An (un?)needed defense of fanfiction

On Mondays, I’ll do a routine blog update with stuff that I’m working on, things relating to the writing world at large, and just my own meandering thoughts.

I always like to start off my blogs talking about fanfiction because it’s how I got started writing-writing. Before the book deal, before the longlists, before the MFA, before the dozen publication credits, and before even my first forays into original fiction, there was fanfiction. I’d write fanfiction of shows/series I enjoyed. Pokemon, Harry Potter, Animorphs, Final Fantasy, and even Grand Theft Auto.

Around ninth grade, I started playing a game called Tibia. A Germany-based MMORPG with a gameplay that even my pitiful 28.8 (shout out, Prodigy) modem could handle. It was World of Warcrack before World of Warcrack and Lord knows I played it for far longer than I should have. BUT. I found it fun. And since it lacked the lore that game series like The Elder Scrolls and Warcraft had I thought to fill in those gaps with my own ideas. And so I decided to write fanfiction.

Because to hell with narrative structure, this is where I’ll tell you what fanfiction is. Fanfiction is basically playing in someone else’s sandbox. Someone already created the setting and the characters and now all you do is use that. Before your left eyebrow starts going all the way up consider that this is something that’s been done time and time again in literature. What do you think Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy and the Aeneid are? Current authors like Neil Gaiman, Rainbow Rowell, Naomi Novik and Cory Doctorow have either written fanfiction or still dabble in it.

Why do people write it, though?

And we’re back to Tibia.

pictured: me, in white armor, trying to avoid getting mobbed by every single yellow skull around me. below, in guild chat, my guild leader steaming mad that I didn’t listen when he told me not to go to the city. My use of MSN messenger and the WinXP start bar should date this picture.
my brother and I doing a random quest

I wanted to write Tibia fanfiction because like I said, I found the lore wanting. I thought of constructing a story to fill in those gaps. This is where I deviated from the usual course of fanfiction writers in which I decided to just take my ideas from this particular sandbox and put them to good use in my own fantasy project. But if I had stayed the course I could have come up with some pretty good ideas to benefit the game itself.

Some established authors like George R.R. Martin would argue that it’s not a proper writing exercise. I’d hate to disagree with someone who’s been in the business as long as he has but to write it off like that is a little bit silly. Every rule you need to write a good piece of fiction exists in fanfiction. And imitation exercises are bread and butter for anyone learning to write poetry. I remember at least several assignments I turned in during my poetry workshops were variations of writing imitations of poems from established poets. Hell, so many poetry books have “After XXXXXX” homage poems. I know in my own manuscript I have two different poems, one as a nod to my friend Lupe Mendez’s Aguacero poem and another as a direct reference to a line my friend Bryce Bennett said while talking about Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Are those poems bad? What about covers?

Which version is the superior? Dolly or Whitney? Simon and Garfunkel or Disturbed? Trent Reznor or Johnny Cash? Prince, Sinead or Chris?

But back to literature proper. Fanfiction has a storied (ha, get it because stories ha i am comedy genius) tradition. Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy are Bible fanfiction. The Aeneid is Homeric fanfiction. And they’re not the only ones. So whatever argument to be made against the literary potential of fanfiction is basically thrown out the window. Now I’m not going to say that if you go to fanfiction,net right now you’re going to be able to immediately find Miltonesque worth but that’s much more because of Sturgeon’s Law than it is about talent.

Okay, so is there money in it?

Yes and no.

Yes in very, very, select circumstances.

No, in most circumstances.

So, no.

For a brief moment of time there was Amazon’s Kindle Worlds where Amazon paid authors to write fanfictions of things like Veronica Mars, Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, and a few others. That’s been shut down. Then there’s the curious case of 50 Shades of Gray and The Mortal Instruments. Both of which started as fanfiction (Twilight and Harry Potter, respectively) before the authors re-skinned and re-packaged the stories as individual works. I don’t know if I’d do the same with my own because as it stands whatever connection I had to the original source of inspiration is molecule-small. (But I’d be remiss not to mention it lest I be accused of hypocrisy)

Anyway, money. Fanfic authors will not receve a single dime for their work. Some might even get flak from the authors (like Anne Rice) for writing it. It’s purely a labor of love. A lot of my friends are Firefly fans and devasted with the whole canceled-after-one-season bit and fanfics help with that. Others want to rewrite Supernatural beginning from Season 5 where it went off the rails. Others just want to wonder what it would be like for Captain America to stop by a Stripes and get a breakfast taco.

And it’s all okay!

One time, I was giving a workshop on flash fiction and I made the argument I made above, that a lot of the things that make fiction good will make fanfiction good. It just takes away the guesswork when it comes to developing characters.

You don’t have to write it, you don’t have to like it. But it’s been there, and it will continue to be there.

Also, even assuming all the bad things about fanfiction were true, that it’s not “Real writing” and whatever…consider the following XKCD strip.

xkcd: Rock Band

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