Whoosh! Issue 40 - January 2000


Heroic Deeds and Moral Dilemmas:
Reading About Women Before and After Xena




Xena-Inspired, Internet-Based, Fan-Written Fiction

[65] Hundreds of bards have written thousands of Xena-inspired stories and put them out on the World Wide Web. It is impossible to get an accurate tally, but site 'hit' counters indicate there could be millions of readers. The first stories were posted to the Internet chat and news groups that proliferated as Xena: Warrior Princess caught the imagination of the viewing public. Now many authors have their own web sites, and there are numerous archive sites categorized by type of story: general: Xena and Gabrielle are close friends; alt: Xena and Gabrielle are lovers; and erotica: both straight and gay, from PG to SM. It is unbelievable how many variations there can be on two people becoming lovers for the first time. There should be no concern about the death of the written word, given the volumes that are pouring out of cyberspace.

[66] Initially all the stories had Xena and Gabrielle in the setting of the TV show, ancient Greece. However, a new sub-genre, the 'uber Xena', was born when an episode, THE XENA SCROLLS (34/209), placed Mel Pappas (Xena's descendant) and Dr. Janice Covington (Gabrielle's) in modern Macedonia searching for the Xena Scrolls. Besides giving more scope for plot and character development, these stories with looser ties to the TV original have a better chance of getting into hard cover print. Every story on the Net has a disclaimer in front of it stating that the characters belong to Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. Internet publication is truly a labor of love, as authors obviously can not sell their stories.

[67] Missy Good is the best known Xena fan fiction author on the Net, with legions of devoted fans, including me [Note 07]. She is also the first author to have a 'hard copy' novel printed, by Justice House Publishing, which was established specifically to publish Xena-inspired fiction [Note 08]. Tropical Storm (1999), set in a Miami, Florida computer corporation, is an 'uber-Xena' that pairs a brilliant, ruthless executive vice president with an idealistic young systems manager. Good is extraordinarily prolific, with at least a dozen novel-length Xena/Gabrielle stories completed, plus others in progress that are e-mailed to eager fans chapter by chapter. As much as I enjoy reading her though, I do not anticipate she will be the first to break through into the mainstream. Her stories are fast- paced and well-written, but there is not enough edge, not enough dark side, to her characters.

[68] Original-setting-Xena's are still being written, but the novel-length 'Ubers' have the most variety and generate the most discussion. The Gaslight series, by Nene Adams, has the uber-Xena as a wealthy Victorian spinster detective in Sherlock Holmes' London, with the uber-Gabrielle as her redeemed-streetwalker companion. Two novels soon to be published by Justice House Publishing, Surfacing by Paul Seeley and Lucifer Rising by Sharon Bowers, make the uber- Xena a somewhat redeemed drug lord, and the uber- Gabrielle a journalist or similar bard- like profession.

[69] My personal preference for breakthrough success is Jules Mills' as-yet-unfinished Nanoverse novel, with the uber-Xena as an ex- prisoner with a murder conviction who is also a brilliant nano-physicist, and the uber-Gabrielle as a medical doctor. Of the stories I have read, Mills takes the characters farthest from their TV origins, has the most fully developed, complex plot, and gives the darkest edge to the story. However, it is very unlikely that any story issued chapter by chapter on the Net would be picked up by a mainstream publisher. Charles Dickens may have managed to turn magazine installments into successful novels, but most episodically written stories lack continuity and cohesive plot structure.


A Different Kind of Author and a Different Way of Writing

[70] From their biographies, it is evident that these new bards are mostly young and very often first time writers. As an old-fashioned schoolmarm, I sometimes bemoan their grammar, but I am in awe of their creativity. Starting as simple takeoffs on a TV show, these cyberspace stories have multiplied exponentially into a wide variety of different approaches that go far beyond the original archetypes.

[71] The Internet is crucial to this metastatic growth. From episode one, Xena: Warrior Princess generated a huge buzz on the Internet chat lines, and it did not take long for individuals already at their keyboards to exchange ideas on what should have happened after Xena and Gabrielle walked off into the sunset. With immediacy possible only on the Internet, writers were born as the ready-made audience clamored for more of what they had to say. Besides a widespread and instantly accessible reading audience, Internet circulation of the written word has given authors the kind of community that is necessary for writers to hone their craft. They share ideas, use 'beta readers' as editors, and give each other constant feedback and support.

[72] Two key elements in disseminating fan fiction are the site hosts or indexers who maintain large archives of stories and the reviewers who summarize and rate them. Originally, single individuals maintained sites with links to every story that appeared, but the field has become much too large for such one-person efforts, and now there are a half dozen major index and review sites. Without any financial return, in fact paying site costs out of their own pockets, indexers have made the vast treasure trove of fan fiction readily available to every Internet surfer, all neatly categorized by title, author, and type of story. These three links should clue a curious reader into what is out there [Note 09]:

Shadowfen

The Athenaeum

Cynthia Winter

[73] Confronted with such a wealth of material, how does a reader know where to start? In the early days, when stories were posted to private news groups, only a few people had access to them. It was possible to read everything that came along, and feedback came from other members of the group, who were often would-be writers themselves. Some indexers put reviews and ratings on their sites, which is a boon to readers, especially new ones like me, but also has a significant effect on what does, and does not, get read. For example, one reviewer is well-known for 'the Lunacy factor', i.e., a preference for stories in which Xena and Gabrielle never have other partners. Fortunately, in that wonderfully egalitarian way of the Web, there are now many index sites, grouped according to the preferences of their various hosts, and welcoming everything from first time bards to the most extreme sado-masochistic treatments.

[74] 'Alt' or lesbian stories, although only about half the total on the Net, probably get the most readers because they meet a need that cannot readily be found elsewhere in literature. However, this does not mean that all the readers are lesbian, nor are all the writers, even of explicitly lesbian material. Just as many men and straight women enjoy the show, so many of them also read the 'alt fanfic'. Although gender and sexual orientation are not immediately evident on the Internet, there are enough clues from chat lines to indicate that Xena fan fiction has a very diverse readership. Given this diversity, it is easy to predict that Xena-inspired stories will be equally popular with those general readers more used to picking their books off a shelf.

[75] Perhaps it is their youth that allows this new breed of bard to write so easily and naturally about a gender and sexual orientation that may or may not be their own. "Write what you know!" and these authors know a different world from the one my generation grew up with. Screenwriter Steven L. Sears is well-known for including 'subtext', i.e. lesbian allusions, in his story lines. This wonderfully open, non-judgmental attitude is succinctly explained in an email exchange I had with Joanna Sandsmark, a.k.a. WordWarior, an author I was surprised to find out was straight.

PATTEE:
This note also gives me a chance to express my appreciation for your Wordwarior fanfic, which I really enjoy. Initially, I wondered that a straight woman should be so good at writing 'subtext', but then I realized - we are your best fantasies...and of course, it helps to be a really good writer.

SANDSMARK:
Actually, it's much simpler than that. It's because that's the way I see the characters. To me, they are in love, so there is no other way to write them. Besides, I don't see what gender has to do with love -- only attraction. The core of it is the same, so no great imagination or fantasy is required.


Next on the Bestseller List...

[76] The essence of Xena-inspired fiction is the loving relationship of equals, each woman with different and complementary characteristics, but not an imitation of male/female dynamics, contrasting only active/ passive, strong/weak, and physical/emotional. In the best works, characters struggle with great issues - birth, death, betrayal, redemption - and each grows and becomes a better person as she seeks to be worthy of the woman she loves. It is very old-fashioned, one of the grandest themes in literature, and a great read.

[77] When a Xena-inspired novel reaches mainstream publication, it is unlikely to be an 'uber', with recognizable Xena and Gabrielle characters and all the conventions and short hand references that make 'alt fanfic' as comfortable as an old shoe to hardcore nutballs. It will have the best elements of that tradition (exciting setting, scope for action, soulmates seeking to reunite), but it must also have impeccable writing and research.

[78] In any novel, characters and reactions must be internally consistent and believable, but this is especially true for one based on the heretofore-unbelievable premise of a pair of women heroes. Complementary characters make for a good story, but they must be fully developed with unique histories and psychological traits that cannot be assumed. Obstacles preventing lovers from coming together are de rigueur and fun, but they have to flow integrally with the story. Quirky bestsellers are always long books, thick with detail about unusual and carefully described milieus. Fortunately, many bards are already practicing with 'uber-Xenas' set in all kinds of strange but believable environments.

[79] Pulse-pounding action requires an appropriate setting. War has always brought out the best and worst in men's character, so it is likely that our new women heroes will be found somewhere in the thick of battle, where emotions are intensified and deeds magnified. However it is accomplished, there must be a dark side to the story. It must have moral tension to give it dimension beyond a romance. Quirky bestsellers always have a moral dilemma to solve.

[80] Heart-stopping love scenes encompass the whole emotional tango that goes into developing a relationship. Bards have plenty of experience writing sex scenes, but to get published, these will need to be surrounded by plot. However, as art film aficionados know, there is a diverse audience for lesbian lovers, so a couple of well-written, strategically placed sexual encounters can only enhance the book's popularity. On the other hand, if an author does not write sex scenes well, it is better to leave them out, or bring readers just to the Missy-Good-foreplay stage, rather than interrupt a good narrative.

[81] Publishers are always on the lookout for surprise best sellers, books that seem dense and old fashioned, but that readers embrace: Mary Renault's Greek novels, Clan of the Cave Bear, The Mists of Avalon, The Name Of The Rose (Umberto Eco, 1983), Cold Mountain, and the Harry Potter series. Though none of the Xenaverse bards have yet equaled Mary Renault or Patricia Cornwell's depth of research and skill with character development, there are certainly several who have that potential. Given the host of bards working out there in cyberspace, polishing their craft, imagining variations on a basic theme, and creating something new under the literary sun, there is going to be a mainstream breakthrough very soon. Somewhere on the Internet, ready to hit the presses, there is a sure-fire best seller, with fast-paced action, intricately written plot, fascinating characters, and a love story between two women.


Notes

Note 01:
For a history and description of Uber-Xena fan fiction, see "What is this Uber?"
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Note 02:
All Fan Fiction Issue (Special 2nd anniversary issue), Issue 25, October 1998, Whoosh!.
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Note 03:
See Lunacy's Fan Fiction Reviews
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Note 04:
The Green Scamander, pp.247-48.
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Note 05:
Surplus, Pg.3.
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Note 06:
Naiad Press
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Note 07:
Missy Good
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Note 08:
Justice House Publishing
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Note 09:
Editor's note: Even Whoosh! is getting into the act. It is in the process of taking over the UberXena site, Uber uber Alles.
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Biography

Christine Pattee Christine Pattee
I entered college an English major and came out a biologist. After stints as a teacher and Peace Corps Volunteer (in Ethiopia), I got Master's and doctor's degrees in public health, and worked for many years in the Connecticut Health Dept. as a research statistician. My avocation has always been to organize things. In the 1970's I was active in New Haven Women's Liberation, and coordinated Connecticut's first statewide gay rights lobby. In the 1980's I produced women's music concerts and founded the Northeast Women's Musical Retreat (NEWMR). I've been a foster parent for fourteen years, taking one teenage girl at a time in long term placement. Now that I'm 58 and retired, I do what I want, including woodcarving, reading, women's adventure travel, and coaching city girls in basketball.

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