I’ve brought this up a little bit in posts here and on social media, but I think it really deserves to be explored a little bit.
While I have various feelings on fanfic and have had various personal experiences with it, there is something that I’ve noticed, and it’s one of the things that’s propelled me to jump in and really explore it as a medium.
Writing fan fiction isn’t the same as regular writing.
Now before you jump down my throat, bear with me. This isn’t going to be a post of me slamming the efforts of people who obviously are just as emotional about and devoted to stories as those who publish original fiction. However, there are some major differences in process that has a lot to do with a very big difference in timeline.
When I write a story to send to a publisher, it’s me and my keyboard or notebook or napkin and pen or whatever. I’ve got to map everything out, figure out what the basic plot is, decide if the characters are working or need to be restructured, figure out the pacing, make sure I’ve edited the manuscript enough to prove I’m a thinking human being – the usual.
I may use beta readers – maybe – but with my particular slant on things, I’ve had a hard time finding betas who will bear with me and believe that I actually know where I’m going with things. I may talk things out with friends or people I’m using for research. I don’t belong to official writing groups, but that’s an option, too. At the end of the day, though, it’s me and the manuscript until it’s all done – whether that’s five thousand words or a hundred and fifty thousand. I won’t know how the general public feels about my story until it’s out there and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can make assumptions about what will go over well, who they’ll get attached to in my cast, and all the rest. I can work with an editor, with betas, with a publisher, but the truth is once it’s out, it’s out. That’s it. Except for promotion, which I’ve likely got to do on my own, as well, without the help of cheerleaders and people helping me because they’ve been involved chapter by chapter and are just as attached to the story as I am. All I can do is work my tail off and hope and pray and move on to the next story.
Now, obviously, a major difference with fanfic is that the world building is done. The pressure’s off for the most part unless the author decides to build up a huge AU piece. That’s why fanfic can be good training wheels for those who really want to write: the author can focus on building effective characters and a strong plot.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s always been the case a little bit, but it’s especially true now. There’s another player in the fan fiction world besides the writer and the fandom. The audience, the love of certain fandoms and pairings, but also, one other little thing…
Now, there are some writers who will knock out big chunks of story ahead of time and post little by little, yet the trend is/has been to post chapter by chapter. This also gets you more hits, more comments, more replies, more likes, more kudos, more attention. And with the comments are usually people weighing in on what they love, they’re feelings overall, and the debate about what they want to see next. Yes, I know, there are plenty of people who will tell the author not to listen to haters (do we even still call people that?) or even well-meaning criticism, and to just do what they’re doing and write the story their way.
Call me cynical, but at some point it’s human nature to start listening to your audience, especially if it’s going to get you just a little bit more attention, especially if you’re writing in a fandom with pairings or plots that everyone else writes, too. Yes, community is important, but let’s not pretend that it’s not even just a little bit competitive, because of course it is.
The thing is, whether the author chooses to make use of this or not, it’s a little easier to figure out how to slant your story when you can get instant feedback chapter by chapter. It’s also a hell of a big encouragement when you get bunches of people giving you pats on the back and encouragement with every chapter you write. Hell, I wish I could hire a group of people to applaud me every time I knock out something, that’d be awesome and only marginally creepy.
The serial gets kinda close to this, except for the fact that fanfic is free and there are a ton more people obsessed with and ready to focus their energy on established worlds and the people in them than random original work. You write something with a pairing people are nuts over in a fandom people love? You’re golden, dude, you’re going to be told you’re amazing for a long, long time.
I may have experience with that one…and I can tell you it’s a big fat letdown when you find out the real world doesn’t work that way. It’s hard, man, especially when you kill yourself putting out a book you absolutely love, and you’ve had huge responses on your fic before, and then the public’s reaction to your sweat and imagination, your hard work, your baby is essentially: “meh”.. Those who publish original fiction know how hard it is to get reviews out of people, or even get people to crack open your books. I cannot tell you the amount of people I’ve had buy books from me and then admit to never reading them. Now, don’t get me wrong, thank you for allowing me to eat. I love that, that’s awesome, please keep that up. However, long term, if word of mouth fizzles, that’s pretty much the end of that.
With the fanfic model, not only does the author get constant encouragement, but the readers are constantly rewarded. Request fiction is becoming a big thing, and there are always people ready to help new fanfic authors with ideas and thoughts if they get too nervous or write themselves in a corner.
