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Filing Off the Serial Numbers

January 25, 2012

Many of us have been in the position of having written fanfiction. Hell, I think most of the authors populating the M/M-gay romance genre got their start in fanfiction. And, at times, we have looked at the 80,000 word novel we wrote for our particular fandom, seen almost nothing of the source material in the work, and decided… hell, why not turn it into an original manuscript and make some money off the hard work we did?

Well, because it’s not that easy. I can’t tell you the number of books I’ve picked up that are barely more than poorly disguised fanfiction. From Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Sherlock Holmes, it’s depressing. And the fact that publishers are publishing it! Now, I’ve seen people say that some publishers might not be wholly familiar with those fandoms or source material, but I say, come on. I’ve never read Sherlock Holmes and only have the vaguest introduction to Star Wars, but I can see a fanfic when I read it. A mass search and replace with names and places does not equal filing off the serial numbers.

Let’s start with the simplest issue: Fanfiction is paced differently than professional fiction. It’s true. It’s why you can see ‘Chapter 143 of ????’ attached to a fanfic. Authors can just ramble. They don’t know what’s really important for a reader versus what they simply want to write. Now, the two are not mutually exclusive, but for the most part? Fanfiction is windy. Plot holes abound, and there seems no end of ‘twists’ an author can weave in.

The second issue? Characterization. Or, actually, the lack thereof. In fanfiction, you have the source material as well as fanon to fill in most of your characterization and worldbuilding gaps. Authors don’t have to think about where to put Aragorn or how he would react to something, Tolkien has already done that for them. This leads to weak characters and squirrely worldbuilding, and it’s usually a tell-tale sign that someone hasn’t put the work in to file off the serial numbers.

Third issue tends to be plot related. Many fanfics depend on the core plot elements of the source material, or made up elements based on the source material. This can make things exceedingly difficult when you want turn it into something original. When the original story is so entrenched in the fabric of the original world the author borrowed from, changing it enough to be different and original can be impossible without extensive rewrites. And, by that point, why not start from scratch anyway and begin something new and wholly yours?

But, in the end, sometimes we want to take that story we did put so much time and effort in, alter it, and share it with a larger audience for pay. Nothing wrong with that, but you need to keep those three main issues in mind when you approach that old fanfic and dust it off. Not to mention the very good chance that your writing voice itself may have changed since you wrote it.

Revision is not the word for what needs to be done. Rewrite is. If you have a 25,000 word fanfic to offer, it better end up as a 50,000 word category novel. You should add a significant amount of new material to make up for the lacking of source material. Worldbuilding, characterization, plot, and relationships all need to be approached with a fresh eye and a strong red pen. Don’t just mass replace the names. Sit down and think about those characters. Who are they? What drives them? What are the fighting for or against? What is their motivation to go from who they are in the beginning of the story to who they should become by the end? All questions you should be able to answer—in detail—about these characters once you pull them from their source material.

The world. What about the world? What is it? Where is it? How does it look? What is its structure? What races live in that world? What are the political ties of those races? The questions are endless, and you should think about them in depth before taking on the challenge of reworking a fanfic. The world needs to be as original and alive as the characters. Yes, there can be some ties to the source material—taking your medieval elves out of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but keeping the medieval aspect and placing them in your own world—but you need to be careful. The broader themes are fine, as the literary world only has about five plots, but the finer points—how Fëanor was the King of the Noldor and led their rebellion against the Valar—need to be altered completely. Don’t make Fëanor into Fyner, King of the Spider Elves or some such thing and change nothing about Fyner himself and the world he influenced.

Have I filed off the serial numbers? Yep. What began as a filing off of serial numbers turned into a three year long creation of a world, creatures, religion, gods, afterlife, and characters. And I’m doing it again, only applying a half-complete fanfic to a world I created two years ago and playing with the past of that world. But it’s hard work, and whether or not I am successful will depend on editing and the reception the various stories receive from my audience.

In the end, I hope I’ve done well. I hope I took the kernel of idea I had begun to wrap in fanfiction and created gorgeous and rich stories people will love instead of scorn as recognizable ripoffs. (Which, btw, they aren’t ripoffs as I’m, by no means, trying to recreate the source material I originally fell in love with. >.> Just sayin’.) I want my characters to be my characters, and deep down, they are, as they bear no resemblance to their source material counterparts.

