6 Writing undercover on the web

January 2012[1]

Confession: I’m a serious fan of the TV show, Castle,  which stars the ‘Geek God’, the witty Nathan Fillion, and the beautiful, and enviably multilingual, Stana Katic. What does this have to do with publishing, you may ask. Well, a lot it turns out.

I tweet about Castle under a ‘Castley’ pseudonym, and fangirl with the best of them (many of them teenagers, but also a fair smattering of English majors, doctors, teachers, film/media types, and of course, Firefly fans). What became increasingly interesting to me as I watched the show and followed fans on Twitter was the way the show crossed the usual boundaries of fandoms, media types and genres. I was particularly fascinated with how a show about a crime writer seemed to be encouraging young people to read long-form narrative that they might not have read otherwise, if they read books at all.

On the one hand, there are the very successful, high profile, offical tie-in ‘Nikki Heat’ novels (the main character of the novels written by the eponymous Castle), themselves the supposed work of ‘Richard Castle’, complete with a cover photo of Nathan Fillion/Richard Castle.

On the other hand, there is ‘fanfic’, fan-written fiction that flies under the radar. I kept seeing references to ‘fanfic’ on my Twitter timeline and decided to take a look. Expecting the worst (and believe me, the worst is there too), I was delighted to find not only OK writers, but truly brilliant ones, none more so than the fabulous ‘chezchuckles’ (took me a while to get the Edith Wharton reference).

Fanfic sits at the margins of mainstream creative endeavour, and interrogates established views of what it means to be a writer; the meaning of intellectual property, creativity, originality, ‘ownership’, boundaries, and the nature of ‘public’. Of course, as a publishing person and daughter of an artist, I have an uneasy relationship with how fanfic steps on these well-established fences, but am fascinated too. This leaching of boundaries is exemplified by the infinite trail of hyperlinks on the web (Derrida anyone?). Fanfic too seems to embody a paradox that is afforded by the digital space: it both harks back to the days of Dickens in the way it is written and ‘published’, and also shows a potential path for mainstream publishing.

The longer fanfics are serialised, with the popular ones being updated every day or so. Many chapters end on true cliff-hangers; readers are included in the writing process. Writers invite their readers to review each chapter and sometimes even to suggest pointers for the narrative arc. ‘Beta’ readers, who qualify for the role by being writers themselves, edit the chapters before they are posted. An incredible community is built around the stories, and Tumblr and Twitter are alive with cross blogging, reviews, and accolades for favourite writers.

And the fans read and read.

From the perspective of the Studio, the fanfic is integral to keeping interest in the show alive, for instance during the Summer hiatus, or if fans have been disappointed with the ending of an episode (Castle fans have a favourite saying: ‘in Andrew M Marlowe we trust’, but he puts us to the test sometimes). Fanfic could be seen as free marketing, and it has been acknowledged by the writers and cast of Castle that fan power, particularly on Twitter, played a huge role in getting ABC to retain the series after its modest first season (the show is now well into its fourth).

Photo of Laura Bontrager

Laura Bontrager, the author of Fences

So as well as being a fan of the show,  the ‘mechanics’ of fanfic interests me from a publishing perspective, and of course, I love good writing. After having read a few stories by ‘chezchuckles’, I wrote to her to ask if she had written any of her own material, and it turns out that ‘chezchuckles’ is Laura Bontrager, an unassuming school library assistant (I just knew she had read widely) from Tennessee, who indeed had written an unpublished novel.

So together we will be publishing Laura’s novel, a romance, appropriately called Fences, and we will once again use the web-based production tool, PressBooks to produce it. PressBooks seems the ideal vehicle for reader interaction and engagement (in addition to producing valid EPUBS).

To good writing, wherever one may find it.

Always.

Addendum: You can follow Laura on Twitter @lily_bart (yes, another Edith Wharton reference!).


  1. The basis for the article that was later published in Publishing Perspectives

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