The Fan Fiction Investigation: Part One.

Fan-fiction is often something we laugh at, even deride openly as a pathetic attempt to get to grips more with a medium we think we’ll never be able to write for, professionally. However, there are some (me included) that occasionally have the pleasure of reading fan-fiction that deserves to be published just as much as the novels sitting on the shelves in Waterstones and Games Workshop.

I wanted to delve into the idea of videogames and their relationship with tie-in fiction, not to mention other types of games as well, from roleplaying to tabletop strategy. So I caught up with two writers that I consider extremely special people in my history as an enthusiast of tie-in material; Graham McNeill – he who wrote the wonderful Starcraft novels, not to mention his wealth of novels for Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint – and Eric Nylund, the very special gentleman who wrote The Fall of Reach as a prequel to the famous Halo: Combat Evolved.

Let me give you a little background on my literature-centralised relationship with these two authors, first. Eric was my sounding board for the Halo franchise. At first, it wasn’t my thing, outside of four-player Blood Gulch with some friends when I was only just emerging into my teenage years. The single-player campaign didn’t interest me much, as I was never a fan of first-person-shooters as a kid. I’d like to think Nylund’s The Fall of Reach helped me into the Halo universe. He knew Master Chief inside out, and helped to portray his journey from John-117 into the suited and booted badass mother we know him as now.

I caught up with him via email – obviously, he’s a really busy man, as his involvement with Master Chief’s super-accelerated pubescent years have turned him into the ideal fellow for the job when it comes to helping sculpt a certain game not out yet that I can’t mention out of respect to Eric, but I’m sure anyone into his work can guess what it might be about. I assumed he must be a fan of the games, to want to write so passionately about covenant and assault rifles for hundreds of pages, but I was curious – when writing tie in fiction, was this a disadvantage?

“I think any writer needs a certain degree of fondness for their subject matter,” he said, “or they’re not going to have any enthusiasm in their writing. At the same time being TOO fond of the subject matter can cloud your objectivity. That’s a problem with any writing – getting [an] objective view of your work and knowing when to edit it.”

He’s not wrong. I think the main problem with fan fiction tends to lie in the fact that we’re all to keen to have Master Chief and the Arbiter participate in the ultimate chilli cook-off, and when we have to edit it out to make room for the big fight against the Flood at the end of our EPIC Halo 3 novelisation, we get grumpy. Writers are always going to suffer when rewriting their drafts before submission – if you’re not willing to cut your leg off, you’re going to remain trapped under that boulder for a long, long time. It may hurt like all hell, but at least you’re going somewhere (hopefully to the police/hospital, in this bizarre metaphorical example).

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with being too familiar with your subject matter, says Eric. “In fact, what usually happens is you do a heck of a lot of research, world building and character planning… and only use a tiny fraction of that stuff.” There’s nothing wrong with building an entire wiki simply for use with your upcoming tie-in bestseller, and this goes for amateur science fiction as well. If you’re willing to make the effort to really delve into the subject matter, the other loyal fans who’re likely to sift through your fan-piece are going to appreciate you more for it. It’s easier to rise through the ranks as a respected enthusiast than a cash-in artist.

When I asked him if HE ever wrote any fan-fiction prior to going pro, he responded in the negative. “I was one of those rare creatures who came late in life to writing, started actually in graduate school and before that took the absolute minimum of English classes. I found I loved writing!” His love paid off, as he sold his first novel, Pawn’s Dream, way back in 1995, and has been writing ever since.

If there’s any message this sends, it’s not to worry about starting to write fiction past the age of twenty, or thirty, or forty… if you’re lacking in passion, starting at the age of twelve is still not going to get you anywhere. Skill at writing is, of course, a natural talent to a degree, but that doesn’t mean successful authors didn’t sometimes get to where they were simply by overcoming that handicap with a lot of practise and perseverance.

Eric does wonder about the legal side to fan fiction, however. “It’s a sticky legal subject, that’s for sure… As an author who represents a franchise, even commenting on fan fiction can be construed or misconstrued as tacit approval of fan fiction , and thereby erode its protective copyrights. This  hasn’t happened with Halo, or any of my works, but it has happened to a fair number of authors.”

It’s tough, being at the top. Many tie-in authors often get bombarded with requests asking them to read someone’s four hundred-thousand word manuscript about a Grunt and a Jackal embroiled in a passionate affair only to be discovered by Master Chief as he rolls past their reclusive spot in a fully-armed Warthog, and the ensuing events. As hilarious as it sounds, professional writers do have to keep their distance when it comes to endorsing a medium that – to be honest – takes business away from them and their franchise, and edorses moving away from the canon material. Not that everyone wouldn’t read that book, anyway. I would.

Most people write fan fiction simply for enjoyment. However, a few do it with the express purpose of graduating from that level to the ranks of professional – and most importantly, paid – tie-in authors. I asked Eric to suggest a few tips to those aiming to make it to the big leagues. “Getting published certainly helps. I was approached to write the first Halo novel because people in the franchise division of Microsoft were familiar with my novels. And as far as getting involved with game narrative — one of the things that probably got me in the door at Microsoft Game Studios 10 years ago was a writing sample that consisted of my fifth hardback novel, Signal to Noise.”

However, he does end up wondering if fan fiction writers may simply be far happier creating their own worlds, when I asked him about what he thought of fan-fiction relating to HIS novels. “What I would do instead is encourage fledgling writers to explore their own worlds and write their own short stories and novels based on intellectual properties of their own devising.  It’s intoxicating and addictive!”

Eric is currently about to release his latest novel, titled All That Lives Must Die. You can find his blog and ton of information (and even writing advice – treasure this, it’s a rare online resource) at his website.

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