Why Did You Do It?
When I first started writing, it was purely for me: I went to great pains to make sure that no-one saw the screen while I was typing. I still do. But I suppose the seed of change was planted in school: enough of the teachers commented on the things I wrote in class that I eventually showed one of them some of the things I wrote outside. That one action is the beginning of my career, such as it is: the realisation that I might get someone to tell me they like my stories … it is the only real reason anyone tries to get anything published.
So as that idea took root, I started to look about for places that I could send my stories. Publishers didn’t even occur to me. I did consider magazines, but those kinds of stories didn’t seem to come to me. It was difficult, trying to write what I thought would get published, especially when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen and everything I wrote was automatically way outside of my personal experience. I learned very quickly how to put words together in interesting ways, but I didn’t have anything to say.
But fan fiction automatically gave me a wealth of experience that I shared with thousands of other people. I knew Doctor Who. My audience knew Doctor Who. The way that other fiction talks about life, fan fiction talks about its subject: it lets you practice letting your readers discover a story and a character through allusion and subtext, without you needing to know enough about life to make it feel like something that might happen. Instead, you have to know enough about Doctor Who to make it feel like something that would happen to the Doctor. It gives you something to lean on while you learn some of the other basics of writing a story.
Which begs one question: why do I still write it now?
There is an idea for some that fan fiction isn’t proper fiction, and that by extension fan fiction writers aren’t proper writers. That as soon as you become a proper writer, fan fiction is something that you should leave behind. But everything that makes fan fiction attractive when you are learning your trade is still there when you’ve had a couple of minor successes. It’s fun. It lets you explore something you love, talk about how you experienced that love in a way that you know will connect with somebody else. And it’s liberating: in fan fiction, you can explore any idea, any theme, any style that you want to experiment with. No-one is going to pay you for it, and no-one can tell you it’s breaking too many rules.
At the end of the day, it’s just you and an idea.
That’s a very attractive proposition for any writer.
How Did You Do It?
Nowadays, I’m in a very fortunate position. Every piece of fan fiction I’ve written in the last ten years has been written because somebody asked me if I would. It’s not something I do very often, but when I get the urge – because I’ve written for two of the official Doctor Who ranges – there’s usually somebody who will want to publish it for me. Not every Doctor Who writer is the same: some don’t write it at all, and others post it to the internet like thousands of other fan fiction writers. But I like my stories to have a home, and I like there to be an editor who can give me an opinion on it before it gets released into the wild.
But I wasn’t always so lucky. When I was first starting out, it was a question of looking around for places that were looking for stories and writing something I thought they might like. Joining some of the online Doctor Who mailing lists – such as Jade Pagoda or Outpost Gallifrey – was good for getting involved in new ideas as they began: the four charity anthologies I wrote stories for all gestated on Jade Pagoda, so I knew exactly what the editors were looking for even before I started writing a word. It was all, now I think about it, good practice for the life of a writer, trying to find the market for the story you’ve just written.
By far the easiest method, though, was to just write my story and put it up online for people to read. Back From the Dead was written completely to please myself, but in the knowledge that every week a new chapter would be posted to the alt.drwho.creative fan fiction group for its members to read. Several large online fan fiction communities have grown up on the internet since Back From the Dead was written, and if you can make the effort to write fan fiction, you can easily make the effort to find someone to read it.
What Did You Get Out of Doing It?
The most obvious thing I got from writing fan fiction was my first taste of audience appreciation. That moment when somebody says they like something you’ve written, that they think it’s good enough to publish or read. There is nothing like it. It’s the fuel for every successful writing career you can think of.
And fan fiction gave me somewhere to practice and learn. I quickly learned the language of short stories and discovered what my voice was. I learned how to disguise it when I was writing dialogue. Back From the Dead taught me that I could write novel length stories, a discovery that pushed me into the next stage of my career. But it also let me see what a non-linear, complicated storyline might look like: it let me practice messing with time a structure somewhere that was completely safe, so that I had the confidence to do it again on a professional basis with The Albino’s Dancer. Even now, it lets me try out new things that I’m not sure will work, and gives me the confidence to include some of the things I’ve learned in pitches for paid work.
But that isn’t really what I’ve got out of writing Fan Fiction.
What I got was one or two stories that I was really proud of. Some of them other people liked, and persuaded them to read other things I’d written or even just say hello. There are people I talk to today – writers and non-writers – who I only got to know because they read one of my stories. Some of them have gone on to be editors themselves, and have hired me based – in part – on their enjoyment of one or another of the stories I wrote for free to amuse myself. What I got is what any writer hopes to get out of writing stories: more readers, and more work.