Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fangirl 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Fan Fiction

Now hopefully you’ve grasped the concepts of shipping and slash… but the question is, what do we do with it? Well here’s where we leave the safety of just watching (and maybe talking about) texts and move into the depths of fandom where it isn’t just about absorbing the vision of powers-that-be but creating your own. That’s right fan fiction is a mystical, magical (and slightly terrifying) world that is usually either feared or ignored… but don’t fret because UndieGirl’s here to help guide your journey from passive to active fandom (sorry I’ll try not to refer to myself in the third person ever again).

Fan fiction can be a lot of fun but I’m also very aware that it can be a scary place for those that don’t know how to navigate it. Which is why I have decided to write this article, because I’m just that nice… also I’m tired of having this exact same conversation with every individual person that asks me how to find good fan fiction. I can already see the skeptics out there scoffing at the concept of ‘good’ fan fiction but trust me there is such a thing.

So what is fan fiction?

Well it’s pretty self-explanatory really; it’s fiction that is written by fans about established characters or celebrities. It does what it says on the box. Basically it’s a bunch of fans writing continuations or alternative stories starring characters from all your favourite movies, television shows, books or comics (there is also fan fiction about real people called RPF). It’s generally not for profit, although there are certain exceptions to this rule, which cause a bit of controversy.

Before we go on I have to admit that yes, there is A LOT of terrible fan fiction out there. While the Internet wasn’t where fan fiction began it has opened up the floodgates so to speak. The World Wide Web has given anyone with an Internet connection the ability to publish their work without going through any kind of selection process or even an editing process. The result is an abundance of shit that has a tendency to swallow the good stuff making it difficult to find.

Where did it all begin?

Fan fiction is hardly a new concept, writers would write continuations of the epic poems in ancient times. Although the concept of the author and copyright were not the same the desire to further the adventures of our favourite characters is still there. Then you have the history of biographic fiction (such as Shakespeare’s Histories) that could be considered real person fiction. There have been fans writing Jane Austen fan fiction since her books were published and if you think that Sherlock fans are bad now they ain’t got nothing on their early 20th century counterparts. Even before the ease of the Internet, Star Trek fans created zine after zine in order to showcase fanworks (it also saw the beginnings of slash). Really all the Internet does is increases it’s availability… and boy is there a lot available.

What do people write about?

Everything… and I mean everything. The wonderful thing about fan fiction is that it caters to your every whim, seriously if you have thought about it there is probably a fan fiction of it… yes even that. In all honesty though people write fan fiction about everything. Of course there are certain texts that are more popular that others but that’s the same for any aspect of popular culture. Some things are more popular than others, but I can pretty much guarantee that there will be something that tickles your fancy out there.

Sure much of the fan fiction found on the Internet is concerned with shipping – the writers use fan fiction to explore romantic relationships – but this is by no means the only subject matter. And yes there is a fair amount of porn (those of you that lived with me through my thesis will be well aware of this) but don’t let that scare you off because there is plenty of fan fiction that doesn’t involved sex… the porn is good too though but we can work up to that.

Where do I find it?

There are more places to find fan fiction than I could be bothered to mention so I’ll just give you the basics to start with (if you want to delve further and find more specific archives then you will have to do it yourselves).

The biggest fan fiction archive on the Internet is the aptly named has millions of stories from basically every fandom you have ever heard of. The navigation is pretty simple, you pick a format (eg. Book, Movies, TV Shows), then you pick a specific text (such as Harry Potter, Inception or Teen Wolf). After that you can filter further by rating, character and story type… then all you can do is read the summary and hope you’ve picked a good one.  

Recently another fan archive – Archive Of Our Own (AO3) has become more and more popular due to its easy interface and more a fandom friendly tagging system (it’s fairly similar to the Tumblr tagging system). You can search for a particular fandom or pairing and then filter further based on tags (like Alternative Universe). You can also list in order of hits (the number of people that have viewed the story) and kudos (similar to Facebook likes).

Personally I prefer AO3 because the overall quality of the fiction tends to be better (you have to wait months for an invite which weeds out some of the trash) – but if you’re after more variety then the shear number of stories found on make it unbeatable. There are also a lot of stories found on livejournal but as it is a blogging format rather than an archive it’s much harder to navigate so it’s probably best to avoid it unless sent there directly, which brings me to the next question.

What should I look for?

As a general rule, if you’re just starting out I suggest you look for anything that says fluff and avoid anything that is tagged with – major character death, incest, rape, dubious consent, PWP, mpreg, BDSM or kink. If homosexual romance is not your thing don’t read anything tagged as slash or femslash and if you’re not interested in romance at all look for something tag as “Gen”. Try to start with lower ratings – K – T on, G – T (General Audiences – Teen Audiences) on AO3 and probably avoid anything with an NC17 on livejournal. Just read the summary because most of the time the author will warn for anything that could trigger (like extreme violence, suicide or rape). Seriously READ THE WARNINGS! I can’t stress that enough.

Yes but how do I find the good stuff?

