Writing Fanfiction: A Training Ground

I have a confession to make: I am a fanfiction writer.

While my output is now limited to tidbits for the amusement of myself and my close friends, there were years when fandom was my life and fanfiction my creative outlet of choice.

Today I want to tell you about my experiences of fanfic and why I think it was the best professional writing training I could’ve received.

What is fanfiction?
Fanfiction, transformative works, or pastiches are creations based on an existing intellectual property. They are usually created by fans for the love of the thing, but Kindle Worlds has recently turned some of those works to profit – and historically that was also the case.

achilles-patroclus-fanfiction
Achilles and Patroclus – so doing it

A potted history of fanfiction
Arguably, fanfiction has been around as long as there has been oral storytelling. Don’t like one bard’s version of events? Tell it your way! On the Greek tragedy scene, there is huge contrast between Aeschylus and Sophocles’ version of the whole Agamemnon story (short version: he sacrificed his daughter, went to Troy, came home, his wife and her lover killed him, his son avenged him). Fairytales have a similar history – it was only when the Grimms and Anderson captured them on paper that they became “locked” – though modern writers continue to reimagine and retell them (see: Snow White and the Huntsman, Frozen).

In the 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote sweeping historical epics – and that pesky little detective that he never managed to shake off: Sherlock Holmes. From anonymous Greeks to his own family, dozens of authors have written about the Great Detective. J.M. Barrie gave a Sherlock Holmes parody to Doyle to celebrate their collaboration on a play.

“Let us cut the first four pages,” said the big man, “and proceed to business. I want to know why -”
“Allow me,” said Mr Holmes, with some of his old courage. “You want to know why the public does not go to your opera.”
“Exactly,” said the other ironically, “as you perceive by my shirt stud.” He added more gravely, “And as you can only find out in one way I must insist on your witnessing an entire performance of the piece.”

In the modern era, we have Star Trek to thank for the resurgence of fandom and fanfiction. After the cancellation of ST: TOS, fans kept their love alive with fanzines and meetups – with shippers[1] talking about their favourite pairings, and the first use of slash[2] in respect to Kirk/Spock.

The difference from historical works and in 19th, 20th and 21st centuries is simple: copyright law. And therefore transformative works now fall into a grey area somewhere between Fair Use and illegality [3], depending on how intellectual property holders decide to exercise their rights – from sweeping takedowns of fan-made videos to pleasant indulgence of fanworks, including Kindle Worlds (under very specific circumstances).

My personal history with fandom[4]
I started writing fanfiction when I was thirteen.

Well, that’s not strictly true. I was writing fanfiction before I knew what fanfiction was – reimagining new adventures for USS Voyager and casting myself as a Mary Sue[5] character.

fanfiction blonds
Fanfiction: more fun with blonds?

But I wrote my first piece of fanfiction for the internet when I was thirteen. Ah, the internet in 2000, what a different place you were. When the intercontinental delay was so long, the dial-up connection so slow, and streaming video was a distant dream. We used to watch videos of new shows in “squinty vision”, pixelated video the size of an iPhone screen, which would take about eight hours to download.

In those days, fandom lived on eGroups (the precursor to Yahoo Groups) and small websites (usually running off Tripod or Geocities). It moved to Yahoo, and eventually to blogging sites like Livejournal and Dreamwidth. More self-hosted archives appeared, and fan-made videos moved from download sites to YouTube. Until YouTube purged them all, and then they went back to download sites. Fanfiction.net sprung up and certain fandoms took to it more than others, with a concentration of younger and newer fans particularly congregating there.

Currently, fandom hangs about on Tumblr and large independent archives, like Archive of Our Own (AO3) – which has recently hit one million fanworks and counting! There has also been a huge increase over the past five years in text-based roleplay, playing characters from shows and interacting within fandoms or in massive panfandom games.

Why fandom has a bad rep
The most vocal and disruptive members of a community always taint the reputation of the majority (see: teenagers, Christians, Oxbridge). Fandom is no different.

However, there are also bad places in fandom. Misogyny by women towards female characters and their actresses can be toxic and frankly nauseating (I’m looking at you, Supernatural). Many M/M slash fandoms are dominated by straight/bi cis women to the point where gay men are objectified to the same degree as lesbians in male-orientated visual pornography. Fandom has its flaws.

There is also a lot of shame in fandom. It is seen as perverse, militant and immature. This impression is not helped by journalists forcing unwilling actors into performing fanworks without the author’s permission. It is not helped by creators deriding fans and their protests at the deaths of beloved characters [6].

How fanfiction makes professional writers
Some fanfiction writers turned professional may already be known to you. The most obvious example is E.L. James, with Fifty Shades of Grey emerging from a piece of Twilight fanfiction. Other notable examples include Cassandra Clare and Naomi Novik, two authors who have treated their fanfiction past very differently.

And then there’s me. Here’s what I learned writing fanfiction:

1) Instant validation and feedback
As much as we tell ourselves we’re writing for ourselves, we’re not – we want to share our joy with other people. Fanfiction provides immediate feedback and an audience voice. We learn what our community wants and likes, and we respond. Fandom encourages beta reading, which allows writers to respond to notes – a vital part of professional practice.

Joker/Harley dolls
You can even commission knitted serial killers.

2) Transmedia
Fandoms are into everything. During my time as an active fangeek, I wrote fanfiction, made fanvids, made icons and wallpapers, built my own archive, and made fandom puzzles. Other folks use Photoshop, make GIFs, draw and paint artwork, make comics, make fanmixes, edit fanzines, record podfic[7] and make fancrafts. In short, fandom is a transmedia nirvana. If you want to see all the possible ways to express creativity around any intellectual property, look no further than fandom.

