My long, strange history with fanfic
I started writing fanfiction when I was eleven years old without the slightest idea of what it was. I kept writing it, on and off, for the next 10-12 years, for various fandoms—Star Wars, Final Fantasy, and Lord of the Rings primarily—and never published a single word.
I didn’t know there were communities where people wrote this stuff; I didn’t even know there was a term for it. I honestly thought I was the only one, and it felt like I was doing something wrong. I held this view for years, in a large part because I had no one else to talk to about it. When I did find out that fanfiction was a thing (and I found out what the actual term was), it was actually from this image. (As you can see, not the best resource, that.)
What little I learned about fanfic during high school and college was from sources outside the fanfic community, so I honestly thought all fanfic was something on the level of “My Immortal” with occasional forays into slash smut. As you can imagine, this did not do much to change my view that I was doing something “wrong,” and so I told absolutely no one that I wrote it.
It wasn’t until 2009, when I got more involved with NaNoWriMo, that I met people who were actively involved in fanfiction communities. For the first time in my life, I was talking to people who actually wrote fanfic, and weren’t coming to it with the biases of an outsider.
And over the next few years, I shed my own prejudices and came to realize a few things.
First, I hadn’t been doing anything wrong. Writing fanfiction was just one of the ways I chose to interact with the source material that I loved.
Second, I saw just how much of our media could be classified as fanfiction. Granted, you’ll see it called something like an “adaptation” or a “reimagining” or a “modern twist on a classic tale,” but it ultimately boils down to the same thing: taking someone else’s story or characters and expanding on it or giving it your own spin.
And third, I finally understood just how much I’d learned from writing fanfiction and how instrumental it had been in my development as a writer.
Fanfic lesson one: How to write in different voices.
As you saw above, I wrote fanfic in a number of different universes, which were all different kinds of science fiction and fantasy. What I wrote for LOTR, by necessity, had to sound completely different from what I wrote for Star Wars, which was different from Final Fantasy.
Not to mention with that many different characters, I had to learn how to make their voices sound unique and, just as importantly, in-character. Otherwise, the story just didn’t work.
Fanfic lesson two: Practicing story structure.
Structure was something I learned the basics of in college, but writing fanfiction was where I practiced and applied it. Since I wasn’t being graded and I wasn’t writing for publication, it didn’t have to be good. And because I didn’t have to come up with characters or a world or relationships or any of that, I just had to focus on getting the structure right.
Plus, by writing something to match, say, an episode of a television show, I learned where the beats of the story needed to fall, where to break with a cliffhanger, where to ratchet up the tension and where to ease off and let everyone breathe. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that gave me a pretty good foundation for the more advanced structure lessons I’d learn later.
Fanfic lesson three: How to finish.
Before I started writing fanfiction, the longest story I’d written had been less than a thousand words. I wanted to write novels, but I would just…never finish when I started them. The first long story (read: more than 20,000 words) I ever finished? Fanfiction. The second and third stories? Also fanfiction. It took me three years to do it all, but I finished.
And the year after that, I finished my first original novel.
Would I have learned all this eventually? Oh, yeah. I’m sure I would’ve. But I’m also sure that it would’ve taken me twice as long to learn some of these lessons if I hadn’t been writing fanfic. Fanfiction can be an extremely useful writing tool, and I’d encourage every writer to give it a go.
Have you written fanfic? What have you learned writing it?