WT: Learning to Write, the Fanfic Way

Writing fanfic has, without a doubt, been one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

It’s not often we get to do something just for the sheer joy of it. When we’re kids, it’s easy to run around in circles making airplane noises just for the hell of it, or spend hours weaving complex adventures for Barbie and Lego figures. As we age and absorb the cultural values around us, and we also absorb the expectations of others. These can be expectations they put on us, or they can be ones we watch others put on themselves. All of a sudden, things have to have “value”. Skills need to be “marketable”. The things you like to do have to appeal to a “broader audience”. You still play with toys? What are you, a baby?

Things we do for fun, at best, get called hobbies–those silly things someone’s husband can’t ever stop doing out in the shed ’til late at night, or something to waste money on in a crafts store. At worst, they’re called distractions. Wastes of time. They’re actively mocked and derided, because there’s a sort of assumption that having fun needs to also be consumptive–you need to go out and buy a drink with your friends, or you need to go see a movie, you need to go shopping at the mall…so on and so forth.

Creative endeavors get the worst of it. Anything creative is immediately seen as either a complete disappointment, (e.g. the old man behind me in line at Walgreen’s complaining about how his 26-year-old daughter was a disappointment for trying to sell beaded jewelry) or something that must be turned into a profitable endeavor. (e.g. “You’re so good at this–why don’t you do it professionally?”)

In my case, my main outlet was writing. I was encouraged, but always with the undercut of “When you’re older, you should sell this.” At 14 I fell into a deep depression because I was convinced I’d failed: Despite being at it since I was 8, I had not written a novel good enough to publish, I was not a rich media mogul, and I had not established anything even remotely resembling an empire. Other successful people my age were held up as standards for living, and any failure on my part to do so was just that: My fault. Fun was a distraction I couldn’t afford.

I struggled for years with a very simple concept that had been subtly chiseled into my brain: Writing was not for me, it was for other people. 

Growing up, I was a great fan of Harry Potter. And I still vividly remember my dad pulling me aside in a crowded grocery store, waving his hands towards all of the people milling about. “Those are the ones you have to impress,” he told me. “If you can figure out why all of these people think Harry Potter is such a good story, then you can be the most successful writer on the planet.” I remember furrowing my brow and searching frantically, as I so often did, for the answer that would please him best. Years later, I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember it had to do with how Harry was young, relatable, and poor. Dad liked my answer.

At that age, the baggage behind the concept of an Everyman Character (who is, inevitably, straight, cis, and white) was far beyond my reach. But the message was clear: If my characters weren’t likable–if I wasn’t likable–then I would never be successful. This was a cornerstone of the belief that my writing (and, in essence, my entire existence) was, at its core, for others.

Behind that insidious message lay another: I was supposed to do something I loved in order to save me from the horror of a life spent wasted behind a cubicle wall (or worse, working over a hot deep-frier in the dreaded wasteland of fast food employment), and because I’d shown an interest in writing, then that was it. That was what was going to save me. But even though I was supposedly doing this for my benefit, it always ended up having to be for others, because if they decided it wasn’t good enough–back to the boring day job you go.

So fast forward through the years: I write and I hate it. I read more writing advice from “the greats” to get me to stop hating it, and end up hating myself instead. Nothing I write gets finished. I begin to wonder if I’m even capable of finishing a work anymore. I walk away from it; I go back to it. Depression swallows me whole for a long, long time. I write in secret, never showing anything to anyone, because I just can’t handle the fucking pressure anymore.

It’s 2015, and I binge-play Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition for nearly a month straight. I love it. It’s my favorite goddamn game. I romance Cullen, because he’s gorgeous and I like his voice. Predictably, I start dreaming about my Inquisitor. One of the dreams is pretty damn cool, and I wake up with a feeling that I don’t want to lose it. So I write it down with all of the rest of the dreams I hoard, tiny little nuggets of creativity and plot that I’ll never be brave enough to write. The journal (one of many) goes back as far as 2011. It’s over 13,000 words long.

I sit on the dream for a few days. Can’t shake it. But what am I going to do with it? What would even be the point of trying? I can’t finish anything. Never have, never will.

But what if, for once, I did…?

Out of an intense desire to avoid making eye contact with a creepy bagger at the grocery store, I pull out my phone and start reading a friend’s fanfic. It makes me laugh. It’s not full of horrible things or bad writing, like I’ve been told all fanfic is. Can I do this too? I mull it over for a long while. Then, one night I sit down in front of my Chromebook with a carefully code-named document, and stare at a blank page.

