Fan Fiction Author Roundtable: Cyndy Aleo, Tamara Allen, Jane Davitt, & Jami Gold
As part of our fan fiction series, we asked four writers of both fan and original fiction to talk about their experiences. We had a wonderful email conversation that I’ve reluctantly chopped down to fit into a very long article. Rather than take up room with my words, here are brief biographies of the participants and their answers to the questions we posed.
Cyndy Aleo: I’m a freelance writer and editor, seeking representation for my fiction (I’ve written two adult books: one magical realism and the other contemporary fantasy) and am currently writing my first young adult novel. I wrote fan fiction for the Twilight fandom under the names Algonquinrt and d0tpark3r from 2008 to 2010, and participate in several fandoms as a reader, including Harry Potter, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who. In other words, I am a giant nerd.
Jane Davitt: I’m 47, married with two daughters, and we moved from England to Canada in 1997. I was a civil servant back in England but I’m now a full-time writer with thirteen books and a dozen short stories in print and more in the pipeline. I write mostly m/m romances, sometimes with a BDSM background. My degree is in Politics and History and I’m an avid reader with over 4,000 books in the house.
Tamara Allen: I started writing original fiction in my teens and more seriously in my twenties. I didn’t write fan fiction until I was past thirty (unless you count Wizard of Oz fanfics when I was twelve.) Around the time I turned forty, a couple of real-life traumas brought me back to original fiction.
Jami Gold: After escaping a stalker who may or may not have sparkled, I moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where I could put my talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, I write paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and I’m seeking representation for two completed novels. I started writing original fiction after my experience with fanfic proved I could finish a novel.
(1) What motivated you to start writing fan fiction? How long have you been writing it? Were you a reader before you were a writer? In which fandoms have you been active?
Cyndy Aleo: I started writing fan fiction because I had two novels partially finished after NaNoWriMos (National Novel Writing Month) in 2007 and 2008 that I knew weren’t working, but I wasn’t sure why. I stumbled onto fan fiction looking for Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun online, and realized there was a huge community of readers who were ready and willing to give feedback to writers. I took the one novel that was nearly complete, shoehorned it in to fitting established characters in an Alternate Universe, and there it was.
I read in several fandoms, including Harry Potter, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who, but I’ve only ever written for one fandom, Twilight, where I published under the pen names Algonquinrt and d0tpark3r for two years. I read for several months before I ever posted anything, and I continue to read even now that I no longer write and have removed my fics from FanFiction.net.
Jane Davitt: In 1997 we got our first computer and I discovered newsgroups. Soon I was reading several Buffy related groups, including one for people to post their Buffy fanfic. I read a few with a dawning sense of wonder. I’d always wanted to write a book. This seemed like the chance to try on a small scale. So I sat down in May 2002 and wrote ‘Another Tuesday Night in Sunnydale’ and posted it with a sick feeling not unlike those dreams when you’re naked and no one else is. That fic is dire. It creaks. I posted it with no spacing and was humbled to discover that a degree and an addiction to books didn’t mean I knew how to punctuate dialog correctly. I ended up hauling down the nearest book and seeing just where those pesky commas went. The group was kind, encouraging, and somehow before I knew it, ideas began pouring into my head and I had to, just had to write them down.
I’ve got 966 fics to my name, ranging from drabbles (100 words exactly, not counting title) to epics that are longer than Lord of the Rings (seriously). I’ve slowed down as pro writing takes up more of my time, but I haven’t stopped. Fanfic is too much fun to give up.
The main [fandoms], in chronological order, are Buffy/Angel, Stargate SG1/Stargate Atlantis, The Sentinel, the medium ones NCIS, Hawaii Five-0, Suits, Psych. My only claim to fannish fame is that I wrote the first Wincest (Dean/Sam) fic, the day after the pilot of Supernatural aired. I didn’t find out it was the first for a couple of years, then it got mentioned in a Wiki and people told me about it.
Tamara Allen: I’d read a little fan fiction a few months before trying to write it. The motivation to write it came when Quantum Leap ended without Sam Beckett making it home to Al. (Oh yeah—and to Donna.) In those days, I wrote gen fic. Then when I moved on to a couple of other small fandoms, I paired with another author (who went on to huge success with original fiction, herself) to write both gen and slash. I’ve written in Quantum Leap, Real Ghostbusters, Wild, Wild West (a very AU version based on the movie because the movie was such a huge disappointment), and, very briefly, Stargate Atlantis.
I haven’t written any strictly fan fiction since 2003. I do have a WIP (novel) I began a couple of years ago because I loved the real-life historical events I used in the WWW AU I wrote. But from the first sentence, the novel took on its own life with characters who found their own identities. I don’t believe they resemble either the WWW characters or my fan fiction characters. Their story is set in the real world, with none of the steampunk or bizarre characters that made WWW what it was. Still, if I ever finish it, I will acknowledge the inspiration and I won’t profit off the story.
Jami Gold: After finishing the fifth Harry Potter book, I was desperate for the release of book six. While soaking up every scrap of online news about the release, I stumbled across the Harry Potter fanfic community.
Writing a fanfic had never occurred to me before. Heck, the idea of writing a story hadn’t crossed my mind since several creative writing classes *mumble* years before. But after five Harry Potter books, I felt like I knew these characters. So I started writing my version of what I thought book seven would be. Naturally, I was completely wrong about everything. :)
I wrote only the one fanfic story. For me, writing fanfic was more about getting out my nervous energy while I waited for book six, as well as making me feel confident in my ability to finish a novel. I read Harry Potter fanfics (as a lurker) before starting my own, but I never followed any specific fanfic writers. I lurked in the Harry Potter area for a while (long enough to get the gist of what fanfic was and how it worked), but I never posted my story.
(2) Describe your path to writing original fiction. How did your fan fiction experience help? Did it hinder you in any way? How difficult is it, creatively speaking, to keep the two separate?
Cyndy Aleo: Writing original fiction was something I did before I wrote fan fiction and something I’ve continued to do since I stopped. For me, there was never any confusion between the two. Writing fan fiction was incredibly helpful for me; I learned that I have a flair for comedy writing, which I never would have considered, and it also forced me to write some things I might not have tried before (like sexually explicit scenes).
It is an adjustment, though, after writing fan fiction. In fan fiction, the readers have an expectation of your characters. They know that Edward has reddish hair and had green eyes as a human and tends to be overly protective, overbearing, and likes making decisions for other people even as he’s second-guessing himself. There are personality traits and little quirks you don’t have to describe when writing fan fiction that you have to discover and relate to readers when you are writing original fic: what kind of fidgeting does your character do? What makes them tick? What’s their back story? That’s already done for you in fan fiction.
Jane Davitt: I’d written some non-fiction pieces for The Heinlein Journal between 2000-2003 and dipped my toes in that way, though the only payment was a copy of the magazine. Then I became a member of Live Journal in March 2003, back when you needed an invitation. My main focus was the Buffy fandom and my friends list grew, filled with fellow Buffy fans, most of whom were writing fanfic. Finding slash was my true lightbulb moment. I’d followed a link to a fic competition to get a Buffy/Spike fix. There were lots of categories and different pairings and one caught my eye: Spike/Xander.
My jaw dropped. Spike and Xander? Say what? I clicked and began to read. To quote from another Joss show, ‘I’ll be in my bunk.’ I’d never considered the possibility that reading about two guys getting together would work for me. The first fic I posted on LJ (again with the naked feeling making me go dizzy with stress) was a Spike/Xander fic that (I take big bites) was also a BDSM one. Now that I already knew turned me on…
Now addicted to slash, I started fangirling the authors of my favorite fics (one of whom I write with to this day) and they were kind enough to friend me back, sometimes co-write with me, beta for me, ask me to beta for them… Before long, I found out that some of them wrote original stories and had them published. The publisher in question was Torquere, who ran a competition with a small prize on the subject of safe sex, stories to be 1000 words. I entered and got an Honorable Mention. At the end of 2005, I subbed a short story to their Birthstones line — and it was accepted.
I was published. Someone had paid me to write something. Best feeling ever.
Without those years writing fic, I wouldn’t have been accepted. I wouldn’t have been good enough. I was lucky to have some stellar beta readers who pointed out kindly that I head-hopped, used ‘ing’ endings on my verbs too much, and a multitude of other no-nos. I learned how to move my characters in and out of a room, to have them speak naturally, how vital it was to keep track of events in a long fic, how hours of research could go into a single line. I learned how to tell a story.
I don’t find it difficult [to keep the two separate]. I’m not sure I give it much thought, really. They’re so different. Fanfic’s like me baking a cake for my daughter’s birthday party, original stories are me making a wedding cake for a customer. Taking an AU fic and selling it with the names tweaked? No. I mean I could. It’d be easy. I can think of three or four fics that would be perfect for that tweaking. But it’d feel like brushing my teeth with someone else’s toothbrush. I want the books out there with my name on it to be entirely mine from the characters to the plot.
Tamara Allen: Writing fan fiction was basically like taking an online creative writing class where the teachers were my fellow fan fiction writers (and nobody was particularly discouraging.) I learned from the terrible writers and I learned from the brilliant writers and it improved my own writing to the extent that I was able to write something publishable. I don’t believe writing fan fiction hindered me because it came at a time in my life when I needed a few years to learn more about writing. It provided an excellent way for me, personally, because I’m too shy to ever take a real-life writing class.
Keeping fan fiction separate from original fiction doesn’t require any effort. Fan fiction was fun. Original fiction demands more of me, emotionally and mentally; but it also gives back more than fan fiction ever could. I went back to original fiction in 2003 because I needed something that demanded more of me, to distract me and help me get through a bad time.
Jami Gold: My one fanfic story was enough to infect me with the writing bug. As soon as I finished, I told my family that if I ever came up with my own characters and world to watch out. A few months later, my muse showed up, and he overwhelmed me with original character, plot, and world-building ideas. Most importantly, the experience taught me that I could write a whole novel. I was proud that I not only finished it, but also that it was a decent story with a strong plot and theme (and awful grammar, but let’s ignore that part).
The Harry Potter books don’t use a deep point of view, so when I first started my original fiction, I struggled to write “deep enough.” Also, I never expected it would take so much thinking to create my characters and world from scratch. Fanfic is like playing chess, where the pieces and the board already exist. Original fiction is like inventing your own game. What kind of a game is it? What are the rules of the game? What’s the object of the game? How does one win? The answers to all those questions have to be invented from nothingness. Fanfic authors don’t have to worry about that aspect.
I see commonalities between my fanfic story and my original fiction stories at a very high level (“love conquers all”). Beyond that, I wouldn’t mix the two. Besides, JK Rowling’s voice and characters don’t match mine. :)
(3) What were the reader-writer communities like in your fandom(s)? How important was the community to your creative process? Do you think your work would have been different in a different community (if you write in more than one community, have you had that experience?)
Cyndy Aleo: The community is EVERYTHING in writing fan fiction, which is why some of the latest developments have been so divisive in the Twilight fandom. Of all the fandoms I participate in, I chose to write in Twilight’s BECAUSE of the community: they read; they review more than any other fandom; and that feedback is what I feel like I needed. I think the Twilight fandom is so incredibly enthusiastic that they really want to see their popular authors — and even favorite not-as-popular authors who write their personal favorites — find a larger audience, and the reviews that tell you to publish your fic make it very tempting to put it out there.
You get rejection after rejection from agents for your original work, and meanwhile, you have a fic with over 10,000 reviews out there, and people love it. But fan fiction is about being part of a community, and getting feedback from that community. The ethics of using that community input and good will and then asking those same people to pay for your work? To me, it would feel like using a sweat shop, because the readers give so much back. There’s a give-and-take with the community that’s symbiotic.
Jane Davitt: I can’t say enough good things about how supportive and friendly all the fandoms I’ve been in are. If I need a beta reader, I know I’ll get one for the asking — and I still beta read for people, even in fandoms I’ve long since left. Pay it forward. If I’ve had a research question, I’ve often asked my f-list knowing one of them will know the answer/live in that area/have a background in that skill. Without that nurturing, supportive, intelligent atmosphere, I wouldn’t have been as eager to try for more.
Tamara Allen: I was only ever in relatively small fandoms, but I think they were similar to the larger ones, with all the usual friends, fans, and occasional conflicts. Since I’m not naturally sociable, I only connected with one or two people in each fandom, but they were good friends. We were each others’ betas and we were not very hard on each other. All the same, I learned because I was able to watch the process of drafting and revising that good writers went through (and bad writers didn’t.)
Jami Gold: As someone outside the fanfic community and yet knowledgeable about fanfic in general, I see that each community has a unique feel and attitude (the Harry Potter group is different from the Twilight group, etc.). Based off stories I’ve heard, I think some groups might be more critical and some more fawning, so that makes it difficult to lump all of fanfic into one set of expectations of what they’re like.
(4) One of the comments I’ve heard from anti-fan-fiction readers and authors is that a fan fiction author wouldn’t appreciate having her characters appropriated in the same way. Do you agree with this statement? Does writing fan fiction gives you a different perspective on authorship?
Cyndy Aleo: I think the majority of fan fiction authors are incredibly respectful of the original work. There was one author who was a favorite of mine who wrote what her version of Breaking Dawn would be, as well as an alternate New Moon (not a big favorite book in the Twilight community), and it became so real that I would often substitute it in my mind for the real books to the point that when I saw the movie New Moon, I thought something was wrong. I’d be incredibly flattered if people wrote about my characters and used them in such a way; it signifies an emotional connection that carries on past the pages of your books or movies or television shows, and you want those kinds of fans.
However, the writers I know who write original fiction tend to view pulling to publish as something that’s ethically and morally wrong, because those characters do belong to the author. Borrowing them to write fan fiction is one thing. Morphing them into something similar and then selling it is quite another. As a writer, I fall in love with my own characters, and become very possessive and protective of them. I think if people were publishing fiction that had originally been based on my characters, I’d be very upset.
Jane Davitt: I have to say, the thought of someone writing fic about my fic doesn’t sit well, but I’d never stop anyone doing it; it’d be hypocritical of me. Though maybe not that hypocritical; if I knew someone didn’t want me to do fic of their work, I’d respect that. It hasn’t come up for me because with two exceptions (and the authors have been dead for decades) I never write fic in book-based fandoms. All my fic is about TV shows, and the people running them, like Joss Whedon, usually tolerate or encourage fanfic.
When people have asked if they can write fic based on mine (and it’s only happened a couple of times) I’ve said yes, of course and the fics that resulted were wonderful and I’ve never regretted sharing my sandbox.
Tamara Allen: Would I like another author making money off characters I created? No, I don’t think I would. And I don’t believe having written fan fiction gives me a different perspective on authorship. If Margaret Sutton’s Judy Bolton mysteries inspired me to write a series about a girl detective, I wouldn’t consider it appropriating her work for my benefit. But if I make my detective red-haired and give her a pet black cat and a cute federal agent for a husband, that’s Margaret’s story, not mine. At that point, I’ve gone past acceptable and fully into unethical if I sell the story and make a profit.
Jami Gold: Many fanfic stories throw canon out the window and don’t worry about out-of-character actions. As a reader, I understand the freedom such an approach allows. As an author, I see things differently. I’m one of those authors who talks to her characters, in a “they’re just as real to me as my friends” way. But that sense of intimacy also means that hearing about some wild out-of-character exploits in a fanfic might damage the relationship I have with them.
I respect what fanfic does and explores. On the other hand, I don’t like the direction some fanfic groups are heading, with publishing their fanfic. It would take a lot more than just changing the name or other superficial details to erase the essence of the characters. My personal belief is that until the essence of the character (history, family background, worldview, religious beliefs, moral code, self-image, self-delusions, strengths, flaws, goals, etc.) was changed, the characters in a fanfic still belong to the original author.
(5) What is the most important thing you want readers and writers outside the community to understand about fan fiction?
Cyndy Aleo: There’s a huge stigma attached to it, even now. Especially having written in the Twilight community, there seems to be this stereotype that we are all sexually deprived moms reading a young adult book and reading/writing erotica about teen characters, which isn’t the case at all. I have zealously protected my privacy until now simply because I didn’t want it to impact my professional life in a negative way.
I think most of us were drawn to the size of the Twilight community, which has done a lot of great things most people aren’t aware of. There are regular fundraisers, which have benefitted everything from charities like Alex’s Lemonade Stand to those impacted by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Japan last year.
I want people to know that for most of us it’s a fun hobby, for many it’s a way to trial and error our writing, and that we are the same as any online community out there.
Jane Davitt: That it’s not something people do who can’t come up with characters/plots of their own. Please. Fics have scores of original characters in them and some stand out and shine. And the plots, the imagination, the sheer scope of vision is staggering. Canon is a narrow pathway with a beginning (first episode, first book) and an end; fanfic is a vast plain, stretching out to the horizon. Here Be Dragons. People are writing fic for shows that’ve been off the air for decades and still finding something new to say.
There are thousands of fic writers who are good enough at writing to be published. Some just don’t want to. That’s because fanfic is fun; unfettered, unrestricted, liberating fun. I can write ANYTHING in a fic. I can make up words, use experimental formats, go dark and kinky, light and fluffy. I’ve used fic to heal wounds, arouse, amuse, entertain — me, not just the readers. I’ve exposed myself in my fic in a way I couldn’t do in my novels. Fanfic’s taught me to be brave in my writing and though I rein it in for the novels, that foundation is still there, solid under my feet.
Tamara Allen: Well, I wrote fan fiction in order to finish stories that were, for me, unfinished in the emotional sense. I don’t think fan fiction is something anyone should scoff at, because much that is positive and meaningful can come from the experience of being part of a community and sharing your love of stories. It helps new writers start to hone whatever talent they may have. Some of those writers will make the leap to original fiction and learn to cope with the challenges of a more complex and demanding publishing world (frank and sometimes brutal reviewers, unenthusiastic editors, the shocking realization that most readers hate head-hopping and some aren’t too fond of melodrama…)
Jami Gold: Just as we want to tell our friends when we read a great book, some people want to share their passion a different way. Fanfic can be a great way to explore characters and worlds we feel we know, and writing fanfic can give new writers confidence.
Writing fanfic also doesn’t mean that someone can’t write a “real” story. For some authors, fanfic can bring out their muse after a writer’s block. Writing fanfic can help authors analyze someone else’s writing style (what works and what doesn’t) and character psychology (what’s the subtext behind them and what makes them likable or unlikable).
Cyndy Aleo asked: The question I’d like to ask those in other fandoms is what you think will happen from here. There are authors — like J.R. Ward and Diana Gabaldon — who speak out against fan fiction and prohibit sites like FFn from allowing people to post work based on their books, and I’m seeing a bubble of authors on Twitter talking about how to protect themselves from what happened with 50 Shades. What do you think the future of fan fiction will be after this? Will we see more authors prohibit fanfic as a result? Do you think some of our fandoms will go back to passing fic back and forth via zines and other more underground methods?
Jane Davitt: I hope not. That was pre-Internet mostly and now that the Internet exists, there are just so many ways to share fic. They could shut down one site and another would spring up. And fandom’s worldwide. We’d find havens.
I’m a Firefly fan. “Can’t stop the signal” are words to live by.
Having said that, the relatively unchecked proliferation of fic is, I feel, partly due to to the ‘you shall make no money from it’ rule and that’s crumbling to dust before our eyes. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a test case that changed everything hitting the courts soon. Maybe Fifty Shades, maybe something else. It’s been coming for a while.
Tamara Allen: I know at least one NYC-pubbed author who doesn’t mind fan fiction writers writing stories based on her novels. She doesn’t read them, so she can’t be accused of mining them for ideas, but she gives the impression of not minding. She started in fan fic.
Personally, I think it would be tremendously cool to have other writers so excited about your work that they want to write stories based on your world and characters, just for the fun of it. But I can empathize with writers who feel protective of their work after the business with 50 Shades. It’ll be quite interesting to observe the fallout from this. But I can’t imagine it will suppress fan fiction much. It’s such a huge force of nature. It will go on as long as writers write. Hard to suppress creative forces, even with lawsuits.
Jami Gold: I think many authors, who were perhaps unaware of fanfic and/or the risks before recent events, might now create more restrictive policies. I could see authors prohibiting fanfic because their exclusive right to their characters isn’t respected anymore. If the fanfic community doesn’t respect the original author’s rights, why would the author respect the fanfic community?
I’d like to see a middle ground, where authors allow fanfic, perhaps under a policy that all stories labeled as fanfic of their books (and any money collected as a result of those stories) belong to the original author. A policy like that would give fanfic writers freedom as long as they don’t try to make any money from it, and it would protect authors from a fanfic writer claiming the author stole their ideas (like what happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley).