Friday, February 17


(none of the images that I'm using on today's blog were made by me;
I happily and liberally borrowed from other sources)

Fanfiction. When I have to explain what it is to someone unfamiliar with the word, I usually say something like "it's when you take your favorite characters from movies, television, or books and write your own stories about them". 

Other people define it differently: "I think it’s immoral, know it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters." -- Diana Gabledon. 

Which isn't to say that Ms. Gabaldon doesn't have a right to her feelings; I've read some pretty bad fanfic, too. (And to be fair, after a *huge* fannish outcry, Gabledon reevaluated the harshness of her statement--of which I quoted only the very tip of an ugly iceberg. But the point for me here is: it took a huge outcry for her to reassess her public statement on her own fans-since pretty much only fans of a book will write fanfiction about the characters in that book.) 

Marion Zimmer Bradley once had to scrap an entire novel because she was in communication with a fan who had written a similar story; they arrived at their stories independent of one another, but the fan threatened a lawsuit if they didn't get full credit. Rather than risk it, Bradley just scraped it.

A Babylon-5 fanfic writer hit on the very idea that producers were working toward (again, independently) and when producers contacted them, the person was a total lady / gentlemen about it (I don't recall the gender of the fan, sorry). 

J.K. Rowling, from what I've read, is typically pretty tolerant of fanfic writers...until they start trying to publish their work. Then she sues them. Duh. She, her agent, and her publisher have put a lot of blood, sweat, tears--and MONEY--into her work. Nobody else has a right to profit off that. Let me just say it again: duh.

Some of the other (negative) things I've read about fanfic are: 
  • fanfic writers are lazy--we don't want to create our own characters/universes, so we steal other peoples' ideas
  • fanfic writers are uncreative -- we are incapable of creating our own ideas so we steal other peoples'
  • fanfic writers will suffer such stigma that we'll never become published authors (somebody better tell that to Mercedes Lackey quick, before she publishes another novel! Yup, Ms. Lackey started out penning fanfiction. So have a number of other respected, respectable authors.)

And did you notice the way I said "we". 

I write fanfiction. Or rather, I used to. I haven't actually abandoned it (I have a couple of stories I have *got* to finish before readers show up at my doorstep with tar and feathers!), I just don't have the time to work on it like I used to. 

It's worth noting, right off the bat, that not everybody who writes fanfiction wants to be a published author. For years, I had no inclination to take that step; writing fanfic was (and is) a very satisfying hobby.

Which brings me to one of the most inane arguments I've seen yet: "Writing--and reading--fanfiction is a waste of time".  

Bowling could be called a waste of time if you don't enjoy it. For that matter, why sit through a two hour football game? The score will be in the paper tomorrow morning. Can't you think of something better to do with your time...what's that, you *like* football? It's fun to watch, you say? You like getting together with your buddies and sharing a few beers. 

Guess what: I like writing fanfiction. It's fun to write. I like getting together with my buddies (readers) and sharing a good story. I like sitting in front of my computer and clacking away at the keys.

I guess maybe "fun" is a subjective word, huh? What's fun for you isn't necessarily fun for me; what's fun for me isn't necessarily fun for me.

And really, as I was reading another anti-fanfic article, it struck me: it's really rather presumptuous for some writers (because it is almost invariably authors) presume that everyone who writes fanfiction wants to be a published author some day. 

Do you enjoy football? Toss the ball around with your buddies? Does that mean you aspire to joining the NFL?

Like to bowl? Does that mean you want to become a professional bowler? Do you like to throw dinner parties? Does that mean you want to be a professional chef?  Do you like to paint? Sew? Putter in your garden? Does that mean that you MUST aspire to be a professional designer/seamstress, artist, landscaper? 

I love hauling my telescope out into the back garden and looking at stuff. I sincerely hope no one expects me to go into astrophysics just because I'm a backyard astronomer. 

These things are hobbies. We call them hobbies for a reason. Some people write because they love to write. It's fun.

I've read in a couple of places that fanfic, especially slash and non-cannon meanderings, ruins the original. Let's try this on for size: it doesn't ruin it for the people who are reading and writing thost fanfiction. (Can we have another "duh"?) If fanfiction ruins the original story for you, don't read it; some of the decisions made in cannon have ruined television shows for me--which is why I turned to fanfiction in the first place... 

Ironically (if you're familiar with the arguments against fanfiction), I started writing fanfic after I was about half way through an original novel. I realized, as I read over what I'd written, that what I really wanted to write about was Beauty and the Beast (the television series). So I scrapped what was a pretty dismal novel and started penning stories about Catherine and Vincent. My stories quickly grew to fill up two notebooks (I was working on loose leaf paper back then... this was the late '80's and while computers were around, I certainly didn't own one. Besides, those old floppy disks didn't hold much data, I probably would have needed two notebooks to hold all of my writing either way!)

In the world of my imagination, Catherine lived (so did Elliot), and Diana became a valued friend. Devon came home. Oh, and they made new friends, including a few Tenctonese... 

Eventually, I put my notebook away and went to work on other projects, including some original fiction, some art, and generally living my life. Years later, I dragged my old Beauty and the Beast stories out of the back of a close and re-visited my work. I made some changes. Added a few other cross overs to the mix. (Wouldn't Diana make a perfect girlfiend to Fin Tutuoloa from Law & Order? What a pair... and we only know snippets of his past from the show, so why not...)  I added in a character that's quazi-original (i.e., she's original, but the idea is stolen from another artist/writer), re-wrote the whole thing and posted it on And much to my surprise, I got some positive feedback. And some negative. But since the negative was about things I had no intention of changing, I mostly ignored it. 

(Fair warning, it needs serious formatting help; I hadn't figured out page breaks yet!) 

Later I decided to write a couple of other BatB stories, mixing other shows into it--crossovers happen to be my favorite fanfics (and it shows). When I got constructive criticism, I listened. When loyal readers told me they didn't like something, I listened. 

As I was re-visiting shows from my youth (I was a teenager in the 1980's), I re-discovered 21 Jumpstreet. That kinda reminded me how much I adored Johnny Depp and I ended up seeing Once Upon a Time in Mexico again. That led me to write a fanfic that, while a fanfic, contained 99% original characters. Is that really lazy and cheating? I didn't think so. Besides, I have mentioned that I was doing this for fun, right? (Although it was a great exercise in writing; I started trying to get into Sands's head, so I could write him better and a writing exercise led me to decide that the whole thing should be written in first person, present tense. It was an intense story to write (for those unfamiliar with the movie, the main character is a sociopath with absolutely no regard for...well, anything but himself). Writing that one made me stretch myself as a writer. It got a lot of praise, I garnered some regular readers, and my confidence began to really bolster. 

Then I started writing Torchwood fanfiction. It started with one little short story, just an addendum to an episode--a lot of fanfiction is just us fans wanting to know what happens when the camera stops rolling. We know what really happens (the actors breath a sigh of relief, get out of make up and into street clothes and go home). What we want to know is what our favorite characters (including the ones we love to hate) get up to in between episodes. Or maybe we wonder "what if...?" What would happen if they did THIS instead of that?  Fanfiction is a great exercise in imagination. (How many of you acted out your favorite television shows as kids? Did you follow the script, or did you tie a sheet around your neck an do what *you* thought Superman should do?) 

One thing led to another and several hundred thousand words later, I've created an Alternate Torchwood Universe that has had a number of guest authors (fanfic on my fanfic, how COOL is that?!) It's still a favorite place for me to play, I just don't have as much time as I'd like. I'm really busy writing original fiction.

So how did I get from A to B?

First off, remember where I said I listened to feedback? That's a huge part of it. Especially when one of my Torchwood readers offered to help me tame the wild em dash. I took her up on the offer to beta read for me. I still use them far more often than I should (I overuse punctuation in general), but I definitely improved my writing by listening to a reader. 

If you want it to, you can use writing fanfic to improve your writing. If you take a "finished piece" and edit, edit, edit, and then edit some more, you'll learn to be a better editor of your own work. Your internal editor will become more sharp. It isn't just writing (a verb) that makes your writing (a noun) better--repeating the same mistakes doesn't make you a better writing. Correcting those mistakes does. Creative writing is...gosh, I don't know the actual statistic, but it's at lease 75% rewriting. Whether you edit as you go, or write the whole thing and then go back and edit (yes, the teach you the latter in class, but no, it's not the only way to write), you will find that that you spend more time re-writing than you spend actually writing. 

If you want it, there is a great network of beta readers in the fanfiction community. These are people who are willing to help you edit your work. Unlike your sister, spouse, or best friend, these people aren't afraid to hurt your feelings. They will tell you (politely, they're writers too) where your story is strong and what needs work. Beta reading other people's work will also make you a better writer (refer back to my previous blog about reviewing to become a better writer). It is far easier to spot mistakes in other peoples' work than it is to spot them in your own. Not because we think our own work is perfect (well, okay, I don't think mine is perfect), but I *know* what my character is thinking. So how can I judge if I've conveyed it effectively to my reader? I need someone to tell me.

And sometimes, you just need someone to help you spot and plug the plotholes. Another pair of eyes will see things you miss. Another pair of eyes will also help you find typos and missing words, things your own eyes simply fill in because you know what's supposed to be on the page.

From what I have seen, most fanfiction writers want to write stories that people want to read, which means that most will improve over time. How much and how quickly is an individual choice. It's a hobby, just like the office softball team or the neighborhood bowling league. It's something people do for fun. Everyone who writes fanfiction does not aspire to the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller list.

I made the transition in part at the urging of a couple of my readers, who repeatedly told me I should give it another go (I'd made the attempt before, unsuccessfully). That bolstered my courage. Getting nominated for the Children of Time awards made me feel good, too (and by the way, I put that in my first query letter. Guess what: the editor didn't wrinkle her nose and say "Oh, a fanfiction writer. She must be a hack", and hit the delete button. I'm sure the fact that I knew how to string words together into complete sentences helped. Writing fanfiction won't get your foot in the door--but it won't get necessarily you shown the door, either.)

Remember, too, the publishing world is changing. Fast. Some publishers are on the cutting edge, others are struggling to keep up. I attribute part of my success in getting picked up by a (totally awesome!) publisher to the changes going on in the industry. Finding a publisher is still one part luck to one part talent. Oh and about eight parts tenacity. 

Ultimately, what you need to transition from fanfiction to original fiction is skill, talent, and the will to do so. 

Follow ups, both for and against:

1 comment:

Erica Pike said...

Another reason to write fanfic is the long wait for the next story in the series. I only ever read Harry Potter fiction and boy, did those fics help with the wait! I wrote one that became 16 chapters long, but I only posted the first five chapters. I figured that if I could write a 16 chapter fanfic, I could write a novel. It rekindled my interest in writing. Of course, my writing has grown by leaps and bounds since then.

I don't disrespect fanfic authors in the least! It is, as you say, a hobby and it can be really fun. I'm sure you already know this, but Cassandra Clare (City of Bones etc.) was a very popular HP fanfic writer (she wrote about Draco), and although she did a big no-no by lifting stuff from another writer (I'm not talking about Rowling here), writing fanfic hasn't harmed her career. Quite on the contrary. She had a very large readership already and those are still loyal readers of her original fiction today. So writing fanfic *can* help with a writhing career if you're smart about it ^.^