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How author Sam Starbuck shapes online fandom (and vice versa)
Sam Starbuck, known by his LiveJournal handle, “copperbadge,” learned everything he knows about writing from fandom, and he even lets fans shape his works-in-progress.
Sam Starbuck is the fandom equivalent of a household name. Along with his popular LiveJournal blog (copperbadge) and fanfiction, he has self-published several books and his historical novel, The City War, was recently released by Riptide Publishing.
Starbuck is a rare breed in the world of fanfic: an author with a readership loyal enough to follow him from fandom to fandom, even when his favorite canon sources range from cult Japanese anime to Harry Potter to mainstream American crime dramas. Currently, fans are pooling together to record a full-cast audiobook of his Australian Steampunk novel, The Dead Isle.
While fanfic-inspired bestsellers such as 50 Shades of Grey and The Captive Prince have garnered enormous fanbases of their own, Starbuck’s success has had more to do with his personal brand and online presence rather than a single piece of writing. We spoke to him about his history in fandom, the issues brought up by maintaining a long-term online pseudonym, and the unique community-based editing process he developed for his original writing.
DD: Your LiveJournal has been going for a long time, and it’s developed into something more than just an everyday blog. Could you tell us a little about Sam’s Cafe?
It’s got a life well beyond me, I sometimes feel. Essentially it began as a place to talk about fannish things and post fanfic, and for whatever reason, it drew a crowd of people who aren’t even necessarily in that demographic. A lot of it is just me talking about my life, and people responding to that. Sometimes I look at it less as a blog and more as a discussion board where I’m just the moderator.
DD: A quick glance at your fanfic archive shows that you’ve been involved in a wide variety of fandoms, including Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, The Avengers and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Is there a particular type of character or story that makes you think, “I should be writing fanfic about this”?
I think a lot of it has to do with how well-built the world is and how complete it is. There are some stories where I don’t need to write anything because they just… feel complete, though I’ve never been able to put a finger on precisely why. Other canons have possibilities, nooks and crannies you can peer into and mess around with. In many ways I think the sign of a good creation is one that people want to play with and dig into.
As for characters — well, the fact that I have a type is almost a running joke at this point. I’ve always gone for the sidekicks, or the people who are out-of-place; the butler who turns badass, the time traveler who doesn’t understand the customs, the street kid who somehow ends up a duke.
DD: There are certain stereotypes associated with people who write fanfic. Would you say they are accurate, and would you identify with them at all?
I used to think that I knew what the stereotypes were, but I don’t know that I do anymore. I’ve been in fandom almost twenty years, and not only have stereotypes presumably changed in that span of time, but the composition of fandom certainly has. And it’s hard to know whether people fit a stereotype—the usual things that define a stereotype, like appearance, clothing, the place you live, the way you speak, the food you eat —are muted online to a great extent.
There’s a concept becoming very popular right now, known as the Filter Bubble, where the Internet’s information flow tends to reconfirm your biases and beliefs rather than present reality to you. Essentially, the Internet figures out what you like and gives you more of it—not only through your searches for people who like the things you like, but through complex tracking algorithms on search engines and social media sites that present specific ads and webpage recommendations to you.
We tend to see fandom as a single cohesive unit, because we are part of a unit within fandom, and we think fandom is our unit—and some people think fandom reflects the real beliefs of people who aren’t in fandom, as well. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Without even touching on the world outside of fandom, fandom itself is wider and louder and more diverse than any one person generally suspects.
I do think I fit a fandom mold in a lot of ways—enthusiastic, nerdy, intelligent, awkwardly socialized—but so do plenty of people who aren’t in fandom.
DD: There’s been a lot of controversy recently about “the fourth wall” of fandom, with some fans worrying about the narrowing divide between “IRL” and the previously secretive world of online fandom. How do you deal with the contrast between your online and offline lives?
I don’t think it’s necessarily an individual issue. I think the issue is more that the activities of fandom—conventions, blogs, fanfic—are becoming more visible because they’re becoming more socially acceptable. But there are issues like Facebook and Google Plus banning “fake” names from their platforms. Oddly enough, there is a very low fannish presence on those two platforms…
Mainly the problem is that maybe you don’t want your kinky X-Files porn to be available for your boss or students or friends or lovers or parents to find. And that is 100% okay, that’s a legitimate reason to use an online handle different to your brickspace name. In my particular case, I keep a very strong divide between brickspace and my Internet life. I use Sam Starbuck, which is a pen name, on every fannish account I have and on some professional accounts where I’m connecting with other writers. Which is also good “branding”; people usually know where to find me because I stick to one name and one or two screen names.
There are two big boogeymen on the Internet: “Anonymous trolling” and “pedophiles and murderers.” Those are the two things people want you to be afraid of, and the two reasons that are cited for the legislative controls they keep trying to put in place. And the idea of using a fake name, a pen name, or an assumed name—which various people want to outlaw for “anonymous trolling” reasons—came from a lot of us growing up in the “pedophiles and murderers” era, where everyone from Ann Landers to television stars warned you against giving out your name, age, or location to people online. It’s not the main reason I keep a strong divide, but certainly my early Internet indoctrination created that habit, of having one life online and keeping my brickspace life “Safe” from it.
I’d always thought the bigger deal than the brickspace-Internet divide was the crumbling divide between celebrities and fans, to be honest. That seems much more fraught with tension to me.
Art via copperbadge
DD: In what way has fandom changed, in the time you’ve been involved? How big of a difference has Tumblr made?
When I started in fandom, the online portion was mostly either the Usenet or AOL messageboards. Even as the web became more popular, however, we hadn’t yet let go of a certain structural separatism — there were archives for fanfic, but they were used for finding fanfic posted to the Usenet. A lot of fandoms were still run by email mailing list.
When I went to college, I stopped writing fanfic. I dropped out of fandom, and wasn’t a part of what was happening in those four years, from 1998 to 2002. I got back into fandom as a graduate student, and a lot had changed. Fanfic was now Web-based, particularly on pan-fandom archives like Fanfiction.net. People like to laugh at FFN, but the concept of it was revolutionary to me: an archive where anyone could post a fanfic in any fandom and they were all kept in one place, indexed and searchable. It blew my mind.
From there I found LiveJournal, where fanfic was more decentralized, but where you could build much stronger networks with other fans because you were constantly talking, updating them on your life, without worrying you were imposing by emailing them.
The weird dichotomy of fandom is that the social end of it seems to be trying to decentralize further and further, while the fanfic end of it is becoming more and more coherent as a mass. Back in the day, if you wanted to hang out with fans, all of you went to a central usenet group like alt.tv.x-files and alt.tv.x-files.creative. You went to fandom. Then, with LiveJournal, you built fandom around you. But there was still a very solid connection between you and the community. Meanwhile, newsletter-communities were cropping up to make sure everyone who wanted to would be aware of what was happening in their corner of fandom.
With Tumblr, fandom seems even more decentralized; there are tags to follow and people to follow but there aren’t communities in the same way as there were on LJ. I don’t want tumblrites to be offended, because I have a blast on Tumblr; it’s not that there aren’t communities, it’s that they’re looser and less-organized than LJ’s were, which has its own advantages. With the opening of Archive Of Our Own, fanfic has become more centralized. For a long time I didn’t use it because I had an archive and if people wanted to find me they could find me there. But in the end, you can’t beat it for convenience.
So I don’t know if Tumblr would be as popular if it weren’t for a separate site that aggregates our fanfic for us. And really I think in the long run AO3 has had a much bigger impact on fandom.
DD: As well as being a writer of fanfic, you’re a self-published author. How has fandom influenced your style of writing and editing?
Fandom created my style of writing and editing, in all honesty. I learned to write by writing fanfic. In some ways that’s a hindrance, because I hate describing my characters and I’m not terribly good at world-building yet; those are two things that fanfic usually doesn’t require because we know what world we’re in and we know what our heroes look like. But I would not have learned even proper literary grammar without the people in fandom who saw the potential in me for great stories if I could just figure out how a quotation mark worked.
They say in writing courses that a good way to learn is to emulate writers you like, and certainly I’ve done that. Terry Pratchett’s self-aware, pragmatic sense of humour, J.K. Rowling’s sense of wonder, Arthur Conan Doyle’s gothic penny-dreadful flair—I’ve learned techniques of horror from The X-Files and Torchwood, pastiche and metacommentary from Heroes and Merlin, and sometimes even more specific things, like art history and crime narrative for White Collar. They gave me a springboard, a place to start my skills.
As for editing… well, the process I’ve worked up, called extribulum, is about presenting a story to an audience and letting them have their say about it before it’s “locked” into a finished product. There is a specific journal where I post serialized novels, and people are encouraged to read along and offer their criticism. They talk about characters, analyze motives, and generally treat a relatively small piece of work (compared to most canons) as its own tiny fandom, for as long as it takes me to finish posting it.
I get to connect directly with readers, so that I’m not just someone putting a work out there and hoping people like it; I’m someone putting a work out there that readers have had a chance to help shape and improve. It’s certainly something outside the experience of most professional writers and publishers. It’s a harrowing experience, having somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand people reading your rough draft and telling you where you got it wrong, but it’s never been a negative one for me.
DD: Out of all your writing, what would you recommend as a fun introduction for someone who has never read fanfic before?
I tend to recommend “The Rational Mind,” which is a Sherlock Holmes story, mainly because most people actually know the canon, at least somewhat. There’s also a story I wrote that gets rec’d a fair bit because it’s kid-friendly and funny, and it’s in Harry Potter which most people know, called “Registration.”
But admittedly the one that the most people seem to have read and liked is the infamous LOLCat story, “Trying To Communicate.”
Photo via Sam Starbuck/Gutenberg
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested.