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On-Line Writing Workshops: Fan Fiction as a Springboard into Improving Technique and Original Creative Writing

by Dr. Catherine M. Schaff-Stump, Kirkwood Community College

Post date: June 2004

During spring semester, 2002, I taught a writing workshop to students at Kirkwood, the college where I work. I felt that by virtue of its nature, a writing workshop would be full of enthusiastic students who wanted to be writers. These eager students would devour fiction, be full of fresh ideas, and work their fingers to the bone to produce work that would be fresh, original, and theirs. Would that were true. My recent experience as a teacher of creative writing was lackluster. Many of my students were dabblers, rather than writers. About half the class lacked motivation to produce work, and the other half lacked ideas to write with. The idea of being creative on demand could have proven part of the difficulty. Certainly but on the rarest of occasions were these students motivated and captivated by the projects they were working on.

At the same time as I was teaching creative writing at Kirkwood, I was also beginning to write creatively myself for the first time in some five years. After working on my doctoral dissertation, I felt that I needed some practice to see if I could still write fiction. My husband and I had read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series together, and I found that I was inspired to write about Harry’s parents and their friends. Before writing fan fiction, I had written only original fiction, and I felt that fan fiction was well worth my scorn. Fan fiction can be maudlin, overly sentimental, and cliché. I discovered that it could also be interesting, well written and engaging with a little surprising research on the Internet. I decided to write a couple of stories and then get my original novel ideas underway.

That was not meant to be, as my sojourn into fan fiction has proven to be longer than initially intended. I fell in with a crowd of writers on a site called The Sugar Quill. Among the various and sundry fans of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling at the Quill, I found a core of like-minded writers who wanted to improve their writing. I found myself exchanging emails with about 10 women about our writing projects.

Ironically, at the same time I was having trouble with the motivations of my own students, I was very motivated in pursuing my own creative endeavor. Among these women there was the enthusiasm and creativity that I had expected from my students in the workshop. The Sugar Quill members were motivated to create, had ideas to write about, and were eager and enthusiastic. Here were all the elements of a writing workshop that would succeed! Once the writing workshop that I coordinated in an official capacity ended, I set up SQ Workshop, the writing workshop which I have coordinated for a little over two years.

Many of the qualities necessary for a successful writing group have been evident at SQ Workshop. “It’s nice to feel that you are in a group of like-minded people, up to a point” (Bell qtd in Neubauer 9). Bell also suggested some other benefits of writing workshops, rather than writing in isolation. “I also think it is psychologically helpful to people, and strengthening, to feel that they’re not freaks, that there are other people who do this, that someone will listen, even in a kind of artificial environment, and that they can try out the effect of their work on a reasonably intelligent audience who will talk back to them and tell them how much they’ve understood” (Neubauer 9). As you will see from the comments of the writers in SQ Workshop, they find Bell’s assertions about writing in a group to be true for them.

SQ Workshop also gives writers a chance to ask each other questions about writing. Shelnutt feels this is important. “My notion, as I tell my students, is that, whatever the creative urge is, it can only be strengthened by questions, and all manner of texts; that it is not fragile; indeed that it is bottomless” (Neubauer 200). Members of writing workshops should feel relaxed. “The setting…should provide an atmosphere in which the writer can believe that his own thoughts and his own experiences and his own feelings are intensely real and are as important as anything he might read out of a book” (Conrad 23). The accessibility and friendliness of the workshop members produce a level of comfort that shows in the ability to value each other’s opinions as we shape both fan fiction and original fiction.

The purpose of this presentation is to talk about SQ Workshop through interviews with its membership, and to talk about how participating in the workshop has in general improved our technique and awareness of writing. For people interested in setting up a writing workshop on line themselves, I’ll include information on how I established SQ Workshop. While this isn’t a how-to manual per se, it is my hope that writing about the experiences we’ve had will help other writers form similar workshops and benefit from similar experiences.

Going On-Line

There really wasn’t any other choice for SQ Workshop but to go on-line. We originated as friends in an on-line community, and we are spread out all over the globe, in the United States, England, and Australia. Essentially, there were other reasons to have an on-line workshop. SQ Workshop can be accessed 7 days a week, twenty-four hours a day, so writers can participate when they have time.

The trick in establishing SQ Workshop for me is that I am not spectacularly technical. When I conceived of setting up a writing workshop, I went to an accessible free resource, Yahoo. Setting up any sort of group in Yahoo Groups is very easy. Other reasons that I decided on Yahoo is that it met my criteria for the workshop of free, easy to use, and accessible to all of the participants.

Yahoo Groups have proven to be a good choice. Yahoo offers us a variety of services. We have a message board for posting messages and reviews, a files area for uploading our stories for critique, and a chat room for communicating with each other during our semi-weekly chats. Almost anyone can access Yahoo and set up a free group.

We use the workshop primarily for critiquing and posting stories. Message boards have the option of being checked by members, or having emails sent to members’ addresses. The files segment of SQ Workshop is our backbone. In it we post projects that we want to have others read, as well as exercises that we work on for the theme of the week. I also keep a file of notes that I take during our workshops for members that can’t make chat sessions due to distance or real life commitments.

The chat room is the feature of Yahoo, which causes us the most difficulty. We use the chat room to get together two times a week. Usually these chats center on a writerly issue, such as writing dialogue or building suspense. Sometimes we will all read and critique one person’s story. Yahoo Chat is the one system that I can guarantee everyone has, and even so, one of our members cannot access it due to her hardware. Sometimes Yahoo Chat behaves poorly, so we will switch to conferencing on Yahoo!Messenger, provided everyone in chat at that time has that technology.

Overall, I’ve been satisfied with using Yahoo for SQ Workshop, with the occasional disgruntled allowance for slow or malfunctioning technology.

Workshop Member Comments

Of course, the most important part of this paper isn’t the rhetorical philosophies behind writing workshops, or the technology that is used to run one. The most important part of the workshop is the participants themselves.

Happily, eight of my fellow workshop members consented to be interviewed for this paper. What I wanted to know was how they felt the workshop had helped them to evolve as writers. It wasn’t necessarily a pre-requisite that the workshop participants decide to cross over into the realms of original fiction, but surprisingly, a large number of them have plans to.

Some basic statistics about the workshop follow. All of the participants in SQ Workshop are female. We range in age from 20-52. All of the women discussed here use pseudonyms to protect their identities. For those of you cognizant of fan fiction at the Sugar Quill, without fail all of them used their author names.

Writing Experience: Writing backgrounds for the workshop members varied. Six of the eight workshop members interviewed have written professional non-fiction in a variety of employments. Five of them have been writing since they were children. Two mentioned winning awards for their writing. One has been published in small presses and anthologies. Three of the participants have been in face-to-face writing workshops. One has been in a previous on-line workshop.

Previous workshops compared to SQ Workshop: Of the participants that had taken part in writing workshops, an on-line workshop proved very different for them. Clarimonde explained, “SQ Workshop is much smaller, has more commonality of interest, and is more selective of people who want to be in it. I think it has much more useful feedback.” Yolanda discussed her experience in the workshop. “In the aforementioned three-week course, we learned to diagram ideas in class and read them to each other. I find that the exercises we do for this workshop are more useful because we have a little more time to think about what we’re doing. I also know the participants a little better than the four strangers I had to face in that class.” Clearly that SQ Workshop is a workshop consisting of commonly interested friends is to the benefit of the members.

Writing Strengths: Assessing writing strengths in the workshop showed that the participants are becoming aware of their various styles. Three of the writers feel that they can weave complex plots. Three feel that they are good at writing setting. Characterization is a strong skill for four of the writers. Yolanda elaborated on this skill. “I enjoy creating characters and exploring emotions. I enjoy writing romantic situations. Because I’m an empathetic person, I think I can portray characters’ emotions honestly and believably.” Two of the writers said that description and imagery were writerly traits that they felt competent in.

Clarimonde was the only writer that cited dialogue and research as strengths. Alkari suggested, “My ability to tell a story, bring in some of the smaller day to day details, maybe in some respects get inside the heads of certain characters,” was a strength. Juliane feels that humor and understated emotions are skills she possesses. Katinka added pacing and “the ability to think up nutty names for sweets and hair potions.” Mincot was the only writer who added mechanics.

Writing Improvements: All of the writers in the workshop want to improve certain story telling abilities as well. Axelle said, “I’d like to be able to develop strong character relationships. I’d like to be able to make a reader laugh or cry, but in all cases remain completely unaware that there’s an author behind the writing.” Mincot similarly added, “Emotional response—it takes a lot of back and forth with friends to get it right.”

Five of the writers want to work on plot. JK Rose commented, “My first original fiction tended to the lean and mean side.” More dialogue skills are desired by two writers. Juliane wants to work on characterization. Alkari wants to work on writing romance. Katinka wishes to buff up her descriptive abilities.

The reason to discuss both the strengths and the weaknesses of the writers is to suggest a link of awareness to the workshop. As writers practice and receive feedback, certainly they become aware of areas that they need to improve, as well as talents that they already possess.

Fan Fiction Writing Experience: Interestingly, none of the writers in SQ Workshop are fan fiction veterans. Clarimonde proved to be the most experienced fan fiction writer, writing fan fiction for about three years. The newest fan fiction writer is Mincot, who began in the summer of 2002, Most of the writers in the workshop have been writing for 1-2 years. With the exception of Clarimonde, most of the writers were not motivated to write fan fiction until they had read the works of J.K. Rowling.

Why Harry Potter Fan Fiction: The attraction to Harry Potter was the force that united these writers initially, as we all met on the Sugar Quill, a Harry Potter board. Some of the writers were attracted to the content of the book, others to questions concerning the quality of writing in Harry Potter fandom, and still others because they were impatient for more original canon.

Juliane summed up a love for the content of the books briefly. “It seemed like a fun way to start up my creative writing again. I love the world J.K. Rowling created and wanted to play with it.” Katinka added, “The Harry Potter fandom was the first in which I’d ever taken part. I think it was the first series of books that entranced me to the point that I’d want to seek out a fandom, as such things were only for weirdos.”

JK Rose also wrote in part because of the universe. “Once I wrote the first piece, I started seeing different parts of the Harry Potter universe that I wanted to explore—the what-ifs, the what’s behind that door or around that corner.” Mincot also felt the universe was captivating, “because it was the most appealing fandom I knew as well as being the only one that nagged at me to ‘fill in the gaps.’ There’s something about the world of Harry Potter that tweaked my interest.”

Other writers in the workshop wanted to test themselves as writers. Alkari remarked, “I discovered Harry Potter fan fiction and thought, ‘Hey! I could do that!’ I was more interested in the older characters, and there were just so many gaps to be filled in. I also found that I hated some of the cliché fanfic portrayals of certain characters (Sirius in particular!) and decided that I would write something where Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs were just ordinary kids, not 12 going on 30 in their dialogue and attitudes. I also thought it would be fun to redress the Slut!Sirius and Angsty!Remus stuff, and show that the kids at Hogwarts had more on their minds than just constant romance.” Clarimonde simply said, “The stories at the Quill were of such high quality that I felt challenged as a writer to equal them.” Yolanda’s reasons were similar to Alkari’s. “My fan fiction writing in the Harry Potter universe was, in part, a response to all the stories I saw on fan pairing adult faculty members with students in romantic situations. It offended me so much that I had to take matters into my own hands.”

Axelle typified a writer’s impatience for more canon. “I was impatient for Book 5 and I wanted to see the storyline continue. I had my own theories about the mystery J.K. Rowling had set up so nicely and wanted to test them out. At the urging of a friend who’d been reading Harry Potter fan fiction on and off, I wandered online and stumbled onto Harry Potter fan fiction and decided to give it a go since I’d already had a few possible scenarios in my head.”

Many of the writers felt inspired by Rowling’s books to write. “Being the minor character fanatic that I am,” Clarimonde explained, “I wanted to flesh out and create back stories for characters who were not the trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione), especially the adults. I also wanted to explore different point of views—specifically Slytherin and Hufflepuff as they get dumped on in canon and fanon at large. The books are from Harry’s point of view and I think that telling the story from a different point of view is interesting and mind-broadening.” Katinka’s plot found her. “An idea took hold and proceeded to poke me with a sharp stick until I started to write the story.”

Finally, some of the writers began fan fiction for personal reasons. Katinka said, “I desperately needed the intellectual change. I’d just gone through a year filled with challenges—new motherhood, a major move, serious illness in the family, separation due to my husband’s career—and I felt like my brain was just about ready to shut down.” JK Rose also had personal reasons. “I love the books and the universe and I felt an overwhelming need to express some frustration and emotion going on in my life, and Hermione was a perfect outlet for that.”

Regardless of the variety of reasons, the common interest in Harry Potter forged a bond between these writers.

Why Original Fiction: Some of these writers are interested in writing original fiction as well, for a variety of reasons. Axelle and Alkari both enjoy writing fiction as a creative outlet. Many of the writers come from literary homes and received encouragement to write original fiction. JK Rose has just made the switch to original fiction. “I wanted to express myself more fully and wanted to try my hand at developing my own characters and my own universe.” Yolanda, like JK Rose, is also new to original fiction. “I’m just starting to develop ideas for original fiction now. I feel like I’ve developed during my fan fiction experience and I like to create original characters so I have to start branching out.” Some of the writers have cited their success in writing fan fiction as giving them confidence enough to try original fiction.

Reason for participating in this workshop: The reasons for participating in SQ Workshop given were varied. Almost all of the participants suggested that participation in a writing community was valuable to them. Respect for other writers in the workshop played a factor. The flexibility of the workshop was also appealing. Another reason stated was that the authors were interested in perfecting their writing.

Juliane commented, “I though a concentrated group of people that were looking for constructive criticism and not just puffs would be a great reciprocal.” Yolanda said, “I wanted to work with people who have similar goals and get feedback from people who are seeking some constructive feedback as well.” JK Rose also echoed the value of writing community. “I wanted to be in a community with other writers to not only help me improve my writing skills, but to bounce ideas, and to discuss what it means to write and be a writer.” Katinka added, “My official Sugar Quill beta reads for dozens more writers, and so we’ve never been able to have much back and forth about ideas, mechanics, etc. I relished the opportunity to have immediate feedback from writers whose own work I enjoyed and respected.”

Respect for the writers in the workshop played a role as well. “I was quite taken aback to be asked, and then I was delighted to be in a group where there were ‘mature’ writers whose work I already respected,” Alkari complimented. Clarimonde agreed. “I thought highly of all the participants and their writing and figured they would give me high-quality feedback. I’m getting real criticism from real writers. Since everyone in the workshop is so gifted I felt rather…elite…being asked. It was an honor.” Axelle stated, “The writers here are simply more seasoned as both readers and writers. They know what they like and they’re not afraid to articulate it.” Mincot said, “I also respected the other participants as writers and felt that I could definitely learn something!”

The flexible format of SQ Workshop was attractive for some members. “Because the workshop is conducted online, it’s easier for members to provide feedback on others’ work,” said Axelle, “since the workshop is basically open 24 hours, and we benefit from being able to include authors from around the globe.”

Finally, perfecting craft was mentioned as an important reason for participating. Mincot commented that she began the workshop, “because it was time for me to think about the reasons for writing, as well as to explore mechanics, with a wide variety of different perspectives. Plus I like the discipline of doing writing exercises every so often; I don’t have a lot of time—part of the reason I’m slow at writing—but I like the stimulation of thinking outside of my own particular set of mental paths.” Axelle defined the workshop as “a small group of writers who are genuinely interested in perfecting their craft. My impression is that the members contribute more thoughtfully and put more effort into the subject. The weekly topics are quite specialized and focus on areas that are of particular interest and use to the members in their own writing.”

How has your writing changed since you participated in this workshop: All of the members of the workshop can see some improvement in their writing since they began writing fan fiction, and since they began participating in the workshop. Many of the writers suggest that the discipline of writing each week has improved them. Confidence was also suggested gained as a result of participation. Katinka said, “Another thing that the workshop has taught me is to trust more in my writing. All the ado about Mary Sue almost kept me from putting pen to paper in the first place.” Five of the writers have noticed improvement in their description. Dialogue improvement was noticed by two writers. Characterization improvement was also noticed by two participants.

Individual writers felt that interactions with workshop members had specifically aided their writing in unique ways. “Alkari said, “I think my understanding of certain characters and their motivation has improved, particularly in discussions with other members.” JK Rose said, “I’m expanding into different approaches and not being afraid to try different things.” Clarimonde mentioned, “I feel inspired to write carefully and well, not churn out something half-assed and dashed off like I sometimes used to.” Axelle observed, “I suppose the more you write, as well as the more you read, you are more likely to become aware, almost osmotically, of what rhymes, phraseology, scene shifts, etc, work the best to achieve the effect you want.”

Juliane suggested, “It has made me think more about why and how I’m writing a scene. Do I need it, and how does it affect the overall story?” Mincot said that the workshop, “certainly pushed me into thinking about an angle I had not previously considered. I hope that trend continues!” Katinka felt that her stories had become more balanced. “I think I’ve been able to portray more realistic emotion. My stories have also become more balanced in their structure. I also have a great interest in rewriting.”

Clearly, the writers feel that participating in the workshop has had some effect on their writing for its betterment.

