Interview with Kristen Sheley

Independent Research Study Project (2004) on fan fiction

1) What is your definition of fan fiction? Does it include parodies, novelizations and ‘official’ book continuations like the Star Wars novels?

In my world, fan fiction is defined as a fan of X creating a story using characters from X that someone else created. I'm not quite sure that parodies would be included under this umbrella -- I suppose that it just depends. I think the thing to keep in mind is the "fan" part of the definition. I'm not quite sure that official novelizations would qualify under this term, as I think the people who write those are professional, paid writers who may or may not be fans. Plus, I have heard that stories in "official" continuations are usually dictated out to the hired writer in a plot-type summary. So they don't get to do whatever they want with the story and characters.

2) What made you first start writing fan fiction and did you know what it was called then? What were your first stories like, and how do they differ from your more recent ones?

I started writing fan fiction when I was 13, because I wanted to see more adventures with the "Back to the Future" (BTTF) characters. (I had been writing stories of my own since I was 9, so using writing as a medium to express my creative impulses came naturally to me by this point.) At the time, I had absolutely no idea that what I was doing was fan fiction, and remained naive and in the dark until I was about 15, and had come across the term in the old newsletter for the BTTF fan club, where Mary Jean's work was advertised. Then I was like, "Huh, is that what I'm doing?" This was back in 1994, however, before the Internet really hit the mainstream, so I barely knew any other fans in the world of BTTF, let alone that other people out there were doing similar things as I was.

My first stories were hideously bad (in my opinion) and very long. The first one took me 9 months to write, and ended up being about 150 pages long (typed) -- not bad for an 8th grader. Recently I posted the early stuff up on my website for people to gander at, and compare to later drafts and writing. They differ a LOT from my recent ones in that the writing is just better now, and I think the plots I construct now are more complicated and "tighter." Plus, at this point, after writing BTTF fanfic for almost 12 years now, I just know the characters so very well. I can even move back and forth in my universe as to where stories are set in the present time without screwing anything up.

3) Would you consider fan fiction a ‘proper’ form of writing?

Yeah -- it bothers me that people undersell it. In my opinion, I think FF is misunderstood because probably 95% of it is terrible. Most of it is written by fans -- not writers who happen to be fans, too. The stuff out there that is decent is usually done by people who write for fun, and have had some past experience with it that is not limited to only FF. I was a writer before I wrote "BTTF stories," and continue to write my own, original fiction in addition to the fan fiction.

4) What do you think constitutes a good fan fiction story?

Character consistency. I hate it when people write FF and they make the most ridiculous, petty errors. I mean, okay, I can accept that a surface fan may not know that Doc's middle name is Lathrop, but misspelling "Emmett"? There's just absolutely no excuse!

I also HATE it when people have the characters act out of character. The Mary Sus and the Slash and the other subgenres out there.... Yuck. I give it a wide berth and a dark glare. I think it definitely adds to the misconceptions out there about FF.

5) Some people think that fan fiction is a form of plagiarism. What do you think of that notion?

As an English teacher, I am extremely vocal about plagiarism and what it is defined as. My opinion is thus that if you rip off someone and do not give them credit for their words or ideas, that's plagiarism. However, most people in FF acknowledge that the characters they use or the worlds they play in were created by third parties that they don't even know. So they are "citing" their "sources," and I don't think, therefore, that can be defined as plagiarism.

In today's culture, too, people all the time refer to characters in other films or books or TV shows in their little fictional "universe." I mean, I did that in my own book!

6) Would you allow fans to write fan fiction based on Partners In Time?

Not right now -- I haven't finished telling all I want to with these characters. (I have a vision and an underlining storyline for a couple dozen books.) After I finished telling everything I wanted to with the characters, however, I may be open to the idea. But would I read what people came up with? Eh, I don't know. Maybe not. It could upset me. And I wouldn't read what people did until I was done with my "vision" and the last books, at the paranoid risk of being subconsciously influenced.

a) If yes, what would you do if they abuse that privilege and write stories that you might not consider suitable or that go against your moral views?

I would probably write them a nice e-mail asking them to stop. But I realize that my powers are limited in that capacity. So this is why I may just avoid reading any PIT FF, if it existed.

b) Would you read such stories, and if yes, what would you do if a fan writer were to sue you and accuse you of stealing their ideas?

Already answered. But if they tried to sue me, I could show them my original notes, which are dated and enclosed in a stamped envelope (mailed to myself) that I have in my parents' safety deposit box that proves I had these ideas first. I save everything, carefully.

7) You only write fan fiction based on the Back to the Future trilogy; what was it about the trilogy that motivated you to write fan fiction on it, as opposed to other movies or series? Do you think certain series have more ‘fan fiction potential’ than others?

I am a huge, rabid fan of BTTF. I love the characters. People have asked me about doing crossovers before, and while there are other series and such that I enjoy, nothing has ever matched the depth of BTTF, and I am reluctant to use characters or locations that I don't have the same vast knowledge or interest in.

Some series may have more FF potential than others, yes. I think those with strong characters, definitely.

8) Some aspects of your stories do not remain 100% true to the canon. For example, the parallel universe theory was said by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale to not exist in the BTTF universe, yet it exists in yours; what are your reasons in such cases for deterring from the canon?

There are a few theories on time travel, and one that I used when I thought of BTTF was time travel -- NOT dimensional travel. (Some theories believe that tt is impossible, and what people MAY be able to do is dimensional travel, hopping between worlds ala Sliders, and therefore returning to a parallel dimension when they go "home," one that is positively or negatively impacted by their mucking around in time.) I go with the idea that time travel is time travel, but one can make changes in the past that make a trip back to the future (pardon the pun) click over to a alternate timeline that may already exist out there. (The theory on parallel universes is that for every action, choice, reaction, etc, for every single person, there exists a world where X happened instead of Y. It's a bit complicated and mind baffling.) I do kind of believe in parallel universes, the concept of them, and it's a fun thing to play with thematically.

I always assumed that Zemeckis and Gale were saying that their characters in BTTF did TIME travel, not dimensional travel, which I agree with. I don't know if they ever expressed an opinion about the mere potential existence of PUs or not.

But, anyway.... Referring to canon. I try to use what the creators came up with, but sometimes it's a matter of choices -- such as developments or facts differing between screenplay drafts -- and then I go with what was in the films. If something is NOT mentioned in the films, but is in the screenplay or novel, I use that. And, on occasion, I've taken a few things from the animated series (the general personalities of Jules and Verne were very much an influence on me, as I saw the cartoon before I started writing FF.) And sometimes I just have to make stuff up that was never mentioned in any way, shape, or form. I try to stick with things that seem within character or "realistic," in that case.

And once in a while, I may make something up, and later find out that the characters came up with something else. In that case, I usually just stick with what I first did. Because at this point the factoid on the character would probably be really obscure and not widely known, anyway.

9) If you come up with a good story idea, which has a higher priority: Your fan fiction stories or original ones? Which do you usually spend more effort on?

Whatever I feel like working on, which kind of sucks. My original stories are easier to write in some ways, but I think about them differently. I'm MUCH more fussy and neurotic then, because I know that people will pay money to read 'em, and that a lot of people are going to be reading them and looking for flaws and holes. That same stress is not there with FF, since I publish it online for free, and people can read it or not. I also, at this point, can write FF in my sleep. I've been writing those characters for almost 12 years, now. So that's easier. And since when I write, I see the stuff in my head, it can be more of an escape than my original stuff, more of a way to de-stress.

Right now, I spend more time on FF, still, than original fiction, but mostly because I need to do something not stressful with writing. Over the summer (when I will be on a break from teaching) I will resume the final exits on my PIT2, and then hopefully see that in print next fall.

This priority could change, too, if I had stiff publishing deadlines I had to meet with original fiction, and advances or whatnot. Then I may have no choice in following my muse!

10) Do you think the copyright of a fan fiction story should belong to the author or the owner of the original product the story was based on?

I think it should belong to the author of the story. They created the story, the dialogue, the words, etc. They may have borrowed the principal cast and the sets, but they gave words and breathed new life into them. It's like deciding how to credit a TV episode -- do you credit the writers of the episode, or the original creators of the series? Both end up being mentioned, but in the capacity of "Story by so and so. Based on the characters created by so-and-so."

11) Lastly, what advice, if any, do you have for budding fan fiction writers?

Do your homework and research! And write, write, write. If you want to write good FF, you need to write well, and practice makes perfect. Writing every day, even a little, will help you improve your craft. Guaranteed.