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November, 1995

"Looking for a few good bytes - Part II"


Some months ago I reviewed a novel by Barbara Michaels which is such a best seller you can still buy the paperback in most supermarkets or get it from the library. The title is Houses of Stone. It is about a professor who is chasing an old manuscript of a woman's Gothic novel. In the course of the novel, Michaels gives us a very good reprise of the history of women's fiction and why it was not published in the 1800's but circulated handwritten. It is the story of the founding and development — and attempted suppression of — one of the most lucrative fields of publishing today, the Gothic novel, and the entire field of women's fiction.

After decades of being deeply steeped in Star Trek fan fiction, and having just stumbled across Houses of Stone during my exploration of the new vampire Romance novels, and then encountering my favorite television-cop/vampire via amateur e-fiction, I see a pattern.

And the most important part of the pattern, the part that's making this Listserve fiction delivery channel a historical phenomenon of the first order, is the intermix of the academics with those outside the academic environment.

The pattern is the advent of a new literature, as important in the evolution of fiction artforms as the Gothic novel. Michaels points out how the Gothic novel opened a dialogue among writers and readers that shaped the women's movement, which was highlighted recently by Hillary Clinton's speech at the Women's Conference in China. Communication is the key to breaking the chains of servitude.

What's the distinguishing mark of this new literary artform? Well, the form is just barely embryonic. Most of the practitioners aren't consciously aware of what they're doing. They think they're just playing around, having fun — which is, of course, what scientists or alchemists do when pursuing basic research.

However, one feature is apparent. This new literature says things about relationships and the place of conflict in relationship that disqualify these stories from consideration by any of the big Manhattan publishers, even Gothic and Romance publishers.

The other clear feature of this new literature that joins it to the original Gothic tradition is that it is practiced "underground" — in private — away from the prying eyes of The Establishment and, in some cases, in defiance of The Establishment. Like the Gothic novel Michaels writes about, this literature is not done for profit. Nobody makes any money from it. What the authors get for their efforts is direct, instant feedback from readers and other writers. And a lot of that feedback is praise, for these folks know how to hit a nerve among those who share their interests.

Which brings me to the main caveat I have for those who have never read any fan fiction, pastiche or otherwise.

These are amateur writers, which doesn't mean they are not as "good" at writing as those who are published professionally. In fact, on the Forever Knight List I've discovered a few who are better than some of our current Hugo award winners, which is also true of those working in printed Star Trek fanzines. But there are others who are posting fiction who have never written a story before in their lives, and because posting is so easy, they send out fiction that hasn't been proofread, copyedited, or edited.

There's a big difference between copyediting (finding typos, misspellings, aberrant grammar and discontinuities) and editing — finding problems with plot, theme, dialogue, overwriting, purple prose, missing scenes, missing explanations, or repeated and belabored points. Although some of the more experienced posters have found good fan-copyeditors, only a few veterans have cultivated themselves an editor.

When you get fiction off a List, you're often getting raw copy, first draft, dashed off during class, inspired by a dream and written the next morning, fiction written to participate in a dialogue with others, not to display a vision of the universe, and most certainly not to make money.

You very often do not get your money's worth out of it — and it does cost to download e-mail by such a volume. It costs you time, and it may cost you paper if you print it out to read later. Even that investment is often not paid off because the newest authors aren't focused on delivering value for your time.

The other caveat for people who have never encountered amateur fiction is this: if you're not utterly thrilled by the TV show this fiction is based on, you won't enjoy this fiction at all. There might be one or two novels that will reach you, but most of it will leave you cold.

Why? Because most of the authors are not professional writers, and don't know how to lure you into their universe. The ones (and there are many) who have the ability and techniques to seduce you into suspending disbelief don't use those techniques because the fiction is aimed at people who are already inside the universe and are bored by attempts to lure them.

Given those warnings, what could you find on the Forever Knight list to thrill any vampire fan?

The Forever Knight pastiche is very similar to TV fan fiction devoted to other shows. Its main feature is that it doesn't resemble the TV show — at all.

