In Defense of Fanfiction for Aspiring Writers

I haven’t written fanfiction in years, but there was a time when it played a big role in my life.

Way back in the dark ages, also known as the late 90s, early 00s, I was a tween. We weren’t called tweens then, that slang hadn’t become popular yet. I had a good friend, a teenager, who lived a few blocks away. I liked her and trusted her judgment. So when she told me I simply had to watch this show Sailor Moon, I followed her advice.

When I turned off the TV, I thought: This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever watched. …I’m going to watch again tomorrow!

Thus began my love affair with one of the most popular anime of all time.

My older friend also turned me on to fanfiction. The TV could only give me half an hour at a time. The internet could give me so, so much more. Reams of stories, any time I wanted. I learned all the lore of this new world and was exposed to stories beyond what was ‘safe’ enough to be in the library, namely lesbian relationships. I read it all.

It wasn’t long before I started writing my own story. I gave myself a penname. I started a Geocities site. I joined Fanfiction.net.

I started getting readers. I got comments. People loved what I wrote, and so I wrote more.

The beautiful thing about that period of time is that I was part of a very large, very active community. Thousands of other people were also hungry for more stories, and they were happy to read and comment.

The next year I discovered Gundam Wing, and that’s when my fanfiction writing career really took off. The fandom could not get enough of those boys and their mecha. Neither could I. In the six years I was active on the site, I wrote some 265,000 words.

That’s a lot of practice. And let’s be clear, the vast majority of that was written in four years when I was really active. Figure 50k a year, between the ages of 14 and 18. Not including the originals works I did for class.

I wrote because I wanted to. I wrote for the instant feedback. I wrote because other people cared if I didn’t update. I wrote because playing in those worlds made me happy.

I sometimes miss the abandon with which I used to write. There were no rules. I had no craft lessons to deliberately apply. It was just me and the blank page, going wherever we wanted to go. For those years, I was a pantser.

And I can honestly say that over the years I got better. My taste and instincts matured. I read a lot. Both good, published books, and bad, what-is-this-burn-it-with-fire fanfiction. I read some outstanding fanfiction as well, things that deserved a much bigger platform. I became discerning. I learned what I liked, and what not to do. I began to articulate what was wrong with what I was reading. I began to absorb craft.

Over time, I outgrew fanfiction. My community of choice was dying out and I didn’t feel like joining another one. Instead I focused on my class assignments, original fiction. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest. I began looking for the colleges with the best writing programs. Because I wanted a career as a fantasy novelist, you see, and I was determined.

Writing fanfiction gave me confidence in my abilities. I trusted myself to know what was good and worth pursuing. Maybe that’s arrogance in a teenager, but that arrogance had me pursuing a dream instead of putting it aside. I kept taking classes, kept workshopping, kept reading. I knew I wasn’t good enough yet. But I knew I could get there.

So, the next time someone tries to argue that fanfiction is a waste of time, don’t listen to them. It’s a productive form of play. You wouldn’t tell someone to stop playing pick-up basketball if their aim was the NBA. Insist they do the drills as well, but don’t tell them to stop having fun. People argue that fanfiction is stultifying because it doesn’t require the writer to invent their own worlds and characters. I suppose children shouldn’t play with LEGOs because they didn’t mold the plastic themselves. LEGO sets may seem limiting, especially as they become more and more branded, but kids still do fantastic, imaginative things with them.

Nobody should be forced to read or write it, but those who do should keep on keepin’ on.

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Alanna, Tamora and Me

When I made the transition from picture books to middle grade I devoured everything in my path. Amelia Bedelia. Mrs. Piggly-Wiggly. The Egypt Game. All of the American Girl series. Most of the Babysitters Club–we’re talking twenty books at a time. I was voracious, because I was still searching for something.

When I was twelve, I found it. Tamora Pierce’s In The Hand of the Goddess, a book set in a medieval world, with royalty, magic, adventure, gender politics, and a BAMF for a heroine. I thought to myself, This is it! I knew then that there were books in the world that could be what I wanted, and I think that played a big role in my pursuing writing.

It’s sort of analogous to seeing yourself mirrored in media. When you see yourself depicted, you’re reassured that you exist, that you matter. Hand affirmed that my wants and desires existed in the world beyond my head.

For those who don’t know, Tamora Pierce is known for writing books about strong heroines. The Song of the  Lionness Quartet is about Alanna, a girl who decides at the age of ten that she wants to be a knight, not a lady, and disguises herself as a boy to do so. (Yeah, Hogwarts looks like a cakewalk now, doesn’t it?) She befriends a Prince and the King of Thieves. She battles boys bigger than her and forgotten gods. She learns to appreciate her body despite what she hates about it. The books follow her through her early twenties, experiencing love, hatred, magic, romance, danger, fear, heartbreak, and friendship. Basically it had everything I wanted omfg.

Alanna remains a member of my core head cannon, alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who deserves her own post). She will forever be who I picture when people say strong female character. A lot of her strength comes from sheer stubbornness, a refusal to accept that she is somehow less capable than anyone else. Even in her darkest moments, she pushes through.

That was all in line with the Girl Power messaging of the 90s, which I absorbed a lot of, and so I had no qualms about picking up a pen and writing my own stories. I was a girl, I had heroines like Alanna, and I could do what I wanted. If I wanted to write stories, that’s what I would do. I would make more books as wonderful and amazing as Tamora’s. I was convinced I had a career as a fantasy novelist ahead of me.

Within a few years of discovering Alanna, I found Sailor Moon and the online fan community with its mountains of fanfiction. That’s where I really got started writing in earnest. Sailor Moon was BIG at that time, whereas Tamora Pierce’s books didn’t have a massive online fandom. Nowadays there’s fics and amazing fanart and fan theories like QueeringTortall, which is my new favorite thing. If I were fourteen right now I’d be in-freaking-heaven. Also less prone to drawing anime eyes. But I digress.

My point is, Tamora Pierce opened a door for me. For years I emulated aspects of her fiction, or held it as the standard to which I aspired. I still want to capture that sense of rightness I felt reading In the Hand of the Goddess for the very first time. I hope someday I’m able to do so. And that what I write will positively impact the next generation of readers, as I was impacted.