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Accepting that my first novel is fan fiction

Artwork By Angharad Neal-Williams

 

Like many aspiring writers, I started writing when I was thirteen. Very few of my ideas made it onto a page, and most often it was objectively terrible. But the passion stuck, and at fifteen I told my parents that I wanted to be a writer.

‘No one makes money writing’ was their reply. Young, impressionable and practical, I listened to my parents and studied Engineering. It was either a good job, or a career as a writer. But, at twenty, when I had an article published in this very magazine, I decided I could try my hand at both.

I began calling myself a ‘writer’ for real, but after a year of ‘writing’ I had barely anything to my name except a few articles and a handful of short stories. I also discovered that my parents were largely right. While writing can bring in money, neither the people making money nor the money itself are abundant. It’s a modern conundrum; everyone can write and anyone can publish, so why pay for it?

When I was twenty-one, I played that new Legend of Zelda game. I fell in love with the world, and the characters, and the story. All I could think was, what happens next? Where does this story lead? On the fly, almost as a joke, I brainstormed a ‘sequel’ with my boyfriend over dinner; wouldn’t it be cool if, wouldn’t this be fun if…

The next morning, my ‘sequel’ was still swimming around in my head, stuck there unless I could shake it loose somehow. So I thought, fuck it. I will write this story. It would be easy enough. Being a ‘sequel’ the background was already established, and would be well understood by any potential readers. But no ignoring it, my story was fan fiction. The term conjures up trashy, wish-fulfillment, self-insert writing set in some Harry Potter or Supernatural multiverse and, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey (which has its origins from Twilight), it’s basically the black sheep of the fiction family.

I was different though, I told myself. My fan fiction was just a writing exercise, practice for when I was a real writer. I wrote 3000 words and put my first chapter online. A day later I had five followers. Then ten. So I wrote more, received nice reviews and more followers, leading me to write even more.

I wanted to share my ‘success’ somehow, but was too embarrassed to. My partner already knew. He knew it was fan fiction, and he didn’t care, “I’m just happy you’re working on something”. I told my parents, vaguely describing it as a ‘fantasy novel’, and proudly announcing that I had recently hit the 50,000 word mark. “You could have written your Master’s thesis with that many words,” my mum said. I told friends as well, giving them the same ‘fantasy novel’ line, and they asked if I would let them read it. “Oh, maybe once it’s done, it’s a bit niche,” I said, unable to admit just how niche it really was.

And then one of my readers, a Texan woman named Michelle, offered to help edit my chapters. She took me to task, held nothing back, and together we turned my amateurish ramblings into something of actual quality. I received more reviews; ‘This is amazingly well written! Please write more!’

And I did. I worked hard at it. Michelle and I did research, we talked about flow, about tone. We grappled with characterization, with lore, with staying true to the source material. We were working double time, torn between the need to capture the spirit of the original game and my desire to impart my own style onto the work. After all, fan fiction at its heart exists to extend the original work, created because fans love something so much that they just want more. If we deviated too much, then we would lose readers. But having an editor who took me seriously made me realise that this wasn’t some silly writing exercise anymore. If this was practice for being a real writer, then I had to act like one.   

So I held firm – if I started making creative decisions based on what I thought would be popular, then the work really would be ‘just fan fiction’. Some reviews came in discussing the direction I took with certain characters – ‘Your characterisations are surprising, and kind of unexpected, but they really work!’ – and I knew we’d struck a balance. We published more, and more, and soon we hit 100,000 words.

And then someone drew a scene from my work, as they were just so inspired by it. And then someone left a review saying that the latest chapter made them cry. After that, someone messaged me to say that they’re learning English and that they love how clear my style is. I checked my stats and was floored to find that I had 300 followers.

It was too much to be ashamed of anymore. I had affected people with something I wrote, and I decided I had to take pride in that. Yeah, it was fan fiction, but that no longer mattered.

Because I’ve now realised that there’s nothing wrong with a good story. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, or who wrote it. It doesn’t matter if the characters are original, or re-works, or someone else’s entirely. It doesn’t matter if it’s told over the dinner, or in print, or made into a blockbuster film, or never made into anything at all. If a story resonates with people, then it’s real, and it matters. And if the only person that it resonates with is you, then all the same. Now, if someone asks what I’m working on, I just tell them; “Yeah, I’m writing a sequel to that new Legend of Zelda game, it’s called From the Ground Up, and I’m really proud of it”.

I want to keep calling myself a writer no matter what it means, no matter what I actually produce and no matter if I actually make any fucking money. Fan fiction or no, here’s to the passion that makes writers want to write. Here’s to the love of telling. Here’s to un-original ideas, and potential copyright issues, and trashy wish fulfilment. In this modern age, it’s all derivative anyway.

 

If you really want to read my story, and happened to have played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (in classic fan fiction style, the work doesn’t make any sense unless you have), you can find it here: http://archiveofourown.org/works/10515429

 

Rachael Welling

The author Rachael Welling

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