Honestly, it’s no wonder Fifty Shades of Grey succeeded because it started off as fan fiction. That’s become a joke, but think of it. You already have a tested audience who has let you know exactly what they like in your work and why they like it. They have held you up every step of the way, and if they know it’s based on a pairing they love anyway, of course they’re going to go purchase it when it’s transformed into an original work. Not only that, but because you’ve hardcore tapped into what people want to see in a pairing (I’ve noticed this really, really works with romance-themed stories or stories with high angst), it’s easily translated to the general public’s desires. It wasn’t just that women were comfortable reading about a very weird interpretation of bdsm that seemed safe and approachable to them. It was that it was written in a way that was already tuned to somehow press everyone’s buttons. Plus, there was a built-in street team with the fan fiction community, because if there is one thing fanfic gets right, it’s that the communities for each fandom can be big and intensely protective.
However, that example aside, there are problems. As an author, I like my autonomy. I don’t do requests and I never have. The moment I start trying to hit what I think people want (submission calls aside), I freeze up. I have problems. I do not like other expectations renting space in my head. I basically know what I’m doing, and aside from a select group of people who I trust, I’m not going to let the world weigh in on a work that’s supposed to be mine. It took me a good three years to stop getting comments regarding one specific work, and that wasn’t even in a big fandom. People were upset about my update speed, people wanted things to go a certain way, could I stop what I was doing and write certain characters for them?
I want no part of it. I just don’t. I do things for me, and while I’m grateful for the appreciation and the compliments, I don’t like to feel like they come with a catch.
That’s actually one thing that drives me a little crazy about fan fiction. How can I know if what I’m reading is good? Is it because it’s set in a world I love and the author is that amazing at reinterpreting it or is it because they’re really good at listening to their audience?
It’s not all that different from those who write niche fiction for a very specific audience. They learn what people like, pay attention to trends, limit themselves to a small area, and write the crap out of it. I can’t necessarily argue with numbers – be it cash or comments, but it still makes me wonder what the author can actually do. I don’t want to read people trying to work the system, honestly.
Now, there are fanfic authors who take everything completely from themselves and are damn good at what they do. I’ve known some and I’ve seen others. More and more, though, as we get more and more connected, it’s almost becoming about being a mentalist for your audience, which honestly takes away some of the fun.
At the end of the day I may not have ten pages of reviews on each of my books and I may not know chapter by chapter what people thing, but my books are mine, the product of everyone I’m influenced by and my own bizarre imaginings and machinations.
However, do I think there’s something to be said for being that connected with your audience? Definitely. Do I think it’s awesome that newbie writers of any sort can find that sort of empowerment and encouragement? Rock on, that’s fantastic. I really think all of us in original fiction ville could learn a few things from how strong community is in fan fiction and find a way to tap into that for outreach and street teams.
However, I’m also careful to mention when I do fan fiction panels or field questions from people whose only experience is writing fanfic, that no matter what you hear from self-publishing gurus or your friend’s friend’s uncle who knows someone in publishing, the real world isn’t like that. Unless you get lucky or have hella great connections, you’re not going to get five thousand comments every time you put out a book, let alone bit by bit of the book. Often times you’re going to have no idea what people really think of your work. All the decisions about when characters should fall in love or if the villain should be an antihero or if so-and-so should turn into a cat for five chapters…that’s suddenly all completely on you.
Original fiction isn’t just a marathon. If you want it to be a long-term career or even side career it’s a series of marathons. It’s a lifestyle of going from city to city and running marathons, except there may only be three people on the side of the road cheering for you in the whole of the race. You find out really quick what kind of a runner you are, and if the race (your idea, your art, your life as a writer) is important enough to keep going when you cramp up and want to die or if no one shows up.
There are good and bad points to each type of writing process, and there’s no one right answer to it all, of course. I get that fanfic writers potentially face a ton of self-imposed pressure to stay on top in their circles if they’re not writing just as a fun little thing to do in the evenings. Being constantly told what people think of your work every time you put up something new isn’t easy, either, especially if you have an idea in your head and then feel pressured to change it because of public opinion.
I do think, however, that it’s time for original fiction writes to stop treating translated (originalized?) fanfiction as a fluke, because, in truth, it’s probably already been beta-tested to hell and back and been turned into something that’s definitely going to please at least one group of people and probably more.
I also think it’s important for fanfic writers to realize that this isn’t how things work in the real world. You may get lucky with one story or one string of ideas, but sooner or later people are going to be waiting for your next work, and then it’s all on you. Sure, you’re in charge of your own work, but that means you also get everything that comes with it.
So what about you? Do you feel one type of writing has it easier than the other? Is there a way to combine community with process to form a super-writing model? Am I totally off the mark? Let’s hear about your experiences!