Midnight Story Parts

Someone asked me about filing the serial numbers from fan fiction.

The subject is not exhaustive, but it does bear, perhaps, walking through.

“Filing the Serial Numbers” is something you do when you just wrote something set in someone else’s (or even one of your own’s – I’ll explain later) universe, and can’t legally (or don’t want to) publish it as part of that universe.

I first heard the expression when our entire group was trying to get into the Strange New World’s contest.  When we actually met Dean Wesley Smith at a workshop, we told him the only bad thing was that the non-placing stories couldn’t be sold.  He looked at us, puzzled, and said “Well, why don’t you file the serial numbers and send it out?”

So, let’s start with a Star Trek story.  Let’s say you just wrote some star trek fanfic, for decompression or whatever, and then realize you can never publish it, and you really want to.

The first phase of filing serial numbers is what I call “spatter mud over the numbers.”

In some cases it might be enough.

Say what you have is a landing party with the captain, the doctor and half a dozen no-names.  Easy enough to change the names, make the Federation the “Aliance of worlds” and make the doctor a woman who doesn’t say “he’s dead Jim.”

Observant readers will still catch it, but most people won’t bother, and you’re okay with the law.

But suppose instead that you have Spok, with his boatload of issues, interacting with Kirk?  This requires a more careful transformation, you’ll have to make the character a different type of alien, and will have to figure out from the issues how to make the issues persist and his be something completely different (for one, unless you’re writing futuristic erotic romance, the alien can’t be half human.  In real science fiction that won’t fly, unless he was bioengineered that way.  You can, however, have him bioengineered that way and truly caught between worlds.  Or you can have him be a wolf-child raised by aliens.)

But suppose that this is not a landing party story, but a story that completely revolves around Vulcan characteristics and culture.  Do you have to scrape the story?

Well, no, but it might be a lot of trouble to salvage.  You’ll have to create a culture that resembles the Vulcans in ALL the aspects that impact the story, but is WILDLY different in everything else (to throw off the scent, see) and you have to make it … well, logical.  Say you have to make the Vulcan character very logical – do so, but have him be one of a small caste that is logical, the rest of the culture being a sort of orgiastic mess… You know what I mean.  I can’t advise you in particulars because, of course, every case will be wildly different.  Just make a list of the characteristics you must have, the ones you can fudge, and find a story to link them.

Of course, some of the fanfic you can write is set in worlds so generic – a lot of the fantasy ones.  Also, romance ones – that you just have to change the names and the plot a little.  I swear 80% of the regency romances on the market are disguised Georgette Heyer fanfic, with the names and ranks changed, a lot more sex, and things happening differently, so he proposes earlier or something.

Now, say I wanted to – no, no, I don’t.  But I have friends who have been caught in this – write erotic fiction set in my shifter’s universe.  Yeah, I can hear you go “ew”.  So, how to go about it?

Well, to begin with, make the shifting magical and have there be vampires too.  That will throw enough dust into everything.  Then reverse their roles – make the girl a dragon and the guy a panther.  Instead of have them run a diner, have her be a millionaire and he’s her secretary – but keep their personalities substantially the same, by giving them both a difficult family life.  Voila.  (Take in account that in an erotic story this would amount to changing maybe five or six sentences that gave their background, since the focus would be quite different.)

I am right now in the middle of filing serial numbers of something that is far more complex – it’s a novel and it was supposed to be a collaboration (not that one) so it’s in someone else’s universe.  However, I wrote it, it wasn’t accepted, and I’m tired of it’s sitting in the drawer.

So I’m taking the parts of it that are mine and my characters (about two thirds) and replacing the entire mythos and how magic works.  The main character might also incidentally end up straight.  (He wasn’t for reasons of this universe – not mine.) Not that I have anything against gay characters, but because this is frankly YA and the character ends up involved with a very old entity, to have him be gay gives an unpleasant feeling of pedophilia.  If the elder entity is instead a woman known for not having sex (Diana.  Remember what she did to guys who even saw her naked?) that’s removed, and the emotional impact remains.

Anyway – that’s in general how to change a story so you can use it.  The most important part is to remove any names/characters/tech/magic world building that belongs to someone else.  After that, you can get as simple or elaborate as you wish – because after that it’s your story and you’re the judge.

18 thoughts on “Midnight Story Parts

  1. Thanks! That’s very helpful. Without actually naming my influence, it’s hard to be specific; but you’ve reassured me that I’ve already gonna well beyond filing. I would say that of the original material, virtually nothing is left except the core premise — and I had to fix that core premise before the story would make any sense. By rough analogy, imagine if Star Trek were almost entirely populated with Vulcan-Human crossbreeds who ran everything, and step one in your revision was to replace them with androids because those make some sense. That’s how sweeping my change is.

  2. … have her be a millionaire and he’s her secretary …

    What is that one going to be, Fifty Shades of Gray Fur?

    1. I was just thinking so they’d have more time to canoodle. I’m dealing with a shifter’s adventure where they’re having trouble keeping the diner staffed while they run off to save the world. That’s fine for an adventure, but it would distract from the canoodling.
      Of course, it’s irrelevant, since I’ll never write it.

      1. Of course not. You’re not supposed to write fanfic of your own work! Somebody else has to write it.

        (Actually, I seem to recall some prolific writers doing parody of their own work, but I can’t quite remember the example now. Robert Asprin, maybe?)

  3. I’m somewhat fascinated by the legal lines between”derivative work”, “inspiration”, and “superficial similarities”. Not that anyone’s giving legal advice here, I just like to think what the lines might be. If I look at a sculpture and decide to tell its story — including significant details from the sculpture itself — is my story an original work on its own? Or is it a derivative work of the sculpture?

    This example is not academic for me. My sister is a talented sculptor. A number of her pieces came together in a story in my head. She doesn’t care about the legalities, but I do. Especially since 7 different sculptures have major or minor roles in the story, I can’t see it as anything but a derivative work.

    Yet if I go up to Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park (a world class sculpture collection near me) and I draw inspiration from the art there, I’m not so sure the resulting story would be a derivative work. It would be inspired by, not derived from. The line is mighty gray, though.

    1. Yes, it’s perfectly legal, Martin. As is writing a story from a song — which I’ve done. Provided you don’t use the same names, or, for sculpture EXACT descriptions. I think even then it would be legal and only “an allusion” but some people might ding you for it. you should get the obok fo copyright — I’m trying to find it on the shelves to give you the exact name and can’t, because I’m sooo tired, but a good recent manual on copyright will help with all that stuff.

      1. Already bought it on Kris Rusch’s recommendation. The Copyright Handbook. But derivative works are one of the trickiest areas in copyright, often coming down to who the court believes. I’m still amazed that The Wind Done Gone was first declared a derivative work by a court before a higher court stayed the judgment. To my mind, a more textbook example of fair use for parody purposes could not be imagined; and yet a presumably competent court disagreed.

        1. Between forms, though, it’s not that gray. Yes, derivative is weird when you’re deriving from the same form in book say, but if it’s music/art to writing, unless you describe the work at length, most people won’t even know.

  4. I did a lot of filing and backstory creation with part of my “world.” The setting is similar (England [and Europe with altered history]) as is the culture (a military group that investigates aliens). But the alien MC is there because her would-be lover recruited her through a third party to assist the group. In the process she became tied to England in exchange for a lot of power, and although she’s a civilian contractor, she is not a noncombatant. Her paramour has mixed emotions about these developments, because he’s also geographically restricted. Once the MC took on the Guardianship, she had to stay on Earth for at least six months of the year, but now her gentleman friend no longer had the option of having her assigned to a location closer to his own!

    In case you are wondering, the filing and re-imagining have taken me almost five years, working off-and-on. Continuity is a pain in the rump.

  5. Another huge problem with “Filing off the serial numbers” is that a lot of fan-fic is dependent on the readers knowing all the backstory and canon (or popular non-canon in Slash fiction). In cutting your story free from that, you lose all of that assumed set-up, and the structure may go all to pot. There might be a LOT of backfilling to be done to replace it all, and a tight adventure ends up being laden down with redundant world-building to take the place of all the stuff that was assumed.

    After all, part of the allure of Kirk/Spock is how it’s “Forbidden” yet somehow in the subtext of the source material. If you have to change it all to Smirk/Kock, well, it’s just a gay Captain and his First Officer having an affair.

    (Personally, Slash has no allure for me, but it makes a great example).

    1. That’s true.
      I haven’t exactly filed off numbers of fanfic (not of a licensed property), but there was a little story I wrote for a friend that I decided to file some numbers off of and recycle it.
      It easily tripled the original wordcount and I had to change metric tons of information – not because it involved licensed property (and almost nothing changed about it being a supernatural/fantasy type setting and making it modern real-world), but because there were “shortcuts” taken in writing the story. Like writing fanfic, it was assumed anyone reading the story for my friend would know the characters involved and I didn’t have to include information.

      That all said, it means that when you file the numbers off, it’s even more likely to be original when you have to figure out how to give that same sort of feel of “context” without taking shortcuts of, “Well, everyone knows how these two interact.”

  6. By the time you’re finished filing all the serial numbers off, the story you make of it can be far greater than the original fanfiction you had in mind. Bujold’s Shards of Honor started out, many iterations before the final novel, as fan fiction about “a Klingon officer and a red-headed Federation scientist”.

    1. Yes, I’m starting to get that feeling about the novel I’m pulling out of the other world. It is gaining depth, one of the characters is no longer “evil just because” etc.

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