Becoming a Fan Fiction Writer: Dealing in Emo
by Sylvia Bond
There are fans who don’t write. No really, there are. Some fans make vids, some do art, some run communities, some create and maintain archives. Some only lurk, but all have their valid place in fandom. However, since I’m a writer, my focus is on writing, and so I wanted to know how fans took the next step and went from being a fan to writing in fandom.
So I asked the next question: How did you come to start writing fanfic? And wouldn’t you know, I got some beautiful answers.
Actually, my first fanfic was writing Man from UNCLE ‘MarySues’ with my best friend in high school. Nine novellas (each!) hand-written in spiral bound notebooks on lined paper. We had no idea other people did the same thing! (harrigan)
I’ve never had the compulsion to write about a series before, but I think after reading fan fiction for as long as I did, it made me wonder whether I could contribute. It never would have happened for me, if I hadn’t collaborated with Mel, and I’m lucky enough to write with someone who isn’t ‘precious’ about their work and is very generous in keeping in the ridiculous ideas I have. (blackbelblondie)
I have always written fiction, ever since I was a little kid. But in my mind, I was often acting out fanfictions: taking characters of television shows I liked and making up new stories about them. I just never put pen to paper with it. I remember I was talking to myself one day in the car and my husband said, “What are you talking about. You look like you’re having an argument with someone.” And I replied, “I was just cross-examining a witness. You know. In Law & Order. Don’t you ever do that? Take a scene and rework it a different way?” And he looked at me like I’d just reached into my mouth and pulled out a live lobster.
When I discovered that good writers were writing fanfic, I was really convinced that this would be a fun thing to do. That was about 3 or 4 years ago. I’ve never been involved in any other fandom, and I don’t know that I would be again, but I’ve been so damn impressed with SPN and its fans that I think I’m in for the run. (Big Pink)
I started writing fanfic for Classic Star Trek several years before I found out about fandom. I didn’t write a lot of it, but in the long stretches between Star Trek movies (and as the pro novels became less interesting and emotionally satisfying), I’d occasionally get antsy for more Kirk and Spock, and sometimes scribble scenes in a notebook. The motivation to finish a whole story wasn’t there until I found the Star Trek fan newsgroups, circa 1994. All the fiction posted at that time was ST:TNG and ST:DS9. I’d never written fiction before (outside of high school), and still have not written a whole lot of original fiction. Fandom motivates me to write. (Killa)
I’d always been a big letter writer and reader, since I was little. I’d never attempted to write much fiction, but in college, after being a passive consumer of fanfic for a half-dozen years and with the encouragement of a friend who wrote, I tried my hand at my first fan fiction, a Quantum Leap story. It took me two years to write, and several longhand drafts. But once I got a taste, I was hooked, and I’ve written in every fandom I’ve been passionate about since, including Stargate, The Sentinel, Magnificent Seven, Real Ghostbusters, and now Supernatural. (K. Hanna Korossy)
I read a lot first, for maybe a year or so, before I finally decided to try one for myself. I’ve always been a fan of the idea that if you read enough then one day something will just pour back out of you, like you’d been watering your writer self with the words you’d been reading. I’d always been interested in writing, and had from childhood written little scenes of things, rewriting parts of movies or romance novels that I’d read. After a while in it just became a sort of “they do it, I can totally do this too” kind of thing.
No, I wasn’t a writer first. I think I’ve always had a writer’s soul, if that makes any sense, but I never bothered to put it down on paper until I started getting ideas for fan fic. Mostly my original story ideas are just snippets of things, characterizations of people, and nothing I feel like I can draw out over a sustained novel, even a short story. Any talent I have as a writer now is thanks to fan fic. I have written some original fiction, I took a fiction writing class back in college, but when I’m not writing fan fic, I’m not writing much of anything. (walkawayslowly)
Back when I was young and bored and my friends and I all watched the same show they were always canceling after four freakin episodes. So we all started writing our own stories about it. On a fundamental level, that’s pretty much how we all get started, I think. I’ve always written and always loved TV and always made up stories in my head about my favorite TV shows. It was only when I ran into some fanficcers who put that kind of thing down on paper that I realized I could do more than play the movie reel in my own head for an audience of one. (After reading) three fanfic novels…it occurred to me that fan fiction could be pretty damned good, if you did it right. So I became a fanficcer. Been one every since. (Dodger Winslow)
I was a writer first. I started when I was about eight. I took various creative writing classes all through my academic career, went to academic enrichment classes at UC Berkeley and summer arts school at Cal Arts. I’ve always been pretty good at it I’ve known about fan fiction since middle school … but didn’t stumble upon slash until college…I had that few weeks that all of us seem to have when we find slash for the first time, where you’re all obsessed and staying up all night to read through entire archives (trickster.org, we hardly knew ye) and being all, where has this stuff been all my life! Fanfic gave me plot, at least a basic premise from which to work. I’ve always been able to write but I’ve rarely been able to think of things to write about. Slash solved that problem. (Candle Beck)
