International Fanworks Day: Christina Lauren, Andrew Shaffer and Cecilia Tan Talk Fandom

Toomorrow, February 15, the Organization for Transformative Works is celebrating its first annual International Fanworks Day with events ranging from a live chat that took place last weekend to a drabble/drawble challenge this weekend.

To help them celebrate, we asked three of our favorite transformative works authors — Christina Lauren, Andrew Shaffer (a double favorite since he used to be one of our reviewers!), and Cecilia Tan —  to sit down and chat with us a little about their feelings and participation in fandom, fanworks, and what transformative works bring to literature.

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Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in fandom. For Andrew, tell us a little bit about how you got started writing Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. Was this the first time you waded into a fandom for parody?

Lauren of Christina Lauren: I had been a member of the Buffy and Alias fandoms for several years—as a reader/lurker only—before reluctantly reading (and being totally sucked into) Twilight. I was unsatisfied with the way the series ended and went looking for fanfic; when I didn’t find what I wanted, I decided to write it myself. It was the first fic I ever wrote. It was a surprisingly steep spiral after that.

Christina of Christina Lauren: I’d finished the series just before having surgery and sort of stumbled on Twilighted during my recovery. Again: a very steep spiral. We’ve both written for other fandoms—Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and have written for a few other fandoms just for fun that we never intend to post online.

Andrew Shaffer: After hearing a lot of hype about Fifty Shades of Grey, I was disappointed in the actual books. There seemed to be a disconnect between the hype and the quality of what was being hyped, if that makes sense. I’d read plenty of erotic romance books, most of which were better written than Fifty Shades. As a fan of erotica and romance, it was a little embarrassing to see Fifty Shades being the book that broke through into the mainstream. It was clumsily written. It reinforced every stereotype about romance novels that non-romance readers probably held.

On the other hand, many Fifty Shades readers used it as a jumping off point. They delved further into the world of romance and erotica. They didn’t deserve to be made fun of, in my opinion. I was seeing a lot of book-shaming going on, like, “How can you read Fifty Shades? It’s terrible!” Maybe the books were terrible, but if you give new readers space and welcome them, they’ll find better things. We all have to start somewhere. That’s where the idea for Fifty Shames of Earl Grey came from. Earl Grey, the hero, has fifty things he’s ashamed of, from listening to Nickelback to reading romance novels.

I think most writers start off writing fan fiction, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Did you play with action figures or dolls as a kid? Then you were “writing” fan fiction! I wrote and illustrated my own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics when I was in the fourth grade. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a parody of Justice League of America called “Junkie League.” I continued writing and illustrating parodies (and original comics), but stopped creating fan fiction. As a teenager or adult, I wrote mostly prose—but, again, no fan fiction as far as I can recall.

I learned a lot about the world of fan fiction (specifically, Twilight fan fiction) while writing Fifty Shames. The passion of fan fiction writers astounds me. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that much of a fan of anything in my life. I recently tried writing some BBC “Sherlock” fanfic, and stopped after about 1,000 words. I can’t fathom writing 100k words in someone else’s universe, all without a financial reward. Maybe this is because I write professionally, and depend on my words to earn their keep in a monetary sense. I am in awe of anyone who writes fan fiction for fun. The sense of community is inspiring. Lots of critiquing and commenting going on. I can see how “pulling to publish” mucks things up, to a degree. I don’t see any legal issues with pulling to publish, but the ethical issues and questions are endless.

Cecilia Tan: I’ve been in general science fiction/fantasy fandom since the 1980s: the first convention I attended was Noreascon 3 in 1990. But the first “single” fandom I fell headlong into and wrote a ton of fanfiction for was Harry Potter. I resisted the pull of it for a long time because I was already a professional writer and “didn’t have time.” Then my career hit a slump and in 2006-2007 I did something nutty like wrote over a million words of Harry Potter slash. I no longer considered it a waste of time since, if publishers weren’t buying my work, I had to do SOMETHING to keep my writing muscles in shape, right?

What makes writing for fandom — or even more complicated, a parody of a work with fan fiction roots — different than writing original fiction?

CL: This seems like a simple question, but it’s really not. Starting with someone else’s characters isn’t trivial, actually; it gets you pretty far into the game. Not only are you assuming a certain knowledge about each of the characters and how they relate to the world, you’re also writing for a fandom that has mostly decided how they feel about said characters. With beloved protagonists, readers forgive a lot more: in the case of Twilight, Edward can be abusive, cold, deadbeat or any manner of hot mess and readers want to believe that deep down he’s good and loves Bella. Likewise, it’s often difficult to successfully transform villains into beloved protagonist. When writing original fiction, authors need to anticipate and build those reader reactions themselves. Until we started writing original fiction, we didn’t fully appreciate how much of our efforts would be spent simply developing our characters.

