Look Ma! No Hands! by Nicole Kimberling
Recently I’ve been hearing lots of discussion about fanfiction. I guess this has to do with the popularity of that 50 Shades of Grey book that has been topping the amazon.com lists all summer long. Before this book–this admitted piece of modified fanfiction—started making gazillions of dollars and selling like crazy, I never heard any serious author or editor advise new writers to write any sort of fanfiction. Ever.
In fact, conventional wisdom advised just the opposite. Writing fanfiction, it has been said, creates bad habits.
I could understand if the argument against fanfic was based sheerly in copyright infringement. Selling or attempting to sell other people’s ideas is, indeed, a bad habit.
An illegal habit, even.
Apart from that, I’m unclear as to what these alleged bad habits could be. From what I’ve observed, the most prominent attribute shared by authors who have spent some time in the fanfiction world is responsiveness to readers. I’m not sure why developing that skill-set would be such a heinous idea. Especially since getting the habit of being reactive to readers would mean that an author actually acquired an audience with which to interact. That’s never bad for an author. In fact, it’s pretty much the second most important requirement for success—the first being the ability to write a really good story.
Nevertheless, a few short months ago, no credible person would have considered going on record advising anyone with literary aspirations to engage in or admit to engaging in any kind of fanfiction for any reason.
But money (and the prospect of making it) changes everything doesn’t it?
Suddenly fanfiction and its many writers have been thrust into the spotlight. Could they be more than perverted losers whom many authors despise for turning their macho protagonists unofficially gay? Ordinary citizens who weren’t doctoral candidates looking for an available dissertation topic began to ponder the purpose of fanfiction in modern society and wonder aloud why so many fanfiction writers seemed to be women.
(Just as an aside, I’ve often wondered why it is that no one ever refers to the scripts for the new James Bond movies that are in no way based on any plot Ian Fleming actually wrote as fanfiction. Because isn’t that what it’s called when an author writes a new piece of fiction using another author’s characters and world? Why are reboots of comic book characters not written by their original creators not called fanfiction? What is The Dark Knight Rises, but a triumphant Batman/Tale of Two Cities crossover? All right, I suppose these could all be called authorized fanfiction. But I digress…)
I’ll leave these larger, more dissertation-worthy questions to the academics. What concerns me is the craft of writing.
For many, writing and sharing funny, sexy or utterly implausible scenes about well-known characters they love is a beloved hobby. So long as no one wrecks the party by trying to cash in, I see no reason to rain on that parade.
But I’m not talking about writing only for fun. What I wonder about is this: could there be genuine benefit that writing fanfiction could provide an aspiring commercial author seeking to eventually create original work?
I suggest that there is. I’ll think it might be analogous to…training wheels.
Writing fiction is hard. There are a lot of elements to keep in play simultaneously. Forget crafting fascinating characters, engineering gripping conflicts and mastering the art of breathtaking world-building. Forget even grappling with the mind-bending intricacies of plot.
Just learning to write sentences that make sense is really, really hard. Fashioning a string of sentences into a dramatic scene requires trial and error. Not to mention that writing four hundred pages of the same story, regardless of what that story is, demands a degree of stamina that is only acquired through practice. For the beginner, working within a setting and with characters that somebody else already made up is one way to build the core muscles of narrative storytelling, thereby gaining crucial confidence and endurance.
It’s like how many of us learned to ride a bike.
Sure, there are some prodigies who leap astride their first banana seat and pedal like hell, precariously balanced on two skinny wheels. Some fearless little lunatics make it pretty far.
But even the most talented go-getters wipe out eventually. They crash hard, break their arms and end up in the emergency room. That’s why training wheels were invented—to avoid long lines of bloodied cycling neophytes clogging up the hospital lobby. Training wheels give a kid a chance to learn slowly and not fail so badly that she becomes afraid of ever getting back on the bike again.
At the outset, fiction writing involves constant, sometimes crushing, failure. Writing stories set in other people’s universes is one way that an author can wreck or bail out of a story without feeling too bad about it. She can practice the basics before trying to jump a flaming trashcan blindfolded.
Useful as they may be, I’ve never met a kid who wanted to keep the training wheels on forever.
So I say, go ahead, if you want to write fanfiction, do it all you want. Go wild. Get some sweet moves. Learn to make prose without breaking yourself. Then, when you’re ready, take the training wheels off and begin to express your own ideas.
Pretty soon you’ll be riding with no handlebars.
Got comments? Questions? Want to poke me in the eye?
(I won’t let you do that last one, but I’ll be here all day for the first two.)