Withholding the Love

     You might want to hunker down. This is going to take a while. Those of you who
type “tl;dr” more often than “kthxbye” might want to seek entertainment elsewhere. What
follows is about 3,500 words of rambling opinion.

     A while back, it was mentioned to me that a colleague, an SF author, had said
that she did not consider self-published authors to be her peers.

     As a published author, she has every right to express that opinion. She has
earned her perspective through work and effort. As a published author, I’ve earned
mine the same way, and I reject her perspective.

     I’ll explain why. At length.

     Note that this explanation is intended so that you’ll understand my
outlook. That’s all it’s for. I’m not trying to persuade people to my way of thinking.

     In the course of my career in fiction, I’ve seen lots of ways some writers choose
not to consider one another as peers. In addition, fans and industry observers
sometimes decide not to consider writers to be “real.”

     Those who practice these exclusionary behaviors usually make claims about the
validity of those writers, and support those claims with arguments. Let’s look at some of
those claims and arguments.

Claim #1: Fanfic Writers Aren’t Real Writers

     Writers and fans who offer this opinion generally back it up with a series of
arguments, including:

  • Fanfic writers haven’t proven themselves in the arena of commercial competition.

  • Fanfic writers work exclusively in universes they did not create, which
    demonstrates a lack of imagination.

  • Because they don’t have to subject their work to the scrutiny of the property
    owners, fanfic authors can get away with sloppy, undisciplined, careless work.

  • Because their audiences are intimately familiar with those universes, fanfic
    writers do not have to develop a full set of tools such as characterization or

  • Fanfic works can never be commercially published so they’re wastes of time.

     Let’s consider these arguments one by one.

Fanfic writers haven’t proven themselves in the arena of commercial competition.

     Well, that’s often true. And rightly or wrongly, an author’s sales constitute one
objective measurement of success. Fanfic writers can’t be evaluated by that yardstick.
The logic goes, then, that we really don’t need to consider them to be real writers at all
— not compared to those of us whose sales can be measured.

     It’s true that commercial success is an objective indicator that a writer is meeting
a need, but the need is not necessarily that of good writing. The fact that we buy and
absently munch on breakfast burritos on the way to work doesn’t mean we consider
them good food — just that they address a need. Does commercial success centering
around breakfast burritos mean that the cook at an independent restaurant is a failure
and that the minimum-wage worker who throws the breakfast burritos together is a
master chef?

     The more indiscriminate a readership is, the more unrelated the concepts of
commercial success and writing skill become.

     So, is commercial success a characteristic of being a “real” writer? Actually, for
the purposes of argument, let’s assume that it is, but let’s also assume that it’s not the
only one, and therefore not a disqualirfying factor if the author doesn’t achieve it.

Fanfic writers work exclusively in universes they did not create, which
demonstrates a lack of imagination.

     I know several writers who do both profic and fanfic, as well as some who have
done one, then the other, and (on occasion) have gone back to the first one again. I don’t
see any lack of imagination in their professional work, so I have to discount this

Because they don’t have to subject their work to the scrutiny of the property
owners, fanfic authors can get away with sloppy, undisciplined, careless work.

     This is absolutely true.

     Now, fanfic writers get feedback from their readers, some of whom will tell them
that they’ve been sloppy. Other readers will vigorously defend them, in spite of
sloppiness, for their other virtues.

     It’s worth noting, though, that although some fanfic writers can get away with
sloppiness, sloppiness is not a requisite of being a fanfic writer, which is often an
implication made by the people raising this argument. So since people
raise this argument to suggest that sloppy writers aren’t “real” writers, and sloppiness is
not a requisite, I have to discount this argument.

Now I Must Expound Upon This Issue

     The argument above suggests that the fanfic audience’s lack of critical faculties
leads to sloppy work.

     Okay, stop there. Back up.

     I don’t mean back away from that argument, I mean take a couple of steps back
to look at it from a broader perspective.

     I like flesh-eating zombie movies. Some of them are quite good, but I actually
enjoy many of the bad ones, too, all but the worst of them (and, believe me, I’ve seen
the worst). With those movies of lower quality, I’ll set aside some of my objections to
sub-par acting, piss-poor writing, dreary locations and sets, stairwell sound recording,
and other deficits because I experience a morbid delight in seeing animated corpses
swarm over and devour very unhappy people.

     And that’s the thing about genre and category writing in general. Its fans forgive
sins on the part of the creators because they are getting their fix. Unlikely coincidences
in a romance — who cares? Spacecraft that bank and make zoom noises in outer
space — who gives a damn? Monsters with zippers occasionally visible in their skin — okay, that
may be stretching it, but I’ve forgiven that.

