Novels vs. Fanfiction

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

By now, most (if not all) of you will have heard of a series of novels starting with "50 Shades of Grey." They're usually spoken about with nervous whispers and twittering giggles or wink-wink, nudge-nudge looks because "you know what kind of books those are." (BDSM erotica, for those who don't.) The books have become a phenomenon unto themselves, as has the author.

They've been talked about on various writer sites and blogs, and discussed at length on message boards, but not necessarily for the reasons you'd think. You see 50 Shades began, not as a commercial work of fiction, but as a decidedly un-commerical work of FANfiction.

For those of you not in the know, fanfiction is what you get when fans of a particular book, movie, TV-series or whatever decide to write their own piece based in another writer/artist's universe. These are usually posted for fun, and not intended for profit as US copyright prohibits people from profiting off of others' work. Sites like, and others that focus on a particular fandom, allow anyone with an account to post stories set in established universes that may or may not involve canon characters. It's a complex set-up that could fill its own technical manual.

Now, the point of this post isn't 50 Shades of Grey, or whether or not the book should have ever been sold. Nor is it the pros and cons of being a fanfiction writer who branches into commercial writing (there are some big-name successes out there, btw). It's more basic than that.

I wrote fanfiction. I wrote in more than one fandom, with more than one screen name. I wrote for a spattering of short-lived vampire TV shows, and did some "written-to-order" Harry Potter fanfic. (seriously - never write in HP-land if you don't have a strong constitution - seriously. Yes, it requires seriously on both sides. It can be intimidating territory, with awesome pay-offs in the form of followers, but the sheer size is daunting.) There were others which I will never admit to...

When I got my agent, the fanfic disappeared from the net to the best of my ability (though no fanfiction is every "completely" gone). And yes, sadly for those who were reading them, some disappeared unfinished - for which I apologize.

I liked writing fanfiction. It's great for practice, especially with voice if you're trying to match a character to the way he/she was written by the original author. It takes the pressure of world-building off. And it's fast. I can, and did, knock off over a million posted words in one year - in one fandom, for which I received near-instant feedback... not something you get in the commercial writing world.

The biggest difference between writing a novel and writing fanfiction (which can be a novel, too) is the idea that reviews should never be responded to. With commercial writing, you aren't supposed to respond to reviews - for the good or the bad. This seems a strange idea to a lot of new writers. They want to thank those with kind words and defend their work from those who "don't get it." (Or, from those who have made legitimate mistakes by confusing characters or even authors.)

But, coming from a fanfiction background, I can tell you that the silence method is usually best. Fanfiction operates on the exact opposite system (as do many sites like Inkpop or Authonomy). It's about interaction, and writers are encouraged/expected to answer reviews. Usually this can work fine - for a while. But the problem with it is the same one that's becoming more prevalent with the rise of Amazon-self-e-publishing: It breeds flame wars.

When fanfic writers (often young or inexperienced) get upset, they have an easy outlet to vent. And if said writer is popular, they have the means to drag their supporters behind them into the fray. Those supporters often afford the fanfic writer the same allegiance as they would the original author, and they will defend said fanfic writer - viciously.

When inexperienced writers get upset, they also have this outlet, but until recently they didn't often utilize it. But now that Amazon's e-self-pub arm has turned their Kindle store into something akin to the back-catalog of (for size and lack of gatekeepers), some of these new (and shockingly some established) authors are taking their cues from the fanfiction and peer sites.

It can be a rough transition from the expectations of instant feedback and that desire to defend oneself, and honestly, some former fanfic authors never make that transition. I won't say it hurt their sales, because it doesn't, but it still creates a negative vibe in their corner of the industry, and those vibes can spread to others. Especially those coming in from fanfic and seeing their role models exhibiting the same behavior that got them flamed before they made the switch.

Okay... I'll stop rambling now.

(But in case you're wondering, this is what happens when you start a writing career. You, too, will ramble :-P )

14 Chiming In:

Marsha Sigman said...

I agree that silence is the best response. No one wins in those flame wars. I admit to reading one or two on a few websites but I never got involved...mainly due to feeling a little nauseas.

I would have loved to read some of your Potter stuff!ha

Josin L. McQuein said...

It's still out there, if you look for it. Caer_Azkaban's Yahoo group used to have some of it archived, but I don't know it it's still there.

Occasionally, it pops up on FFn with someone else reposting it (though always attributed which is both unusual and nice). The cool thing of that is that the people who used to read my posts will usually jump to my defense and demand it be taken down before I even know about it. They're afraid it'll have a negative impact on my writing career.

Fanfic fans are awesome. They're scary when mobilized, but awesome.

Stephsco said...

I found this super interesting, so thank you. My experience with flame wars comes from plain old message forums not related to fan fiction, so I've at least seen it. But there's definitely a different spin when it's your writing up for critique.

I hate that self-pubbed works get such a nasty rep because many writers are putting in the effort with critique groups and editors and pay for legit cover art. Usually I can tell those apart in a blog or online, but it's too bad they're now lost in a soup of instantly uploaded books that don't have the attention to craft, the editing services, etc.

The fan fiction world has lurked for a long time -- I remember my mom telling me about one of her social work clients who wrote episodes of MASH and I was so confused by that -- but the easy e-publishing options and the vast open internet, it's like a free for all!

Thanks for sharing - no judgement here for fan fiction. If it helped you get where you are, and you enjoyed it, all is well!

Anonymous said...

I've heard other authors mention taking down fan fic, too. Is that something all agents require? If there's never a connection between the fan fic pen name and a writer's real name, is there still a concern?

Lori M. Lee said...

"and they will defend said fanfic writer - viciously."

Hahaha oh the memories.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Anon -

Until the furor around 50 Shades of Grey, I would have said definitely, but fanfic's a bit of a grey area. It's a better safe than sorry situation. (though it's really not possible to take everything off the Net. Readers save the stories they love.)

And anonymity isn't always possible. What usually happens when a writer announces they're pulling their fics prior to publication is that their readers want details so they can follow the writer's commercial career. Or, in cases like Cassandra Clare, there's enough of an audience built in that you don't want to change your penname too much from the one people are familiar with.

Bonnie @ A Backwards Story said...

While I'll freely admit I used to write fanfic, I don't reveal the category or user name because I don't want people to see my earliest, most horrible writing! LOL

It did teach me to grow as a writer, though, and to get a thicker skin. I think fanfic authors have really...evolved since FFNet came into existence and exploded, and now there IS that mentality of responding that younger writers are taking into their professional careers.

I also don't think you should ever profit from fanfic, and I won't read authors who do. 50 Shades and Cassandra Clare immediately come to mind.

But if it's something from FictionPress (I don't get why they call that a fanfiction site when it isn't...), that's another story. I actually found Sarah J. Maas and her upcoming THRONE OF GLASS *because* people were talking about how amazing her FP story had been when I wanted something to read and it had been pulled.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I think FictionPress gets lumped in because it's the "sister site" to FFn, so people don't differentiate the content. It's horrible for plagiarism, though.

I'm just waiting for FFn to open a 50 Shades office. I'd bet there will be multiple uploads of MotU (the original fanfic she wrote) with the character names search/replaced to match those in 50 Shades and labeled "AU".

(Also, I'll probably chicken out in a couple of days and edit out my old screen names.)

Carrie Butler said...

Posts like this are why you rock. You always tell it like it is. :)

Jessica Schley said...

The fascinating thing is this is exactly the distinction many don't seem to grasp.

In the age of being able to comment on Amazon and goodreads, it seems like a foregone conclusion to many that they should reply, especially for those who come from a fanfic background (I've known several--now that self-pubbing is so easy, I've seen many who've written a fanfic, assumed that meant that they could write novels, and immediately self-pubbed something as soon as they finished it).

It always, ALWAYS makes me cringe. I don't think people really understand how bad it looks, even when it's just, "Thanks for your review! Sorry you didn't enjoy it." or something of the sort.

Josin L. McQuein said...


I think it's something a lot of writers don't consider when they try self-publishing (or at least those who do it with the ultimate goal of commercial publishing based on self-pubbing success.

Fanfiction is free - people will read free things and excuse the mistakes because it's free. It's entertainment.

With free downloads, the same holds true - they're free. People only after some cheap entertainment will excuse a lot of mistakes for the sake of free.

But, as soon as you expect that same someone, someone who is a "fan," to part with their cash, things change. They start putting the value of their money up against the mistakes they expect to find in your material, and it's no longer a comparison tipped in the writer's favor.

This is also why a huge number of free "sales" with a self-pubbed ebook isn't likely to get the sort of attention a writer hopes for from an agent or editor. Being able to give something away is in no way an indicator of its value when a price is attached.

There are, of course, exceptions, and some free or $0.99 self-pubs will get glowing reviews. THOSE might attract a commercial publisher, but it's not the average.

Kat said...

I'm going to be tangential, here - your primary point is reviews/flame wars, and I use the silence policy. But what I want to comment on is how delightful it is to find a writer I respect who freely admits to writing fanfic. Fanfic has a bad reputation in the field - to a large extent, deserved - but I think anyone who dismisses it as "crap" or "the lazy way out" is missing the point and missing some good writing. I don't intend to take my fanfic down. I'm rather proud of it. You hit the nail on the head when you called it practice. I learned a lot, writing my fics, and as a side benefit, I shared experiences with fellow fans that have enriched my life. Thank you for reminding me that not all writers are fanfic snobs.

Anonymous said...

I started writing FanFic 6 years ago, as an outlet for a great passion I had for the particular material with which I was dealing, writing three novels and three short stories. It is great practice, and I must have reread and edited each chapter two or three hundred times. I feel I've done a good job. True, no fanfic has ever been published, but I always wondered if it was possible for the original owners of the copyright to consider publishing a fanfic that they found it interesting and worthy enough. I know there's no chance with my material, but I wonder if it could happen, or if the legal entanglements would be too great.

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