fanficLast week, when talking about how Agents of SHIELD seems to have been written like it was MCU fanfic rather than a true member of the franchise, I mentioned that fanfic isn’t a bad thing and can, in fact, be quite beneficial. It occurs to me that this probably deserves extra attention.

Yes, fan fiction can be beneficial. It’s a great way to encourage creativity, practice writing skills, and generally provide a sandbox for fans to play in.

It’s also a type of fiction that is notoriously riddled with bad writing. We’re not just talking about grammar and spelling. We’re talking about fiction that, quite often, shows little understanding of plot structure, character development, setup and payoff, or even why the source material it draws on is told the way it is.

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It also exists only at the sufferance of the copyright holder. I actually talked about this briefly a year and a half ago. You can only publish your fanfic as long as the copyright holder deems it appropriate (or at least not worth the bother). You might say “But I’m not making any money off of it, so it’s okay!” This is not how copyright works. It protects more than just the owner’s ability to make a profit. It’s intended to protect the integrity of the owner’s property. If your use of the property threatens the owner, the owner has the right of way.

The reason fanfic survives is mainly because of two things, one obvious, and one not so much. The obvious one is that no one can police the Internet (even if the US government is trying). Once something is out there, it’s out there. There’s no way that anyone can prevent original fanfiction (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) from existing.

The not-so-obvious source of fanfic survival is, frankly, it helps the original author.

The more people who are writing fanfic, much less reading it, the more people who are eager to lap up anything to do with their fandom. It’s a way of creating true fans. but the copyright holder doesn’t have to do a single thing. It’s free advertising. As long as the fanfic doesn’t just post the original content, that original content is still needed to understand, or at least appreciate, the fanfic. (Very good fanfics can be read by those with absolutely no prior knowledge of the original content, usually because the fanfic writer knows how to make a good story. Usually, though, the writers assume you know the stuff they’re talking about, because otherwise, why would you be looking up amateur stories in your favorite fandom?)

This doesn’t mean that authors will read your fanfics, mind you. Most people already know about the legal considerations, but think about this as well: take all those times that some fanfic has messed with your favorite characters in a way you didn’t like, and then imagine that you created the original story. Personally, I think the best way to torture J. K. Rowling would probably be to strap her down and force her to listen to random Harry Potter fanfics.


Same thing for George R. R. Martin, but focus on stories where everyone lives. Oh, the burn.

A long time ago, I wrote a lot of fanfic. Most of it never saw the light of day. A few got viewed by some friends. Only one got publicly posted online. (Unless you count the Forgotten Realms RPG character’s backstory that I posted to a forum over ten years ago, which got read by Ed of the Greenwood himself, who then encouraged me to take that character and put him in a world of my own making because I was publishable. It never happened, but it was, shall we say, confidence-boosting.) Most fanfic writers write because of the same reason I wrote those other stories. Something got stirred in my brain, and it needed to come out. Maybe it didn’t come out fully-formed, armed and armored, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but the important part was that it needed to come out. And after a while, the urge faded, and I lost interest. I got what I wanted and wasn’t interested in actually telling the story to anyone other than myself.

Most fanfic is like that, whether or not someone posts it online. Sometimes, though, you get people who can tell a great story — or who want to tell that story so much that they learn how.

That one story I posted online was an X-Men: Evolution fanfic called Maverick. I started it when the show was in its second season, but it was years before I posted anything online. Part of the problem was that I went through two hard drive crashes in that time, and lost two versions entirely. I didn’t want to write anything, because I felt certain that the second attempt couldn’t possibly be as good as the first. Yes, I was that green, once upon a time.

Maverick, however, stuck with me. More so than almost any story I’d attempted before or since, I didn’t want to just tell the story to myself. I wanted to share it with others. Being forced to rewrite it from memory, not once but twice, meant I revisited where the story should start, what the story was about, and why anyone would find it interesting. It meant I had time to think about character motivations, plot flow, and the way I presented action. It also meant that I spent time looking at the original source material — both the show and the comics it was based on — to see where it went right, where it went wrong, and what I could steal. And, perhaps most importantly, how I could adapt it into a seamless whole.

