Okay, I’ve had some fan fiction. Never mind that it was obtained under less-than-spontaneous conditions (my stepmother, a teacher, set it as a homework assignment, bless her). Yes, forget that for a moment. Whether or not they were delivered under duress, the fact remains: I have more than twenty ‘first chapters’ of my second book, Cat’s Paw, at home… written by other people.
Needless to say, this is weird.
Reading them through in something of a daze, I realised something. These young writers clearly had as much fun with their versions as I had with mine. The handwritten notes to me on the back of each assignment suggest that they saw it as much more than just a piece of homework. One pupil wrote a chapter of a length that would have taken me a week of hard work. Many introduced startling new ideas and wove them into the existing Cat Kin ‘mythology’. The best of these young writers, all of whom were under 13, managed snatches of dialogue that made me laugh, they were so convincing, while nailing certain characters dead-on. Writers talk about their characters taking over, and doing unexpected things; but how much stranger when they start doing expected things that nevertheless take you by surprise, because you didn't actually write them yourself.
Spookiest of all were those stories by children who had considered where a sequel might go. Those who had homed in on the loose threads dangling from the first book, and used them to weave their own story openings. They all knew I would introduce a new character in Book 2, a new teacher for the Cat Kin children; many of them guessed that he’d get a mixed reception, that the class would pine for their old, familiar tutor. I was treated to a half-dozen incarnations of this character, Geoff White: ‘he was tall, tall as a pine tree’… ‘he was old and wrinkled, with long white hair’… ‘he had bright eyes as blue as the ocean’. He appears as Ben’s long-lost uncle, as Mrs Powell’s other son, as a sinister stranger, as a welcome friend. Everyone saw him in their own way.
If there ever was a reason for writing, this is it. To see others pick up your ideas and run with them, and send them spinning back at you from new and fascinating angles, is too wonderful for words. It’s also a reminder that the story is bigger than its author – that once it’s out of your hands, it’s public property, and readers can do with it as they will. This is true of every reader, not just the minority who write fan fictions. Everyone will see each character and scene differently. The story is created in each reader’s imagination, the writer only providing the raw material. It’s almost literally magic.
It’s so easy to forget that the story lives on like that. So easy to forget why I’ve always wanted to do this.
So here is an open thank-you to class 8M, for reminding me, and so well. Homework or not, you surely didn’t have to do as good a job as you did.