The past few weeks, the existence and prevalence of fan fiction has come to the national media. A lot of people still aren’t familiar with fan fiction and what it is, though most online readers are fairly familiar with the phenomenon. (For a thoughtful exploration of the history and culture of fan fiction, I recommend this excellent article in Time by Lev Grossman.) Some fan fiction is published by big publishing houses (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Wide Sargasso Sea) but the vast majority is published online. Some television shows (I’m looking at you, True Blood) can be considered fan fiction of the books that inspired them. Feel free to call it derivative fiction if it makes you feel better, but I’ll still call it fan fic.
I’m not writing today to debate any publishing issues or the ethics of fan fiction. Other, smarter people can do that and have. Most of you who are reading this blog know that I got my start writing creatively by writing fan fiction. I’ve never hidden it or been ashamed of the fact. And my opinion on the ethics has always been this: If an author objects to fan fiction and states it, fans should honor their wishes; otherwise, have fun. That’s really it.
And please spare me the tired argument that all fan fiction is un-edited crap. Yes, a lot of it is. But, a lot of it is fantastic. I’ve read fan fiction that has made me weep from the delicacy of the prose. I’ve read fanfic that has set my heart pounding and kept me up hours after my bedtime. Frankly, I’ve read fan fiction that’s better than things published by big publishers. More than once.
I’m writing today to tell you—the aspiring writer, the published writer, the practicing writer—you should spend some time writing fan fiction.
What? (I can imagine a few noses turning up already.) ‘I don’t need to write fan fiction,’ you think. ‘I have my own, original stories to tell. I’m published. I have an agent, for heaven’s sake.’ Well, that could be true. And if you’re happy writing your books, and you’re satisfied in your work, if you’re productive and happy and growing as a writer, then just ignore this completely and go on doing your thing. Good for you!
But… if you’re in a rut. If you feel like you need to stretch. If your manuscript is giving you migraines or you cringe at the thought of putting your original writing out for public consumption and review, then please consider these five reasons why any writer might want to dive into the murky, online world of… *whispers* fan fiction.
1. It’s really fun. Do you enjoy my books? Then thank fan fiction for making me fall in love with storytelling, because I can promise you the employee manuals and business memos I was writing before were not as exciting. Fan fiction is fun. It’s not for profit. Your sole focus is writing and sharing stories with like-minded fans. Do you wish Bella had told both Edward and Jacob to take a flying leap so she could run away with Jasper? Do you wonder whatever happened to Luna Lovegood? Does your mind run in circles wondering what happened to Mal and the crew after Serenity flew off into the deep black of space? Go for it. Write your own happy (or horrible) ending to whatever story you want. No headaches allowed. It’s just for fun. Writing is supposed to be, remember? (On a side note, all Firefly fan fic writers have a special place in my heart, because I still can’t think about the cancellation of that show without sobbing.)
2. It toughens you up. Does the thought of putting your own fictional creations out into the big, bad world fill you with terror? Afraid how your babies will fair in the rough and tumble of GoodReads or the Kindle boards? Fan fiction is a great way to get reader feedback in a generally (but not totally) supportive environment. Now, don’t mistake me, even reviews in fan fiction can be brutal (sometimes really brutal), but the readers who review your stories are predisposed to like your characters, so you can take some negativity without feeling quite so wrecked if someone hates it. Think of it as a practice punch with a sparring partner. It’s still going to hurt, but it won’t knock you out. And since so many writers practice on fan fiction, you’ll likely get some really constructive feedback, too. If you seek it out. Most of my pre-readers are other writers I met online, and they’ve really helped me grow as a writer.
3. You can experiment. OH, can you experiment! Short stories. Long stories. Narrative poetry. Fantasy trilogies in three acts with more characters than a George R. R. Martin epic. You can do it all! You can write in first person, third, even try out that elusive second person. I once read a story that was written in first person and updated in real time. There were as many as four or six small chapters posted throughout the day, and I stopped whatever I was doing to read because it felt like I was walking through the story in time with the protagonist. What a fun experience! The fact is, fan fiction is a great place to explore aspects of storytelling that might seem too risky in your published work, but you’ve always wanted to try. And because of the anonymity, you can go wild. So… go wild.
4. You write for an audience. And I don’t just mean for fans. I mean, you’re writing for readers who can interact on a different level. They can review, not just the whole work, but each individual chapter you post, which means you receive a level of feedback that you wouldn’t in a novel. And since most fan fiction writers post stories as they write, you can hear what your readers think as you’re writing the story. Now, there are good aspects and bad to this, but it’s still a great experience. I’d never write one of my original books in that manner because I’m not a serial writer, but who knows, maybe I will be someday. Posting while writing put me in the mind of my readers in a deeper, very immediate, way.
5. Finishing a story is magic. No, really it is. In fact, even more powerful than starting a story is finishing one. I’ve written four books now, but before that, I wrote and finished three novel-length fictions. So, while finishing A Hidden Fire was thrilling, it wasn’t a surprise. I knew what it took to see a story through to its completion. (Finishing Gio and B’s four-book arc was another kind of thrill, I will admit that.) And writing fan fiction is where I learned the nitty-gritty of plotting and time-lining. Of the boney structures that create the frame good prose can rest on. So I always know how my stories will end before I start now. I always know the timing and where the plot twists will land. And I practiced all of that while writing… fan fiction.
Those are just five reasons that writing fan fiction is good, fun practice for any writer. Don’t let the snobs get to you. It’s a fun past-time, and your writing can be as good as you want it to be. (I would recommend, if you do try, to find a good beta-reader to help you before you post. There are whole forums dedicated to letting new fan fic writers find a beta-reader to help them, so find one.) And then practice. Write, write, write. Write for the pure fun of it, and write to stretch yourself. Write and finish your stories. You’ll be glad you did.
Thanks for reading,