What David Montgomery Has Learned About Fanfic

David Montgomery has posted an interesting essay on his blog about what he’s learned about fanfic from the debate that has raged here the last few days:

1) Most FanFic is a violation of the copyrights of the original creators. (The main exception to this is works in the public domain, which are free for all.)

2) This violation doesn’t really amount to much and is probably not actionable in most cases.

2a) Most writers of FanFic are unaware (or don’t care) that they are violating copyrights.

2b) They aren’t making any money off it anyway.

3) There is no essential difference between writing FanFic involving Huckleberry Finn or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, other than the copyright concerns.

4) Writing FanFic is a diverting hobby for some people.

5) Writing FanFic might be of some use to its creator as a learning tool, but the writer would be a lot better off creating his/her own works, if they can.

6) Presumably FanFic is fun for some peple to read, although hardly anyone seems to be making this point. (I get the impression that FanFic has many writers, but few readers.)

7) Most FanFic is crap (Sturgeon’s Law in action), but some of it’s pretty good.

8) The sexually-oriented FanFic (slash, mpreg, etc.) is downright creepy — and there’s quite a bit of it out there.

9) One will never convince FanFic writers that they’d be better off pursuing works of their own — and they’ll get mad if you try.

And, perhaps, most importantly…

10) FanFic is not a serious thing, nor an important one, so there’s no point in treating it as such. It’s fun for those who practice it, largely harmless, probably pointless, and the discussion of it has occupied too much of my time the past couple days.

I think I’ve learned a few of the same things. I may follow his lead and post my own list in the next day or two…

32 thoughts on “What David Montgomery Has Learned About Fanfic”

    Mr. Goldberg (and David Montgomery and all other interested parties):
    The Protectors of the Plot Continuum would like to invite you to discuss fanfiction on our website, with a promise to refrain from flaming or bad manners. (We’re aware you got a rather heated reaction from the Godawful Fanfiction Boards.)
    We are, of course, eager to defend our hobby, but we also recognize that as a published author, you’re certainly entitled to your point of view. We’re a diverse group of people with many opinions on the subject, and we would welcome the chance to talk about this issue with you on our site.
    Please feel free to join us. (All writers, fan or otherwise, please check your tempers at the door!)

  2. I’ve started a thread on the PPC board for anyone who wants to join in, either to debate or simply interrogate us fanwriters. The PPC is a pretty knowledgable bunch, between the group of us, you’ll probably find someone who can explain “how” or “why” about almost any kind of fanfiction. (Even mpreg, though I myself can’t help ya there. Don’t have a clue why–and not sure I want to know!)
    It is a fun debate, if we can agree to disagree, so feel free to join in and introduce yourselves and state your case, be it for or against.

  3. 5) Writing FanFic might be of some use to its creator as a learning tool, but the writer would be a lot better off creating his/her own works, if they can.
    Writing FanFic IS of use to its creator as a writing tool, if that is what a fanfic writer wishes it to be. There is no greater tool in perfecting the art of writing … than writing. And if fan fiction inspires someone to write umpty-jillion pages of stories and poems, that is umpty-jillion pages that never would have been written without that exterior inspiration. I know darned well I never would have written as much as I have, if original work was my only outlet. Sometimes those original muses eke the words out like mashing the last squirt from a tube of toothpaste, and the silence of my little vacuum-space gets huge.
    If a writer wants to learn … fan fiction and the *communities* surrounding it can be and are the best tools s/he may have. Interesting no one has brought up ‘beta-readers’ yet, the volunteer editors and proof readers of fan fiction …
    6) Presumably FanFic is fun for some peple to read, although hardly anyone seems to be making this point. (I get the impression that FanFic has many writers, but few readers.)
    Whoops, I guess we’ve been so busy in our defensive postures that we’ve forgotten to cheer! *G*
    We LOVE reading fan fiction! Good fan fiction IS fun! If you were to scan the average large-volume fan fiction group, you would find a relatively small group of active writers surrounded by a virtual crowd of readers – or in our parlance, lurkers. They are only there to read what the writers have to share, and eagerly await each new chapter of their ongoing favorites.
    Hmm, we’ve not brought up the beauty of fan fiction reader-reviews, either, have we? That marvelous, exhilerating proof that we really do have readership – which is something that my yet-limited experience with conventional publication does not offer. Unless one is famous, a conventionaly-published writer probably never knows if anybody read and liked his/her stuff. Fan fiction, however, has an organic community that thrives on its readership, and would probably wither and die without readers and their feedback. There have been many long debates about what construes good constructive critisism, how to give it, how not to give it, and what various fic writers want to get from reader feedback. That is because our readers help our writers grow.
    YES, Virginia, there are fan fiction readers, and we really do enjoy the good stuff. πŸ˜‰

  4. Out of interest, do you ‘believe’ and back up all of his points, or do you disagree with any of them?
    And, other than that, hope to see you on the PPC Board soon. We’re a rather nice bunch, really.
    (And, high five for liking RHPS, dude. Be thankful you haven’t found some of the bad RHPS fan-fiction…)

  5. 6) Presumably FanFic is fun for some peple to read, although hardly anyone seems to be making this point. (I get the impression that FanFic has many writers, but few readers.)
    I think his impression is incorrect; a look through fanfiction.net (which I pick because it has a review function, not because stories there are generally good) would have shown that there are a lot of people commenting on stories who have never written a word themselves and (presumably) do not particularly wish to. Whether their comments are of much use is a different question. Most fanfic writers double as readers in any case.
    8) The sexually-oriented FanFic (slash, mpreg, etc.) is downright creepy — and there’s quite a bit of it out there.
    In your opinion. This appears to me to be a matter of taste; clearly there are a lot of people who like these stories or the writers wouldn’t keep on writing them. I don’t think it’s very helpful to your collective argument to categorise someone’s taste as ‘creepy’ – you may have tastes others would find equally ‘creepy’.

  6. //9) One will never convince FanFic writers that they’d be better off pursuing works of their own — and they’ll get mad if you try.//
    Yes, you’ve made me mad. Why do you two fancy ‘real writers’ simply assume that, just because you’re not making profit or are legally published, you need to be making original stories to be ‘better off’?
    Fanfiction is a hobby. Writing is a hobby. Reading is a hobby. A writer who gets frequently published becomes a published writer. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Side-note: even published writers can write crap.
    //7) Most FanFic is crap (Sturgeon’s Law in action), but some of it’s pretty good.//
    Visit a book-store, and you’ll see the same scales there. Whether fanfiction is ‘crap’ or not is a matter of opinion and taste, not because someone makes those scales up.

  7. 1) Most FanFic is a violation of the copyrights of the original creators. (The main exception to this is works in the public domain, which are free for all.)
    Actually, I believe that there is a clause about derivative works in copyright law that says we can write/draw/etc whatever as long as we don’t plaigarize. So, actually, it’s perfectly legal. Heck, J.K. Rowling even encourages fanfiction. There are authors that have completely banned all fanfiction on their works, but the great majority don’t mind.

  8. With all due respect, Mr Goldberg, if you’d like to take your head out of your own arse for a moment and look around (and maybe look up Theodore Sturgeon’s original quote while you’re at it as well), Sturgeon’s law applies to everything. Including books. And music. And television shows.
    But do most of us care? No. Fanfiction is not professional, for the most part. It is fun, and if it is fun, then essentially, it’s not completely pointless. It gives people (mostly students and teenagers, in my experience) a chance to relax, practice writing, and swap ideas with the rest of their fandom.
    Yes, there is some terrible, creepy stuff out there (has anybody mentioned Celebrian yet? I hope not), but the vast majority of fanfiction is actually quite harmless, and some of it’s even rather good.

  9. 9) One will never convince FanFic writers that they’d be better off pursuing works of their own — and they’ll get mad if you try.
    I was thinking on this last night and thought perhaps this is a point also needing address. This very topic has indeed been discussed among fandoms, and a point is frequently made. Namely – many fic writers simply do not *want* to pursue professional, mainstream publishing. Why? Because the odds of getting published are tough, the odds of rejection are high, and the odds of anyone EVER writing well enough and long enough to make a living at it, as has been suggested here, is astronomically not in favor of the writer.
    I mean, let’s look at the original-writing process. Keep in mind that many average folks simply do not have access to writers groups, and they cannot affort to galavant across the country to pricy writers conferences. They are apt to be students or working moms or hold full-time jobs that don’t permit much out-of-town travel. So … they work alone. They spend hours, weeks, months pecking away at a story, then if it’s a short story they send it to magazine editors; if a novel they send it to fiction agents. Then they wait weeks, if not months, to get a reply – which like as not will be a form-letter response that says, “Thank you for your submission but this does not fit our needs at this time.” (That’s one of my favorites.) Often there is no indication of what fault or failing the story might have had that caused rejection.
    So, the disappointed author goes over the story again, revises anxiously, and compiles a new list of prospective magazines/agents. Send again, more waiting. In the matter of novels, finding a good agent – (and finding a *good* one can be a terrifying endeavor for a new writers) – is only the first step. The process starts all over again in shopping for a book publisher. More months of waiting, worrying, anxiety – and more chances of rejection.
    The fact is, to pursue conventional publishing one must be tough, tenacious and a little bit masochistic. Rejection becomes a fact of life, before acceptance is won, since it is rare indeed that a new writer achieves any instant success. Out there in the realm of fan fiction … how many would-be writers really want to put themselves through that ringer? As I said, many are students or working moms, or otherwise have full-time occupations. The will, time and stamina to endure the real-world publishing process is not always there. Not to mention the disappointments of rejection begin to wear on a body. (And I won’t even get into the fiction magazines that either don’t reply or promptly go out of business.)
    Fan fiction, however, allows one to indulge in the creative process, to learn, grow and improve in the arts of writing and storytelling – AND fic writers are not alone! That I firmly believe is a HUGE factor in the popularity of fan fiction. A fic writer is not working in a vacuum, they are not isolated in their battle against rejection slips, they are not pouring out their hearts in their creative efforts and winning only silence. Rather, they are being read, they are being critiqued, they are being supported by fellow fans who will tell them when their writing gets it right – and when it does not. That community waits right at the fingertips, unlike the occasional support of conventional writing groups, which simply do not appear in every corner of the US or any other country.
    So the accessibility and immediacy of fan fiction is perhaps one of the major reasons why some very talented people have no desire to pursue original works. One may write original works for years before meeting success. One may write fan fiction and know within 24 hours whether their story flew or bombed. That, fellow netizens, is precious to the creative spirit. The loneliness of writing need not be absolute any more.

  10. Here’s a couple things I forgot to mention and a bit of clarification:
    1. Many fanficcers write original fiction. It’s true! I’m actually a NaNoWriMo participant, aka future novelist. A lot of us also have accounts at the aforementioned Fictionpress.
    2. We’re not all slashers and mpreg writers. Since you’ve been around GAFF, I’m sure you’ve seen the underbelly of fanfic, but there’s plenty out there that isn’t… weird like that. There’s actually a lot of very good fanfiction. I don’t like mpreg, and I’m not much for slash, either, so don’t start saying we’re all disgusting.
    3. Re your earlier comment to a GAFF poster about if we’re not making any money off fanfic so it’s legal, so then sharing music should be legal, see my earlier post about derivative works. It’s what allows us to draw fanart and write fanfiction. We are not posting the entire text of books etcetera on the internet – we’re writing our own works using the same characters.

  11. E,
    it’s not that you have to write fanfic to get reviews. The often-mentioned web site fanfiction.net has a “sister” web site called fictionpress.com (http://www.fictionpress.com) where you can publish original works without any agents AND get reviews.

    Oh, I am aware of that, Jess, and I think it is a great venue for many. πŸ™‚
    However … I will never post my Original fiction on the internet, because if I accidentally DO write something of merit, the Internet is far too easily pirated. I would never know if someone simply lifted something of mine and ran off with it in its entirety. πŸ˜‰ Plus I’m so old-fashioned that I just can’t quite accept electronic self-publishing as ‘real’. Thus my Original stuff is destined only for the world of paper and ink, and probably multiple rejection bins. πŸ™‚

  12. Thanks for the feedback, folks, I’ve enjoyed reading it.
    I didn’t think it necessary in my original list, since I thought these points were obvious, but if I were going to expand it, I would include:
    a) A lot of traditionally published work is crap.
    b) Creepy is in the eye of the beholder, but that’s no reason not to say it when you see it.
    c) Obviously everything I wrote is “just” my opinion.
    I would also add…
    d) Most FanFic writers seem to be nice folks.
    Oh, thought of another one…
    e) I used to read a little legit FanFic as a teenager — some Star Trek novels, some Star Wars stuff, a few D&D books. (Yep, I was a nerd!) As you’d expect, it was mostly dreck.
    Ooh! One more!
    f) I’m no more of a “real writer” than any other writer. Anyone who writes is a writer. (That is, after all, what the word means, right?)

  13. Heh…
    Fanfiction is a hobby or diversion for most people. A way to have fun. To improve one’s writing skills by having the rules and laws of the universe already written out. To fill in the little holes that authors leave behind with ‘maybe’ stories. To share one’s theories of ‘what if’ with other people. Fanfic writers aren’t really harming anyone.
    Now that I’ve repeated things that everyone’s already said…
    I have a handful of original characters who belong to a couple original universes (say hello to Gwen, Kit, Rumor, and H’elf) who, quite honestly, drive me up the wall. They seem to have taken on a life of their own. And, if I were to ever find that someone was writing fanfic about them, I would a) check it out, b) contemplate it, and finally, c) review it.
    What if someone were to give them all sex changes, you say? I say, with Kit, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that much, except anatomically, and more power to the person who wants to see what that would be like.
    What if someone wanted to impregnate one of them? …say, for example, Rumor? Well, as long as it’s either in wedlock or they have Kit /really/ unhappy about it, or give a good reason for neither to apply, I probably wouldn’t be too upset.
    Basically, what I’m saying is this-
    As long as the fanfic writers/authors/whatever you want to call them are reasonable and give their fics some thought, where’s the harm? It’s a way of exploring the untouched lands of the story, walking the boarders, and sometimes stepping out of them to explore the nether regions that /might/ have existed if the author had taken a different turn.
    …and I’d like to say that I’d really like to see whoever step into the PPC Board for some friendly discussion or questioning.

  14. David Montgomery, for Point F, I send you a virtual hug, and a vigorous virtual wave-and-point at Point F for Mr. Goldberg’s benefit. That is precisely the case.

  15. Number 4 had me spitting my low-fat strawberry yogurt right across the screen. The stories I could tell you would curl your toes! I am totally fangirlling you right now, Mr. Goldberg.
    I’ll go for the bucks. When last I checked getting paid for something one loves ain’t a crime. I’m likewise pretty sure the male pregnancy isn’t possible unless you’re Arnold Schwarzengger and your OB is Danny DeVito.

  16. Believe me, Maria, sane fanwriters frequently point that out to mpreg writers, but it never seems to sink in. I wish I could explain why people write that sort of dreck. Heaven knows, they give all fanwriters a bad reputation.

  17. And the ones that come up with plausible situations are generally very very wrong. *shudders*
    MPreg is, by definition, weird. Some slash is good, but it’s hard to find. For this argument I think we should all stick to Gen.
    There ain’t no defending some people…*coughcannonballcough*

  18. I like the last comment the best, that fan fic isnt something to be taken seriously. I started writing fan fic a little over a year ago. I have never had so much fun in my entire life, and I guarantee you that I would not be writing original fic. At age 50, I am not interested in establishing myself as a published writer. I want to enjoy myself in my spare time, and I DO!
    I have lots of readers, too, and I dont understand the comment about more writers than readers. I guess David Montgomery is only going by comments he has read about fan fic, and not by investigating the communities themselves.

  19. What is your definition of “good” slash? I mean, if the big rule of fanfic is to stick to the canon, how can a writer justify two heterosexual characters (ie President Bartlett & Charlie) revealing their homosexual longings for one another?

    Okay, here we go…
    The fanfiction community is widely divided on this issue. The example you suggest, in my opinion, can never be “good slash.”
    I read slash next to never, but on those rare occasions that I have, it’s been in a situation where the original story had a plot that supported the POSSIBILITY of a character or characters being gay or bisexual (in other words, a story set in a very modern/liberal/potentially-permissive society) and where there was no canon evidence to suggest that the character(s) were strictly heterosexual (ergo, Bartlett being a married man and Charlie dating Zoe renders them both un-slashable in my book.)
    I can’t justify writing it, and don’t quite get writers who can, because of the “big rule of sticking to canon.” I have no objection to homosexuality at all, but my objection to slash is just the argument you have raised: CHANGING an essential trait of a character. (Heck, if a person’s sexual orientation ain’t an essential part of their personality, I don’t know what is!)
    But that’s a canon purist’s point of view. Any slash proponents out there who can give a slasher’s opinion?

  21. //What is your definition of “good” slash? I mean, if the big rule of fanfic is to stick to the canon, how can a writer justify two heterosexual characters (ie President Bartlett & Charlie) revealing their homosexual longings for one another//
    As a slash writer, it’s time to explain it.
    I work in the Harry Potter universe, and the slash I write is crossing two adult characters, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.
    Relationships aren’t the focus in JK Rowling’s world. We know that James and Lily were together, after fighting for years, we know that Harry was attracted to Cho, but we’ve had no evidence of other relationships. So we go on subtext.
    The wolf’ship, (we call popular ideas for relationships “‘ships”) is based off the idea that Sirius and Remus, James and Peter were all very good friends, and that the affection with which Remus talks about Sirius and the pain of betrayal stems from something more than friendship. The movies really didn’t help dispell this idea – I know many a slash writer who squeed over ‘You’re like an old married couple’ from Snape .
    So this is a premise that -can- work. We go with characters who are not stated heterosexual, or those where we think they could be bisexual – look at Willow from Buffy. The writers, for want of a better word, ‘turned’ her gay, having set her up in a relationship with a boy.
    Bad slash is still possible – heck, most of it is all about writing implausible and cringeworthy sex, that degenerates into the nastier side of the ‘R’ rating.
    But good slash – I’ll use a piece I write as an example, because it’s considered ‘good’.
    I wrote about Sirius realising he had feelings for his friend, and dealing with his family’s pressure to be the proper son and heir to his name, his brother’s blackmail and the knowledge that if he told Remus, he’d get abandoned as -having done research – sex with another man was illegal under the age of 21.
    I didn’t dive into the idea of ‘men-sex’, but explored the idea of falling in love with someone, and not really understanding it. The idea that someone confronted with those feelings would be horrified with themselves, and try and contain it.
    Oh, and most of all – that slash didn’t constitute the entire plot. Because there should be underlying plot, and mine was the Black family and Bellatrix joining the Dark Lord.
    I realise that that’s using a lot of names that you won’t know if you’re unfamiliar with Harry Potter. But for other fandoms – writing good slash could mean Tara/Willow in Buffy, or hey, Angel/Spike in Angel.
    Good slash, I think, comes from looking at it _realistically_. Sex isn’t going to be all dimmed lights and soft focus cameras. It’s not going to be the result of ‘I think you’re hot, let’s go to bed’. Circumstances have to be considered. Thoughts and feelings have to be considered. The character’s position has to be considered.
    Like any other writing – it has to be executed well to be plausible.

