One of THE MOST IMPORTANT lessons being involved with fanfiction taught me is to simply write what I love to write.
This seems like one of the most obvious messages out there, but it’s also the last thing that writers are encouraged to do. While lip service is paid to the idea, often it’s followed by “write for your audience!” and “write for the genre!” and “know the genre rules!”
Yes, many (MANY) authors have found success by doing just that, writing category romance novels that hew to the strict guidelines that publishers have put down. All power to those writers, because I cannot do what they do. That was a primary reason for why I stopped actively writing in the late 1990s, because I knew that A) I could not do that, and B) no publisher would want to invest in what I did want to write. I was at an impasse.
But things have changed, and one major upheaval in the publishing industry has been the widening scope of distribution coupled with the lowered costs involved in e-publishing. It’s still costs an arm and leg to get hard copy books out to the major bookstores, but it’s pretty cheap to throw an ebook up for sale. The end result is that it can be profitable to publish stories for very niche markets. The sales might not be legendary, but they will be enough to pay the author/publisher to keep going.
I did not know all of that going back into fanfiction circles in 2007. What I did find out was that no matter how outlandish I thought a story was, how unpopular it might be, it got read. A lot. One of my most popular Life on Mars (UK) stories is “Uppercut” which is told from the POV of the female lead of the show (Annie) about her developing threesome romance with the two male leads (Sam and Gene). When I wrote the story, it was an exercise in writing M/M/F fiction, something that was still under-represented in fanfic back then, as well as from the female POV, which is even now a pretty rare occurrence. It’s problematic but true: the majority of fanfic, even if it is not slash in nature, is about the male characters of a show/movie and is told from their perspective.
There were a lot of reasons for “Uppercut” to be one of my least popular stories ever, and if you look back at my original author notes on LJ for that story, you’ll see that’s exactly what I expected. I actually apologized for the story, knowing that many of my loyal reader in the LoM community were Sam/Gene OTP fans.
What still shocks me to this day is that it is one of the top three most popular LoM stories of mine. People love it, reread it, and thank me for writing it.
The truth is that I did not write it expecting it to be read, much less popular. I was curious about the dynamics and I wanted to present Annie in a more active role than she usually got in fanfic. I was worried she would be accused of being a Mary Sue, but so far that hasn’t happened. Readers genuinely like her. If I sound surprised by that, it’s because I am.
It was a very early lesson for me that what I should do as a writer is trust my instincts: write something because I want to write it, not because I’m trying to court readership.
I’m sure there are writers who find a lot of inspiration through courting readership, and the act of writing things they know people want to read is the incentive they need to write. I’m not saying that is wrong or misguided, just trying to say that if that is not the case for you, then that’s okay too, because people will still read what you write.
That lesson was liberating for me. It took a huge weight off of my shoulders that had restrained me from writing for over a decade. When I finally opened my eyes to the publishing world outside of fanfiction, I was able to have confidence that people would read what I wanted to write. Maybe not a lot of people, but enough to make the effort worthwhile.
The higher lesson here is that it is useful to know how and what you like to write, in relation to your readership. If you enjoy prompts because they not only give you a set of parameters to write within and specific goals to hit with your story, but also because you know someone out there is already excited about reading it, then you work best writing for your genre/audience. Knowing that can help you reach out to readers (and publishers) and find out what they want.
If, like me, prompts are challenging because of the restrictions they place on the story, and the idea that someone is out there who might be disappointed by what you give them, then you need to focus less on readership and more on understanding the elements that you enjoy writing about.
Neither way is the “correct” way. That concept has gone by the wayside with the emergence of new publishing paradigms. What matters is that either way, you have a readership out there, ready and willing to read your work.
That, to me, is the most inspirational idea of all.