What the fic?!

Fan fiction. This is a topic I’m likely to return to from time to time. It’s something that gets a bad rap, in my opinion. In fact, this struck me during one of my adaptation lectures, for which my lecturer had picked some excerpts for her slides. Now, when I say these were bad, I’m not kidding. But it’s like picking a bad Twilight quote and suggesting that it represents literature. Fan fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Not all of it is good. Probably not even most of it is good. But in my experience, some of it is magnificent. And it serves a very valid purpose.

Part of the reason I’m uncomfortable with the misconceptions about fan fiction is because I write it, and I know better (yes, that’s the sound of me getting on my high horse). I’ve been writing fan fiction since I was fourteen years old. You may think I’m being defensive and you may well assume that mine is as bad as the very worst. I will accept that I may not be the best; I may even be the worst. One thing I know for certain, though, is that I’m a damn sight better at writing than I was when I started. In my mind, that’s what it comes down to. You are in a situation where there’s a receptive audience; there are people to please. You write and write, and that process comes with natural improvement.

You build upon universes created by other writers. Some of them are the best in the world, of their time, within their genre. There are worlds like those of Harry Potter, Doctor Who and, in my humble opinion, The West Wing that introduce minor characters that deserved a back-story and leave subplots open-ended and tease all the shoulda-beens that never were. There is nothing wrong with wanting to explore all of that. My experience of reading fan fiction has only served to enrich my experience of the source material. Sometimes you come across fan fiction that is better than the canon material. I can’t adequately express the delight I take in being able to give someone that kind of feedback. Even if it isn’t “better”, how many film adaptations are regarded as “better” than the book? They simply serve a different purpose, provide for a different audience or expand the material for the same audience.

What fan fiction does that creative writing more generally doesn’t do is come with a pre-existing audience. It creates an immediacy to the process, removing the involvement of editors, publishers etc. This means that the writer themselves has to serve as all of the above. It teaches the individual to become an editor, to develop the skills of proofreading. In this respect, the learning curve is steeper. It also allows the writer total control over what they are putting out into the world. While this can be done with any online writing, fan fiction also comes with communities that are readily interested in reading the work. Your market, so to speak, is there waiting for you.

The platforms upon which fan fiction is shared vary. There are general fan fiction websites; currently the largest of these is Fanfiction.net (FFN), with in excess of 600,000 stories for Harry Potter alone. There are fandom-specific websites that are often home to other relevant media for a fandom, a modest example is More Than That which exists entirely for fans of The Office’s Jim and Pam (with over 750 active members). Finally, there is the personal blog format, utilising sites like LiveJournal and Tumblr to post fan fiction amidst other blog material. Use of all these outlets is increasing all the time.

Fan fiction is not new, though. Fanfiction.net was launched in 1998, LiveJournal in 1999. Shows like The West Wing, a series that ran from 1999 until 2006, are not exempt from the world of fan fiction, proving that not only has this format endured, it is far from exclusive to worlds of science fiction or fantasy. In fact, The West Wing fan fiction is a mix of old and new with the main resource for older fan fictions, National Library, hosting over 6,000 different stories. These fandom-specific websites often include guidelines and challenges that, despite the bad press, may be used to stimulate ideas. This speaks to the two-way dialogue that occurs in this setting between the writers and readers.

Given how much the experience of fan fiction has enriched my writing process, the disparaging remarks made against fan fiction communities elude me. Writing fan fiction involves a process of deconstruction to the source material. It forces the writer to analyse the importance of character development, distinguishing each character as an individual, pace, perspectives and narration, the layers between page and screen and so much more. It’s often unconsciously done, but the best works are those that successfully and subtly explore those elements. It allows one to understand the same importance in one’s own creative writing. You begin to look for ways to create unique character traits and distinctive voices on the page. You begin to contemplate what narrative voice will be most effective for different contexts. You begin to explore how chronology can affect storytelling. It’s simply another way to learn from the pros.

While you’re writing fan fiction, you’re learning about what is good and bad about the characters you love. In the process, you’re learning about what is good and bad about the characters you create. It allows you a wealth of insight into the creative process, simultaneous to the experience of receiving feedback. Constructive feedback can hugely shape the way a person writes, while vague but encouraging feedback can simply inspire you to write more (and thus improve!). Most of the time, it’s done within a community. It allows you to learn from your peers, which only adds to the motivation. You want to entertain these people, and they want to be entertained. It’s enormously rewarding in this respect. Unlike in the classroom, the reader is willing and motivated entirely by personal interest.

Ultimately, it was my fellow fans that taught me how to write. I promise this: no teacher ever read my work as attentively as some of my readers. For a girl who gets by on mustered faux confidence, the encouragement has been energising. As one of my lecturers frequently stresses, it’s important to identify who the reader is. This experience provides that first-hand. You have a direct discourse with those readers. Once you accept the importance of readership and feedback to a writer, how can you possibly deny the value of fan fiction?

I’d be really interested to read what you think about this, whether a reader of fan fiction or not, so please feel free to leave comments below.

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  1. Em

     /  December 7, 2012

    I’ve written nearly 100,000 words of fanfic in less than two years (which is significantly more prolific than I am in my academic life!). I have no aspirations as a writer of “non fan” fiction, but capturing the voice of existing, familiar, beloved characters is an exceptionally useful exercise as a communications professional – my job is essentially to put words in other people’s mouths (and so of course, I write stories about the West Wing which is like 50% a love letter to speechwriters ;)).

    For now, only a select few people from my offline life know that I write fic, but I’m less and less cautious about more of them finding out, and I’ve come pretty close to outing myself specifically so that I can rise to the defence of the genre. I’m not quite there yet – and I’d probably change pseuds for my smut before spreading my AO3 page around – but I’m no longer convinced being known as a fic writer would do any lasting damage to my career.

    And the bottom line is, writing fic makes me happy. I don’t know what’s more satisfying – creating scenarios that fulfil my own wishes, or the reaction I get from other people when I fulfil theirs.

  2. I totally agree. When fan fiction came up in my lecture, I came so close to outing myself and yelling, “STOP! THIS IS NOT WHAT GOES DOWN AT ALL!” It’s such a positive environment, and it is so much fun to explore all the possibilities and, in AUs and whatnot, the canon impossibilities.

    • Em

       /  December 8, 2012

      Canon impossibilities. YES. Because a lot of what I write, I’m TOTALLY OK with the fact that it didn’t/couldn’t happen. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun and rewarding to explore. You’re absolutely right that it enriches the experiences – in the same way that most “fandom behaviour” does really – although I will admit that spinning out missing scenes in my head while watching gets a bit in the way of keeping track of what’s actually happening on screen, but it’s not like I haven’t seen it, oh, a million times before 😉

      • Of all the things I’ve written, the missing scenes are generally my favourite. It feels like an accomplishment to achieve the balance of it fitting in with what precedes and follows it in canon, without changing those details, but that adds something significant to the story. There’s literally only one story I think I’ve succeeded at that with, but nevertheless, I was proud. And anyway, missing scene ideas only happen when you know what’s to come – so it’s fine… who needs to follow the actual show properly!

  3. I totally agree with what you said
    I love reading fanfic, it gives a new vision to everything.
    But writing is amazing, I’ve only written a few, but the first thing I noticed is from my first fic (one on Private Practice) to the ones I’m writing now about West Wing, my english is so much better now (I’m portuguese), in my first stories everytime I look at them again I see a lot of basic errors, mostly with the verbs.
    I hate not having more time to write, can’t wait for next week when my tests are finally over, and I will have more time.
    The hardest part for me is trying to write a multichapter story, I have tried two times, never ended it; this time I’m trying to finish it on my computer and only when I’m finished, publish it.
    And there’s nothing better than giving a world to your ideas, and then finding that people like it (when one of my friends read one of my west wing fics and that made her want to watch the show, I felt so happy that my work had made someone happy and with desire to watch the show).

    • Em

       /  December 8, 2012

      Heartily agree with not posting works in progress – I think it’s frustrating for everyone, in the end – and I actually think that WIPs that just keep going are even worse than the ones that just stop without being properly wrapped up. Much like actual TV shows, actually!

  4. Indeed, fan fic has really helped improved writing skills. The bad rep that it has gotten is from those who never took writing seriously to begin with/

    • I guess, but the stigma exists still amongst students on my English course, who are writers. That’s what surprised me most. For sure, non-writers don’t get it at all unless they’re part of the world of fandom.

  5. I’ve been reading fanfiction since I was 13 or 14 years old, but it was only earlier this year – at the grand of age of 23 – that I delved fully into it and wrote my first fic. Over the years, it has always bothered and frustrated me when I’ve read people’s misconceptions regarding FF.

    Personally, I only read/write fanfiction for one science fiction show in particular, because it is the only show that I have (for lack of a better term) fallen totally in love with. Subsequently, I’ve read thousands of fics relating to said show, and a majority of these were poor, or completely unrealistic as to the actual franchise. Then you had some which were okay, and then you had a few which were phenomenal to read. I think that’s writing in general though; I’d happily read a classic like Dickens or Joyce any day of the week; give me 50 Shades of Grey and I’ll hand it straight back to you. It’s just my personal preference.

    I write because it’s what I love. It’s second nature to me; I don’t need to sit and think about it… it just happens. I’m not saying my writing is good or perfect – far from it – but the process as a whole works for me in a way nothing else has.

    Writing fanfiction allows me to play with the show I love, the characters I have watched and the storylines I’ve been engrossed in, and see what alternate scenarios I can come up with. What if this happened. What if he said this. What if character X hadn’t walked into the room at this time… I’m a stickler for wanting to keep things as close to canon as possible, but still having an opportunity to share how I would have liked the show to play out.

    Also, while I (sadly) don’t own a thing or get paid for it, my writing includes character development, a plot, backstory, dialogue – everything a piece of fiction needs, so what better place to improve and hone these facets of your writing than with a receptive audience who knows the subject area as well as you? My writing has improved so much in such a short time, partly because I take my readers’ feedback on board and because when I step away as ‘writer’ and look at the story as an ‘editor’ or ‘proofreader’ I can spot the strengths and weaknesses in front of me.

    I also find it fascinating how individuals can find so many different and interesting ways to express the exact same scene, or interaction and make them appear plausible.

    I write fanfiction and I am proud of that, but I will be honest when I say there are very few people who actually know I write it, so I use a pseudonym. It’s not down to embarrassment of the pasttime, but rather my own abilities. Those that read my stories do so because they are as enthusiastic about the show as I am; they understand the characters, the storylines, the way my story offers a different take on an episode… It’s not something I feel others would understand the same way and thus the value would be lost.

    Being a writer, proofreader, editor… being completely responsible for a work you created gives you a certain feeling of pride. If the writing is well received, it makes the time and effort you put into it, so worthwhile and pushes you to keep giving more and the best you can. It’s also invaluable to an aspiring writer, like myself. No matter what fanfiction you write, whether it be sci fi, drama, romance… if you get the basic principles right, you’re onto a winner.

    • This is such a wonderful response. In terms of the positive responses you get, I totally agree about how rewarding it can be to know that you are totally responsible for all aspects of your writing. I think people underestimate how good responses to fanfic can be in terms of how informed fans are about the subject matter, and how constructive it can be.

  6. I totally agree; the feedback I’ve received for my writings has done more for me positively, than any encouragement or feedback a university tutor gave me during my five years of study, and I think this is due to the audience being so informed and of the same mindset. I hope you keep up with your FF writing and it continues to go from strength to strength for you! I’m also going to keep an eye on your blog; I was reading through a couple of your older posts and you deal with some interesting topics on here.

    • Thank you so much. You too! One of my other favourite things about fan fiction communities is you can do exactly that: watch other people’s writing develop.

      I’m so glad – I’m new to blogging, but I’m hoping to make more of a habit of it. Hope they stay interesting, lol! Thanks!

  7. Madi

     /  December 8, 2012

    I love this. I totally agree, and I hate the… bad views fanfiction gets from the “outside world”. I agree, yes there are some sketchy ones out there, but some of the most incredible things I’ve ever read have been fanfiction. I honestly do not believe that having a hardback cover and a publisher’s logo on the spine makes one work of literature better than one written by a 15 year old in her pajamas, posted on LiveJournal. What I think is so beautiful about fanfiction is you get to see so many deep, intricate interpretations of what’s canon, who the characters are, because there’s ALWAYS a little bit of wiggle room and it’s so wonderful to see so many people saying “what if?” and sharing it with the world. I’ve been writing fanfics for a while, only started posting recently, and it’s just so cool to connect to a scene or a character and be able to write out all of those “what if”‘s and watch other people read them and say “Oh! I really get that now” or to have other people share their opinions on the subject with you.

  8. Britt

     /  December 11, 2012

    As a writer of fanfiction for almost 10 years, this really touches home with me. I have friends and friends of friends that think all fanfictions are just smutty poorly written jumbles of words, and while those are out there, there are so many more that are beautifully crafted worlds that push the imagination into universes unexplored until now. I have read fanfics that have made me laugh, I have read fanfics that have made me weep. I have read one memorable fanfic until 5 am and not regretted the lack of sleep the next day. I get energized by a good story, and the creative process of creating a story of my own is unparalleled in how it makes me feel. Fanfics can help me understand a character better, or make me see things, including the “real” world, in an entirely new light. I think that just because a work of fiction was created by a fan, does not mean it is not great and that it is not worthy or life-changing.

    And feedback. Feedback is so wonderful. I have just recently begun posting my writings for the world to see, and though I fret about how my words will be received like a mother frets about her child on the first day of school, I long to hear the reactions of those nameless faceless people who read my writings. Every time a comment comes back saying “WOW! This was amazing, thank you for writing it” or “Please update soon, this is great!”, my heart feels so full of adoration for that person. There is a connection that forms between a writer and their readers that just can’t be experienced quite the same way as over the internet. Where a single comment can raise you up or plunge you into despair, the readers have an immense power. While we can’t please everyone, and while writing is mostly about pleasing yourself, hearing how your words have effected someone really does make a difference. And the audience of a fandom can truly make a world of difference, as you already have started a bond simply by liking the same thing.

    Writing fanfictions have greatly increased my ability to write in general. I used to be a ho-hum writer, but with each story I construct, I can SEE how I improve, how the flow smooths out, how my structure strengthens. It doesn’t really matter what you write, so long as you write.

    This post was amazing, and I’m glad I could finally get all these feelings out.


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