How Fanfic Is (Slowly) Restoring My Faith in My Writing

The author's profile page on Archive of Our Own, with a bio that is basically the same as the synopsis of this article
Me on AO3

I thought I’d contributed all I had to contribute to the Fandom Stories series when I wrote my “What Is Fandom Anyway?” rumination. Then I started rounding up a personal year-end retrospective and made an encouraging discovery.

This year alone, I have written 29,551 words of fanfiction. That’s not even counting deleted or replaced words. That is a decent-length middle-grade novel worth of words. And I thought I couldn’t write fiction anymore!

Fourteen years ago, pre-kids, when I’d only recently discovered that online fandoms existed, I once mused to my friends online, how come I don’t do fan art/fic? I was a geekish, overly-enthusiastic fan. I liked to write and make art. So how come I never had the desire to bring the two together? Okay, maybe I drew a bit of fan art when I was a kid, and I did imagine extra scenes of stories I loved, but I never wrote them down. I was genuinely surprised, a few months later, to find a few pages of DuckTales fanfic tucked into my old Junior Girl Scout manual, apparently as part of a writing badge. I honestly hadn’t remembered writing any fanfic, ever!

A friend responded, to my original query, that he enjoyed writing fanfic in part because it was “easier to come up with a story when the background has already been established.” Maybe that was my problem, I thought: I’m terrible at plots. Coming up with characters and settings is what I’m good at. Shame to have that part already done for me! No, not really, said my fanfic-writing friend—he still enjoyed coming up with original characters and settings, there was just comfort in having them interact with an established universe. Hmmm, I admitted at that point, maybe it was technically Beatles fanfic to have invented a superhero nephew for George Harrison, then. Maybe I did write some fanfic after all.

But I was mostly too wrapped up in my own original stories, with or without ties to other people’s universes. How could I come up with stories for other people’s creations when I could barely complete a story for my own?

A year and a half later, I had my first child. And then I was too tired, too saddled with mental load, to create.

On top of that, being online, submersed in the book-loving community, was making me feel redundant. There were so many talented people out there, more talented than me, and so many books were published every year, far more than I could even buy for the library, so imagine all the books that DIDN’T get published! How could I ever write something that could make the cut with so much competition? Plus, I am so completely mainstream! As a librarian, I see the need for #WeNeedDiverseBooks so that all kids can see themselves in stories, but I’d been seeing MYself in stories hundreds of years old, so who needs my voice? Even if I had the mental energy to write, I had nothing worth writing about.

But I couldn’t just stop writing. It’s built into how I think. I’m a writer, I can’t not write. But for the past decade or so I’ve stuck to journaling and blogging. Every so often, over these past few years, I’d crank out a page or two of original fiction, but not enough to go anywhere.

Once, though, to get the creativity flowing, I pulled a writing prompt: “You’ve just gotten into a fender-bender with your favorite actor. He has a dead body in his trunk. What do you do?” I started writing and it was a joy. It took off in unexpected directions and turned epic.* It was complete nonsense, but I couldn’t stop. I created a character called an Aslan in a Bucket, which only spoke in Aslan quotes, and I actually skimmed the entire Chronicles of Narnia typing Aslan quotes into a database** I could use to write for the Aslan in a Bucket, and I didn’t care how long it took for a completely pointless story that could never possibly be published, it was FUN.

Writing fiction without the slightest hope of publication was freeing, and over the next few years, other such unpublishables popped out of my head. Another writing prompt turned into a scene from The X-Files. Watching Firefly episode commentary and hearing Alan Tudyk self-depreciatingly wonder what Zoe even saw in Wash, and realizing that I very specifically knew the answer to his rhetorical question, set me writing out their love story. For no particular reason whatsoever, I started to jot down some backstory to Back to the Future. As I looked back on a decade of what seemed to be long-term, unsurmountable writer’s block, I realized that over half the fiction I’d managed to write in that time was fanfiction. I guess I could do it.

“I can do that,” was exactly what I said to myself, last fall when a Legion TV fan-Tumblr asked for entrants in a fanfic exchange. It was based squarely on the show, so I didn’t have to know anything about the comics, and there were only two miniseries-length seasons to keep track of at that time, so I could write about it without feeling like I didn’t know enough. And it would be short writing, a snip of a story to someone else’s prompt. “I can do that,” I told myself more firmly, “so I should do that. It will get my fiction-writing muscles moving again. It will be good for me.”

It worked, and more quickly than I’d suspected. I didn’t have to wait for a prompt from my exchange partner. Filling out the application, deciding what I wanted from a Legion fic and what I would be interested in writing, my brain clicked in the same way it had watching Firefly commentaries a few years before when I suddenly knew fully-formed exactly how Zoe had fallen in love with Wash. This time, in an instant, I knew exactly what the Loudermilk twins (see point #5) were up to at the age of twelve, and it came pouring out onto whatever scrap of paper I had near me. “Hold up,” I told myself, “save some of this energy for your actual exchange prompt! You don’t even know what you’re going to be asked to write about!” But I didn’t care. Let whatever prompt was to come happen when it came. Right now, I cared only about Cary and Kerry in middle school.

A few weeks later, I had an actual prompt, and an actual exchange partner, who talked me through making an account on Archive of Our Own. I hadn’t needed to “save” any creative energy for the prompt, after all. All it took was the prompt. Oliver and David hanging out in the Astral Ice Cube. That was it. But I could see it in my head. And I could write what I saw. In the space of a month, I had successfully written two fictional stories! I uploaded the requested story to the exchange page on AO3, then stared at my words there, on a webpage that other people who actually watched this weird show I liked could read. They might also like my story about the Loudermilks, I realized. I was pleased with that little story, and there wasn’t really anyone I knew who would care about it. So I uploaded that one to the exchange page, too.

Over the next few months, I started to get occasional emails from Archive of Our Own. You’ve got kudos! said the subject line. People were reading my stories. People were liking my stories. And more often than not, those “kudos” were left on the story nobody’d asked for, the story I’d just made up because I wondered about the Loudermilks’ childhood. And that felt nice.

Flash forward to the next May, when I saw Avengers’ Endgame, and nobody seemed to agree about what had actually happened at the end. I guess we’re far enough removed now that I don’t need to be so cagey about spoilers, so for clarity’s sake, yes, the argument was over the particulars of time travel. I felt very strongly that my interpretation of the movie’s time travel could be the only correct explanation, and felt myself getting a little heated, repeating my reasonings over and over across multiple different discussions. Partially just to reassure myself that I was right, I started writing little scenarios, showing how events would play out over various alternate timelines.

When I finished, I had nearly four thousand words of… story, I supposed it was. I couldn’t just copy and paste that whole thing into all my online discussions. I’d have to post it somewhere separately and then link to it. OH! I realized. I have an AO3 account now! And this totally counts as fanfiction! It was the perfect place to store my Endgame explanation for when I might need to refer to it. But before I could post that link anywhere else, other fans found it, anyway. Fellow Peggy/Sousa shippers, judging by the comments. They must have been sitting on that tag, waiting for a notification to go off that somebody else had written about a relationship in a show far too few people had watched. Then again, it was also about the latest hot movie, which must be why it got so much attention, compared to my two little fic-exchange entries on a weird cult-favorite show.

Holy crap, that was a rush. Sure, I should be able to just write for an audience of myself. But to know that people, somewhere out there, did actually like my stories? That made me want to post more. And in order to post more… I would have to write more.

You notice that was in May. The original Legion fic exchange happened last year. I didn’t count those stories in the 30,000 words I’ve written this year. The other 26,000 words happened just in the past seven months.

Strike that. Six months. It was when the third and final season of Legion started at the end of June. Which actually makes it only five months. At any rate, the season had gotten going and, having had mixed feelings about season two, I was giddy with delight over how much I was enjoying season three. I definitely wanted to spend more time with it than that one hour a week. And then there were the Loudermilk twins, again. I’d loved them from the beginning, sure, but I wasn’t certain when they’d actually become my very favorite characters. One of my biggest gripes with season two had been the three episodes in a row in the middle there that had given us naught but a brief unspoken appearance or two of either of them. But this season, I knew them so much better. I’d written about them. I felt a possessive sort of affection when I saw them: my babies!

Which, okay, funny choice of words, they’re in their sixties*** on the show. But that gives me over half a century of backstory to play with! I’d seen them in middle school—what about early adulthood? What about early childhood? What if I expanded on their brief canonical origin story, from various points of view? As I wrote one story, another story set at a different age would occur to me, and I’d add another file to the “fanfic” folder on Scrivener (a whole folder for fanfic! Didn’t have one of those a year before!).

By the end of August, I’d finished three stories, and posted them on AO3, in a span of two weeks. Unlike my Endgame manifesto, these didn’t have a huge built-in audience breaking down my notifications. But one person did find them: my exchange partner from the year before. They always threw in a kudos. They always left a simple comment, something along the lines of “I’d like to see more of this.”

It was like having my own private cheerleader. Each brief “what if you wrote more about this?” gave me a new idea for a story. And I’ve kept going. Though my actual posting output has slowed down in recent months, my writing continues. If you’re pedantically counting words over at AO3, you need to know there are three unfinished Loudermilk fics still in my Scrivener. One just happens to be up to 8,000 words and isn’t remotely finished yet.**** Another one’s waiting to be published in the proper zine that old exchange partner is putting together next spring.

Which leaves me, here at the end of the year, looking back at a 2019 that has been positively shaped by fanfiction. It is easier to come up with stories in an established universe. There’s something ironically freeing about having a structure, like the passage at the end of A Wrinkle in Time about sonnets: “a strict form, but freedom within it.”

I’m still clueless about what infinite possibility of story and style I should write original work in. But I know that, with just a little prompting, I can write fiction still. All it requires is an established universe—and our own universe is, after all, pretty established—and a simple question: what if?


*TWENTY-FOUR WHOLE PAGES OF INCOMPLETE EPIC!

**Okay, less “database” and more “Word document,” but still. If you ever need to read just the out-of-context complete utterances of Aslan, I still have it and could share it with you. It’s the Narnian equivalent of a Bible made up of only red words.

***Or, he is, anyway? She seems much younger, but only because she ages differently, and… LOOK, IT’S COMPLICATED—YOU’LL HAVE TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT. Not like I didn’t have to write a whole fic on the subject.

****I keep forgetting it isn’t finished, I’ve been working on it so long. It’s a high school story. I started it in August, prompted by a discussion in the comments of the first story I posted there this summer. It’s just been expanding slowly, and to tell the truth, has become quite dear to my heart. It may eventually be my favorite of all the fics I’ve written. Assuming I finally work out those remaining sticky scenes.

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