The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Writing Techniques 101.2

Posted by BigWords on March 6, 2011

[ETA – I scheduled this post, but forgot to hit the ‘post’ button. Belated Sunday post now resumes…]

Having covered original material, it is time to look at the longstanding tradition of writing with a view to an existing property. You should have read at least some fanfic by now – the form goes all the way back to the earliest known stories, in one way or another, and has seen a serious increase in popularity with dedicated websites hosting thousands of stories by fans of television series, films and books. You may consider this to be a rather shady corner of the writing world, or have moral concerns about writing a character created by an established author, but this is a neat way to stretch your abilities. Before moving on to the ways that such writing can be therapeutic for the blocked writer, I should point out some of the basic rules which you should stick to if you intend to do anything with the material generated by this method of writing.

1. Only use characters which are in the public domain. This clears the use of the story for publication, if that is what you want.
2. Don’t post material to fan fiction sites unless you’re using characters covered by copyright. No-one wants to publish a previously-published story.
3. If you want to explore the world of the character in more depth, create an expy of the character for your exclusive use.

There are so many ways in which this has helped my writing that there is no way to properly list of the ways I have appropriated ideas without this post running long. The majority of material generated by looking to old characters tends towards the in-jokey end of the spectrum, but I’m sure you can find ways to present stories without dropping names and references every few paragraphs. Having said that, I will avoid the problem of relaying the origin of The Ghost Bureau novel here again, and quickly move on… There’s a similarly connected (though slightly different) way of using existing works to spur your ideas on – the shared universe. There are various incarnations of the concept of a shared universe, the most blatant being comic book continuity, though much more interesting (and rounded) characters are to be found in such series as the Wold Newton books and commentaries, the Anno Dracula books, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

There have been so many Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes stories written that I really shouldn’t have to expand on the notion of using already known characters to help the creative process on its’ way a little, but this is where most people tend to fall into traps which are very easy to avoid – Don’t pick the most obvious characters, nor the ones which have had most adventures. There are hundreds of minor characters who could sustain a story of their own, and many, many objects which could benefit from a more detailed history.

Today’s post is a challenge of sorts: Find a character from a novel published between 1870 and 1900, who has not been cast as a main character in a subsequent novel, and provide them with a short story which expands on their experiences. You don’t have to share it with the world (this is all no-pressure writing tips), and you don’t have to agonize over any of the elements you use. Have fun with the material…


4 Responses to “Writing Techniques 101.2”

  1. This and many other lessons can be obtained at Gary’s University of Awesome.

    On a serious note, I really do enjoy your blog. Have you ever taught or considered teaching?

  2. bigwords88 said

    Thank you. 🙂

    Teaching is a profession for those who have level heads, an infinite pool of patience to draw from, and who know how to deal with troublemakers without resorting to cruel and unusual punishments. I am too eccentric, quirky and prone to throwing things to make a good teacher. There are enough teachers who are dragging down the profession without me adding to the problem.

  3. semmie said

    I agree, actually. I think you’d make a phenomenal teacher. I think I’ve learned more from your blog than I learned in my college English courses.

  4. bigwords88 said

    Ah, but those courses are… Oh, jeez, there’s no easy way of saying this without pissing off a bunch of teachers and colleges. How about looking at the English courses taught in schools and colleges this way: There’s a foundation (a bedrock upon which to build an understanding of words, writing and reading), and there’s the house. Without the foundation, you’ll miss out on some rather obscure and influential works, some of which are very dry, but it won’t dent your enthusiasm if you know the good stuff is coming along shortly… The house (continued reading and writing) is what you see, but the foundation is holding it up. You don’t necessarily want to see the foundation, but it is essential.

    This (everything on my blog) tends towards the “house” part of the equation rather than the “foundation” part – I really hope that people know the difference between the two by now, but, in case there is any doubt, posts such as this one pop up every now and again. I try not to beat people over the brow with the standard material taught in colleges (some readings of texts taught at the moment are less than canon), but if there is call for the essentials, there are great places to read up on the underpinning architecture of the English language, and the forms which can be bent to a writer’s needs – I’ve very nearly managed to bring people around to the notion that beginning a sentence with “and” is not verboten, but I’m struggling to keep people from jumping to other (long since abandoned) quirks of traditional education.

    FWIW, there are so many regulations in place these days about what can be taught that anything I deemed important (understanding nuances used by certain authors, for example) would probably be nixed.

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