Perils: A Short Letter to Fanfic Writers

I wrote Acclamation for the Museslash fandom. It was easy, but at the same time not; Museslash was and is a strange, beautiful beast that was born from that thorny place called RPS and grew into its own. By the time I started Acclamation, the fanfic writers that made up the fandom were trending toward Alternate Universe fics that would become the standard. A/Us were everywhere. A/Us continued to proliferate. Basically, the challenge was taking two templates with tertiary characteristics and a few traits to insert as shout-outs, putting them in a story together, and everything else was a free-for-all.

Writing in a fandom like that was challenging. It became a constant battle of nerves. It was also different from any other fandom I’d ever been in. While it was welcoming and caring, open and close-knit, it was also fiercely competitive in its own unusual ways. The more I thought about it, over the years, the more I realized that this was because of the fact that 98% of the fics produced for the fandom were 1) A/U and 2) long-form. Perils come with attempting either category, but when the two meet, especially in a fandom like that, the expectation becomes more dire. It goes beyond “write my ship” (there was, overwhelmingly, only one ship), “write my kink”, or “write them in-character” (because there wasn’t true character. There was no canon that didn’t feel skeezy. It was fucking RPS, everything was conjecture and nothing was universal). The only mandate was: write the best. That weird, thorny, subjective word: best.

Best is something we conflate far too often with “most popular”.

That hang-up followed me to my next fandoms, one of which I dabbled in extensively and one of which I jumped headfirst into. It had been some time since I’d written for a fandom that had A Fandom, and when I decided to take up the pen for SnK I figured “this is still on the rise, what’s the worst that could happen?”

I’ll skip the details. They get wildly personal. I’ll go right to this point: writing for fandom has perils that can’t be understood unless you’ve been there and unless you’ve faced them. These perils are varied, they are often contradictory, and sometimes they are downright mind-boggling. Now, I can’t say that I’ve had an original work become successful enough that I have a frame of reference to claim this without hesitation, but I’ll go ahead and say it: fanfic writers, especially popular ones, develop a skillset that is at once tough-as-nails and bizarre-as-fuck.

First, there is the notion that you must write “for a ship”. No one cracks open a book for the first time and says “the right people had better kiss in this or I’m going to be so angry”. Well, maybe you say that. But you don’t know the characters yet. You go in sight-unseen and you learn to love the characters and their developing relationships on their own merits. You trust the author to guide you along and if you’re let down, it’s the story’s fault. It didn’t go the way you wanted, fuck that story. The way someone says that about an original story and a fanfic are like night and day.

This is something that was vastly different in the Museslash fandom that made me so happy, and allowed me to write a story that was relatively easy to repackage as an original piece. You made your own characters out of what were, essentially, templates. Every story was incredibly different. There were occasional tropes that were unique to our little fandom, but nothing so pervasive that they became reasons for aggression. We were spoiled, though: the same two characters always wound up together. There were rarely exceptions. So when I entered a new fandom and decided on a ship for a fic, I had no idea that would be the ship to define me in the fandom for the remainder of my experiences. Or that developing side characters would lead to demands that those side relationships be examined more fully. Or that there would be backlash for including relationships that were integral to the development of the characters within the story, simply because someone else’s OTP (and mine as well) was seen as a “device” for furthering the cause of the “main pairing”. And it made sense, was the worst part, on the receiving end. No one wants to read a story about their NoTP, not even for a modicum of their OTP. No matter how good the writing, no matter how genuinely engrossing the story. This is criticism you just don’t find in the annals of original fiction.

And then, the idea of fighting against tropes in a specific fandom is dizzying to consider. On the one hand you have the obvious tropes to avoid, the pitfalls gaping there before you that you’re encouraged to side-step if you want to write something that stands out from the crowd. You have to read a lot of fic within a specific fandom to understand these, because often the cliches are obvious but never discussed openly. You have to ingest things, and after a while it can become a feeling of scoping out the competition. Which is no way to approach fandom. For my part, personally, it’s the hardest thing to explain to people sometimes: besides the fact that I read either breakneck fast or d e a t h l y  s l o w thanks to some pretty intense ADHD issues and therefore try not to read much at all, I often find myself in that unfortunate place when reading. That place of not being able to enjoy it, and instead placing myself in the position of “competition” instead of “active appreciator”.

There’s a whole story behind that, as well. Not going to go into that, either. Fandom fucks you up, is all I’m saying. All happy fandoms are alike; each unhappy fandom is unhappy in its own way — actual Leo Tolstoy quote

So once you produce what you think is a great fic and unleash it on the fandom, there’s the hope after deployment. Will it stick, will it be appreciated? Did your hard work go to waste? Can you convince yourself that it wasn’t that important, if not? Is it good enough (this is another important one) that you can think “I love that story, everyone else is missing out” without feeling bitter, if not? Almost everyone has that one story. If you don’t, try to find it. I still do; it’s this one. Knowing that you have a piece of work that represents you within a fandom is important, because it’s something to fall back on and even if it’s not popular it’s there to remind you “hey, you did that. That’s what you wanted to produce.”

Because it hurts, being ignored or not being recognized when you produce something good, or sometimes in a bizarre twist, being recognized for something you never expected to be recognized for. Something that isn’t your style, isn’t your voice, your ship, or your preferred character. But you still wrote it and it’s your calling card. Breaking out of a mold can be harrowing and you might not ever be able to do it. The power of writing is supposed to be expression and creativity, but so much in fandom comes down to pandering and catering that after some time that creation process begins to feel disingenuous, or worse, workaday.

It’s easy to say “don’t write for fandom, write for yourself!” but it’s not that easy.

You’re not writing for yourself, when you’re writing for fandom. You’re writing for ships, you’re writing for characters. You’re writing for your friends, or for people you admire and want to impress. You’re writing to honor the source material or, in some cases, denigrate it for what it is. If you avoid the pitfalls of tropery, you’re accused of being Out of Character. If you dare to do something different or write about something new, it may be avoided because there is as much a fear of change in fandom as there is a hatred of tropery. You learn as you go. You argue, your world view is challenged and maybe molded. Valuable lessons are gained from readers who want to help with details, or in those singularly brilliant experiences, you get to change a life.

And you’re doing it for free.

So what I’m saying is: you’re fucking amazing. Each and every fanfic writer, you’re really going to the ropes for something you enjoy. I might not agree with everyone’s personal politics, views, ships, language, tone, or treatment of canon events, but that’s not the point. The legitimacy of fanfiction is so real it hurts, to those of us who have been dabbling (and more!) in it for so long, and maybe the skillset you’re learning isn’t what your creative writing teacher or editing track advisor will tell you is valuable for your future as a writer, but let me tell you:

IT IS.

It’s a fight sometimes, but it’s worth it. And with every new fandom, you’ll uncovering new skills and new facets of yourself as a writer that, trust me, are gonna blow your mind.

I’ve talked enough. Get out there and get freaky.

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