Moreover, when you don’t have to worry about character development you can focus on moving the story forward quickly, jumping in at any point in the journey, or even just messing around learning how to write (first versus third person POV, past versus present tense, etc). This is what makes fanfic a safe space, in some ways, because it’s a good place to get your feet wet.

On a more basic level, readers may be more forgiving of a lack of editing or awareness of basic fiction rules (e.g. we slaughtered dialogue tags for at least 2 years). Fanfic writers also get immediate feedback from their readers. Writing fanfic is done for the joy of it, brings us together, and can happen on our own schedule. This is sometimes true for writing original, but there is also an expectation there—I want to publish, I need to publish—that is usually not present when writing fic for fun.

AS: When you’re parodying fan fiction, you have the opportunity to parody the original fiction it’s based on as well. In Fifty Shames, for instance, I poked fun at Twilight. However, I thanked Stephenie Meyer in my acknowledgments for her inspiration. If I recall correctly, E.L. James doesn’t thank Meyer in her books.

CT: There’s a much more mutual relationship between writers and readers–a much more equal relationship. Everyone’s on the same level and participating in a community sense, as opposed to the lone author whose missives issue down to the lowly readers from her ivory tower. When you write professionally you work in a vacuum a lot. In fandom, you write in a crowd.

What differentiates your fandom audience from the audience for anything else you write?

CL: The type of people who were reading our fic are the same type of people who are reading our original works—women and men of all ages and occupations. Our current audience still includes many of these former fic readers, but even more who didn’t know us before, or who may not even know what fic is.

AS: The audience for parodies is quite different than the audience for the other things I write. A parody appeals mainly to two groups of people, those who either love or hate the material being parodied. I wrote Fifty Shames so that it could conceivably stand on its own, but readers who pick it up usually have some familiarity with Fifty Shades. I knew that would probably be the case going into it. For years, people have recommended that I read Bored of the Rings because it’s so funny. I’ve never read Lord of the Rings, so why would I read the parody? I think a lot of readers have the same attitude. Therefore, if you’re going to parody something, it has to be big. It has to have sold millions of copies.

CT: I think it’s likely my fandom audience is just the vocal tip of the iceberg, while the vast remainder of the audience is a lot like them, just not as connected to me directly. Thousands of people bought my last romance novel at Target. I have no way of knowing who those folks are unless they come talk to me on Twitter!

What can authors learn from writing for fandom? For Andrew, what can you tell writers about what makes a good source material for parody?

CL: Writing fanfic not only teaches us how to write—basic rules of grammar, story structure, pacing, plot arcs—but skills beyond the written word: how to conduct yourself in an online forum, how to accept criticism, how to create and maintain an online presence. We often say that every published author should go through fandom bootcamp first, because one of the best and worst things about online communities is that reader’s don’t filter their criticism. Although sometimes it can be harsh (and often not very constructive), it teaches writers to learn what to heed and what to ignore, how to integrate feedback into the editing process, and how to figure out what resonates with readers.

AS: A book that’s critically acclaimed but hasn’t sold many copies isn’t going to be a good target for parody. Like I said, it has to have sold millions of copies—at least if you want to sell a decent number of copies of your parody. And by “decent,” we’re talking a couple of thousand.

Having said all of that, I don’t think any book is “off limits” as far as parodies go. If you’re not concerned about sales, you could parody pretty much anything. The more serious a book takes itself, the more it lends itself to parody. You’d have a difficult time parodying a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, which is already humorous. Fifty Shades wasn’t easy to parody, actually, because I found the books unintentionally funny.

CT: I found it much easier to be experimental in my writing when writing fanfic. Because the readers already have the knowledge of the world and setting and we have a common basis, I could stretch myself and do things fictionally that I wasn’t doing in my pro novels. Doing that experimentation, and seeing exactly how readers reacted to it, how it moved them (or didn’t) because of the ways fans interact and comment on the work, really led me to “level up” my writing. Because of course I then worked to figure out how I could achieve the same effect even with original fiction where the audience isn’t familiar with it. My writing has much more emotional urgency and plays with the mind of the reader much, much more than it used to thanks to the lessons I learned writing for fandom.

You can find Christina Lauren’s latest, “Beautiful Beloved” on sale now. Andrew Shaffer’s latest parody, Gone Grey, is serialized on Wattpad, or you can download it free from his site. Cecilia Tan’s ongoing serialization, Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, can be found on her site. Thanks to all our authors for talking to us, and Happy International Fanworks Day!

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