For most of my adult life I have been a hobby writer of poetry and short stories. I loved reading and writing for English classes as a teen and consumed books the way one might consume candy on Easter. As I grew older and experienced more of life, it seemed like a natural transition to begin to shape my thoughts into messy and unstructured angsty poems when I needed to vent frustrations, or melancholic diatribes against the people and things that threatened to mow me down in the form of short stories that said all the things I couldn’t verbalize myself. I did what most wanna-be writers did at the time: I posted them on Tumblr. I found the online community friendly and the “likes” and “reposts” encouraging. I’d never put myself out there for feedback before and this was, well, flattering.
Obviously, I didn’t think of myself as an actual writer. Those people were published, and wrote on typewriters on an island surrounded by cats and mugs of tea, right? My work was just flippant daydreaming on paper. I spent my days at work stressing over deadlines and cursing every Microsoft Office Update. And when I got home, there were kids to feed and houses to manage and who has time to write about anything? I took a break from pouring my imagination out onto the pages of a Word doc (Who actually uses those moleskine journals anyway?) and found myself more and more unhappy. Instead of consuming books, I was watching television while perusing the fandoms online that I always thought were just for teenagers. What I discovered was that a lot of the fandoms for some of my favorite shows were women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who had kids, jobs, responsibilities, and most importantly, a burning desire to write.
Here’s the thing: fanfiction gets a bad wrap. We all know those writers who look down their noses at the “trash” that gets published in fanzines or on websites that house these works. When I asked some of my fanfiction writer friends what they thought some of the most common misconceptions were, I found myself nodding enthusiastically. These are exactly the reasons that I don’t tell people that I write fanfiction.
“It’s all gratuitous porn.”
A quick search of popular fanfiction site ArchiveOfOurOwn.com (AO3) turned up over 4 million completed works, only about 650k of which were tagged explicit. That’s roughly 16% of the total library. Sure, we all poke fun at the Fabio covered romance novels that are sold in discount stores all over the country. But let’s be real -- people read them. There is a market for smut,n and when it’s well written, it’s a beautiful thing.
“It’s a training ground for real writers.”
Just as you will find in any library or bookstore, there are gifted writers and there are mediocre writers. I have read some terrible fanfiction in my quest to find new and interesting voices in this community, but I have found far more really incredibly talented authors as well. When I can tear them away from their fanbase, I ask them if they’ve thought about querying, and overwhelmingly I hear, “Oh, I’m not good enough for that,” or “I’m not a writer. I just write fanfiction.” Someone actually said that to me after I read a 150k word novel they wrote that made me sob into my pillow.
The reality is that some of my favorite fanfiction writers are actually published authors of original fiction, and they continue to write fanfiction. Why? Who knows, but I’m grateful, and if the traffic on AO3 is any indicator, there are a hell of a lot of others who are grateful as well.
“It’s lazy. The world and characters are already built.”
Sure, if you want to write about the characters exactly as they are within the world in which they already live, you could do that. But it’s not as easy as it would seem. Getting the mannerisms right, and even the speech cadence, can be a challenge. And if you think your readers won’t call you out, you’re wrong. God help you if you describe the eye color wrong, because the torches will be lit within an hour of publishing.
What goes largely unnoticed in mainstream writing circles is the challenge of worldbuilding around characters that are beloved by millions of people. Try picking up Sam and Dean Winchester with their angel Castiel and plopping them down in 18th century Europe as if they’ve always been there. It’s happened, and it was a really well written story that took months in the making.
One of my favorite authors, @Tricia_16fanfic on Twitter, spent a considerable amount of time studying birds and the way their wings work in order to properly write about the way angel wings might behave. The result was an enchanting angel character with wings that were written about so beautifully that I hesitate to try to write about them myself, because there’s just no way to top that. To say that research and worldbuilding aren't a part of the process for fanfiction writers is just fallacy.
So why do we do it? Why write for free if what we’re producing is, in a lot of cases, written well enough to be worthy of publishing?
“It’s made me a better writer.”
I was always a seat-of-my-pants writer -- just sit down and let it flow onto the keyboard. But plot holes and continuity issues being called out will quickly teach you the benefit of drafting an outline and character sheets. Even when you’re writing about characters that you know and love from television and movies, you still need an outline to guide you so you don’t end up using the same character name twice for two different characters a couple chapters apart. Yeah, I did that. Don’t judge me.
Fast moving feedback from readers who know the characters inside and out will teach you very quickly about the benefit of research and employing a good beta reader. Jen, my long suffering Beta Reader, has no problem telling me when something is lackluster or just plain terrible. She’s also my biggest cheerleader and gives me the perspective of someone who’s read my work over time and sees improvements in places that I hadn’t realized changed. Her help is invaluable, and I can’t imagine writing without it.
As one who always wrote short stories and poetry, I believed for a long time that writing a story that was 90k+ words was impossible. But when readers want more and have no problem telling you to get back to work, there’s some motivation to take on a challenge to write a novel size work and see where it leaves you. Writing a large work of fiction was one of the most satisfying writing experiences I’ve ever had, and now I’m outlining my next work and jumping into organized fandom challenges with both feet, something I would have never done two years ago. I’m still learning and growing, but my whole belief about the potential for publication has changed, and that in itself is invaluable.
“It gives marginalized groups a voice.”
Mainstream media has just begun to dip their proverbial toe into telling stories of homosexual couplings in television and movies. Female writers and directors are still few and far between in those circles as well, so the sandbox environment that is fanfiction allows all of those groups to write their own stories into their favorite television shows, movies, and even books. When a television writer crushes the fandom with a character death, it’s the fanfiction writers who step in to “fix” the story.
The same is true for LGBTQ pairings. Huge chunks of the Supernatural fanfiction library are centered around what fans perceive to be sexual tension between two of the male lead characters, Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel. Fanfiction writers turn that frustration into beautiful stories of budding romance or fiery hot trysts, and fans seek it out in droves.
“Historically, women have written fanfic, and so it's often been dismissed as less than or not as well done, when really, women (and other marginalized groups like LGBT) have been using fanfic for years to have a voice in the media they consume.” This sentiment was shared by @hello_Minky on Twitter, and I concur. I can’t possibly know all the fanfic authors out there, but the large number that I’ve come in contact with have been members of a marginalized group of some kind. This is their way of making their voices heard, and if the response is any indication, it’s welcome.
So what’s my point?
The point is this. Whether you write original fiction for your own enjoyment, chase down publishers while waiving manuscripts, or upload fanfiction to fansites, your work is valid. You are a writer and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Alicia Stargel is the Content Manager for Nerds and Beyond as well as a working mother of four and partner to Earl. She’s a writer of fanfiction as well as poetry and short stories, none of which have been submitted for publishing but could be at any given moment, stay tuned.
Follow and get in touch with Alicia Stargel on Twitter, @SongbirdAliwhi1.
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