Two Better Alternatives To Writing Fan Fiction

A week or two after I started writing daily short stories last February, I found myself tempted to write some fan fiction. Basically, I had started going through a phase of reading things like movie novelisations (and, yes, the recent book reviews have been written very far in advance) and, at the time of writing, there didn’t seem to be any novelisations of the “Silent Hill” videogames [EDIT: Whilst editing this article, I found that there are several Japanese-language novelisations and an English-language spin-off novel].

So, for a while, I actually thought about writing some fan fiction. Until I remembered that I didn’t write fan fiction. So, I had to think of alternatives. So, here’s an in-depth look at two better and more creative alternatives to writing fan fiction.

1) Be inspired (by multiple things): Ok, you’re a fan of something and you want to write something like it but you don’t want to write fan fiction. Great 🙂 This means that you can do something much better, you can take inspiration and then use this to tell an original story. But, how do you do this?

Start by looking at the basic, generic, underlying elements of the thing that has inspired you. These are general qualities that can be summed up in 1-3 words and which aren’t just found in the thing you’re getting inspired by (in other words, no highly-specific things like character names, location names etc..).

For example, the generic qualities of the old “Silent Hill” videogames would include: urban decay, implied paranormal horror, rust, gloom, vulnerability, grimy buildings, a foreboding atmosphere, psychological horror, mundane meets macabre etc…

When you’ve got your list of qualities, then try to tell a totally original story (featuring new characters, settings, background stuff etc..) that includes some of these generic qualities. You’ll end up with something that is evocative of the thing you’ve been inspired by, but also distinctly different, new and original. Because you’ve had to use your imagination, the story will also have a bit more of your own personal “style” too.

Of course, since you’ve got a list of generic qualities, then you’ll also be able to use it to find connections with other things – which you can also use for inspiration (via the same process) too. Basically, the more inspirations you have, the more original your story will be.

For example, after my initial thought about writing “Silent Hill” fan fiction, I decided to take inspiration instead. Whilst doing this, I realised that the list of qualities I was looking at were also shared by several other things such as the movie “Mimic“, the X-Files episode “Tooms” etc… I realised that all of these things were set in run-down urban parts of 1990s/early-mid 2000s America, they had a claustrophobic atmosphere and/or they often involved something lurking in the shadows.

I was then able to use these multiple inspirations in order to tell an original American-style horror story, set in 1997, about a haunted floor of an apartment block. Not only that, because I’d realised that claustrophobia was a major theme in this “type” of horror, I was also able to choose to use first-person narration and to set most of the story inside a lift/elevator carriage in order to add this quality to the story. This resulted in at least a mildly better (or at least less worse) story than if I’d tried to write some “Silent Hill” fan fiction instead.

Doing this kind of thing is better than writing fan fiction because it forces you to use your imagination a bit more, it means that your story will appeal to a wider audience (rather than just fans of one thing) and it also means that there are far fewer potential copyright issues with publishing your story too.

Although I’m not a copyright lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, this type of inspiration is actually encouraged by copyright law. This is because most copyright laws around the world deliberately don’t protect basic ideas, concepts, themes etc.. Instead, most copyright laws only protect highly-specific details (eg: specific character designs etc..). What this means is that, if you like something, then you have to do something new and original with the basic ideas behind that thing. In other words, you have to take inspiration and use your imagination, rather than just lazily borrowing.

2) Write an old-school British-style parody: Before about 2014 or so, there was no legal right to make parodies in Britain. What this meant is that if a comedy show on TV or a writer or whatever wanted to make a parody of something, then they had to be a little bit crafty about it.

In other words, they had to work out what they were going to ridicule (eg: the general qualities, ideas, themes etc.. behind something) and then come up with a new and original set of characters, locations etc… that evoked the thing they were parodying, and then use this to poke fun at the thing that they wanted to parody. Although this sounds like it would be really convoluted and result in worse parodies, the exact opposite is true.

What it meant was that things which originally started as parodies – such as the TV show “Red Dwarf” – are still going strong decades after they were first made. Because they had to stand on their own two feet, rather than rely on something else, they have a much wider appeal and a greater degree of longevity. Likewise, because they weren’t explicitly based on one other thing, they could also parody a much wider range of things too.

So, using this style of parody can result in much more interesting fan-based stories. For example, this short story of mine is clearly meant to be a parody of “Star Trek”. But because it includes original characters, original settings etc.. It also allowed me to write a much more general parody story about modern computer software, which will hopefully also amuse people who haven’t seen a single episode of “Star Trek”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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When Should You “Write From Experience”? – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d quickly look at the topic of writing from experience today. This is mostly because I’ve noticed it happening a few times, such as in a couple of the short stories that I posted here last February or in the second comic from the webcomic mini series that I’m making at the moment:

This is a preview. The full comic update will be posted here tomorrow.

So, does this mean that I agree with the idea that writers should “write from experience“?

Yes and no.

In short, experience can be a good source of emergency inspiration and/or a starting point if you’ve got no other ideas, and it can also occasionally come in handy for thinking of small “realistic” details too. But, experience isn’t the be all and end all of creativity. Even if you’ve got the experience, you still need imagination. After all, fiction and autobiography are very different things.

So, even if you use your experience as a starting point, then you’re still going to have to come up with a way to turn it into something different and imaginative. You’re still going to have to find a way to make it more interesting than real life. You’re still going to have to think of fictional characters, intriguing background details, a plot etc.. So, experience is a good starting point, but it isn’t essential.

Likewise, many genres of fiction usually involve things that people can’t experience in real life. Whether it’s science fiction, vampire stories, medieval fantasy or whatever, it is the impossibility of these stories that makes them so interesting. So, the people writing these stories can’t be writing from direct experience.

I think that a better way of looking at this subject is to think about writing what you are knowledgeable about, rather than what you have directly experienced.

For example, this short story of mine wasn’t written from direct experience – because I’ve never explored an abandoned shopping centre. But, I’ve been to a few non-abandoned ones (including when MVC shops still existed), I was fascinated by horror movies when I was younger and I’ve watched lots of fascinating Youtube videos filmed by people who have visited abandoned shopping centres. So, I know a bit about the topic. This then allowed me to come up with an interesting fictional story.

Likewise, this short story about a person who develops a psychic connection to the internet wasn’t based on direct experience. The initial inspiration for this story was having a dream which involved a situation where the internet wasn’t working (which, in that situation, saved the day) and then, upon waking, noticing that the internet was playing up. This bizarre coincidence made me think “what would happen if someone could sense whether the internet was working?“. After that, I relied on both my imagination and my knowledge of the internet to come up with a satirical sci-fi/magic realist story.

So, you’re probably seeing a theme here. Experience and/or knowledge can be useful starting points. But, you still need to use your imagination to tell a story that is more interesting than real life.

In other words, if you write about what you know, then you’re going to feel more inspired. You’re going to be more confident. Your story or comic will probably sound more realistic too. But, imagination matters more than all of this. Knowledge and experience are two tools that your imagination can use. They aren’t a replacement for your imagination.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What Books Can Do That Other Entertainment Mediums Can’t – A Ramble

Well, since I seem to have read more within the past month than I did in the entire year before, I thought that I’d offer some random thoughts about books. In particular, I thought that I’d talk about something that suddenly occurred to me whilst I was reading the thriller novel I reviewed yesterday.

Unlike literally any other entertainment medium, books are an intimate and collaborative medium. It is literally just you and the author. They provide a description of their most interesting daydreams, and you have to use your own imagination to turn this into something you’ll enjoy. It’s like spending time with an old friend, or an interesting stranger. No two meetings are exactly alike. Every meeting between an author’s words and a new reader will be very slightly different.

Not only that, both of you control the pace at which the story travels. The author can write in a way that is meant to be read quickly or slowly, but it is the reader who determines how long the story takes to read. Whether a book is read in short instalments or explored in long deep dives up to the reader. Unlike films, books don’t have running times, because it’s up to the author and each individual reader to determine the “running time” themselves.

Unlike every other entertainment medium, a book is a bit like the Vulcan mind meld from “Star Trek”. Unlike watching most films or playing most games, it almost feels like you’re having some kind of a relationship with a book. For a few hours or days, it becomes part of your everyday life and part of your mind. It’s cover art becomes something you see regularly and the story becomes something that follows you around for a while.

Even if you only remember a few random scenes or impressions several years later, each book that you’ve read becomes a part of your life in a way that no other entertainment medium can quite achieve. Because you’ve spent the time with a book and because you and the author have come up with a unique “version” of the story, there’s something personal about remembering a book that you just don’t get with other entertainment mediums that are the same for every viewer or player. Because of this, books linger in the memory like nothing else, often mingling with the memories of the time and place you read them.

Even the corniest horror novel, the most generic of romances or the most textbook of thriller novels will do this. I mean, I still remember random scenes and moods from the only two “Mills & Boon” books that I’ve ever read, even if I can’t remember their titles or character names. I could also tell you where I read each one and the years that I read them (2006 and 2009/10).

Likewise, even though it’s been quite a while since I last read a decent horror novel, I can still vividly remember being too creeped out by Shaun Hutson’s “Shadows” to keep reading. I can also still remember the car journey (of all things) during the holiday when I read Hutson’s “Spawn”. Or parts of the holiday home where I read Hutson’s “Heathen”.

Even though it was about a decade and a half ago, I can still remember reading James Herbert’s “Domain” (a second-hand copy with a shiny cover from an indoor market stall in Bath) in my bedroom with aghast bleakness and morbid fascination whilst I listened to HIM’s “Love Metal” album on my CD player. I could go on for a while, but books linger in the memory in a way that nothing else does.

Then there’s the obscurity. Unless you’re reading something really famous, there’s a good chance that the books you read are ones that the people around you either haven’t heard of or haven’t read. Books usually don’t really have the popularity of major films or “AAA” games. And yet this just adds to the sense of intimacy and humanity that other entertainment mediums can only dream of.

Reading a book, even by a reasonably well-known author, feels like you’ve stepped into another world. Like you’ve stepped into a hidden part of the surrounding culture that is rarely mentioned in newspapers or on TV. That probably isn’t referenced humourously in the way that films are. Like you’ve stepped outside of popular culture and found that there’s a lot more than you expected. That, for every blockbuster franchise in the cinemas, there are literally hundreds of equally spectacular franchises hiding on the shelves of bookshops. It’s like seeing another world.

I could go on for a while, but I’ll leave you with this. All of this stuff comes from an entertainment medium that doesn’t require electricity, that can be left lying on a shelf for literally decades and still “work” perfectly, and which can often only cost a small amount. It’s practically magic!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why You Should Create Your Own Fictional Universe When Making Comics – A Ramble

At the time of writing, I was busy preparing this month’s webcomic mini series. Although it’s a series of writer’s block-induced remakes of some of my older comic updates from 2012/13, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of schadenfreude when I read this online article (reader discretion advised) last year (and, yes, I write these articles quite far in advance).

In short, in late 2017 Marvel Comics announced a “create your own comic” tool that contains a surprisingly onerous list of content restrictions on what could and couldn’t be included in the superhero comics assembled from pre-made parts.

Even though I self-censor far too much when making webcomics these days (eg: even my upcoming mini series is probably “PG-13” at the most), I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “how is anyone supposed to make an interesting comic with those rules?” But, although I’d planned to write an article about why comics need at least a little bit of rebelliousness, I thought that I’d look at the core issue here – creative control.

Because, the only reason why Marvel was able to get away with imposing ultra-strict comic censorship on aspiring superhero comic makers is because these officially-sanctioned fan comics use their characters and take place in their own fictional universe.

Although fictional universes of your own creation may not be as popular as the mainstream superhero-based comics that depressingly seem to be synonymous with “comics” these days, it does give you creative control and this is important for so many reasons.

Creating your own fictional universe means that you can make a comic that is uniquely yours. It means that you can include your own ideas and humour in the comics that you make. Even if the setting of your comic, like my webcomic, is loosely-based on the real world – it still means that you can include quirky “unrealistic” details from time to time. Like this:

“Damania Regression – Art House” By C. A. Brown

“Damania Reconnected – Campfire” By C. A. Brown

What this means is that your comic will be something uniquely, refreshingly different. It also means that you have the freedom to tell the stories and jokes that you want to (within reason). Yes, your comic should still be consistent with itself and should follow some over-arching story rules. But, you get to write those rules.

A brilliant example of why creative control is important can be found in an utterly amazing webcomic called “Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree. The updates for this comic are often long, dialogue-heavy things. The backgrounds are crammed with quirky satirical details. The art style is totally unique. This is a comic that substitutes intelligent drama for mindless super-powered action. This is a comic that is both surprisingly realistic and imaginatively unrealistic. Now, could you imagine a comic like this being made in the old days of traditional print comics?

So, yes, even though you’ll have to do a lot of art practice and your comic might not be as famous as certain types of comics are, there is nothing more important than creating your own fictional universe. It gives you creative control, it allows you to make more unique comics and it reduces the amount of external censorship that you have to deal with.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What Can Old Computer Games Teach Us About Painting And Drawing From Imagination? – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about the differences between painting from imagination and painting from photographs/life etc.. This is mostly because I’ve found a brilliant computer game-related analogy for it that I want to share.

If you’ve played computer games from the 1990s/early-mid 2000s, you probably already know the difference between FMV and in-game cutscenes. If you don’t, then I should probably explain. Older games generally tended to get story information across to the player through animated video segments. However, these came in two very different varieties.

FMV (full motion video) was often created using high-end graphics software, then recorded and inserted into the game. This allowed games to include CGI footage that looked years ahead of the graphics in other contemporary games. Since these scenes required a lot of resources and preparation to make (and took up a lot of memory), they usually tended to be restricted to short introductory and ending movies. They look a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from a FMV sequence in “Deus Ex: Invisible War” (2003). Even though this footage is from about fifteen years ago, it could almost pass for something from a modern game. Almost.

In-game cutscenes on the other hand, are animated scenes that are created using the same technology as the rest of the game. As such, they are considerably easier, quicker and cheaper for game developers to make. They take up less memory and they generally appear a lot more frequently than FMV in old games. However, they don’t really look as realistic or as good. Compare this example from “Deus Ex: Invisible War” to the FMV screenshot above:

This is a screenshot from an in-game cutscene in “Deus Ex: Invisible War” (2003). As you can see, the graphics look a lot less realistic than the FMV sequences.

So, why am I mentioning this? Well, one of the endearing things about old games is that they’ll often dazzle the player with an almost-realistic introductory FMV video, only to then show the player the actual game (which looks nowhere near as realistic). If you’ve played a lot of old games, you’ll be used to this. If you haven’t, then it will probably be at least somewhat disconcerting.

But, what does it have to do with art? Well, painting from imagination is much more like an in-game cutscene and painting from life/photos etc… is more like a FMV sequence. After all, if you’re painting from life or a photo, it’s easy to make your art look realistic since you can just copy what you see. Like this:

“Random Desk Still Life” By C. A. Brown

You also don’t have to worry about finding inspiration, since you have an “inspiration” directly in front of you when you’re painting. There’s a reason why a lot of famous artists tend to do this whilst making art.

However, painting from imagination takes a lot more work. You have to come up with an idea and then you have to work out how to paint it. Chances are, even with a few years of practice, it won’t look as realistic as a still life or a painting from a photo. And this can be somewhat dispiriting. But, it shouldn’t be.

“From The 1990s” By C. A. Brown

If you paint from imagination, then you can do so much more! Yes, it might not look as “realistic” but you aren’t limited by what exists in real life. Like how a FMV video is often less interactive than an in-game cutscene, paintings from photos and/or life are limited by the source materials you can find.

Not only that, if you can paint even vaguely well from imagination then you’ll find making paintings from life/photos fairly easy. However, if you only make art from photos/life, then you’re probably going to find painting from imagination to be extremely challenging.

It’s kind of like how even the worst computer and/or video games of the past could include cool-looking FMV sequences, but a really great game could include few to no cutscenes whatsoever. Anyone in the games industry could make cool-looking FMVs, but it took real talent to make an enjoyable game and/or compelling in-game cutscenes.

What I’m trying to say here is that the underlying imagination behind making art matters more than how “realistic” your paintings or drawings look. Yes, you should strive to improve (just like how in-game cutscenes have gradually got more realistic over the years), but if you have to focus on either painting from imagination or painting from life/photos, choose imagination. Your art might not look as good, but it will make you a better and more creative artist.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The One Skill That Writing, Art etc.. Courses Don’t Always Teach Directly – A Ramble

Although this is an article about perhaps the most important skill that any artist or writer should have, I’m going to have to start by talking about old technology for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become apparent later in the article.

A while before I wrote this article, I watched this wonderfully nostalgic Youtube video about indestructible old mobile phones.

Although I could easily get side-tracked and talk about how – in 2004/5- I once saw someone quite literally hurl a 3310 into a wall (it bounced off and the only damage was a slight crack to the screen covering). Or I could talk about how – back when I still liked mobile phones- I once owned what was once the most popular phone in the world (the 1100), and how it survived getting lost once and being used for over five years. But, that would be a distraction.

No, the reason, I mentioned old phones from the early-mid ’00s is because they had a reputation for durability, simplicity, reliablity and practicality. They were, like a lot of old technology, built to work and built to last.

I mean, a DVD doesn’t stop working when the internet slows down. Windows XP crashes extremely rarely compared to Windows 98 (and what I’ve seen of Windows 7 computers too!). My Playstation 2 seems to have died from disuse (the last time it worked was in 2011, but I bought it in early 2002!). My Game Boy Advance and original Game Boy still work though. My old MP3 players use easily-replacable batteries. The computer I wrote this article on is a low-end machine – even by the standards of 2006 (which was when I got it). Old technology isn’t fancy, but it was made to work and made to last!

