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The Story of How I Started Selling Stories

Improbable Press put out a call asking fan fiction authors how they went from Free to Fee. Here’s my response. Happy reading!

My parents, teachers, and acting/singing coaches will all tell you that I’ve always been a story teller. For the first twenty four years of my life, I was determined to do so through musical theatre, though I had always secretly harbored the desire to write a hit stage play. My early writing consisted of plays for my friends and I to put on, interspersed with prose that I supposed would one day become a novel, but which wasn’t my passion.

I was a big reader, but where this habit came from, I’m not certain. While my mother always had a book on the go – whatever crumbling paperback law thriller or murder mystery she’d been handed by the woman down the street when she was done it, which was then passed on to the next neighbor – my father and brothers preferred sports (either on TV or outside in the yard) over reading. I stumbled into fantasy and science fiction because Wil Wheaton was hot, and his show was on every Friday night, and from there I consumed every Star Trek tie-in novel my tiny rural library carried, then started following the authors of the novels into their other worlds and series.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that this was how I found fan fiction for the first time. My “I love this, gee, I wonder what else there is?” muscle was well developed by junior high, and before the internet had come to The Middle Of Nowhere Rural Ontario, I had already gotten quite adept at search keywords and codexes to track down more books to consume.  Imagine my shock and joy when, in the middle of my Phantom of the Opera phase (come on, fess up, you had one too), the internet in my school library told me about not only Fredrick Forsyth and Susan Kay’s stunning re-tellings, but of something called fan fiction.

I wasted a lot of the librarian’s ink and paper printing out these books and secreting them into binders and pretending to do school work at my desk or backstage between scenes. A lot. And yes, I still have most of them.

And as we all well know, the jump between reading and writing is a short when one is submerged so fully in communities of creators. Everyone else’s “What If” rubs off on you, and it’s just a matter of time before you find yourself playing with the idea of coaxing a few plot bunnies over to spend some time with you. Not everyone loves to write, but gosh darn it, if you want to give it a try, then you couldn’t ask for a better, more supportive community. It doesn’t matter how new you are to it, everyone reads, everyone comments, everyone makes suggestions. People beta read. People edit. People co-write. People cheer, and support, and recommend, and enthuse. Yeah, there are the occasional jerks, flammers, and wank-mongers, but on the whole? There’s literally no better place to learn how to be a writer than in fandom, I firmly believe this.

So, of course, born storyteller that I am, I had to give it a try.

I started writing fan fiction in 1991 for a small, relatively obscure Canadian/Luxembourg co-pro children’s show called Dracula: the Series.  I used to get up and watch it on Saturday mornings, in my PJs, before heading off to whichever rehearsal or read through or practice I had that year.

1995 brought the English dub of Sailor Moon to my life, (and put me on the path to voice acting), and along with a high-school friend, I wrote, printed out, illustrated, and bound my first “book” – a self-insert story that was just over eleven pages long, which introduced new Scouts based on us.  From there, I didn’t really stop.

1996 led me to Forever Knight and Dragon Ball Z, and from there to my friend’s basement where they’d just installed the internet. We chatted with strangers on ICQ, joined Yahoo!Groups and Bravenet Chat Boards. (Incidentally, a friend from my DBZ chat group turned out to be a huge DtS fan, too. We wrote a big crossover together which is probably only accessible on the Wayback Machine now. We stayed friends, helped each other through this writing thing, and now she’s Ruthanne Reid, author of the popular Among the Mythos series.)  In 2000 I got a fanfiction.net account and never looked back.

In 2001, while in my first year of university for Dramatic Arts, I made my first Real Live fandom friends. We wrote epic-length self-insert fics in Harry Potter and Fushigi Yuugi, cosplayed at conventions (sometimes using the on-campus wardrobe department’s terrifyingly ancient serger), and made fan art and comics in our sketchbooks around studying for our finals and writing essays on critical theory or classical Latin.  I was explaining the plot of the next big fic I was going to write to one of them, an older girl who had been my T.A. but loved Interview with the Vampire just as dearly as I, when she said, “You know, this sounds really interesting. Why don’t you strip all the fandom stuff out of the story and just write it as a novel?”