Useful about participating in this workshop: Overwhelmingly, the writers felt that feedback from other members was the most useful aspect of participating in the workshop. Camaraderie was a close second. Discussion about writing theory was also considered useful.

Axelle spelled out her thoughts. “Whether or not anything I write gets published is secondary to whether or not I’m happy with it. I knew that this would be a nurturing environment of like-minded individuals pursuing the same goal and I haven’t been disappointed. And now I’m proud to call the members friends. How can you not become friends when you share so much of yourself with these other wonderful people?”

JK Rose commented, “The camaraderie, the feeling that I am really a writer and connected to a community is very important.”

How does feedback help your authoring: Feedback was considered valuable by most of the participants in the workshop. The reasons why it was considered valuable varied. Some of the writers use feedback to reshape entire segments of their story. Yolanda said, “I have re-written some chapters completely after getting feedback. I’ve found it pretty helpful, especially because I tend to post things in rough draft form.” Katinka mentioned that feedback was, “tremendously helpful—I think through my story elements a lot more thoroughly now. Oftentimes, workshop feedback creates the work itself. My current story owes its genesis and about ¾ of its content to Alkari’s suggestions.” Mincot added, “Certainly informal feedback and discussions with individual workshop members have been invaluable. Some of the best aspects of my stories would not have been there at all if it had not been for questions and observations by workshop members in the draft stages.”

For Alkari, one critical plot point was reshaped during the feedback process. “In Jigsaw, one of the writers made a crucial comment in one of the earliest chapters that I was in danger of losing Poppy and just retelling the Prisoner of Azkaban story. That single comment was incredibly valuable, and enabled me to get the whole fic back on track, because I realized that it was all Poppy’s little foibles and her attitudes to things that made my story.”

Other writers suggest that the feedback works because of the integrity and quality of the authors. “Even if I don’t choose to make the changes in accordance with feedback it makes me take a much closer look at my work,” Clarimonde commented. “For instance, everyone loved the second chapter of my latest story, but I did some extensive re-writing just because I now have much higher standards for my writing.” Axelle said, “I can’t think of a better place to get feedback than from a group of authors whose work you’re familiar with and whose judgment and opinions you trust implicitly.”

Chat: The chat sessions are also useful to workshop participants. Some of the writers like them best. Juliane sees them as sort of a brainstorming session. “I think this may be the most helpful of all. We throw out a lot of interesting thoughts and ideas during the chat.” Chats are also mentioned as a useful way of bolstering camaraderie, learning writing theory, and considering other viewpoints. Katinka also said, “They’re also a lot of silly fun.”

Future plans for fan fiction: Of course, an important aspect of the workshop continuing to support each other in future writing endeavors. I had to ask the participants what they considered would be the future of their fan fiction. Three of the writers suggested that they would continue writing fan fiction. Two said that they would like to see what book 5 had to offer them as story possibilities. Two of the writers said that they have no plans to continue fan fiction at this time.

Future plans for original fiction: Most of the writers suggested that writing original fiction was a possibility for them. Axelle made this comment. “Fan fiction, I think, is the perfect spring board to original fiction. What I learn here, in addition to the use of literary techniques and the group feedback, is also the joy of having completed written work of my own—yes, it utilizes another’s characters and setting, but the sense of accomplishment at having completed a project of my own gives me that much more confidence to pursue stories of my own.” Clarimonde, Juliane, JK Rose, Mincot, and Yolanda all have ideas for original work, or original works in progress. Alkari and Katinka said that they have no ideas currently, but would try it later if they had ideas. Katinka added that the workshop had given her the confidence to consider original work as an option.

SQ Workshop has proven to be a good experience for these writers. They have managed to assess their abilities as writers, become part of a community, receive valuable feedback, and gain increased confidence in their skills as writers. Regardless of whether their plans are to continue to write fan fiction or to explore their own original worlds and characters, the benefits of banding together with like-minded writers improves the quality of the stories that they write. This involvement will help these writers reap professional and creative benefits. I would like to encourage other writers to set up similar workshops for the benefit of the improvement of their writing, the ability to receive needed feedback, and to feel that they are not writing in a vacuum.

Works Cited

Conrad, Lawrence H. Teaching Creative Writing. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1937.

Neubauer, Alexander. Conversations on Writing Fiction: Interviews with 13 Distinguished Teachers of Fiction Writing in America. New York: Harper Perennial: 1994.

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