Back in the day I didn’t have a VCR so the gaps between seasons were deserts. When I started writing fanfic many years ago, it was partly to fill those gaps, but it was also a burning desire to work out what made a particular character tick…Fan fiction didn’t come along until the 80’s, when ‘Starsky & Hutch’ hit the TV screens. I started writing it with a friend in the long gaps between seasons – we even put out some zines and won an award or two. I also devoured ‘Star Trek’ fanfic, but didn’t write it, and the ‘Professionals’ [a UK TV series] fanfic, which I did. (Sidhe Woman)
I started writing stories when I was a “little kid” but my stories were heavily influenced by the shows I was watching “live” at the time – “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.“, “Star Trek” and “Dark Shadows“. I was constantly making up stories in my head about these fictional characters, and though my stories at the time were all original fic, most of them were thinly disguised versions of the “real thing”. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me I could actually write my own stories about the characters I loved. Then, when I was 20, I learned about fan fic; I wrote my first fanfic story almost immediately, and, um, a decade or three later I’m still at it. (CatalenaMara)
I guess I consider that I was a writer first and found fan fiction an excellent way to improve on the craft and get feedback, which can be both very positive and damaging if you don’t learn to take it with a grain of salt. (Ridley C. James)
I think writer before “Writer of Fanfiction,” though I’m not published or anything. …I’d always been very imaginative and would continue stories from TV, movies, books in my mind but I hadn’t considered it something people might actually be interested in reading. I read a few stories and immediately knew that I wanted to try writing some! (I already had some ideas). Then later I joined LJ so I could comment and be friends with some of the people. (nocturnal08)
I’ve been a serious reader for many years, I’m a harsh critic, I’ve edited, and I’ve had one non fiction sale. I’ve wanted to be a sf writer since my first con. However, until I read fan fic, I’d never completed a work of fiction, or allowed anyone to read what I had written. (PADavis)
Although I have been a writer from a young age (since the fifth grade, I would say), I had never before been tempted to write any characters but my own. (leonidaslion)
I’d say I’m a huge *reader* first, the writing came after. The first story I wrote though, was when I was about ten, and it was a story about the Three Investigators. I was Bob’s sister. That was followed by a Hardy Boys story, where I was their long-lost cousin. The Mary Sues eventually went away, and original characters based on the books I’ve enjoyed came along. I guess I’ve been a fanfic writer for a very long time though! After I started writing fanfic though, my writing skills got better. I’ve still been rejected by the professionals, but I feel better about my creativity. And I think that’s a lot of what attracts me to writing too…the chance to expand my skills. (khek)
The answers seem to have some common themes: to fill a gap, because other people were doing it, because I liked the show, because I wanted to see what made a character tick, because I wanted to work on my skills, because the show or books related to the show had become less emotionally satisfying, because I was bored, because I was sick.
None of these answers surprised me, but one of the answers that jumped out at me comes from blackbelblondie, when she says, among other things, It (reading fan fiction) made me wonder whether I could contribute.
One of the positive gains about being in fandom is, simply, being in fandom and by participating in whatever way you see fit. And part of that, as blackbelblondie points out, is by contributing, which seems to be self-evident to me, as that is how I enjoy fandom.
But it got me thinking. Do we really need more contributions to fan fiction? The way I figure it, if you put the number of trees killed to print fan fiction end to end, you could cover the distance from the earth to the sun.
Put another way, check out these numbers, which we could use as an argument that there are plenty of stories right now to choose from. Take, for example, the Supernatural newsletter, which is distributed daily and has been for over five years. At the time of this publication, it’s going on six years, but we’ll round that back down to five years. And, every day it provides, on average, links to over 50 new stories.
So how many stories is that? Here’s the math: 50 stories a day x 365 days x 5 years = 91,250 stories.
That means there are 91,250 stories that have been written in just this one fandom. Who has time to read them all?
Just for yucks, let’s widen the scope. Let’s just say that there are 200 fandoms that have had fan fiction written for them. (That’s a W.A.G. on my part, as there are probably more.)
Multiply that number of fandoms by average number of stories for each fandom per year. For the purposes of this argument, let’s assume stories 50 per day. Then assume an average of three truly active years for each fandom.
I’m comfortable that my estimates are conservative, but I’m pretty sure that the Archive of Our Own (an all-fandom archive created by the Order for Transformative Works) will be able to tell us more after they’ve collected data for a few years.
Anyway, multiply all those factors together, and you get the number of fan fiction stories that exist right now. For those among us that were never good at word problems, here’s the math:
200 fandoms x 50 stories a day x 365 days x 3 years = how many stories that fans have written?