     My point is, the mediocre work in all fiction genres and categories gets a pass
from fans because the fans like the “furniture” of the genre or category. (I borrow the
term “furniture” from Walter Jon Williams. Walter, this is the second time in two blog
posts I’ve mentioned you, but I’m actually not stalking you.)

     So, yes, some fanfic writers do get away with sloppiness — the average (and
worse) writers. So do genre writers in general, the average (and worse) ones. In this
respect, fanfic is no different from profic.

Because their audiences are intimately familiar with those universes, fanfic
writers do not have to develop a full set of tools such as characterization or

     Also a fair argument.

     Whenever I run manuscript-review writers’ workshops, I tell the participants that
they can submit fanfic if they like, but that it must be edited/rewritten as if for readers
who have never heard of the source material, even if no one can actually find such a
reader. So a Buffy, the Vampire Slayer submission would be written for theoretical
people who’ve never heard of Buffy, Willow, Giles, Sunnydale, etc.

     Participants in those workshops generally step right up to the plate and do a fine
job, and those who don’t get the criticism appropriate to the shortcomings in their work.

     Here, again, the implication being made by critics of fanfic seems to be that
because fanfic writers can get away with a major omission, all fanfic writers therefore
demonstrate that omission — which is a fallacy.

     Argument dismissed.

Fanfic works can never be commercially published so they’re wastes of time.

     There was a time, in centuries previous to ours, when a sign of education and cultural
sophistication was the ability to write. I’m not talking about commercial fiction. I’m
talking chiefly about letters and essays. In the absence of mass media entertainment, a
lengthy letter from a distant relative or friend was a treat that could perk up an entire
household for days or longer, and some correspondences between lifelong friends
yielded treasure troves of wonderfully insightful, descriptive work of tremendous
historical importance.

     Those correspondents weren’t being paid for their efforts. So were these works wastes
of time? Were those correspondents real writers? Were they the peers of today’s real

     I can’t speak for other writers, but I can speak for myself. I say they were real
writers, and sometimes made the world — their world, and in some cases the world of
today — better for their efforts.

     And though it often appears that the internet is helping literacy to circle around
the drain, the world of blogging suggests that a renaissance in the field of essays is
possible. In my not-copious free time, I’m stumbling across more sharp, perceptive,
effective essays than I ever read twenty or thirty years ago. And I consider these
essayists my peers.

     So — again, speaking for myself — I have to dismiss this argument.

Claim #2: Media Tie-In Fiction Writers Aren’t Real Writers

     This claim comes from some pro writers and some fans, usually the same ones
who object to fanfic writers. And some of the arguments are the same as for fanfic.

     I’ll admit to having a personal investment in this question. In a very few
instances, I’ve been ill-treated for working as extensively as I have
in the field of media tie-in fiction. So, yes, this claim does get my back up a little bit.

     The arguments:

  • Media tie-in writers work in universes they did not create, which demonstrates a
    lack of imagination.

  • Because their audiences are intimately familiar with those universes, media tie-in
    writers do not have to develop a full set of tools such as characterization or

  • Tie-in fiction isn’t counted as canon by the license holders, so it’s obviously
    second-class work, beneath the regard of real writers.

  • Every media tie-in book sold is an original novel that won’t be sold.

     Let’s look at these arguments.

Media tie-in writers work in universes they did not create, which demonstrates a
lack of imagination.

     This is the same argument as for fanfic, above, and I dismiss it on the same

Because their audiences are intimately familiar with those universes, media tie-in
writers do not have to develop a full set of tools such as characterization or

     This, too, is the same argument as the one for fanfic, above, and I dismiss it for
the same reasons.

Tie-in fiction isn’t counted as canon by the license holders, so it’s obviously
second-class work, beneath the regard of real writers.

     Well, that observation is sometimes true and sometimes not.

     Most license holders do not consider tie-in fiction to be canon. In other words,
the details and events appearing in the fiction are usually not an official part of the
world/universe. But the chief reason for this choice is not one of quality. It’s one of
limitations, and of who is imposing those limitations on whom.

     License holders do not care to be constrained by details that appear in licensed

     Let’s say, for instance, that an author writes a licensed Terra Nova novel that
introduces Dr. Jack Tremainianologovsky, the greatest paleoxenotoxicologist ever
known to man. Fine. But the producers and scriptwriters of the TV show, rather than
embracing the fact that such a character has been established for their setting, are
more likely to disregard the character entirely, because they have their own world’s-greatest-paleoxenotoxicologist character in mind, and they can get Miley Cyrus to play
her. The property owners don’t want the tail to wag the dog, and that’s what having
detail poured into a setting by licensees feels like to them.

