Fan fiction taught me how to write
In 2009, the internet was a different place.
Aged 16, I was only partially aware of the recession that threatened so many of us. Wall Street had crashed and redundancy rates were splashed across every newspaper, but as a teenager, I had more pressing concerns. The final instalment of the Harry Potter novels had been released two summers before, and I was bereft. I’d reread the entire series twice – and the realisation that I knew almost every line when there were no more coming, meant that I was finally facing up to the fact that I needed to find something new to read.
After a few desperate web searches, I stumbled across Archive Of Our Own, or AO3. It was, at the time, a brand-new site: a community of ‘obsessive teenage girls’ who could live vicariously through the stories they loved.
Despite the initial excitement at finding hundreds of stories, the reputation of fan fiction was already cemented. Dominated by young women and queer people, fan fiction was considered frivolous at best and, at worst, embarrassing. I don’t think these two things are unrelated; when all the characters that you see in mainstream fiction are straight, white and male, it’s no surprise that young people outside of such a mould want to see characters like themselves in these stories. It was an opportunity both to take control, and to share our own experiences.
As such, the overwhelming number of LGBT ‘parings and ships’, where two characters (who may be straight in canon) were gay, bisexual and even transgender, was an unsurprising feature of these adaptions. For those so often excluded from a narrative, fan fiction was truly the opposite. Further, with all the writers afforded the protection of a pseudonym, there was a sense of anonymity that really allowed young people to explore themselves through the revisal of stories that they had previously found themselves sidelined in.
The desire to create art which speaks to our internal selves is hardly new. Even when we look to the past for answers, we find the work of Jane Austen and other 18th century female authors being written off in its own time as fashionable – fine for light reading, but not of any real worth. Work produced or valued by women was then considered to be a vanity project. The writers we now celebrate only gained recognition much later. Even in 2011, not much had changed. Despite the fact that retelling stories in a different light is an endeavour as old as time, fan fiction wasn’t seen to really have any value.
For me, a year of furious reading passed before, supported by a group of girls I would never meet, I was recommended to become a beta reader: the fan fiction version of an editor. Fan fiction was truly an active community, and while the group of young women I’d met were spread across the globe, it felt like they lived next door. By seventeen, I was editing 300-page fan works, checking continuity, and proofreading.
Despite the amateur nature of these works, the authors took them seriously, with many having daily writing and editing targets. Unlike much of the Internet, the community was incredibly supportive. Feedback was almost always framed with good intention, and readers played a far more active part in the writing process than most authors will ever experience. Each chapter received comments, feedback and suggestions as soon as they were posted. It was around this time that I started writing too, starting with short ‘one-shot’ works (fanfic that has only one chapter) and drabble (a story in under 100 words). Simultaneously, AO3 had really started to grow, with a vast increase in writers. From Buffy to Star Wars, fandoms were growing rapidly, with hundreds of new writers contributing daily.
I was keeping up too. After months of work, my first 200,000-word novel had been posted and I was starting to be noticed within the community. That novel taught me more about writing than any training course that I have ever attended. Writing about a character that already has their personality defined should make expansion difficult, and yet I had so much to say. Following on from Hogwarts, I had created a detective series, and while planning and plotting the tale was incredible, the toughest part was continuity – ensuring that the world-building initially set out in JK Rowling’s canon was adhered to.
Not long after I’d celebrated posting the last chapter, I moved to France for three years to work in a ski resort. I no longer had time to read or write fan fiction. My community abandoned, I assumed I’d grown out of it. The only reminders were the ‘kudos’ emails that, after a while, I marked as spam.
By 2015, I couldn’t even remember my login details.
That was until I spotted an article in The Bookseller. The author, Rainbow Rowell, had written a book about fan fiction. There was something about my secret world being dragged into the limelight that had, initially, unsettled me. AO3 was the worst-kept secret, but it was still a dark corner of the Internet for me, untainted. So, I was surprised by the nostalgia and joy I found when I read it again those years later. It was a reminder of the community, of the care invested in these stories, in words that would never be celebrated publicly, or even tied to our names. And, for me, Rowell pulled back the curtain and announced that fan fiction should be celebrated.
After a week of digging through old emails, I finally managed to log back in. Once again, the community engulfed me immediately, allowing me to catch up with the girls I had swapped edits with so many years before. Most of us were ‘proper writers’ now, and after a good laugh at our old work, got straight back to writing.
I don’t know if it’s the familiarity of the characters or the sense of anonymity that fan fiction offers, but the words come easily to me. It has become my secret cure for writer’s block; a covert sounding board of now-professional women to discuss pitches, articles and ideas with.
As someone who didn’t attend university, I can't credit my success to a lecturer who believed in my work, or a more experienced student who took me under their wing. While it may be unusual, I realised that a lot of the success behind my work could be credited to strangers on the Internet – of whom I know only their first names. Now, I feel like it’s time to share the quiet community of which I’m a product.
It’s different now. Women and queer people can find stories that include us. We no longer have to make up stories to see ourselves exist in them. However, we owe a debt to the next generation of writers, to create worlds that they too can see themselves reflected in.
If we do, we may receive the greatest praise of all. A group of fanatic and hysterical teenage girls that will continue to tell our stories.
Charlotte Moore is a Manchester-based writer, covering lifestyle and culture. She is the Assistant Editor at Restless Magazine and owner of Studio Sonder. You can find her @girlonfilm__ on Twitter or Instagram.