Thoughts on Fan Fiction
This morning I woke up to this question on my GoodReads page from a reader named Sarah:
I was perusing fanfic websites (as I do in my free time) and I can't remember for sure which one it was (it was like 1 am but I think it might have been Archive of our Own) but I realized that your book/trilogy is one of the fandoms listen in literature (I haven't ventured further in but I wasn't sure if you already knew) also, (on this topic) what are your thoughts about fanfic? Is it cool to see others ideas?
I started to type up an answer, and it got so long I decided this would be an excellent thing to blog about. Here goes:
Wow. What a thing to find out is happening.
I love fan fiction on so many levels. As an author, there are few higher compliments. Readers love my characters so much that they spend their free time with them and in the world I created. Voluntarily! The goal of an author is always leave the reader wanting more, even while satisfying them at the end of a book or series. Check.
When it comes to a series, too, authors know how hard it is to wait for the next book. This is a whole new level of anticipation. It does add pressure, though, and in the active stages of writing, most authors will avoid reading any kind of fanfic. Imagine cooking up a huge and complicated feast for all your friends and being so excited by all the surprises you’ve planned and how happy you are about to make everyone. Then, in the middle of this multi-layer preparation of food and decoration, you go on social media and see your friends posting how excited they are. Awesome!
But then you start seeing things like, “I’ve been dreaming about the perfect potato salad made with X, Y, and Z,” and “I spent three days decorating my own house with A and B because they are my favorite things about the last party, and I added my own special touch of C!” All of a sudden you doubt yourself. The new things you were planning now seem risky. That potato salad does sound really yummy, but it doesn’t really fit with your menu. Will people be mad when you don’t at least make something similar? Maybe you should try to make it work. And you start tearing apart your plans, including what you’ve already done.
Some authors can handle this, but I don’t think I’m one. I will never explore fanfic of my work until it’s behind me, and probably far enough that I’ve stopped caring about reviews because I’m on to my next thing. Knowing it’s out there, though, is a huge ego boost and very motivating. Writing is often a lonely venture, and you swing back and forth between this is the best thing ever written to I could take a crap on this and no one would notice. Often several times in one day. So, not going to look.
Outside the author, however, there are huge benefits to fanfic.
Writing something 100% from your brain is hard. You have to invent characters from pivotal to passing. The world has to make sense on planet-wide and single room scales. Events have to lead logically from one to the next, and they have to be compelling. On top of that, putting all this into coherent, beautiful words and phrases is extremely difficult and takes practice, often years’ worth.
If you want to write for publication (or even just for your friends), that’s too much to tackle straight out of the gate. But a book you’ve read and love has characters and worlds already built. It even has storylines begging to be explored. Writing fanfic gives you a place to practice the skills you need to develop. It’s like learning to swim in shallow water with floaties before diving into the ocean. Way more fun and way less scary.
I can’t tell you the number of published authors who started out writing fanfic. It’s literarily a playground that builds your writing muscles and brings you joy. Win-win.
Fanfic writers can also meet others in these forums who share their love of writing and particular kinds of stories. Do you know what these people become? Beta readers and critique partners. You will need both if you want to be published.
Additionally, if you’ve ever heard the expression “kill your darlings,” it means as an author you must ruthlessly destroy any scene or character who does not add significantly to the plot. This does not apply to fanfic, however. You can write scenes that are fun and tear your heart out but don’t really go anywhere. I promise you, authors write their own fan fiction. It just ends up getting cut from the final draft.
Is there a downside to fanfic? Yes. It can build hopes in the writer (and their readers) that can be horribly crushed when the next book in the series goes in a completely different direction. This is where you can argue what the optimal amount of time between publications is. I leave that question to better minds than mine, but I will say I am not a very fast writer. If you want quality from me, you need to be patient. Also if the author chooses to promote a particular fanfic (or alternatively, destroys a fan theory) that can get ugly. Most of the time when authors read, they don’t acknowledge.
Lastly, fan fiction has to be free and completely for fun. You as a writer can’t make any kind of money, whether or not you’ve solicited it. The world and the characters belong to the author, not just ethically but legally. You can get sued, so don’t do that.
Otherwise, dive right in. Doggy paddle in my pool and make friends. Become a strong swimmer and then head for the beach to conquer that ocean.
I’ll be cheering you on every step of the way.