What's up with fan fiction that doesn't suck?

I’ve been working up to writing a novel. I’ve published a fair amount of journalism and feature writing over the years, and I cherish the notion (right or wrong) that I’m a pretty good writer.

I’ve always secretly believed that if I worked diligently enough at the plotting (which I consider more craft than art), and if my literary style is as good as I believe it to be (stop snickering!), my novel would be publishable. Not huge, maybe, but sellable in at least the low-to-mid four figures.

This belief is partly based on the idea that it’s fairly difficult to write a novel-length work that’s worth reading. I know that lots of people crank out novels that don’t get published, but I sort of assumed that most of those novels are pretty wretched.

But now I’m not so sure. I took a look at some— um— coughHarryPotterFanFictioncough, just for, y’know, research purposes, and so far I’ve found two that are, frankly, fine. If some practical joker had typeset and bound the one I’m currently, er, researching, I might well have believed it was the real Book 7.

This has somewhat shaken my belief that novel-writing is hard. If an amateur fanfic writer—someone who hasn’t even bothered to turn pro— can whip up something that’s perfectly decent, then presumably the ability to do so isn’t that rare. What if being a novelist is like being Britney Spears: pretty much any a-hole can do it; it’s just a matter of who gets lucky?

If so, I should probably just throw in the towel now, as I’m not known for attracting the benevolent smile of Fortune. But the truth is, I can’t tell. So I’m asking: does the existence of good fanfiction prove that novel-writing is a piece of cake?

If it’s any consolation, my short stories are pointless and my attempts at novels suck.

Feel better?

Hmm. On reflection, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But it’s decent enough to keep me reading—and more to the point, more solid than some published novels I’ve read.

(Just thought I’d add that. I’d also throw in that I don’t consider Rowling’s prose to be more than workmanlike; matching it wouldn’t be that impressive an achievement. Not knocking her, but it’s not brilliant style that makes her stuff work.)

I don’t want anybody to beat themselves up—I’m not looking for an excuse to feel superior. I guess I’m more looking for an excuse to feel like the effort might be worth it.

What I really want to know is why somebody with a demonstrated ability to write a readable 100,000-word story writes fan fic instead of trying to publish an original novel.

Because sometimes it’s funner to paddle around in someone else’s sandbox and play ‘What If’. :slight_smile:

Kind of like armchair historians and enthusiasts – they play what-if all the time; what if a pivotal battle was lost instead of won, etc, and then try to figure out what might have happened within the established constraints.

A lot of the publishing industry is also based on who you know, predictably.

I’ve read some fanfic as well, and I’ve wondered the same thing.

I think that you’re underestimating how much easier it is to write fanfiction. It’s not easy enough that I’ve tried and succeeded, so I’m not putting down the craft at all, but there are a lot of things you don’t have to do with a work of fanfiction. The characters and setting are all there for you, and the basic premise on which you can base a work is in place.

Moreover, the fans are already there waiting. You don’t have to give readers a reason for why you’re writing a funny story about two people grocery shopping in Diagon Alley (or whatever!), they’ll read it because they already like the characters and enjoy spending time with them. You can post a short chapter at a time and people give you encouraging comments, which is a lot less lonely, I imagine, than slowly writing a 300-page book on your own over the course of several years.

What baffles me is the writers who basically make up their own fictional worlds, where the characters resemble the source material only in name and a few key details. Of course, it wouldn’t be honest to change those and try to publish the book as an original work, but I’m surprised that more people don’t try to do it. If you write a 200,000-word story about a very minor character in a book, why not change the name and make him/her into your own character?

That’s how Lois McMaster Bujold wrote her first novel. *Shards of Honor *was originally fanfic about a Federation officer who was shipwrecked together with a Klingon captain who was betrayed by his second in command, and they have to learn to etc etc. Once she had written it and thought it was pretty good, she decided to change “Federation” to “Beta Colony” and “Klingon” to “Barrayar” and “phaser” to “nerve disruptor”, and she suddenly had an original novel. It was helpful that she didn’t include any characters from TOS, just the setting, and the setting was easy to change.

Why do you think people who write fanfic are automatically inferior to you or published authors? How do you know that published authors don’t write fanfic? I know several, personally, who write fanfic in their “down time” when they’re not working on their original work. Many of them started writing in fandom and eventually went pro.

Secondly, why do you assume everybody who writes fanfic wants to be published? Fuck, I don’t know why anybody wants to be published, including myself. Imagine this: you spend six months to a year working on your masterpiece. You put everything you are in that work, and you’re extremely proud of it. You have a deep personal sense of satisfaction from finishing it, and you know that you’ll always count it as an accomplishment. You decide, “I want to publish this.” And then all your dreams come true?

Yeah, not quite.

First you receive dozens of rejections from agents. Then you receive dozens more. Then you try publishers and more agents. Maybe, if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll get something besides “thanks but no thanks.” Then all your dreams come true? No, not even close. Then you get to get raked over the coals by your editor, your line editors, marketing, book stores, and anybody else who wants a shot at you. Then you get to wait 12-48 months for your book to be released. You’ll become obsessed with reviews, especially the bad ones. You won’t get that call from Hollywood. People will promise to read your book, but they probably won’t get around to it. After the initial high wears off, you realize nothing has changed, your life is the same, and you’ve still got to write another novel. Maybe you’ll get a few dollars in the process. (Do I sound bitter? I’m not. Actually, I love my job. I am so lucky to do what I do, and I’m grateful for it every single day. But that doesn’t change the reality of the publishing world.)

So, why go through all that shit when you can just post it on your livejournal and it still finds an audience and people comment to tell you how great you are? I know many talented writers with strong voices who have zero interest in anything beyond fanfic. That doesn’t mean anything except that they don’t have the same goals as you–they could be 1000x better than you’ll ever be.

Finally, I feel like you have an inherent assumption that a person’s “original” work is superior or more valuable to fanfiction. Everybody’s work is derivative on some level. Even yours.

Having said all of that, it is a major accomplishment to finish a novel. Every time I finish writing one, I’m stunned. Every time I consider starting a new one, I’m overwhelmed. How does anybody ever do this? If you’ve finished one, you should be proud. But if you want to publish one, don’t get hung up on sending out your first one. Or your second one. Start writing your third one. When you’re finished with that, start writing your fourth…

There are other authors who have made the transition from fanfic to published author, too. Cassandra Claire is one; she was a big name in the fic community and got a book contract out of it.

Really, there’s no magical difference between professional and amateur writers, except one has had their work approved and distributed by a publisher and the other hasn’t. There are good ones and crappy ones of both types. Especially consider, in the SF/fantasy genre, the number of novelizations and stories-based-on, most prominently in the Star Wars & Star Trek universes. What’s the difference between these and fanfic? Just that the author got paid.

By the way, if you want some really good Harry Potter fanfic, and you don’t mind slash, look up Emmagrant’s works, especially the novel-length Left My Heart and its sequel, Surrender the Grey. Believable characters, awesome plot, and really hot sex :smiley: :smiley:

Yeah. What pepperlandgirl said. The thing is, I’ve already got a career where I have to agonize over sending out stuff to publishers, getting rejected, revising, and resubmitting. I don’t particularly want to do that in my spare time as well. I like being able to play around with stories, but most of the time I want it to stay play.

(That said, I’ve got an original novel in progress which I’ve been writing on and off – in between, you know, working on the actual scholarly manuscript that might get me tenure – and it takes quite a different set of writing muscles than you need to use when writing fanfic; there’s a whole lot more world-building and character-building to do, but on the other hand, you don’t have to think constantly about the source text, since there isn’t one. In a lot of ways, fanfiction is a weird hybrid between fiction-writing, literary criticism, and puzzle-solving if you’re doing it right, and that combination attracts some people who might not be as interested in fiction-writing alone.)

There’s no maybe about it: you get money in the process.

I’ve made $10,000 over the years writing science fiction. It’s not much per year, but it’s still considerably more than any fan writer will get. And my experience being published is nothing like what you describe; my novel sold 16,000 copies and was named one of the best first novels of the year by Locus and I generally get good reviews for my work.

As for fan fiction, some is certainly the product of talented writers who could be published professionally if they want to (and these usually leave fan fiction for fiction that pays). Most is not (Sturgeon’s law applies to it just as well as to everything else).

Well, I didn’t mean to imply that publishing doesn’t ever net a profit. It’s my main career and I earn enough annually from royalties that I’m technically the breadwinner in the house. (Yet there are many people who know my work know the fanfic first and foremost. Sure I don’t get paid for fanfic, but I get a different reward).

If the OP wants to publish with niche publishers or epublishers then his experience will be much different than what I describe–but that’s not the sense I got from the OP. I got the sense that he wants a New York publisher and while there are many good things associated with it, there are frustrating, negative, and even painful things, too.

I don’t know. A lot of fanfiction is AU (alternate universe), which means that it is pretty much original fiction.

I’m not sure if the OP has seen much of that and can comment.

Busted. Damn! :wink:

I’m certainly aware of that. However, there are also frustrating, negative and painful things associated with having no career at all. If you think the rewards of being a novelist are meager, try the rewards of washing dishes as a career.

