Fanfiction As a Writing Tool

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Most of you know by now that I’m generally a fan of fandom. I do all sort of analyses and I discussed some of the positive things that fandom (specifically fanart and fanfiction) can provide for people in this panel I was on last year.

Fanfiction and fanart allow for exploration of narratives that the cannon stories might not necessarily cover (for good or for ill). A portion of this involves non-cis, non-het, and non-white narratives.

Fanfiction particularly has been a part of my life ever since I started writing when I was somewhere between 5-7 years old (yes, I’m one of those), only I didn’t know it was called fanfiction. All I knew was that I liked The Magic School Bus and The Land Before Time, so I decided to write a story about both. Actually, they work pretty well in a crossover. Later on, I wrote about ThunderCats and then started dipping into original stories, most of which was “friend fiction” (no, not the kind that Tina Belcher writes). I also made up my own Sailor Moon OC and gave her a background story and everything.

Fanfiction is an excellent example of reader-response criticism–filling in the gaps that the author leaves, but it’s also productive in that the person writing a fanfic is creating something in response to consuming rather than merely consuming. About a decade or so ago, writing fanfiction was sort of a dirty little secret and those who write professionally/for a living rarely mentioned it. Today, many authors still place healthy boundaries between themselves and fanfiction, whether it’s fanfiction of their own work or fanfiction that they write. Others are more open about it and even use their real names (or the same pen name) for both fanfiction and their published work.

There are lots of good reasons for setting boundaries with fanfiction, some of them are legal and some of them are personal. However, I think it’s just a reality that more and more writers of my generation and generations to come will get their start in fanfiction. As time passes, it won’t seem like such a weird thing to do.

So what I want to talk about today is understanding fanfiction as a writing tool that helps us develop and tone our craft. Embracing fanfiction as a means of practice might help change the perception of fanfiction among folks in the more professional spheres of writing.

For the record, I do not in any way advocate selling fanfiction unless the work being fic’d is in the public domain OR all of the proper rights have been acquired (this is why we get novel adaptations and spin-offs of movie franchises after all). Additionally, some authors and other creators have clearly expressed that they don’t want people writing fanfiction of their work. A bummer (and frankly an outdated viewpoint to me), but that should be respected. There are literally thousands of other fictional universes to choose from anyway.

Fanfiction Gives You a Template

When you write fanfics, you’re playing in someone else’s world, a world with previously-established characters and rules. Thing like the magic system, the government, and the environment are already figured out. If you post your fanfic online, most of the people reading it will already know those details, so you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of time explaining them.

For example, if I’m writing a Harry Potter fanfic, I don’t need to include a long paragraph describing what Hogwarts is and how to get there unless it makes sense for the POV I’m using (like if it’s Harry during his first year and he’s still getting used to the magical world). This allows me to focus more on plot and how these established characters react to this new story I’m telling.

Depending on which universe you choose, fanfiction can give you a wide range of character types and personalities to work with, which is excellent practice for any types you have trouble with. If you’re not good at writing original mean characters, writing a fanfic about a mean character that you know can help you get a feel for it. If you’re not good at writing fight scenes with the magic and mechanics of your original world, writing one in a previously-established world can help you with flow and pace.

To be clear, writing fanfiction isn’t laziness. Just because someone writes fanfiction doesn’t mean they’re not creative enough to write original stories or that they should just take their fanfiction and make it original instead because that’s more worthwhile. Though some authors have found some success with scrubbing the bar codes and publishing an original book, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about using fanfiction as an exercise in the same way that you might respond to a writing prompt or spend five minutes describing a setting or any other craft exercises you might do.

I started doing Screenshot Sundays on my Tumblr. It’s a simple exercise where you take a screenshot of any movie, TV show, anime, cartoon, or game and write what’s happening in that exact moment. This can include describing the setting and/or getting inside a character’s head.

You can make them short like mine or extend them into longer pieces if you want. The point is to just practice writing and that practice can be more fun with fictional characters that you already like.

If we’re going to spend time consuming stories, we can make it worthwhile by doing something creative in response. It’s a more active way of tying our leisure hobbies with developing our craft.

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