That’s the kicker isn’t it? Because as much fan fiction as there is most of it is awful. Like I said above there is no filter system, no one to stop anyone and everyone from posting things that are truly horrendous. Unfortunately there is no way to avoid the crap completely, but the good news is if you don’t like it you don’t have to keep reading – it’s free after all.

The easiest way to weed out the good from the bad is to let someone else do it for you. That’s right there are people that are much more involved in fandom than you that will take the time to read through each new story to ascertain it’s quality level. These lovely people sift through the crap and pic their favourites to share with us – call fan fiction recommendations or fic recs. If you don’t know of anyone that does this then the easiest way to find a fic rec is to search: “*insert fandom here* fic recs” or “*insert fandom here* fan fiction recommendations”.

Say you really like BBC Merlin you would search: “BBC Merlin fic recs” or “BBC Merlin fan fiction recommendations”. Links to specific Tumblr blogs are usually good (you can tell from one look whether or not the person that owns the Tumblr has good taste – stay away from autoplay music and gif backgrounds). Fic Rec will normally cite the fandom and rating (and ship if applicable) with a summary and then link to where the story can be read.

If that’s still too daunting then the good news is that my lovely girl Aja has started fic rec Wednesday over at The Daily Dot and I can personally attest that she has excellent taste. And if you’re into slash then my fellow slash experts and me recommend a fan fic every week in The Shipping News. Finally remember you can always ask, if you’re interested in a specific fandom but too daunted to look then hit me up in the comments or on the Facebook page (you can message me privately on there) and I’ll do my best to find you something to get you started.

Is it legal?

Here’s where things get complicated because yes the characters and worlds are copyrighted and as someone who works in the creative industries I really don’t want to take any money or rights away from artists but that’s not what fan fiction is about. Most fan fiction on the Internet is prefaced with a disclaimer stating that the author does not own the characters and does not intend to claim a profit from the work. That’s generally how it should work. Fan fiction is for fans, it’s a way to express how much we love something and personally I think that creators should be flattered that there are people that care so much about their characters.

Of course the ethics start to blur when money comes into the mix. A lot of professional writers started out writing fan fiction (even if they didn’t publish it online or in zines). It’s a great way to practice and hone writings skills and there are a lot of writers that encourage the process. That said, improving writing skills by practicing through non-profit fan fiction and then publishing an original work is not the same as publishing a fan fiction (even if the characters names are changed). That said the practice of publishing a work that started its life as a fan fiction is not unheard off and really only crosses ethical boundaries when it is marketed as such (I’m looking at you 50 Shades of Grey).

Although most creators tend of turn the other cheek when fan fiction is concerned there are some that are vocally against the practice. Fanlore has a list of author’s stances on the practice if you’re worried. Those that are against the practice tend to be older as attitudes have shifted in recent years. For an excellent discussion of exactly why fan fiction is okay read here. Generally it’s not illegal (it’s appropriation – fair use and all that) as long as you are not profiting from it or claiming the characters as your own but you can Google specific creators to find out their exact policy on the subject to be safe. And if you’re reading it not writing it there is not much they can do to you.

Seriously though where’s the porn?

It always comes back to this, whenever I talk to anyone about fan fiction they listen to all I have to say about creativity and active viewership and the awesomeness that is fandom – then they lean in and whisper “but there’s still porn right?” Sigh, I blame 50 Shades of Grey. Though if 50 Shades of Grey* is where you are getting your porn then I can’t really be angry because I just kind of feel bad for you. Did you know that there is porn out there that doesn’t once refer to female genitalia as ‘my sex’? And it’s available online – free of charge – so you don’t have to do the awkward public purchase thing, just turn on private browsing and you’re free to read about whatever kink crosses your mind (yes even that).

The good thing is, if you are in search of porn fan fiction has something for everyone. If you are indeed after porn then simply ignore my earlier warns and read anything that’s tagged as PWP (which stands for porn without plot or plot what plot?). Try to remember to check for other warnings though because there is some scary stuff out there and I don’t want you to be scarred for life. Most fics (focusing on a couple) that are a decent length will have some kind of sex scene – but they will probably make you work for it (we love the slow burn). You’ll want to look for an Explicit rating on AO3 or an M rating on

Those of you that are shaking your heads thinking why doe she think I’m looking for porn? The answer is because I know you. Because if you’re not looking for porn right now… you will be soon enough.

Fan fiction can be a fantastic resource and you need to trust me when I tell you there are some incredibly talented people writing some fantastic stories out there. If you think about it, it’s amazing that there are thousands of amazing novel length stories featuring all your favorite characters just sitting there waiting for you to discover them.

Well guys that’s all I have time for right now… sorry if that was a bit long but there is a lot to go through. This post has been more concerned with reading fan fiction so if you would like me to do one on writing fan fiction let me know.

Till next time, happy reading.

* For clarification, yes I have read 50 Shades of Grey and no I don’t hate it (I’ve also read the original Twilight fan fiction it was based on). I don’t agree with the way its been marketed and it’s not very well written (but then again neither was Twilight) also I have serious problems with the way it portrayed BDSM but I don’t begrudge anyone that liked it. In fact most people liked it if book sales are anything to go by. Just don’t go judging fan fiction as a genre based on your experience with 50 Shades of Grey.