Writing undercover on the web

February 3rd, 2012 § 21 comments

Confession: I’m a serious fan of the TV show, Castle,  which stars the ‘Geek God’, the witty Nathan Fillion, and the beautiful, and enviably multilingual, Stana Katic. What does this have to do with publishing, you may ask. Well, a lot it turns out.

I tweet about Castle under a ‘Castley’ pseudonym, and fangirl with the best of them (many of them teenagers, but also a fair smattering of English majors, doctors, teachers, film/media types, and of course, Firefly fans). What became increasingly interesting to me as I watched the show and followed fans on Twitter was the way the show crossed the usual boundaries of fandoms, media types and genres. I was particularly fascinated with how a show about a crime writer seemed to be encouraging young people to read long-form narrative that they might not have read otherwise, if they read books at all.

On the one hand, there are the very successful, high profile, offical tie-in ‘Nikki Heat’ novels (the main character of the novels written by the eponymous Castle), themselves the supposed work of ‘Richard Castle’, complete with a cover photo of Nathan Fillion/Richard Castle.

On the other hand, there is ‘fanfic’, fan-written fiction that flies under the radar. I kept seeing references to ‘fanfic’ on my Twitter timeline and decided to take a look. Expecting the worst (and believe me, the worst is there too), I was delighted to find not only OK writers, but truly brilliant ones, none more so than the fabulous ‘chezchuckles’ (took me a while to get the Edith Wharton reference).

Fanfic sits at the margins of mainstream creative endeavour, and interrogates established views of what it means to be a writer; the meaning of intellectual property, creativity, originality, ‘ownership’, boundaries, and the nature of ‘public’. Of course, as a publishing person and daughter of an artist, I have an uneasy relationship with how fanfic steps on these well-established fences, but am fascinated too. This leaching of boundaries is exemplified by the infinite trail of hyperlinks on the web (Derrida anyone?). Fanfic too seems to embody a paradox that is afforded by the digital space: it both harks back to the days of Dickens in the way it is written and ‘published’, and also shows a potential path for mainstream publishing.

The longer fanfics are serialised, with the popular ones being updated every day or so. Many chapters end on true cliff-hangers; readers are included in the writing process. Writers invite their readers to review each chapter and sometimes even to suggest pointers for the narrative arc. ‘Beta’ readers, who qualify for the role by being writers themselves, edit the chapters before they are posted. An incredible community is built around the stories, and Tumblr and Twitter are alive with cross blogging, reviews, and accolades for favourite writers.

And the fans read and read.

From the perspective of the Studio, the fanfic is integral to keeping interest in the show alive, for instance during the Summer hiatus, or if fans have been disappointed with the ending of an episode (Castle fans have a favourite saying: ‘in Andrew M Marlowe we trust’, but he puts us to the test sometimes). Fanfic could be seen as free marketing, and it has been acknowledged by the writers and cast of Castle that fan power, particularly on Twitter, played a huge role in getting ABC to retain the series after its modest first season (the show is now well into its fourth).

Laura Bontrager

Laura Bontrager

So as well as being a fan of the show,  the ‘mechanics’ of fanfic interests me from a publishing perspective, and of course, I love good writing. After having read a few stories by ‘chezchuckles’, I wrote to her to ask if she had written any of her own material, and it turns out that ‘chezchuckles’ is Laura Bontrager, an unassuming school library assistant (I just knew she had read widely) from Tennessee, who indeed had written an unpublished novel.

So together we will be publishing Laura’s novel, a romance, appropriately called Fences, and we will once again use the web-based production tool, PressBooks to produce it. PressBooks seems the ideal vehicle for reader interaction and engagement (in addition to producing valid EPUBS).

To good writing, wherever one may find it.


Addendum: You can follow Laura on Twitter @lily_bart (yes, another Edith Wharton reference!).

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  • JenniferW2323

    Big fan of Laura’s on FF.net, and I am really looking forward to reading Fences.

    • That’s great, Jennifer. We’ll be asking readers for comments on the first chapter when it goes up on the web, much like in fanfic.

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  • Molly

    I have loved, loved all of Laura’s Castle fic, and can’t wait to read her book.:)

    • Thanks Molly, I feel the same way about Laura’s Castle fic.:)

  • Brian Oleary

    Thanks for the PressBooks mention… Hugh McGuire has been busy leading a team to introduce and now improve it as a tool.

