(Original image by John Towner on Unsplash)
[Note: This is the second part of a three-part series; part one is here]
I started publishing fiction professionally about fifteen years ago now. The first story I technically got paid for was a $5 piece of erotic SF microfiction (big ups to Circlet Press) and from there I answered a few of their themed erotica anthology calls, and from that point we were off to the races. My first SFWA pro rate sale was to Strange Horizons (big ups to Strange Horizons) in 2011 and things proceeded from there.
Once I was getting short fiction published pretty regularly—and I started work on the first novel I got published—I experienced a shift in creative identity that I imagine a lot of us go through, especially those of us who have this sort of romantic vision of what it is to be a Serious Writer. I was in the big leagues now! I was doing it for real! I now understand how misguided that way of thinking was in many respects, although I also have a huge amount of compassion for Past Me, because it was a completely understandable way to think.
I was still writing fanfic at that point, off and on. I was also involved in a pan-fandom role playing game on LiveJournal (which later moved to Dreamwidth when LiveJournal fell to the Russians and the great fandom exodus began in earnest). To briefly explain, if you have no idea what I’m talking about: LiveJournal was/is a blogging platform that allowed long-form comments, so what one would do is create an account as a fictional character and then essentially round-robin an exchange with another character in comments written back and forth, each from the perspective of your own character. I know it sounds maybe a little cumbersome, but it was actually extremely fun and fluid once I got the hang of it. I made a lot of friends (one of whom ended up being my co-author on that first published novel) and I did a lot of writing that I’m still very proud of.
Although I also did some pretty cringy shit. And you know, I wish I hadn’t, but I’m glad I had a relatively safe space in which to get it out of my system. And who among us, etc. etc.
So there was that, which I think counts as fanfic of a kind. And then I was writing and posting other stuff.
(The specific character with which I was spending most of my time in the pan-fandom game and the other stuff I was writing is another one of those things which will become salient later on, so let’s put a pin in it.)
Point is that I was in a bit of an odd transitional period, where I was still a fannish author but I was also becoming an Author author. And one of the really unfortunate developments which occurred as a result of that is that I started to devalue fanfic.
I started to consider it as a fun thing which maybe generated some good work but really, I shouldn’t be focusing on that, and in fact it was perhaps a little embarrassing and not something I ought to emphasize and definitely not something I should really talk much about or put on a level of my professional work in terms of pride or quality. I started thinking of it as a form in which it was fine to start, and even to continue to dabble in, but if one wanted to be a Serious Writer, one ought to move away from it if not cease writing it entirely. One certainly shouldn’t consider oneself a Serious Writer if that was all one did.
I even—and I sincerely regret this now—started to look down on writers who focused on fanfic and didn’t make any attempt to break into the pro sphere. This has actually been something of a source of shame for me in the years since. As I said, I try to have compassion for the version of me who didn’t know better, but thinking about this now makes me angry at myself. It feels petty. It feels like it was coming from a place of profound insecurity—and in fact I think it was. Insecurity is the bane of a lot of writers; I suspect a deep-seated insecurity and a need for external validation is part of what compels many of us to share what we write with the world. To a certain degree I’ve made peace with that in myself, not least because I don’t imagine it’s ever going to totally go away. But that doesn’t mean it should get to push my thinking in directions that don’t serve me or the people around me. Which is what happened.
So what changed that for me? Some of it was simply getting more mature as a person and as a writer, and gaining some much-needed perspective on my own creative process. But the other big thing is that, partly because of that fandom roleplaying game I mentioned, I got heavily into The Walking Dead.
Which isn’t, like, the most prestigious fandom to be in? I don’t think I’m imagining the sense that there are some canon which are generally deemed fine to get into, and then there are some which are, for a variety of reasons, kind of a little embarrassing. I think some of this comes down to what it’s considered acceptable to care a lot about, and a stupid zombie show (my personal Tumblr tag for it literally is “stupid zombie show”)…
But for better or worse, I fell for it, and I fell hard—and for a specific pairing (Daryl Dixon and Beth Greene, RIP my ship that sank to the fucking bottom of the canon ocean, you deserved so much better).
Daryl in particular is one of those characters I tend to latch onto. Not totally sure why that is, but looking back over my creative brain literally as far as early childhood, I think there is simply a certain kind of male character who embodies traits that speak to me on a deep level. I suspect a great deal of it is actually to do with imagination and gender identity, and with how I’ve processed my own as a nonbinary-and-mostly-internally-transmasculine person.
(Put a pin in it.)
A number of other things occurred around that time which sent me into a bit of a state of emotional upheaval and made me dive into writing as escapism—most significantly the 2016 election and going through some intensely wilderness-heavy patches with my doctoral dissertation. So, partly in order to cope, I wrote. Mostly I wrote fanfic. I wrote it constantly. It absolutely poured out of me; there were days when I found it difficult to stop working on whatever happened to be the focus at the time. I wrote missing scenes, I wrote AUs, I wrote things where the whole canon proceeded differently. Yeah, it was this pairing (and a few others), but something else was going on, something a whole lot deeper. I was really working some shit out in these stories.
The stories were also—in my admittedly biased opinion but I also don’t think I’m wrong—really fucking good. They were some of the best work I’ve ever done. They still are.
They also stretched me in some genuinely surprising ways and took me into some places I probably never would have even thought to attempt otherwise. The one that especially stands out—begun in March of 2015 and completed in September, clocking in a bit under 400,000 words—is I’ll Be Yours For a Song, which started as a cute little contemporary romance AU… and rapidly turned into a sprawling coming-of-age odyssey about family and abuse and sexuality and love and healing and what it truly means to go through that last.
I do not write contemporary romance. Ever. I don’t even consume it; nothing against it at all, it’s just not a genre that really appeals to me. I also don’t write coming-of-age narratives.
But this story. This fucking story. Writing it was an extraordinary experience. I genuinely went through a period of bereavement when it was over and I could no longer work on it. It’s also the first thing I’ve ever written where the reader response went far beyond “I really like this”: I had people telling me that it was helping them through seriously tough times, that it was helping them process trauma, that it was literally changing how they saw some things.
One reader got a fucking tattoo inspired by it. I mean. What the actual fuck.
So it wasn’t only that it meant a lot to me, and it wasn’t only that I thought the work was very good. It was that for the first time in my life as a writer, I was creating something that felt like it mattered to people on a level that went beyond enjoyment and appreciation.
And it was fanfiction.
It was completely unpublishable (filing the serial numbers off was never an option; I wouldn’t have wanted to, because the characters and the fact that it was freely available to everyone as part of a gift economy meant too much to me, but also because the story relies heavily on poetry and songs—Mary Oliver and ‘90s alt rock specifically, there’s a whole thing with a broken radio that never plays anything else—and I imagine the copyright issues would be completely unworkable). For that reason, I knew—or strongly felt—that it would always be difficult to talk about in mixed company. There would likely be a sizable contingent of people who think the way I used to, who would listen to me describe how important this story is to me and how good I believe it is, and then learn that it was fanfic and roll their eyes inwardly even if they were too polite to do it to my face. Aren’t I a Serious Writer? Shouldn’t my creative emphasis be elsewhere? How good can it really be if it’s not original?
At 39 I think I’m finally starting to move into a place where my attitude really and truly is fuck those people. I mean, I’m writing about it here, now, which is a kind of explicit professional stream-crossing I never would have had the courage to do before, although I’ve also never exactly made a secret of the fact that I write this stuff, and as I said, I know the stigma has lessened a good bit. But it’s still kind of scary. It still feels kind of like a Thing Which Is Not Done.
(Really, my entire life to date is a case study in That Which Is Not Done, so whatever.)
There were so many others. Safe Up Here With You and Everything Where it Belongs, in both of which I pushed my fucked up psychological horror writing far beyond where it had gone to that point. The Good Stars, my gigantic wildly ambitious canon rewrite—which is ongoing even now, something like five years after I started it. Countless one-shots and smaller multi-chapter works. And, yes, a metric ton of smut.
Good smut. I’m proud of that smut, dammit.
As always happens eventually, I drifted away from the fandom and the canon, mostly moving on to the Dishonored video game franchise, within which I’ve done a bunch of other stuff that I’m extremely pleased with (including what is and perhaps always will be the single most fucked up thing I’ve ever written, as well as another which is probably one of the sweetest). I’m still poking at that canon these days. But.
Then came COVID. And around about the fall of 2020, writing stopped being fun and flow-statey and started just being… work.
This is when I started being afraid that maybe the good times were over. It’s always been less of a job for me to slide effortlessly into writing fanfic than into my pro stuff (no, again, I do not think it’s that fanfic is “easier”, I don’t totally understand what’s going on there but I think it’s more about emotional connection and feeling safe with a readership) but suddenly I couldn’t make it happen at all. Oh, I still wrote, fanfic and pro stuff alike, but I was writing a lot less of both, a lot slower, and as I said, it simply wasn’t fun like it used to be.
Then, a week before my 39th birthday, something absolutely wild happened which proved my worst fears to be wrong.
And this is where we go back to all those pins, and where we’ll pick up in the final installment of this.
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