The Pitfalls of Jumping from Fanfiction to Published Fiction

Awhile back, I read a blog post by a writer detailing how writing fanfiction had improved her writing abilities overall. While writing of any kind will improve our writing overall, I found myself adding a number of mental provisos to her post. Not long after that, a certain infamous piece of fanfiction was changed to ‘fiction,’ and became a worldwide bestseller (out of respect for the integrity of this blog, it shall not be mentioned by name here). So I thought I’d spend some time today discussing fanfiction and what it does – and doesn’t do – for writers.

Let’s start with a little personal history. When I was six I decided I was going to be a writer, and I started writing. I’ll reserve the nuances of that story for another day (or never, if you’re lucky). The point is that I wasn’t introduced to fanfiction until almost 10 years later, when I started high school. My two best friends were very into fanfiction, particularly that of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Suddenly I was swept up into this notion that I could contribute to the stories I loved the best, and put my own spin on them, and explore things that the author had left out. It was amazing, empowering, and it got me to write.

That’s what’s great about fanfiction. It gets you to write. You have a ready-made starting point, and from there you can go in so many different directions. It also comes with an in-built audience that isn’t afraid to tell you what’s good and bad about your story.

But.

There’s always a but.

Anecdote time again. When I left high school, I stopped reading fanfiction, more or less. I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, and it seemed less fun. When I stopped reading it I also stopped writing it, of course. There was only one fanfiction that I still read with regularity, and I was overjoyed to hear that the woman who wrote it was in the process of publishing a book. I followed her updates closely and, as a sign of support, I went out and bought her book the very day it was put on the shelves.

I enjoyed it well enough, but by the end I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. The best way I could describe the book was ‘fanfiction-y.’ Great word, for someone who calls herself a writer.

By ‘fanfiction-y’ I mean that the entire book felt like fanfiction for another book that I’d never read. Imagine coming across some Harry Potter fanfiction without knowing the premise of Harry Potter. By the end of it you might have a rough idea of Deatheaters, Lord Voldemort, and magic in the world around us, but you’d still be missing something. That’s how I felt about this book.

Descriptions of the world were missing, little details that I would have liked to know. The characters were underdeveloped, as though we were already supposed to know them. And the plot – the plot was probably what made me feel most fanfictioned. The main plot felt like it was happening somewhere else.

All of these points made me realize why writing only fanfiction isn’t going to make you a strong author. Fanfiction is great. Fanfiction has a purpose. But the purpose of fanfiction is highly limited.

When you write fanfiction, your world is pre-developed. Your characters are ready made. And your plot works around the main plot, which is what fanfiction is all about but seems rather anticlimactic if a reader is unfamiliar with the original material.

A lot of people use fanfiction as a way to get started with writing, and I think that’s perfectly legitimate. But just because a person writes good fanfiction doesn’t mean that he or she can write good fiction. Practice in the craft of writing original fiction is needed before you make that jump to published author.

 

How about the other authors out there? Any thoughts on how writing fanfiction helped or hindered you?

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23 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Jumping from Fanfiction to Published Fiction

  1. Gwen says:

    I’ve never understood the purpose of fanfiction, or why anyone who calls herself a writer would want to pursue it. To me it feels like it crosses a blurred line between originality and plagiarism.

    A year or two ago I decided to try reading the City of Bones – highly popular YA, and I’ve heard movie adaptations are in the works. I didn’t make it past the second chapter, because it read so much like Harry Potter. Some of the Amazon reviewers claimed it started out as fanfiction. I also attempted to read the series you mentioned (but didn’t mention) above. Again, I had no idea it originated as fanfiction, but the similarities were striking (not to mention abhorrent writing).

    When I pay for a book, I want to read an original story, not a uninspired spin-off. As a reader, it only makes me feel cheated.
    This was a great post!

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, it covers an extra problem with fanfiction that I didn’t really write about. I enjoyed writing fanfiction when I was younger primarily because I loved the characters and the world so much that they burned inside me, and I wanted to explore what I could do with them. I always understood that my fanfiction was never going to go anywhere publishing-wise. Yet, as you say, there are a number of authors out there who have used fanfiction to get a jump start.

      I love that you mentioned Cassandra Claire’s ‘City of Bones.’ I’ve been contemplating reading it for a while, because I used to read her fanfiction and I wanted to see if she could break this fanfiction curse. From what you say, it seems like she hasn’t.

      • Gwen says:

        I didn’t know she was a fanfic writer until I read the Amazon reviews. Don’t take my word for it; mine is only one opinion — you may delve into City of Bones and really love it.

      • forgingshadows says:

        well, I did just get a gift card for B&N…maybe I should use it!

  2. Anything that gets you writing is a good thing. But I’ve never really seen the point in fan fiction, but people obviously enjoy it so cool.

    It just seems like a DJ getting everyone elses material and tweaking it a bit then claiming all credit. The fact the person you shall not speak of managed to do it so successfully is an anomaly I think.

    Originality tends to trump all else.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thanks for your comment. I think that in the end, that was my problem with fanfiction as well. I didn’t see the point so that’s why I didn’t keep going. I’ve heard of a few cases in which fanfiction writers have been offered a deal by a publishing company based off the fact that they have a following for their fanfiction, a ‘ready-made audience’ of sorts. Like you said, the extreme bestseller is an anomaly.

      The book I purchased and read that serves as the basis for this post wasn’t based off of the fanfiction I’d followed. It was an entirely new concept, and an interesting one at that. It just wasn’t very well developed, because the authors spent a lot of time writing fanfiction which works with already-developed plots, characters and settings.

  3. I never wrote fanfiction, but there is a successful history of it to some extent. Since my childhood days (before Potter arrived and the LOTR movies were a thought), authors wrote novels on the Dungeons & Dragons characters. It happens with other things today like Halo and World of Warcraft. It’s a professional level of fan-fiction that an aspiring author who is also a fan of those things can get involved in. I never had the interest, but I can see how writing in an established world can help get your name out there.

    As for the ‘book that shall not be named’, it set a very bad precedence. I’ve heard about some agents and publishers looking at fan-fiction as a new source of book ideas. Scary and annoying for those of us working in our own worlds.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for your comment. I guess I haven’t thought much about books that have been inspired by another concept, such as Dungeons and Dragons or Warcraft. I don’t have much experience with Warcraft but as far as D&D goes, there is an elaborate setting into which you have to put your own plot and characters, which are two of the major drawbacks of fanfiction.

      To be honest, I’m not sure how recent the trend of finding authors in fanfiction writers is. Of course, the author of doom with her book which shall not be named has been the most successful of them. However, the book I read and discussed in this post was an original piece of fiction that was purchased from the author because of her fanfiction work. Friends have often told me stories in which fanfiction authors pulled their work off of a site after they got picked up by an editor and were told to scrap it all.

      I think there’s still room for us non-fanfiction folk, though. 🙂

      • The author of doom definitely brought it more to the forefront. Hopefully it stays in the romance area and stays away from the other genres, but who knows. I’ve heard about the fanfiction authors pulling stories after they were picked up. Some publishers and agents only want someone with a fanbase.

      • forgingshadows says:

        Very true. And I’ll bet some editors that spurned the practice previously will see it as a way to make good money. Which they need to do, I’ll grant, but I wish they would try to make some money on a better author. Though in fairness, the quality would change if people didn’t buy it…ah well.

      • I’d like to say that it can’t get any worse from that, but I said that during it’s progenitor’s reign. Then, it showed up and I realized I should keep my mouth shut.

      • forgingshadows says:

        hahahaha! Oh no! I suppose you’re right, though. Bad taste has no end to its depth.

  4. I came to the writing game late (a story I promise to spare you, since you spared me yours), and although I vaguely new of fan-fiction, it’s nothing I’ve ever been involved with, nor interested in. Part of it is just that I never imagined what other stories there were in a universe and part of it is just that I’m overwhelmed with stories of my own.

    That said, I’ve never been *against* fan-fiction either, as long as it was looked at realistically. It gets writers writing, and many of the writers I know started out that way. Still, there was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on about why I didn’t feel that it was enough, and you nailed it.

    It’s good in that it gets you writing, and you can focus on only part of a story. Characters, worlds, even main plots can be used so writing your own work seems less overwhelming. And that’s good!

    To start out with. But I think the limitations you have here are important to note.

    Also, I have approximately a billion more thoughts, which means I’ll probably just post my *own* blog post on it (tomorrow, as today is Character Monday). Do you mind if I refer to your thoughts, with proper link-back and attribution?

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for your comment. I’m looking forward to reading your post, since there’s so much that can be said about fanfiction. Especially in this day and age, when a number of fanfiction authors have landed book contracts.

      Of course you can refer to this post as much as you like! Thank you for asking.

  5. You make make good points about fan fiction’s graces and pitfalls. The first books I read were in the Star Trek and Star Wars universe, which I guess are classified as professional fan fiction, since the world was conceived of by someone else, but sometimes an author will come along and make that universe wholly their own. I think Timothy Zahn did that with Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command.
    But yes, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the Star Trek and Star Wars novels I ripped through as a kid had I not been familiar with the movies and television series.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for your comment. I have always heard good things about Timothy Zahn’s series, but I never read those books. I did read a couple of Star Trek novels, but I didn’t really get a good feel for the characterization in a lot of those books. Maybe I just picked some duds – there were so many to choose from, after all – but I was never terribly impressed by the Star Wars and Star Trek novelizations that I read. And yeah, I would have been wholly confused if I hadn’t seen the movies/tv shows.

      • Well, there are no Star Trek novels I would recommend, because I stopped reading them almost 20 years ago. If someone put a gun to my head I would tell them to read ones by Peter David.
        The Zahn novels are great though.

      • forgingshadows says:

        I think my sister read and really enjoyed them. I don’t know why I never got into them, we usually read the same stuff. Maybe I’ll take a look at them after the next star wars movies come out. Then again, maybe that will just fuel my inevitable disappointment.

      • Eh. Maybe I shouldn’t be so gung ho on them. I read them about 15 years ago. Maybe time has fogged my memory?
        Still, that was around the same time I was reading The Stand, The Talisman and The Shining, so the Zahn novels couldn’t be that bad.

      • forgingshadows says:

        Sometimes the books we read as children are really disappointing when we go back to them, but sometimes they’re even better than we remembered. The only way to really be certain is to give it a shot!

  6. I’ve never written any fan-fiction and I don’t think I’ve ever read any, but I’m not opposed to the concept. Any outlet for creativity is a good thing and if it brings together people with like-minded interests and entertains us, it’s a win in my book.

    I can see how it could “train” a writer to be sloppy with their world building and character development, though.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for your comment, it’s good to highlight some positive elements of writing fanfiction. Fanfiction can be fun, I know a lot of authors who still participate in that community in addition to their own writing. And I don’t think it’s harmful to read or write it, though a writer with long term publishing goals should do some original work as well.

      I think the problem that a lot of people have with fanfiction these days is that some of those who write it change the names of the characters and a couple of the circumstances and call it original fiction. It naturally has a host of problems that can be seen in derivative work.

  7. […] then I read this entry from a writer friend of mine and everything clicked into place.  Seriously, you should go read it, […]

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