    I think one of the things that we forget as writers (me included) is that we all started out as readers. We build our own voices by imitating others before striking off on our own. Great jazz artists didn’t burst onto the scene without practice; they learned how to do what was accepted before extending and improvising.

    There’s some tension, of course, in situations where homage and practice feels like stealing. But even the original Castle books borrow from well-established writers and writing. The concepts are seldom new. At least in this fan-fiction case, a rising tide carried many boats.

    • Thanks Brian, yes precisely re jazz or indeed the great painters. The queston of what is original vs what is ‘new’ is really put to the test by the best fanfic.

      As a ‘genre’, it also questions the idea of the sole creator that is so much part of how we, in the West at least, think about creativity. The communal approach to storytelling around the campfire of old is now being refacilitated (is there such a word?) by social media, the web, and such tools as PressBooks. (Thanks Hugh and team.)

  • I’ve been reading fanfiction for nearly half my life and written my share of stories as well. I’ve jumped from fandom to fandom, seen a lot of crap (of course, this is after all something anyone could get into) but a lot of really amazing stuff as well. I have come across a handful of writers whose work I really admire, but I have to say that when it comes to Laura, not only do I admire her, I am in awe of her. It’s very rare for me to find a writer who can take the characters in pretty much ANY direction and make it completely believeable.

    Having been in the ‘game’ for such a huge part of my life, I’ve grown rather picky when it comes to what I can and cannot accept in a story. Some years back I may have been willing to gloss over some aspects if the overall story was decent, but now I find myself abandoning stories more quickly – often over minor mishaps… So to state that I am willing to follow a writer on any path they may wish to take with a character is pretty special. I wish her all the best in her original writing, but the selfish part of me really hope she stays in the fanfiction game for years to come 🙂

    • Indeed, Guro B, I’m new to fanfic, but that was my response too

  • I’m a huge fan of Castle fic, and Laura and a handful of others are on my watch list. I’m excited that she’s getting published and can’t wait to read it.
    I’m probably not the usual type to read FF–I’m in my 30s, have 2 kids, etc. I initially discounted it because if I actually have time to read, I want to read “real books.” But once I weeded my way through “the worst” I was hooked. My life is stressful most of the time, and for me there’s something comforting and relaxing about reading stories about my favorite characters. (Especially when they get the happy endings we all want) I get unreasonably excited when I see updates in my inbox; they’re like my morning coffee now. I’m an artist too, and they may have even inspired some sketchbook doodles, just as the show has. 🙂

    • Hi Angela, exactly!

  • Krista

    Laura’s fanfic is the only fanfic I read. I was really into fanfiction for a while but it was taking up too much of my time when I should have been doing more productive things. So I gave up fanfic but couldn’t give up Laura’s fanfic! I get a little thrill whenever I see an alert in my inbox for a new chapter. I can’t wait to read “Fences”!

    • Glad to hear it, Krista. We look forward to sharing Fences with you.

  • Hi Anna – Great minds think alike, as they say.  A truly excellent discovery – and I look forward to helping spread the word about Ms. Bontrager and ‘Fences’. 

    • Thanks very much, Rubia.

  • Thanks guys! I’m really looking forward to getting ‘Fences’ out there and seeing your response to it. I love the immediate feedback of ffnet and I have such amazing followers there. You guys are awesome!

    • Welcome to the site, Laura!

  • Little Lizzie Zentara

    I just found out that chezchuckles has written a non-Castle related story.  I’m so excited to read it!

    As for fan fiction, I discovered it about a year ago.  I understand concerns some people have about issues of ownership of a concept, but I think that most, if not all, Castle fan fiction writers and readers have the highest respect for Andrew Marlowe.   Writers are careful to put disclaimers that we own NOTHING of Castle, and it’s not just for legal reasons.  I for one am in awe of the man’s genius, especially when it comes to character development.  The stories I write are after hours of analyzing trying to get inside the characters’ heads.  I’ve heard this echoed time after time by fellow fan fiction authors.  Not for one moment do I forget whom the characters truly belong.

    • Yes, that was what I found in Castle fanfiction too. I see the best fanfiction as an homage to the writers and the characters.

      I’m glad you found Laura’s Fences.:)

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