Fanfic gets a bad rap. It’s unoriginal. It’s derivative. It’s ‘theft.’ It’s pathetic or childish or gross. People who write fanfic need to get a life, and they’ll eventually grow out of this ridiculous phase. The fanfic hate goes on for pages, with outsiders to fannish spaces deciding that because they don’t understand fanfic, or it’s not to their taste, they should trash it, because that will make it something small and unimportant that they won’t have to deal with. It’s quite trendy to hate fanfic and the people who write it, which is one among many reasons why many authors write under pseudonyms and obscure personal details to make it hard to figure out who they are.
In fact, fannish communities are incredibly rich, diverse, and fascinating, filled with creative people who are writing amazing stories (and creating beautiful fanworks in other media). Especially when you get into AUs, authors are extremely creative — and many are working with a huge established canon, which can make it tricky to write stories that ring true to characters and their experiences. Writers in fannish communities are meticulous about checking against canon, sourcing, editing, and turning their projects over to others for feedback. It might not be a traditional publishing model, but it’s not exactly a bunch of shots in the dark, either.
Fanfic should be embraced on its own as an expression of creativity and yet another iteration of transformative works, but there’s another aspect to it that doesn’t get much play in mainstream discussion. Writing fanfic is work. It’s writing. One of the most common pieces of advice given to young writers who want to establish careers is that they should write every day, even if it’s just for a little bit. Fanfic is a fantastic way to get in the habit of a daily writing practice, to connect with other writers, to learn about outlining, structuring, and canon.
You can explore a world with characters you know, but you don’t have to stop there, because the point of fanfic is to push the boundaries, to find out what happens when you put characters in new settings and situations. You can stick with canon, expanding upon stories you want to know more about and situations where authors left you hanging, but you can also write crossover and AU fic, building a complex universe for your characters and playing around with them even more.
Stepping into fic can be daunting, because the community can seem intimidating from the outside, but once you’ve found a niche you love, you may find a supportive, wonderful, fantastic group of people. Fandom is kind and loving, and will help out their own no matter what they need, whether it’s help with medical expenses or support through a divorce or assistance with a persistent troll. Beta readers interested in seeing your work and helping you get better will be happy to swap edits and discussions with you, and you can take advantage of a variety of communicative tools for not just writing fic, but getting engaged in meta discussions about fic itself, the larger community, and the works you draw upon in your own writing.
If you want to improve your writing craft, there are way worse ways to do it than fanfiction. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for you, but it does mean that maybe you should stop sneering at people who are part of fannish communities, because they’re tapping into something important for them. They’re writing, sometimes daily. They’re connecting with people who are interested in and supportive of their work. They’re finding a space where they are welcomed for who they are and what they do, instead of castigated for it. They are developing writing skills, because when you write every day, you get better.
Novel-length fanfiction is not at all uncommon. That reflects a huge amount of planning, outlining, writing, and editing on the part of the author. It’s no quickly-tossed off scene slapped up on the Internet for people to read, not least because fannish communities are critical, and they don’t take well to sloppy, obviously incomplete work. Shorter length works are subject to the same level of careful construction, editing, and discussion with other writers, and some fanfiction authors become beloved, with intense followers who eagerly await their next updates.
Does that surprise you? Do you view fanfic as something gross that only weird people do? Well, it may surprise you even more to know that some very prominent authors got their start as fanfic authors, and that, furthermore, some still write fic. Those who do generally keep their prior fannish IDs and their professional ones separate, and they don’t disclose the names they’re writing under now (sometimes because of legal issues with their publishers, and for other reasons as well). Others, like Cassie Clare, are well known for their fanfiction (though her work can be difficult to track down today, as her legal team is surprisingly adroit at pulling it whenever it’s republished).
Fanfic is an art, and the people active in fannish spaces are artists, writers, and creative people. They’re not less worthy of recognition because they work with modern source material. Everyone needs to come to writing and develop their craft in a different way, and this is one entirely legitimate approach — which is one reason why so many established authors not only once wrote fic, but are open about it, and encourage their fans to do the same if they’re interested in developing writing skills.
Image: Writing, Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr.