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On Fanfiction

I recently read a really interesting article about fan fiction. It discussed the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which began as Twilight fan fiction. I have feminist issues aplenty with both of those books, but I don’t have issues with fan fiction. In fact, I love fan fiction.

I was fifteen when my family got the internet at home. It was a big deal. Believe it or not, back then I had trouble thinking of things to search for. The idea of being able to look up anything was so new and so mind-blowing that I didn’t know how to properly take advantage of it.

This was the mid-nineties, and I was reading L.J. Smith (whose works has recently been reprinted, and some of her trilogies continued by ghostwriters). Smith’s fans created an absolutely terrific fan community called the Night World, and there was a special email list for fanfic writers. It quickly became a major part of my life. I’d never written fan fiction before, but I felt inspired both by Smith’s work and the writing of other fans, and I decided to give it a try.

Until then, I had only written novels. Weird, right? I think I’d written three or four by then, and as anyone who has read them can attest (and I think that’s only two people), I had an issue with plot. As in, my books didn’t have any. I’d develop a bunch of characters I liked, and then I’d mostly just have them hang out together, do stuff, engage in interesting conversation. In my third novel, there was an infamous forty-page scene in which the characters went camping. They didn’t really have a reason to go camping, they just felt like going, and they went, and I described setting up the tent, and cooking food, and chilling out by the campfire, and spelunking, and packing up, and . . . it went on and on and on, and nothing ever really happened.

And that was better than my second novel, where I reached a point when I thought I should be close to wrapping up and spent two hours pacing by the fireplace, trying to figure out a plot that would fit all the random events I had worked into the story so far. I came up with something ridiculously far-fetched and crammed a lot of explanations into the last twenty pages. It was bad.

Some people write book-length fan fiction, but in the mid-nineties, it was more common to write shorter pieces. I had written very few short stories, and as I contemplated writing one then, I realized that the requirements of brevity weren’t going to allow my characters to dicker around for pages on end the way they usually did. I needed a plot.

My first Night World fanfic wasn’t very good, and my second was worse (I think that’s a trend for me). But I loved playing with the world Smith had created and putting my own spin on her characters, fleshing stories out, explaining minor issues of realism she’d glossed over, answering my own questions. And along the way, I learned to plot and structure my stories. Reading through the two-dozen fanfics I wrote, you can trace the progression of my skill almost exactly as it happened.

I developed a huge supporting cast of original characters and thoroughly deconstructed Smith’s concept of soulmates. Truthfully, I’m sure I took the story in directions that would horrify Ms. Smith (some of my fics had to be rated NC-17, and once time I got a response email that simply read, “You killed them all . . .”), but I felt free when I wrote fan fiction. I knew I could never publish it, so I was liberated from the constraints of what publishers and readers would consider “acceptable.” I played with form, I took artistic chances, and I pushed myself. Eventually I wrote my own conclusion to Smith’s ten book series (of which the tenth and final book has never been published). In fact, I have an epilogue I still go back and work on at times.

At one point in time, I was the preeminent Smith fanfic writer. I wrote in other fandoms (X-Files, Animorphs, Buffy, one Jurassic Park III piece that came out of nowhere, and even some Dawson’s Creek, which I’ll get to below), but I always came back to the Night World because of the community there. During high school, I probably spent two hours a day critiquing and writing feedback for the other authors who sent their work out, one part or one chapter at a time. I was devoted to them, and I learned a tremendous amount about how to discuss writing and how to support writers. In fact, I was inducted into the Night World’s Hall of Fame for my work. In return, my fellow writers sent me their criticism and lent me their support, and it was invaluable. One of the biggest issues writers face is isolation, and one thing I suspect most critics of fan fiction don’t understand is how much being part of the fanfic community mitigates that. I used to print out compliments other writers sent me and paste them into a little book (which I still have), and when I lost confidence in my work, I would reread them and remind myself that my stories touched other people. You can’t beat that. You can’t even buy it.

During the era when I was writing fan fiction, my sister loved Dawson’s Creek. I did not, but I loved my sister, and there were times when I wrote things to make her happy. And for the record, I predicted Joey and Pacey would get together long before anyone else saw it coming. That’s why I had to write a fanfic about it, to prove they would work as a couple.

The premise for the story was that there were people called dream walkers (sound familiar?) who were in charge of creating dreams for people (a benevolent form of staging remarkably similar to directing movies). One night, the guy in charge of creating Pacey’s dreams shows up in Joey’s room and asks for her assistance in creating a nightmare for Pacey. The next night, he lets Pacey take his revenge on Joey. Longish story short, all the Cape Side kids get involved in the dream walking shenanigans, unconscious desires are revealed, hearts exposed, a wedding dream turns into a knock-down, drag-out brawl, and in the end, the dream walker declares, “I now pronounce you boyfriends and girlfriends. You may kiss your steadies.”

It was a fun, silly story. It bore almost no relation to what would become Dreamfire, but it put ideas in my head, and it was a solid exercise in five-act plotting. I even printed it out and bound it the way my father’s college roommate, a book binder, had taught me to do, and on the publication page is the appropriate disclaimer. Even though it might only have been in a small way, it brought me one step closer to where I am today.

There are authors who don’t want their work to be used as the basis for fan fiction. I’m not one of them, and I doubt I ever will be. If by some miracle, my stories inspire others to write, I will take that as the highest form of praise. What more could I ask my work to do than to ignite creativity and passion in others, to get people writing, to provide a safe forum in which they can explore their own voices and grow artistically?

A few years ago I was teaching fiction at a summer camp for kids (ages 8 to 18), and I was doing an exercise with the high school group where I gave them the bare bones of an action sequence from Dreamfire and let them act it out, then write it in their own words. I wanted them to practice visceral writing. One student went farther. She changed Haley into a girl and added a love story with Gloves (who was not her twin brother in this version, I’m assuming, and probably also not a zombie).

The scene was fantastic. It took my breath away. It gave me completely new insight into my own characters. As far as I’m concerned, fan fiction is as much a gift to the author of the original material as it is to the author of the new material.

Let’s all write together.

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