Confessions of a 36-Year-Old Fan Fic Writer
The joys of writing, reading, obsessing, and being “Fandom Old”
Tolstoy’s legendary War and Peace is famous for its length. At 587,287 words, or over 1,200 pages, it’s an imposing brick of literature.
My word count on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan fiction hosting website, is 977,016. If you’re particularly bad at math (like me!!), that’s kind of almost like two War and Peaces.
Take that, Tolstoy.
What is fan fiction? As the name would suggest, it’s fiction written by the fans of a particular media, using the characters or the worlds from that media. Have you ever finished reading a book, or watching a movie or TV series, and wished there were more of it? Thanks to fan fic, if you know where to look, there probably is.
Fic can be used to continue somebody else’s existing story (What happened to Captain Kirk after the last Star Trek movie?).
It can be used to fix a perceived flaw in a piece of media (A quick look into the world of Star Trek fic would suggest that many feel like Kirk and Spock didn’t have nearly enough passionate sex with each other).
It can be used to fill in gaps (What did Kirk and Uhura say to each other the day after their famous onscreen kiss?).
It can be used to go completely off the rails (What if the crew of the Starship Enterprise were all rabbits? Or royalty? Or Starbucks baristas?).
The world of fan fiction is vast, and among some circles, there’s a perception that it’s only for the extremely young. There are those that would say fic is to writing as coloring books are to painting, or riding a tricycle is to riding a bike. It’s not necessarily the worst way to start playing around with the worthy goal of becoming an author, but it’s something to be left behind at a certain point, and not something any self-respecting adult would waste time on.
Well, at 36, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve entered the realm of adulthood (at least insofar as anybody ever really does). Even so, I’m a prolific producer of fic, and willing to defend my favorite hobby. Let’s get into why.
1. I’m not neurotypical, but I need to act like I am.
So far I’ve been diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD. Fun! One of the symptoms of ADHD in particular is the tendency to fixate on a particular topic to an obsessive and borderline antisocial degree. As a kid, it was Star Trek the Next Generation. It was the absolute only thing that I was willing to speak about for years. I had a school appointed psychologist who was meant to be helping me cope with my parents’ divorce drop me because I talked about Star Trek too much, and my family had a strict no Star Trek at the dinner table rule. I didn’t have friends because I was impossible to interact with.
As a teen, my obsession switched to the musical Starlight Express. Starlight Express is basically what Thomas the Tank Engine could’ve been, if all the trains had been roller skating nymphomaniacs who communicated through eighties pop songs. I had a handful of friends by the time Starlight took hold of my brain, but my incessant chatter about it cost me at least one of them. His name was Steve, and one day when we were hanging out at the mall together, he decided he just couldn’t take it any more. I’d made one too many Engine of Love comments, and it broke him. He shouted at me outside of Claire’s, telling me he couldn’t speak to me about that stupid musical any more. He drove me home without saying a word or looking in my direction, no matter how much I apologized.
At the moment, I’m into musicals in general, and Be More Chill in particular. Because I have fan fic as a way to give vent to my obsessive nature, this doesn’t cause me problems. When the urge to pounce on some unsuspecting stranger and fill them in on the entire history of Broadway strikes me, I just write a fic. Instead of grabbing my very unfortunate friends by the fronts of their very unfortunate shirts and staring at them with enormous, crazed eyes as I explain the plot of Be More Chill for the 47th time, I write fic. The fic goes on the internet, where it gets read by people who are also interested in the subject matter. It’s sort of like by clicking, they’re consenting to my bombardment of words. They leave comments asking me to write more. I’ve even had people send me bootlegged copies of their favorite obscure musicals in return for fics about them. Nobody is bothered, and everybody is happy.
Meanwhile, I’ve worked on my interpersonal skills, and I have friends, family, and colleagues who find my company bearable. Some of them don’t know I like musicals, let alone that they take up 80 percent of my internal narrative. I come off as normal.
