Once more to the guest posts, dear friends! Today's commentary features John Perry, author of too many popular works of ponyfiction to list here, including one (Rest Stop) which I've already reviewed on this blog, and another (Trains, Carriages, and Airships) which is upcoming. Click below the break to read his thoughts on... well, it says it right there in the title, doesn't it?
Chris offered me pretty much free rein to talk about whatever I want, so long as it had to do with the fandom or writing. But what could I write about? Well, Arcanium and Inquisitor M already did a great job talking about this fandom, so I figured I could leave that alone. Should I write about what makes a good comedy? Or maybe I can write about my idea process? Or maybe about my favorite stories? Or…gosh, there’s just so much I could write about! I don’t even know where to start!
Which is the perfect lead-in to the subject of my post: creativity from constraints. I think this is especially relevant to fan fiction because a lot of fanfic authors are trying writing for the first time, and in these formative years new authors need help figuring out what works for them and why. And sometimes having the most flexibility leads to the worst results, as counter-intuitive as that sounds.
Now, like a good academic who wants to sound more credible to his peers, I’m going to start off by quoting someone famous and respectable:
“I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself, but when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it and feel confident enough to kind of come back to that.”- Jon Stewart, in an interview on Fresh Air
Here, Jon was specifically referring to the day-to-day routine in making an episode of The Daily Show, distilling the day’s news headlines into a few comedic skits. But the larger principle is one that’s pretty easy to apply to fan fiction, and it manifests itself in virtually every aspect of it, from the plot to the characters you choose to how or when you write.
Of course, this debate over constraints vs. freedom isn’t new to art, and which side you’re on depends on your own personal inclinations. Some people are just naturally creative when they have no or few restrictions, while others (like myself) need some kind of pre-existing structure to work with. The kinds and extent of these limits is also a major factor. But I still think it’s useful to talk about, because it says a lot about how you think as a writer.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that any fan work is by its very nature a derivative work. Even if your MLP story uses original characters and employs a completely different tone from the original work, chances are you’re still doing things like, say, setting it in Equestria, or incorporating magic and other fantasy elements. At the very least, your MLP story is going to have ponies in it (and if it doesn’t, you’re trying to appeal to the wrong fandom).
This is the great thing about fan work: it allows a potential artist to fulfill that creative urge by giving them a place to start, a canvas framed by a few overarching elements (e.g., PONIES!). I think this must be what distinguishes works that have huge, loyal fanbases like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, or Friendship is Magic. It’s not that these works are the best; it’s that they give their audience a great world to play in. Me, I can name several cartoons off the top of my head that I think are far superior to FiM, but none of them inspired the creativity in me that FiM did.
So let’s say you’ve taken the plunge into one of these huge fandoms. It produces tons of great fan fiction and has a large audience hungry for more. Now you know where to start, but with what? There are still so many possibilities open to you. What in the wide, glorious universe of this fandom are you going to write about? This is where fan fiction prompts can be your saving grace.
Strangely, even though I’m someone who finds creativity in limitations, I don’t usually take advantage of fanfic contests or prompts. I think the reason why is because I have just enough energy to finish one story and then feebly grasp an idea for my next, like a kid slowly making his way across the monkey bars. In fact, I’ve only participated in one fan fiction contest. But that one time was the very first pony fic I ever wrote. Granted, it was very bland and poorly constructed, so much so that I’ve done my best to banish it from my memory (fortunately there were a lot of entries for that particular contest, so I think I’m safe from anyone discovering it and using it to blackmail me [yes... completely safe... -Chris]). But that contest allowed me to try my hand at writing in a fairly low-risk way, which was a much better first experience than writing something amateurish and trying to submit it to EQD would have been. If you’re ever stuck without a clue of where to start (like me when I was trying to figure out what to write for this post), it’s a great way to get the wheels in your head turning.
