Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fan Fiction, part 1

For a long time, I've held such a strong bias against fan fiction that I've felt it had to be irrational. Fan fiction has never done me any harm, so why does it make me cringe? Because so much of it is wall-to-wall bad writing? Sure, that's part of it, but there's more. So first, I'll explain my personal bias against fan fiction, then I'll show how I've come to appreciate fan fiction as a great tool for learning how to write better. (Seriously.) holds, thoroughly classifies, and cross-indexes over four million pieces of fan fiction, nearly none of which would qualify as well-written enough for On The Premises even if we accepted fan fiction, which we don't. (The exact number of stories is difficult to determine; see this article if you're interested.) And that site holds only the fan fiction that would be rated "R" or less if it were a movie. I can't figure out how to estimate the number of X-rated fan fiction pieces there are on the Web, but I'd be willing to be there's at least one X-rated piece for every piece that isn't.

I've started reading a few of these stories. Generally I get about three sentences into them before the editor in me cringes.

That's a reason to dislike individual pieces of fan fiction, but a terrible reason to dislike fan fiction itself. That's like saying all TV is garbage because you were repelled by one episode of one show. Fan fiction is a medium unto itself and to say "I don't like fan fiction" is like saying "I don't like novels" or "I don't like jazz." Surely there's some example of the medium I'd like?

Well, sure. Good writers trying hard to write well and choosing to use pre-existing characters in a pre-existing fictional world can produce stories I admire. I've seen a few. 

My problem with fan fiction is that virtually none of it is written by anybody who cares whether they're writing well. And that's okay if you're a young enough writer. Nobody expects a 12-year-old to produce literature. (Though I remember being a 12-year-old who thought, at the time, he was trying his hardest to produce literature, but that's another story). I do, however, expect people to want to improve, and to understate things, I get the sense that "learning how to write better" is not the point of most fan fiction. (cough wish fulfillment cough)

I used to be a serious jazz saxophonist, which means at one point I was a total beginner. I remember thinking even as a little kid in fifth-grade band that it was silly for adults to come listen to me and my bandmates play in our first ever live performance, because by any objective standard we were terrible. In other words, even back then, I was embarrassed at my lack of skill. Years later, I felt a lot better about playing for audiences when I knew I could produce music that adults didn't have to make apologies for. ("They're just kids! Clap, dear.")

(That raises a separate point--it's very hard for many adults to learn how to do anything complex well, like writing or playing a musical instrument or a speaking a foreign language. Adults are used to being pretty good at most things and it's embarrassing to realize that you may be 50 years old but when it comes to the guitar, you may as well be six, you're so bad at it. You have to put your pride aside and be willing to be very bad for a long time, or you'll never be very good. Many adults get embarrassed and quit, rather than struggle through the "I suck at this" phase. Which is a shame.)

Anyway, the point is, I've always demanded high quality output from myself and it grates on my nerves that so many fan fiction writers don't. They don't care, their (quite small) audience doesn't care... it bugs me. At least when I was a terrible writer, at some level, I knew I was terrible and I wanted to get better. Everybody starts out terrible, but no one has to stay that way, and I have issues with people who are proud to stay that way. 

But that's my problem, not theirs. Furthermore, I've come to believe that fan fiction can be a tremendous tool for teaching those serious few how to improve their writing skills, because in fan fiction, a lot of what's hardest about writing fiction is done for you. That'll be the subject of the next couple of posts. In the meantime, I welcome feedback from people who are true fans of even the worst-written fan fiction, because I enjoy hearing from smart people who disagree with me.


  1. Years ago, my time as an editor poisoned my love of reading. I couldn't shut off the editor in my head long enough to enjoy anything I might read for fun. After a day of reading piles of crap in the hopes of that rose, I didn't want to read even Booker prize-winning novels at the end of the day.

    I eventually gave up editing. In the meantime, I had to re-learn the joy of reading. My wife, a fellow Trekkie, suggested I read only Star Trek fan fiction until I got the critic out of my head. It worked. For a summer I slogged through endless used paperbacks of Trek fan fiction. As a reader, it wore out my inner critic until he fell exhausted onto the floor of my head. I learned to sit back, not think, just enjoy, which is a skill I had lost as an editor.

    I can't recommend a well-written piece of fan fiction, because I'm not aware of any, but fan fiction is a nice diversion at times. It allows me to share my excitement over these characters with an author. It adds dimensions to a fictional universe that I'm already invested in as a fan. Most importantly, it's a reminder to not take myself too seriously.

  2. I actually started writing with fanfiction (well, serious writing, anyway), because I was so sick of how horribly written most stories were. I'm still not great, but I've come a long way because I got motivation through people reading my fanfiction stories.

    My friend, who recently got a publishing contract, still writes some fanfiction, and writes it pretty well, because she uses her own stories and just modifies them to fit the fanfiction world (using the characters, and that's about it). She's on as AydenMorgen. Hers is pretty much the only fanfiction I read anymore.

  3. D., I'm sympathetic with the inability to turn off the editor! But I do have a quibble with your comment. If you were reading used Trek paperbacks back then, you were not reading fan fiction. You were reading licensed tie-in novels, which are, especially in recent years, likely to be written by competent professional writers. I'm not especially a fan of tie-in novels myself (though I still do like James Blish's generally excellent adaptations of classic Trek episodes), but I know several good writers who write them, and their work is not remotely the same as the stuff written by 99% of fan fiction writers.

  4. D and Kshayes: I wasn't sure if D's paperbacks counted or not. One thing I can say is that the quality of such spin-off books varies widely. Some are quite excellent. On the other extreme, in the 1990's I met an author/editor who wrote spin-off books fairly often. She was once asked, at the last minute, to take over the writing of a spin-off book that the original author had unprofessionally bailed on. The problem? The book was for a TV show she'd never seen, the original author had not produced so much as one word, and the finished product was due in 10 days. Fortunately she knew someone who owned the whole TV series, so she set up a three-day marathon of the show, then wrote the book in six days. "Not my best work," she told me. But it got published. (And I'm not blaming her; she did the best she could on a ridiculous assignment but you can imagine the end result.)

  5. I think the Star Trek and Star Wars approach to tie-in fiction may be the best; both universes have developed whole sets of characters and storylines that are outside of the screen canon. This allows the writers to take real dramatic risks and make serious changes in the lives of their characters, without being bound and gagged by TV/movie continuity. Quality probably still varies widely, depending sometimes on the writer and sometimes on circumstances like those you just described.

    My favorite thing about DelRey's Star Wars program, when Steve Saffel was still running it, was that he used the SW assignments to give his newer authors some significant income and a bit of an audience to support them so they could develop their own original works. I don't know if they still do this, but it's a great idea for building a stable of writers!

    I'm digressing though. Tie-ins are not fan fiction, though I'm sure many fan-fic writers hope to become tie-in writers!