On Fanfic, and on Writing as Play

Pew! Pew! Pew!
So there was a thing the other day on Twitter in which a lot of writers were suddenly defending the idea of writing fan fiction. I didn’t understand why at first, but as far as I can tell, someone wrote an article somewhere – I think for a teen-oriented publication of some sort, whether print or web I don’t know – attacking the idea of writing fanfic. Now, I did not read the article in question, or even track it down, because…well, I’m not so interested in refuting specific points. I’d rather just generally say that no, writing fanfic is not a complete waste of time, except in one kind of scenario that I can think of. And that is simply this: if you are talented enough to write your own stories from scratch, and you have the desire to write your own stories from scratch, but you instead choose to write fanfic instead.

And you know what? Even then I don’t think it’s right to say that it’s a waste of time, because it’s your time.

Even so, not everyone approaches writing the same way. If you just enjoy spinning your own stories and you have no real aim for them other than to please yourself, then hey, why not indulge a bit of fanfic? There are less-productive hobbies to have, and I suspect that for a lot of folks who write fanfic, the act of doing so scratches the same kind of itch that, say, playing a role-playing game does for others. It indulges a human need for story and for interaction with a fictional universe in a way that is, for those who enjoy writing, sometimes deeply satisfying.

I wrote fanfic for years, too, and I have my own thoughts on the subject, because I think fan-fiction can be useful as a learning tool for writing original stories later on.

One of my favorite podcasts is Functional Nerds, a podcast featuring writer Patrick Hester and musician John Anealio. The podcast generally features interviews with writers or other kinds of content creators in the SF, fantasy, and horror worlds, and I strongly recommend it. A favorite installment of mine featured author Mary Robinette Kowal as the guest, and she spent a lot of that particular podcast talking about writing and how to teach it. The general thrust of the episode, as framed by an early question by Anealio, was in breaking writing down into specific parts or facets. Lots of times when writers are asked what the best way to learn to write is, they’ll appeal to a Zen-like approach and say that you just have to sit down and do it. And that’s true, to an extent…but as a musician, Anealio looks at art in terms of more basic things. All music students, no matter what instrument they play, start off by learning scales, because scales are the basic building blocks of Western music, and every musician continues practicing scales for the rest of their lives.

So he asked Kowal this question: “What are the ‘scales’ of writing, and how do you practice them?”

Kowal indicated that she rejects the “holistic” approach to learning to write, and describes a number of ways one can break down the task of writing in order to focus on one particular area: description, characterization, and so on. I think that fanfic can serve the same kind of purpose, especially for people who want to write stories in a fantasy or science-fiction universe.

With fanfic, the basic world-building work is already done. If you write a Star Trek story, you know what your ground-rules are. You know that there’s a United Federation of Planets, and a Klingon Empire, and a Romulan Empire, and there are Ferengi about and that starships can go as fast as “Warp 10” and that Vulcans are a civilization organized around principles of logic and that Dr. McCoy’s first name is Leonard and that Jim Kirk was born in Iowa and so on. There’s a lot of heavy lifting that you simply do not need to do.

Or suppose you want to write your own Lord of the Rings stories, set in Middle Earth. Well, here you’ve got the maps and the races and even the languages already laid out. And ditto any other fictional universe or setting or other fanfic enterprise.

Writing fanfic was not a waste of time for me because I taught myself a lot of things about story construction, about pacing, and structure in those tales. Dialogue? Check. Making characters sound distinct, and making them “true” to themselves? Absolutely! I couldn’t very well have Mr. Spock having a temper-tantrum (at least, not without explaining it), or have Indiana Jones show up in a 1980s-era space tale, or James Bond suddenly be a wise-cracking, sarcastic buffoon. Anyone who takes their fanfic seriously wants it to feel authentic, right? And that takes work and consideration of the universe and what’s known about the people in it.

Now, I wasn’t thinking along those lines when I was writing them. My pseudo-Star Wars tales weren’t “exercises”, in my mind; I was just having fun writing. But you can’t write without learning about writing, and it turns out that ideas that start out as fanfic ideas can often have the serial numbers filed off and repurposed. After all, that’s a big part of what I did for Stardancer.

No, I do not consider fanfic a waste of time. Do I still write it? Not really, although I can’t rule it out – I did, after all, write a pretty darn good (if I do say so myself) “Very Special Christmas Episode” of Firefly a few years back, which I re-post on my personal blog every year. Yes, I might have achieved more, earlier, had I focused on original work before stepping beyond fanfic, but then, I might not. I did learn a good deal, though, and ultimately, all that fanfic I wrote cultivated in me a deep sense that writing is, even when it’s hardest and even when I’m working at it as hard as I work at anything else, play. Writing as play, in the best sense of the word. Fanfic is where I developed my sense that writing should give me the same feeling that I had on those Saturday afternoons when, as a kid, I and some other friends would pretend that the refrigerator boxes in their garage were spaceships.

Yes, you learn technical skills from fanfic, and I think it’s worth indulging on that basis alone. But you also connect with story and you play with it. And dammit, writing should be play! It took me a long time to realize this, but I finally did. Writing is where I scratch the itch that was once served by those afore-mentioned refrigerator boxes. Writing is where I find the kind of mental place where once I played with action figures and toy spaceships. Remember how annoying it was when you and some friends would be really into a play session of some make-believe or another, and Mom would come along and interrupt and snap you out of the illusion you’d created in your mind? Well, that’s the exact same feeling as having the phone ring during a really good writing session.

So, go ahead and write your fan fiction. If that’s the only writing you ever do, but you have a blast doing it…then you win. And if you do eventually start writing your own work, bringing to it the same sense of fun and play that you had when you were really engaging your earlier fan fiction…then you win!

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