For most people, this word makes them think of nerdy teenagers writing terrible love stories between fandom characters. For a long time, this is what I thought fanfiction was. As big of a fangirl as I have been since my teen years, I never got into the trend until I was an adult and published author.
I was completely wrong about what fanfiction is. Sure, there are some bad teenage love stories out there. But as a whole, fanfiction is just another form of art. There are some insanely talented people who write stories just because they love it. Sometimes these are short stories, sometimes they are novel-length. The longest fanfiction I’ve ever seen is 750,000 words. That’s almost 200,000 words longer than the English translation of War and Peace.
I’m not here to convince you to read or write fanfiction. It’s not for everyone. But I am here to tell you that as writers and readers, we have a lot to learn from the fanfiction community. Becoming a fanfiction reader and writer has made me a better author.
1. Write Because You Love It
As nice as it would be to make a million dollars from writing books, that’s not realistic for most of us. If our main motivation as authors becomes making more and more money, writing loses its magic. We’ll churn out books for deadlines. It becomes a chore, another mundane job.
I know of fanfic writers who have written literally millions of words. And they write them and post them with no expectation of making money. (Copyright laws get complicated.) They write because they want to, because they love storytelling. They love to share it with the world. That’s why we all got into writing, isn’t it?
2. Break Rules and Try New Things
Some of the most creative narrative structures I’ve read come from fanfiction. Why? Because publishers tell authors what will and won’t sell, so we adjust to those rules. I’m not here to say all writing rules are bad. But fanfiction allows you to break out of the stress of “is this publishable?” and just write.
Do you want to try a new narrative structure? Do you want to write a feel-good story that doesn’t have much conflict? Do you want to write without worrying about your adverb count or dialogue tags? Then do it. You don’t have to write fanfics for this. You can write stories no one will ever read, or you can edit it later into something more traditional.
3. Write Without Caring About Your Target Audience
One of the hardest parts of marketing is figuring out who exactly your target audience is. My target audience is people just like me, but how do you find those readers? Sure, we want as many people as possible to read our books, but the more specific our marketing, the more luck we have.
In fanfiction, everyone has their reading preferences. They have things that they absolutely will not read and tropes they return to over and over. Controversial and even taboo topics are regularly explored and enjoyed in the fanfiction community. We write what we want, we tag it appropriately, and then people will find it and love it. Write for yourself, and your readers will follow.
4. Celebrate Diversity
There’s been a push in traditional and indie publishing lately for more diversity, which isn’t a bad thing. But this leads to many token characters, harmful stereotypes, and people who aren’t writing “own voices.” I’ve met many authors who stress about their story’s diversity and shove a character or two in just to check a box.
Fanfiction has been diverse as long as its been around. Fanfiction writers and readers want to take stories they love but can’t relate to and see themselves in it. Changing a character’s race, gender, or sexual orientation isn’t a big deal in fanfic. It’s not a headline-worthy controversy. It’s a natural subset of the fanfiction community, just like diversity is a natural part of real life.
5. Be Supportive of Other Writers
The fanfiction community as a whole is the most inclusive, supportive writing community out there. There are a few bad apples, of course. But overall, this is a community built on a shared love of fandom and the art of writing.
In fanfiction, beta readers are used like editors and proofreaders. I’m not suggesting you offer a bunch of free labor by any means. But what spirit of generosity can you adopt as an author? In fanfic groups, people promote their favorite stories and writers with strong words of praise. Book recommendations have nothing on fanfiction recs. The brainstorming and questions that are happily answered about writing, plot, setting, and more are greeted with constructive criticism.
6. Offer Reviews Freely
The amount of reviews I have for my books pales in comparison to the amount of books I’ve sold and how many people I know have read my books. As authors, we try to tell people how important leaving reviews are. Sometimes it feels like we’re begging for reviews.
I can go months without posting a fanfic. I wake up every single day to “kudos” (likes) and comments. And the comments are some of the nicest things people have ever said to me. The occasional mean comment gets through, and some of the niche fandoms aren’t as kind as others. But regular feedback lights a fire under me and reminds me that I’m good at my career. Do they help my books or my marketing? No, my fanfiction is anonymously written. But they inspire me. Imagine if people left book reviews that often. Maybe that million-dollar career wouldn’t be so far-fetched.
7. Read Voraciously
As a kid and teen, I devoured book after book. I was always reading. As an adult, it’s harder to read several books a month. There’s work and housework and family obligations. But this isn’t the case with fanfic readers. Binge-reading is common, even among middle-aged fans.
Remember the joy of staying up till four a.m. finishing a book with a flashlight? That’s a regular occurrence for fanfic lovers. It just might be harder to make it through the next day.
8. Read Out of Your Comfort Zone
I have a habit of getting in ruts where I only read my favorite genres. I don’t venture out much without great effort. And I know I’m not alone. This is a habit in fanfic, too. We like to return to our favorite tropes and characters and fandoms.
However, fanfiction makes it easier to venture out of your comfort zone. If you know someone is a good writer, you’ll want to read stuff that isn’t your usual cup of tea. And you might find you like it. You’ll hear about fanfics that have almost developed their own fandoms (seriously, I know of a few fics that have inspired tattoos) and decide to give it a try to see what the hype is about. You can explore topics that you’ve always wanted to explore but don’t know where to find in a bookstore. You can read without worrying about being judged or if it has enough “literary value.”
Fanfiction isn’t for everyone. But imagine if readers and writers of traditional fiction united in the same supportive way: for the love of the story. How would our industry change? How would you change?