If you’re going to file off the serial numbers, do it right, do it well. Make the stories and characters your own. Stop looking over into the other sandbox and just build your castle in your own. 🙂 It can be done. You just need the fortitude and support to ensure it’s done right.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2012 9:40 am

    I just want to say thanks for this. I see a lot of back-and-forth about converting fanfiction to original fic, and yours is the only one that’s stated pretty much exactly what I feel about it. It’s not easy to do (although easier if you’re working with contemporaries), but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. I’ve “filed off the serial numbers” several times, and I’m in the midst of doing another one. If you take the time and make the effort to create something that’s truly original, the origins of the “first draft” shouldn’t matter. 🙂

  2. January 25, 2012 2:44 pm

    I’ve filed off the serial numbers. It’s harder than it looks. I tried doing it on an AU fic set during the Age of Sail. Everything was much too thin to pass muster.

    I’ve also done cracked-out crossover fic without the serial numbers. “Songs for Guitar and French Harp” is an end product of a lot of Star Wars/Persian Boy/UC:Undercover fanfic, with a dash of Queer as Folk, as filtered by Merle Haggard. Arthur’s protectiveness is pure Han Solo, and Gordon is really just Bagoas in Lion-drag.

    And a lesbian story hit me a couple days ago. I got two paragraphs into it and I realized it was more Han/Luke slash, with girls. Cynical starhopper, older, grouchier, looking forward to the rocker at the Old Spacer’s Home, gets sucked into one last run by a pretty girl.

  3. January 26, 2012 9:10 am

    Flipping fanfic is a bitch, but yeah, it can be done. When I hit the wall on an original piece, I turned to an old fanfic with the idea of cleaning it up for publication. You know, just a fast one-off. Change the details, get rid of those easily identifiable quirks…etc.

    Ha! Little did I know! The original story got a complete face lift and turned into a much, much longer manuscript that was accepted just a couple weeks ago. Once I figured out who the main character was in his new iteration, he grabbed hold of the story and took me for one hell of a ride.

    I don’t feel the least bit guilty about plundering my old stories. I wrote ’em. The words are mine. However, the characters aren’t and so I must do the hard work of creating new ones if I want to flp the stories.

    I think I’m sort of stuck with the Sylar stories, though. ;/

  4. January 26, 2012 12:23 pm

    Shae — I’m glad I made some sense! 🙂 It is difficult, though not impossible, if done right. Its the ‘if done right’ aspect of that statement that people seem to forget. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve bought a book that was just a search and replace for names. So very, very frustrating. Fanfiction is a particular beast, and it doesn’t necessarily follow the same rules that professional fiction does. As tempting as the short cut is, best to take the time necessary and rewrite the fanfiction idea into a whole new, original work to offer to readers.

  5. January 26, 2012 12:24 pm

    Angelia — It’s quite hard! I’m in the midst of a manuscript now that began as a fanfic, and it’s not easy. It takes a lot of reworking and rewriting to remove the source material, and then add the new backstory, history, and worldbuilding necessary to create something entirely new and original. It’s time consuming and frustrating at times.

    I feel fanfiction is a fine place to cultivate ideas, but it takes work and forethought to turn those ideas into something you should expect people to pay for. 🙂

  6. January 26, 2012 12:24 pm

    Theo — Yep, it’s hard! I’m in the midst of filing off the serial numbers, and it’s a pain in the ass. XD But, I know the end product will be worth every annoyance and frustrated hands throwing.

    And I think no one should feel guilty for doing it, so long as they took the time and effort to do it right. Nothing makes me put an author on my Do Not Buy list than a poorly recycled fanfic. When it’s easily identifiable, then I don’t feel I got my money’s worth. I want something that shows me the author put thought and time into their creation.

  7. January 26, 2012 9:16 pm

    I definitely put time and effort into the rewrite. Changed the venue, changed the characters, and only kept some of the original writing. I was amazed at how the story carried me along, becoming, in essence, something entirely new. There is NO WAY anyone would think this is fanfic.

    But the original piece gave me a great jumping off spot, and jump off I did!

  8. January 26, 2012 9:44 pm

    I am doing a filing-off of a couple action sequences for a lesbian story. They were completely original scenes in a fanfic (Luke climbing a cliff without any Force use, a shuttle crash) The characters are my own, and the plot is different, but I will swipe a few thousand words of my own work. My fanfic is all long gone.

  9. January 28, 2012 11:58 am

    God it’s hard… Oracle was a reworked 20k fan fic that ended up as a 54k novel… but hell the idea was there…I just had to make sure I de-ff’d like a ho!

    ROFL… if only it WAS easy… sighs…

    RJX

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