I get frustrated when fan fiction is given a bad wrap. I know I’m definitely not the first blogger to say this, but none the less, I have some very strong feelings about this particular form. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be the writer I am now (or a writer at all for that matter) if it had not been for online platforms like ff.net and AO3 and their extensive communities and beta readerships. But before I dive into all that, I will say a few things regarding the form itself which I feel very strongly.
For a start, it’s not like fan fiction is a new thing arising from the internet and exploited by the mass-amateurisation of millennials. There is an extremely long history, which begins even before the invention of the internet; and I’m not even talking about the publications in old Star Trek fan magazines. I mean texts like Jean Rhys’ famous literary novel Wide Sargasso Sea; a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Even more recently in 2011, amidst the growing height of online fan fiction, critically acclaimed crime writer PD James’ published her novel Death Comes to Pemberley. Aside from being a ‘continuation’ of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley was so well received it was even adapted for TV by the BBC in 2013.
Somehow, for highly regarded works, the term ‘fan fiction’ is considered demeaning and is generally avoided. In the literary community, the term is excluded entirely, while other terms like ‘adaption’ and ‘re-write’ can be quite common. While there is certainly a great difference between a smut-fic about Johnlock and a recontextualisation of Downton Abbey in the contemporary world, there is still something to be said about this process of taking an existing concept and re-imagining in some way.
For the millennial writer, it is impossible to not have written at least one fan fiction in their life time (and it is highly likely that it was a smut-fic, no shame). For me personally, it was one of the most pleasurable things to do in my spare time during my high school to early university years. Personally, some of my fan fictions – and by ‘some’ I mean one in particular – I am so proud of I would genuinely pitch them to a publisher, if the world and characters that I used were not still under copyright. And as I venture on my own path to becoming a writer of literary fiction, I find I have something to owe to this community of online publication and beta readership.
When I consider my progress as a writer, what fascinates me most is when I realise that how I first started writing, particularly long-form, was through fan fiction. Some of the most important processes that are required for long-form fiction I learnt through writing 20000-30000 word fan fictions. Developing character arcs, interlinking multiple storylines, continuity, and pacing were all things I learned to do through spending years writing multi-chapter fan fictions in my spare time. I would often write fan fiction over rather long periods, usually a number of years, and it was through this lengthy process that I was able to watch my writing style develop and mature.
There are many who argue that before you can write long-form, you must master shorter forms. And while I agree to this to an extent, I also firmly believe that there are different processes that apply to each form and therefore can only be learned by practicing that particular form*. Writing short pieces can prepare you to write longer pieces, but the only way you are going to learn how to write a long piece is if you just write one. Michael Hague once said “don’t get it right, get it written.” Though he is a film writer, this statement applies to all areas of writing. I wanted to write long-form, so I did. I was terrible, but I am better prepared to embark on all my current projects as a result.
The other wonderful aspect of writing fan fiction that was vital to my personal development as a writer was having a beta readership. Writing for an audience made me take my work more seriously. I was writing primarily for myself, but knowing others were going to read it made me more particular about how I developed my plots and planned out each chapter, even how I proof-read. If my writing wasn’t up to scratch, my readers would tell me. And while the beta readers of a fan fiction website were not nearly as critical as my tutors and supervisors at uni, it was enough to make me take pride in my work and develop a professional attitude toward writing.
But among other things, writing fan fiction did something for me that writing original content could never have done at that point in my life. It got me writing. Starting anything is scary, and beginning as a young writer feels impossible. That first blank page, wondering how you should phrase that first sentence. Deleting it over and over again, because you don’t know what sort of standard you should place on yourself. I only managed to overcome that hurdle when I chose to do it by reworking existing material. Now that I have developed my own style and agenda, I write more original content. But it was through that initial process of appropriating other content and re-working it that helped me to realise a fresher style that was more exclusively my own. Additionally, the more technical aspects of writing: plots, dialogue structures, etc, I acquired best through this process of re-mixing existing content for an internet audience.
I hold no grudge against what many professional writers say about fan fiction, particularly if it is their own content being reworked. It can be frustrating when your fan base shifts from your own creation to some replica of it. I still remember the infamous Fool’s Gold fic for the webseries Carmilla, which was regarded by fans and cast alike as ‘practically canon’, while the writers of the show had to obsessively avoid it at all costs. Also, I think Stephanie Meyer is entitled to a small grudge against EL James’ (whether she has one or not), at least with regards to her financial success. For me however, I have attained no financial gain, nor publicity from my writing. Just an excellent means of developing my skills and creating a writer’s identity for myself.
I realise how greatly unprofessional it is for an emerging writer to admit to writing fan fiction. But truthfully, I would be lying if I said that I became a writer any other way. It was a foot in the door, a kick start, and it worked. And as I now venture on my own path to becoming an established writer, I hold no shame for where I came from. Because I would not be here without it.
*I use the commercial meaning of ‘form’ here, which is synonymous with the literary definition of ‘genre’. Examples of such include the novel, play, poem, essay etc.