Fan fiction is the first thing I ever wrote seriously. I was thirteen and it was summer camp and I hated summer camp. Parts of it were alright; I liked being able to use the spending money my parents left on my account at the trading post every afternoon.* I’d fetch myself the usual frozen Snickers bar and styrofoam cup of Coke and then I’d find a seat on the railings at the front of the lodge and start scribbling Star Wars fanfic in my blue denim three ring binder. I’d occassionally take breaks to hunt for toads with my friend Bob Jorg–both of us were enamoured with the adorable little tree frogs and hoptoads that lived in the cool Michigan loam.
Like most fan fiction, I was the putative star of the story. I cast myself in the role of Luke & Leia’s mother and it was actually a pretty good tale overall. (I still maintain it was better than what Lucas ended up churning out.**) But it was still me grafting my own cuttings to the tree that Lucas planted. Fan fiction is good for working out writing skills, because it allows a beginning writer to focus on one or two aspects of the storytelling art. You don’t have to worry so much about creating characters or settings when JK Rowling or George Lucas or Dick Wolf*** has already done that. Instead the fan fiction author can hone her skills on plotting and dialogue; perhaps she’ll eventually move into character development of her own, with the established canon folk providing training wheels for her Marysues.****
The thing is, though, that we have a problem. And it’s getting far worse than we ever imagined, thanks to Amazon’s self-publishing and the runaway success of Fifty Shades Of Gray. Fan fiction writers are taking their hobby to the marketplace, convinced that they have every right to profit off the stories they wrote. The argument is, of course, that they used their time, effort and imagination to create a story–so why shouldn’t they be able to sell it? After all, Mrs. Fields doesn’t receive a Cease And Desist from Toll House whenever she (or her huge conglomerate) sells chocolate chip cookies!
I suppose, though, that if I bought Mrs. Fields’ cookies, glopped some frosting on them and resold them as Mrs. Fields’ German Chocolate Chip cookies using her logo and name and cookie that I might hear something.
That’s what happened recently when a Fan Fiction author got sued for stealing from Marion Zimmer Bradley. (Really? Couldn’t you pick someone who isn’t AWFUL?!?)
So we’re only sorry for stealing when we’re caught, I suppose.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I look askance at fanfic authors who use the medium as anything other than a beginner’s exercise or hobby. Once you get to the place where you’re trying to sell the book as your own work, you need to actually do your own work. That includes coming up with your own characters, settings and mythology. That’s what writing is. The rest of it is paperdoll puppetry.
*Summer camp has an economy not unlike that of prison.
**Sometimes I wonder if so much of the fan reaction to the Prequels was based on the fact that we’d all lived with the stories for so long that we each had our own spin on them. We knew what we expected from it, whether we actually made fanfic or not. By the time Lucas put Phantom Menace onscreen he was competing with millions of private stories.
***I’ve actually met a few people who thrive on Law & Order fanfic. I don’t get it myself, but hey. The world is a big place.
****MarySues (and MartyStus) are what those characters are called when an author writes him or herself as the star of the story.