Words for Writers: The Book(s) That Influenced Me Most Isn’t a Book At All

I was in a Narrative Inquiry/Memoire class during my MA; we were asked to give a talk about the book that influenced us most. While cleaning up my office, I found my presentation.


I found fan fiction in 1991. I was very young, and outside of a classroom, it was the first time in my life I had ever tried to write a story.

For those not in the know, Fan fiction is stories written by fans for fans.  The stories are based on/in and usually include the canonical intellectual properties and media texts of other creators (i.e. books, movies, comics, plays, etc.).  In recent years, large archiving websites have popped up to accommodate this trend in plagiaristic creative writing and art.  The quality of these stories can differ wildly, as anyone with a computer, a few free hours, and an imagination can write and then upload their fan fictions.

Fan fiction has a long history.  The Bronte sisters wrote fan fiction about the Duke of Wellington. Even earlier than that, new stories were being added to the oral narrative A Thousand and One Nights. with each successive telling. Shakespeare cannibalized popular tales and histories of his day to create his own plays. While fan fiction of one sort or another has existed for as long as story telling has, it did not gain the mass popularity it currently holds until the 1960s when the advent of Star Trek fanzines. These first fanzines became the basis for the online fan fiction archives and fanzines as we know them today, though the well of source texts has expanded to include not only Star Trek and its various se- and prequels, but literally thousands of other television series, movies, books, songs, and comics.

And that’s just the stuff that isn’t in bookstores.  Geraldine Brook’s March, the imagined adventures of the absent father in Little Women, and won the National Book Award in 2007. Gregory Maguire has made a career out of intelligent, subtle, and well-written fan fiction, basing books on the untold stories of popular fairy tales and fantasy novels. In 2007, the Great Ormand Street Hospital, copyright holder for J.M. Barrie’s children’s classic Peter Pan authorized a sequel titled Peter Pan in Scarlet. And there are enough Jane Austen variations, revamps, rewrites, sequels, prequels, and parodies to fill a whole bookshelf themselves.

In her 2004 article Works In Progress, Natasha Walter writes that “fan fiction is generally derided as a semi-literate, usually pornographic genre providing nothing but in-jokes for geeks”, but in re-writing, re-contextualizing, by playing in and with, “by putting in the sexuality, the humour and the irony that the original tales often lack, these writers can change the way some readers see the works, and not always negatively…  Indeed,” she presses, when it comes to fan fiction, the internet is giving us back “something like an oral society, in which people can retell the stories that are most important to them and, in so doing, change them… they remind us that the power of these fantasy worlds are not built just on profit and loss, but on imagination responding to imagination”.

Fan fiction is stories re-storied. Fan fiction is offered freely and happily to readers to read, investigate, and re-re-story. A participatory readership that is involved with the continual renegotiation of their own stories, and the stories of the worlds and characters of which they are fans, through re-storying said worlds and characters, and thus themselves.

Fan fiction exists to create a space in which a dialogue which is missing from the subjectivity of the canon can be addressed.  In closely reading, and critiquing the elements of a canonical offering, fans are able to point out gaps in subject and subject positions, but it is through fan fiction that said issues are able to be confronted, addressed, worked with, and written though. Ika Willis, in her essay Making Room For Mary Sue At Hogwarts, says that fan fiction, “as a sharing, as a making legible of these difficult negotiations between subjectivity and textuality, these complicated subject/text/world relations, is a way of reassuring each other that we have what Barthes calls the ‘immoral right’ to make and circulate meanings”.

And as Henry Jenkins has so eloquently in Textual Poachers: “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations, rather than the folk.”

Taking in, changing, ripping apart and making patchwork bodies of stories offered to me, stories that I woke to, stories that make me up and stories that fan fiction taught me, that is what makes me get up every morning and open my laptop.

It was the early days of internet fan fiction archives, and much of it was on community boards, chat rooms, yahoo groups, archived on personal websites, and in e-newsletters.  While not strictly books themselves, fan fiction is my inspiration, my literary comfort food, my springboard, my practice hall, and my greenhouse.

As a new writer, the fan fiction community welcomed me, taught me how to edit and beta, work with critiques, build long narratives and yes, even how to handle trolls. Every professional skill I have as a writer came from my start in fan fiction.

So, the book that inspires me, keeps me going, gets me through a difficult moment, or evening, or month, the book that opens my eyes, and gives me fresh ways to look at old and stale stories, helps me work through touch scenes and a drought in inspiration… isn’t a book at all. Its a hundred books. Its a million books. It’s every story of every length by every fan fiction writer out there. Ever.

I’ve said before in my blog post Refilling the Creative Well, that


one of the joys of reading fanfiction is that I already know I love the characters and worlds. The fandom settles over me like a warm sweater, the jumper from university that I’ve had for ten years, whose little whorls and pulls and pilled pile I know intimately; I know who these people are, I know where and when they are, and I understand the shorthand of place and setting. Even when the story is an AU or a crossover, the core of the story and the characters remains the same, and that is a comfort. It is home cooking, Mom’s favourite dishes, and I know I will enjoy the meal and not be stuck trying to figure out which fork I’m supposed to be using at the fancy new restaurant. I feel safe reading these stories, and the anxiety of not like the setting or the characters is absent.

I find the writing incredibly fresh. Most of the writers are not professionals. They don’t do this for a living. They don’t have word counts to hit every day, and editing deadlines, and editors/agents/marketing teams guiding their projects. I’m not implying that professional writing is stale or formulaic, only that the modes and motivations of creation inevitably must inform the creation.

Fanfiction writers are truly free to write whatever they want, at whatever pace they want. And the way that some of these writers – either because they know the rules and choose to deliberately break them, or because they don’t know the rules and they are breaking them without knowing it and creating something new and glorious – assemble narratives is stunning.

I intensely enjoy the play aspect of fanfiction. Playing with format, with character, with setting, with narrative, with logic, with the rules. I love how fanfiction can focus on minutiae; how a writer can devote 100 or 100,000 on a character study, how conventions and expectations can be inverted, subverted, and reverted.

I become invigorated. I want to try out some of the things I’ve learned, apply them to my words-on-a-page format of my novels and see if I can make it work. I want to play within the worlds in my head.

I write speculative fiction.

Speculative fiction exists to investigate, to flay open humanity, to explore our deepest hurts and most soaring elations, to celebrate and to condemn us, to be every bit as human as we; to discuss the now by putting it then. Speculative Fiction beckons to the creative, the open-minded and the open-hearted, the imaginers and the wishful thinkers and the honest critics.  I think, I hope that artists who grow up on speculative fiction can’t help but work on speculative fiction, and in doing so think the best of humanity, in humanity’s ability to grow, to learn, to persist. That hope can’t help but shine through in everything they do.

And I also love to play within Grand Narratives. These are the great stories which we are born into and the stories through which our view of the world is shaped. They are the tales that reinforce our hegemonic identities. They are the stories of wolves and little girls and lost shoes told to us at our grandmother’s knee that teach us how to behave, but they are also the cultural stories that shape the way we interact with others, the stories that make us value certain actions over others, that make us dress and behave according to an unconsciously imbibed social code. These are the sacred stories that I hope to not only make mundane in articulating them, but to blaspheme them so wholly that anyone looking to invest in them must take careful steps around the soot to make certain that the choices they make are the ones they want, and not the ones to which they have simply awakened.

I want to use these stories to teach, to knowingly show people the constructedness of their own assumptions and values. I invite them to peer closely at the sacred and wonder why it is so untouchable.  I ask them to reconsider the Grand Narrative in which they situate themselves, and try to shift around in the three dimensional of their own lives and try to peer out at the world through a new facet of the lenses that the Grand Narrative clamps across their eyes. To see the underside of the iceberg before the tip.

Looking back to the first story I ever wrote, that fan fiction, I can see the reflection of the self that I was, and the image of seeds being sewn for the person I am today. Because the tradition of fan fiction sets it as the genre in which we as writers are able to insert what’s missing, what’s deleted; we can speak with the voice that has been silenced, or ignored; we can use the building blocks of the familiar and shift them to tell stories about the unknown, the rarely heard of, the ailments and the struggles and the frustrations that we, ourselves face in our everyday lives; we can explore, extrapolate, swap, shift, crossover, alternate and play. We are the ones who get to say, “Yeah, but what if…?”

These what ifs are the hallmark of fan fiction writers, people who use other people’s stories to tell their own.  Like spiders, fan fiction writers take a little bit from here, a little bit from there, and pull everything together, making a web that is supported by many different fictional universes, modes of creating, and social theories.

Speculative fiction television programs, books, and films taught me that there were stories out there, stories that were sacred to other people, stories that were so unaccountably different from my own.  Worlds where the stories said that women were supposed to be the warriors, men the homemakers, or where men and women were equal in all things, stories where all kinds of love were viable and accepted, stories where everything that we hold religiously sacred was filthy or secular or vice versa, stories where sexual power struggles are on a hierarchy of preference for sexual dominance or submissiveness rather than on biological sex, stories where the ancient myths are fact, and scientific facts are magic.

Speculative fiction opened my eyes to the malleability of stories. And Fan fiction taught me how to put on the gloves and goggles and hold the hot metal and whack it into new shapes with a hammer.  Worlds where the sacred stories are melted down and reformed, or are bent out of all recognizable shapes, or shattered to pieces.

But still, there’s always been this sort of… I don’t know, guiltiness to admitting that I am a current fan fiction reader, and was formerly a fan fiction writer. (I say “formerly” simply because the time I want to spend on my own projects has become too demanding for me to also write fanfic. Sadly. Maybe one day I’ll have time again.)  Fifty Shades of Grey has propelled reading torrid romances and steamy erotica out of the realm of sneaky private baths and false covers to holding such books proudly on the subway.

Perhaps someday soon news presenters and chat show hosts will stop mocking, teasing, and forcing fan creations onto actor/writer/directors to shock reactions out of them (and shame on them! Taking that work out of context and without permission is vile) and will instead see that fan creators are the world’s next pro creators, like New Statesman writer Laurie Penny does.

Fan fiction is a hot house and creative writing school for young, new, enthusiastic talent. And there should be no shame, no guilt, no fear in that. Maybe it just takes people like me standing up and saying, “Hey, look. This matters! This is important, and it is a vital new way to tell stories!”

Well, then.

Here I go.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: The Book(s) That Influenced Me Most Isn’t a Book At All