George R. R. Martin won’t license his world. Quite right too.

George R. R. Martin reportedly said this week that he wouldn’t license his fantasy world.

He also apparently told fan fiction writers he’d prefer they didn’t borrow his world.

Both points are interesting, and I basically agree. I won’t get a chance to ask him about that in person – he’s in Wellington late next week, signing books, but I won’t be in town to queue up, alas.

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medStill, it’s something to discuss. What do you think? To me, fan fiction is a product of the emotional response of a reader. They want to extend and explore that emotion by writing more of it themselves – the exercise is one of validation, of satisfaction, of happiness.

The problem is that much fan fiction is deeply personal and means little to anybody other than the author. At worst what emerges is the classic ‘Mary Sue’ story in which the author inserts an idealised version of themselves into the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, there to out-think Spock and win the heart of Kirk.

The other issue I have with fan fiction is that it’s not original. Even if copyright infringement issues are averted by altering names and settings, the work is still derived. The author hasn’t put in the hard yards (and they are hard) to make up their own setting.

I draw a distinction here between ‘fan fiction’ works triggered by a popular novel or movie, and novels extrapolated from old literature. There have been some interesting works written on the back of out-of-copyright concepts – Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tapes, and George McDonald Fraser’s astounding Flashman series among them. However, in each case, the author has re-invented, re-cast and re-originated so much about their version of the story that they have made something new.

That to me is the secret to writing. It’s better to invent your own ideas – to think up a world of your own and devise your own characters.  To create an emotional response that is uniquely yours – and then share it with your readers.

Hey, maybe they’ll start writing fan fiction about your world.

What are your thoughts? I think it’s an important issue that runs to the heart of writing. And I’d love to hear from you about it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week – why authors license their stuff (or not). But before then, more writing tips, more humour, more – well, you’ll see. Watch this space.


18 thoughts on “George R. R. Martin won’t license his world. Quite right too.

  1. I agree with you, Matthew. I suppose I always return to Ecclesiastes and “nothing new under the sun” and “what has been will come again.” For me, it is in the “coming again” that we gain insight as writers and as readers. As the writer creates a quest story or the flawed hero story–it’s a plot we recognize–yet it is what the writer does with that story that makes it new, very like your recent post on structure.

    Personally, I have never understood the attraction of fan fiction. To me, it is slavish imitation with no new slant or insight. Writing that explores is writing that discovers yet another nuance in the human story. As always, a thought-provoking post, Matthew. Thank you!

    1. Yes, it’s that ‘the same but different’ issue that gives the edge. Fan fiction, to me, is ‘the same but the same’ – and I agree, writing needs to explore, to have insight – and to look into nuances. We have a unique ability to imagine, as humans; and it’s important to exploit it.

  2. For me it’s like sushi. While most people add at least soy sauce to their sushi, in a traditional Japanese setting it’s actually very bad etiquette to add anything to the meal, as that carries the implication that the dish prepared by the chef is somehow insufficient. Writers of fan fiction argue that they’re adding to the work, but doesn’t that imply the author left stuff out?

    I have never read fan fiction and I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to write it. Yes, thinking up your own characters and worlds is hard, but it’s also so much fun and gives you such a sense of accomplishment. I wouldn’t appreciate someone taking my world which I created and putting their own spin on it and I’d definitely not give them permission to make money by selling it, even if allowing them meant more exposure and royalties for me.

    1. I agree. It’s common though – there seems to be a notion that something suitably prominent is in some way public property. It isn’t. I did hear of an author who created two worlds and series (forget the name, though he’s well known). One world was free for fan fic and exploitation. The other not – and he made clear that his readers were welcome to exploit the other one. They respected it, which is pretty cool.

  3. I’m not a huge fan of fan fiction. However, as you stated, some of the “remakes” of the classics have been interesting. “Wicked” for example. I had an idea for a twist on the Hansel and Gretel tale that has me intrigued. It is in the VERY early stages, however.

    1. The Hansel and Gretel idea sounds interesting. To me, ‘Wicked’ – which I confess I haven’t seen – seems more in the ‘extrapolation + originality’ vein, something Baum wouldn’t ever have thought of perhaps but which extends his ideas and brings them into the modern world. I think the shift of genre from Baum’s ‘kids-YA’ pitch to ‘adult character themes’ is part of the way this happens – something that a lot of fan fiction simply doesn’t do.

      1. You are right as usual. However, I could see ‘Wicked” potentially coming from back story that was never intended for publishing. Somewhat like some Tolkien’s later publications.

  4. Fan fiction can be a fun writing exercise, but it certainly doesn’t fall under the “hard yards” you mentioned. However, it seems to me that it would be really flattering for someone to write fan fiction about your world (even if said fan fiction was awful). If they care enough about the world you created to write fan fiction, you must be doing something right. 🙂

  5. Hm. Does writing screenplays (trying, at least) for Star Trek Next Generation count as fan fiction? Not to mention the novel I wrote about 50 pages of, and then lost in a move? Granted my intention was to pitch them to the STNG franchise; a lot of serious effort and thinking went into that work. But, granted, it wasn’t my Universe or my characters; they were Roddenberry’s.

    The difference might be the intent. When I started writing there were a lot of writers that influenced me and I spent years separating myself from their style. I think it’s kind of like a kid trying on costumes until they find the one that fits just right, and spend the rest of their lives (more or less) in that role. The truth also is that I’d been out of writing for too long when I started (mostly on a lark) writing Star Trek material. So I credit STNG with getting me back into the game.

    The problem, to me, in writing fan fiction is in separating your voice from someone else’s. If you’re serious about writing you have to do that at some point, and leave fan fiction behind.

    1. I think the intent definitely makes a difference – if you were looking to extrapolate from a theme and idea, and do so with intent to pitch the idea, it’s a very different matter from fan fic. Yes, that voice separation issue is definitely an issue – and, indeed, it is essential for an author to find one distinct from that of their influences (which I guess is how we could view fan fiction).

      I am a great enthusiast for Trek, largely because of the optimism of the future – I particularly like Trek – TOS. The quality of those original stories, to me, was just wonderful – not least because a fair number were written by well known SF authors like Harlan Ellison. And then Roddenberry got James Blish to write the novelisations – what more need be said? To me, the latest movie re-boot has recaptured a lot of that, though I know a lot of hard-core fans didn’t like it.

  6. I believe that any successful author who has the opportunity to license his/her work also has the right to say “aint happening” without raising the ire of others. It’s his stuff!!!

  7. Given I recently commented on the whole free work argument, I agree with you. Loved John Scalzi’s aticles, by the way.

    I don’t understand the whole fan fiction thing (I’m not gracing it with genre) and as far as I know, I’ve not read any.

    Creating a world is damn hard work and a lot of research (although another writer may have solved my contraception conundrum today).

    Also, why would anyone want to write in another’s world? Maybe I am just too straight…..

    Admittedly, as KM Huber noted, “nothing new” and I do go damn if I see something someone else already thought of! It happens, but consciously a whole world/universe/whatever? No.

    1. I’ve never understood the fan fiction either – there is a satisfaction to creating a world of your own which for me (and, I think, for a lot of people) is one of the rewards of writing.

      I think you’re right that we should draw distinction betwen fan-fic and the occasional collisions of ideas that we see from different authors – there is indeed little new under the sun. We all work with much the same conceptual building blocks when writing and it’s often risky to move too far from them. But that doesn’t reduce originality.

  8. I’ve never read fan fiction, but I suppose it’s flattering, though in some ways I’d think that it “dilutes the product.” Regardless, I haven’t written fan fiction and don’t have any intention of writing it. The excitement and satisfaction that comes from creating my own world is immeasurable. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. That world and its characters are more than a product of my imagination, they’re a product of my life experiences, world view, and everything else that constitutes the person I am. I’ll not give that up.

  9. I wrote fan fiction when I was in middle and high school without realizing that was what I was doing. Eventually, these juvenile stories have morphed into something original and interesting, or are locked away in the bottom of a box collecting dust.

    For brand new authors, it can be a good environment to get their feet wet, but the bridge has to be crossed into creating original worlds and stories.

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