Let me start by acknowledging this will largely be an opinion piece. I am no more a good judge of writing than I am a good judge of anything else. Some of you may agree with most of what I say, some of you will think I’m a complete idiot. Ideally, your opinions of what I say will be consistent with what you already think of my views from reading this blog. This post will be an expansion and re-organization of some things that have been discussed elsewhere on the blog the last couple days. We’ve had a lot of excellent commentary from Frea O’Scanlin and Ernie Davis that has got me thinking about this. I will include a few recommendations again as well after the jump.
There are obviously a few different things that go into the appraisal of if something is good or not. Good grammar and structure is part of it. I’m sure you all have noticed my grammar isn’t always the best, I tend to have a casual attitude about these things. But it is important that ideas be conveyed in a way that is easy to understand. Nothing kills an interesting idea faster than technically poor writing that makes it difficult or impossible to understand the writer’s point or story. The fan fiction community is large and international, so some allowances have to be made. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen Chuck speaking with British idioms. If the story is good I can often overlook such things; but structure, spelling, grammar, idioms can all add up to a strike against (or maybe a half strike!).
A closely related thing is sophistication of the writing. I really hate to make a big thing of this. People write fan fiction as a personal thing; hobby, interest, and passion. I think it is wonderful how many different people want to explore different aspects of the characters, stories, and setting that make up the Chuckiverse. But some writers clearly have more or less skill than others. There’s no two ways about it, a very well thought out and developed story is satisfying in ways a more superficial treatment of things is not. For a one-hour show, Chuck actually has a lot going on with action, adventure, comedy, romance, and drama. The best writers juggle many these aspects very well; we’ve all seen Frea O’Scanlin’s posts here the last few days, if you haven’t read her work yet I highly recommend it. At the risk of inflating her ego too much, I can’t believe sometimes I’m reading an amateur piece that captures all those aspects so well. There are also some very good writers out there who capture one or more aspects nicely; and honestly even doing one of those things well can make for a very good read.
From here on things get more subjective. Most pieces at fanfiction.net are so-called “one-shots”, that is a single chapter entry that normally addresses a single moment or scene from the show. Sometimes its just a slightly different outcome to a scene we saw, or a look inside a character’s thoughts. A few one-shots even expand a longer fan fiction. Many of these are interesting and even fun. But generally I don’t find one-shots very satisfying. I like more complex stories and characters. I especially like more developed AUs, that is Alternate Universes, that really go off in different directions from the show.
I’m sure no one will be shocked that I say I require a happy ending. Everything doesn’t have to be peachy perfect; I certainly accept some destruction and the occasional character death as part of the genre. But Chuck and Sarah must end well, and together. I know, dreadfully shallow. But if I have reason to think such won’t be the case, well, I really have better things to do with my time (and more fun fanfics to read!). This standard is somewhat variable with the story being told. Some pieces really aren’t about Chuck and Sarah’s relationship. As long as no real harm is done to it this doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’ve read some stories that could just be an omitted episode of the show; they can be fun on their own, but change nothing from the show’s canon (or canon at the time they were written anyway). That doesn’t excite me as much as a real AU, but it doesn’t rule a story out either. I’ve also seen stories that are very Casey centric (or even some other character); again, this can be fun but generally not as completely satisfying to me.
Some writers have a clear agenda or bent to their writing that shows up in most of their stories. I’ve often recommended BillatWork’s stories here; he has flat-out stated he wanted to show it was possible to tell an exciting story with Chuck and Sarah together. So that is usually near the starting point of his tales; and he’s done this about seven different ways now by my count, going way back to just after S1. His agenda, and what I want to see line up nicely so I tend to like his work. I can think of one prolific writer who clearly has an angry take on the Chuckiverse; his stories usually start with how wronged Chuck is (normally by Sarah) and it motivates him to morph into a super agent. Now he happens to be a pretty good story-teller in spite of his love of angst, anger, and generally dark themes; I can think of two stories of his I liked quite a lot (one I even recommended here), but I tend to handle his stuff like something really hot; that is I proceed carefully, reading his intro and author’s notes carefully, and yes, reading from the last chapter, before I decide if I’m going to invest in one of his works. Other writers love military themes, and I do too so this is often a good match. Some writers love dirty stories; I don’t so their work gets skipped (this is very easy to do as fanfiction.net defaults to not displaying these titles).
Do check if a work is complete or in progress. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been frustrated by a good story only to discover it ends in a cliff-hanger and hasn’t been updated in two years! The basic info line on all stories does tell if a story is complete and when it was last updated, so there’s really no excuse to be surprised by this. At first I was very cautious about starting works in progress; at this point keeping up with favorite stories/writers is part of my daily routine. I guess I just accept that some tales may never get resolved. But really, think twice before you click on the in progress story that’s been sitting since June of 2008.
Among the topics brought up here recently is the fact that different mediums do different things well. Television allows us to see and hear in a real sensory way. It can be viscerally exciting or pleasing. The written word is different. It allows for more introspection, more depth of description. Think about it; describing the intersect could take pages of written word that may take tens of minutes to read, but on-screen we see it in seconds. While getting inside a characters head can easily be done in writing, but is hard to do with out some sort of clumsy voice-over or monologue on-screen. There is a tendency among fans of the written word to claim its superiority to all other forms of story-telling; but I call that apples to oranges. Most stories will always play best in the first medium they were crafted for (does anyone really think the novelization of “Empire Strikes Back” was better than the movie?); while some few have been very well adapted across media (“Lord of the Rings” comes to mind; brilliant novel and a brilliant movie; please don’t get silly diminishing either one!). My point in all this is that fan fiction is a different experience. Enjoy it for what it does well. It can get into character’s thoughts, it can explore paths not taken in canon, it can explore key decision points or crisis points, and it can further develop ideas/characters/events that a fellow fan felt was worthy of their time.
Every writer screams for reviews/feedback. I am cautious about this. I’m sure everyone who’s ever posted here knows how satisfying it is when someone responds to a thought or idea you posted. Fan fiction writers are often putting a lot of work into something they aren’t getting pay or official recognition for. It’s mostly for their own satisfaction. But it’s hardly surprising they want to know their efforts are appreciated, and some may even want honest feedback to help with their shortcomings. But man what a thin line to tread. I never want to hurt the feelings of an enthusiastic fan like me. I’ve mentioned here I will only post positive comments and recommendations. If I mention a writer or story I do endorse it. That doesn’t mean I think its perfect, but it does mean that in some way I found the story satisfying and a good time. If a story has serious shortcomings I will try to say something to tip-off the careful reader I have some reservations (here is where I’m struggling with if I want to give an example or not…); but I seriously do not want to offend or hurt the feelings of an enthusiastic fan and writer (did you all realize I was such a wuss?). Now there is so much material out there, my silence on any piece is not condemnation; but if I review, I liked it!
We’ve talked about more issues than just these, please feel free to bring up any aspect of the fan fiction experience here. Who knows, it might even generate another long essay by me (or someone else who is actually knowledgeable about these things!).
I’ll make just a couple new recommendations this time. A while ago I started rereading the Chuck/fanfiction.net listings from the start (no not everything) and I have found a few that missed before. The first one I’ll mention is a fairly long one-shot called “Chuck vs. The Funeral of Sarah Walker” by Mystlynx. Not surprisingly there are some very painful moments in this story, but it does qualify under my criteria listed before as a good story. Its one of those that left me really thinking about what would have come next, and wishing the author had added another chapter at some point. This can be read in 15 minutes or so. It would be rated PG for mild innuendo.
Another story I’ll recommend with only a few qualifications is “Chuck vs. Life” by marybr. This may be one of the earliest epics among Chuck fan fiction, it was started after episode 1.11, and not finished for almost exactly a year. I wasn’t reading fan fiction back then, and I couldn’t tell you if all her updates were slow, or if there was just one long break in there; but I’m glad to just read the end result now! This is almost purely a romance, and is at its best towards the end of the core story. The writer has a good feel for the characters and writes a fun story. She does employ one triangle which you all know I don’t care for; but it is worth bearing with it. My only reservation is, the author is not primarily an English speaker, which does result in some unusual grammar, vocabulary, and usage at times. But considering that limitation, this story is very readable. One curiosity is that the two epilogues are as long as the main body of the story! Be glad for that too, they are lighter in tone and lots of fun. Allow three hours to read through, it would be rated PG.
Many other stories I’ve recommended here before are still going strong. Frea O’Scanlin (I think I got it right that time!) continues with her excellent “What Fates Impose.” This is the most complete treatment in fan fiction and truly worthy of the term “epic.” Time seems to move slowly in the story, but with action, humor, and even character/relationship growth coming right along you’ll actually be glad she’s not in any hurry.
Both of Ninjavanish’s stories are still unfolding, 19th century sci-fi Chuck continues in “Chuck vs. the Frontier”. This is a fun ride, but apparently won’t see any more updates until November or so due to some lame excuse about school or something… “Chuck and Sarah vs. Themselves” was just updated on 9/14 with one of the best action chapters I’ve ever read.
“Walker’s Eleven” by Moonlight Pilot has been updating faster than many others; and is a fun story starting with the idea Sarah never left her life of crime. Currently she is trying to get revenge on the crew that betrayed her, but she has been forced to put together an improvised crew prominently featuring Chuck, Morgan, Jeff, and Lester. Is anyone surprised that this seriously a lot of fun?
There are so many others. I don’t even write and I can barely keep up!