Not that it's hard to make me think about fanfic. Yesterday, for example, I spent a relaxing hour during my "lunch break" (a nebulous concept on a Sunday, admittedly, but since I worked all damn day, I wanted a lunch break) reading Glee fanfic. Most of it was Rachel/Quinn, which is not a 'ship I necessarily endorse on the show itself, but which has attracted some really awesome authors whose work I hugely enjoy. I became a professional author largely because I had been writing fanfic for so many years that I was eventually able to level up and start playing in my own sandboxes. I love fanfic. I love it. And because I've been thinking about fanfic, I wanted to make a few statements about fanfic.
Fanfic can teach you how to write.
I'm serious. If you have a good critique group, usually referred to as "beta readers," to go over your work before you post it, fanfic can be a great tool for learning how to put together a good sentence, a good paragraph, and a good overall narrative. You have to be ready to hear criticism, because the fanfic community is also a great place to go for unrelenting praise, but if you're ready, the tools for improvement are there. Playing in someone else's world is an excellent way to dodge the initial world building step, and get straight to dialog, composition, and the all-important "building a good story." It lets you hone your tools in a safe place, and that's incredibly helpful.
I didn't learn how to build good worlds from fanfic; I had to start doing my own thing before I could learn, and apply, that lesson. But I learned to write good dialog from fanfic, and I learned how to make people care. The fanfic community was hugely important to, and influential toward, my development as a writer.
Again, there are some pitfalls to this approach. Fanfic can easily become a closed circuit of production and praise, where people who want to read exactly what you're writing tell you how awesome you are, so you write the same thing over and over again, without any growth. Fanfic can seem like an excuse to be sloppy. But if you're approaching it seriously, which many really good fanfic authors do, it can teach you an incredible amount about writing, about receiving critique, and about taking editorial feedback. The first really thorough editorial feedback I ever received was on a piece of fanfic, and I have held those lessons dear to my heart since I was sixteen years old. Fanfic is an awesome learning lab, and the only credentials you need to enter are a knowledge of a fandom you'd like to write in, and the willingness to be told when you're terrible.
Fanfic gives you the freedom to do things that are difficult to do in more traditional fiction.
Some of my favorite things to both read and write in fanfic are "mood pieces," little meandering stories that don't do anything but paint a picture of a moment, or look at an event from a different direction. They're all about introspection and re-framing, and when they're good, they're amazing. But they're not the sort of thing that sells. I can (and do) write them about my published series, but they're not the sort of thing that generally winds up finding a very wide audience. And in fanfic, that doesn't matter. I've written stories with a projected audience of three. All three people were happy, and I was content.
I love AU fanfic—alternate universe stories where things went a little different, someone died or didn't die or married their season one sweetheart or it's a Shakespearean tragedy or or or. And AU is hard in traditional fiction. I've managed to play around with it a bit in "Velveteen vs.", where I have the superhero framework as an excuse, but I doubt Toby will ever meet her cross-dimensional counterpart (which is a pity, because I bet it would be fascinating). I like having the option to twist things and see how everything unfolds from a new starting point.
Fanfic can help you find your voice.
I know people who say "why don't all those fanfic writers just play in their own worlds?" And the thing is, some of them will, some of them do. People don't have to choose one or the other, absolutely, no mixing or matching. A lot of fanfic authors go on to become professional authors, and keep on writing fanfic in whatever spare time they have. I am not a special snowflake in this regard. I belong to a blizzard. There are a lot of reasons that people write fanfic. Sometimes we do it because we're in love with a setting that someone else has created. Sometimes we do it because we want to fix what we view as flaws, or create a more balanced back story for a character we feel has gotten short shift, or just because we feel like it. Sometimes we do it because we're bored.
But every time we do it, even when we're trying to sound like the original creator, we're getting a little more solid in our own voices, in the ways that we shape and approach narratives. We find ourselves in the space between someone else's story. At the end of the day, is learning to write by producing reams of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction any less legit than retelling "Snow White" eighty-seven times? I don't think so. It's less commercial, since you can't (and shouldn't) sell your fanfic, but it's still a natural part of figuring out who you are as a writer.
Not every writer will write fanfic. Not every writer needs to, or wants to. But for those of us who do, it helps us find ourselves. And that's important.
Fanfic is just plain fun.
I wrote a Josie and the Pussycats/Veronica Mars crossover fic once.
I think that sort of says it all.
Fanfic can change the way you think about a story.
I've heard a few people say that everyone who writes fanfic is a spoiling spoiler who spoils, throwing mud and slime all over something beautiful. And everyone has a right to an opinion. But while I have never had a piece of fanfic change my opinion of a story negatively, I have had pieces of fanfic make me look at the original work in a new, and much more open-minded, way. Because fanfic shows love, and love means there's something there for me to care about.
I've never read a piece of fic and thought "ew, I'm never reading/watching the source material." The opposite is very much true. Good fanfic, inspired fanfic, brings new eyes to the table, and new eyes are never a bad thing. Having my view of the story transformed makes me more willing to accept where the original narrative goes, and more likely to stick around for the ride. I've never dropped out of a fandom where I was actively invested in the fanfic. Again, the opposite is very much true.
And now, the big thing...
I cannot officially know about fanfic based on my work, but that doesn't mean I hate it.
Like many authors, I find myself in an awkward position regarding fanfic based on my own work. So here is my official stance on the subject:
Don't tell me.
I have Google spiders; it's entirely possible that I will unofficially find out about your epic Toby/Tybalt Candyland slash party. But I promise to delete that notification without clicking through if you promise not to push the story in my face. If I officially know about it, I officially have to ask you to take it down, because there's no way to prove I didn't read it if it turns out that, say, Toby and Tybalt really are going to have a threeway with the Luidaeg on the top of Candy Mountain. So just don't officially tell me about it. If you write a lot, the odds are good that you and I could end up in the same archive. That's cool. I won't fuss about it if you don't.
I love fanfic for everything it does for writers, and for readers, and if in ten years, the author of the hot new urban fantasy series shyly tells me that she got her start writing Quentin/Raj sexy boys' adventure fic, I will applaud, hug her, and probably buy her dinner. I want fanfic to thrive forever and forever, and keep producing amazing stuff for me to read. And the day the very last Toby book is published, I am doing a huge fanfic websearch, diving into some archives, and reading myself sick.