One area where I’ve given a lot of thought to the matter of limitations is in what kinds of characters I use. With original characters, the advantage to them is that you have complete freedom over their creation. However, the disadvantage is…you have complete freedom over their creation. And creating a good character from scratch is really hard. You have to consider whether they’re compelling and believable, and even after you’ve got your character established you have to make sure your portrayal of them is consistent as the story progresses. This is why I really admire writers who are at ease with using original characters and are good at it. This is also why OCs have a bad reputation in the fandom, because a lot of new authors don’t appreciate the difficulty that goes into creating something from scratch. I’m always baffled by new authors who want to use OCs, just because using OCs brings me so much stress. With freedom comes responsibility, my friends.
So yes, between writing original characters or using established characters from the show, I definitely prefer to work with the ones from the show. That comes with its own set of challenges, namely making sure that your portrayal is faithful to the canon. But that’s a framework I feel way more comfortable under, because the work of establishing personality, traits and all those little things that go into a compelling character has already been done. At that point, all I have to do is make sure I don’t go out of character. However, my favorite characters to use are background ponies, because while they have fairly well-established fanon personalities, giving you a certain framework to work under, you’re allowed a little leeway since they’re not set in stone by canon. It’s why the Lyra in Harpflank and Sweets, the Lyra in Anthropology and the Lyra in Background Pony are completely different characters, but they still all work.
Limitations can also really help in establishing the structure of a story. Probably the biggest mistake a new author can make is to shrug and say “I’ll figure it out as I go along.” The few times I have tried to just wing it, it turned out to be a real nail-biter. I definitely don’t recommend it for the inexperienced. A lot of this just comes down to planning ahead, but that self-imposed framework, where you figure out a basic outline for your story and then stick to it, can do wonders for the writing process. Just like Jon Stewart said above, having that structure that you can come back to and improvise off of can really help.
Speaking of Jon Stewart, let’s wrap this up by getting back to what he was referring to in that quote above: finding creativity under a routine. For fan fiction, this usually means finding the time and willingness to write in your schedule. This plays a huge role in every writer’s process, but it’s one we don’t always think about because that trade off you’ve made, spending time writing rather than engaging in another activity, isn’t something that shows on the surface of your work. So, if you’re the kind of person who’s more creative working under limitations, then does that mean you need to adopt some rigid schedule where you set aside a specific time to write?
Not necessarily. Like everything else in life, finding that ideal place between total limitations and total freedom is a balancing act. For some people a rigid schedule works, but for others (like myself) just because you can set aside the time doesn’t mean you’ll be creative when it’s convenient, and if you’re a procrastinator like me you’ll wind up doing nothing. It’s times like this where I love bringing up the concept of structured procrastination, the brainchild of a modern-day philosopher who shares my name, John Perry (and yes, I found out about this by Googling my own name – don’t act like you haven’t done this!). The elder Mr. Perry explains this better than I could:
The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.What I love about this concept is even if you’re someone who puts off things until the last moment, you can still take advantage of that and apply a framework to your process (for instance, I wrote this when I really should have been working on a paper for my class). If you’ve ever set aside time to work on your fic and then found yourself unable to write anything, I’d look into this.
As the length of my post shows, I’ve managed to ramble on about this debate and apply it to a wide range of factors. That’s what Chris gets for giving me free rein! This is where I’ll stop and let you pick up the conversation. How do you function under limitations, and how do you apply it in your writing? Share your thoughts in the comments! Plus if a lot of people comment, it might convince Chris that asking me to do this was a good idea.
Thanks for the insights, Mr. Perry! And on the subject of creativity from constraints, there's something I'd like to mention to everyone before they skip down to the comments and fill our guest commenter with a sense of validation.
I know I'm a little late to the party on this one, but authors: it's not too late to write something for the Hearth's Warming Care Package! It's not often you get a chance to write fanfiction for a good cause, and doing a good turn for a young child who's fighting cancer certainly qualifies as a "good cause." The deadline is November 10th, so you've got just under a week. All the details are in the linked-to press release. So: go, go, go!