think about publishing original fiction.
I published a chapbook called Ghost Stories in November 2018, and it collects thirteen short stories that occupy the space between horror, magical realism, and autobiography. It’s 28 pages long, standard half-letter size, and professionally printed with a velvet-touch cover and glossy interior pages by a service called Mixam. The tagline for the chapbook, which appears on the back cover, is this: These are the stories I tell myself to help make sense of a truth that’s too strange to be believed. Sometimes ghosts are kinder than the living.
The cover artist is Kirsten Brown (@unknownbinaries on Tumblr), who creates absolutely incredible horror-themed art.
In the spring of 2014, I made a half-letter size photocopied zine that collected thirty horror-themed haiku. I had so much fun putting it together that I made a second issue the very next week. I was teaching at Notre Dame that year and driving to Chicago practically every weekend to stay sane, and I spent a lot of time at Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. I took a handful of zines to Quimby’s to ask if they would take them on consignment, and they agreed. This turned out to be an incredibly transformative experience for me.
I was expected to teach a course on Japanese cinema during the spring semester, so I spent the summer and fall reading recent issues of about half a dozen different Cinema Studies journals from cover to cover. There are a number of excellent independent theaters in Philadelphia (and Tokyo), so I’d watched a lot of movies during grad school. I was excited about movies, and I was excited about Cinema Studies. I was also high off the experience of having finished my dissertation, so I ended up being very productive and writing a handful of essays about horror movies, which I sent to the specific journals whose articles and general editorial voices inspired me.
Everything I wrote was rejected without even going to peer review. Because the editors felt no need to be anonymous, they told me exactly why they rejected my work, and I knew exactly who they were.
Basically, I am gay and I love monsters, and I was looking at horror films from the perspectives of Queer Studies, which was a major focus of my dissertation, and Disability Studies, which was just starting to emerge as a discipline at the time. What one older straight white man after another told me was that, while my essays were well-written and skillfully argued, I lacked the “critical distance” necessary to engage in serious scholarship in Cinema Studies. Also, because I was writing about East Asian cinema, DO NOT GET ME STARTED on the racism I encountered. (I’m especially looking at you, British academics.)
I should have pushed back or tried to reach out to other female and female-identified scholars who wrote about East Asian cinema, but what I ended up doing was crying. I cried kind of a lot, actually. I cried and watched movies and wrote a bunch of horror haiku, which eventually became these two zines.
When Quimby’s agreed to put my zines on the shelves of their store, it gave me the courage I needed to keep writing. It’s not that my work wasn’t worth being read; it’s that I was trying to get it past the wrong gatekeepers. Once I realized that a smug rejection from some narrow-minded older white man didn’t mean that there was something wrong with my writing or scholarship, I started submitting to different venues and, thankfully, getting my work published.
Zines have historically served as a platform for minority voices that have been denied expression in mainstream and more traditional venues, and that’s how they worked for me. Honestly, Quimby’s Bookstore probably saved my academic career. Be gay! Make zines!!
Both of these zines have long since sold out, but you can still find my old horror haiku (here).
How I turned an idea into an outline
Then I calculated how many scenes I need in which part of the story. My WIP is a YA or 12+ book, so I want it to contain about 75,000 words in total. I want my scenes to be around 1,000 words long to keep it snappy, so I need 75 scenes.
This is an interesting and useful post about how to plot a novel, and I appreciate that it succinctly cuts through the bullshit of so many mainstream writing guides that are often treated as one-size-fits-all industry standards. I tend to structure my plots a bit differently than the method suggested in this essay, but it’s still helpful to think of a huge project like writing a novel as “75 chunks of 1,000 words, give or take.” What this set of numbers means is that, if I can write a thousand words in a week, which is absolutely doable for me, then I can have the first draft of a novel finished in about a year and a half. Nice!
As an aside, I’m going to have to admit that I find the obsession with wordcounts a bit ridiculous. I understand that wordcounts help writers keep track of the progress they’re making, but it bothers me when it’s taken for granted that wordcount defines genre. What I love about literary fiction, as well as fiction published outside the United States, is that it defies the unwritten rule that something needs to be a certain number of words or pages in order to have market value. I actually really enjoy novellas and longer stories and essays that don’t fit into neat American categories! I resent the expectation that a manuscript needs to weigh in at 130,000 words in order to be taken seriously, but I can start evaluating the market once I have something to sell. Until then, I might as well enjoy myself without worrying too much.
“I don’t like that no one has written about this” has the potential to be super offensive. The chances are that someone most definitely has published writing on the topic, but the person making this statement hasn’t bothered to look for it.
I see this all the time in academic essays that I peer review. The author will claim that “there has not yet been any serious writing on this topic,” either having failed to do their research or thinking it’s somehow okay to dismiss prior research without reading it.
Along the same lines, “members of [minority group] never get published” is incredibly hurtful to writers who have gone through the arduous process of publishing only for their existence to be denied by people who would rather perform outrage than seek out and promote their work.
Support emerging writers!
Support lesser-known writers!
Support marginalized writers!