So recently, sci-fi author Steven Brust released a Firefly fanfic novel as a free download. A friend who is making strides in the business of being a sci-fi writer, if I recall correctly, cut her teeth by writing fan fiction.
I’m reminded of John Scalzi and his adage about “paying work gets written first.” It’s a phrase that can easily be interpreted as “don’t write anything unless you’re going to submit it to a paying market first.”
Lately, I’ve been musing on the trend in sci-fi circles toward releasing one’s work under the Creative Commons license. And I’ve been musing on fanfic, because I’ve got an idea for a piece rolling around in my brain.
First of all, I think Scalzi’s adage needs to be thrown out the window if you’re an aspiring sort of individual that doesn’t have any experience writing. You need to be writing everything you can, constantly, and as part of that, you need to be in a writers’ group so that you can get critiqued and learn from your mistakes. And when I say “writers’ group”, I don’t mean a kaffeeklatsch where you sit around and blow sunshine up each others’ asses about how wonderful you all are because you’re artists. Fuck that. A good writers’ group will make you feel like you want to cry at times, but you should leave understanding that learning to write is a process and that there’s hope for you yet.
This is where fanfic comes in for the starting writer, particularly the one with the fragile ego. Writing fanfic is like having a set of training wheels bolted onto your laptop. You start off with a known setting, known characters, and a complete history, all things that you need to start with from scratch to produce original works. As you write in this environment, you’ll not only start to find your own voice, but the things you would have done differently with Firefly will start to come out, and you’ll learn how to listen to that earlier and earlier in the process of writing something. (I would not, incidentally, bring fanfic to a writers’ group unless you like being strung up by your own entrails.)
Where should fanfic play into the production of an established writer? I suppose the answer is: it depends. If the universe you’re writing in has a line of books associated with it, your best bet is to call your agent. If not, you can do like Steven Brust and publish to the Internet and give it away for free. (You cannot charge money for it, due to copyright issues.)
Why do something like that? Well, the answer circles back to the Creative Commons. Writers like Cory Doctorow, Peter Watts, and others, have released their books in a variety of electronic formats under the Creative Commons license, which not only positively impacts the sales of that book in paper format, but has a halo effect on their other works in-print.
In effect, they’ve kicked off a reputation-based economy in the S.F. circles. They become better-known because they remove the two main barriers to entry — price and availability. Their reputation improves, and people remember the altuism of a free book. Later, they find themselves in a bookstore, and hey, maybe they’ll check out what Doctorow’s got on the shelves.
Fanfic can be used in this regard — fans are always hungry for more stories set in their favorite universe, and will read the stuff that’s out there. Steven Brust has, by writing in the Firefly universe, done wonders for his exposure to the people in sci-fi circles who view more than they read. Reputation increases.
(As an aside, I’m not a fan of Firefly, and I’ve never read Steven Brust before. I doubt I’ll read the freebie, but I’m definitely going to take another look at his segment of the shelves at B&N because he’s a pretty forward-thinking guy in this regard.)
So where does that leave unpublished noobs like me, who have a degree in creative writing? Well, I’m writing original material, plan to shop it around, and will probably bust out a piece of fanfic every few years just to help me pop up on the radar of folks who are not digging into bookstore shelves as deeply as they should.
Disclaimer: I am still an unpublished writer, and this piece is written based on information derived from the blogs of pro writers, and that magical thing called “common sense”, and some experience in marketing… Do feel free to disagree with me at any point here.