The Glories and Pitfalls of Writing Fanfiction While Dreaming of More

Like almost all authors in my demographic, from the most wildly successful to the most pie-in-the-sky aspirational, I cut my teeth on fanfiction.

I was writing it before I even knew it existed. Family members and old friends can recount countless stories about me as a tot, directing the other kids in my elaborate games of “pretend,” which were really just live action recreations of my fanfics. From Nancy Drew to Rescue Rangers to The Adventures of Sinbad and right down the line to obscure Christian Middle Grade/Young Adult mystery novels, I was always thinking up new scenarios, characters, and relationships to explore in my favourite pieces of media.

I took my first early steps into original fiction in this timeframe, too! Of course, almost all of it was “inspired” by my favourite books, shows, games, and movies. And by “inspired” I mean “basically just recreated.” My characters and settings were reskinned clones of the stories that thrilled my imagination.

A particularly egregious example was the ten book series I wrote from the time I was eleven to thirteen. (Why don’t I have that sort of writing output anymore??) You can track my parade of interests and obsessions across the series’s timeline as characters and plotlines sprout bulbous tumours inspired from the next big thing I was into. I more or less abandoned the series when I got into Star Wars — it was impossible to graft that into my basic high fantasy universe, sadly.

It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I found out that fanfiction was real. It was an actual thing that people did, a popular and active hobby with websites and discussion boards and social networks devoted to it. It was a revelation. You mean I didn’t have to disguise my interests as other things? I could just actually write twenty thousand words of post-canon Final Fantasy VII where Jenova possesses Aeris’s body and comes back as a zombie and also write a bunch of frothing polemic about why Cloud should be with Tifa? Nobody is going to like… sue me for that? Not only that, people will read it if I post it?

And that was it. From the moment I posted my first chapter of my first fic, I was addicted. The instant feedback, the feeling of community, the ease with which you could connect to other writers… it was amazing! I spent all my classes scribbling fic away in my notebook, and I’d make revisions when I typed it up at my old Windows 3.1 computer later that night. I’d sneak upstairs at midnight to the internet-enabled family computer, drape myself over the modem to muffle the sound of the dial-up connecting, and then post the new chapters. The next morning in computer class, I’d be greeted with an inbox full of new comments, each one as precious as gold.

Even to this day, over fifteen years later,  I can’t overstate the value of that feeling of community. Every day is a writing conference. You can find anyone willing to engage with you about anything. Some just want to talk about the characters and the plots and the concepts. Others want to connect on a more technical level. I learned more about the nuts and bolts — about how to tell a compelling story, about how to make prose flow, and how to engage an audience — from fanfiction than I ever did on any more “acceptable” platform. I’d spent years looking for books and mentors to teach me how to write, but I got all of my best lessons from those early fandoms.

Shout-outs to them, now, by the way. Hi there, Final Fantasy. How are you doing, Seiken Densetsu 3? Always have a place in my heart for you, Fushigi Yuugi. Congratulations on curing me of my internalized homophobia, Gravitation. What’s going on these days, Fire Emblem? When I hear Bryan Adams sing about the Summer of ’69, these are the halcyon days of youth I go back to. I even met my future wife in these communities.

But there was a solid downside to those years. Though I was writing all the time, reading constantly, learning and growing and developing as a writer… I’d completely stopped writing original fiction altogether.

There were a lot of reasons for that, but I think it comes down to two major points.

1. Original fiction and fanfiction share a very similar toolbox, and one can teach you invaluable lessons about the other. However, they don’t share an identical toolbox. While focusing completely on fanfic, I lost touch with a lot of the tools you need to write good, compelling, publishable original work.

2. The feeling of community and collaboration and camaraderie are central to the fanfiction experience. And while enjoying those things, I developed an almost pathological dependence on the rush of immediate, gratifying feedback that writing and sharing fanfic gives.

Any moment I could spend on my original ideas seemed wasted. I could be devoting that time to a fic, which I could post immediately, which would get me immediate feedback. Writing an original project felt incredibly, suffocatingly lonely. No one cared about the characters I’d invented. I was lost without the feeling of engagement I had when working with familiar faces and playing to an audience who loved them. It felt terribly and echoingly empty. And maybe I could have gotten through it, but it also felt impossibly hard to introduce concepts, characters, and world building. I’d come to rely so strongly on the shorthand of fanfic that not having it made writing incredibly difficult. I’d become incredibly frustrated with my inability to operate without the “vocabulary” of a given fandom, its cast, its world, its rules. Even in the most AU (alternate universe) of fanfics, you’re using an entire canon’s worth of context to communicate with your readers. And after doing it for long enough, establishing your own vocabulary for that stuff is incredibly hard, and it only gets harder the longer you go without practice.

I wanted to write my own stories so badly, but the more time went by, the less and less I felt equipped to do so. My efforts made me feel isolated and discouraged. I started resenting fanfiction, blaming the amazing community for my own discontent, and I ended up in a place where I wasn’t writing anything at all. I had to slowly build myself back up to the place where I am today.

So this is the part where I say that you shouldn’t write fanfic, right?

Well, wrong. Like, super wrong.

The fact is, I still write fanfic. I still write a lot of fanfic. And I love doing it. It’s important and valuable and incredibly rewarding. Fanfiction still helps me improve, still lets me be experimental, still gives me a freedom that I can’t get anywhere else. It’s taught me so much about interacting with fans and how to interface with the people who consume my work. And that amazing community I talked about is still alive and well. You can get feedback and appreciation and concrit and then go on the pay it forward. I’m still learning and making friends from the community, and I don’t intend to stop.

There are also a whole lot of writing jobs where the skills you learn from fanfic are incredibly important. Ghostwriting, working on licensed fiction, and working in a writer’s room on television are all great career paths, and your fanfic skills will make you an expert at capturing voice and tone.

It’s good for you to write fanfiction.

It’s just not good for you to write only fanfiction.

Don’t let your original fic muscles atrophy. Put aside time so that you’re spending a good ratio of your writing hours on both. Learn to wean yourself off that rush of instant feedback, treating writing like a marathon with long term rewards instead of a sprint with instant gratification. Find friends and contacts who’ll engage with you about your original work. (The last is surprisingly easy if you put yourself out there! You’ll find the fanfic community is full of other aspiring professionals who need the same thing in return.)

It’s also good to read not only fanfiction. Open yourself to meeting new characters and going to new places. Don’t cling too hard to the comforting blanket of the wonderfully familiar. Take a moment out of your day to engage with a fanfic friend about their original work. Express interest in their characters. Pick up a book and try and make time to read it, especially indie and debut authors. Leave reviews and/or connect with the authors. Don’t do this instead of engaging with a fan community! Do them both, because both are extremely awesome and important and irreplaceable.

(I should also note here, just at the end, that not all fanfiction writers/readers are aspiring professionals. Some just really love fic for what it is, and it’s all they’re interested in. That’s awesome! None of this is for you. If all you want to do is fic, all you should do is fic! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, or that your hobby is ‘lesser.’)

Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly isolated and insecure, I still boot up a word processor to write fanfic just for the feeling of being connected and accessible and easy. And that’s not only okay — that’s healthy, smart, fantastic. As long as we don’t drink so deep we don’t want to venture back out.

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