Fanfiction isn’t a waste of time. Not for young writers. (Not for old ones, either.)
The first time I wrote a fanfic, I didn’t know what “fanfiction” was. I was about nine, and I’d just suffered the unexpected death of a favorite character from Artemis Fowl. In a fit of passion, I plunked down on a dinosaur of a pc, yanked open Notepad, and produced two, single-spaced pages of chaotic nonsense in an attempt to “fix it” in my brain. Then I printed it out, patted myself on the back, and moved on with my life.
Recently, I found these pages in some old filing cabinets.
My mom kept them.
Unsettlingly, I can see the glimmers of my grown, writerly voice amidst the fog of clumsiness. It needed attending, yes. Practice. Guidance. Life experience. But it had heart. Drive. It had purpose, even if it was a fumbling one.
Fanfiction or “fanfic,” usually refers to stories written using characters, plot, or settings from pre-existing narratives (books, films, television shows, video games, etc.). In most cases, it’s not publishable due to copyright laws, and it’s often shared for free, without profit, between fans. Given these facts, it’s earned a poor reputation in some circles.
After all—why write a piece of fanfiction when you could write something original instead?
Simply put? To tell a story.
But if you’d like to find a more utilitarian reason: Writers need practice, and fanfiction makes for excellent writing practice.
Being a writer is not a linear journey. It’s not as simple as sitting down, finishing a novel, editing it, and then obtaining a publishing contract. Not only is this not how publishing works for most people, but it’s also an unreasonable expectation to place on a young writer.
That’s like saying, “That’s a nice chin up, Jimmy, but Everest isn’t going to climb itself.” And maybe, what your writer needs in this moment is more along the lines of “Wow! Great move, Jimmy. Can I see it again?”
While learning to write, writers must be encouraged to practice, to make mistakes, and to explore. It’s at odds with our modern system of education, which prioritizes test scores and trains us to perceive words outside of a finished product to be wasted time.
But those words aren’t wasted time anymore than an athlete’s hours spent conditioning are.
Every portion of good writing you see is like the visible part of an iceberg: There’s a mountain of unseen labor holding it up. Making peace with that labor and finding it enjoyable is what separates writers from people who like the idea of being a writer.
Try not to value the practice projects as lesser. They’re necessary.
Luckily, fanfiction is a good spot for practice.
It’s a learning environment (or a gym, if you will) with a collection of well-loved characters, settings, and plots to draw from. What writers might do with these elements is limitless. They might write to “fill blanks” in the original material or place a character in an entirely new world.
How much fanfiction writers draw on their own creative liberties versus the original text is up to them. These example concepts vary from a potentially brief project fleshing out something that happens “off screen” to plots that could very nearly become an original novel, save for a shared character or setting.
But the writer’s love of this borrowed element can provide them with motivation. It’s easier to write when you already love what you’re working on.
If you’re concerned about legality around your writer’s choice of source material, there are plenty of authors who have given permission for fans to create fanwork. If you’re worried about the safety of online fanfiction writing spaces, then have some open conversations with your writer about making informed decisions on where, how, and if they plan to share their work.
In the meantime, they’re getting reps in—something they absolutely need if they’re going to grow. They’re learning how to shape the words, how to negotiate character motivations, and how to explore the sorts of themes that they find grounding and inspiring. They’re learning how to accommodate writing into their daily schedule, what they need to focus. They’re training their brains to seek writing like they do food, water, and air, and to push past blocks and difficulties. In short: they’re learning to move like a lifelong writer.
Some people say your first million words should all be practice. That you should pour yourself into them, and then toss them out and start on your next million. It’s a lot of work.
Once, one million words of fiction felt impossible to me. When I was thirteen, I did the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum with Daniel Schwabauer at a local homeschool co-op. I attended workshops for nearly a decade. I even went to college for writing. Twice.
In all that time, I completed two and a half novels. Two of those were under threat of deadline from Daniel. The moment I was on my own, I floundered. I wrote a bit, but I didn’t have the motivation to follow through. Fiction writing was exhausting, and I found the idea of it far more romantic than the reality.
At the start of the pandemic, I picked up fiction writing again. I had a story I needed to tell myself—something that would remind me to have hope. Something that would make me feel less alone.
Since then, I‘ve written over a million words. Some were for an original novel, and some were for fanfiction (a sizable number of them were fanfiction). I wouldn’t have it any other way. Fanfiction got me writing more.
Practice will not happen if the writer isn’t driven to write. I started at a slow totter, and then I learned to run. Writing turned into an intrinsic part of my day. I learned to write when I didn’t feel like it. I learned how to headbutt my way through brick walls of writer’s block. I learned how much of a rush writing is. How it makes me feel like I have a beating heart in my chest. Writing became something I feel compelled to do, that I love doing.
I never knew any of that before now because I hadn’t put in the miles to discover it. I hadn’t loved something enough to feel that way while writing it.
I don’t know why my mother kept my two pages of nonsense. But I’m glad she did. It’s precious to me because I can see who I would become in the lines. I just needed a million words, give or take, to get there. And I’m very excited to see where the next million take me.
Writing that day was not about being an author, impressing my friends and family, and putting words down that someone distinguished might find impressive. It was about telling a story that I needed told. Just to me. In that moment, I was so moved to create that I was forced to act.
Chances are, whether they’re writing original work or fanwork right now, your young writer’s probably not ready yet to enter the market. And that’s okay. If fanfiction gets your writer moving, then celebrate it. They’re building sustainable, enriching writing habits that will carry them through adulthood.
Have you ever written fanfiction? What has been your experience with it?
Kait Vincent is a writer and editor based in Kansas, where she lives with her husband, Jared; her cat, Nala; and her dog, Kit (like the American Girl doll, not the car from Knight Rider). She has a Master of Arts in English from Kansas State University, where she specialized in Composition and Rhetoric/Writing Studies with a graduate certification in Technical Communication and Professional Writing. These days, she keeps busy with freelance editing, writing her own projects, and collecting thesauruses. You can find her at writingconsult.com!
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