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The New Adventures of Old Skywalker

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As fan fiction gains respect, opportunities expand for the genre's writers


Fan fiction has long been a part of Debra Doyle's life.

In high school, she concocted imaginary stories spun off of the original "Star Trek" series and handed the printed pages to her friends. Then after spending several years writing for academic purposes while getting her doctorate in Old English from the University of Pennsylvania, Doyle re-engaged her creative writing muscles by returning to fan fiction. Later, when she lived in Panama with her husband, James Macdonald, while he served in the Navy, they wrote fan fiction together inspired by "Star Wars"

"I always wanted to be a writer," says Doyle, 54, who lives in Colebrook, N.H. "Really there wasn't that much of a distinction when I got started with fan stuff and other stuff. It was pretty much things that I wrote."

So for Doyle, it wasn't surprising when she and her husband shifted from fan fiction to original short stories. By 1988 the couple's first short story had appeared in an anthology about werewolves. Today Doyle estimates that she and Macdonald have co-written more than 20 science fiction and fantasy books for adults and young adults.

Although not every fan fiction writer dreams of embarking on a career in writing, an increasing number of them are taking that path. James Bow dabbled in the fan fiction genre for about a decade before getting his first novel, "The Unwritten Girl," published last year. Isamu Fukui, a 17-year-old fan fiction writer and senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York, will have his first science fiction book, "Truancy," released in March. Naomi Novik, who wrote fan fiction as a teen before having the first book in her "Temeraire" series published last year, recently had the film rights of the first three books in the series bought by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson.

Doyle and other fan fiction writers liken their act of spinning off stories from beloved television series, film, books, or cartoons to the training done by fine artists. Painters often copy the work of artistic masters such as Degas or Renoir in an effort to learn their craft. Even Shakespeare culled stories from history and mythology...to create his influential work. But modern-day issues copyright infringement and intellectual property have made the reception of fan fiction more complicated. Add to that the discomfort created by fan fiction sub-genres such as slash, which focuses on the homoerotic pairing of male characters such as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of "Star Trek."

As a result, a stigma clings to fan fiction that is similar to the one that taints the science fiction/ fantasy genre. Some people don't want to admit that they write fan fiction. Meg Cabot, author of "The Princess Diaries," has said she only recently started acknowledging her fan fiction writing past.

Even as the publishing world addresses the genre's legal issues, some of its executives say they are open-minded about discovering talent on popular fan fiction weir sites such as livejournal.com, fan fiction.net, or fictionalley.org.

"I do think that the idea that publishers 'troll' fanfic sites is more myth than not," Patrick Nielsen Hayden, a senior editor at Tor Books in New York, wrote in an email, "but I will say this: If I had lots more spare time, I would."

The first stories Barry Jowett, editorial director of the Toronto-based publishing house Dundurn Group, wrote on his own were ones based on the television shows "Gilligan's Island" and "The Love Boat." But it was only after Jowett decided to publish Bow that he discovered Bow's own fan fiction past.

"I haven't knowingly signed any writers who started in fan fiction," says Jowett, who focuses on the young adult genre, "but I think it's a great way for people to develop as writers. It gets them focusing on plot."

Jowett believes the reaction to a writer's fan fiction past would depend on what genre an editor works in. "Anybody who's working on teen and children's fiction tends to be less pretentious," says Jowett, "and look at fan fiction as a positive thing. Literary editors tend to look down on any kind of genre."

Bow started writing fan fiction at the age of 14. He was a big fan of "Dr. Who," a long-running British television series about a man from another planet who can travel through time and space, and had joined a fan group called the Dr. Who Information Network, now online at dwin.org. The group's fanzine, Myth Makers, published Bow's first fan fiction contribution in 1991. Bow soon became an editor and regular contributor to the 'zine.

"The big help was from my mother," says Bow, 35, "who was herself a writer and gave me every encouragement to continue to write in fan fiction."

Bow says he spun off stories about "Dr. Who" because "the possibility of creating my own piece of the show was quite alluring." Doyle more deeply explains the allure of fan fiction writing when she says she was drawn to the fan fiction genre by "the impulse to tell more of the story or another story in the same universe or more stories about other people in the story."

The "Dr. Who" character can travel to the Napoleonic era or battle werewolves, which gives fans such as Bow plenty of creative ammunition — so much so that Bow created his own 'zine when he discovered he couldn't publish all of his work in Myth Makers. It was that secondary ,'zine that helped Bow take the first step toward writing original fiction. Instead of relying on the characterization of the various actors who had played "Dr. Who," Bow decided to create his own unique "Dr. Who" character for his 'zine. He published five issues of the 'zine in the early to mid-1990s.

"Working with the character you've already played with," says Bow, "getting to show how they work, allowed me to better understand how to create characters themselves:'

Although Doyle had long interspersed her fan fiction writing with original fiction writing, Bow had doubts as to whether he could make the transition to creating characters in a unique universe. He decided to make the leap after dabbling in Harry Potter fan fiction.

"What it told me was I wasn't tied to the 'Dr. Who' universe," says Bow. "I could create my own characters and my own universe." In 2001 he challenged himself to write an original novel, which turned out to be "The Unwritten Girl; and see if he could get it published. Jowett says when he read Bow's "The Unwritten Girl" manuscript, he was impressed by Bow's strong characters, settings, and style.

How does writing fan fiction compare to creating original work? Bow says, "It's basically the same, other than I have to spend more time creating the hero char acters, remember where they come from, what they've experienced .. . how that informs their reactions. I didn't have to do that in fan fiction because it was all there. The character has been previously explored:'

Doyle still occasionally returns to the fan fiction fold, most recently a year ago when she wrote some "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fan fiction. "Every so often the urge bites," says Doyle, "because it's something I want to say about a particular story. It's a particular fun that I want to have." But she's careful to keep her two writing identities separate.

Bow, however, never wrote fan fiction under a pseudonym. In fact, he has uploaded his early work onto such sites as fiction alley.org, sugarquill.net, and fan fiction.net. With two novels published and two more in the works, he doesn't feel a need to hide that aspect of his past and wonders why anyone would.

"I think personally — and I don't mean to denigrate anyone who's written under a pseudonym — it's an insecurity," says Bow. "This is what I did; I was writing fan fiction. I did this because I enjoy it. What I've done is used something I've enjoyed doing and made a career out of it. "


Caption: Debra Doyle (top) wrote fan fiction before writing original short stories, and still ocasionally returns to the fan fiction genre. James Bow (above) wrote fan fiction for about 10 years before getting his first original novel published last year.

Caption: Debra Doyle (left) has written fan fiction inspired by "Star Wars" (above) and "Star Trek." At 14, James Bow (below) started writing fan fiction stories based on the British series "Dr. Who," which starred Tom Baker (below left) as the Doctor.


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The Never-Ending Story

Fan fiction writers moving into publishing careers may seem new, but there's long been a group of writers who have written publishing company-sanctioned novels based on the work of acclaimed writers.

Fans of Jane Austen's beloved characters have created a mini industry spinning off novels based on Austen's work As far back as 1913, Sybil Brinton wrote "Old Friends and New Fancies," the first sequel to an Austen book. In the spirit of fan fiction, Brinton cobbled together characters from all six of Austen's novels to create a unique story. In this decade, Linda Berdoll continues to sate the public's desire to delve into the lives of Austen's imaginary characters with her work. Berdoll's 2004 novel "Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife" continues

the story of the characters Austen made famous in "Pride and Prejudice:' With "Darcy & Elizabeth; released last year, Berdoll weaved more tales about the couple.

While Shakespeare used myth and history to concoct his plays, some artists who came after him looked to the work of Shakespeare for creative inspiration. ibm Stoppard based his acclaimed play "Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead," on two minor characters in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Like Stoppard, Gregory Maguire found inspiration in a minor character in a beloved tale. His novel "Wicked" told the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz." Maguire's book was adapted into a Broadway musical that became a major hit.


In some cases, books that today would be considered fan fiction have become literary classics. Jean Rhys's novel "Wide Sargasso Sea," explores one specific character in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," telling the story of the madwoman locked in Rochester's attic. Now "Wide Sargasso Sea" is read in high school and college literature classes.

Then there are the spinoffs that generate media interest by taking on perceived literary sacred cows. Alice Randall stirred up controversy in 2002 when she reimagined the Southern classic "Gone With the Wind" through the eyes of the novel's enslaved (and mostly silent) protagonists. Randall called her novel "The Wind Done Gone."

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  • APA 6th ed.: Jones, Vanessa E. (2007-10-16). The New Adventures of Old Skywalker. The Boston Globe p. E1.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=The New Adventures of Old Skywalker | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/The_New_Adventures_of_Old_Skywalker | work=The Boston Globe | pages=E1 | date=2007-10-16 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=18 April 2024 }}</ref>
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