Let me tell you about Ratliff.

Stephen Ratliff wrote fanfic (fan-written stories) about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have nothing against fanfic. Most of it is bad, but most of anything is bad (Sturgeon’s Law). Fanfic’s a good training ground for writers.

Ratliff’s stuff, in comparison, was cheesy in a way that rivalled the worst movies used in Mystery Science Theater 3000. His stuff had poor spelling and grammar, simple characters, and some of the most unrealistic situations imaginable.

For example: His recurring characters comprised the “Kid’s Crew,” a set of nine-year-olds who pilot and crew a starship. Yes. Nine-year-olds. And they do very well; they quickly rise up the ranks of the Federation and resolve major political standoffs.

I mentioned MST3K. Online MST3K fans learned of Ratliff and pounced. His works were perfect fodder for riffing.

Then Ratliff got wind of this. His reaction should be a model for anyone who finds this happening to their work: He sent them his work. He notified MST3K fandom every time he released a new story. He even read the riffs.

And he paid attention.

As he produced stories and the kids grew into their teen years, they started acting up. They got weirded out. They became troubled, even depressed. And one character reflected that this was because they rose too far, too fast; that all this adventure and pressure was too much for children to handle.

Ratliff’s spelling improved, his characters deepened, and his stories became progressively less ridiculous. By the time I stopped reading his stories, he was producing solid fanfic. Nothing professional-quality yet, I’d judge, but he’d improved greatly.

How? By listening. By being a pro. He read a lot of stinging criticism, and he didn’t take offense at it. He extracted the important meaning from it and applied it to his work. And he kept writing.

I have tremendous respect for the man.

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