I had to do the math several times because I simply couldn’t believe the number was this big.
It’s how many? 10,950,000 stories.
That’s ten million, nine hundred and fifty thousand stories. (And I’m not even including songvids or art or meta.) Can I say it again? Over TEN MILLION. Heck, it’s almost 11 million. If you consider, depending on the source you look at, that the Library of Congress has between 29 and 32 million books, then there’s almost half as much fan fiction as there are books in the Library of Congress. (Not that quantity is quality, but I think you get my point.)
Seeing as I’m not Charlie Epps, could somebody please check my math? That seems like a staggering amount to me. Plus, that’s not even taking into consideration any established fandoms that have been producing fan fiction for over 40 years, like Star Trek, which has produced all by itself (based on my estimate), somewhere around three-quarters of a million stories.
So, truth, we don’t need blackbelblondie or me or anyone else contributing. Ever, ever again. Heck, you could read fan fiction from now till the Rapture, and you would never run out of things to read.
But really, what she’s really talking about here is a desire to participate in a convivial and like-minded atmosphere. Fandom, and fan fiction, gives you a way to do that. But that’s true with any hobby.
If, for example, you like stamp collecting and you join a stamp collecting club because you’re interested (for whatever weird reason), it’s because you want to belong and interact with people of a like mind, in short, you want to be with people who like to mess with stamps. Aside from the fact that stamp collecting is an accepted and visible hobby in our society, it’s no different than fandom, even down to the fact that it’s really, really boring if you’re not into it.
So just as you would want to participate in the cupcake drive to buy your club a nicely framed “Inverted Jenny” or whatever (and those would be really, really good cupcakes), in fandom, you want to participate by producing something. You become part of the community by adding to the pile.
At the same time, you can still belong, simply by saying that you do. People who belong but don’t contribute in a physical way (no fan fiction, art, meta, vids, or communities) are called “lurkers” and they have a role just like anyone else does. They’re like that one guy who comes to the stamp collecting club, only he sits in the back and never says anything. He’s still a member, he’s still one of us so you better not mess with him or we’ll cut you because he’s contributing simply by being there. That being said, you get a higher status (and by higher, I mean more visible) when you contribute by producing. So that’s part of the why.
There were other great ideas that got brought up in this set of answers.
One cool thing is that some fans didn’t even know they were contributing, because when they began writing fan fiction, they just did it. It was as if they invented their own genre as they went along, which is like being the person who invented the novel, or the poem, or heck, the guy who invented words, which just blows me away.
Another idea that moved me was the fact that there are those fans who never considered writing, and yet, fan fiction made writers of them. It’s extraordinary to me, really, that fan fiction has the power to ignite a spark of creativity like that.
It could be, as walkawayslowly describes it, that these kinds of fans already had a “writer’s soul,” in that the person was just waiting for the right trigger to bring something already in them to life. It certainly seems that there’s a certain kind of person, predisposed, perhaps, to be open to having their switches clicked on in a certain order, who is just waiting for the moment when this brilliant thing will happen to them. Who will be able to, at last, as Candle Beck puts it, do something they were “meant” to do.
And then there’s Dodger Winslow’s movie reel statement, and boy did I recognize that one. Ever since I can remember, when I went to bed, I’d have my stories. I even had a list of characters that was so long, I had to write it down to keep them all straight, and each night I’d run them through their paces. I would rework this scene or that idea, over and over, just like a movie reel. Sometimes it would take me a while to fall asleep, but I was never bored. Here’s me, thinking I was the only one, here’s me finding out I was wrong.
Another answer I liked was Killa’s response where she says that she got into fan fiction because the Star Trek pro novels (that were professionally written) were becoming less emotionally satisfying. That struck a cord with me.
Pro novels are those books that you typically find in a book store or library; somebody got paid to write them. Maybe not very much, but they got paid. There’s a cachet attached to being professionally published, and the idea is that what you’ve written is so worthy that you’ll get royalties and that Congress will attach an ISBN to your work. That somebody has to check you out or buy you to read you. And that’s rather cool, so props to pro writers.
At the same time, I couldn’t name you a fan who isn’t nodding at what Killa is saying here, because sometimes pro novels just don’t cut it. Even pro novels that are tie-ins to a TV show don’t deliver the goods. They’re just a higher-priced version of fan fiction; the intensity of emotion isn’t there, the satisfaction, the pay off at the end, all of the good stuff is missing. I think this is partly because the book was written for money, and partly because the book was written at the directive of someone else.
All of this only serves to prove a pet theory of mine, that pro novels aren’t as good as fan fiction. Yes, I really think so, and here’s why.
First, fan fiction is written for love. Maybe it’s written to impress or awe, but it’s mostly written for love, created out of passion and excitement, and all those good things that happen when you watch a great TV show that has excellent characters and lots of what you want going on. Then, instead of just absorbing, fans create. What a wonderful circuit this creates; it’s creativity out of creativity, and it just keeps going.
Second, fan fiction is done without filters. There’s nobody telling you you can’t, or you shouldn’t, or that nobody has ever done that before. There’s nobody in a distant office reviewing your work, and trying to determine if your story is going to attract the most readers. You don’t have anyone telling you what to do. You simply write. You write first or second person, maybe you experiment with present tense over past, you write stream of consciousness, you write like Hemingway, you set it up like Dickens, you do whatever the heck it is you want to do. You can be brave, bold, and have no boundaries whatsoever, because really, you’re doing it for yourself.
Here’s one description that I really liked about what’s possible in fan fiction: You go anywhere. (You can) tell the story backwards, in fragments or run-ons, in dialogue or hallucinations, in the second person, in the future tense. People will give it a shot. The tolerance for the unusual in the fan fiction community is almost without limit; there is nothing you can’t try. Should you exhaust every possibility in canon, let’s talk for a second about AUs.
There is a rhythm to fan fiction that is unlike literature, as in, books. There is this sense of voice, of a story being told rather than read. You have this great awareness of who you’re writing for, much more directly than a grown-up author type. There are conversations and collaborations, remixes and challenges and battles. It’s the most communal form of reading I’ve ever experienced, and at the end of the day there is nothing I love more than reading. (Candle Beck)
And lastly, fan fiction gives you the ability to interact with your audience, which almost never happens in pro fiction. For example, how do you write to Stephen King and tell him how much you liked The Green Mile? Well, you send a letter to his agent (if you can find the right address), or the publisher, and good luck getting through. You don’t know if the letter even got there, and he’s far to busy to write you back (which is understandable), and thusly you’ve hit a dead end. You’ll certainly, almost assuredly never know what he thought of what you thought. I realize he’s a busy man, but bam, when you write that letter and mail it, you’re done, and what fun is that?
When you write fan fiction, it’s a different story. If you get into a zine, your e-mail is there, and people can write you and tell you what they thought. If you post the story online, then the response is almost immediate: If you get comments on a story, it worked. If you don’t, it didn’t. You try something else. You keep writing.
Plus, you have a way of finding out what the readers in that fandom are reading through rec lists (which are fan-generated lists of stories that are the cream of the crop), and communities and archives. Fans point each other to what’s good. Fans talk about stories, and help each other find stories, and they leave feedback to writers, and sometimes readers and writers meet up at fannish conventions and exchange ideas at panels. If you’re lucky enough to bump into your favorite writer at a convention, you can step up and buy your favorite writer a drink or two and spread some love around while you tell them what you adore about their writing. Then, because they’re so chirked up by this, they’ll buy you a drink, and encourage you to write, as well. It’ll be the best evening you ever had.
Good luck finding anything like this at a regular bookstore.
I’ve been reading fan fiction for years, and I always come back to the same spot, my amazement at how good this stuff is.
Oh sure, there are some clunkers out there, stories so badly structured or poorly plotted, or that have point-of-views that jump around like grasshoppers. But I always give those writers credit because, really, at least they’re writing. They’re responding to the excitement that their favorite show engenders within them, and they are doing something with that. They aren’t merely stuffing more bon bons in, no, they are getting up, going to their computer, and trying to recreate the fun and the spark of their favorite characters. And I’ve never known a fanfic writer who, with some practice and time, doesn’t increase her skill.
But the good stuff? Oh, the good stuff is good. Good in a way that hits all my buttons, makes me feel like every day is my birthday, and leaves me feeling either so happy and energized that I want to kiss the world, or so sad and upset that I’m sobbing into my ebook reader.
I know there’s nothing better than fan fiction because in it I find stories that rock, characters who are true, and ideas that are important and meaningful to me. Good fan fiction is top of the tree, and superior fan fiction blows me away. I dare you to perform this test: Go find a piece of fan fiction that has been recommended highly and read it. Then get any book from a bookstore and compare. I dare you. Fan fiction will always come out on top.
Sylvia Bond is a ten-year technical writing veteran with too many degrees under her belt to count. She lives in Colorado, but does not ski, preferring instead to spend her money and time at the annual Great American Beer Festival, taking road trips across the United States, and reading historical fiction from the comfort of her fluffy green arm chair. She has been involved in fandom since 1993 and been writing fanfic since approximately 1993. What she finds most amazing about fandom (besides the open heartedness of fans and the sheer amount of creativity) is how visible fandom has become. “In my day,” she says, “we had to hide behind P.O. boxes to get fanfic. But nowadays, people wear t-shirts that shout their affiliation and share their shiny toys on the internet.” It’s a wonderful world.