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Is Fan Fiction a Good Writing Practice?

Author: Kathryn Lively

I’ve been following an interesting thread of conversation on a writing message board: a debate as to whether or not the practice of writing fan fiction is healthy for an aspiring writer.

By definition: “fan fiction” are stories involving characters from a television series or movie, written by fans and usually printed in underground magazines or on the Internet for other fans to enjoy. This concept is especially popular among fans of science fiction programs, and writers of all skill levels participate. For the serious fan fiction writer, there are even science-fiction conventions which present annual awards for the best-written prose. Stories may range from histories explaining gaps in a particular TV show’s canon (e.g. what has the cast of House been up to between seasons one and two?) to rather silly missives—I once found on the Internet a Star Trek story where all of the characters had been replaced by the cast of Desperate Housewives!

Is fan fiction a healthy exercise? For one, it technically is not a legal exercise, as all television and movie characters are protected by copyright. Since fan fiction is essentially a non-profit enterprise, however, most production companies tend to turn a blind eye to the activity. Rene Balcer, an executive producer of the show Law and Order, once told a fan e-zine that he did not mind the fan fiction based upon his show, and this appears to be the general consensus so long as a writer does not try to sell his/her work.

Having written fan fiction in the past, I can say that the practice as a writing exercise has its pros and cons:

PRO – During my heaviest bouts with writer’s block, writing a story about a familiar character helped loosen the spigot. Once I pondered what would happen if Dr. Sam Beckett of Quantum Leap traveled back in time to M*A*S*H’s 4077th unit, and the result was a 20,000-word story.

CON – Fan fiction can be addictive, and if you devote too much time to the exercise you may find creating original work difficult. If you post stories to the Internet and attract a fan base, you may find yourself writing more to please this small faction of people, and that will take you away from your true calling.

PRO – While writing fan fiction I found my knack for writing smooth dialogue improving.

CON – I also found I tended to use my best “bits” for such a story, leaving the well dry when it came time to write something more serious.

PRO – By posting my fan fiction to the Internet, I was able to attract readers who in turn were led to my website and information about my book. One fan even wrote to say he had bought my book after reading my fan fiction.

CON – I’ll try not to stereotype fan fiction readers, but if you have ever visited an online repository of fan fiction you may notice a majority of stories not only portray scenes people would like to see on their favorite shows, but scenes even HBO won’t show after eleven at night. Some may argue writing fan fiction is not good for the writer’s ego, but reading some of what is posted is certainly not good if you’re at work and the boss sees you! I do write romance that is spicy, but there are lines even I won’t cross.

Should you write fan fiction as a writing exercise? A few years I may have defended its importance, but now I would suggest alternative writing exercises, ones designed to improve your writing skills and help you to become less dependent on ready-made situations. Should the pull to write a story about Agents Mulder and Scully be too strong, however, why not take the opportunity to introduce your own characters? Let Mulder, Scully, Dr. House, and all your favorite characters inspire what you want to write, but make sure the end product is all your own.

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About the Author
Kathryn Lively is an award-winning writer and editor. She is the author of Pithed: an Andy Farmer Mystery (Mundania Press) and the Ash Lake Mysteries. She is also the publisher of Phaze, the ultra-sensual romance imprint of Mundania Press, and speaks all over the East Coast at conferences about writing and publishing.