Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Guessed Writing 2015

Back in January, over at the “Web Fiction Guide (WFG) Forums”, Alexander Hollins proposed “an old favourite”: Writing an ‘April Fools’ update for another serial writer. (While they write for someone else, etc.) What I said at the time was, I liked the idea of getting into someone else(s) head, but wasn’t sure that my present serial would work for someone else. After some encouragement, I signed up anyway.

This is what followed. There’s spoilers for the entry I wrote, if you wanted to read that first.


If you know me, you know I like playing with people’s expectations. My thought going in was: Can I write something that mimics the style of the original author closely enough at the start that it won’t be immediately recognized as fake? (Makes the foolishness that much better.)

I was then assigned “Legion of Nothing”, written by Jim Zoetewey. First, I recommend checking it out, in particular if you enjoy “superhero” and “slice of live” kinds of stories. (And while I won’t be revealing plot details below, there are some spoilers about the LoN universe. If you don’t want those, stop here.) Second, WHOA. Good thing I’m not easily intimidated.

On the one hand, I know Jim’s a regular guy, just like anyone else. But on the other, his story had been running continuously since late 2007. It’s got it’s own TV Tropes page, had a successful Kickstarter towards becoming a set of ebooks, Jim himself is a WFG Moderator... and I’m used to writing for a dozen people who rarely comment, whereas a dozen comments seemed like a SLOW day over there. Okay then!

"I'm going to read your thoughts!"
When the assignment came out, I was also in the middle of January exams (I teach), so the weight of this didn’t hit me until early February. It left me with a new question: How does one create a spoof that keeps to the style and characters of a serial with such history?

The simple answer is, you don’t worry, you write something silly and be done with it. Still, while it’s all in fun, for me, that felt too easy. In particular, you have to know the rules in order to subvert them properly, and I didn’t know the rules of Jim’s universe yet (beyond the fact that he seemed to write in first person). I decided that I wanted to learn the rules, and that reading was the best way to do that.


I started reading “Legion of Nothing” sometime around Valentine’s Day, 2015. We were supposed to read at least the last two months of our assigned serial, but I started at the beginning, ambitiously deciding that I would read as much as possible before skipping ahead. (Spoiler: I read all of it. It’s very good.)

I also read (or browsed) every post’s comments. Partly because I’m nuts. Partly because I figured this was the audience I’d be writing for, so I might as well get a sense of their preferences. Partly because Jim would sometimes remark on details that didn’t fit the current narrative. (Ergo I knew about the underwater jet entrance before it got used.) Finally, because the remarks could be funny. For instance, someone commented that “the Shift” is Irish slang for making out; I never did find a good way to incorporate that.

I refrained from commenting on posts myself for two reasons. The first is that it would take precious time away from reading, and I was on a deadline. The second is that Jim would have to approve my first comment, and from then on, constant remarks through an archive dive might spoil the surprise to his readers of who was writing in April.

So instead I, uh, stored about 80 comment flags/assorted typos into a text file. To flesh out into comments for later. I suspect Jim Zoetewey will either like me or hate me when this is all over. (Sorry Jim.)

Any "Natsuiro no Sunadokei" fans out there?
Anyway, in Book 1, Arc 4, part 19, a character named “Future Knight” appeared. Time travel was possible (or at least accepted) in Jim’s universe! That’s when I created the text file to start recording thoughts/comments. If you have no idea why time travel makes me SQUEE, feel free to read this post about “Time & Tied” (formerly “Time Trippers”), the serial I’ll be starting this Friday.

So, “Legion of Nothing”: a universe of superheroes, teenagers, and potential time travel, the last two of which are completely in my wheelhouse. Somewhere in reading Book 2 I decided I would either do whacky time travel, or subvert the story with an “unreliable narrator”. (Tell the story as if it was Nick, but it turns out to be someone else.) I rejected the latter once I realized that Jim had also written parts from the perspective of other characters.

Which gave me pause. What if he’d already written an entire time travel arc too? “Rachel in Infinity City” looked particularly suspicious, but I was only in Book 3, and didn’t want to jump ahead yet.


As it so happens, this is when I ran into the last time an “April Fools Update” was applied to “Legion of Nothing”. Except owing to a miscommunication, it didn’t happen, instead there was a multi-part crossover epic that was ultimately adopted as canon. While it didn’t exactly use time travel... could my idea could be seen as derivative? What would people think? What if they thought I was trying to write something canon too? Was that good or bad? WHAT IF I’M OVERTHINKING THIS?

Ahem. This is for fun. I will keep reading.

By Book 4, my entry was starting to take shape in my head: Nick vs. the Time Bandit, but we never see her, only the fallout at some point in the past. Which I realized would best be served around the present of when I was reading. Sweet. Two ways I could take the ending: A reset, with everyone going ‘WTF?’ or some ‘OMG we’re now trapped in an alternate timeline’ scenario. The former appealed to me more, because I could have Nick himself push against the fourth wall.

Wait, what if the current Arc isn’t from Nick’s POV? I might need a new plan. I jumped ahead for the first time to check out the present. Okay, still Nick. I gotta stop overthinking this.

I got into Book 5. Rejected thoughts by now included Rachel using Nick’s guitar weapon as a real guitar, Nick charging up a time machine attachment by jogging in place, and a time travelling wardrobe falling onto their power impregnator. (Uh, if you haven’t read "Legion", you are likely confused.) Instead, mental time travel felt right, I think because I re-read Alex’s assignment message which offered “Gender swap a character. Switch brains.” Easily done. And I kinda wanted to mess with Daniel’s head (a "Legion" character).

I started writing my “Fool” entry the weekend of March 14th, a month after my first read - I’d only just gotten into Book 6, but figured I wouldn’t see anything new that would cause a serious deviation in Rocket’s personality. (For that matter, the Time Bandit stuff could easily have happened before Book 6.) I finished reading “Legion” up to the present late Sunday evening, showed the entry to my wife for her take, and sent it to Alex before going to bed.


There were only minor revisions after that. If you haven’t read my entry yet, you can do so here. I tried to keep it a length within the realm of Jim’s usual entries. I also recommend you check out Lucy Weaver (or possibly Rachel Flowers?), who wrote this entry for me. (She writes the serial “Tapestry”.) She also found a clever way to use the characters without knowing where the plot line would go in the two weeks leading up to April 1st.

The guy in the back has a story too...
Now, readers for “Legion of Nothing” may notice that, in the end, my entry used the core characters, even though there are many more secondary ones by now. My thought was this particular focus could help boost Jim’s readership (via my blog, or others in the WFG forums who didn’t already read - assuming such people exist). I’ve started second guessing that, because they’re the characters that regular readers already know so well. Did that work?

I’m also not sure about setting the story in the past any more, lest people think I didn’t read the recent stuff, and whether wrapping it up in such a tidy package was a good idea, given that it’s supposed to be silly and non-canon. Not silly enough? Too silly?

Oh well. It is what it is. Thanks for reading about the process! My time travel serial will be starting up this Friday, if you want to read more by me.

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