Fanfiction: What and Why?

What?

You’ve probably comes across the term lately, thanks to successes like The Mortal Instruments series and the Fifty Shades trilogy. It’s pretty easy to parse the term ‘fanfiction’: fiction written by fans. The concept has been around for decades, even longer by some definitions. But what is it, really?

Fanfiction is stories written by fans, for fans. That’s an important definition that we’ll come back to. It takes established characters and/or worlds from an existing book, movie, or TV show to continue or alter their stories. Usually it’s because readers want more of something or desperately wish a storyline had turned out differently. Other times, their imaginations simply take flight. Elizabeth Bennet in the 21st century, what would that look like?

What can be daunting or dismissed about fanfiction is the passion. Communities, or fandoms, can be tightknit and feel like a different planet. It certainly has its own language, generally, and specifically.

A Quick Primer on Fanfiction Terminology:

  • Ship: A relationship or pairing, platonic or romantic. It doesn’t have to exist in the source material, but could be an idea.  The slew of Draco and Hermione fanfiction in the Harry Potter fandom is a good example of the latter.
  • Canon: Original source material, be it book, TV show, movie, etc.
  • OTP: One True Pairing, that despite other entanglements these two people truly belong together. Can be canon or not- no one can argue your OTP.
  • AU: Alternate Universe. A story that is detached from canon. It can start after a certain canon point or be wholly separate.
  • Crossover: Mixing fandoms in a story, such as Downton Abbey and Jane Austen’s Emma.
  • O/S: One-shot. A vignette or stand-alone piece, one ‘chapter’ in length.
  • Het: The main couple is m/f
  • Slash: The main couple is m/m or f/f
  • Lemon: Highly sexualized stories, often written simply for a pairing to have sex. Porn without Plot.
  • Endgame: That a pairing or situation will be realized in the end of a story/show/movie. Example: Carrie and Mr. Big in Sex and The City were endgame.

The list goes on! Each fandom also has its own shorthand. I come from the Gossip Girl fandom, so you hear Chair, Derena, Serenate, and NJBC thrown around a lot. We know what it all means, but someone new is probably going to have to ask.*

Why? 

You may dislike the thought of fanfiction because you feel it insults the original creator or muddies the literary waters. So why should you care about fanfiction?

Let’s go back to that definition: Stories written by fans, for fans. Access to information has accelerated time and shrunk the world. You are reading this on the Internet, so I know you know this is true. So tell me the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. If you don’t like Ovid, you might know Shakespeare’s AU fanfiction instead: Romeo and Juliet. Anyone wondering what a late 20th century Emma Woodhouse might look like need only turn on the 1995 film Clueless. As for the 21st century Elizabeth Bennet? Check out YouTube’s innovative series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Fanfiction is what it is because of the ease of access to and sharing of information and ideas.

Why is fanfiction good for published authors? A new market – there are fandoms you could identify that would like to read your stories. For authors and voracious readers, it’s a win-win situation.

Copyright can be a concern. Authors like Anne Rice, Nora Roberts, and J.R. Ward expressly forbid fanfiction, where others, like J.K. Rowling, embrace and nurture it. Fanfiction written in a world still under copyright cannot be written for profit. This is why there are plenty of Austen spin-offs for purchase, but why you’ll only find Twilight fanfiction online (sort of…). However, with the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, fanfiction has become a for-profit proposition for certain fandoms that are still within private domain.

But there is something lost in translation when dollar signs come into play. Look at the definition again: Stories by fans, for fans. Fandoms are communities and the people there want to know you’re a part of that community. Talk to them, pay your dues, and contribute. Whole shows and ships exist because fans organized and fought for them. There are fan awards and art exchanges, look at something like Leaky Con or Comic Con to see what fans will do out of love, and not profit.

The best thing about fanfiction and being a writer is the freedom. Skip world building and character creation. Write a crazy idea. Try a new form or structure. Experiment. There’s an audience to read it out there. The serialized nature of fanfiction means you can witness reader reactions to devices as they happen. It’s safety and a growth structure you won’t get with the publishing industry.

I heard a comment made in the fanfiction world that’s stuck with me: I write for myself. All writers should. But what differs with fanfiction writers is we write for ourselves and then we publish for the fans. I wrote my stories to share with other fans. I overcame the horrifying fear of pushing the publish button because I knew someone out there will enjoy it. Famed YA author John Green once said, “What you do isn’t going to be nearly as interesting or important as who you do it with.” (Source) The adventures I’ve had and the amazing friends I’ve made because of fanfiction are things I know published authors rarely experience. It wasn’t about the attention, the reviews, fan awards, or climbing the rankings. It was about my fellow fans and sharing our joy and passion with one another.

Ready to dip your toe in? Here are some good places to start!

Archival story pages:

  • Fanfiction.net : Oldest and biggest site on the net
  • Archiveofourown.org : New kid on the net
  • LiveJournal.com : Lots can be found on this old blog site
  • Google search: Type in your fandom plus fanfiction. Lots of fandoms will have one or more privately run sites hosting stories.

Forums: Meet people, make friends, and get ideas and recommendations.

  • Fanforum.com
  • televisionwithoutpity.com
  • Search again: fansite’s are many and the key sites are usually the first page of results when searching your fandom plus fansite.

*Gossip Girl shorthand answers:
– Chair: The pairing name for Chuck and Blair
– Derena: Dan and Serena
– Serenate: Serena and Nate
– NJBC: Non-Judging Breakfast Club, a quote from the end of season one when Blair describes the friendship between her, Serena, Nate, and Chuck as the, “Non-judging breakfast club”, this shorthand is used to refer to the foursome.

This post was originally written for and posted to the Savvy Authors Summer Symposium, 2013, where it was hosted a part of a Question and Answer board moderated by me, at the request of the event organizer.

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