It takes me nearly an hour to overcome the intense anxiety gnawing at my gut. Someone will see this. Someone will know. I will never live down the shame. But why shouldn’t I? For fuck’s sake, I just want to finish something. It’s been years. If I can’t do this, if I can’t finish something this simple where the entire world is already built for me–then there really is no hope. I should just walk away and never come back. And a conversation I’ve had with a friend about how infrequently women are allowed to imagine themselves as the hero rings in my head, and on that blank page I write, “Fuck it. I deserve to be the heroine for once.” Then I start.

A month, nearly 20,000 words and buckets of anxiety-sweat later, I have finished the first draft of what will eventually become my first-ever fanfic, The Only Light. I obsessively edit and re-edit it six times before I finally work up the courage to post it.

But you know what? Nothing caught on fire. No one yelled at me. The world kept turning on its axis. In fact the only noticeable change was that I turned into a completely different person.

Here is what writing fanfic has taught me. Some of these lessons may seem painfully obvious, but let me tell you: They’re not. These are not the things they teach you in school, or growing up, or in books and podcasts. These are truths which, if they are mentioned, I certainly never heard. They get lost, somewhere; either in the cacophony of literary professors striving for relevance, or in the noise of our own heads, where we constantly slice pieces off of ourselves for not behaving like society thinks we should.

  • First and foremost,  you are allowed to make shit up.

This may seem like the most obvious thing of all, since that’s literally what writing is about. And many times in my life, I was praised for coming up with a creative idea or interesting turn of phrase. “Oh you should be a writer!” people would quip. But that’s not the same.

For example: In the fic, it doesn’t make sense for more than maybe one of of the characters to have a torch with them. And yet, they have to have some kind of light source as they explore the cave. Magic exists in the world of Thedas, but there are (purposefully) no mages in my group. So I decided–what would scouts and spies have on them? They would have enchanted items that emitted light, of course, the same way I carry a flashlight in my purse. I chose rocks. They’re common, unassuming if discovered, and I genuinely just like rocks. (They’re cool, ok? Don’t @ me)

Thing is, these glowing light-rocks don’t exist in the base game. And for a long time, I agonized over whether or not I was breaking the rules by putting those rocks into my fic. But then I realized–holy shit, I am allowed to make things up. Thedas is made up. Magic is made up. Cullen and his incredibly distracting lip scar are made up. So what’s one more thing?

More importantly: Who has the authority to make things up? We’re so often told that we must never infringe upon The Work–but who’s really in charge of that? Are they any different from me or you? Is there a wand that gets passed around? A crown? A sock? (Dobby is free!) No. They’re just people. Sometimes people get paid to make things up, whereas other people don’t. Money doesn’t make you into Head Imaginer, it just means you got paid. (And hey, there’s a lot to unpack behind who we view as “creative thinkers” in our society–and who just has an “overactive imagination”.)

  • I get to write what I enjoy for no other reason than because I enjoy it.

This again, seems simple. But if you look closely, what’s considered entertaining and enjoyable is heavily policed. And, quite frankly, I’ve been told since early childhood that things I enjoyed were Bad. My taste in music is horrible, the TV shows I watch are infantile, the games I play are boring, the books I read are crap. (If they were any good, they’d just make movies out of them!) So is it any wonder that the idea of writing about things I enjoy is so completely unthinkable to me?

Now I realize that doing something simply because it pleases me is a worthy endeavor all on its own. No wonder I would get bored with my stories–you’d get bored too, if you were always writing something for someone else. So what if I want to be the hero of my own story? So what if I want to be a star? So what if I want my self-insert character to get the hot guy or gal? So. Fucking. What.

  • Fanfic is a communal bonding experience.

Writing has been trendy for a long time. Writing visibly and perfomatively has now become the same–hashtags like #amwriting continue to be popular on Twitter, and NaNoWriMo is 10+ years strong. But there is nothing–nothing–like the bonds of fanfic and fandom. I was truly unprepared for how immediate and genuine the support for my writing was. Critiques were offered with kindness. Many kudos and comments were left. I made several new friends and greatly enjoyed the ridiculous @ parties we’d have about kiss scenes or what costumes everyone would wear to a Halloween party. (That one got turned into a fic, btw.) It is, I imagine, somewhat akin to what TV writers experience on a weekly basis, and it is heady stuff.

Fandom isn’t for everyone, and for good reason. Scratch the surface and it’s easy to find the same toxic shit you get everywhere else, just hidden behind gifsets and modpacks. (Though, in the case of “turn everyone white!” modpacks, maybe not so hidden.) But it can also be a place of great affection, laughter, and support. I’m really glad I joined in, even if it was only a little bit. Nothing inspires you to keep writing like someone telling you they enjoy your work.

  • Fanfic is good practice.

I say this not to invalidate fanfic, or make it seem like fanfic isn’t “real”–that’s bullshit. Fic takes time, effort, and dedication just like any other form of writing. A lot of the fic I’ve read has been lightyears better to published, “real” works that I’ve reviewed on this very blog. What I mean by good practice is that fanfic makes it easy for me to pick a scenario, trope, or style for my writing and then experiment.

When you’re trying to write a novel that you intend to publish and sell, there isn’t always room to learn or play. It would be difficult, for instance, (though not impossible!) to change my mind halfway through and decide that instead of a murder mystery, the whole story is really a parable for tragic love and cheesewheels. There’s also the urge to stick with what you know, and not because of that odious soundbyte everyone likes to throw at new authors, but because it’s safe.

For instance, I wasn’t at all sure I could write comedy. My work used to be funny, when I was younger, but somewhere along the way I thought I’d lost my humor. So, I tried writing fic that had a more comedic tone to it. Turns out, my sense of humor is completely intact, I just needed a space to let it breathe. I needed to have a safe place to experiment with what I found funny, and the ways that you can build a story off of that.

Similarly, I’ve never written anything with horror or violence in it before. So I plucked a mission from Inquisition that had some horror-themes, then added my own spin to it. Is that a full representation of what I consider horror? No, of course not. Nor is it a reflection of the horror genre as a whole. But it allowed me to experiment with themes I’d never used before within a structured context, which meant that I didn’t have to wrestle with thorny questions like What is horror? before I could even start. I had the freedom to just write it, see how I felt about it, learn from it, then apply those lessons to future works.

  • Because there’s no bottom line at stake, fanfic writers have a lot of freedom.

This means that there are no deadlines, no pressure from execs to make characters “palatable” for good ratings, no real rules at all, in point of fact. What you can imagine, you can write.

With my first fic, my anxiety was so intense that I told myself I had to write something that was completely disposable within the context of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s plotline. It had to exist in perfect independence, touching on no major plot points and offering no differentiating points of view from what I thought was “canon”. I did this both because I was used to everyone yelling at me about rules, and also because I was terrified of “ruining” anything.

Looking back on it, I realize how silly I was being. Subverting canon is like, half the fun. Since then I’ve read fic that’s taken canon and stomped all over it, fixed it, reshaped it, played with it, and sometimes–just sometimes–even adhered to it. Don’t even get me started on AU (alternate universe) fic, because that is a whole barrel of fish that never ceases to make me giggle. (Do you want Hawke and Fenris to fall in love when they meet by chance at a Starbucks? For Cullen to be a tight-laced businessman? For Alistair to be a smoky, grizzled head of a local mafia chapter? Because guess what, there is an entire sub-genre for that.)

These days, I purposefully look for stuff that flaunts canon. I want people to rewrite the godawful ending of Mass Effect 3. I want Alistair and Cullen realizing hey, maybe they’re bi? Or even gay? I want Hawke in a fun, consensual poly relationship. Maybe I even want to write a self-insert fic where the protagonist struggles to understand why she has feelings for both men and women. Why not? This is stuff that a lot of “canon” either can’t or won’t give us right now–why not make it ourselves? Again, there is no Magical Sock-Bearer of Creativity; no one gets to tell us what’s worthy and what isn’t.

To make a long story short, there is no one Right Way to write. Most of the advice you’ll hear is, at best, subjective as hell; and at worst, total bullshit. A lot of it is also geared towards the people who have already succeeded. (You may note that there isn’t really a lot of popularized writing advice out there that’s for marginalized folk.) There’s a huge focus on what worked for the Old Guard, with a healthy dose of bootstrapping thrown in to make sure the folks like me with anxiety + depression never see the light of day. Will writing fanfic make me a successful author? Who knows! To be honest, I don’t think I care anymore. I know it will be fun, and it will make me a better writer–and to me, that’s what really matters.

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