  22. Lee Goldberg: What is your definition of “good” slash? I mean, if the big rule of fanfic is to stick to the canon, how can a writer justify two heterosexual characters (ie President Bartlett & Charlie) revealing their homosexual longings for one another?
    A Clouter’s done a reasonable job of explaining some of it, so I won’t go over the same ground, and I don’t know who President Bartlett and Charlie are, so I won’t try to address that one!
    Heterosexuality is the norm in our society, and most people will, reasonably, be straight; having said that, it is not necessarily a violation of canon to imagine that someone whose sexuality has never been explored is, or could reasonably be, gay. If your cast of characters includes more than 10 people, it is extremely likely that one or more of them will be gay, and/or that one or more of them will be bisexual. It may even be the hero – being gay is not a bar to being heroic, being intelligent or being handsome. If your cast of characters is less than ten, the chances are somewhat reduced, but it can never be entirely ruled out. You can have a cast of one, and he’s gay as in one of Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” series.
    Unless it is explicitly stated that a character is missionary-position-preferring-heterosexual the audience is free to imagine them as having any sexuality which floats their boat, from other men/women to foot fetishism, corsets, or a fondness for blow-up dolls. Even if it is stated that the character is a m-p-p-h that does not necessarily rule out same-sex experimentation, coming to a realisation that the reason why his/her relationships fail is because they’re gay or any of a thousand other possibilities.
    It is not, actually, an insult to any character for them to be portrayed as gay – I have seen that argument made, but I’m afraid I do immediately assume homophobia on the part of the person making it.
    On the other hand, it would be an insult (to most characters) if they ran off with a new partner of whatever gender without giving reasonable consideration to their previous one, if any. The exclusion is for characters who are in other ways appalling people, but there are some…well, it would probably be an improvement to imagine Voldemort (for example) doing anything that human.
    It is down to the skill of the writer to make the reader suspend disbelief, to make them accept that what they’re reading is possible and believable. But if you don’t like the idea of men getting it on, or you don’t believe that anyone has that level of skill, then don’t read slash.

  23. Heck, even mpreg can be done in a decent way (think Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Junior”). I was nine months pregnant when I saw that, and laughed so hard I went into labor. Granted, it was a lot less funny when I saw it later in a non-pregnant state, but hey…
    I think in principle, a skilled writer can pull off some pretty improbable situations (though in the overwhelming majority of slash/mpreg fanfic I see, that is not the case.)

  24. woah!
    Even if someone wanted to write about Remus Lupin sodomizing Sirius Black
    who would want to read it???!!!??
    dude, that’s wrong.

  25. Jeff, without supporting either side of the argument, it is the simple truth that RL/SB has a huge amount of readers. It’s one of the more popular pairings.

  26. “it is the simple truth that RL/SB has a huge amount of readers. It’s one of the more popular pairings.”
    Does “huge” in this context means dozens or scores? πŸ™‚
    I’ve heard that it’s to be a major sub-plot point in the next Potter book. JK Rowling recently revealed that one of the characters is going to die. Advanced word is that it involves impalement.
    (Anyone remember the opening of The Loo Sanction?)

  27. Uh…huge in that scale would probably mean in the thousands. *shudders* the Harry Potter sections are huge…and about 90% are either slash or “American girl comes to Hogwarts and falls in love with Harry. Will they defeat Voldemort? *gasps*”
    -_- Those are very, very popular…

  28. *(Anyone remember the opening of The Loo Sanction?)*
    Oh, hell, yes. I’m a Trevanian fan from way back.
    As to the post that started it all: I will agree to most of it. Where I disagree is where the author (David Montgomery) chooses to see fanfic as a lesser art form, and barely acknowledges it as that.
    Writing is writing. Simple as that. Not all people choose to make their living as writers. I’ve seen some fics (damn few, but they’re there) that would beat the snot out of the majority of commercial fic, hands down. The author of it has stated an interest in becoming a writer for pay, but in the meantime, she’s having too much fun practicing her skills, and her readers would no doubt side with her on that one.
    I have seen FAR too much drivel between covers to put commercial fic on the kind of pedestal Mr. Montgomery’s essay seems to imply.
    I own/operate a board for people who want to learn how to write better within their fandoms: p206.ezboard.com/bresponsiblewritersoffandom If you’re interested, come and check us out.


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