In Defence of Fanfiction

Ah, fanfiction. What a beautiful dumpster fire it can be. If there’s one kind of writing that never fails to get it in the neck, it’s this. I’ve been in rooms full of book lovers who will happily discuss minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy until they’re blue in the face, but mention the word ‘fanfic’ and there’s a tangible recoil. Eyes are rolled, smiles go very fixed, and you can see the other person filing your book-opinions under ‘Not To Be Trusted’. Even working in the publishing industry, where everyone has read everything, you don’t always know what kind of reception you’re going to get when you say you enjoy reading or writing fanfic. It has a bad reputation.

But is it deserved?

EbonyWay
I mean. (image: myimmortal.wikia.com)

When fanfiction is bad, it’s really, really bad, and this is what a lot of people tend to think of when they hear the term. There are some infamously bad fanfics out there. My Inner Life, which contains some of the absolute worst sex scenes I’ve ever read in my life (seriously, the word ‘gushing’ should be banned). Forbiden Fruit: The Tempation of Edward Cullen, which sports some of the worst poetry I’ve ever read and some of the most entertaining typos. And of course, who can forget the goffik granddaddy of them all: My Immortal. They’re all awful. Like, really, really awful, albeit with a silly, slightly Muppet-ey kind of charm.

But this is not the be-all and end-all of the genre. Fanfiction is tied in with a lot of ‘internet culture’ stuff, especially trolling, and it’s often pretty difficult to tell if the really bad fanfics are actually genuine. My Immortal itself is the perfect example of this, because nobody knows who actually wrote it. There’s all sorts of theories. Various people have claimed to know the author in real life, but this mysterious author seems to have been everything from a wannabe-goth schoolgirl to a trio of teenage boys poking fun at fangirls. This all came to a head last year, when someone claiming to be the real author of My Immortal got a book deal about how she wrote the fanfic to cope with the difficulties of the American foster system – and was then exposed as a liar.

As a result of this fanfiction is exposed to a lot of snobbery. People look at stuff like My Immortal and assume it was genuine – which it may well have been, I don’t know. But the difference between fanfiction and other types of writing is that the so-called ‘big names’ aren’t necessarily big because they’re good. Even those fanfics that have managed to break into the mainstream – I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey

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NOT THAT I’M BITTER. (image: coolspotters.com)

– aren’t exactly celebrated as masterworks of literature. As a whole, fanfiction is seen as a weird quirk of the Internet Era, like eating laundry pods and obsessing over Shrek. It’s not really seen as something that should be taken seriously.

I really disagree with this.

First of all, allow me to put on my history nerd hat for a moment. Fanfiction is not a modern phenomenon. Modern fanfiction goes back to at least the 1970s – we’re coming up on around fifty years of it now. But if you go further back, you’ll find that people have been using other people’s characters to tell their own stories for centuries. The Victorians, for example, used to re-write the endings to Shakespearean tragedies so that the heroes would survive to get a happy ending. That’s not so different from writing a fluff fic where your OTP get to live happily ever after when one of them gets killed in the show, thanks for nothing, Game of Thrones, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME.

But it goes back even further. Look at the Arthurian legends. There’s no one source for stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – as the centuries passed various writers and storytellers added to the legends, gradually building them up into the often-contradictory pantheon we have today. The most fanfic-ey example of this can be seen with the character of Merlin. Before The Vulgate Cycle – which is a group of stories from the thirteenth century, adding to pre-established Arthurian canon – Merlin was a mysterious and ambiguous figure, with no real clarity about his backstory or goals. But then, Robert de Boron wrote a poem all about Merlin which rounded him up to a full-blown edgelord. According to de Boron, Merlin was the result of a demon trying to make the Antichrist by getting a virgin pregnant, but then she had the baby baptised which somehow gave little Merlin perfect knowledge of the past, present and future, plus a bunch of magic powers. This established Merlin as a vital figure in Arthurian canon, setting him up as Arthur’s teacher and advisor, as well as adding famous elements of the mythology like the sword in the stone. And it goes back even further – all the way to the classics, in fact. The Aeneid is essentially fanfiction about one of the minor characters from The Iliad – it just happens to be incredibly well-written and dealing with big, serious subjects like the founding of Rome. When you’re dealing with material like that, it’s kind of hard to remember that it was also written in order to gain favour with the emperor Augustus, and is basically just a toga-wearing NOTICE ME SENPAI.

So fanfic is far from a modern phenomenon. Writing your own works set in someone else’s universe is a fine literary tradition going back thousands of years. Once you acknowledge that, it becomes pretty tricky to keep holding onto the perception that it’s no good as a genre. There are a lot of good fanfics out there – and I’m not just talking about The Aeneid – which get unfairly overlooked thanks to the reputation of titans like My Immortal.

But there’s something else we need to acknowledge about fanfic as well: it’s incredibly useful for writers.

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Along with tea. (image: phrases.org.uk)

Fanfiction is a great way to start off if you’re interested in writing but don’t really know where to begin. Writing is a weird, isolating hobby that has a tendency to attract a certain tweedy kind of snob. That’s really intimidating. If you’re faced with a room full of people talking about how they write about the intricacies of life and death, or the fundamentally Marxist nature of the human condition, or a controversial take on the banality of mankind, admitting that you want to kind of want to try it too can be excruciatingly embarrassing. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery about first-time writers, or genre fiction, or women’s fiction, or YA, and wading straight into that before you’re really sure what you’re doing can be a really horrible experience.

But fanfiction has far less of that. Yes, fandoms as a whole can get pretty weird – I’m looking at you, Superwholock – but when you start writing fanfiction you’re starting off in a place where everybody already loves the thing you want to write about. That’s a huge confidence boost. The overall world you’re working in isn’t going to be questioned on principle, because everybody else is working in that world, too. This is hugely helpful for a first-time writer because it allows you to focus on other elements of storytelling.

So: what can writers actually learn from fanfiction?

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Yay for learning! (image: giphy.com)
  • Characterisation: Fanfic teaches writers how to write consistent characters and stick to an already-established personality. It’s essentially an exercise in character-writing, with the added bonus that you already know the character really well before you start.
  • Setting: Fanfic shows writers how to fit within the boundaries of an already-established world and in some cases, how to expand on it, too. More importantly, it allows writers to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Worldbuilding is hella difficult and it’s actually extremely tricky to put together an original and coherent world with its own set of believable rules. Working in a pre-established setting is excellent training for this.
  • Plotting: Fanfic allows writers to push the boundaries with their plots and try new things. You can experiment – see what works, see what doesn’t, and see what completely blows the universe apart. These are important things to learn, and you’ll likely have to learn them all over again for original projects, but having an established framework for your first few tries makes it a hell of a lot easier.
  • Structure: Fanfic sites encourage users to post stuff on a chapter-by-chapter basis. This encourages writers to think about structure – you’re thinking about how to write a strong opening, how to end a chapter so your reader will want to keep going – and this is something that isn’t always considered when writing original projects.

Are these things that you can learn from writing your own original projects? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that fanfiction can be a really valuable tool for writers and you can really learn a lot from it. The instant feedback you can get from fanfic sites is really valuable because it’s actually pretty difficult to get feedback as a writer. Asking your friends to read your stuff is really nerve-wracking and unfortunately, even if you do ask they just might not have time to read it. You can always submit to competitions and magazines, but that’s a hugely scary thing to do and these types of publications don’t always have the time to give you constructive feedback if you don’t get far in the competition. This is where fanfic sites can really give you a leg up, as you can get encouragement and advice on every chapter. It’s impossible to improve as a writer without constructive criticism, and if you don’t take that first step you aren’t going to get any better.

But there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned so far.

It’s just fun!

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Here to point out that the day needs saving, did you know? (image: tenor.com)

Writing doesn’t have to be a super-serious thing – neither does reading. Yes, talking about craft and feedback is important but you can also just have a good time. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy fanfiction and anyone who makes you feel bad about it is being a snob. It’s still reading. It’s still writing. You do not have to be a tortured artiste starving in a garret in order to produce anything of worth, and you do not have to be wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and smoking a pipe in order to have valuable opinions about what you read. If you want to read or write fanfiction, you go ahead and do it. If you find that it starts up a love of writing or reading that you want to take further, that’s great! If not, that’s great too! Just enjoy the stuff you like to read or write and don’t let anyone try and make you feel bad about it.

Don’t get me wrong. Fanfiction, when it’s bad, can be an absolute pile. But to say it’s bad as a whole is an unfair characterisation of a genre. You get good and bad fanfic in the same way you get good and bad sci-fi. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that a) it’s not the misunderstood brainchild of Tumblr, we’ve been doing this for centuries and b) it has some very real benefits. Things don’t have to be deep and meaningful to have value – they can be fun, or silly, or over-dramatic, or just really really smutty, but if you enjoy them, that is all the value they need. Some people find fanfiction gives them some really useful tools as a writer, and can start themselves off down the path to original fiction – I know that was the case for me. Some people don’t. Either way, that’s fine. You do you.

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Book Recipes: How to Write a Historical Epic

Time for another book recipe! This time we’ll be looking at historical epics. Bring tissues, because three-quarters of the characters are definitely going to die.

 

Ingredients:

  • A thousand different characters
  • Significant landmarks
  • Buckets full of research
  • Weather that matches the events of the plot
  • Duh-RAMA
  • Speeches
  • Enough backstory to fill a lake
  • A significant historical event you can use as a backdrop
  • More research

 

Method:

  1. Research literally everything you can about your historical event. YOU MUST KNOW EVERYTHING.
  2. Introduce your thousand characters in the build-up to the historical event. Pick about twenty of them as your leads, but just bear in mind that only three of them are going to survive to the end of the book.
  3. Deliver some backstory in front of a famous landmark.
  4. Oh no, some plot is happening that sets up the big historical event! Never mind. I’m sure it won’t be important later.
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It’s probably fine. (image: andrewstoeten.com)
  1. Kill off a character. It’s fine, we’ve got loads.
  2. Set up a confrontation between two of your characters in front of a famous landmark. Don’t resolve it yet, we’ve got like twelve thousand pages to go.
  3. Uh-oh, some important history is going on! Looks like we’ve got to pay attention this time, so make sure to slap some of your characters in there.
  4. Do a speech! Readers love speeches.
  5. Two (or more) of your characters have fallen in love! Yaaaaaayyyyy. They can’t be together, because of reasons. Angst about it in the rain, so the readers know that it’s sad.
  6. Hmm, what’s this? Looks like…foreshadowing…
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Dun dun DUUUNNNNN. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Have another confrontation between those two characters that hate each other, but in front of a different landmark. Don’t resolve it, just use the opportunity to deliver more backstory instead.
  2. THE HISTORICAL EVENT IS HAPPENING ALL STATIONS GO
  3. Your lovers are separated by all this history lying around. Time for one of them to go and angst about it while the over tries to get all the history out of their clothes.
  4. Let’s see how the characters you put right in the middle of things are getting on. They seem OK so far…
  5. HAHA JK THEY’RE ALL DEAD. The foreshadowing was right…
  6. Fighting! Drama! History all over the floor! It’s very exciting, and factually accurate.
  7. Kill off some more characters, just for kicks.
  8. Time to resolve that confrontation you’ve been building up to! Make sure to make it as dramatic as possible – if you’re not doing it in a storm, you’re doing it wrong.
  9. The dust has settled. History has finished its tantrum and is putting away its toys. Have your characters do some speeches about how significant and important this is.
  10. End on a wedding, to distract your readers from the fact that ninety percent of your characters are dead.

THE END. Serve in a thousand pages.

 

Tips:

  • Don’t get attached to any of your characters.
  • Word count coming up a bit short? That’s where your backstory comes in. It’s not just for one character – it’s for their entire family and goes back centuries. That ought to give you at least another chapter.
  • Every character must have either a corset, a sword, or a historical hat.
  • You can have antagonists, but don’t include an out-and-out villain. The real villain is society.
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That’s deep, man. (image: giphy.com)
  • Choose your historical event carefully. You want to pick something that has a nice decisive fight right at the end and has lots of stuff to fill out your characters’ speeches with. No-one’s going to want to read a novel about humanity gradually discovering the uses of metal.
  • Make sure to pack your novel full of historical facts, no matter how irrelevant. That way, your reader can suffer too – just like when you were doing your research.
  • Start weightlifting. You’re going to need some serious guns to lift the finished book.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

Hood pulled up to hide his face, Brother Girolamo slipped silently along the streets of Bologna. Vespers had been rung hours ago; if he was lucky, he would make it back to the abbey before Compline. If not…well. The abbot might notice his absence, but some things were more important.

Tonight, di Luca would confess.

He had to be careful. The city was tense since the theft of the bucket. Soon, there would be war. Holding the edges of his habit out of the mud, he passed by the church of San Domenico and headed for the Asinelli. In the shadows between the great tower and the smaller Garisenda tower, he would be unseen. That was where di Luca would be waiting.

He was right. There, at the base of the vast towers, stood Niccolo di Luca.

Hatred rushed through him. Di Luca was just standing there, one hand on his stupid shiny sword, a big feathered hat covering his stupid floppy hair. Rings glittered on his stupid fingers, his hose were too tight and he’d grown a stupid, stupid pointy beard. The only good thing about him was the sparkly brooch fastening his cloak, and he’d stolen that from Brother Girolamo before he’d taken holy orders. Jerk.

Well, this time he’d gone too far. Brother Girolamo stepped into the shadows, heart beating very fast. He’d thought about this moment for fifteen years. He’d composed his speech in his head all through Matins, and dropped his prayer book because of it. He’d locked himself in the latrines and practiced it out loud, just to make sure. He’d even practiced the right faces when he’d drawn water from the well. Now, he put on his determined-yet-vengeful face and cleared his throat. He had to get the voice right.

“Niccolo di Luca,” he intoned, majestically. He allowed himself a brief smile – he was doing so well – and stepped out of the shadows.

Di Luca flinched and whirled around, already drawing his sword. “Who’s there? Who are you?”

“You mean you don’t recognise me?” said Brother Girolamo, still doing the voice.

“I…I don’t…take off your hood and face me like a man!”

Brother Girolamo did a sinister laugh. He was very proud of it. He’d practiced for hours, and in the end he’d had to get Brother Paolo to help him get it right. He was going to tell Brother Paolo everything when he got back to the abbey.

“Well,” Brother Girolamo said, putting on his determined-yet-vengeful face again, “I suppose it has been fifteen years. Maybe this will help you remember.”

He lowered his hood. This was the moment he’d been waiting for. This was the moment his whole life had been building up to. This was it, this was it

Di Luca blinked at him. “I’m sorry, have we met?”

“Yes! It is – what do you mean, have we met?”

“It’s just that you don’t look very familiar. I don’t owe you money, do I?”

“I’m a monk!”

Di Luca lowered his sword. “Oh, yes! Sorry, it’s a bit dark, couldn’t see your habit. This is something of a bad time, Brother, so perhaps you could just…”

Brother Girolamo put his hands on his hips. “You really don’t recognise me?”

Di Luca squinted at him. “Er…no, not really. Could be the haircut’s throwing me off. Cover up your tonsure for a moment, would you?”

Brother Girolamo put his hands over his bald spot, fuming.

“No, you’re not ringing any bells, I’m afraid.” He smirked. “Heh. Ringing any bells…”

Brother Girolamo stamped his foot. “It’s me! Girolamo Vitelli! You ruined my life fifteen years ago and destroyed my whole family!”

Di Luca stroked his beard, thoughtfully. “Vitelli…that does sound a little familiar…”

“How could you forget what you did to my family?” Brother Girolamo declaimed. “Fifteen years ago, you seduced my sister Maria on the eve of her wedding and ran away with her! Without the help of the powerful signore she was supposed to marry, my family was ruined! We had to sell everything we owned just to pay our debts and I was forced to become a monk! I’ve laboured fifteen years, tracking you down and plotting my revenge, and you don’t even have the courtesy to remember me? You destroyed my whole family!”

Di Luca shrugged. “Hey, I’m a busy man.”

“I never heard from my sister again! What did you do to her, you monster? Did you cast her aside, leaving her friendless and alone in the world? Is she living in a pit of iniquity? Is she dead in a ditch somewhere?”

“What? No!” said Di Luca. “I married her. She’s at home with the kids.”

“…oh. Well. You should’ve told us that –”

“It’s not my fault that you didn’t write to your sister.”

“Yes it is!”

“Oh, come on! How is it my fault?”

Brother Girolamo straightened his habit. He was getting off-topic. Time to focus on the matter at hand: sweet, sweet revenge.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, putting his vengeful face back on. “I know what you did. It was you who let the Modenese soldiers into the city, wasn’t it? It’s because of you they stole our bucket!”

“What? Listen, man, I think you’ve –”

“I’ve got proof,” said Brother Girolamo. “Brother Alessandro saw you. Now we’re going to go to war, and it’s all your fault! Well, you won’t live to enjoy the spoils of your bucket-theft. I’m going to tell the Archbishop of you and you’re going to be in so much trouble…”

There was a brief flicker of panic on Di Luca’s face, a flash of silver, and then a terrible pain in Brother Girolamo’s stomach. Then, everything went dark.

Di Luca wiped the blood off his sword. “Goddammit,” he muttered, “Maria is going to be so mad at me.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Side note: there was actually a war between the city-states of Bologna and Modena in the fourteenth century fought over the theft of a bucket. I honestly could not have asked for more.