1992 marked my introduction to Star Wars fan fiction. I was just starting my first year of law school and was looking for something more interesting to read than casebooks. With a new SW novel set for almost a year away and Dark Empire set for every two months, I was always eager to read more stories to hold me over.
In the first zine I got there were a couple of very short pieces but then I found out there were bigger zines with lots of stories. I started ordering those and reading them. Some of the stories were really good, others…well, they were interesting. I absorbed them all like a sponge, drinking like a man who had been stuck out in the desert a long time.
It wasn’t long before I started thinking, “Hey, I can write my own stories.” I had my own ideas bubbling around in my head and at last there was an outlet for them, for other fans to read.
The really odd thing is, I wasn’t all that comfortable at first writing the main characters and stuff. It just seemed like, after some years writing my own stories, it was hard to write characters somebody else created. So the very first story I attempted was really re-working an old original story I’d scrawled out when I was in college. I just added in the Star Wars elements and made my hero a random Rebel pilot. It was meant to be a funny story, too.
Humor in the end made it easier to get my feet wet in that universe. Feeling like I got a good response to my first funny story, my next fan fiction would feature the main characters from the movies but that one would also be humorous. That one was submitted to another zine and was quickly accepted.
Then after reading a few more stories in various zines, I decided to try my hand at a serious fan fic. I think I got the vibe people wanted angsty, edgy fare even if I personally believed it was a little off from the tone of the movies. So I tried to write a story like that. It was dark and angsty, and contrary to what I normally do, threw in some cuss words for fun.
You can probably guess by now I made a lot of mistakes with my earliest Star Wars fan fiction. Most fan writers do. The difference between good ones and everyone else though is figuring out your mistakes and not repeating them. After a couple of shots at writing stories, I decided that instead of trying to shoe-horn Star Wars into dark fiction or whatever, I’d just deal with it as it was. Writing fan fiction got to be a lot easier from that point on.
Fan fiction is in a lot of ways a different animal from writing anything else. It’s a subgenre with its own conventions, all of which I’ve picked up or rejected through practice and reading other people’s stuff. I learned what “Mary Sue,” “Gary Stu,” “hurt/comfort,” and “slash” meant.
So, while hanging around in the school library or out in the patio area (in warmer months of course), or during rides on the Metro, I’d scrawl out whatever came to mind. Many fan writers, in fact most of them, prefer to write about a particular character or a particular relationship. Me, I liked spreading the love, writing about various characters. Some of what I wrote covered “missing moments” not seen in the movies. Others were inspired by the few novels and comics available. Then there were the speculative stories on what transpired before A New Hope or long after Return of the Jedi. I wrote a couple of so-called “alternate universe” stories, stories that take place in a Star Wars galaxy with altered events, and maybe one “crossover,” a type of story that combines characters from different t.v. shows, movies, etc.. You know, Mr. Spock Meets The Predator.
If there’s only one thing I can claim to have in common with Papa George, it’s that we both like to start out writing longhand. I would write out everything on paper first before editing it and changing it several times. Once I got a written draft I liked, I’d type it up on the ol’ word processor and change it some more. Then when I was all done, I’d print up a copy and pop it off in the mail to the zine editor. (I didn’t get an e-mail account until 1996.)
The zine editor would let me know whether or not she was accepting the story and if there were any changes she deemed necessary. Usually a zine editor would correct things like typos and grammar on her own. Stories that needed a little bit more tweaking would be sent back to the authors along with the suggested changes. Then, when it came time to go to press, some zine editors would send along a galley, a preview copy of the story, for final approval. Then when the zine was at last published–usually once a year, though some zines were published twice a year–you’d get your freebie copy in the mail as “payment” for your contribution.
I learned very quickly that sending in stories for zines was an economical way to get your fix of fan fiction, especially when you are a student. Back then, a fat 300-page fanzine cost about $25 to purchase. If you buy four or five zines, that can add up to big bucks pretty quickly. But if you send in a long enough story or enough poems, artwork, filks (fannish songs), you could score $200 worth of zines for free. Your only other “compensation,” were praise from fans’ Letters of Comment that you didn’t see until the next issue a year later, and intramural awards voted on by your fellow fans. (I managed to win a couple of those in the 1990s.)
A lot of fan writers approach their stories as a golden opportunity to “fix” things in the canon, or official, material they don’t like. I never did. My approach to fan fiction was to celebrate what I liked, whether it was a character, a relationship, or a favorite scene. Over the several years I wrote fan fiction, love for the Star Wars universe was always an ingredient. I’m not saying everything I wrote was awesome. In fact, there are probably stories I thought were the bomb in 1995 but today might make me go, “What was I smoking when I cranked out this thing?” But for the most part, I’m proud of what I wrote. Nothing was a greater compliment than to be told that the characters’ dialogue sounded just right or that the reader could easily see something like what I wrote happening in the movies.
It’s funny that when you get into the habit of writing fan fiction, you start thinking about it everywhere you go. While bored in class or while you’re dazed at a meeting, while standing on a Metro platform, while wandering around the streets of D.C., while on a long plane ride, or even while you’re on vacation. Not only could the movies themselves or related material inspire (or others’ fan fic), but so could a song or a t.v. show. You just never know when inspiration, known among us as “plot bunnies,” will strike.
But there were other types of zines besides the phone book sized ones packed with stories. There was the letterzine I started reading in mid ’92. A letterzine was kind of like a message board with a four-month turnaround. People would send in letters starting topics, commenting on their lives, and commenting on other people’s letters. The publication also featured photocopies of newspaper clippings, cartoons, and listings for other zines.
The letterzine was a dummy’s guide to how the small Star Wars fan fiction community operated in the early ’90s and it was the first opportunity I had to communicate with several Star Wars fans at once. It was an education to say the least. Some of the attitudes of the fans involved at the zine were surprising to me. For one thing, most of them really disliked Timothy Zahn’s books, believing that the characters were misrepresented and the story was kinda boring. Dark Empire fared a lot better; in fact I wrote a well-received review of the series for the letterzine some months later. But it seemed to me that their disdain for the books were reactionary, a rejection of something new that didn’t mesh with their vision of Star Wars…especially since I liked the books just fine! I was also surprised at how much they nitpicked the movies. Some of them also seemed to dislike George Lucas for some reason. I found this all baffling but at the same time, this was the first time I was able to “chat” with people who were obsessed in their own way with Star Wars. And for me, it was like living in a foreign country and finding someone after many months who “spoke” your language.
I also found out from the zine that there were other fans in the Washington, D.C. area, where I was living at the time! The funny thing is in my first letter to the zine, I addressed–a little strongly–a fan in nearby Silver Spring, MD who ended up being a very close friend for many years afterward.
Now some of you are probably wondering about the legal logistics of “unofficially” playing in someone else’s sandbox. A sandbox worth billions. Legally, you can shut down any fanzine or any other non-licensed product. Fan fiction, fan web sites, etc. thrive at the pleasure of the copyright holder/author even through this day. Lucasfilm did go after fans a few times over the years, but by and large, it has had a laissez-faire attitude toward the wacky world of fan fiction.
So before long, I was part of a small but busy group of fan writers and zine editors. By the winter of 1993, I started contemplating doing my own fanzine…