Look Ma! No Hands …… by Nicole Kimberling

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.)


  • (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…)

    Yes! I’ve always been bemused at the virulent anti-fan fiction stance the guy who writes those Monk books takes when he’s essentially writing sanctioned fan fiction.

    The notion of a “house” series or characters is an old one. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, etc were all “house” series. Meaning different writers were hired to write stories about a character created and owned by the publisher.

    Heck, I’ve thought of putting together an Adrien English anthology and paying professional authors to write their own Adrien stories. They would not own the stories or Adrien but they would be paid up front. It’s not an original idea.

    And I agree that there’s merit in the whole training wheels idea. Writing is hard. Good writing takes a long time and a lot of practice. Fan fiction can function like an accelerated learning course.

    As I said above some of the best m/m fiction I’ve ever read was fan fiction. Very often AU fan fiction that bore almost zero resemblance to the source material.

    (Hey! Just to let you know, I tried for days to get on the site and comment!)

    • Hey Josh!

      I know, right?

      Just as an aside, I would be SO STOKED to write in the AE universe. I’d do it for free just to realize my personal dream for Angus. 😀

      Sorry it took days to get on the site, but I’m glad you stopped by.

  • Great article on the positives and negatives of writing fanfics. I agree writing skills can be developed in fanfiction, but I also agree that feedback skills are sometimes lacking. As Cryselle said above, many fanfic writers are coddled with “lurves” and take criticism personally. But who would teach them to be polite and think about a constructive comment when it’s so easy to lash out and feel vindicated, especially when “lurves” and shallow praise is heaped on them from so many others? If a writer accepts constructive criticism they are in a way admitting they have faults or they were wrong. Some poor egos can’t take that kind of hit. Others need to get over it.

    I’ve come across bad fics sometimes and shake my head at how some people demand more of a bad fic just to get their slash fix. It’s like begging for free artificially flavored chocolate ice cream by the gallon and makes you sick instead of paying $3 for a scoop of premium dark chocolate gelato.

    • Hi there Kim! Thank you for dropping by.

      It’s an interesting question–who will teach them to be polite?

      Gosh, I don’t know. It truly behooves anyone who hopes to write professionally to get some skills in the pubic relations area. That includes not lashing out at people who make random commentary on your stuff.

      Even comments that are wrong, misguided or flat-out stupid should be treated with a basic level of politeness. I mean, to a great extent the comment box is forever. Do you really want your pissy mood immortalized for all eternity?

      But how to teach that… I don’t know if it helps to necessarily teach politeness, but I always use my real name online. It helps me to adjust my more intemperate replies.

      So maybe a good exercise to increase general politeness would be to think, “would I say this if my real name and photograph were printed alongside it?” before lashing out at anybody.

  • A bike with training wheels is not a bike, it doesn’t balance the same directions, so as soon as the wheels are off, the kid falls all over because he’s been trained to turn his wheels the wrong way. And then he’s frustrated and doesn’t understand why it’s not working right.

    Same with fandom feedback. A lot of times it has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with personalities. People *just lurve* the writer so “everything is perfect” and real concrit gets shouted down. And then the author risks unleashing original fiction with lame plot points that pass as cute in the fandom and flat characters because they don’t come predeveloped and and already beloved, and hasn’t a clue what’s wrong. Those kind of bad habits are what we’re warned of.

    Fandom when it works right can be a terrific learning experience, and really nurture a writer. Fandoms can also be the blind leading the blind. You can often tell who’s started betaing who because certain errors start to spread. It would be almost funny if you didn’t risk getting your head bitten off for pointing it out.

    • Hi Cryselle!

      You make a good point. As it turns out, I have had the experience of being shouted out of a fanfic room for making editorial comments on a MS.

      It was when Blind Eye Books was just starting up. I was looking for MS and authors and decided that I might as well try some fanfic just to see if there was anybody I should be watching around there.

      I went to some manga site and actually found a story I really liked. The author had a great sense of plot and vivid, readable prose but she had one very amateur and very obvious habit–she refused to use the word “said” as an attribution.

      Actually, as I recall, she refused to use ANY attributions. There would be a line of dialogue then an action like, “He brushed aside his crimson hair.” Then another line of dialogue then another action, etc. The result was jerky prose that lacked flow.

      But when people weren’t speaking, the story was great to read. So, I made the comment about attributions and explained that “said” is really sort of an invisible word to a reader. I also suggested combining some of the shorter sentences to create more complexity.

      The author wrote me back saying that I was wrong and everybody chimed in. I think I attempted a rebuttal, which only added fuel to the fire–I didn’t really understand how online conversations worked at the time.

      The author then stated that I clearly had some agenda coming to their site and invited me to leave.

      And she was right about the agenda thing–my agenda was I was looking for authors to publish.

      It was then that I realized that even if this author had skills, she was not emotionally detached enough from her writing to take it to the next level at that time. Her complete hostility to criticism would have made her impossible to work with.

      It was a lesson learned. I still lurk around all sorts of sites looking for authors who I want to headhunt, though. I think there’s potential everywhere.

      So anyway, I do understand about the stronger personalities in a group perpetuating erroneous ideas. This happens in real-life writers groups too.

      And honestly, I don’t think writing fanfiction is for everybody. Like I said in an earlier comment, I’ve never done it myself.

      I’m just saying that if writers want to engage of their own free will, that’s perfectly fine.

  • An awesome article!

    I have often felt the same way. Not only is fanfiction good practice, there are some things you can learn writing from fanfiction that are a lot more difficult to learn from original fiction.

    Because you get immediate, honest feedback, you can improve your writing much more quickly! Things like what draws readers in, how to write an opening scene that makes a story successful, how to interact with readers in an enthusiastic manner. It’s a much better way to learn what works and what doesn’t.

    Besides, if you’re writing original fiction and you’re unpublished, it’s hard to improve. No one really sees or critiques your work, so your only option is to churn out story after story and hope one gets published, while you’re unable to figure out what you’re doing wrong. With fanfiction, if something isn’t working, you can try something new and have feedback on it almost the instant you put it online.

    Not that reviewers always have something valuable to say, but just knowing what kind of stories people pay attention to, raw numbers like “how many people clicked on this” versus “how many people fave’d” helps enormously!

    • Hey there, Shy!

      Yes, exactly. For many people, the complete lack of feedback during the developmental stage of writing–the total void–is crushing.

      Though I would caution anyone against taking things like faves or lack of faves too much to heart. 🙂

  • My very first stories were Darkover-fanfiction and the support of the Darkovergroup definitely helped me hone my skills and keep on writing. I received critical feedback from some and praise from others. That was during a time when MZB also was still very supportive of fanfiction. Back then I dreamed about getting published in one of the Darkover-anthologies.

    I think fanfiction can be a very good training ground. It can teach you about building a story, working on longer pieces (big bangs) and trying out new things and presenting them to an audience.

    It can also teach you about the necessity of getting beta-readers and having some critical input before posting. Not to mention having a proof-reader. I’ve written a lot of fanfic and I never posted anything without having someone else looking over it. Or even two or three people.

    Same now with my indie-published stories. At least the minimum of one beta-reader and one editor.

    I find fanfiction also good when it comes to experimenting with forms of story-telling, also with stuff like kinks, or relationships, or world-building. Some fanfiction-writers create amazing AUs.

    The only problem that I could see is that fanfiction doesn’t really teach you how to create, introduce, and develop original characters as the main characters, because you work with already established characters in an established universe.

    Involvement in fandom also teaches you how to deal with flame-wars, criticism, negative feedback, and irate readers.

    I sometimes see friends whining about flame-wars or shitstorms and when I look at the debate I can only call it a light shit-breeze or a candlelight-war, because they are mostly rather benign when compared to what fandom is capable of.

    I definitely learned a lot from writing fanfiction and met some amazing people through my involvement with fandom. 🙂

    I know several writers who are now highly praised and successful who had their beginnings in writing fanfiction. Mercedes Lackey makes now secret out of the fact that she started out as a fanfiction-writer and there are others.

    • Hahahaha, so glad I’m not the only one who looks at original fiction flame wars and thinks, “Wow, these people are tame.”

      I think a lot of original fiction authors would be better behaved if they spent some time in fandom and got all of the petty jealously and hate out of their systems. You learn a lot about yourself that way.

      • Definitely not 😀 And it’s not even just original fiction writers. I had the same reaction to debates on professional boards or even political boards and mailing-lists. It’s kind of cute. 😉

        I think one thing fandom also teaches you is to be more aware of things and to become more sensitive to all kinds of -isms. And to do your research.

    • Hi Alix,

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I confess I’ve never written fanfic or been involved in fandom (the internet had not been invented yet when I learned to write) so your insights into that are appreciated.

      And no, writing fanfiction does not teach originality, but I’m not sure originality can necessarily be taught, exactly.

      There are some games that can encourage out-of-the-box thinking about creative concepts, though.

      • Hi Nicole,

        my experience with fanfiction started long before the internet, even before e-mail was widely available :smile:. Fandom-dinosaur here :wink:. I first submitted stories to fanzines and had stories rejected because they just weren’t got enough or received stories back full of editorial comments. Or than later with mailing-lists got off-list comments on how to improve the story.

        Although I also have to add, that from the very beginning I was writing fanfiction and original fiction at the same time, because there were just some ideas and some topics that just didn’t work within the fanfiction-framework. So I’m probably not the best one to comment on moving from fanfiction to original fiction.

        I think a good writer, or even a decent writer, whether it’s fanfiction or original fiction, is constantly looking for ways to expand, to learn new things. The fanfiction writer might start by adding in original secondary characters or creating complex AUs that have almost nothing in common anymore with the original source. That way they might move away from fanfiction and more into original fiction.

        True originalty can’t be taught, that’s true, I was more thinking about the more technical side of creating characters with their own flaws and strengths and personalities. Finding the voices for the characters. Fanfiction comes with already existing characters.

        I think this is something that can be learned in many ways: reading original fiction and studying what other writers have done. Reading writing literature. The games you mentioned. Writing challenges. And writing. Never stop writing. If something doesn’t work, try it again in a different way.

        I sometimes still end up with different versions of the same story told from different POVs until I find the one that works.

        • Oh, yeah! The paper zines! I, too, started out making those. They were the natural precursor to independent publishing for a lot of people, I think.

          RE: creating original characters. I think people come to this in a lot of different ways. Personally, I’m a modeler. Many of my side characters have their origin in real people who I meet–especially in the Bellingham Mysteries. Then there are some writers who I know who come up with a plot and then create the character who can make the plot run. Some writers set up characters who are almost like equations, or computer programs in order to define the parameters of their actions.

          But yes, ultimately everything about writing comes down to constant experimentation and practice.

    • The only problem that I could see is that fanfiction doesn’t really teach you how to create, introduce, and develop original characters as the main characters, because you work with already established characters in an established universe.

      Some of my favorite writers came out of fan fiction, and I dabbled in fan fiction myself (and enjoyed it enormously).

      But I think two problems potentially come with fan fiction: one is the shock and (occasionally) resistance to real edits and real criticism. Not that it’s all warm and fuzzy in fandom but the author ultimately has the final call on all edits, changes and modes of publishing and distribution. Not so in professional publishing. Even indie professional publishing.

      Secondly, I think some of the perennial drama in our own little genre is inherited from fan fiction culture. I’ve been told many times that if I think X is bad, I should have seen what it was like back in the heyday of Fandom X. Fandom, by definition, is not a professional environment and I think that sometimes shows in how authors new to professional publishing conduct themselves.

      That said, some of the all time best M/M fiction I’ve read was fan fiction — and some of the most kind and generous and supportive people I’ve met are active in various fandoms.

  • One of the reasons that I have long enjoyed reading fan fiction and some of the free fiction sites is watching the developing skills of a writer.

    • Hi Celeste! Good to see you!

      You bring up a very interesting point. There is a real pleasure in being part of a collaborative process. Participating in fandoms and fanfic does allow one to watch others change and grow and that itself can be completely fascinating.

  • Thank you for writing this!

    As a longtime fanfic writer myself – before I got rid of my training wheels and tried out an original story of my own – I find myself equally bemused and distressed by the depiction of fanfic in the media, both pre- and post-50 Shades. Especially since, as you mention, the line between what is ‘acceptable’ fanfic – such as Death Comes to Pemberly, for instance – and not is such a blurry one.

    Given how intense and combatative some fandoms can be – insert your example here – fanfic writers can sometimes be subject to harsher criticism and to more volatile objections to their work than most mainstream writers. It can really be a trial by fire, and therefore an excellent learning experience. And the framework of an established cannon is helpful in learning how to hone your sense of character and to pace your narrative.

    My writing skills – such as they are – would certainly be lesser without it!

    Great post!

    • Hi Selena,

      Thank you so much for stopping by! And you are totally right–why IS Death Comes to Pemberly not considered fanfic?

  • I wrote fan fic in my early teens and I love the training wheels analogy. I wonder if it isn’t something every writer does, at least in their head. How many of us, still, read a book where we love the characters and don’t ever go on and create sequels, prequels, deleted scenes… I still do, even if it’s thirty years since I actually put fan fic on paper. It’s just another way to play with story creation.

    • Hi Kaje,

      Excellent point. Like you, I still do create sequels, prequels and deleted scenes for stories I love. I don’t bother to write them down as you said, but I do make them up. I don’t know if every writer does this, but I’m willing to bet every writer with strong editorial instincts might.


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