So in celebration (payment?) over hitting both the NYT and US Today bestseller lists, author Roni Loren recently released pages of a New Kids On The Block fanfic she wrote circa age 14. (They were like the predecessors of One Direction, for you young things.)

Loren makes a lot of excuses for her fic, because I guess it’s common for authors to cringe at stuff they wrote back in their own dark ages (gods know I can barely read things I wrote last week, let along half a lifetime ago). But, as an outsider, I always find it fascinating to see the work produced by adult bestsellers when they were rough and raw.

Here’s the thing: Loren’s fanfic is good. Like, yes, it’s flawed, but Jesus it was written by a fourteen year old. And yet it was obviously written by a fourteen year old who read and who cared about the craft. Loren makes a self-depreciating comment about the fic being “in proper manuscript format because I was serious about this, yo”–and there is cute red editorial pen all over the scanned pages–but I remember doing exactly the same thing at about the same age. Sitting in front of Word with a paperback and a ruler, measuring and setting margins and trying to learn how to em-dash, because I wanted to write A Novel, as the covers say, and some part of me knew that the form of the novel was part of its function.

The craft matters. Sometimes I think young authors feel this in their bones.

A past co-worker of mine once lamented her daughter was into reading “things on the internet” that turned out to be slash fanfic. Co-worker was nervous about the content of this material and me, being me, piped up as the Resident Expert on whether I thought Daughter’s fics were particularly egregious, given my own experience with the genre. (It probably spoke to the relationship between Co-worker and Daughter that the latter would send things she liked to her mum for comment. I consider myself pretty close to my parents… but I’d never have done that!)

Anyway, the fics turned out to be some pretty standard, teen-angsty cannibal twincest Naruto, which I guess sounds horrific if you don’t, like, read a lot of fanfic (or a lot of horror, I guess), but in my Expert Opinion was pretty innocuous kids’ stuff. Teenagers, yanno? It’s not like I wasn’t huddled down the back of the library reading Necroscope and Exquisite Corpse at about the same age (we didn’t quite have the internet yet), and I turned out okay. So whatevs. I relayed this back to Co-worker, then told her to tell her daughter to stop reading because all the real good stuff was on the AO3.

A few weeks later, Co-worker approached me with a copy of an origfic Daughter had written for class, wanting my opinion.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that fic, other than that holy shit it was fucking amazing. Like. Fuck, man. I can’t even. Because, yeah, it was obviously written by a lonely pre-pubescent girl, and the thematic elements were perhaps a touch melodramatic and one-dimensional compared to something similar written by someone a little older… but may the mercliess gods of publishing banish me to the backlist if the prose wasn’t good. Beautiful and flowing and emotional, definitely heavily influenced by the best of fanfic, and certainly better than the drivel I was pouring out circa that age (or, in fact, much more recently).

I relayed this feedback to Co-worker. Then, later, directly to Daughter when she happened to be in the office for an afternoon. (Also: being confronted by a teenage version of your own awkward self while her mother looks on approvingly is a very weird experience.)

I don’t know what Daughter is doing now; her mother moved away and I lost contact. Maybe I should try and track them down.

Because damn but if that kid wasn’t talented.

Not so long ago, I played Gone Home. Now there was a weird experience.

There’s something, I think, about being the sort of person who’s unused to encountering themselves in media… and suddenly stumbling over something that is exactly you. I remember the first time it ever happened: with the character of Sarah from Sam Keith’s The Maxx (specifically the animated version).

And I remember the second: Sam in Gone Home. I don’t want to spoil the game–seriously, if you haven’t played it, knowing as little of it as possible before going in is part of its magic–but Sam’s story is… shit. It is me, right down to dying my hair bright red to emulate a cooler friend. (An affectation you’ll note I maintain to this day, off and on. Currently on.)

I include this here because the game portrays Sam as a writer; you can pick up scraps of her story throughout (as well as encounter a bunch of drawings of the characters therein, and holy shit the style looks so much like how my friends and I drew at that age that just thinking about it makes me tear up a little). Sam’s dad is also a struggling novelist, and I think the game makes it clear that Sam, despite being younger and more “raw”, is now and will be an author far surpassing her father’s ability.

There’s just one tiny problem: Sam’s writing is, well. It’s pretty terrible.

Sam is seventeen or so during the events of the game, and, while it’s clear her writing is “supposed” to be good… it’s nothing compared to stuff I’ve seen from people that age and younger (ref. above). I think that’s the problem, though, because what player is going to “believe” a teenage girl can churn out prose that looks superficially as good as the stuff you’d buy on the shelves?1

Reality is unrealistic. Good writers learn that pretty quickly, too.

  1. As hinted above: generally I think the difference between “stuff written by competent adults” and “stuff written by talented teens” has more to do with voice/theme and, I guess, a kind of reflected “worldliness”. Teen writing tends to focus on teen issues and teen emotions, even if the characters themselves aren’t necessarily that age. Note that this isn’t in itself a bad thing–we are who we are and giving voice to the authentic experiences of the young in the moment they’re young is valuable too–but it is… a thing. Take that how you will.