     Different licenses have different outlooks on this, though. Lucasfilm has derived
some Star Wars details from Expanded Universe fiction. The name of the Imperial
throneworld, Coruscant, originated with novelist Timothy Zahn. If I remember correctly,
Jedi Maste Aayla Secura, portrayed in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith
by Amy Allen, originated in comics by Dark Horse. And so on.

     On the other hand, there are licenses where the contributions of the fiction
writers are entirely ignored by the show’s/movie series’ producers. That’s the way it is.
But it’s not a quality issue.

     And, yes, there are some licensed tie-in fiction series where the quality of the
fiction is quite low. On the other hand, with no line I’ve ever heard of is the writer
required to write to a low standard.

     So, argument dismissed.

Every media tie-in book sold is an original novel that won’t be sold.

     This argument goes on to say that media tie-in fiction has become the new
midlist, crowding out original work by new and struggling writers, a sort of literary
chimera of kudzu, javelinas, and walking catfish.

     For a while, starting in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it looked spookily like this
might be the case. If I remember correctly, the rise to prominence of TSR Books’
Dragonlance series set off chimes in bookstore cash registers and alarm bells in the
minds of authors. The extraordinary sales success of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy
enhanced retailer happiness and authorial paranoia. And, yes, it appeared that media
tie-in books were beginning to dominate the midlist.

     I was just getting my novel-writing career off the ground at the time. I looked at
the situation, spent about ten seconds analyzing it, and came to this conclusion: “If I
divide my writing time between originals and media tie-in novels, I should do all right.”

     People who know my bibliography will notice that I did skew more toward media
tie-in fiction for many years, doing several tie-in novels for every one original. That has
nothing to do with my point. My point is that a writer can analyze the market, adapt his
output to market conditions, and strike a balance between market needs and his own
artistic needs.

     The danger was never media-based novels or the sudden rise in popularity
of romance or sales of the PlayStation. The enemies of a freelance writer are panic and
an unwillingness to keep track of what’s going on in the market.

     Anyway, the only writers whose careers I saw being wrecked by the media tie-in
boom were the very unlucky ones and the very inflexible ones. And with the rise of digital and Print On Demand publishing, the market will probably change drastically enough that the entire “media tie-ins are killing the midlist” argument is moot anyway.

     Which is why I have to dismiss that argument.

     For ironic effect, I sometimes point to Isaac Asimov’s novelization of the movie
Fantastic Voyage. Yes, I have a copy of the novel written by a grand master of science
fiction whose most endearing protagonist was Raquel Welch’s zipper. It didn’t seem to
have hurt Asimov’s career much.

Claim #3: Genre Writers Aren’t Real Writers

     I won’t go into a breakdown of arguments supporting this claim for the reason
that I spoke to this issue earlier, under “Because they don’t have to subject their work to
the scrutiny of the property owners … sloppy, undisciplined, careless work.”

     I did want to address a peripheral issue here, though. Many of us, both pro
writers and aspiring, have had English classes, including creative writing courses,
where the instructors cautioned us against writing in genres such as mystery, science
fiction, or romance. Usually they didn’t offer much in the way of explanation, other than
that these genres resulted in work of lower quality.

     I think that, ultimately, the reason for this opposition to genre work is that these teachers recognize that
genre fiction starts out by limiting its intended audience rather than striving to achieve
universal appeal (and universal meaningfulness). Clearly, a horror story is intended for
those readers who appreciate horror, and so on.

     And because genre fans forgive so many sins by writers and movie/TV
producers working in their genres of choice, English teachers often see their students
accepting, appreciating, even enshrining bad habits, ancient cliches, and inferior writing
in general. Hence the warmings. Hence, occasionally, a general dislike they develop of
genre work. As a student, I sometimes received lowered marks for working in genre,
and I’ve talked to innumerable people who share that experience.

     Note that I’m not disparaging English teachers or even that outlook. (I’ve also
met innumerable SF&F&H fans who are English teachers.) I simply think that the best
approach to dealing with this issue is not to tell students, “Stay away from genre work,”
but instead to tell them, “You’ll have to work extra hard to learn not to depend on the
crutches of your genre. So get to work.”

     Anyway, claim dismissed.

Claim #4: Self-Published Writers Aren’t Real Writers

     Here’s the big argument:

  • Self-published writers haven’t proven themselves by getting past the gatekeepers of editors and

     My outlook on that argument follows.

Self-published writers haven’t proven themselves by getting past the gatekeepers of editors and

     In more elaborate form, this argument includes the following elements:

     Self-published authors haven’t beaten the odds (implicitly, “the way I did”). They
haven’t (necessarily) written manuscript after manuscript, getting incrementally better
with each one, forging relationships with editors, demonstrating determination, finally
having a publisher demonstrate its faith in the writer by investing thousands of dollars in
advances, payments for cover art, and publication costs.

     In short, they haven’t received permission from one or more authority figures to
be in print — to be real writers. If their self-published work fails to sell, it’s evidence of
the correctness of the argument. And if the self-published work does sell, it’s clear
evidence of the unfairness of the universe.

     I’ve been startled by the venom that goes into some of these protests. It’s as
though the people raising the objections are comparing self-published writers to beach
bimbos who got caught sleeping with a Congressman and now are well-enough known
to steal acting jobs from people who’ve spent years learning their craft.

     But I am reminded of a time, I guess it was around ten years ago, when a new
class of video cameras, exemplified by the Canon XL1, hit the market. These cameras
recorded at near film quality — careful videography and use of filters or post-production
effects could give them at least the same quality as 16mm film transfers. When you
combined their availability with the rise of NLEs — non-linear editors, programs that
allowed editing of movies on personal computers — the result was a new generation of
filmmakers who didn’t have to shoot actual film, didn’t have to edit with actual pieces of
celluloid. They bypassed several steps of the steep learning curve of movie-making.

     A lot of filmmakers who’d overcome the learning curve of the earlier technology were unhappy.
“How dare these punk kids bypass all the hard stuff I had to learn? How dare they
actually get distribution?”

     And now I’m hearing the exact same sentiments being echoed by novelists who
came up through the ranks of yesterday’s technology.

     I really do understand that. Sometimes I feel touches of the same resentment.
Kids these days. No respect for their elders. Get off my damned lawn.

     On the other hand, if the technologies for e-book distribution and Print On
Demand had been available 25 years ago, would I have jumped at them? Hell, yes.

     In fact, from the time I got my first computer in 1984, I’ve been fiddling with
technologies appropriate for e-publishing. I played with e-book programs back in the
DOS days — text only, no graphics. I messed with Farallon’s Replica and WordPerfect
Envoy back when they were in competition with Adobe Acrobat, I learned to generate
WinHelp .hlp files (long before, and much harder than, HTML Help .chm files). I’m glad
to see some of these technologies being realized.

     Anyway, back to my point. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle, the water
doesn’t flow backward through the hole in the dam. Given the choice between learning
to exploit the new world of self-publishing.or sit in my rocking chair and glare at the
neighborhood kids, I’d prefer to publish.

     So, the argument is that these punk kids haven’t paid their dues. That may be
true. But we’re coming to a time when nobody’s going to have to pay those specific
dues. There are other dues to pay. Dues fogies such as myself have to learn to pay.

     And since the “didn’t pay the same dues I had to” argument is irrelevant,
regardless of whether or not it’s correct, I have to dismiss the argument.

To Sum Up

     So, back to the question of peers.

     A hundred years in the future, nobody’s going to give a damn whether a late 20th
century/early 21st century writer got his start in paper or on photons, as a marquee
author for a traditional publisher or as an upstart with a laptop and an internet
connection. (How many of us care that a lot of Charles Dickens’ work was published
serially in newspapers? A few academics, maybe.) All the works of this era will be
available from some equivalent of Project Gutenberg, and the only thing that will matter
to the readers is whether the fiction is any good — and whether it’s still relevant.

     And that, ultimately, is how I choose to identify my peers.

     A traditional author of original fiction, a self-published writer, a fanfic writer, a
Stargate SG-1 novelist, a blogger — if he or she is good at the craft, then he or she is my peer.

     And today’s generation of good writers, self-published or not — I hope they
consider me their peer.

     There you go.

13 thoughts on “Withholding the Love

  1. Well-played, sir. Cogent and succinct. When I was in the book trade, and we got novels in from folks who basically were self-published, I was never turned off by that fact. I was always more upset that they went around the system to produced a book that was Exactly the Same Thing as everyone else’s book out there on the shelves…only, you know, kinda nowhere nearly as good. I think nowadays this kind of thing is going away. The earliest POD stuff sorta scratched that itch for everyone. Now the cream rises to the top, as with all things.

  2. Wonderful article. It was great to hear your thoughts on the subject.

  3. What’s really changed is the market. Over thirty years ago, fans could submit their fan fiction to licensee publishing houses and actually get read, and actually get published, and one did: A.C. Crispin. Her stellar, self-supporting-by-writing-alone career came about because of a fan fic.

    The fact that one cannot do that today is because a lot changed in publishing: The money, the stakes, and therefore, the rules. What could launch a successful career thirty or forty years ago gets laughed out of the water today.

    Which is what steams me when these people who did get their start in exactly that way, look down their noses and sneer at those of us who are today exactly what they were…thirty years ago.

  4. I guess the tricky part is, how do you define “Good at the craft?”

    I suspect part of the objections is “If an editor/publisher approves of a work, it’s met the definition of “good” for at least one person with some experience in the field.”

    Which doesn’t mean that self-published/fanfic/genre/whatever work can’t be good, but it means that it’s successfully passed through one filter. With the quantity of writing available now, I think people look for some means of zeroing in on “The good stuff.” Publication is one way of doing that.

    • Absolutely, definitions of good writing are highly subjective.

      And while, for many, the fact that editors of major publishing houses constitute trusted gatekeepers, the fact that self-published writers don’t pass through those gates isn’t going to mean that readers will intrinsically distrust them. It suggests to me that some new variety of gatekeeper will arise, possibly a type of review/recommendation process originating in the world of social networks. I’m really curious to see what it turns out to be.

      • Aaron, I get the impression that publishers often give authors a lot of support. In many of the books I have read, the authors credit their publishers/editors, friends, etc., with helping to make their works better. Being a self published success could mean that you created your work with less assistance than many great writers receive.

        • Many publishers and editors do provide tremendous support, and those acknowledgements pages are very much merited.

          A self-published writer doesn’t have to receive much less of that kind of support than traditionally published writers do, though. I think it’s a great idea for self-published writers to band together into dangerous mobs whose members advance-read one another’s work.

          Good to hear from you, David.

  5. One of the reasons that Aaron is such a good fanfic author might be because he isn’t much limited by forced limitations. Most of us have experienced the hard work of trying to write an English essay, paint a painting, or some other creative work, that had to be done within restrictions that were put in place by a teacher. Trying to create a decent painting “using only rectangular forms” can be more difficult than using any shapes that you choose. You have to be pretty creative to make a story work when Han, Luke, etc., can only behave in character. You don’t get to create the character that would easily fill the role of protagonist in the story you envision. I don’t know why Aaron doesn’t point out this aspect of the craft that must go into his work. I admit to being curious about it. Not relevant? Not difficult work to be so limited?

    This reminds of how some of the Star Trek actors railed against the writers/producers who wanted story lines that would force the actors to portray their characters behaving in ways that were counter to their established personalities. I am also reminded of my disappointment with comic books that allow “you can’t sneak up and hit Spidey in the head with a baseball bat” moments. They needed Spider-Man to be captured, to push the story forward, and weren’t creative enough to write a plausible reason to fit the bill. There are, obviously, plenty of opportunities for authors to show real craft within the fanfic genre.

    • ‎”Fanfic writers work exclusively in universes they did not create, which demonstrates a lack of imagination.” LOL. I guess journalists, historical writers, biographers, etc., fall into this sad category of pathetic writers who lack imagination.

      It’s fun to play the “those aren’t REAL artists” game.

  6. Thanks for this – it’s nice to see an author wrestle courageously, rather than dismiss or ignore. And to see such insightful and funny wrestling brings increased energy differential to my central emotional processing unit.

  7. Considering that attempting to go the ‘traditional’ route involves trying to figure out WHICH publisher is the right one for you, sometimes it’s not even getting past the gatekeeper, it’s finding the right gatekeeper for you! My new favorite rejection letter is “It’s not right for us, but I did enjoy it.”

    And an excellent use for fan fiction now is increased fanfic availability + increased access to e-readers and self-publishing like Kindle making original material cheap and readily available = free advertising for said original work. I recently stumbled back into fanfic for the first time in a very long time (for Girl Genius) and not only did I unwittingly discover a character with an underserved market going by the “OMG THANK YOU FOR WRITING HIM” reactions, one of the first questions in the first reviews was “Where can I buy your other work?” They can’t pay for the fan fic, but it made them willing to go looking for something they CAN pay me for. Might not be traditional marketing, but I’ll take it!

  8. I am reading your book “Star Wars Fate of the Jedi; Outcast” in 4th grade. For homework I need to find out how long it took you to publish the book I’m reading.
    Thank you! (we couldn’t find an email address to email the question).

  9. I initially had problems identifying the section headers that separated argument-opinion. I expected the separation to be emphasized in some way. Once I grasped the argument-opinion segmentation I found the piece to be cogent and reasonable. I think Aaron makes a very important distinction between those who display professional skill with the craft of writing and those who have obtained a professional status as a writer. Defining ones peers is a personal journey, but I think every author would do well to make the distinctions that Aaron does.

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