Let’s take a moment to appreciate the little device you have sitting in your lap, or in your hands, or however you are reading this article. The advent of the Internet is wonderful, changing the way most of us live, learn, work, and generally function. I was around 11 when I first stumbled onto Fanfiction.net, roving the internet for fan sites about Teen Titans and Kim Possible. 11-year-old me had been writing for awhile, putting down small stories about unicorns and my pets on construction paper. Fan fiction was an eye-opener though, cracking open a wide, wild world of writing communities and editing teams. This is why I would spend the next five years working out of several fandoms and writing groups with my own creations. Fanfiction was a weirder spot for fans then and gets a bad reputation to this day. A wasted effort at best, and a niche corner for fandom smut at worst. Fanfiction writers still had a bad reputation with the publishing company I worked for, which was ironically inspired into existence of one of the world’s most successful fanfics, 50 Shades of Grey.
I’m far from alone though. The art of fanfiction dates back to old fanzines and stories passed around conventions. Many published writers talk about their early experiences writing fanfiction, and as the next generation comes into its own, many of its young authors describe similar early days writing for Sailor Moon, Star Wars, and Harry Potter bases. Fanfiction has changed into a sort of training ground for authors, allowing them to set their own building blocks for fanbases and inspire their own new headcanons. The experiences and efforts I personally had with fanfiction made my later transition into novelist a lot smoother, and my own first steps into real marketing easier. The fun, fandom-based things I did truly shaped the way I write and create today, and so, here are the five best things I took away from those days.
1. Your Plot; Someone’s Else World
In Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, there are several great pieces about ‘playacting’ and the costumes authors wear while they are learning their craft. The articles describe the importance of recognizing that we will emulate in order to come into out own voice. I’ll be frank when and say no one is original to start: we do not come into creativity like gifts from God, we learn it by way of imitation. We are Dr. Frankensteins in our own right, taking pieces and parts from the stories we love and clumsily stitching them together, Fanfiction might be the safest place to practice this art since it is not only embraced, but considered a major part of said writing. Characters and landscapes can be borrowed in favor of crossovers or AUs, giving young writers a space to experiment with their own ideas, masquerading under a story that already has the stage set. The same rule applies to RP writing in ways (something I’ve also done), which allows participants to craft stories in a pre-crafted world, giving them the freedom to experiment and make mistakes as needed. Good writing, after all, only comes from the lessons we learn about how not to write.
2. Early Critique
No one likes critique, I suspect. We, at best, understand that critique is important to improvement and not usually personal. Nevertheless, there is always that moment before you open a new review or a message from a beta-reader- that second where your blood runs cold with dread. Fanfiction was no exception to that rule, and depending on where you found yourself in a writing community, you could expect as much critique as the average editor. There is art to giving an honest critique, and a humbleness you learn by taking one. Some of my earliest criticisms came from writing fanfics, and they were hard to take for awhile, though they benefited my work in the long run. I learned what was an important critique and what was not. They also toughened me up by the time I started sharing my original work, which still gets its fair share of critique; I was much better prepared at that point though (…mostly anyway).
If one thing gives authors more anxiety than critique, it is the prospect of marketing. The complicated, technical, and infuriating world of promotion has only grown with the advent of social media, opening avenues for wider audiences with every new profile we build. One of the earliest lessons you gather when writing on sites like Fanfiction (and even bigger sites like AO3 and Wattpad) is that marketing is key. Outreach is your friend and community building as much your strength as the words you write. Without realizing, I got very good at planting roots and gaining readers, making efforts to be a part of the fandom and making connections along the way. A finger on the pulse of your readers and fellow fans means you can predict what they may want, and what’s more, how your voice fits amongst them.
4. The Mary Sue (or Marty Stu)
You’re looking at that title, and probably thinking: “There’s nothing remotely positive about a Mary Sue! They suck as characters!” And I agree with you, which is why they need to be written. At 13, I had two original magically-inclined characters for both my fanfictions and RPs that were almost identical in power, personality, and appearance (including colored highlights/black hair, since “you won’t let me do that myself, Mom.”) The Mary Sue and Marty Stu are natural parts of creative process, since all first writing endeavors become autobiographical- you don’t escape that. In a lot of ways, you never really escape it, since characters continue to represent parts of yourself: the Mary Sue is just hyperactive, undeveloped version of this. Much like borrowed landscapes/stories, fanfics are one of the safest places for young writers to unleash the self-insert character, giving a space to cobble together early characters and learn how characterization works. We may flinch at them now, but Mary Sues are the just early steps toward truly interesting characters. Expressing them is how we to grow out of them.
5. Writing for You
While a tad contradictory to all the previous talk about marketing, it’s good to remember that all writing is first and foremost about you, and what makes you happy. Stories are often thankless, tireless, busy things, with little reward for efforts (even when it comes to published work). Fanfiction is written for free and sometimes, in the wake of big numbers and larger readerships, we get wrapped up in putting out what we know will bring crowds. The few times I tried this almost killed my interest in any writing, given how passionless my fanfic work became. Readers are amazing, and popularity is always fun. Still, no matter the base you work with and no matter how popular you are, it is so important to write what you love. That spark is what keeps us writing through fanfiction and well beyond it, when all else fails. And really, skill reflects best when we are true to ourselves.
What are your experiences with writing fanfiction, and do they still reflect on your writing now? Are there any other benefits (or drawbacks) to a background in fanfiction?