My writing skills improved to the point that I got fed up with my early chapters. I wrote most of it during college, and after I graduated and was looking at it while not concerned about exams — and, not coincidentally, when I first picked up a side job looking through a publisher’s slush pile — I became disillusioned with it. Not because I didn’t like the story; I just didn’t like my writing.

I eventually stopped posting, because it was too difficult to continue. Friends encouraged me to change my mind. I actually still get notifications that people have subscribed to my story, either not noticing that it’s been five years since an update or maybe just in the forlorn hope that I’ll return. I hate that version, though.

Yes, there’s another version. I never posted it, but I eventually started a rewrite. A true, honest-to-goodness, from-scratch rewrite, making it the fourth version (not counting the numerous edits I did to version three). And right there, as I forced myself to make the effort, I discovered truly how beneficial fanfic writing can be.

Fanfic lets you skip a lot of work and focus on storytelling. Ann Crispin described it as the literary difference between swimming in a heated indoor pool compared to swimming the English Channel. (She was specifically talking about the challenge of writing Star Trek novels compared to an original setting; but face it, Star Trek novels aren’t canon. That makes them professional fanfics.) Writing a fanfic means the characters are already there; and if you create your own, then you have to figure out how they fit in. The setting is already there; if you go to a new place, it still stands connected to the more familiar areas of the story. Only the plot truly needs to be new, and here you still have the advantage of a world based around familiar characters and events, and you can study the original to see how it works.


I never finished Maverick, even though I had pages and pages of outlines. I once estimated that it would be the equivalent of roughly five novels of at least 300 pages each if I were to write all that was in my head. I still want to tell that story. The reason I haven’t wasn’t because I didn’t like it; I just wanted to work on stuff I could get paid for.

I also started encouraging people to write fanfic. In fact, the only rule I gave my workshop students is they can’t give me fanfic that covers anything I edit. (Conflict of interest.) I tell them that the best way to understand what makes their favorite stories tick is to actually take them apart. If they can reassemble it in a way that works, then they understand how stories function. If they change a character’s backstory, how does that affect the character in the “present”? If a story is set in England and they move it to the US, what has to be discarded, and what becomes a new necessity? What if the story gets told from another character’s perspective, a Watson-style chronicler whose different perspective colors what the audience reads?

When I was writing Maverick, I got a lot of enthusiastic comments, and sometimes they would mention the quality. I thought about that for a while before making a general reply on the topic. Was I really that different a writer? Yes, I was good. That was easy to tell. But was it really just innate talent?

After thinking about it for a while, I came to a conclusion that I’ve never shaken since. Yes, I’m good at stories. I have to be, as an editor. But the thing that truly made a difference was the point at which I decided that writing a fanfic was no excuse for less than a full effort. I refused to let myself accept something that was merely “okay,” but instead held myself up to my then-standard of “publishable.” That was the point where I started treating the story as a responsibility rather than just something I’d dump on the Internet for people to read.

fanfiction article 2Of course, it was also the point where I started looking at my writing so critically that I began hating it. That’s a danger, but it’s a necessary one. If you want to write a fanfic and do it well, you have to treat it as if it’s your own stuff and you’re going to get paid for it. Anything less isn’t practice for the real thing; it’s doodling in the margins at best.

One of these days, I want to go back and finish that story. It’s unlikely, considering its planned length, but it’s there and it’s waiting. Plus, it’s important to keep your hand in. I’ve noticed even the biggest authors occasionally needing to take a break and do something without the pressure of full creativity. It’s the same reason that artists will keep a sketchbook and make simple drawings which have no relation to what they’re officially supposed to be working on. Just because it’s a sketch doesn’t mean it should be sloppy; and just because it’s not the “real thing” doesn’t mean it has no benefit.