This is something that has shaped my own philosophy towards technology… and creativity too.

Back before I used to practice art daily, I used to consider myself to be more of a writer (in fact, I actually studed creative writing). But, one skill that never seemed to be explicitly taught was how to deal with uninspired times. When I had weekly writing assignments, I used to spend hours or days frantically racking my brain for story ideas and, although I always eventually found one, my imagination didn’t always seem like the most reliable thing in the world.

But, now that I make art instead, I know that I’ll always make something – even on my most uninspired days. How did I learn this? Simple, I started practicing art daily and – a bit later – writing these daily articles. This tight schedule changed my attitude towards creativity, even after I’d built up a fairly decent “buffer” of things that I’d made in advance.

Gone are the days when I thought of coming up with creative ideas as nervously “waiting for inspiration” and now I see uninspiration as more of a puzzle to solve – but a puzzle that I know that I will always solve. These days, my overriding attitude is a confident “make something! Something is better than nothing!” or “I’m going to make something, I wonder what it will be?

Best of all, this constant daily practice has given me so many backup strategies to use when I can’t find an idea or the enthusiasm to make something. Whether it’s making still life paintings, looking for something to take inspiration from, remaking my old art, making studies of 19th century paintings, using a focused distration (eg: playing old computer games) that allows me to daydream etc… I’ve gained a vast toolbox of techniques to use whenever my imagination throws up an error message.

For example, the day before I wrote this article – I’d just woken up and realised that I was about to be behind on my art practice schedule. I had maybe an hour or two to make some art. When I started sketching, my imagination quickly failed me. I felt like making art was a chore. But, I still made some art! Yes, I eventually had to quite literally doodle randomly in my sketchbook and then scan it and try to turn it into art using an image editing program. But, I managed it! Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size picture will be posted here on the 10th April.

No matter how great you are at writing, drawing, painting etc… all of that skill means nothing if you don’t have a reliable way to keep creating. Even if you can only create crappy stuff when you aren’t feeling inspired, the fact that you’re still creating makes you better than a genius who gives up in frustration.

So, yes, the most important skill that any artist or writer can learn is how to make their imagination more reliable. Because, if you’re able to make something any time you want to, they you’re still in a better position than more “skilled” people who can’t do this.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Letting Your Imagination Assert Itself – A Ramble

Although I’m sure I’ve written about this subject at least once before, I thought that I’d talk about how your art can sometimes end up looking totally different to the original idea/plan that you had before you started making the drawing or painting. This tends to happen most often when you draw or paint from imagination (rather than from life, from photographs etc..) with relatively little pre-planning.

This is when it feels like something else was involved with the painting or drawing you’ve just made. Like how, on the journey from the initial idea to the final painting, something has changed a few details and made several alterations. It can be a really strange experience sometimes.

So, what actually happens here?

Simply put, many of the creative influences/inspirations that you’ve (knowingly or unknowingly) encountered in the past can end up having an effect on the painting in some unexpected way or another – for the simple reason that they’ve shaped your imagination and/or your aesthetic sensibilities (eg: the set of “rules” you believe that good/interesting art should follow).

This is a good thing. After all, one of the best ways to make more distinctive art is to learn how to take inspiration properly and to look for things that fire your imagination. Likewise, the more influences and inspirations you have, the more stuff your imagination has to work with. So, the more likely you are to surprise yourself in interesting ways.

Since our imaginations aren’t computers, influences and inspirations don’t tend to stay separated in neat little folders. They blur and blend together to produce slightly new things. This is the foundation of pretty much all types of creativity. It is also why the more inspirations you have, the more original your creative works will be. After all, originality comes from having a unique mixture of inspirations (since it is literally impossible for anyone to create anything that isn’t inspired by something else in some way or another. Even humanity’s earliest cave paintings were inspired by things that the artists saw in real life.).

What this means is that virtually every idea you have for a piece of art will be filtered through your existing mixture of inspirations at some stage in the creative process, and this is one of the main reasons why your final painting or drawing can look somewhat different from your original idea.

After all, if you’ve seen and studied a lot of cool and interesting things that have made you think “I want to make something like that“, then your imagination is going to remember this. It will have probably devised a set of “rules” that it learnt from all of these things, so it will probably feel more right to follow those rules than it is to ignore them. This is where the “something else” I mentioned earlier comes from.

So, if you’ve been practicing for a while (and the differences aren’t down to a difference in artistic skill), then it’s usually a good thing when your final artwork ends up looking somewhat different to your original idea. It means that your imagination is working properly. It means that you are beginning to discover your own unique type or style of art.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