My Secret Life As A Fan Fiction Writer

If it was math, it might have made sense.  Two negatives making a positive.

I hated seaQuest. My first review for my school’s newspaper was of the seaQuest pilot, and it was a fine example of youthful, hyperbolic vitriol. I tore the crap out of that pilot, and boy did I think I was funny as I did it.  Unlike Babylon 5, a show I came to truly love, I never warmed to seaQuest.  It had a stupid-voiced dolphin, an obnoxious Wesley Crusher wannabe and it looked like it took place in a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Trash, people. Pure trash.

I never hated fan fiction like I did seaQuest, but I never had much interest in writing it. The problem is that wasn’t real. I never minded people writing it, I just couldn’t understand why they enjoyed it. For me to invest in what I’m writing, I have to buy into it. I have to believe it. These things, in this tiny bubble universe I’ve created in my mind, are actually happening and actually matter.  Without believing that real, irrevocable things are happening to the people under my control, I can’t possibly sell that lie to anyone else.  Fan fiction was a bridge too far.  These characters were on tv, doing other things and did not care what hell through which I was putting them.  Fiction is all about lying, but even lies about people fighting with monsters or flying deep spice freighters need to feel real. Fan fiction always felt like a facade with nothing underneath.

So there I am, writing seaQuest fanfic.

My life got tied up in seaQuest fandom almost as soon as I started hanging out on Scifi’s Icarus IRC server.  My wife? The one I met on IRC? Her username was LWQuestie. Lucas. Wolenczak. Questie. (Lucas being the aforementioned obnoxious – but apparently cute – Wesley Crusher ripoff.)  There were other Questies bouncing around on the server, so it was only a matter of time before I ended up in a chat room with one of the two head writers of a seaQuest fanfic “show” called seaQuest 2047.

Like most things, it started because I mouthed off.  Why I read any of 2047, I don’t know. A link someone sent to me, or perhaps out of pure trollery. Either way, I’d read some of 2047. I had things to say. Shockingly, I did not have nice things to say. More shockingly, Matt – the 2047 writer in that chat room – private messaged me, and not to tell me to please stop flaming the thing he was writing.

Instead, he asked, “What would you do to make it better?”

The fastest way to get me to do something against my better judgment is to appeal to my ego. I answered enthusiastically. What I said, I don’t remember, but it led inexorably to an offer to join the effort and write me some seaQuest fanfic.  Out of what I can only imagine was a desperate need to write something people would read, I accepted just as 2047‘s second season was ramping up.

This was just as I was graduating high school and heading into college. I was still sorting out whether or not I had any confidence in my writing. I was doing it, but it was just this thing that happened. I had no idea how it was supposed to fit into my life. Getting into 2047 was one of a couple things that cracked everything open. Sitting in chat rooms with the other writers, flaming back and forth on e-mail threads about future plot developments and obsessively reading reactions on message boards made the whole thing real to me.

The combination of not actually being a fan of seaQuest and the fact that the show featured primarily original characters – it was set 15 years after the end of the show proper – made it easier for me to buy into what I was doing. I dove into it enthusiastically; more so that I even remember, apparently, because I looked back at the episodes and my name is on more scripts than I’m ready to admit. For nearly two years, Eric Sipple was a seaQuest fanfiction writer, and he enjoyed it.

It ended badly, as these things do. People leaving, people you like less coming in.  It was a group effort and I wasn’t in charge, so when the person who’d taken over started getting flirty with someone with whom I did not get along, the writing was on the wall. We finished the second season and I went off on my own.  When I say “on my own” I mean, “I followed a friend to a spinoff of the fanfiction show I was writing,” but my shame level is getting a bit out of control, so let’s just pretend I rode into the sunset.  (To be fair, that spinoff fanfiction series was a great time, and I did a bit of not-embarrassing writing as a part of it, but please, dear God, let me stop talking about this.)

One of the two founders of 2047, Rachel, is still a close friend, and in retrospect it was the fact that she was a wonderful writer that made working on the show seem like a good idea.  There’s one particular script – the one I talked about co-writing – for which I have particular pride. The way that experience cemented my relationship with Rachel makes the fact that you can still find fan fiction bearing my name on the internet worth the embarrassment. I also met Adam, another friend and writer, and the one I spun off with before making my final exit from fanfic. You can’t argue with a year or two of your life that leaves you with two good friends.

It also gave me some perspective on fanfic, something I’m glad to have learned.  It confirmed the feeling that writing something that I can’t believe as real is a waste of time.  At the same time, it showed me another side of that coin.  In your early days of writing, you’re a geyser of crap.  Almost everything you write is trash, and the rest should have been incinerated on the spot.  There’s no way to get to being good at telling a story until you’ve seen every possible way you can do it badly.  Don’t underestimate how damaging those early days can be to your ego.  It sucks to suck, and it really sucks to be aware of how much suck you’re producing.  That feeling that you are simply a terrible writer is very, very difficult to overcome.

Fanfic, for me, worked as a set of training wheels. Or maybe a safety blanket. Safety wheels?  Anyway, it gave me an outlet to write an awful lot, to see my writing put in a public place and to react to it as finished work.  I learned a lot through those few years of writing fanfic. I produced a lot of terrible but finished stories that made me better, and did it under a structure that supported some of the burdon for me.  There’s something close to a dozen television length scripts I wrote or co-wrote in my time as a seaQuest fanfic writer, and whatever horror I feel in reading them now, they gave me a chance to write and to be read. Maybe I could have been spending that time on better pursuits, but it was what it was, and it came with more good than I expected when I got involved.

Sure, a lot of people use fanfic purely as fantasy fulfillment – sometimes as way kinky fantasy fulfillment – and many will write little else.  That’s fine, though I remain confused (but not dismissive) about what pleasure people take from it. Most people probably didn’t write fan fiction for a show they hated, either, so I’m not sure how useful an example my experience is.  The point, I think, is that there will come a time when you’ll need to start writing things all your own (it’s usually earlier into your work than you think), but that time spent in the attractive nuisance that is the world of fanfic can be helpful if you use it to your advantage.

Except for the part where you spend the rest of your life terrified of someone stumbling across it and asking, “So, what was seaQuest 2047?”  That part just plain sucks.

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