You can do that? was my first thought.

No! I don’t want to! Writing is my fun hobby. What will happen if I try to be a writer and get rejected by everyone and I end up hating it? was my second.

But the seed was planted.  Slowly at first, and then at increasingly obsessive pace, I began writing my first novel around an undergrad thesis,  fourth-year  essays,  several other big fanfics that popped me into the cusp of BNF status but never quite over the tine, and then a move to Japan to teach English. From 2002-2007 I wrote about 300 000 words on the novel that I would eventually shut away in my desk drawer and ignore until I published on Wattpad under my pseudonym on a lark. It was messy. It was long. It was self-indulgent and blatantly inspired by Master of Mosquiton, Interview with the Vampire, Forever Knight, and anything written by Tanya Huff, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Charlaine Harris. This was fine for fanfic, but in terms of being comfortable with presenting it to agents and publishing houses, I felt that it wasn’t original enough.

By this time I was teaching overseas, and in my spare time (and boy, was there a lot of spare time while sitting in a Japanese teacher’s office for 40 hours per week when one only actually teaches for 11 of them) I started applying to MA programs (where I eventually wrote my thesis on Mary Sue Fan Fiction). I also spent it researching “How to Get Published”, mostly by Googling it and/or buy/reading the few books on the topic in English I could find at the local book store or order from the just-then-gaining-international traction online bookstore Amazon.

What that research mostly told me was “Write and sell a bunch of short fiction first, so you have proof that a) you can do the work and b) you can finish what you promise you’ll finish and c) you have proof that other people think you’re worth spending money on.”

Short fiction. Huh. Of course we’d studied short stories in school, and I’d even taken a short story writing class in university, though nothing I’d written for the class was indicative of the kinds of stories I preferred to tell. But I felt pretty confident about this whole writing short stories thing… after all, I’d been doing weekly challenges for years. Drabbles. Flashfic. Stories and chapters that were limited to the word count cap that LiveJournal put on its posts. I’d written novellas without knowing that’s what they were called; I’d written whole novels about other people’s characters. All I needed was an idea. Short fiction I could do.

Unfortunately, everything that came to me was fanfic inspired. It frustrated me, because I didn’t want to write a serial-numbers-filed-off story. I wanted to write something original and epic and inspiring. Something just mine. I started and stopped a lot of stories in 2006-2007. I’d been doing NaNoWriMo for years by then, having been introduced to it in undergrad, and I was determined that this would be the year that I wrote something I could shop. Something just mine. Something unique.

While I adored fanfiction, I was convinced that I couldn’t make a career on it.  What had once been a fun hobby soon because a source of torment. Why could I think of a hundred ways to write a meet-cute between my favorite ships, but come up utterly blank when it came to something new and original and just mine?

It took me a while to realize that my playwriting and short story teachers had been correct when they said that there are no original stories in the world, no way you can tell a tale that someone else hasn’t already tried. The “Man vs.” list exists for a reason.

The unique part isn’t your story, it’s your voice. Your lived life, your experiences, your way of forming images and structuring sentences. Your choices about who the narrator character is, and what the POV will be, and how the characters handle the conflict. In that way, every piece of writing ever done is individual and unique, even the fanfic. Because nobody is going to portray that character’s quirk or speech pattern quite like you do, nobody is going to structure your plot or your imagery like you. Because there is only one of you. Only one of me. Even if we’re all writing fanfiction, no one’s story sounds like anyone else’s,  or is told like anyone else’s.

That is the reality of being a storyteller.

And strangely enough, the woman who opened my eyes to this was a psychic from a psychic fair I attended, who told me that Mark Twain was standing over her shoulder admonishing me to stop fretting and just get something on the page – but to never forget character. My strength, she said that he said, was in creating memorable, well written, well rounded characters. And that my book should focus on that above concerns of plot or pacing.

