Last week I talked a bit (okay, a lot) about the synergy between my life as a writer of original works and my life in fandom. There’s more overlap and interplay between the two than you might think, and they’re both essential to my life and creative health. There are some differences between writing for fandom and writing original work, though, which is what I’d like to talk about today. Surprisingly, most of it has nothing to do with the writing or the stories themselves.
The obvious one
Let’s just get this out of the way right at the start. When you’re writing fanfic, of course you’re drawing on characters, worlds, and situations created by another writer. Some believe that this automatically demotes fanfic to a lesser art form. I would argue that creativity is born of limitations. How can I tell a new, interesting, creative story within the limitations provided? How can I make those characters my own? How can I get to the heart of what motivates them using only the information given to me through the original media? Also, anyone who believes there is no character development to be done in fanfiction has never written any. Place those characters in an alternate universe (AU) setting, and you’re honestly so far from the source material that it may as well be original fiction. If this is an impression you have, I encourage you to seek out some fanfic recommendation lists in a fandom that interests you and try reading some.
Shouting into the void
Writing original fiction can sometimes feel…a bit demoralizing, on the bad days. You put weeks, months, years into a project that may never see the light of day. It’s entirely possible that no one will read your book other than your critique partners. Even if you post on Wattpad or another such archive, it’s difficult to get noticed. Fanfiction certainly fulfills the need most writers feel to share their work with the world. Even poorly-received fanfic typically gets something in the way of attention and comments. It’s a little less lonely than writing original fiction. A little less like shouting into the void, hoping someone, somewhere will take notice and care about what you’ve written. If you write to create purely original worlds and people and love that process more than anything, then fanfic won’t entirely scratch the itch for you. If you write purely for the joy of sharing your work with others and have no other motives, though, fandom may be the most fulfilling place for you. I love, love the process of writing original fiction, and I even love the grind and stress of trying to make it in the professional publishing world. The joy of sharing a fanwork and being embraced by an enthusiastic and welcoming community is wholly different form of reward, though.
Will it float?
Similar to above, when you’re writing original fiction, you never know whether it will amount to anything. It may never gain readership. It may never sell to a publisher. Reading original fiction requires more investment from readers than reading fanfiction does; when you read fanfic, you already know that you’re signing up for characters and a world that you enjoy. Original fiction is much more hit-or-miss. You never know whether someone will ever read and enjoy your work. Fanfiction has a built-in audience, so there’s a good chance that you’ll at least find a small readership.
No money, no approval structure, less pressure
Fanfiction is free. Since the characters belong to someone else, fanfiction can never legally be sold (with few exceptions, noted below). Original fiction can be free, but typically the goal is to be published and earn money. Places like Wattpad are giving more of an audience for freely available original fiction these days, but for the same reasons noted in the previous section, it’s a bigger risk for readers to take. The fact that there’s no money to be made from fanfic also means there’s no approval structure or third-parties involved like there is with original fiction—no editors or agents to win over, or to work with you on making the story better. While the lack of oversight can result in falling back on tropes (which fandom admittedly loves) or laziness in editing, it’s also quite freeing. You can write with the sole intention of enjoying the process, or making your readers happy. Knowing that there’s no money, no sale, and no professional ramifications at the end can make the process of writing much less anxiety-ridden for some. It can automatically remove some of the barriers that keep people from getting their butts in the chair and putting the work in. This can be especially valuable for new writers.
For the most part fanfic is published solely online, with the occasional exception of fanzines. However, there’s a growing trend of editors seeking out highly-praised novel-length fics with huge audiences and then having the authors “file the serial numbers off”, or rewrite them to remove all traces of the original fandom while maintaining the elements of the fic that drew readers in to begin with. This is especially common with Alternate Universe fics, which are already so far removed from the original fandom as to be a mere hop away from original anyway. The classic example is 50 Shades of Gray, but as much as it’s a popular example, it’s not a very good one. Many, many others have been done to much better effect. While this practice is hotly debated, it’s still a potential path to publication through fandom, and is a way for writers to combine their fandom and original writing lives. After all, you spent months or years of your live writing that 120,000 word Sherlock/John Wild West AU*, at the end of which the characters bore little resemblance to their BBC counterparts thanks to the events of your story—so why not do the extra bit of work and get it ready for publication? For original fiction, you have so many options for publication: Get an agent and go for a Big 5 publisher, submit directly to mid-size or small presses, self-publish, and so on. There’s tons of competition, but the rewards are bigger.
* – I actually don’t know of a story meeting this particular description, but I’m sure it exists, and I do know of plenty of similar ones.
There are probably more differences, but those are the ones that jumped out at me as I started making my foray into writing fanfiction. What about you, creatures? Have you noticed any other differences between fanfic and original fic as either a reader or a writer? Let me know in the comments.