For example, I just saw the Star Trek:Voyager episode "Initiations", the second of the season, which sustained the glowing potential of the season opener with a solid script and marvelous production values. Janeway's relentless search for Chakotay when he was lost was reminiscent of the way Spock would search for Kirk (or vice versa). Chakotay's sensitivity within the context of a Warrior's tradition was landmark television. This show is breaking new ground as the original Trek did. See the Mulgrew Interview in Now Voyager.

However, due to a VCR glich, I saw the last half of this episode before the first half. Watching a perfect TV script in this fashion points up how very much a set formula a TV script is, and what a TV episode is. I knew (without having any other clue) just from the first few seconds of the first scene I saw (where Chakotay and the boy are sprawled on the rock and wake up dazed) that I was at the exact middle of an episode. I just didn't know that my VCR had captured the first half, so I watched the second half first. It's such a good script that it didn't spoil it at all.

Very few posted or printed fan fiction stories have this episode structure where you know exactly what must go in each slot in the formula. Forever Knight is a cop show, with a cop show formula — there's a murder, Knight is called to the scene, he picks up clues, and solves the murder. FK is different from the usual cop show in that the solutions aren't formula. There's no Hawaii Five Oh car chase at five minutes before the end. There's no Ellery Queen showdown with the perpetrator. There's no required denouement.

However,FK, like Trek, is tightly scripted, disciplined and focused televised fiction and a legitimate member of the cop-show genre. It has police procedural elements, and open form mystery elements like Columbo. And it has horror and violence laved on with bold visual strokes, trying to sell the show on spectacle, sex and violence. The move to the USA network may change that formula.

The fan fiction, on the other hand, almost never has any of these elements. Nick's job as a cop is usually ignored unless the victim is a vampire or was killed by a vampire, or the method of the crime stresses one of the characters' karmic weaknesses. The point of the fan story is not the solving of a crime, but the characters' spiritual lessons, driven home through their relationships. There's less sex and violence than on TV, and often more love and humor. For example, I have a script, complete with vampire commercials, called "The Case of the Killer Bubble Bath" by Dawn Steele.

Hollywood producers, like Manhattan publishers, have a fixed idea of what "people" want — determined by the sales figures (or Nielsen Ratings) of previous products. But Nielsen Ratings and bookstore sales do not provide the producers and publishers with any notion of why the consumer liked this and not that. There is no feedback loop (I've discussed the feedback loop in the fiction delivery system in several prior columns) that keeps producers and publishers abreast of what the consumer really wants. They only guess.

Writers who are posting fiction do not have to guess. They know. Instantly. In detail. In spades and flames. Via an avalanche of e-mail responses. And what they post next depends on what particular elements readers liked in what they posted last. It's an interactive feedback loop.

So, what are the fans writing and reading about Forever Knight, if not just grind the crank cop-stories? What is the truth about this show that the creators and syndicators don't know? What makes these stories a new Literature?

The first novel length FK story I downloaded was a stunning examination of Good Vs. Evil, with literary ramifications as rich and varied as Houses of Stone.

This novel is Finding Peace by Julie Randolph and comes in 30 parts. (She's done lots of other good stuff, too!) It took, I think, nearly two months to be fully posted. It involves Nick, Natalie, and LaCroix with an original character, KC, who is an ordinary human being who was just recently put through a mystical initiation of monumental proportions. She is now an archangel, (this is not hokey or "camp" — you really believe in KC as a real person!)

At the beginning of Finding Peace, KC doesn't know what she is. She's incarnated with birth amnesia and thinks she's a mortal. Her awakening culminates in a fabulous scene where she kills a vampire with her inner light (the effect is like exposure to sunlight). But she's averse to killing, even vampires. The intricate subplots involve love-story interests for LaCroix, and ultimately a showdown with a demon or the devil himself.

And yet this is not an excessively religious novel, nor is it abstract and dry. It's about love and compassion, and the theme is the title, Finding Peace. It's not a cop novel, and not a murder mystery. It's a novel about the essence of spiritual growth for an immortal being. Its Tarot Card is 5 Pentacles, the Dark Knight Of The Soul, to coin a pun.

Simultaneously, I got 38 parts of a novel titled The Other Side of Evil by Christine Hantzopulos Hunt. Natalie is having a very hot (and serious) love affair with LaCroix, and in part 35, Natalie is "brought over" by LaCroix against Natalie's will. This is straight drama (not melodrama), and the theme is The Other Side of Evil. This is a novel of common sense against temptation, and puts sexual attraction into perspective against true love.

Christine Hunt is one of the more expert writers posting, and works professionally in the comics field. She says of herself,

"I do hope someday to have a career in writing. As you know, though, it's a very difficult field to break into. In the case of Innovation Comics, the publisher actually contacted me after seeing a fanfic story I wrote which was a Quantum Leap/New Dark Shadows crossover. (Again with that vampire thing; I just couldn't let the series end on a cliffhanger!) I will keep plugging away, though. I'm a high school teacher of Bilingual Social Studies and Astronomy, so I do spend my summers off (as well as vacations) writing.

She's typical of the folk who post fiction.

The most impressive Christine H. Hunt story I've read so far was The Bargain, which I downloaded from the "Adult" section of Forever Knight fiction posted on a Web Site by one of the fans of the show, not a List Owner.

The Web site address is

"The Bargain," like many of the FK stories I've seen listed as "adult," has mildly erotic material, nothing grossly pornographic. Other types of stories you'll find under the "adult" section at that Web site (not the biggest or most full section of that site's FK fiction) are listed as "disturbing" or "depressing" with often a paragraph or two by the author, warning off people who would be offended.

Then when you read the stories, you find there's nothing (by comparison to other things I read off the library shelves) offensive in them. Their idea of adult is my personal idea of PG 13. Though I understand there's a private list of really sexy stories somewhere, nobody has invited me in yet.

With the Internet so peppered with inappropriate public behavior, it's refreshing to find a group of people who know the difference between private and public. I'm very much in favor of careful supervision of children and their reading matter, very, very opposed to censorship of any sort, even of children's reading matter. This structuring of a List into levels allows us the best of both worlds.

"The Bargain" is a story I'd have given my girls to read when they were about 11, but by then they'd both read hundreds of books which we'd discussed in depth and detail. Many parents today do not read books with their children, and then discuss them. The Internet is not a place for children to play unsupervised.

"The Bargain" by Christine H. Hunt is a wondrously tight, exactingly plotted, neatly executed tour de force that virtually defines what Forever Knight is about in the minds of the fans, as opposed to what the syndicators think we're watching it for.

In "The Bargain" (which comes by e-mail in 24 parts, or a single download at the Web site) Nick has decided to come over to the Human side, or die trying, and is virtually starving himself to death. Natalie goes to a convention of morticians and meets a scholar who finds and translates for her the magickal book that LaCroix burned in one of the aired episodes — a book containing the cure for vampirism.

In the episode, we never knew what the cure was. Hunt delineates a possible cure which partakes of science and magick in a very neat bit of ceremony. It requires the blood of the vampire's sire vampire, given willingly for this purpose. It is then boiled with garlic and set in the sun for one full day. It boils down in the sun to a thick syrup.

When Nick drinks this syrup, he becomes (with difficulty) human again. But that's only the start of the problem. Here's The Bargain: in order to obtain LaCroix's blood to cure Nick, Natalie must let LaCroix bring her over to the vampire side. She stipulates that Nick must never know she's a vampire and LaCroix must stay out of Nick's life from now on. LaCroix agrees and arranges her "death" in an accident. Nick believes it. Then LaCroix forces Natalie to watch the human Nick having sex (graphic eroticism but not gratuitous) with another woman. (Nick's good at it, too!). As a new vampire, Nat has little control and bites the "other woman". But that's only the beginning of the complications.

You should read this story if you read no other FK fan fiction. It will show you what I mean by the lack of resemblance between what the fans want from their TV show, and what syndicators think the viewers want.

That disparity between the show and the fan's real interests is an important part of what makes this new Literature significant and it is exactly parallel to what Michaels pegs as the driving force behind the origin of the Gothic novel — that it was scorned by the Establishment.

"The Bargain"'s only similarity to the aired show is the flashbacks to Nick's past. Even the shifting viewpoint is handled more like a novel than a floating viewpoint TV show.

The one thing I didn't like about "The Bargain" is that shifting viewpoint. That style recurs in much TV pastiche. Single viewpoint is much harder to write but produces a smoother and more spiritually mature type of fiction.

Then there's Lisa McDavid — another stellar member in this cadre of writers who posts often. She has a story posted under "adult" on the Web site titled "Coming Across" and it is prefaced by the following: ANYONE WHO DOESN'T LIKE THE IDEA OF NICK GETTING BACK ACROSS AND BEING MARRIED TO NAT, PLEASE DELETE NOW. This is not a cop-drama and is good!

Possibly the single most prominent writer among these folk is Susan Garrett. Titles to her credit are too numerous to mention, and I haven't found one under that byline that's below professional standards (taking into account the dependence on the reader already loving the background) and she's responsible for much of the fan fiction generated by other writers.

Susan and several others often issue "challenges" — the kernel of an idea for others to write stories about. Many different stories result from any single challenge. In general, the seed kernel for a challenge involves the essence of what the fans really love in the show.

So far there are more than a dozen new authors on my "read all their stuff" list. Check out Marian Huntsman Gibbons, another professional writer. Her story in the Christmas issue of Forever Net moved me to tears, and she has a wonderful literary masterpiece, "Paradise Lost" which comes in 4 parts. Her e-dress is .

There's a collaborative team, Susan Welsh and Jennifer Greenbury Lackey, that's done a pair of works, "Tomorrow's Tangle" and "To the Winds Resign," genuine electronic fiction. Jennifer says of the project:

"Sarah and I have never met face-to-face, and have only spoken on the phone once. We communicate on a daily basis, in fact often several times a day, via the net. We began as fans of each others' work, offering helpful comments, and quickly evolved to full-blown editors and beta-testers of everything the other writes. After we had both completed about four stories concerning our own characters in the FK universe (her Kate and my Gwen), we decided we should join forces and write a collaboration including both characters. The project, much to our surprise, ended up being novella length, and was split into two mostly-independent parts, "Tomorrow's Tangle" and "To the Winds Resign." We did all our collaboration by e-mail, shooting chapters back and forth, getting comments, rewriting, and resending, and so on. I kept the final copy on my hard drive, and posted it to the list when we were finished. Working with Sarah has been a marvelous experience, and I think we've both grown a great deal as writers in a very short time ...."

I asked Diane D Echelbarger gryphon@ WWW Home Page: why she'd put a disclaimer saying her story was "depressing" and this is her reply:

"... if the world I present is so grim, the situation so hopeless, that the hero concludes that his only out is suicide, and acts accordingly, THAT'S depressing.

"... And since that's more or less what happens in "The Last Vampire," I put a disclaimer at the top of the piece, so people who were expecting the lightly amusing style I'd posted before would be duly warned.

"I never liked `horror' myself, mostly because I can get depressed enough all on my own, without being told the world will drive me insane if I ever figure it out (a la Lovecraft)."

For a quick introduction to Susan Garrett's work along with all the other greats in this new field, some of whom are male, order one of the Forever Net fanzines in print (address above), or subscribe to the List. Subscribing to the List costs nothing except whatever your Service charges for e-mail downloads.

To subscribe to the fiction List for Forever Knight, send an e-mail with a blank subject line to LISTSERV@PSUVM.PSU.EDU

Put one line ONLY in the text part of the message, just as follows:


(substitute your own name where I wrote Your Name)

If you want to join the discussion group, the SUBSCRIBE line should read SUBSCRIBE FORKNI-L Your Name.

You'll get back a long message that gives you the commands and rules for the List. Read it. Notice the instruction for getting the past two month's worth of fiction so you can get the beginnings of current stories. Save this message. It tells you how to turn off the faucet when you can't take it anymore — and there's a huge pressure driving stuff through that faucet.

Next month I've got some great printed novels for you! — but I'll return often to the world of e-fiction. And in December, I expect to discuss reasons for the sudden drop-off in fiction sales at chain bookstores. But I seriously recommend that those who don't have a computer should listen to the CEO of Simon&Schuster. You've got maybe two years to get online. Start saving up for the hardware.

Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.



Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to.   To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below. logo

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