Five things fanfiction taught me about writing as a career and five things it didn’t

I got my start writing fanfiction.

Actually, that’s not completely true: I got my start in writing as a six-year-old by putting together a series of stapled colored-pencil picture books about a magic flower. Also by concocting long and extremely involved epic storylines with my model dinosaurs and my Lion King action figures. But after that: fanfiction.

I get the sense that writing fanfic – in one’s past and even more in one’s present – is still a somewhat stigmatized activity among professional fiction writers. Probably less so than it used to be – more and more authors are coming from backgrounds in fanfiction, or are at least willing to talk openly about it – but still, I feel like admitting that I’m one of those amounts to making a slightly uncomfortable confession. Oh, you’re one of THEM. Like it’s something that I should be embarrassed by.

The truth is, fanfiction taught me a lot. The truth is that fanfiction has probably played a huge contributing role in getting me where I am now. I met my Line and Orbit co-author through a pan-fandom roleplaying game on Livejournal; we learned to write together through playing with each other’s characters, and we learned that we enjoyed it enough to embark on something original and novel-length. So it hasn’t been a waste of time, and it hasn’t been without value.

But the truth is also that there are several very important things that fanfiction didn’t teach me. That it couldn’t teach me. And I think anytime we’re discussing the value of fanfiction in writing fiction in general, we also need to be very clear about its limitations.

So here’s some of what it taught me – and some of what I had to learn on my own.

What It Taught Me

  • There’s a lot of crap out there. Seriously, the vast majority of what you’re going to find in any fandom is pretty bad, or at least solidly mediocre, and the larger the fandom, the more I think this tends to be the case. It’s tough to find the gems in the midst of the incredible amount of crap. This is where rec lists and word-of-mouth come in handy, and it turns out that this is totally how it works in original fiction as well. It’s something that’s useful both when you take your first plunge into a slush pile and when you get something published and watch it flounder in a vast sea of other stories. I’ve frequently seen the estimate that around 90%-95% of any sizable slushpile is going to be unpublishable. Think about it: every editor/lowly slush handler must, as a large component of their job, sift through all that crap. You wish it was fandom; at least in fandom no one has to look at the awful stuff. If what you write isn’t crap, you’ve at least cleared that 5%-10% hurdle, but the picture is still pretty goddamn grim. And then if you make it out of the massive pile o’crap, you’re still one story in thousands, and you rely on the same recs and word-of-mouth to get noticed that you relied on in fandom. It’s tough, is what I’m saying. You’ll find that a theme.
  • (Real) feedback is invaluable. Okay, in fairness, some people never learn this. For some people, “feedback” amounts to OMG I LOVED THIS SO AMAZING <3333333333333 and they get all butthurt when they don’t get that, and I’m not sure what can be done for those people. But for the people who really take constructive crit seriously, who take full advantage of the wealth of beta and community-editing resources that fandom offers (for free!), this is a lesson well-learned. It’s incredibly valuable when you start submitting for publication. It’s even valuable when you get your first bad review. Speaking of which:
  • Not everything you make will be universally loved. There are always going to be people who don’t read or overlook or just flat-out dislike your precious shining gem that you know is amazing, and their reasons may be very stupid. They’re still their reasons and you need to get over it. It’s tough sometimes to let go of the intense conviction that THEY ARE WRONG AND THEY NEED TO UNDERSTAND HOW AND WHY THEY ARE SO INCREDIBLY WRONG but it’s a losing battle. Don’t fight it. The right people will like your stuff. If they find it.
  • Characterization is incredibly important. If you’re borrowing someone else’s beloved characters, and you’re writing about them in the context of a community that’s devoted to loving those characters, you better make sure that a) they’re recognizable as those characters, not just as stick figures with nametags on, and b) that the way they behave and think and feel is consistent with what everyone knows about them. This gets useful later on with your own characters because of what it teaches you about motivation; even if all the other pieces of a good story are present and correct, it’s a serious mood-killer when your characters don’t feel like consistent people and/or do things for no readily apparent reason. These are people. You need to make them live and breathe. This is true even if they aren’t people that came from your own head-storm.
  • Know your field. If you’re going to write good fanfic, it can only help you have some sense of the shape and size and culture and content of the fandom within which you’re writing. This is because it pays to get a sense of what ground has already been trodden, what’s considered cliche and what’s considered worth paying attention to, and also because often inspiration is sparked by reading someone else’s work. In addition, you get a sense of where the vibrant minicommunities are, where you’ll probably be best served posting your stuff. The same is true of whatever genre you’re writing in. Know what’s been written about and what’s being written about now. Know the big players, both authors and markets. Know how to position yourself to be doing both exciting and (ideally) profitable stuff. And above all, learn about what stories you want to tell. What’s exciting and fulfilling for you. You can’t possibly know all of that unless you have some context for what you’re doing.

What It Didn’t Teach Me

  • You have to be psychotic.  Seriously. If you’re going to spend as long as you’re probably going to have to beating your head against the giant spiked Rejection Wall, you have to be at least a little bit out of your mind. Or at least a little bit of a masochist. This business does not encourage or even reward sanity.
  • You have to make people care. When you’re writing original fiction, you don’t have that ready-made audience that fanfic gives you. You can’t just jump in with your characters doing things, with very little background, and expect people to give a shit. They need you to give them a reason. You’re going to have to find a way to do that, and fanfic really doesn’t help you very much there. I suppose one could make an argument for AUs filling at least some of this gap, but even there you’re going into things with a group of people who are very much ready to be won over by whatever it is you’re writing, especially if it’s not crap. With original fiction it’s almost always a fight. You have to go into a story making a case for why what you’re doing matters. Learning this is incredibly good for your writing, but coming out of a background in fanfiction, it can be (surprise!) very tough. It’s probably one of the things that I found – and am still finding – most difficult to learn.
  • You can’t live on positive reviews alone because guess what, you might not get many. Or any. See above, with that stuff about feedback. Fandom – at least active fandoms – are great places to get comments that will make you feel good about yourself. All those warm-and-fuzzies turn out to be really inspiring when it comes time to churn out your next 500k-word thirty-part AU where everyone in Supernatural is gay cybernetic dragons on a starship (has someone actually written that? Wait, what the hell am I even saying). Sometimes you get really lucky and write something that everyone loves and can’t wait to tell you how great you are. But mostly? Not so much. Maybe only a few people like what you wrote enough to tell you. Maybe no one does at all. Point is, you need to be able to soldier on regardless. Let’s be honest, we’re all in this for ego-strokes, but don’t ever count on getting that particular fix.
  • It’s all about making bank. This is one of the single worst things about agent-hunting: You send in a query, you get a response asking for the full MS, you send it in, and you get a reply saying that the agent really loves your book, like really for real a lot… but they can’t buy it because they don’t think they can sell it. And you’re like. What. WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING. But it does happen. A fair amount. Turns out: In fanfiction, it’s all about the story. Love of the characters, love of the writing, love of the work for its own sake. There’s really a kind of purity about that. But in the actual business of writing, publishers – most of whom also love books – are in it to make money, so even if they adore your 700-page epic fantasy about a society of moles living in the English countryside and worshiping a magical stone (true story: this is actually one of my favorite books ever and I will never understand how it was published), they probably won’t make any money off it, and if they don’t make money they don’t eat. And neither do you. So.
  • It takes for-effing-ever. When I found out the average time from acquisition to publication for most books I thought I was having one of those tiny strokes where suddenly you can’t read numbers anymore. It’s not weeks. It’s not months. Try two to three years. And this is at big New York publishing houses. Line and Orbit (COMING OUT NEXT TUESDAY PREORDER YOUR COPY HERE sorry sorry about that I can’t help it) is being released by a largeish publisher that primarily deals in e-books, and it took about nine months from the day we signed the contracts to NEXT TUESDAY ahem for it to get on digital shelves. And the print edition still won’t be out for at least a few more months. This is standard. This is even kind of quick. Even short fiction markets sometimes buy stories months and months ahead of time. And this is after you spent Odin knows how long trying to sell that shit. By contrast: You write a fic, you send it to betas, you do some fixing-upping, you post it. BAM done. Like a week, maybe. I realize that this isn’t always how it works, but still. So this was something I had to get used to. And it was (OMG I BET YOU CAN’T BELIEVE IT) very tough. Still is.

So again: this is not in any way to diminish the value of fanfic in training the next generation of Amazing Writers (I think we should all buy capes). I believe it’s very valuable and I’ll fight to the death anyone who says otherwise. But it doesn’t do everything, and if you’re planning on making the transition it isn’t frictionless. There’s going to be some stuff you have to work on. Some of it not obvious.

Oh, and by the way: You totally don’t have to stop writing fanfiction once you start publishing original stuff. Anyone who says otherwise is a mean jerk who doesn’t want anyone to have a good time, so don’t listen.

3 responses to “Five things fanfiction taught me about writing as a career and five things it didn’t

  1. OMG, possibly best article on writing / being a writer, EVER! Great article, thank you!

  2. Sunny Moraine

    Hahaha, thanks so much! Though, for someone who does this kind of thing about fifty times better, I’d take a gander at Chuck Wendig.

  3. Simply want to say your article is as amazing. The clarity
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