I don’t have any illusions that it’s all beer and skittles. But let’s be clear: I’m not trying to decide between being a successful thoracic surgeon or a novelist. I’m trying to decide between being a novel-writing busboy or a non-novel-writing busboy.

And, to answer your first post: I certainly don’t think that published “authors” (I’ll go ahead and use the scarequotes) are better than fanfic writers, and if I gave that impression I’m sorry. (Actually, I thought that the whole premise of my OP was precisely the opposite: the discovery that some fanfic is better than some “real” fiction.)

In any case, I guess I understand what people are saying, that not everyone is dying to publish. It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around; if I’d managed to press my nose to the grindstone for long enough to write a 150,000-word novel, I’d want more than a few nice reviews and a bucket of nose-pulp for my trouble. But I accept that not everyone’s wired the same way I am.

I am surely very very lucky, but in my experience, I’ve found some terrific writing in my tiny corner of fandom. From what I’ve seen, many of the writers are either concurrently working on original novels or screenplays, or they’re just not interested in writing professionally. As mentioned above, sometimes it’s just fun to play in someone else’s sandbox. I write professionally, and as a hobby with original material, and have dabbled in fanfic. Sometimes one just needs to exercise different muscles, y’know?

BTW, FretfulPorpentine’s writing is usually among the examples I cite when recommending fanfic that’s better than/as good as the original source material. His/her stuff is wonderful.

Well, I can see that’s what you were going for, but it’s definitely not the impression I got from your OP with lines like this.

(bolding mine)

I took exception because that reads very much like damning with faint praise. “Well, if those people can do it, how hard can it be?” The answer to that question is “Pretty damned hard” and “90% of everything is crap” including published work. But I am a bit sensitive to the topic of fanfic, given my own experiences, the number of my friends and peers who write it, and the fact that there’s recently been another round of the always fun game “Published Authors Who Go Out of Their Way to Insult Their Fans, and All Fanfic Writers Everywhere.”

This is a good point. I know I skipped right over any fics about minor characters or original characters; I just wanted to read about the characters I already liked. The author didn’t have to convince me to be interested in the characters; that sale had already been made by the original.

I do think that it’s a useful exercise reading fanfiction, though, in the same way it would probably be useful to put in time as a slush reader at a publishing house: you get to see more mistakes. I’ve already run across a few things that I’ll try to remember not to do myself. It’s one thing to tell yourself you’ll try to avoid the errors committed by Tolstoy in War and Peace, but at my level it’s probably more useful to avoid the mistakes made by Henry Smurd in “Capt. Kirk and the Magic Boner.”

It is fairly common in fandom for people to take down their fic, replace the names, and try to get it sold. Sometimes it works, too. But a lot of the stuff you see that happening with is absolute shit, from deluded writers.

I don’t know how into the fandom subculture you are, but I’m totally fascinated with it*, and if you can write a good 150,000 word fic, you will probably become a BNF (big name fan), which, for some people, is what they’re after. It might seem ridiculous to you, but becoming a BNF, who is known throughout the fandom and whose fic and opinions on canon and fanon are respected, really does seem to be the ultimate goal of a lot of writers. (Although you’ll then run into people who say they don’t want to be a BNF because everyone watches everything you do, and then you get critiqued all to hell.)

What I’m saying, and I don’t know if I’m being clear at all, is that fanfic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s the result of fan interaction and a lot of the time, that is the only goal of the writer - to improve their status within the fandom community.

*I’m a nerd with a degree in anthropology. It really is a bad combination.

I’ve been in fandom since 1998. In that time, I’ve written fanfic for probably a dozen fandoms, and read fanfic from many fandoms. Fanfic is just like professionally published work in that 80% of everything is crap. The bigger the fandom, the bigger the amount of crap. Of what remains, some of it will be mediocre, some of it will be damn good, and some of it will be better than the source material it is based on. I can think of about 8 or 10 fanfic authors who are consistently better than damn near any published writer I can think of.

I’ve read fanfic that terrified me (Alara Roger’s Body and Soul) and fanfic that has made me cry (Poi Lass’ First, Do No Harm). Some of it’s sexy, some of it’s funny, some of it’s dramatic. All of it was written because the author had a story to tell with these characters, and put it online, free of charge, to be enjoyed by other fans. When I write, it’s for my own pleasure, and also because somewhere out there there might be another fan who would like to read this story.

I thought “Capt. Kirk and the Magic Boner” was a very subtle, thoughtful exploration of one man’s existential crises whilst grappling with deep-seated issues of sexual identity.