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(Meta) Some thoughts on writing my last fic

2nd April 2008 (01:26)
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For a very long time, I've had a story trying to eat its way out of me, so to speak. It's finally finished and posted, but while I'm still so close to it I wanted to write down some of my thoughts on why I wrote it and what I was trying to achieve. And also talk about depicting Buffy as a character in fiction, both in general and specifically in my own work.

This will be long; please be warned (also, see icon).  :-) And if you're planning to read We Just Declared War, you might prefer to do that first before reading this, since it will get spoilery very quickly.

The idea for this story actually came to me way back last summer. I saw someone - can't remember who, unfortunately - post a fic challenge: take the story from a famous book or film or whatever, and re-tell it using the characters from a different fandom. The idea of doing this, and with which movie, came to me then, and I worked out the characters and even wrote a few fragments of an introduction.

  Incidentally, the title 'We Just Declared War' is quoting Buffy from 'Bring On The Night'... but it also, of course, echoes the catchline of 'Aliens'. (A film, incidentally, which I first saw at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton in 1987, where it won the Hugo).

At the start of the actual film, Ripley (and Jones the cat) are in suspended animation until rescued by a salvage crew. So in my Buffyised version, I was going to cannibalise the dialogue from 'Bargaining' to write about the salvage ship Osiris, Captain Rosenberg commanding, rescuing Buffy (and Miss Kitty Fantastico) from her cold, deathlike sleep.

Then there was going to be the scene with the marines on board the transport ship, and I spent some time working out who would be who. The tough, no-nonsense Sergeant Apone would be a sex-changed Kennedy. The soft-spoken but quietly competent Hicks would be Riley (this identification made its way into the story I actually did write). The aggressive, street-smart Vasquez would be Faith. As for the naive but over-confident and officious Lieutenant Gorman, he was obviously Season 3 Wesley. I struggled over Carter Burke for a while until deciding he would be a guest star from Angel in the form of Lindsey Macdonald. For some reason I can't explain now I cast Jonathan as Hudson - which is silly, because he's obviously Andrew: technically competent but a brash, annoying storyteller when things are going well, a whiny coward when they're not, and everybody else is irritated by him.

As for Bishop, that was the fun part. He's a cold non-human entity in the shape of a man. In the previous film, there was another synthetic just like him, who at first was friendly to Ripley but then turned evil and tried to kill her. When he hears about this, Bishop acts all concerned, and is then condescending about the primitive earlier model that hurt her. Can't you just hear Spike talking about Angel in exactly that tone of voice? (And despite Ripley's initial hostility and suspicion of Bishop, eventually the two of them come to respect each other).

And finally, Newt would obviously be Dawn.

Anyway, that plan fell through... too much work for too little pay-off, I thought... but the idea stuck with me. The second influence was ruuger 's "Buffy is the hero, dammit!" ficathon back in August 2007. I didn't enter it, but the idea did strike home with me. Considering that the fandom is named after her, Buffy often seems to get neglected in fanfic: even when she does appear, it's often not in a particularly heroic light. The ficathon was designed to counter that.

Looking at my own work, I realised that I was guilty of the same neglect...
At the time, I'd written five long stories (counting the 'Kisses' trilogy as one) of which three had Willow as a main character, two had Faith and only one had Buffy (ranking equal with Kennedy, Tara and Amy). I'm now up to 15 long stories, and the score is:

Willow seven (Intrusion, From Ancient Grudge, the Kisses trilogy, Netherlands to Nepal, Legally Dead, And All My Secrets Laid Bare, and Matthew 1.23 Except Not)
Buffy five (the Kisses trilogy, And Shopping, Unstylish Yet High-Priced Boots, Matthew 1.23 Except Not, and now We Just Declared War)
four Faith stories (Hell's Heart, From Ancient Grudge, The Phonecall, and Stockton Gala Days)
two each for Kennedy (Intrusion and Legally Dead) and Angel (Angel and the Dragon and The Phonecall)
and one each for Amy (It Isn't About Hate), Tara (the Kisses trilogy), Dawn (Netherlands to Nepal) and Satsu (And Shopping).I haven't written a single long story about Spike, which probably means I ought to hand in my fandom card in disgrace right now...

Anyway, you'll notice a concerted effort to write more stories about Buffy in the last six months or so, of which this latest one was very definitely a part. There's more to it, though; even when I included Buffy, I realised I tended to make her the butt of the jokes. She would misunderstand what was going on, or get comically drunk ('That Other Kiss'), or be generally slow on the uptake. Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with that in moderation... it happened to her on the show too, and was a source of much of its humour. But there's a lot more to her than just a ditzy blonde - in fact, on the show a lot of times she was deliberately acting like that to tease her friends (pretending to have only watched the Disney film of 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' instead of doing the reading for her class on the novel, for example) or to make enemies underestimate her.

Therefore, when I started writing 'We Just Declared War', I made a conscious decision that Buffy would be presented as a heroic character. I even went back to revise certain parts of the story as I went along to make sure she was shown in the best light - while trying to keep a balance of humour and allowing her to make mistakes and get things wrong occasionally, because who can sympathise with someone who's too perfect?

This also led to an interesting conflict once I'd decided that the story would involve Buffy interacting with the original cast of 'Aliens' rather than replacing them as in my original concept. After all, as beer_good_foamy commented in reply to the fic, Ripley is already one of the most kick-ass heroines in modern film history; how can Buffy compete with her? My answer was just that.... to make Buffy compete with her. To spice up her reactions with some petty jealousy and desire to outdo her; all in the interest of giving Buffy feet of clay, while still allowing her to shine as the story's heroine. The eventual reconciliation and mutual respect between the two women was intended to give a sense of emotional completion to the story.

(As a matter of fact, the idea of doing it this way only came to me part-way through the writing, so I had to go back and rewrite some scenes. The idea of Buffy being attracted to Hicks because he reminds her of Riley, only to realise that he's already bonded with Ripley, was also worked in here as an idea from my original story concept). (Also, the one-letter difference between Ripley and Riley did confuse me a couple of times...)

Incidentally, another can of worms that I eventually sidestepped was this: in 'Aliens' everybody addresses everybody else by their surname. When Ripley and Hicks tell each other their first names right at the end, it's a huge emotional breakthrough for them made possible only by their likely impending death. So should Buffy be referred to as 'Summers' throughout for consistency? In the end I avoided the question by writing only from her own restricted perspective, and having Buffy be the only Sunnydale character on LV-426. True, I have Ripley call her 'Buffy' in the last chapter: but that's after they've faced death side-by-side. (Not to mention that Buffy would probably introduce herself that way, not by surname, and might not even realise that 'Ripley' wasn't that person's own first name.)

So, I had a story idea, and a motive for writing. I even wrote an early version of what would become the first chapter and a half, up to the point where Vasquez and Hudson rescue Buffy. And there I stuck for a long, long time. I knew what I wanted to do with the story... in fact, the scene with Ripley and Buffy in the elevator going down to rescue Newt was one of the first things that I conceived. I just didn't know how to get to there from where I was. And so the story stalled for many months. At least this time I didn't post the first chapter and leave everybody waiting...

At this point,  shinodabear   announced the 'We're Not In Kansas Anymore' challenge, and I realised that this story would be perfect for it if I ever managed to finish it. And an external deadline might even force me to do just that... So I went back over what I'd already written, revised it, tightened it up, changed the narrative to present instead of past tense (for a greater sense of immediacy and tension)... and then struggled with my block at getting past the rescue. There were actually three different versions of the next scene written, two of which I deleted in frustration. In the end, I cheated... I skipped straight over that part and wrote the elevator scene, the rescue of Newt and the first confrontation with the queen. With that done, I went back and wrote the connecting story elements.

Admittedly, these turned out to be longer and more in-depth than I'd anticipated. The basic problem was, I was dropping Buffy into an existing story. Just repeating what happened in the film seemed pointless and boring; but going off at a complete tangent would defeat the object. My solution was to stick very closely to Buffy's own point of view, and detail her reactions to things without any omniscient narrator voice. That, for example, is why I consistently refer to the Xenomorphs as "demons" rather than "aliens", because that's how Buffy would think of them. There are a few points where the reader's greater knowledge of events works to my advantage - for example, when Buffy is drugged unconscious in the MedLab and I end the chapter there, the suspense is obviously much greater if you know what happens at that point in the film... I did have to resist the temptation to put in too many in-jokes; a few crept in (and one was explicitly made into an in-joke between Ripley and Hicks in the story) but I chopped many more out during editing. I also did my best to get in some really light-touch exposition just on the faint off-chance that someone might be reading the story who had never seen 'Aliens'.

In many ways, the story became a character study. How would Buffy react if put in these situations? For example, the earlier scene in the MedLab when she inspects the facehugger in the glass cylinder and it turns out to be alive. In the film, this is played up as a shock moment, to make both the character and the audience jump. However, Buffy has ice-cold reactions; this is someone who can catch crossbow bolts in midair. I don't believe she'd flinch away. Nor would she be particularly disgusted; she's encountered plenty of gross and repulsive demons in her time.

I was trying to keep a balance between allowing Buffy's presence to affect the story of 'Aliens', while still keeping its main outline intact. So she keeps two more of the marines alive who would have died without her, and she prevents the third and fourth Alien films from ever happening. In general, though, things happen differently due to her presence but the end result is the same. One way I did this was to skim over certain events from the film by having Buffy off doing something else instead - for example, there's no point repeating the scene where Newt gets lost and Ripley and Hicks go after her, so I just had all of that happen off-camera while Buffy is having fun with grenades instead. I was also concerned to allow Ripley to be heroic as well - there's always a danger when introducing an outside character that she overshadows the existing cast, even when she isn't an idealised version of the author. :-) So Ripley still gets plenty of her cool moves from the film, even if Buffy supercedes her in a few of them.

And now for a more detailed discussion of the construction of the story, I refer you to my next post... 


Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 2nd April 2008 01:53 (UTC)

Wow. This fic sounds really interesting! I wasn't sure whether or not I was going to read it (very long fic, and very little time), but now I think I'm going to have to. Although I should probably brush up on Aliens first...

The initial challenge also sounds really cool. I'm sort of mentally running through a list of movies, and figuring out whether they could work or not... Still, I think it would be quite hard to do well.

I'm guilty of ignoring Buffy, too. She doesn't make appearances in most of my fic - and when she does, she's usually a minor character. I don't think I've ever had her actually affect the plot. She's usually caught up in situations, or complaining about them. Hmm. Must remedy this...

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 2nd April 2008 02:20 (UTC)

Thanks! So, the secret to persuading people to read fic is to write meta about it... ;-)

I tried to make the story comprehensible to someone who wasn't an expert on 'Aliens', although I did assume that everybody knows the basic plot and some of the famous bits of dialogue. It's all told from Buffy's point of view, anyway.

My reaction to the original challenge was pretty much the same as yours - a really interesting idea, but a lot of hard work to do properly. Although if you just chose an iconic scene to do instead of the entire plot it would be easier...

Incidentally, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on reading the fic (if you do) knowing in advance that it's following the plot of 'Aliens', rather than going in unspoiled. I was really uncertain about whether to make this explicit up front, or leave the cross-over as a surprise, or just hint at it...

Also - on re-reading this, I noticed that the LJ edit function ate three paragraphs in my original post! It's everything after "This also led to an interesting conflict once I'd decided that the story would involve Buffy interacting with the original cast of 'Aliens' rather than replacing them as in my original concept." until the mention of shinodabear; I've had to paste it back in. Thank heavens for composing posts in Notepad before pasting them into the edit window, instead of writing there directly...

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