Thursday, March 14, 2024

Fanfiction -- No Longer a Dirty Word in Fiction?

For this week's roundtable, let's talk about fan fiction. For a long time, it was synonymous with both "amateur" by professionals and "theft" by IP owners. But that has seemed to be changing as time moves on. So, this one is for all the fan-fic writers out there. Let's chat.

What is your experience with fan-fic?

Angelia Sparrow: I got into pro writing from fanfic. I have done a few filed off pieces (took an old Star Wars fiction, made Luke a girl and Han a cat-girl, kept the plot, changed the end)

Kay Iscah: I've written four or five fanfiction novels, including a perspective trilogy (same story from 3 different limited perspectives), a novella, and some short pieces. But I'm careful to separate it under a different pen name from my professional work, and think it's important to respect the copy right holder's wishes when it comes to writing fanfiction. I've also edited or beta read stories for others.

Ed Erdelac: I started out writing Star Wars fanfic and was eventually hired to write the real thing a couple of times. My last novel was a thinly disguised Friday The 13th fanfic. 

Bobby Nash: I started out writing the characters I knew and loved. That helped me learn the basics of writing and eventually it led to creating my own characters and telling their stories.

Jana Oliver: My first few stories were fan-fic though I never uploaded those so no one else has read them. All three were book length (a Dr Who and 2 Babylon 5s). My fan-fic proved I could handle plotting and the story structure, and so I started writing books set in my own worlds.

I do not read fan-fic, especially anything based on my main UF series due to the legal implications. I just ignore that those exist, though I was kinda jazzed when they first appeared.

Danielle Procter Piper: The most valuable thing I've learned in writing fanfiction is that another writer is going to jump you and nitpick your work, telling you how you're not following the original ideas to the letter. It's fanfiction. I can do what I want. 

Susan Roddey: Oh, do I have thoughts on this... Let me preface this by saying fanfiction writers are absolutely lifting IP from the creators. That's just the way of the craft. HOWEVER... I cut my writing teeth on fan fiction. Granted, most of it is terrible and will never, ever see the light of day beyond what used to exist on Livejournal and in old Yahoo! Groups, but it helped me learn how to write. When the rules of the world are pre-defined, it's easier to focus on technique - dialogue, plot, characterization, etc. I took what I learned playing in others' sandboxes and used it to create my own original work.

Nope, wrong kind of fan.
Jason Bullock: I have had a little experience with fan fiction of owned IP. I have written several novellas and short stories of public domain characters. My family has written several works of fan-fic of sci-fi television series however. I have read several fan-fic series including sci-fi from movies and television for entertainment as well as creative inspiration.

Maya Preisler: I’ve been writing fanfic for about thirty years, though it’s only recently that I’ve started “publishing” stories on AO3 for others to read. My most popular work is an ongoing epic series that currently has around 263k words and around 16k page views.

Bertram Gibbs: For several years, on top of my original stories, I was given the chance to write a few DC Comic stories for this online fan fiction group. My first was a tribute to the 80s Justice League series (‘The Return of BWAH-HAH-HA’) where Plastic Man, Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) Booster Gold (with Skeets) take on Lex Luthor using their combined powers of annoyance. That was because DC didn’t want to publish the novel (rubes). It was so well received, I was invited to write a few more (a time travel Batman story and a JSA piece). And if invited here, I’ll be more than happy to share them with you.

What are the pros of writing fan-fic that you've experienced?

Maya Preisler: First and foremost, fan fiction has become a form of self-care for me; it allows me to escape to another galaxy and process my thoughts and feelings through fictional characters. Fan fiction has brought me several friendships, including meeting one of my readers at DragonCon. Having a community of readers who value and support my writing encourages me to persist and continue long past when I would normally have abandoned a story. I also cannot overemphasize how good it feels as a writer to wake up to comments, kudos, and other notifications. Receiving positive feedback is also an excellent dopamine boost.

Additionally, writing fan-fic assists me in growing and developing my skills. As someone who often gets mired down in the details while writing, fan-fic empowers me to practice by skipping the steps (like naming characters) which would normally cause roadblocks for me. This allows me to focus on the details of my writing such as foreshadowing, grammar, word use, dialogue, descriptions, and even story flow. After two years of consistent fan-fic practice, I can see already see where my writing has improved.

Susan Roddey: I think the pros are very much what I mentioned above -- it's a sandbox. You don't have to worry about keeping the details of the world straight because those who would read your work in that world are already familiar with the rules. It takes a large part of the stress of writing off the table so it becomes easy to pick the skill you want to develop and practice. I learned character voice by emulating well-known characters. I learned how to build a plot by fixing the things I saw wrong in the properties I love. It also gives writers a sort of neutral ground to play with gender identity and sexual orientation because again, the rules are set but can be manipulated so long as you keep the changes within the confines of the character's predefined personality. It does also create a sense of community - a place where people can belong. It's a fantastic arena for outcasts because we can find common ground among other outcasts. For the most part, it's a very accepting and loving community. I met nearly all of my friends as a result of fanfic communities.

Danielle Procter Piper: The benefits of fanfiction are that it's good practice writing, immediate feedback, and can help establish you as an author worth following.

Bertram Gibbs: It’s refreshing to write stories that I feel have yet to have been explored in the comics and enhance known characters. As a writer, there’s always that ‘what if’ moment where an interesting story comes from your soul and you hope that the writers of the stories you hold dear will share that thought. And when they don’t, you know that it’s up to you to put those thoughts to paper (or computer), to experiment with the beloved characters physically and/or emotionally, and create unexplored twists.

Kay Iscah: I think fan-fic can be a good training ground for writers. It's functionally not much different than franchise writing, except you have fewer rules to follow and no hope of a paycheck. Using another writer's characters well involves study of those characters and building a deep knowledge of their world. Fan fiction writing at it's best is a pure love of the characters and the craft of writing. It's writing for joy and not profit, a modern version of retelling stories around a campfire.

Jason Bullock: I have found inspiration creatively with fan-fic. I have written several fan-fiction stories in scripts for fan comics, including Star Trek Next Generation, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, X-FILES, and Murdoch Mysteries. I found writing those particular IPs gave me the challenge to put myself into the experiences of exotic universies helps me stretch my range. Meek characters, hubris-ridden oligarchs, otherworldly interloper, all were subject to me writing them in inside their own skin. How would they act? How would they talk? Why would they react to situations they would be placed in? These are a few of questions that I would need to familiarize myself with about the characters I was writing.

Bobby Nash: It’s good practice. It’s a fun hobby. You can polish your writing and maybe translate that into getting a professional writing gig.

What are the cons of writing fan-fic that you've experienced?

Kay Iscah: At it's worst, it's amateur porn, exploiting characters for name recognition.

And that's really the worst part of fanfiction. It's often thoughts without filter, which is one thing for your diary and another when sharing it with other people. Particularly for sexual titillation. My worst experience was being in fan group for a Star Wars character. Another person who seemed normal in forum conversations asked me to read her story, and it was just a graphic description of a gang rape using established characters. And I don't mean the story included a difficult scene. I mean there was no story, just a scene of gang rape with no warning that the content was explicit. I believe I was a minor at the time as well, though the person who sent me the story had no way to know that.

Ed Erdelac: I've personally found that so-called fans aren't particularly supportive of anything that isn't given the licensor's official stamp of approval or that doesn't go for broke and use the exact names of everything. Even then, there are perceived tiers of licensed fiction. All in all, too many amateur gatekeepers. I don't think I'd indulge myself in it again.

Jason Bullock: Conversely speaking to the answer of the previous question, I am limited in the level of changes to the characters beyond the established paradigms put in place by the original author. No permanent body modifications, no personal alteration that would destroy existing cannon, or death of lead characters is allowed when writing fan-fic.Bertram Gibbs: Finding a place to show and share your stories and get feedback to see what you could have done differently or, being a writer, get a modicum of praise because our egos could power a third world country (I know mine is).

Maya Preisler: For me, I’ve noticed it’s easy to become accustomed to the praise and positive feedback to where I feel less secure in my writing when no one is actively cheering me on. I’ve also noticed that the dopamine reward of posting a chapter is much quicker than publishing a short story (not to mention a novel), which makes me more likely to want to write fan-fic than the five original WIPs I have going.

Bobby Nash: I run into way too many people that think they can publish their fan fiction and make money off of it. That’s when fan-fic becomes theft and the publishers/IP owners start cracking down. If you do fan fiction, know that it cannot be sold. You don’t own it.

Danielle Procter Piper: The pitfall was discovering the person mentioned in the first answer. 

Susan Roddey: Readers are brutal. If you get even the smallest details wrong, fanfiction readers will absolutely level you in the most savage way possible. However, I think the biggest con is that there's a belief now that "if you can write fan fiction, you can change the names and call it original," and that's not always true. There has to be a differentiation between your world and theirs. You can't just scrape a few details off the top and pass it as new. There also seems to be a trend of fan-fic "rules of writing" bleeding over into original work. I see a lot of readers and editors complaining about things like point of view (fanfic rules don't widely accept an omniscient narrator in my experience), and many techniques that were used by the older writing generations appear to have been pushed out of popular use.

You'll have to forgive my soapbox moment, but as a con, one of the worst for me is the concept of real-person fic. Fictional worlds and characters don't bother me in the slightest because again...not real. Made up. There for the daydreaming. But I have seen some truly creepy things written about real people that toe the line of questionable. It's a worrying trend to me because it perpetuates the idea that celebrities "belong" to the fans. Maybe it's just me, but it makes me VERY uncomfortable.

How and why do you believe the world of fan fiction is changing? Do you see it becoming more or less acceptable to the reading public?

Jason Bullock: The acceptance of fan fiction is filling the void of mediocrity and overuse of story themes or clichéd elements presented to them in media across the board. With writing strikes involving established media outlets, you and I are always looking for that next great literary concept to share with everyone else in the paradigm of our favorite universes. Fan fiction is becoming accepted even more so in a wide range of target audiences. Children's fables to adult slasher stories, fan-fic is meeting the creative needs of many in today's story desert.

Kay Iscah: I think people are becoming more aware of what fanfiction is, particularly as we connect more with strangers who share our niche interests online. When I started writing fan fiction, I was a kid before the internet and thought I was the only person who did such a crazy thing. My first hope had been becoming a franchise novelist, but for Star Wars, you had to be invited which meant establishing yourself as an author with original work first. I even wrote a letter to Lucasfilm and got a polite rejection and a book mark.

Even some copyright holders have learned to embrace it as a way to keep fan bases engaged between releases. Like at one point Lucasfilm had fan film competitions and Pretty Little Liars experimented with letting people monetize fanfiction through a program with Amazon.

I think it will always be seen as amateur because it is amateur, and that's the fun of it. But a hobbyist knitter may still be excellent at their craft. The campfire storyteller may keep you spellbound. Monetization is not always a mark of quality. High point of my fanfiction career was having a librarian tell me that she like my version of Harry Potter's last year better than Rowling's.

However, I still know I was playing in Rowling's (or Lucas's) world. If I want to be ranked among the great writers, I can't just be a good wordsmith but also be a world builder.

Bobby Nash: As I mentioned before, there are folks out there trying to sell stories with characters they do not own. The publishers and IP owners then crack down and inhibit the fan-fic hobby for everyone.

Maya Preisler: I believe that as preservation of fan-fiction through online archives continues, along with support for legal protections, fan-fiction will become more popular and acceptable to the reading public for a variety of reasons.

First, I think fanfic provides readers with a lot of possibilities that aren’t as feasible in mainstream publishing because it eliminates a lot of barriers. Fan-fic is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, the text can be enlarged or turned into an audiobook with any screen reader, and it can be translated to someone’s native language in-browser. Additionally, fan-fic allows for the extension of comfort media, empowering fans who are craving familiar people and places to enjoy new stories within the safety of their favorite fandom.

Second, fan-fic has also historically been more diverse and inclusive than published media, as it allowed for the creation of works which would have been banned under the Hays Code or simply never considered publishable for containing certain subjects.

Third, fan-fic allows a fandom to evolve and adapt media franchises into something better. Many dedicated fans have already retooled several problematic IPs into alternate versions far better than the original ones ever could have been.

Fourth, the myths and legends which once collectively belonged to humanity are now owned by a handful of media companies and that number is actively growing smaller and smaller. Fanfiction reclaims the collective ownership of these cultural myths and returns them to the hands of the public, empowering us to former deeper personal relationships with them as we imbue them with better representation and deeper meaning.

Susan Roddey: It's absolutely becoming more acceptable, particularly with the awards bestowed on AO3 as a whole. There are absolutely some gems on that site, but there are also some pretty terrible things. I also believe that fanfic as a craft is on the upswing because people have less money these days and it's always (or at least it should be because we get into serious legal issues if it's not) free to read.

John L. Taylor: While I haven't written outright fan-fic, I'll weigh in with this. Works that become part of a culture's heritage are ones that have fan input. Creators like H.P. Lovecraft and George Lucas understood this, and their worlds have flourished for decades after their contemporaries faded. Star Trek had a very similar experience where fan writings of many kinds brought a dead IP back to life. It's weirdly important to a work becoming remembered and passed on to future generations. Mythologies begin that way, and fan stories make the difference between myth and a limited IP. Case in point: the SCP Foundation stories. The entire IP is literally fan fiction based on a random Reddit NoSleep post. Yet it is one of the most vibrant shared universes ever written. Let fan-fic thrive

Bertram Gibbs: I see more fan fiction sites popping up, but I also see what appears as stories that break the traditional characters and the way history has presented them. Some use LGTBQ angles, which while good are not truly showing the characters we love and respect. They are unnecessary twists that do not enhance the story and (I feel) are designed for shock value. Not saying that there isn’t an audience for these stories, but it feels like the focus is not on the heroes or villains or the hearts of the stories, but wish fulfillment of the writers.

I think that fan fiction can be more acceptable if there were more known and publicized sites that invite new and old writers to contribute, giving their spin on known characters, and to develop new, interesting and entertaining stories.

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