Within the next few months, we’ll be seeing the film adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s hugely popular book City of Bones. Not too long ago, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series took the world by storm and inspired basically EVERYONE to publish extra-steamy novels. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is out this month.
What do these people have in common? They write (or used to write) fanfiction. Clare was known to have written Harry Potter fanfics, James basically turned her steamy Twilight fanfic into something that turned erotic fiction into the “in-thing”, and some of the short stories Gaiman wrote were CLEARLY fan-generated tributes to stories he loved (A Study in Emerald, anyone?). They’re also immensely successful. I’m pretty sure each of these people have earned millions of dollars over the course of their careers when you take the copyright of their original work into account (even if you could say that it’s arguable in James’ case).
With all this happening, I can’t help but wonder: does writing or having had experience writing fanfiction INCREASE your chances of succeeding in the book world these days?
How it makes sense
Let me preface all this by admitting something that I am (for some reason) not exactly comfortable admitting these days – my gateway into the drug that is writing was fanfiction. I’d rather not get into why I don’t indulge in it or don’t tell many people about my connection to it these days; all you need to know is that I discovered my love of telling stories through writing stories inspired by characters and plots that I like.
This is where the first ingredient of writing success comes in. You have to love what you’re writing about, and love the fact that you’re writing it, if you want to make it as a successful storyteller. Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds cheesy, but I think readers honestly feel it when you’re invested in the characters and the story. And seriously, who can be more invested than a fan? I say NO ONE.
The other thing that I think makes you more successful when you write fanfiction is the fact that you learn how to write for an audience. Creating fan-created work ALWAYS takes the audience into account, if only because the person creating is himself/herself a fan. In fact, you can’t help it. Fan work are made to be shared with a community of people who love the same thing, and the venue for sharing is often open to constant feedback. You can’t help but keep your readers in mind when you write fanfiction. I imagine that this carries over to when you actually start writing original fiction.
How the publishing industry (mis)interpreted it
I know I’m late to the party, but I just read about the Amazon Kindle Worlds thing. While the prospect of earning money through writing fanfiction is something that I find intriguing. I certainly feel like there are some fanfic writers out there who deserve to be paid for their labors of love (I’m looking at you, scriviner) – if only because I think they help PROMOTE the original franchises. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t find this approach inherently problematic.
Adi Robertson has detailed most of my concerns more eloquently than I could in her recent Kindle Worlds piece on The Verge. The creation of fan work is inherently organic and collaborative. Having looked at Amazon’s approach to this, I can easily see that this factor is NOT taken into account. The piece published in this manner will most likely be forced into being static. I’m also a little bit disturbed by the idea that any new element you put in there can be taken by the creator of the original work as his or her own in a rather uncomfortable “tit for tat” scenario “YOU’RE making money off of MY original creation, so it’s perfectly natural that I take some new concepts that you put in there for myself – without acknowledgement or royalties on your part.”
Don’t even get me started on the whole “Amazon owns publishing rights to your fanfic” thing.
Fanfiction DOES equal success – but not in and of itself
Until we could figure out a better system through which people can get paid for writing their fan work, the only good way to find success through fanfiction is to use it as a training ground for writing your OWN work. Get a better feel for what works and what doesn’t work for a target audience. Polish your capacity for writing dialogue, pacing, cliffhangers. Stay familiar with the feeling of loving the plots and characters, and find ways to apply those feelings to your original stories.
Craft, passion, and an instinct for marketing – these are the things that help writers make a success themselves. Under the right circumstances, fanfiction gives you the ability to wield all three effectively. For now, I think that’s the better way to approach this phenomenon of fanfic writers making huge careers out of being storytellers.