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The Alchemy of Being a Writer

By Leah Williams

“Valar Morghulis” translated, “All men must die.”

From A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

I have “Valar Morghulis” tattooed on my bicep. I’m one of those insatiable fangirls who, once they’ve sunk their teeth into something, cannot let go. I begin this process after finishing a tv/book/comic series where first, I start surrounding myself with merch of the thing to fill the void of not having more of the thing → deciding it’s significant enough to tattoo on my body → reading fanfiction → writing fanfiction. I cannot move on.

There is something breathtaking and humbling about the way fandoms will take their favorite media and spin it. They zoom in and out to look through new lenses, they hold it up in different lights, examining every angle; and when it comes back, it’s refracted with infinite variables, endless iterations of what if’s arranged in a dizzying array of fanfiction. And these variables run the gamut from “he puts his penis in the butt. the whole penis.” to sweeping monstrosities of canon-compliant works that are 100k words or more and written with aching precision.

One of my favorite authors, George R. R. Martin, is famously disdainful of fanfiction — so it is with some amount of guilt that I admit my debut novel, “The Alchemy of Being Fourteen,” actually began as a Buffy: The Vampire Slayer/A Song of Ice and Fire crossover fic.

For me, fanfiction is a last resort.

It’s something I turn to when I love a character too much and I don’t have their happily-ever-after clutched in my hands, either because a series ended or because I’m waiting for the next installment. It’s an outlet for me to create a patch over where my emotional needs are unmet by a work’s canon — not because I’m dissatisfied with it, but because I’m left with unfulfilled feelings after finishing something. It’s a coping device, and personally, I can think of no greater expression of love for characters than to try and take on their voices to give them happier endings. (Or, alternatively, I’ll just admit it — I’m a hardcore shipper and sometimes fanfiction satisfies this vaguely perverse “ok, now y’all kiss” wish, like playing with dolls as a kid.)

George R. R. Martin’s world is particularly conducive to this kind of fanfare, I believe. There is a riveting bleakness in A Song of Ice and Fire that knocks us all on our asses, and combining that with the long wait between new books is like throwing dry kindling into a fire. We get hungry.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn there was going to be a TV show.

And then, maybe you can imagine how crestfallen I was when that TV show began, but wandered further and farther from canon. My favorite female characters were getting raped where they’d consented in the books. It reached a point where I was distraught enough about these public fates of fictional characters that I felt compelled to privately start writing fanfiction to make myself feel better. I had to give agency and fight back to these female characters, the way I felt George R. R. Martin had written them.

I started writing Sansa the Vampire Slayer.

It was winter of 2013; a time when I was miserable with my job, in a long-distance relationship, living in a shoebox-sized one bedroom where the furnace was obstinate, and I was perilously lonely. At night, while the cosmetics on my windowsill froze solid, I would hide in bed under several thick quilts, and I would write. I paid homage to two of my favorite things by mushing them together and finding an escapist’s peace. The story that came out of me infiltrated my daydreams. It invaded those blank-faced, god-I-hate-my-job mind wanderings, when you’re slumped at your desk and the clock mocks you. While my bajillionaire boss hurled staticky epithets at me from a thousand miles away, tucked into his warm office on Wall Street — I was probably holding the phone to my ear and imagining Arya Stark’s growing proficiency wielding dual daggers. And yes. Now I can see the significance in this.

It didn’t take long (about 4,000 words in, to be more precise) for me to realize there was a story of my own under the surface of Sansa the Vampire Slayer. I quit my job, moved to a new country (and because of this, went from “long distance relationship” to “relationship”), and spent the next year writing my first novel.

In a way, fanfiction is like a two-way mirror. You can see your flaws and faults, reflected back to you in glaring detail — but so can someone else. And this someone else knows the voice you’re trying to squeeze into, maybe even better than you do.

Going to film school taught me not to trust my voice. In my classes I was surrounded by boys, and with a few notable exceptions, many of male peers did not like whatever I would write. I can count on one hand the people there who encouraged me artistically. I graduated in 2010 and my thesis film won no department awards. The panel of judges for this were all men.

Three years later, when I would start anonymously posting fanfiction, I was still hesitant and timid about my writing.

In late 2014, a female commenter on ao3 called me “the Federico Fellini of fanfiction.” I was so proud that I tweeted about it.

Fanfiction had become a sandbox for me to play in. It was an arena where I could comfortably perform new words to an unseen audience and receive immediate feedback. I spoke through the voices of characters I was in love with. I grew confident. I learned new tricks. I tested abstractions and tenses. I experimented. I had encouragement every step of the way, and it wasn’t just from a fellow fangirl looking for a fix, needling for more modern Alternate Universe’s about their favorites; it was from people who didn’t know anything about me and were commenting to praise the improvement in my writing. I was dazzled with encouragement. I started to test-drive the phrase “I’m a writer” even though I still can’t say it out loud without feeling like an imposter, a pretender, or a poser.

I grew bolder. I got brave. I grew blinder to the world outside my novel. I spent sleepless nights puzzling over glances and gazes, untangling sighs from scowls; and in doing this — I have never felt happier. Writing a book was the best, most indulgent thing I’ve ever done. I lost myself to a fantasy; and did it gladly. Everyone in my life who asked about my day were subjected to my ramblings of Praeta versus Supra and young women with superpowers: two teenage sisters named Winter and Arden Allister. The backbone of the book became about modern girls who still face racism and misogyny despite their dawning abilities.

Writing Alchemy, I felt the same exhilaration I feel when becoming immersed in someone else’s world, except this time it was mine. I fell in love with my own characters. They dominated my daydreams. I set this goal for myself: write a book that will make someone feel the way I felt when I was a little girl and reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time. Or the second time. Or the third, or the fourth, and more, and more, until the spine was exhausted and the pages were falling out.

Or: how I felt when I was a teenager and obsessing over Buffy. Or when I was older and weeping about Westeros. Or when I was all grown up and flailing from Dragon Age. These are all the things that gave me soaring (in outmoded dweeb terms) FEELS. With that in mind, I wrote a modern fantasy book for people like me — people who love things deeply, wholly, and without reservation; even if the things they love are someone else’s characters, and they are not real.

It feels disingenuous to say that any one of the creators of my favorite works has influenced my novel directly. Not because it isn’t true, but because I am such a groveling, breathlessly reverent fangirl that I have placed them on a God-high pedestal and I can’t even imagine a world in which I am their equal. It feels absurd and arrogant to declare that I was influenced by George R. R. Martin and J.K. Rowling while writing my first book, but — it would also be a lie to deny it.

Perhaps the most staggering influence is that I was able to write The Alchemy of Being Fourteen at all — only possible because I was tapping into the same bursting enthusiasm I had not just for their work, but for everything I had loved and embraced as a fan.

Leah Williams is a writer and film producer originally from Oxford,
Her first young adult novel, The Alchemy of Being Fourteen,
was released September 2015.
You can follow her on Tumblr

For more details visit The Alchemy of Being Fourteen


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