Well, okay. If Mark Twain says that’s what my strength is, then that’s what my strength is, right? Who am I to argue with the ghost of Mark Freaking Twain?

An accident with a bike and a car on a rice patty left me immobile for six weeks in 2006, and I decided that if I was finally going to write this original short story to sell – especially since I would need income, as the accident made it obvious that I would never be able to dance professionally, and probably would never be able to tread the boards in musicals – now was the perfect time. I was going to stop fighting my fannish training and write.

I cherry picked and combined my favorite aspects of Doctor Who, Stargate: Atlantis, Torchwood, The Farm Show/The Drawer Boy, and my own melancholy experiences with culture shock and liminal-living in a foreign culture, and wrote a novella titled (Back). It was a character study of a woman named Evvie who, through an accident of time travel, meets the future version of her infant daughter Gwen. And realizes she doesn’t like the woman her daughter will become. It was a story about accepting people for who they are, instead of who you wish they would be, and had a strong undercurrent of the turbulence I was going through in trying to figure out my own sexuality and that I wouldn’t have the future in performance that I had been working toward since I was four.

Deciding that I would worry about where I would try to publish the story after it had been written, I sat down and wrote what ended up being (at least for me) a pretty standard-length fanfic: 18,762 words. It was only after I had finished the story that I looked up what category that put it in – Novella. Using paying  reputable markets, like Duotrope, the Writer’s Digest, MSFV, Absolute Write, SFWA, my local Writer’s Union, Writer Beware, I realized that I had shot myself in the foot.

It seems like nearly nobody publishes novellas anymore. SF/F and Literary Fiction seem to be the last two bastions of the novella, and the competition to get one published is fierce.  The markets that accepted SF/F novellas was vanishingly thin I had to do a lot of Googling and digging to figure out who I could submit to with an unagented/unsolicited SF/F novella. If I recall correctly, it was only about ten publications. I built an excel database and filled it with all the info I found.

I put together a query letter and sent it off using my database to guide me. Most of the rejections were kind, and said that the story was good, just too long/too short/ too sci-fi-y/not sci-fi-y enough. Only one market offered on it – for $10 USD. Beggers couldn’t be choosers, even if I had hoped to make a little more than ten bucks, and I accepted.

It was a paid professional publication, and that’s what mattered to me. I had the first entry on my bibliography, and something to point to in my query letters to prove that I was a worthy investment for a publisher/agent.

And energized by this, and now aware that length really does matter, even in online-only publications, I started writing other shorts to pad out my bibliography more.

I tried to tailor these ones to what my research told me the “mainstream industry” and “mainstream audiences” wanted, and those stories? Those were shot down one after the other. I was still writing fanfiction at the time, too, and those stories were doing well, getting lots of positive feedback, so why weren’t my stories?

In 2007 I returned to Canada and Academia, frustrated by my lack of sales, desperate to kick off my publishing career, and feeling a creative void left by having to depart theatre because of my new difficulties walking. I wrote my MA, and decided that if (Back) was the only original story that people liked, then I’d try to expand it into a novel.

Over the course of two years I did my coursework, and  read everything there was to read about how to get a book deal, started hanging out in writer’s/author’s groups in Toronto and met some great people who were willing to guide me, and expanded (Back) into the novel Triptych. I kept reminding myself what Mark Twain said – character was my strength, the ability to make the kind of people that other writers wanted to write stories about, a skill I’d honed while writing fanfic. Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? Sure, we write fix-its and AUs and fusions and finish cancelled shows, and fill in missing scenes, but what we’re all really doing is playing with characters, isn’t it? Characters draw us to fanfic, and characters keep us there. Characters is what we specialize in.

Fanfic had taught me to work with a beta reader, so I started asking my fic betas if they’d like a go at my original novel. Fellow fanfic writers, can I just say how valuable editors and beta readers in the community are? These are people who do something that I’ve paid a professional editor thousands of dollars to do for free out of sheer love. Treasure your beta readers, folks. Really.

