#95: The False Competition Between Fanfic and Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing fanfic for as long as I can remember, since before I even knew fanfic existed. When I got online at age 11, I tumbled into that world and learned so much about writing. I’ve had at least something on the go all the time since then. I’ve now reached the point where I feel I need to be writing something of my own.

It’s not that I lack an understanding of how to transition from fanfic to original on the technical levels of building characters and worlds; it’s that I can’t seem to get the same level of enthusiasm for my original worlds as I do for other people’s. It doesn’t help that a lot of what I like doing as a fanfiction writer is playing with the fact of having a shared canon to do weird postmodern things; I’m obsessed with having characters meet alternatively written versions of themselves from variant incarnations of canon, I’ve written a story which allegorised the lackluster sequel interpretations of two video game characters to my own experience of depression, and so on. But what’s most painful is that it’s making me poor. Inspiration for fanfic comes to me effortlessly and with a big ‘let’s do it!’ feeling—original fic ideas never feel so exciting. It doesn’t help that as I’ve become a better writer the effort required to write fic has increased to the point where it is no longer sustainable for me to write fanfic—I have to write it, because the ideas kill me if I don’t, but then I’ve just written something that won’t get me any validation and certainly won’t improve my career prospects, and the guilt is almost as bad as the guilt of not having written the idea in the first place.

You’ve already given ideas to someone looking to graduate from fanfic to original fic, but please can you provide some advice for someone who needs to quit fanfiction to get money and validation, but can’t keep my heart from obsessing over new things I can do with video game characters?

—Naomi (she/her)

Dear Naomi,

The word “guilt” really jumps out at me from your letter. You’ve gotten yourself into a bind because you’re perceiving your energy as a scarce resource that’s depleted by writing, so no matter where you put that resource, you feel like you’re spending it unwisely. But what’s actually depleting you isn’t the act of writing; it’s the shame you feel about how and what you’re writing. I can’t give you advice on how to quit writing fanfic, because I’m skeptical of your assertion that you need to. What I can advise you on is how to stop pouring your energy into the guilt-pit so you have enough for both fanfic and original fiction, with some to spare.

You seem to think that your lack of enthusiasm for your original fiction is because your original fiction and your fanfic are in competition, and if you stopped writing fanfic you’d like your original fiction more. I don’t think it’s likely to work that way. If you have two friends, Fran Fic and Ori Ginal, and you really like hanging out with Fran but don’t like Ori as much, cutting Fran out of your life won’t make Ori any more appealing. Those are two distinct relationships, and each one needs to be nurtured in its own way so that you find it satisfying—or ended, if it’s making you feel bad about yourself.

I encourage you to move away from this either/or mindset and into a both/and mindset. What if you decided to write fanfic and original fiction, collaboratively rather than competitively? What if you forgave yourself for finding fanfic easier and more fun to write than original fiction? And how can you approach your writing so that working on fanfic makes you more energized for your original fiction, and vice versa?

Try not to compare your feelings for fanfic and original fiction, or blame fanfic for making original fiction more challenging. Fran’s been your friend since you were 11, so of course she’s easier for you to hang out with, because you grew up together and understand each other intimately. Ori’s new to you and you’re still kind of getting to know him. You may still be able to develop a great relationship with Ori, but it will take some thoughtful and consciously directed effort. More importantly, it will take a seed of real caring. You can’t guilt yourself into liking Ori more than you do; you can’t build a relationship on shame. But if you make loving space for a connection to grow, and you nurture it for its own sake, that greatly increases the odds of you finding happiness together.

If your need to write original fiction comes from being drawn to original fiction, rather than from feeling you have some moral obligation to move away from fanfic, that’s the key to finding enthusiasm for it. What makes you want original fiction for its own sake? What excites you about it? What makes it interesting and appealing and fun? Elucidate that and then build on it. This approach would be no different if your hobby was gardening or knitting or mountain-climbing or something else that’s clearly orthogonal to writing original fiction. You do it because it’s what you want to be doing.

That said, it’s not clear to me that it is what you want to be doing. From your letter, it sounds like you looked at two ways to spend your time and decided the one you like more is the one you should do less of, while the one you like less is the one you should make a career of. You say you feel like you need to be writing original fiction, but if you’re not enthusiastic about it, do you really need it? Maybe you should keep enjoying lunch dates with Fran, your awesome buddy who makes you feel great, and ditch Ori, who’s kind of a drag. Are you shaming yourself into writing original fiction because it’s what you think you should be doing, because you think writing skill is wasted on fanfic, or because you have the idea that fanfic is inherently less worthy? If so, I encourage you to reconsider. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with just writing fanfic and never writing original fiction at all. Lots and lots of people do it. It’s a perfectly good use of your time and effort and talent. And there are lots of other career paths to choose from if writing original fiction isn’t working out for you.

If you really do feel drawn to original fiction for its own sake and you choose the both/and option, these two relationships will ideally develop in ways that feel sustainable and sustaining, and your happiness in each one will feed into the other. In particular, allowing yourself to play can make it so much easier to work. Play is tremendously important. Don’t make yourself quit a hobby that brings you joy. Every writer has hobbies, and those hobbies are often types of writing that are less commercial but more or differently satisfying than the work that builds the career and pays the bills. I know many pro writers who write fanfic too. You don’t have to choose between them.

Writing without commercial constraints lets you stretch and test yourself, try new things, learn new skills. If you’re stuck on your main commercial project, it can unstick you. If your main project requires a particular technique, it can let you try out that technique in a sandbox where you can mess around with low stakes. Of course, this isn’t a magic bullet. You may feel like being so good at fanfic should make you an instant pro with original fiction, and the skill sets do overlap enough to give you a boost, but the differences between them are significant, so you will still need to put in the time and the work to develop your original fiction writing chops. But if you make thoughtful, intentional choices about which kinds of projects to take on (on both fronts) and how to approach them, you can build up a lovely synergy. Or you can just goof around with fanfic and let it meet your needs for unstructured playfulness so that it’s easier to be disciplined with the challenges of original fiction. Try a few things and see what works for you.

I want to make it really clear that any choice you make around this is okay, as long as it’s a choice that you feel good about, and that moves you away from that place of shame and guilt rather than miring you more deeply in it. There’s no one involved in this decision but you, so if you feel guilty, the person you’re letting down or transgressing against is yourself. Get unstuck from “should” and focus on what makes you feel good. Writing should not harm you. Write in ways that fulfill and sustain you and your conscience will be squeaky clean.

Happy writing, in whatever way and of whatever kind you like!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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One thought on “#95: The False Competition Between Fanfic and Original Fiction

  1. While reading this, for the sake of argument I felt compelled to think of areas of professional writing that could, in a sense, be considered fan writing or something like it:
    -Writing for a TV or web series, where the job is to continue a story that someone else started. (The million-dollar-jackpot, high prestige version of this would be the screenwriters working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)
    -Film tie-in novels
    -Sequels to books that are in the public domain, or reimagined versions of them (see all the Jane Austen sequels out there)
    -Fairy tale retellings
    -Writers (often ghost writers) continuing unfinished series by deceased authors (see Wheel of Time)
    -Working alongside a major author who employs other writers to help them (James Patterson, I’m looking at you)

    Naomi says her fanfic is often written in video game worlds … so I Googled “video game tie in novel” … and it’s a thing! I don’t know how one goes about actually landing these kinds of writing jobs, though I do know you can’t just sally forth and announce you’re going to write commercially in a world to which someone else holds the copyright. The owners of the intellectual property have to be involved somehow. But it could at least be useful for your self-image to bear in mind that fanfic as paid, professional writing is a thing.

    Also, you’ll never hear me tout Fifty Shades of Grey as an awesome book, but I can’t help bringing it up (though I’m sure other, better examples exist) as a reminder that original novels can start out as fanfic, particularly alternate universe fanfic. I think you implied that you enjoy writing AU characters and situations. With sufficient revision, what you conceive as an AU fanfic could be transformed into what others will see as an original work.

    Naomi, you don’t give the reasons why going pro with your writing is important to you, so this suggestion may not be suitable for your circumstances, but perhaps you could look for ways to go pro with your fanfic, or at least with your fanfic skills. Try to see the skills you already have as valuable–including commercially valuable.

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