I just finished reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – available here:
I have to admit that I don’t quite get why everyone raves about it. It was a good book. I really enjoyed it and identified with so much of it, I guess it just didn’t put me through the emotional wringer. I’m not going to review it right now because I think I might look back at it differently in a few days. Sometimes you need to let things sit. It just…it reminded me of before. It reminded me of a time when everything was different, a time when the world was full of magic.
I know I’ve talked a little bit about fanfiction in the past, usually in terms of books I’ve read or in general discussion, but I thought that it’s something that deserves a post of its own, because I owe it a lot.
I started writing when I was 12 but they were little stories that I, and maybe 2 of my friends, read and then set aside. It was the birth of a dream but it was a long way from materialising. Seriously, who writes epic fantasy in 45 pages of childish scrawl?? I wrote on and off through the remainder of school, when I had time. I knew then that it was what I wanted to be when I grew up – a writer. When I was 16 I set that dream aside. I was full of typical teenage self-doubt, didn’t think I was any good. My mum told me that I’d never make a living as an author and pushed me to do something sensible. I chose science at University and thought that I’d set my destiny in stone.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Looking back at it now, that decision was probably the best thing I could have done for my writing career because it brought me Lord of the Rings, it brought me Lizzie (love you!!) and it brought me FanFiction. Laugh if you wish, but Fanfic was the coming of age of my writing.
In my first year at Uni we went to see Lord of the Rings, the first one. I was transfixed. I’d read the book as a child, but seeing it on the screen was just mindblowing. We went to see it 12 times. I developed an obsession with it – an absorptive fascination with Middle Earth and the characters in it, particularly one blond elf… 😉 Lizzie found a discussion board online where people were talking about the film, the characters, the actors, the book…it became a home away from home. I spent so much time on those boards. I made some of my best friends there, friends I still have to this day. I probably spent more of my time at uni hooked up to the computer than anything else.
That’s where I discovered Fanfic. I read it voraciously – some good, some terrible, but all written because we were family. We UNDERSTOOD. We lived and breathed the magic of it all. I praised others, I offered constructive criticism, I signed up to notifications so I knew when all my favourite authors were updating (especially a girl called MeriCherry. She was great!).
And then, on the 24th of February 2002, my life changed forever. On that date I posted the first piece of a story that altered everything. The Elf in the Mirror was my first major work and it ignited my imagination and my passion like nothing ever had before. I lived and breathed that story. I craved the reviews, the new friends it brought me, the encouragement to keep going.
There are some that say that Fanfic is plagiarism. I think they’re wrong. The Elf in the Mirror was about a girl in our world whose soul had been switched with an elf in Middle Earth, an alternate reality. The elf prince, Legolas, was the point of convergence, the only person with the magic to communicate across both realities and switch them around. Legolas belonged to Tolkein, as did the geography, but other than a couple of character cameos, it was all about the interplay between Legolas and Anne. Nowhere in Tolkein’s version was Legolas a reality crossing channel for the universal balance. I could have renamed Legolas and no-one would ever have known it was fanfic, but those of us that were there knew.
A big part of epic fantasy writing is about the world building. I read somewhere recently that books are a lot like icebergs – you only see the tip of them. It’s true. There’s a whole rich world behind the scenes that a good author can make you imagine with a well placed reference here and there. I didn’t steal Tolkein, I just walked into his world and told my own story. An original story.
The Elf in the Mirror was the beginning. Over the course of the next 4 months I gathered a lot of followers and suddenly I was someone. It was only our small corner of the internet, but people listened to me. People made me feel like I was worth something. I won so many awards at the fanfic awards that they made one up just for me. I’d gone from being a pathetic, introverted no-one to fully understanding the magic of the written word and the power it wields over the world in that short time. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that maybe I had a gift.
I wrote a couple more fanfic stories after that while I was still at uni, but then, thanks to circumstance and heartache, I walked away. It never left me, though. Despite having all my self-worth ripped from me, I couldn’t quite shake the magic of world-weaving. I wrote the best part of the Kingmaker trilogy and then couldn’t bring myself to do anything with it. Instead, I went back to the safe haven of fanfic writing, where there were rules and encouragement and the freedom of a construct to write within. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. If you’ve ever written fanfic, you’ll know.
This time it wasn’t about LOTR, it was about the Southern Vampire Mysteries. Okay, I’m lying. It was all about Eric, but seriously…ERIC! Who wouldn’t? He’s badass and funny and sexy and nice to look at. Who wouldn’t want to spin stories around him like cobwebs of virtual possession? Slowly I regained my confidence and then eventually I was brave enough to let the world see my original works.
I sent the first Kingmaker book off to an international competition, not really expecting anything to come from it. Imagine my astonishment when I made the long list, the top 12 of all the thousands upon thousands of entries they’d had. I didn’t care that I didn’t win. Just getting that far was enough. The spark ignited by fanfic had been blown to a roaring flame. I started writing again and the following year Masquerade was published. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’m writing this now from the best side of 45k downloads, 6 bestsellers and dozens upon dozens of moving and touching letters from readers from all over the world. It sounds like I’m bragging. I feel awkward writing this. I just…it irks me that people think fanfic is nerdy or stupid or worthless. Fanfic is the foundation for so many great authors out there. It’s the beginning, the spark, the frisson of magic at the start of a neverending love affair. It’s where writers learn their trade, where they start to understand what works and what doesn’t. For a lot of fanfic writers, it’s where they write their first novel-length pieces. It’s the beginning and sometimes the middle. It’s the comfort blanket, the haven. Fanfiction is probably one of the most worthwhile writing exercises out there, despite the cliques and the politics and the sometimes bitchiness of the readers and/or authors.
If fanfiction were a movie, it would be a young adult coming-of-age story where the characters are setting out on their adult paths, learning about love, loyalty, duty and sex and all the crazies that go with freedom. It’s not a comedy. It’s not an arthouse graphic comic adaptation. It’s a full blown epic about life and all the ugly-wonderful things in it.
Do not judge where you haven’t walked. Fanfic made me a better writer. It was my first true love. I’ll always be grateful to it, not least for the friends I made while writing it. If you haven’t tried it, maybe you should.
I read back over that first fanfic now and cringe. The grammar was terrible, the story had its Mary Sue moments. An editor would probably go into meltdown just looking at it, but it’s where I come from and I’ve always been honest about my roots. What I’m going to do now scares the crap out of me, if I’m honest.
I’m going to show you raw, unedited, exposed and immature Rivka. I’m going to show you where it all started, so you can see where I came from and how how far I’ve come off the back of that encouragement. I’m hoping you’ll laugh, maybe cry a little, get absorbed in the world I borrowed and maybe, just maybe, look at fanfic in a different light.
Here, in all its glory, is the original posting of The Elf in the Mirror: