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The Sticky Business of Fanfic

Fanfic/fanfiction is a complicated issue that pops up in forums on writing (genre writing and otherwise) on a fairly regular basis. The question of writing original stories using someone else’s characters and setting is a tricky one. Most people I’ve spoken to about it seem to put it in the legal gray zone of “probably OK as long as you don’t get money for it or try to pass the characters off as your own.” On the other hand, several well-known authors, including some whose work I hold dear (GRRM’s take here) have made public statements to the effect that they find fanfic not only uncomfortable-verging-on-icky (because of their attachment to their characters) but a misguided endeavor for would-be writers.

Martin’s argument is basically that you can’t learn to world-build or to write by using someone else’s work as a safety net. Diana Gabaldon (whose work I haven’t read) goes on about the same issues at more length (note that this link doesn’t go to Gabaldon’s page, but someone else’s screencap of the discussion). I’d agree with both of them that if you want to become a “real” writer, learning to worldbuild (which is necessary to some extent in every genre) and to develop your own deep, well-rounded characters is an essential skill. And yet.

I have a confession to make, readers. My first published works were fanfic. They appeared on my flashy Geocities page, alongside all manner of webrings and other late-90s accoutrements. And I believe that they both made me a better writer and helped me develop the confidence I needed to attempt to “go pro.”

A little context first: I grew up in suburban New England, where the idea of a writing group or even a writing class for kids didn’t really exist. Although I started writing stories when I still counted my age in single digits, I’d never really imagined that anyone out there would read them. And then, around the time I was 14, the Internet happened, and I found my first newsgroup and my first fanfic page. And the thought occurred to me, reading the piles of stuff that was out there, that I could probably do a fair job at this fanfic thing myself.

So I wrote a story, in the universe of my favorite TV show; I publicized it on the show’s newsgroup; and I designed a website to show it to the world. And a few weeks later, I met my first editor. She wasn’t a professional, just another fan of the show — but she was a “grown-up,” (early 30s, I believe) and she’d read much more widely than I had. And she took my work seriously, and showed an interest in helping me make it better. By the time I wrote my third story (there were ten of them altogether, including the obligatory cross-over with my OTHER favorite series of the time), sending a draft to her before publishing it had become routine. I was getting used to the idea of getting feedback on plot, on character inconsistencies, on nit-picky things and big things. I’d never revised my work before: through writing fanfic, I came to understand in a visceral way that writing was a process. And I got critical praise, from a complete stranger, who believed that my work was good.

I don’t think it’s an accident that after about 3 years of writing fanfic, I started drafting the elements of what would become my first never-to-be-published novel. I wrote the book in a flurry, circulated it to some friends, even wrote a query letter for it (thank goodness, no agents or editors actually ever bit :)). And then I sat down and started working on my next project, another one based in original material.

I stopped being a fanfic writer almost half my lifetime ago, but more recently, I spent a lot of years working on a project that was similarly based on existing material: basically, it was a direct, no-additions adaptation of my weekly tabletop RPG. I would periodically feel embarrassed or awkward about what I called “the gamer-porn book,” because I knew it wasn’t “real writing” in the sense of something I could publish. It wasn’t meant to be accessible to a larger audience; it was an indulgence for the enjoyment of myself and my role-playing group. But one of my friends, another novelist, framed it this way: “This is what you’re writing to keep your muscles toned while you’re doing your PhD.” Hearing that, I felt better. And sure enough, when I had more time, I set my sights on writing a “real” book, a semi-collaborative original work that I’m intending to someday submit for publication — writer’s muscles intact.

I still know aspiring writers who write fanfic, and they’re often embarrassed about it. Even those who haven’t read the famous authors’ critiques of the subgenre sometimes talk about what they’re doing as not “real” writing. What I tell those people is a version of what my friend told me: if you need some justification for the hobby, think of it as honing your knife. For beginners, I do believe writing fanfic’s a way to improve your skills in some areas of the storytelling craft without having to worry as much about the others. And it certainly does keep the writing muscles in shape.

I would say that each fan has to make their own decision about whether or not writing fanfic is an avenue to wander down. Myself, I have some sympathy for the authors who say “please don’t do it with my characters”; if my stuff is ever renowned enough to be deemed fanfic-worthy, I will not be on fanfiction.net looking at the inevitable stories that will spring up from it. But I also don’t see myself issuing an explicit ban. Because I remember that 14-year-old kid working up the confidence to publish her first online stories, the thrill she got when she got her first real feedback. And because I think that if someone wants to write, sooner or later, they’ll work out the details and find their story.

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