It might not make you money but fanfiction has a value all of its own
Remember that kerfuffle on Twitter a few years back? Where someone tweeted about how fanfiction makes writers worse at writing* and basically the entire #writingcommunity blew up her mentions with tales of exactly why that wasn’t true? I was still on the bird site in those days and I proudly joined the chorus of writers pushing back against the suggestion that fanfiction = bad. Because I’ve seen first hand how the opposite holds true.
Hi, I’m Rachael and I write fanfic. And no, I’m absolutely not going to tell you my pseudonym, but I am going to tell you how it made my writing better. And it’s such an easy win that if you are in any way tempted by the prospect of playing in somebody else’s universe, I wholeheartedly recommend you give it a go. Here’s why
1. It gets your 10,000 hours in
The best way to get better at writing is to write. Plain and simple. Yes, you can help yourself along by investing in a course or two, and you can hire people to help you get better at things like exposition, dialogue, plotting, and worldbuilding. But those are the mechanics: the actual craft lives in your own unique voice, and the only way to find that is to write, and write, and write some more.
And yes, you could absolutely do that with original fiction (and you should do that regardless). But fanfiction provides pre-fabricated worlds where you can jump straight in and play. You don’t need to consider the implications of various different political systems or work out what traumatic experience in early adulthood has led to your MC’s inability to trust in matters of the heart. Somebody’s been there and done that work for you. Which leaves you free to explore the many and various repercussions of decisions already set in stone and work out the what ifs in a situation where the structure is conveniently in place.
2. It teaches you writing discipline
You know those days when your characters are fighting you, your plot’s disappeared into a black hole of incoherence, and you can’t remember why you ever thought any of this was a good idea? Round these parts, we call that “Tuesday.” It’s so ridiculously common to fall in and out of love with the story you’re telling that there probably ought to be a word for it, but there isn’t***, and as a result it usually takes time for emerging writers to realise that it’s just part of the job. That’s largely because there’s nobody clamouring at them for the next draft.
Sure, it might take you a few chapters to build up momentum, but fandom is greedy and it tends to consume new fic like there’s a global shortage. Especially the long-form stuff: fic readers really care about these characters, and they’re invested in the stories they read about them. You have not known writing pressure until you’re three weeks late with a chapter update and the masses are getting rowdy on AO3. They will invade the comments section, my friend, and they will complain. Every writer has a different technique for making the words happen when the words don’t want to happen. That’s part of the discipline of writing. Posting fanfic is a great way to turbocharge the process of learning what works for you.
3. It’s enormously validating
On that note – the baying hordes thirsting for your words might sound intimidating (just… don’t fall behind, is all I’m saying) but I can’t overstate the value, as an emerging writer, of having that kind of validation of your work. This is the closest relationship you’ll ever have with your readers: they are right there, talking to you about the tales you’re telling, making sure you know how much they’re enjoying your story, speculating fannishly about what might happen next, swooning, hashtagging, and reccing you to their friends.
When you’re in the querying trenches, it’s a useful reminder that you’re good at this writing business. It’s tough to remember that sometimes. Fanfic might just be what you need to get you through.
4. Industry professionals have, on occasion, been known to read it too
Agents and publishers are fans too, and they represent or publish what they represent or publish because they love it. I’m not saying they all hang out on fanfiction sites but I’m not not saying that either. Sure, they’re not there looking to find the next 50 Shades of Grey (which started life as fanfic, by the way), but if they find work there that they love – who knows?
Don’t believe me? Well, I met my first agent in the comments section of a fic I was writing, so there’s that.
It’s not why you would write fanfic, and it’s not a great idea to write fanfic with the aim of being “discovered” and showered with riches, but it is a way of getting your work out there on the internet without compromising your publishability. Anything original you post online usually counts as published for the purposes of submitting it to journals or competitions. As a general rule, I’d strongly caution against putting original work out there that you could be using to further your career. But fanfic? Go nuts. And you never know who might be reading.
5. It’s a low-pressure writing task that reconnects you to the reasons you love to write
The very fact that you can’t monetise fanfic means that it is, at its heart, writing that you do without expectation. There’s a wonderful quote from author K.M. Weiland that speaks to what I’m trying to say here:
“When I was a child,” she writes, “I danced with my creativity. We went on so many adventures together, but I was never the one who led or commanded. If anything, I simply followed wherever my imagination led. Later, when I started writing down my stories, I began taking on the identity of ‘writer.’ In some ways, this was an important and wonderful transition into a greater consciousness of the art form and a responsibility for my own disciplined approach to the craft. In other ways, it was the moment when I stopped treating my precious creativity as a consensual partner and began placing demands upon it.”
Wherever you are on your writing journey, it’s a great idea to remember, every now and again, why you love this crazy, glorious practice. As we take on the identity of “writer” we put demands on ourselves and our writing – and this is good, it’s necessary, and it helps us to grow and evolve and improve. Fanfiction will do all of those things, but it doesn’t need to do them or to evidence the fact that they’re in progress. It’s writing for the love of writing.
And I think that’s kind of beautiful****.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve recently finished re-watching Season 1 of Our Flag Means Death and I have some fic I need to be writing…
* No, I’m not going to link to it because (a) I hate Twitter with the fire of a thousand suns, (b) for all I know the Tweet might have been deleted by now anyway and (c) assuming it’s still up there for all to see, I don’t want to filter any more ire her way; she’s had plenty already.
** With a couple of caveats. Firstly, there are some copyright owners who’ve explicitly embargoed fanfiction about their works. That’s their right and most host sites won’t accept fic written in those worlds. You should also know that song lyrics are often tightly controlled by music companies and you take a risk if you include them directly in your work. Then there’s the fact that authors and creators of the original works absolutely cannot and do not read their fanfiction (with very few exceptions) and for good reason: they can’t afford to open themselves up to charges of plagiarism if a canon storyline appears to borrow from a fanfiction work. This is not idle speculation: creators have actually been sued by fanfiction writers, so it’s now widely advised that they keep a buffer between themselves and the transformative works they’ve inspired, so that if they happen to independently come up with a narrative that looks unsettlingly familiar to one of their most devoted fans, they can truthfully defend the similarities on grounds of coincidence. To cut a long story short: they’re not going to read your work, nor are they going to steal it. And finally: while fanfiction is, technically, on dubious legal ground, the vast majority of creators accept it for what it is: an outpouring of love from the folks most likely to pay for and consume the product. You’re vanishingly unlikely to run into any legal issues for writing fanfic. And I say this as someone who has delved deep into the bowels of AO3 and seen the characters I adore placed in all manner of compromising situations – some of which are seriously illegal – and the creators have not so much as batted an eyelid. Just leave the song lyrics alone, is all. I really can’t stress that bit enough.
*** At least, as far as I know. If you know otherwise, PLEASE tell me. I will be so grateful, and I’m not kidding. IT NEEDS A WORD.
**** And if anybody wanted to write fanfic about either of my novels I WOULD BE 100% FINE WITH THAT. Hey, no pressure, you know. I'm just saying...
Tips, tricks & advice to help your writing shine
Blog updates on the first of every month.