You sure should write fan fiction and likely already have—at least partly, in your head. When you think of how a character should have acted or what you wish had have happened instead, you’re essentially starting your own fanfic. This is a brand new world of ‘what ifs’ you get to explore. How far you want to explore that world is up to you.
That’s why people write fan fiction. How to write a fan fiction can be a little trickier, and that might be what’s stopping you from doing it. We’ll cover the following questions as we work that part out:
- What’s fan fiction?
- Is it fan fiction or fanfiction?
- Can fan fiction be published?
- What publishers are fan fiction publishers?
- Is it possible to write fan fiction for money?
- Can fan fiction be protected as fair use?
So let’s get into it, shall we?
How to write a fan fiction
Where to start? Typically people get into fan fiction writing because they’re so passionate about a certain world or character that they want to see the story continue. Just because a story ends, doesn’t mean you have to end your engagement with it. Since you’ll need to be intimately familiar with the source material (what you base the story on), it’s easiest to start with a well-loved series. Most of your favourite series have their own fandoms already with engaged communities.
As a fan fiction writer, you’ll be working predominantly with a virtual audience. While I’m not saying you can’t, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be doing weekly newsletter installments à la Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, you’ll be submitting to websites like fanfiction.net and wattpad.com at a frequency that fits your life. Unsurprisingly, regular posting (once per week if possible) gets better engagement—readers can rely on when to drop by for an update and they don’t lose interest or forget important elements between postings.
(Social media engagement is an entirely different conversation, and only if you’re associating profiles with your fanfic work. Not every author wants friends and family knowing what they write for fun.)
To get into the writing itself, one of the best places you can get inspiration is other fanfic. What does the community already have interest in? Are there stories similar to yours? If yes, how is yours different? Now’s the time to put some thought into what you want to say and how you want to say it.
You don’t have to have the end in mind when you start, either. Chances are you don’t have it all figured out yet—and that’s more than okay! You’re also not under any obligation to finish. If you want to be a popular fanfic author, you’re going to alienate readers if you don’t give resolution to your stories. Give your goals some thought and consider using an alias and starting some practice stories before tackling your passion project.
If you’re serious about storytelling, you should consider approaching your writing professionally. Set time aside to do your writing and commit to a routine cycle of posting. To develop your writing skills further, take yourself to the library or invest in books about story building and grammar. Prepare for the task you’re taking on!
Of course, you’ll want to self-edit your work before you post it. Most fan fiction doesn’t get professionally edited (surprise!), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t edit it at all. Readers will give you tons of feedback you can work into future segments as well.
What is fan fiction and is it fan fiction or fanfiction?
Language is mutable and you want to employ the most commonly used phrases . . . especially when delivering to an online audience. In this case, happily, the Merriam-Webster dictionary and usage lineup for this one and say ‘fan fiction’ is the predominant version (though M-W lists fanfic as the shortform). While you’ll find fanfiction all over, Google ngrams still shows fan fiction as the more dominant term (as of this posting). Readers should understand either one, though it might be best to go with the form most frequently used in the forums and message boards of the fanfic writing community you join.
Unhelpfully, this means it’s your choice. Helpfully, this means you’re not wrong whichever way you go.
Fan fiction is a work of love. It’s a great way to improve your writing as you build out your audience if you are hoping to get picked up by a publisher, as well. Most people don’t get into fanfic writing to get paid, but there are some stunning success stories to inspire you. We’ll get into a few of those below, as well as which publishing houses published them.
There are also some cautionary words regarding copyright infringement and fair use. We’ll touch on those first, and then get into if you can make money writing fanfic or not.
Fan fiction and copyright (and fair use)
Now for the tricky part: Legalese. First, I am not a lawyer. Editors have a duty to provide the best advice possible to their clients, though, and this often includes pointing out potential legal issues in a work. The good news is: most authors accept fan fiction might come from their work. Some even embrace it. If you’re not making money off the fanfic, you’re generally good to go. And, if it’s public domain, you’ve pretty much got carte blanche.
The material you’re basing your story on is considered fair use as long as you’re not making money off of it, not depriving the source’s creator of income, and aren’t passing off the original concepts as your own.
Things change when you want to get paid because you clearly can’t sell someone else’s idea as your own. Copyright is pretty big on that, actually.
You’re using something more recent than that, aren’t you? Of course you are.
Unless you are given the rights to use the author’s source material as if it were your own (and publishers do make a mint doing that these days), you’re going to have to adjust your story if you land a publisher. More on that below.
Can fan fiction be published and is it possible to write fan fiction for money?
Yep and yep. There are popular fanfics like 50 Shades of Grey (Penguin Random House) and Wide Sargasso Sea (PRH as well). If you’re not familiar, the former is inspired by Twilight and the latter by Jane Eyre. One became a marketing triumph and the other is taught in university classrooms. Recently, After (Simon & Schuster) by Anna Todd has seen success and it’s based on the band One Direction.
Fan fiction is everywhere. You know how they say there are no new ideas? Well . . . I’m not saying there aren’t, but we do a hell of a lot of recycling and innovating with our themes. However, to make money with your fan fiction, it will have to lose any copyright overlap. Let’s get into how to attract a publisher for your fan fiction.
What publishers are fan fiction publishers?
In some ways, all of them. Again, since fan fiction covers such a wide scope of material, most publishers have published fan fiction (you can check out some of the major North American trade publishers here). Aside from the ones mentioned above, you only need look at books like The House of Silk (Hachette Book Group), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books), or Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens (Corgi, PRH UK) to see that a wide variety of publishing houses are willing to take on fan fiction.
If you want a publisher to take up your fanfic, your best bet (unless you have the right permissions) is to rewrite it. Yup. Scrub out any potentially copyrighted material so there is no chance of infringement. Most authors end up nixing their online fanfic when they get a book deal to avoid any issues. There’s a lot of grey area in terms of fair use, so consider hiring an editor to help you over some of the finer points.
Author Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments, S&S) found out the hard way about breaking copyright when she used dialogue from popular TV shows and other literary sources in her fan fiction “The Draco Trilogy” (pen name Cassandra Claire at the time). Her fan fiction got taken down when she got her book deal, but you can still catch whispers of the scandal online.
We all love quoting our fav media moments, from daytime TV to scripture. Attribute it! It doesn’t belong to you. Let your readers know your loves—it only deepens your connection to the community.
So, should you write a fan fiction? You bet. Even if it’s just your writing exercise, the process of writing something fresh yet familiar will help you reach inspired. From there, it’s your choice to decide if you’re writing this for yourself, an audience, or a publisher.