3) Writing other folks’ worlds
Making up stories with other people’s creations is not limited to fanfiction. If you write for TV, you probably write episodes for a showrunner. If you work in mainstream comics, you create based on someone else’s characters, settings and universe. If you specialise in tie-in novels, comics, and radio plays – you are playing in someone’s else’s sandbox. Therefore, the ability to work with characters and settings that are not your own is an invaluable skill.

4) Community and Diversity
I met some of my best friends in fandom. My earliest fandom friends came to my wedding, and some of my closest friends were people I met online through fandom sites. If you are a bit geeky, love creating and are passionate about fiction, you can find so many people to share your enthusiasm. It’s addictive.

There are also a lot of different folk in fandom. I’d like to say we all get along, but ship wars and anti-creator sentiment are rife. But you meet a huge range of people and as a teenager who grew up in rural Devon, it was a massive eye-opener to gender, race, sexuality and politics.

Some creators have dismissed fandom as irrelevant] (which is rich coming from a supermassive fanboy). I disagree. Fans are your early adopters – when Merlin started airing, the first people in fandom were Torchwood fans. Fans are well-networked and will spread their love for works to friends and relatives. They will buy your DVDs and your merchandise. When I was in fandom, I started watching programmes and reading comics purely because I had fandom friends who liked them. I then spread these things among my RL[8] friends. Creators should not dismiss the power of a well-motivated fanbase – campaigns gained a Serenity movie, a Farscape miniseries and might (hopefully) Save Ripper Street.

5) 10,000 hours
I’m sure you’ve all heard the maxim that it takes 10,000 hours of practising a skill to master it.

I started writing fanfiction when I was 13. I am not 26. I have definitely put in my 10,000 hours.

But, you cry, what about all that original fiction you could’ve been writing? My response: where is the feedback? Where are the support groups? Where are the people beta-reading for free and mentoring writers? Musicians and craftspeople can share their works while they’re developing. Where is the reward for writers?

Also, I did write original fiction in my teens and early twenties. Some of it occasionally bubbles out of my development folders. But none of it comes close to being the shaping experience that participating in fandom was.

So, should you get into fanfiction?
If you’re already a professional writer, it’s not a rite of passage requirement. But hey, if you wanna play, come on down! Just maybe don’t use your legal name – I know one professional writer whose first page of Google search results still includes his Zelda fanworks.

However, if you are young, enthusiastic and don’t know where to start on your writing journey, check out fandoms for the shows you love. AO3 and Tumblr are good places to start.

As for me, my fanfic days are over – mostly because I don’t have time and that is a totally different world to my professional writing life. However, if one of my creations spawned a fandom, complete with bizarre ships and sending me a tonne of teabags in protest, I would be absolutely delighted that I have moved a group of people to care about my characters as much as I do.

Are you a professional writer with a history in fanfiction? Are you a fanfic writer looking to make the leap to paid writing? Or do you just want to mock my crush on ST: VOY’s Chakotay? Leave a comment!


[1] Shippers – short for relationshippers – people who support a particular pairing on a show, which is called a ship (e.g. The Doctor/River Song). Sometimes ends up with a cute portmanteau (e.g Spike/Buffy = Spuffy).
[2] Slash – derives from the slash between names in a ship – shipper fiction that involves same-sex relationships, though usually only refers to M/M. Slasher = person who writes/supports a slash pairing.
[3] Transformative works are technically legal in the UK, but fandom is global – a UK fan writing about the intellectual property of an American creator is probably screwed.
[4] Fandom – the collective name for fans and their works, which can usually be further subdivided by pairing and special interest. Can also be used to describe all fandoms and fan culture.
[5] Mary Sue – a perfect character based on the author who romances the hero and saves the day. Notable example: Wesley Crusher from ST:TNG.
[6] The Coffee Incident – I just want to note here my feelings on this particular issue. This is how it went down: Ianto in Torchwood died. It was rather pointless, as deaths go, but very moving. Fandom reacted badly. Some individuals massively overstepped all common decency and the law by making death threats. Other fans organised a campaign to send in coffee (Ianto made the coffee) as a protests – and because Torchwood was a science fiction show, and death is often a flexible arrangement. It is my opinion (and I have no way to corrorobate this) that when Rusty slammed the fan campaign, he was mostly reacting to the death threats and other vitriol directed at creators (which is totally unacceptable, natch).
[7] Podfic – audio recording of a piece of fanficition, similar to an audiobook
[8] RL – “Real Life” – i.e. the offline part

2 thoughts on “Writing Fanfiction: A Training Ground

  1. Rosie,
    You’re singing my song. I too grew up writing fanfic and through those stories I learned how to craft an intriguing tale. When I sold my first original romance novel, people warned me not to mention my fannish background but I felt that it was an asset not a detriment so I told the world.

    Now I’m working to help other creative fans find their voice. I started a site called MyFannishObsession.com and we do weekly interviews with fan crafters and bakers and writers. If you’re interested, I’d love to add you to the mix.

    Next week, we’re launching a FanFic writer’s inspiration deck so we’ll be spending the whole week talking to writers about writing. I know it’s short notice but if you’re willing to answer some questions, you’d be a perfect fit.

    Care to join the party?

    Cynthia

    1. Cynthia, I would love to!

      I was also worried about revealing my fannish roots, but ultimately, I think participating in fandom has been a hugely beneficial part of my life and my writing.

      I’m on holiday from Saturday, but if you could send over your questions today/early tomorrow, I can shoot them back to you – r dot e dot claverton at gmail dot com!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *