The other day I mentioned that- in addition to math- fanfiction claimed a great deal of credit for turning me from a distracted scribbler to a writer who actually gets things done. To some this may sound strange; after all, isn’t fanfiction written by people who can’t come up with their own worlds and characters? Those poor people who can’t write their own stories, and so have to piggyback on someone else’s success?
Not so much.
I was introduced to fanfiction by a friend who wrote it as a stress relief through pre-law and law school. Some of her stories were silly and funny as anything, some heart-wrenching, and some truly epic tales that were full novels in their own right. They were well-paced, well-plotted, and wonderfully written, but they were still fanfiction- which means there was absolutely no pressure to try to publish past posting them online. There were purely for fun, for stress-relief, for the sake of curiosity.
That’s really what most of fanfiction is: the ultimate “what if”. Yes, there’s some degree of people wanting to put themselves into the story, but most is curiosity. People love the books (or whatever the source material is) so much that they keep thinking about them and wonder what would happen if. What if Prim had gone to the Hunger Games? What if Cassia never looked at the microcard? What if Voldemort had won? Or even something more simple: what if Ron had danced with Hermione at the Yule Ball? They start with a question (or an argument), grow into a train of thought, and then mature into a story so entranced with the original author’s creations that we can’t help but play in their worlds.
On its own, fanfiction might not have much of an effect. Within a community, however, oh holy hell. As soon as you post a story, you have readers- you have feedback. Granted, at least three-quarters of this feedback is absolutely useless as far as constructive critiques go. They’re nice to see, because they’re usually gushing about loving it, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything helpful. then there are the other ones, the reviews that speak very specifically to what works for them and what doesn’t, what they love, the way you write, comments on aspects of story and character. If you have someone step too far ooc (out of character, for the less
privileged geeky), or break a basic rule of the world, people are up in arms about it in the reviews. If your story isn’t going anywhere? They’ll let you know. Have an annoyingly perfect character who represents everything you could possibly want to be? Reviewers are not at all shy about calling shenanigans on a Mary Sue.
They also want the rest of the story, they want it now, and they’re not shy about
demanding asking for it. THIS was what made fanfiction so invaluable to me. As soon as I posted a chapter, I had people hounding me for the next one. I actually had to write every day to keep up with these bizarre new things called goals. I was posting a chapter about every week- every other week on some of the more complicated ones, or when real life intruded- and if I started slacking off, I had people on my ass about it. It was incredible! I was actually finishing stories, for pretty much the first time ever. Not short stories for class assignments, but novel-length projects.
It created a sense of discipline. I set goals and actively worked to meet them. Before, I had notebooks galore full of started stories that I could never manage to finish before I jumped to a different idea, a different obsession and fascination. It was a lot harder to do that when I’d get daily emails asking me why the next chapter wasn’t up yet.
The more unexpected benefit was a matter of style. Before fanfiction, my writerly voice (I don’t care if it’s not a word, I’m using it anyway) jumped all over the place based on what I was reading or watching or even just the kind of mood I was in. Strangely enough, readers expect this thing called consistency. They allow for how a voice has to change across different projects, but within a single story, they want an identifiable voice. If they don’t feel like they’re getting one, they’ll flat out ask if you’re actually a group writing under a single name. Which…can get kind of embarrasing if you see it more than once.
There have been other benefits to writing fanfiction, too- you have to really study the characters and the world to do them justice, you learn to pay attention to the bigger picture, and (in my case) learn about these bizarre contraptions called chapters- but discipline and style were, for me, the most significant. I know time, experience, reading habits, and supposed maturity have all gone into my growth as a writer as well, but looking back on what I did before fanfiction and what I’ve done since shows a staggering difference. I don’t write it anymore because I’ve been focusing on original ideas, but I still get the what if’s and I have to admit, I really kind of miss it. Not just the writing but the reading- there is some amazing stuff out there.
There’s also a painful amount of crap, but hey, with practice comes improvement.
There are, however, boundaries that should be respected. If you read or write fanfiction, PLEASE DO NOT forward them on the source authors. Yes, fanfiction is a form of flattery, and yes, many of them have said they wrote fanfiction where they were younger, but they are not legally allowed to know it exists. Most publishing contracts require authors to protect their copyrights, of which posted fanfiction is technically a violation, even if you don’t seek any renumeration from it. Most of the time this can balance out in a don’t ask don’t tell situation: if you don’t bring it to the attention of the authors or publishers, they’re not going to actively seek you out. No worries. There’s also a basic respect thing in not telling the author how you think someone else did their idea so much better.
The other piece of that is the fear that something an author writes may be ever-so-slightly similar to a story a well-meaning fan sends them, even if the author never read the story, and grievous trouble can ensue. Just…don’t do it, y’all. Be happy with your fan base online, acknowledge the source material, but leave the author of it.
Still, fanfiction is an amazing way to practice your writing, to try out new techniques, or even just experiment. The feedback is helpful (well, some of it), and the simple fact of getting things written on a regular basis, creating that sense of discipline, is invaluable.
It certainly was for me.
Until next time~