“It reminds me a lot of fan fiction,” one reader said. “The intense attention to character and their inner life, and the way that the worldbuilding isn’t dumped but sprinkled in an instance at a time, like, you know, a really good AU. I love it.”

Dear Lord. I couldn’t have written a better recommendation or a more flattering description if I’d tried. Mark Twain was right, it seems. And fanfic was the training ground, for me – my apprenticeship in storytelling.

Of course… what Mr. Twain hadn’t explained is that character-study novels just don’t sell in SF/F. They say Harry Potter was rejected twelve times? HA. I shopped Triptych to both agents and small presses who didn’t require you to have an agent to publish with them, and I got 64 rejections. Take that, J.K.

At first the rejection letters were forms and photocopied “no thanks” slips. But every time I got feedback from a publisher or agent, I took it to heart, adjusted the manuscript, edited, tweaked, tweaked, tweaked. Eventually, the rejections started to get more personal. “I loved this character, but I don’t know how to sell this book.” And “I really enjoyed the read, but it doesn’t really fit the rest of our catalogue.” And “What if you rewrote the novel to be about the action event that happens before the book even starts, instead of focusing solely on the emotional aftermath?”

In other words – “Stop writing fanfiction.” There seemed to be a huge disconnect between what the readership wanted and what the publishing world thought they wanted.

Disheartened, frustrated, and wondering if I was going to have to give up on my dreams of being a professional creative, I attended Ad Astra, a convention in Toronto, in 2009. At a room party, complaining to my author friends that “nobody wanted my gay alien threesome book!” a woman I didn’t know asked me about the novel. We chatted, and it turned out she was the acquisitions editor for Dragon Moon Press, and incidentally, also a fan of fan fiction.

I sent her Triptych. She rejected it. I asked why. She gave me a laundry list of reasons. I said, “If I can address these issues and rewrite it, would you be willing to look at it again?” She said yes. She was certain, however, that I wouldn’t be able to fix it. I spent the summer rewriting – while making sure to stay true to my original tone of the novel, and writing a character-study fanfiction. I sent it in the fall. I do believe it was Christmas eve when I received the offer of publication.

From there, my little fic-inspired novel was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards and a CBC Bookie, was named one of the best books of 2011 by the Advocate, and garnered a starred review and a place on the Best Books Of The Year at Publishers Weekly.

The award nominations led me to an agent, and further contracts, and even conversations with studio execs. It also made me the target of Requires Only That You Hate, and other cranky, horrible reviewers. But you know what? I’ve had worse on a forum, and on ff.n, and LJ. It sucked, and it hurt, but if there’s one thing fandom has taught me, it’s that not everyone is going to love what you do, and not everyone interprets things the same way you do. The only thing we can do is learn from the critique if it’s valid and thoughtful, and ignore the screaming hate and bullying. Then you pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and go write something else.

Because a screaming hater? Is not going to ruin my love of storytelling.

But for all that… the day someone made me fan art based on Triptych is one etched in my memory. It means far more to me than any of the emails I ever received inquiring about representation or film rights, or wanting meetings to discuss series.

The lesson I learned from publishing Triptych  – now sadly out of print, but we’re looking for a new home for it – is that if I chase what the “mainstream” and the “industry” want, I’ll never write anything that sells because my heart won’t be in it. I have to keep writing like a fanficcer, even if I’m not writing fanfic, if I want to create something that resonates with people. And if it takes time for the publishers and acquiring editors to figure out what I’m doing, and how to sell it, then fine – I have an agent on my side now, and a small growing number of supporters, readers, and editors who love what I do.

Do I still write fanfic? Very, very rarely. I’ve had some pretty demanding contracts and deadlines in the last two years, so I’ve had to pare down my writing to only what’s needed to fulfill my obligations. Doesn’t mean I don’t have ideas for fics constantly.

Sometimes the urge is powerful enough that I do give into it – I wrote To A Stranger, based on Mad Lori’s Performance in a Leading Role Sherlock AU recently, when I should have been writing the second and third novels of The Accidental Turn Series. And even more recently, I cleaned up To A Stranger  into something resembling a real screenplay and started shopping it around to film festivals and producers because I love this story, I love what I did with it, and I’m proud of the work. If To A Stranger is only ever a fanfic, that’s fine with me. I poured my heart into it and am so proud of it. But I figure that if there’s one more project I could possibly get into the real world, then why not go for it?

The worst thing the festival heads and producers can say about the work is: “No, thank you.” And being an online writer has taught me not to take the “no, thank you”s personally. Applying the values of Don’t Like Don’t Read or Not My Kink to your publication/agent search makes it much easier to handle the rejections – not every story is for every person.

Maybe once every producer in North America has rejected it, I might think about working with someone to adapt the screenplay into an illustrated comic fanbook? Who knows?

That’s the joy of starting out as a writer in fandom – felixibility, adaptability, creative problem-solving and cross-platform storytelling comes as naturally as breathing to us fan writers. It’s what we do.

You may not think that this is a strength, but trust me, it is. I was never so shocked at an author’s meetup as when I suggested to someone that their “writer’s block” sounded to me like they were telling the story in the wrong format. “I think this is a comic, not a novel,” I’d said. “It sounds so visual. That’s why the story is resisting you.” And they stared at me like I suddenly had an extra head and said, “But I’m a novelist.” I said, “No, you’re a writer. Try it.” They never did, as far as I know, and they never finished that book, either.

As fans, our strength isn’t just in what we write, or how we come to our stories. It’s also about the physical practice of writing, too. We’re a group of people who have learned to carry notebooks, squeeze in a few hundred words between classes, or when the baby is napping, or during our lunch breaks, or on commute home. This is our hobby, we fit it in around our lives and jobs, and that has taught us the importance of just making time.

We are, on average, more dedicated and constant writers than some of the “novelists” that I’ve met: the folks who wait for inspiration to strike, who quit their day jobs in pursuit of some lofty ideal of having an office and drinking whiskey and walking the quay and waiting for madam muse to grace them, who throw themselves at MFAs and writing retreats, as if it’s the attendance that makes them writers and not the work of it.

We fans are career writers. We don’t wait for inspiration to come to us, we chase it down with a butterfly net. We write when and where we can. More than that, we finish things. (Or we have the good sense to know when to abandon something that isn’t working.) We write to deadlines. Self-imposed ones, even.

We write 5k on a weekend for fun, and think NaNoWriMo’s 50k goal and 1667 words per day are a walk in the park. (When I know it terrifies some of the best-selling published authors I hang out with.) Or if we fans don’t write fast, then we know that slow and steady works too, and we’re willing to stick it out until our story is finished, even if it takes years of weekly updates to do so. We have patience, and perseverance, and passion.

This is what being a fanfiction writer has given me. Not only a career as a writer, but tools and a skill-set to write work that other people think is work awarding, adapting, and promoting. And the courage to stick to my guns when it comes to telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell.

This is what being a fanfiction writer gives us.

Aren’t we lucky, fellow fans? Hasn’t our training been spectacular?

*

J.M. (@scifrey) is a SF/F author, and professional smartypants on AMI Audio’s Live From Studio 5. She’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. Her debut novel TRIPTYCH was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards,  nominated for a 2011 CBC Bookie, was named one of The Advocate’s Best Overlooked Books of 2011, and garnered both a starred review and a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly. Her sophomore novel, an epic-length feminist meta-fantasy THE UNTOLD TALE (Accidental Turn Series #1), debuted to acclaim in 2015 and was followed by THE FORGOTTEN TALE (Accidental Turn Series #2) this past December. FF.N | LJ |AO3| Books | Tumblr

 

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