2. You can be a bad writer, write fic, and still get read.
To be clear, I don’t think that I’m an excessively bad writer, but I was when I first got on the fan fic writing train. I was in seventh grade, two years into my Star Trek: the Next Generation phase. A girl on my school bus, who was nice but sick of learning all my many, many feelings on Captain Picard, told me she was friends with a red haired girl named Rebecca, an eighth grader, who was a confirmed Trekkie. I did the natural thing and accosted every red-head at my school to ask if they were Rebecca and if they liked Star Trek. When I found her, she squealed in excitement, pulled a notebook out of her backpack, and showed me a fic she’d been writing. I didn’t have the internet at the time, so it was my introduction to fic. To this day, Rebecca remains my best friend. I met my best friend and my most encompassing hobby on the same day!
When I started writing fic, I was still the “stupid” girl at school, who needed to go to special ed teachers in room 24B to dictate her homework, because I couldn’t write it myself. My enthusiasm for Star Trek and admiration of Rebecca led me to push past my incompetence to write stories and post them online, sometimes hand writing and giving them to Rebecca to type up, and sometimes after typing them myself in half hour increments on the tangerine orange iMac desktop at the local library. My first stories made no sense. I consistently misspelled things. I spelled “friend” as “freind” so many times that Rebecca jokingly referred to me as her “freind” when signing my seventh grade yearbook. My stories were adorned with grave mischaracterizations of everybody and sentences like “Captain Janeways mukels where extreeamly waek as she kissed Chalkotay.”
Maybe the internet was a kinder place in 2000, but I got lots of positive feedback on these awful stories, as well as gentle criticism from helpful strangers who taught me more about writing than any teacher ever had. Even the negative comments didn’t bother me. A popular mantra among fic writers at the time was “Flames* will be used to roast marshmallows”, which basically translated as “If you don’t like my story shut up and fuck off”. I lived by that philosophy.
* “Flames” was an online slang term for overly aggressive negative commentary
Today, I can form written sentences effortlessly, and I’m an English teacher myself. I owe that to fic. The barrier of entry into the fic writing world is lower than the barrier of entry into a writing class for gifted and talented kindergartners, and when something is welcoming and fun, people do it over and over again. When people repeat an action, they get better at it.
…Not always consistently in my case, but that’s part of the charm.
I have turned out some fics that I’ve revised again and again and put considerable work into, but sometimes I dash out two hundred words of weird Cats 2019 word vomit, and toss it out onto the beige and maroon expanses of Archive of Our Own, to find its audience.
The audience is always there, and they’re almost always complimentary.
There are people who would say that writing is a lonely hobby. Not for me!
There are also people who would say that a lot of time is needed to create writing that people want to read. When it’s fic, that’s not the case. The people reading it have a strong enough attachment to the canon you’ve chosen, the romantic pairing you’ve chosen, or the tropes you’ve tagged your story with that they’ll read bad content, messy content, and even unfinished content. It doesn’t matter.
Now, like most people who play around with words, I occasionally try to say things about life and the human condition when I write. I try to craft nice sentences and attractive turns of phrase. Unlike a lot of people who write, I never need to feel like my stories will only ever exist in my head and on my iPad. They’ve been sent out to make friends, for better or worse. My statistics on Archive of Our Own (which has only existed for about half of the 21 years that I’ve been writing fic, and which doesn’t count reads from unregistered users) say my stories have been read 239,736 times. That’s not bad.
3. Writing fic isn’t worse than any other hobby.
Some people play board games. Some people learn dance routines for fun. Some people make model boats, bake bread, knit wonky sweaters, shoot tik toks, or scroll endlessly through Instagram. I write fic. People need hobbies and time to decompress. Fic is no better or worse than any other.
In the past, I’ve had people suggest that if I want to write, then I should dig into the craft and write a novel. If I were doing that for the sake of selling said novel, it wouldn’t be a hobby. It would be a job. I already have a job that I love. I don’t need another. Besides, my writing simply isn’t high quality enough to charge people money for the privilege of reading it. If I were writing this hypothetical novel without the intention of selling it, there would be no readership or interaction. I’d get nothing out of it. Fic is the perfect mixture of widely read and wildly unprofessional.
In a world where people are being increasingly encouraged to monetize their hobbies, fic is rare and refreshing. There have been some people who have managed to turn their fics into money making opportunities. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, notoriously started its life as Twilight fan fiction, and it’s not unusual to see very young writers try to offer their fics on a commission basis. However, by a lot of older fans, this is seen as stealing at worst and inviting legal trouble at best. I personally enjoy creating without financial incentives. It’s my equivalent of playing video games. I do it purely for fun.
