Variations on a Theme
Ellen Kuhfeld

Sometimes authors want to write something different, or something differently. To do it well, they need to practice seeing differently, thinking differently.

It happens in all the creative fields. Musicians call it "variations on a theme". In a spirit of fruitful play, or exploratory work, they’ll ring changes to see what can be wrung out of a single idea. I have a recording - Pachelbel's Greatest Hit - which is nothing more nor less than six different versions of the Canon in D. Irish musicians play the same dance tune over and over while varying the orchestration. There are many other examples.

Another kind of variation is displayed by the Sherlock Holmes pastiches. We have the original theme - the Conan Doyle stories. And we have the variations - the stories written by others. We have The Beekeeper's Apprentice, we have The Ice Palace, and we have a thousand amateur stories published in amateur magazines. Some of those amateur stories have been collected professionally into published anthologies. To a lesser degree, the same thing has happened to Nero Wolfe. Here, we see what different writers do with a given cast of characters.

In all these cases, musicians, composers, and writers contrast diversity and unity, to see what each has to say about the other. And it’s a wonderful warmup for your own explorations to see what’s been done with somebody else’s work – it’s not Your Baby, so you have fewer problems when it stumbles, and clearer vision when it soars. I've been enjoying this recently. It was an accident - really it was.

I read all over the place - mystery, history, science, science fiction, comic books. I've written in all these fields, too. (Try converting a comic script into a text fiction if you really want a challenge.) I'd grown fond of Tenchi Muyo, on the Cartoon Network, but it went away after a short run; and I'd seen the episodes out of order. I tried the comic book, but it didn't work for me. So I thought I might get the DVD version. I went to and found there were many DVDs. I Googled "Tenchi Muyo DVD" to find some reviews.

I found reviews, and I found fiction. Fan fiction. LOTS of fan fiction, written by lots of different people. I tried reading some, and the very first was good. That was the luck of the draw - when I read more, some were very good, some were dreadful, and most were in-between. But I was hooked.

There was a wide diversity of viewpoints and approaches. All the characters got their chance at a starring role (even Mihoshi, the comic relief). Some were heroes, some were villains - and not necessarily the same ones as in the original. And these writers were reading each others' stories. Together, they'd converged on a larger, more complete world than the original. There were side-stories, back-stories, what-if stories, and wish fulfillment stories. Golly, it was fun! I never knew Ryoko could do that!

It was like a never-ending viewing of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. You got to see every incident in the canon, and every character, from at least three points of view.

So I downloaded stories onto my hard drive. There's plenty of room on today’s hard drives. I have over 530 megabytes of story right now - and you can usually fit an entire novel into less than a megabyte. That is a lot of free reading. Since it's free, you can throw away the bad after a few pages without mourning the $6.95 you spent on the book.

Sometimes a story I’d downloaded was good, but the grammar was bad. I’d dig in and rewrite. I suppose that was moderately disrespectful to the author – but fan fiction is all about playing with somebody else’s oeuvre. They knew the job was dangerous when they took it. This was good practice for my own writing, and all the easier because I had less personal involvement. (Don't sell or publish your rewrite! This is for your education only!)

I distinguish two kinds of writerly competence: grammar, and story-telling. I know two styles of editorial competence: tactical, and strategic. They relate. Tactical editing is about the best way to say something: grammar, sentence structure, the way paragraphs are constructed and follow one another. Strategic editing is about what is said: what's this story about, and how should I tell it? And is this really a part of the story? Tactical editing is about familiarity with the tools of the trade. Strategic editing is about story-telling. I only touched other peoples' tactical stuff – and then, only on stories that were good enough to keep and re-read. If you really like editing, you can pitch in and serve as pre-reader for other writers; and they'll return the favor for you. It's like an online writers' group.

And here’s the most enjoyable part of all: fan fiction is about something you like, written by other people who like the same thing. You like Sherlock Holmes? Google "Sherlock Holmes" fanfic, and there are over a thousand hits. "Nero Wolfe" fanfic gets seventy. Star Trek gets about 29,000. If you’re a fan of Gunsmoke you’ll get 250 hits, but they don’t count – there’s a video game of the same name that generated most of them. If you want to go straight to a nexus of the stuff, head for - the place is amazing. I was positively thunderstruck by the quality of the Terry Pratchett fanfics I read.

Try it. You might like it. You’ll certainly broaden your horizons. You'll learn from dozens of good examples, and hundreds of bad ones. (My favorite example of both is someone who was obviously given a thesaurus halfway through a series of stories. Oy. Talk about a lesson in picking the word with the right connotation, expressed in terms of wrong choices! You'll never be casual about word-choice again.)

And if you are willing to dig in and rewrite, you learn what you can do to make a story better, or at the very least less-bad. Less-bad is important. Most editors get many more submissions than they can possibly use. Their first line of defense against the flood is to reject everything with obvious problems. Only after that will they read far enough to discover whether the story itself is worth their while.

From editing fan-fiction, you learn how to get past that first line of defense. From reading it, you learn how to make your story different. After that, it's a personal matter between you and your muse.

(An adaptation of an article I wrote for my mystery group, inspired by anime fanfiction. This version April 24, 2006.)

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