Fanfiction. Often considered to be a waste of time, poorly written, and just not something that real writers do. I think that fanfiction has its place though, and that place isn’t Room 101.
Above all else, fanfiction is fun. Delving a little deeper, fanfiction encourages people to read and write, it enables people to practise writing in foreign languages, and it provides a great training ground for new writers. One might argue that creative writing classes do the same thing, but not everyone has access to such classes, and perhaps without the anonymity of the online world, many people would never dare to publish what they write.
When I was at school, we didn’t have proper creative writing lessons. We weren’t taught how to construct a story or create characters. At most, we had a teacher telling us to write a story and then leaving us to sit in silence for forty minutes. We would turn our work in, and a week later we would receive the scathing comments. Doesn’t every ten-year-old instinctively know that your protagonist can’t just be a super-awesome version of yourself, and that when you write yourself into a corner, it isn’t acceptable to say that ‘it was all just a dream’?
Ten-year-old me didn’t know that. And, unsurprisingly, being told that my writing was wrong without explaining why or how to improve it really wasn’t helpful. It felt like the only way to discover one of these elusive writing rules was by breaking it and then being shamed for it.
Our lessons were infrequent, so I didn’t learn much.
I was first introduced to fanfiction when I was eleven. I already enjoyed making up my own stories and had filled many notebooks with random jottings, but fanfiction provided me with ready-made worlds, characters and contexts to play with.
I have to admit that I was no child prodigy, and what I wrote was of the quality you would expect of the average eleven-year-old. So it probably wasn’t great for people who happened to stumble upon my posts and ended up reading them, but it was good for me as a writer, because the first rule of writing is that you actually have to write.
In the absence of constructive criticism from my teachers or any real lessons on how to write, fanfiction soon became my classroom. There was a wealth of stories to learn from and no shortage of reviewers willing to give me the feedback that I craved. Reading other people’s work enabled me to find out what aspects of a story I liked and what techniques worked, whilst comments on my own stories enabled me to improve my writing. It was trial and error, but with the volume I was able to consume and produce, it was far more instructive than the sporadic lessons at school.
Before my self-consciousness kicked in, I would share my stories with my friends and with the online community. I had no need for anonymity. But then something happened.
When I was fourteen, my English teacher humiliated me in front of the entire class by announcing that my creative writing piece for my GCSE coursework made her “feel physically sick”. Over a decade later, I can still hear her voice and I can still feel the gut-wrenching embarrassment. After that, there was no way that I was going to share my writing ever again. At least, not with my name to it.
Fanfiction became the way that I could write without fear of personal humiliation. I created a new account that my friends didn’t know about and I posted from behind the veil of anonymity. Had I not received so many positive comments on my stories, I might have given up writing for good. The pain of that shame just wasn’t worth it.
When I moved on to A Levels, I left English behind and stuck to the sciences and maths. I wanted to keep up my writing skills though, so I elected to study psychology as well. Fanfiction had a role to play again. All that time I had spent writing lengthy stories had prepared me for the focus I would require to write my psychology papers. It had also given a voice to my writing, so that I was able to relay the information in a way that wasn’t just spewing out facts.
At university, I didn’t have time for fanfiction (reading or writing), but in my third year I chose to write a dissertation. Just like my psychology essays, the style of writing was different to that of creative writing, but the process was the same. It was the process I had learnt through writing fanfiction—above all else, the most important thing to do when writing a piece, whether that be a story or a thesis, is to get the words down on the page. They might be in completely the wrong order and sound weird and clunky, but once you’ve got them down, you’ve got something to work with.
Writing my dissertation taught me something that fanfiction had not. It taught me the value of editing. When you have a 6000 word limit, every word counts and you have to be ruthless.
It wasn’t until after I finished my finals that I had time to write for fun again. I was still interested in fanfiction, but I also wanted to experiment with my own original pieces. I came up with snatches of plot but didn’t get round to writing them in full. Fanfiction became a bit of a distraction. I kept saying that I wanted to write, but I never actually developed my own ideas.
Until life happened. Telling stories was no longer just something that I liked to do. It became imperative.
After jumpstarting my writing using NaNoWriMo, I now write every day, mostly on my own work with the occasional foray into fanfiction (I still love it as much as I did when I was eleven, though I have less time for it now).
Some people might think that fanfiction is a dirty word, but to me that’s a very superficial view. Looking at the quality of the writing alone does nothing to uncover the purpose that fanfiction fulfils. You don’t know where that writer is in their journey, or how fanfiction will shape their writing and their life. Perhaps they are like me, and they have no other way to learn. Perhaps fanfiction is their escape.
I think that fanfiction is one of the biggest compliments you can pay a writer. If I can create worlds and characters that people love enough to explore and develop through their own writing, then I have achieved something great.