4. Fics have the potential to make other people happy.
I’ve had bad days in which a fic somebody else wrote was the only thing to make me smile.
I’d like to think that my stories have at some point done the same thing for somebody else.
I have some proof that occasionally my stories have positively impacted another person’s mood:
I once had somebody comment on a novel length story of mine that I was her favorite writer.
(The story was about Beth March, of Little Women fame, becoming a vampire and terrorizing the citizens of Concord. Make of that what you will.)
I once had somebody tell me that they’d done a dramatic reading of one of my fics at their birthday party.
Another person said that something I’d written made her rethink her relationship with her father.
And somebody else said I made her want to write.
Twice, other people have written fics of my fics, and a handful of times, people have sent me art based on my stories.
As silly as it sounds, I’ve had the thought that if I got run over by a car tomorrow, my dumb little fics would be left behind, and maybe occasionally somebody would enjoy them. It’s a nice thought.
5. I’m far from the only adult who writes fic.
According to the Archive of Our Own census from 2013, 57.4% of the archive’s users are over twenty-two years old, and 19.4 percent are over thirty. On a website with 4,198,000 users, that’s no small amount of people.
I have respect for the weird children and teens who write fic, as I used to be one. However, they’re not who I want to interact with. Depending on the fandom, sometimes they can be the loudest voices, but I always manage to find other grown ups to talk to.
Having a lot of adults in fandom spaces is a good thing. We remember fandom history and share it with others. Also, writing ability is something that grows with time. People who start writing fic with a certain level of talent (either innate or cultivated) at the age of fourteen, are going to be producing much better fics if they’re still writing them at forty or fifty. Stigmatizing adults in fandom spaces will just result in less and lower quality fan works.
6. I’ve made great friends doing it.
I first came to know Anne as a Newsies fic writer. I would write a story, then she would write a story in response, building on my themes and plot points, and sometimes subverting them. Then, I’d write story in response to her story, and she’d write another story in response to mine.
We somehow managed to write literally hundreds of interlinking stories before we spoke as people. We had this vast world, in which every minor Newsies character with no lines suddenly had a complete backstory, not to mention a forward story, spanning from 1899 when the original movie was set, up through World War I.
Eventually, I let her know that I was 28 and living in China. She told me she was thirty and living in New York. A few months later, home in the United States for summer vacation, I met up with her during a New York theatre trip. The only other person I’d ever connected with so totally and instantly was Rebecca.
Since then, I’ve hung out with Anne during every one of my trips to New York, sometimes staying at her house, and frequently buying fewer theatre tickets than I normally would so that I’d have more time to talk with her. Neither of us write for Newsies anymore, but since I met her when I was being my authentic self (which is to say, hyperfixating like mad), I find I’m naturally more authentic with her than my other friends, which means I don’t have to expend tons of energy to be around her, and can just enjoy her company.
Anne’s the best friend I’ve made through fic (and one of my best friends period), but far from the only one. The first time I went to London, I met a pair of sisters who I’d “known” for twenty years, having started speaking to them about Starlight Express fic, back when I was still hosting all of my stories on Geocities. In college, a young woman from Finland flew out to visit me, because we’d been writing about Dracula the Musical together. Without fic, I would have never met these people.
I shared the first draft of this piece in a class on essay writing that I was taking through Gotham Writers Workshop. A theme, which I repeated multiple times throughout the draft, is that I don’t consider myself a writer, so much as a person who writes.
The feedback, from my classmates and instructor, was that I should stop claiming not to be a writer. It made me wonder what goes into calling oneself a writer in the first place. Is it something bestowed upon us by editors or publishing company, or a title we inherit from the first moment we pick up a pen?
I care about writing. I take classes to improve my abilities. Does that make me a writer?
I’m playing around with posting essays and memoir pieces here on Vocal, which does have a degree of financial incentive. I get paid a fraction of a penny per click, and occasionally more when somebody tips. Does that make me a writer?
For me, the action of writing is more important than being called a writer. Online debates about whether or not fic writers are real writers or just weirdos engaging in a childish game of paper dolls aren’t that important to me. I know I can create any story I want at any time, and I know that those stories will have a home within the fan fic community.
If you enjoyed reading this and would like to see more of my writing, check out the following pieces: