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The making of 'Checkmate' #2: On transformative works and creative writing
by CherryPie

Since this week's update of Checkmate is only a title page with little to read, I thought I'd post a new "Making of" article here. This time we'll be discussing what scholars like to call transformative works, and what most people know by another name: fanfiction. Which is, after all, the very essence of this comic.

2. ON TRANSFORMATIVE WORKS AND CREATIVE WRITING

The other day, one of my friends, Quentin, came to tell me that he was reading and enjoying my webcomic Checkmate. He asked me about my creative process, and we started discussing how to write a story based on another story – in this case, a comic based on the Twin Peaks TV series. At one point, the word “fanfiction” came up. And Quentin rolled his eyes and told me: “Oh, no. Your webcomic is way too good and too professional to be called fanfiction!”

It was a compliment, of course, and I was flattered that he considered Checkmate to be “good” and “professional”. But it made me think about what exactly my comic qualifies as, and about fanfiction in general. Because no matter what my friend Quentin believes, Checkmate can reasonably be called fanfiction. The definition of the term is simple: “Fanfiction is when someone takes either the story or characters (or both) of a certain piece of work, whether it be a novel, TV show, movie, etc., and create their own story based on it.” (source: Urban Dictionary)

To create my webcomic, I took some story elements and several characters from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and wrote Dale Cooper’s backstory based on those elements. Some characters, most ideas and the script and art may be mine, but the original concept isn’t. Thus, I would call Checkmate a “fancomic”, a combination of “fanfiction” and “fanart” (which, for some reason, doesn’t seem to suffer from the same bad reputation as fanfiction). And this is where I have to disagree with Quentin: Checkmate is not “too good” to be fanfiction. Nothing is “too good” to be fanfiction. Why? Because the word “fanfiction” is not an insult, and most people who know a bit about the phenomenon will probably agree with me. informations 

Fan works (also called “transformative works”, if you want a more formal term) are like other creative works: they can be extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad. And yes, a lot of “fanfics” are poorly written, full of inconsistencies and spelling mistakes, often created by teenage girls who write to indulge in their fantasies about the protagonists – i.e. girls who just want their favourite characters to have sex, with no regard for depth or craft. (This is where I remind you that the best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey originated as a Twilight fanfiction... And not even a good one. How this book got published I’ll never understand. Sorry, fans.)

Because of this, a lot of people sigh in disdain when the word “fanfiction” comes up, and dismiss the whole concept as uniformly terrible. But not all “fanfics” are romantic-erotic tales (badly) written by 12-year-olds. Some stories are real pieces of art, written by adults (sometimes published writers) at a professional standard, with an incredible amount of detail, research and respect of the original work; the best stories equal, maybe even surpass, their source material. In her academic essay Fan Fiction for the Unconvinced, S.C. Frankles writes: “Can fanfiction be literature? Again, it’s like any other genre: some if it is; some of it isn’t. But what’s important is that it can be.”  I concur. Those stories are really worth a read, they’re as good as any novel you’ll find at your local bookstore, and this is why I don’t feel the slightest bit ashamed to call Checkmate fanfiction.

Speaking more generally, I think fanfiction is a wonderful concept. I just love the idea that anyone can write about their favourite books, movies of TV shows, create new stories for their favourite characters, write prequels, sequels or spin-offs, fill in the gaps or imagine alternate endings for existing stories, and share them online with a large fan community.

I don’t understand writers (like G.R.R. Martin or Robin Hobb, for instance) who don’t allow their fans to write fanfiction based on their books. What’s wrong with that? People don’t steal anything, they don’t make money off their writings. Fanfiction isn’t plagiarism. It’s about people putting their imagination into words, further developing the worlds they love and admire.

Yes, most fanfiction isn’t very good, but why does it matter? If any form of retelling or expanding older stories was forbidden, would Shakespeare have written half of his plays? Would the successful BBC series Sherlock exist? What about James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the 8th Harry Potter book, or the many modern-day retellings of Jane Austen’s literature?

I believe that fanfiction is a brilliant way to start writing, for anyone who would like to create original stories but is afraid of the huge endeavor. I know several published authors who started by writing fanfic (some of them still do), and who think it helped them get better at writing, story-building, character development and such.

I myself discovered fanfiction as a teenager. I remember reading and watching The Lord of the Rings for the first time between 2001-2003 and becoming a huge fan of the trilogy (well, I still am!), and after J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s movies, I needed more. So I went online at my dad’s office (we didn’t have an Internet access at home back then...) and soon discovered the goldmine that is fanfiction.net, a famous webpage featuring hundreds of thousands of stories posted for free by fans and for fans. I wasn’t expecting much at first (I’m VERY picky when it comes to fanworks), but I did find some amazing stories on that website. Stories that were as good, as compelling as the original trilogy, in terms of narration, suspense, characters, everything. I remember spending hours reading dozens of chapters of my favourite stories. After the novels and the movies, I had just found a way to prolong the magic.

I’ve always loved writing. As a kid and a pre-teen, I wrote numerous poems, short stories, comic scripts, personal diaries... and, without knowing it, fanfiction. I remember writing short stories about The Lord of the Rings when I’d never even heard of the concept. I had no idea that other people did this, and felt rather embarrassed. It was some kind of guilty pleasure, a strange thing only I was doing, and I never shared it with anyone.

Naturally, I was thrilled when, a few years later, I discovered that this activity was actually a real thing – it was called fanfiction and thousands of people all over the world did it. I also realized how good these stories could be. They inspired me, and I wondered if I was capable of writing a story as good as the ones I’d read online, and whether I would be brave enough to share them with other fans on the Internet. I’d never shared my writing with anyone before, not even my friends or family.

In 2006, I was in high school and had just seen the second installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I had loved the first movie back in 2003, and while the second one didn’t live up to my expectations, my 16-year-old self was intrigued and somewhat fascinated by the character of Jack Sparrow. My favourite part about reading fanfiction had always been the prequels, the “origin stories”, the “How did this character become this character” stories (which, come to think of it, is exactly what I’m doing with Checkmate!), and Jack Sparrow was the perfect material: not just a cool, fun pirate played by Johnny Depp, but a three-dimensional, complex character with real depth, hidden secrets and interesting elements of backstory. The second Pirates movie had left many questions unanswered, and I decided to write my own version of these answers.

So before I knew it, I was sitting in front of a blank Microsoft Word document and started writing the story of a 20-year-old Jack, long before he became the pirate we see in the movies. I had no idea where I was going, but I got carried away. I posted my new chapters online, and received tons of positive, enthusiastic reviews that encouraged me to keep going. Based on the few elements and hints I’d collected from the Pirates films, I invented new adventures, new characters, and ended up writing a whole novel on the subject (600 pages and over 200 000 words... Yeah, I really did get carried away!). It wasn’t until I typed the words “The End” on my computer that I realized I’d just completed my first novel. I was very proud.

This was over ten years ago, and yet, I still kind of like what I wrote. Surprisingly (as someone who usually doesn’t stay satisfied with her own works for very long), I’m still pleased with it; I re-read it the other day and was almost impressed by what the teenage Lili had managed to accomplish – not in terms of fanfiction, but in terms of storytelling in general.

And I’m thinking that perhaps I wouldn’t be writing Checkmate today if it wasn’t for that long pirate fanfic-novel. I learned I great deal from writing that book. I learned about character development and how to write existing characters while remaining faithful to the source material, about style, pacing, creating tension and suspense, writing believable dialogue... In short, all the ingredients that make a good story. I don’t think I would ever have had the courage to write an original novel back then, and fanfiction was the perfect way for me to start.

So yes, I did read and write fanfiction, that activity so many people seem to despise and underestimate. Yes, a lot of the fanfics out there are garbage – but you can also find some real gems. I believe fanfiction helped me become a better writer. And after all, what is Checkmate if not a combination of Twin Peaks fanfiction and fanart? I’m OK with that. And, dear Quentin and all the other skeptics, so should you. ;)

Introducing new article series: The making of 'Checkmate'
by CherryPie

Hi, Checkmate readers!

For a while now, I've been thinking about using the "blog" feature of this website for something more than just the occasional news. I've received several questions from you guys about my creative process, and I've always loved reading about how other artists and writers work. So I hope you'll enjoy this new series of (lengthy) articles I've prepared, which will be posted here on a regular basis (every two weeks, maybe? Haven't decided yet). The blog feature doesn't allow you leave comments under the text, but let me know what you think in the comment section under the latest page!

Well, without further ado, I give you the first article of...

1. ON RESEARCH AND INSPIRATION

Whenever I start a new writing or comic project, one of my favourite parts is doing all the preliminary research and making a list of inspirations, references and material that will help me build and design my story. When I started working on Checkmate, I thought the research part would be pretty brief and easy compared to the other project I’m currently working on, which is an adventure thriller about political conspiracies, piracy and the Triangular Trade set in 18th century England. Naturally, that project involved huge amounts of research on 1730s politics, economics, religion, slavery, seafaring, architecture, clothing, etc. (I have over 150 Word pages of notes and dozens of period documents, pictures, paintings, ship blueprints, sketches and such.)

So after months of arduous work on that project, I thought Checkmate would be a piece of cake. After all, it’s set in the modern world! Well, except it’s not – not quite. I soon realized that the 1980s, even though they’re a very recent past, are “period” enough to require research on pretty much everything. What did a 1985 computer, phone or car look like? What was the structure and hierarchy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time? How did the streets, buildings or hospitals of Pittsburgh look like? What were the big differences in the field of medicine between then and now? What elements appear in an autopsy report, and what exactly was Project Blue Book? What were the typical 1980s fashion and hairstyles?...

Unsurprisingly, my primary database was the wonderful goldmine that is the Internet. 15 years ago, doing research was so much harder! Nowadays I don’t even have to go to the public library or buy a book on a specific subject – a quick Google search usually gives me all the information I need. I collected images of various 1980s places, objects, clothes and accessories; I went to the FBI website to read about their history and organization; I watched a lot of 1980s movies to get the right “vibe”.

A tool that proved extremely useful to create the comic’s environment was Google Maps, especially the Street View feature. I live in France, and I’ve never been anywhere near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had no idea what the city looks like. So I spent hours “walking” through the streets of Pittsburgh with Google Street View, making screencaps, taking notes, “visiting” the FBI building on East Carson Street or the Presbyterian University hospital in West Oakland. I would never have been able to draw a realistic version of Pittsburgh if it wasn’t for Street View!

I also discovered the hilarious – and useful! – concept of “Judgmental Maps”. I found a “Judgmental Map of Pittsburgh”, which is a regular map complete with subjective annotations such as “Scary ghetto”, “Million Dollar Homes”, “Old people & White trash”, “Creepy and desolate”... Not only did it make me laugh, but it actually helped! For instance, when I was looking for a good spot to place an old, abandoned factory, I looked up neighborhoods marked as “Poor”, “Run down” or “Creepy”, and found the perfect place. Same for the Earle residence, which I wanted to be located in a rather affluent suburb.

Medical research was also a big part of my preliminary work. Being a nurse in real life helped a lot, of course; I work at a hospital and I have dealt with various types of injuries in the E.R., intensive care or surgical units. However, I still had to do some in-depth research about cardiothoracic surgery and stab wounds to the stomach – diagnostic examination, symptoms, consequences, treatment and recovery. I found a lot of detailed info on both French and English medical websites (and some not-so-medical websites – hey, Wikipedia can be useful sometimes!). I watched several episodes of E.R. featuring stab victims, which came in handier than I thought (the series may be a spiced-up version of daily life in the E.R., but it’s medically accurate). I admit, I did far more research than necessary, and learned a thousand things that will never even be mentioned in the webcomic – but I’m biased when it comes to medicine, I just love it.

In addition to the “technical” research, I made a list of references and things that inspired me – books, movies, TV shows, comics, music... Some of these works were an inspiration for a specific scene, or a great character, or an interesting way to tell a story; some others were just stories taking place in Pittsburgh and/or in the 1980s. All of them are works that I like and admire for some reason. It could be The Silence of the Lambs for its plausible and fascinating depiction of the FBI’s hunt for a serial killer; Homeland for its brilliant way to create suspenseful situations and cliffhangers that make our hair stand on end (seriously, if I had to choose one person in the world to give me a class on storytelling, I’d pick the guys who write this show); The Dreamer webcomic or the French Aldébaran comic series for their ability to make each page gripping... There are so many!

And of course, there was the “in-universe” research on Twin Peaks. Checkmate is a prequel that takes place four years prior to the series’ events, and I’m trying to be as respectful as possible of the world, characters and events Lynch and Frost created. I re-watched the entire series and Fire Walk With Me and took note of every small detail about Cooper’s and Windom’s past – their friendship, the murder of Caroline Earle, Windom Earle going from talented FBI agent to psychopath locked up at the “local laughing academy” (thanks, Albert), all things related to Project Blue Book, Windom’s research on Dugpas and the Lodges, etc. I also re-read Scott Frost’s Autobiography of Special Agent Dale Cooper, which briefly mentions the events surrounding Caroline’s murder. However, I didn’t take that book as main reference, since I was written after the series and doesn’t always follow the same timeline and events. It did give me some ideas, though.

As you can see, I ended up doing a lot of research for this webcomic (my “Research and inspiration” folder for Checkmate ended up being almost as big as the one for my 18th century project!). I probably did more than I needed – it’s so easy to get lost in the bottomless ocean of interesting web pages and new discoveries... But I’ve always set myself high standards when it comes to realism in fiction. Historical, scientific or technical inconsistencies can ruin a good story, so I’m trying to be as thorough as I can. And it’s so much fun!

Behind the scenes: Sketches and research
by CherryPie

Hi guys! I promised you some behind-the-scenes stuff to compensate Monday's "not-really-an-update" update, so here it is!

Here's some research for a character I was really looking forward to introducing... The one and only Diane! Very 1950s-inspired, elegant and classy. (Note that the reference pictures are only for the clothes and fashion accessories. I imagine Diane to be much older than the women in these photos!).

These are the first stages of making a comic page: thumbnailing on a sketchbook with a ballpoint pen (as you can see, the thumbnails are really small!), then drawing the page on A4 paper with a blue pencil, then "inking" it with a black mechanical pencil.

   

Sometimes I do the storyboard/thumbnails directly in Photoshop, to get a better view of how the page will look in full size and where to put the speech bubbles. They're not as messy as the sketchbook thumbnails... Here's one of them compared to the finished page. As you can see, they do look pretty similar!

   

That's it for today! Would you be interested in seeing more of these "making of" posts? Do you have any specific questions about my creative process? Please let me know by leaving a comment under the latest comic page or on the Facebook page.

'Checkmate' returns!
by CherryPie

Hi everyone,

I hope you all had a great summer! I myself had an amazing time discovering the west coast of the U.S., from the Pacific Northwest ("I've never seen so many trees in my life!") to San Francisco. The landscapes around Seattle really did look very Twin-Peaskish!

Anyway, holiday is now over, which means Checkmate is back! Page 20 will be posted next week, on Monday.

I'm excited to be back! See you soon!

 

'Checkmate' is going on summer break!
by CherryPie

Special announcement for all Checkmate readers:

For the next couple of weeks, I'll be on holiday in the US, visiting the West Coast from Vancouver to San Francisco (and hopefully stopping by Snoqualmie Falls and North Bend on the way! I just need to convince my non-Twin Peaks-fan friends that it's worth the (small) detour).

I won't be able to post new pages from there, and besides, I need a few weeks to build a new buffer (man, 20 pages already... Time flies!). I'll try to post some behind-the-scenes stuff on Mondays if I can, and I'll be back soon with new comic pages, of course.

Have a great summer, guys!