An Author’s Guide to Fan Fiction

by Jami Gold on May 31, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Lighthouse at night

Recent events have brought fan fiction out of the hidden realm of über-fans and into mainstream media.  For the first time, many authors are learning of the existence of fan fiction and wondering how it might affect them.

Let’s take a look at what fan fiction is, what it means to authors, and what they can—or should—do about it in regards to their work.  Most importantly, we’ll talk about why authors should care.

What Is Fan Fiction?

Fan fiction (also known as fanfic) refers to stories written by fans about the characters, situations, or world of existing works created by others.  Some fans of movies, TV shows, and books want the story to live on in their head.  Maybe they relate strongly to a character.  Maybe they wanted the story to end a different way.  Or maybe they imagine the characters in a different situation.

In that regard, many authors feel honored by fanfic.  The fact that someone wrote fanfic for their work means that something about their story resonated strongly with readers.  Most authors consider that feeling of connection a good thing.

Websites such as fanfiction.net exist for fans to share their stories.  The fanfic authors post their version of the characters and world, and readers can comment on the story, giving feedback or encouragement.  Most fanfic stories include a disclaimer stating that the characters and world belong to the original author and that no copyright infringement is intended.

Even so, some authors get uncomfortable when they think about those fanfic stories being shared with others.  Will someone else’s take on the story affect how readers feel about their characters?  Will readers get confused between the real version and the fanfic version of events?  What if a fanfic author’s version of the characters offends the original author?

Is Fan Fiction Legal?

According to U.S. copyright law, the original author has exclusive rights to develop derivative works based on their stories, characters, or worlds.  And U.S. copyright law defines derivative works as “work based upon one or more preexisting works.”  That “based upon” phrase is pretty broad.

The LegalZoom website advises users that derivative work “is a new, original product that includes aspects of a preexisting, already copyrighted work.”  That “includes aspects of” phrase is similarly broad.

The Chilling Effects website states that the prevailing rule seems to be that the more detailed a character, setting, or plot is, the more those elements are copyrightable separate from the original work.  Aspects that are “distinctly delineated” are protected even if the general copyright for the story as a whole doesn’t apply.  This means generic plots (boy meets girl) or characters (sidekick) are not copyrightable on their own, but that the main characters or specific plot details might have copyright protection in addition to the overall copyright of the original work.

In general, the courts try to balance protecting copyright and allowing creative uses of copyrighted work.  The courts also take into consideration the marketing activities of the fanfic author.  If the fanfic is purely non-commercial, the courts are more lenient than if the fanfic author attempts to profit off their work.

In other words, legal challenges in regards to derivative works have limited precedents and aren’t black-and-white decisions.  And of course, copyright issues are entirely different in other countries.

How Do Recent Developments Change the Fan Fiction Landscape?

For most of fanfic history, everyone understood that fanfic authors shouldn’t make money off their work.  Not only is profiting off fanfic disrespectful to the original author, but it weakens the fanfic author’s defense in any copyright claims.

However, fanfic is currently in the news because the bestselling-series-slash-major-media-story Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James started as Twilight fanfic.  James took the characters of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books (and movies), swapped out Seattle for Twilight’s Forks setting, and gave the hero a BDSM background instead of Twilight’s vampire world-building.

The success of these books has many fanfic authors wondering if they should publish their fanfic works for profit as well.  The Twilight fanfic fandom is being torn apart by this issue, as many come down strongly on the side of “profiting from fanfic is unethical” and others believe that the fanfic author deserves something for their work.

Many people wondered how Stephenie Meyer would react to the situation.  Would she take James to court?  This week, she answered questions from MTV News about the Fifty Shades of Grey books. Her response?  “I’ve heard about it … Good on her — she’s doing well. That’s great!”

Legally, that comment doesn’t mean she (or her publisher, or the movies’ Summit Entertainment, or her estate after she dies) won’t take the issue to court somewhere down the line, but it looks less likely.  Her decision will likely further push the fanfic community toward an attitude of “profitability is okay.”

What Does This Mean for Authors?

In some respects, these changing attitudes are yet another indication of how the creative writing process is underappreciated.  We have book pirates claiming that all content wants to be free, readers complaining about ebook prices that are less than the cost of a movie ticket, and non-writers proclaiming that changing the name of a character or a few superficial traits makes them new and unique.

Authors should understand fanfic—its pros and cons—and decide how they want to approach the issue.  As an author gets more popular, the chances of having fanfic based on their work increases, but so does their clout, income, and motivation to enforce takedown requests.

On the opposite side of the copyright issue, some authors worry about a fanfic author claiming they stole their idea.  With everything online, an author couldn’t prove they weren’t exposed to the fanfic story.  (A similar scenario happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley and one of her books was scuttled as a result of the fallout.)

What about concerns for how characters are portrayed?  Personally, I’m one of those authors who talks to her characters, in a “they’re just as real to me as my friends” way.  That sense of intimacy also means that hearing about some wild out-of-character exploits in a fanfic might damage the relationship I have with them.

What Choices Do Authors Have?

Many authors have “disallowed” fanfic, which in essence means that they request fanfic websites remove fanfics based on their work, and hope that people respect that request.  Authors Diana Gabaldon, Larry Niven, Anne Rice, J.R. Ward, and Orson Scott Card have spoken out against fan fiction.  A part of me doesn’t blame them.  After all, if the fanfic community doesn’t respect the original author’s rights, why would the author respect the fanfic community?

Other authors encourage fanfic in a “keep the readers happy” way.  Still others allow fanfic but put restrictions on it, requiring fanfic authors to fill out a form and request permission (authors such as Chelsea Quinn Yarbo, Mercedes Lackey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley fall into this category).

I respect what fanfic does and explores, but I don’t like the pull-to-publish movement (pulling stories off free fanfic websites to publish for profit).  It takes a lot more than just changing the name or other superficial details to erase the essence of the original author’s characters.  Unless the essence of the character (history, family background, worldview, religious beliefs, moral code, self-image, self-delusions, strengths, flaws, goals, etc.) was changed, the characters in a fanfic still belong to the original author.

But with the iffy reliability of the court system to rule in favor of the original author, authors would be wise to try to prevent issues ahead of time.  Between the new profiteering attitude and the potential for counter copyright claims, I think authors should have an official fanfic policy in place.  Whether that policy is open or restrictive is up to the author, but a statement of our attitudes might hold off bigger issues.

Personally, I’m tempted to try to find a middle ground, where authors allow fanfic, perhaps under a policy that all stories labeled as fanfic of their books (and any money collected as a result of those stories) belong to the original author.  A policy like that would give fanfic authors freedom as long as they don’t try to make any money from it, and it would protect authors from someone claiming the author stole their ideas.

Along those lines, one author has suggested offering Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licenses on our work, which would allow fanfic for non-commercial uses only.  Whether or not any of those policies would stand up in court is an entirely different matter, however.  *smile*

Do you have any questions about fanfic? Do you think authors should have a fanfic policy?  What seems fair to you?  Do you have a policy?  What does/would your fanfic policy look like?  What concerns you most about fanfic?  What doesn’t concern you?

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48 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee May 31, 2012 at 6:18 am

Regarding the Marion Zimmer Bradley thing, that example always seems…forced. From what I’ve read, there was definite proof that MZB was familiar with the fanfic, considering she ran her own fanzine and tried to pay the author a pittance to use something in his fanfic in her novel. And there are contradicting reports about why the book was scuttled; some say the publisher ditched it, while others say the author did.

I wouldn’t be nearly the author (or editor!) I am today if not for my time as a fanfic writer and reader, mainly in the Star Wars universe.

But I do think it’s an author’s right to decide if they want to allow fanfic based on their work or not.

Personally, the way I’d like to handle fanfic will require legal counsel to hammer out, and I’m not in a position to do that, right now. So for right now, my policy has to be “If you write it, you can’t profit from it—and I won’t read it.”

(What I’d like to do: Screen fanfics to authorize specific ones for the author to release for profit, with some limits—but I’d have to work out a legal agreement that would protect me from a “You stole my idea” lawsuit from someone who’s good at guessing or picking up on foreshadowing—an agreement that would apply internationally.)

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Jami Gold May 31, 2012 at 8:47 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes, I’ve heard conflicting stories about the MZB situation as well. That’s why I worded it as “a similar situation” and “scuttled as a result of the fallout.” :) I don’t know the ultimate reasoning behind the fact that a book was scuttled, but the core argument centered around fanfic and an author stealing an idea.

The scary point remains that with the internet, it is impossible for an author to prove they were never exposed to an idea explored in a fanfic. (Some authors try to get around this by stating for the record they never go to fanfic sites and employ an assistant to screen incoming mail, etc. to make sure they’re never exposed to others’ ideas.) For this reason alone, some authors might choose to be okay with fanfic based off completed series, but not okay with in-process series. As you said, as an author, you shouldn’t have to worry about someone guessing or picking up on your foreshadowing.

As I’ve mentioned before, I started on my writing path by writing a Harry Potter fanfic. I never posted it anywhere, but it was great practice for plotting, pacing, dialogue, and characterization. So I attempted to write this piece as non-biased as possible while still making authors aware of the issues. :)

I have a feeling a tight, would-definitely-hold-up-in-court policy would require legal counsel. And by the time most of us need to worry about enforcing the issue (because our stories/characters are popular enough), we should have the means to retain that counsel. In the meantime, however, I think a basic statement like yours makes your position clear.

The issue with huge fandoms (like Twilight and Harry Potter) is that some fanfic authors, who have no interest in the original story or loyalty to the original author, come in and write something for that fandom just because the huge number of fans means they’ll get feedback and encouragement from the readers there. At that level of popularity, some of the fanfic authors do not respect the original author, and authors will have to be more vigilant in their policing than when the fanfics are all written by true fans. Thanks for the comment!

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Alison May 31, 2012 at 6:30 am

This is a nice, succinct summary of what fanfic is and how it affects its source material and the creators of that source material. I’ll confess that I used to not understand the policies of authors like Anne Rice or Diana Gabaldon–after all, I thought, isn’t fanfic sort of flattering? But now that there is this profiteering movement, I get it. Those who seek to profit from fanfic don’t write it because they really love or admire the source material; they do it because they want to piggy-back off someone else’s hard work. (And even worse–they argue that they deserve to be rewarded for their “hard work.”)

The Creative Commons licensing suggestion is an interesting one. I’d think that creators who want to go that route would be wise to get the cooperation of sites like FanFiction.net to help enforce, as they do now for authors who request that no fanfic of their works be hosted.

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Jami Gold May 31, 2012 at 9:04 am

Hi Alison,

Yes, as I started out by writing fanfic, I have a natural inclination to allow it on some level. However, I can certainly understand the feeling that these profiteering changes are a result of a slow eroding of respect for the original author and not the cause of the problem.

How many of us would loan a prized book to a stranger, knowing they were going to take it to the beach and get sand and salt water all over it? :) We wouldn’t. It’s normal to demand respect for our things when we loan them out, and if we don’t trust someone to uphold that, we wouldn’t let them borrow it.

Yes, in my mega-post about the ethics of fanfic, several commenters made that argument about James “deserving” something for her work. But every author who posts to fanfiction.net (as James did) agrees to the terms of service which states that their work is non-copyrightable, etc., etc. They go into the story knowing they don’t really own it. If someone chooses to write and post fanfic anyway, that’s their choice. Stating after the fact that they deserve money for that time is revisionist history.

Non-fanfic authors pour hours–sometimes years–into multiple stories that never go anywhere. The Cinderella story of Stephenie Meyer (huge blockbuster on her first story) distorts the fanfic authors’ perspective of how much normal authors go through to reach their goals. Most authors don’t start selling until their third or later book. Are those earlier books “wasted”? No, they were practice, just as writing fanfic is practice. *sigh* Yes, that argument makes me a bit ranty. :)

I don’t know enough about CC licenses to know how they’d work, but I stumbled across that blog post last night and decided to add it in as another point of discussion. If others know more about CC licenses and how they could work, I hope they’ll chime in. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover May 31, 2012 at 9:17 am

My initial reaction is to be a hard-liner. After all, I dislike that soeone wrote a “sequel” to Gone with the Wind; the current craze of mixing Jane Austen with zombies, etc.; and the numerous knock-offs of other authors’ ideas. I like the idea of being inspired by other authors’ stories, but then you should come up with your own idea. However, I have met several authors who got started with fan fiction (something I never did). It does appear to be a good way to develop writing skills. It’s when it becomes a for-profit deal that it gets tricky.

It seems that the specifics of a tale (character names, distinctive settings, etc.) should remain with the original author. Legally speaking, however, I don’t know exactly how restrictions can be effectively enforced. Great topic to consider.

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Jami Gold May 31, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Hi Julie,

I understand. My reaction to the zombie-type mashup is equal parts cringing and going, “huh?” :)

As I mentioned above, I started out writing a fanfic story, and I did learn a lot while doing it. But I treated it like the practice story it was and never shared it with anyone. I would never dream of making money off someone else’s characters or world (especially if they’re still under copyright protection). I wouldn’t do something I didn’t want others to do to me. And I have more than enough story ideas in me to come up with something unique for my original fiction. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Vanessa May 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm

What an amazing article! It has some very valid points. Your post on when fanfiction drew an ethical line was very straight forward. What makes this issue more interesting is that now other fandoms are publishing their fanfic stories as well.

As for Harry Potter fandom, no one has even tried to publish their fics because J.K. Rowling is a very powerful woman, the James Potter series was enough proof that she won’t tolerate her intellectual property being taken advantage of, or being published for profit, and now the books are free via domain, aka it is a fanfic in general terms. Meyer probably doesn’t have the guts to take legal action which is a shame cause I know her agent was a lawyer.

When James was negotiating her contract with Vintage, she didn’t want to have fanfiction of FSoG which I found to be hypocritical because her book is not a novel, it’s a fanfic. All of the PDF’s that are online free of the original are valid proof enough.

What I am very curious to know is how an indie author can prevent fanfiction from being written about her stories.?

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Jami Gold May 31, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Hi Vanessa,

Yes, as I mentioned in a comment above, this pull-to-publish issue started with Twilight (simply because the huge size of the fandom attracted those who weren’t in it for love the original books), and now the success and deluge of published fanfics from that fandom is spreading to other fandoms. We know J.K. Rowling keeps a close eye on hers, but there are other popular stories that are ripe for this type of ripoff.

You’re right that James’s desire to shut down FSoG fanfic is extremely hypocritical. But I think that also shows that she recognizes that fanfic can be destructive to the original work. Interesting insight, that. ;)

She’s also been filing DMCA takedown notices to Google and other search engines to wipe the links to the fanfic version of FSoG off the internet. Of course, since the fanfic version isn’t copyrightable, I don’t know how she could submit a DMCA notice without falsifying information. *sigh*

As far as indie/self-published authors being able to protect themselves, that’s a tricky question. I try not to panic over the possibility by telling myself that by the time any of us are popular enough to warrant fanfic of our work, we’d have the means to fight it. However, whether self-published or traditionally published, we might have an easier time making a case in court if we’ve had a fanfic policy in place from the beginning. Thanks for the comment!

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Vanessa May 31, 2012 at 12:56 pm

An article on fanlore with Stephenie Meyer said she supports fanfiction, but she said, “Why waste your time writing those, you should be writing your own novels.”

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Jami Gold May 31, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Hi Vanessa,

Yes, I saw that interview when I was researching this post last night. For a minute, I was encouraged because she further went on to say that she thought it was sad how those writers were spending so much time on something they couldn’t own. However, she then went on to comment about the alternate-universe type stories and how she thought those differences made them unique enough.

Her misunderstanding of fanfic is widespread among those unfamiliar with fanfic and copyright law. Any of us who have watched Paramount or George Lucas fight unauthorized depictions of the Star Trek or Star Wars universes got used to the idea that fanfic was about the unique world-building. However, copyright laws also protect the characters themselves, even if they’re set in different worlds or situations, as well as the details of plot events. So when a story like FSoG takes the Twilight characters, complete with personalities and mannerisms, and places them into a different situation (all-human world) with mirroring plot events, it’s most definitely fanfic–with the inability to own the story that comes with that.

I’ve seen some fanfic that had the Twilight character names and that’s it. No, personality similarities, no mannerisms, different couple pairs, no mirrored plot events, etc. Those are cases where someone took an existing story and pasted Twilight names on it so they could get reviews and feedback from the Twilight readers. Those are cases of exploiting the fandom, but not necessarily the original work. FSoG doesn’t fall into that category–it most definitely owes a debt to the original story itself. Thanks for the comment!

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Imelda Evans May 31, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Hi Jami
Thanks for referencing my post on Creative Commons! I hope it was useful.

I agree with you that Creative Commons isn’t necessarily a legally enforceable solution. I was suggesting it partly for the benefit of the fanfic communities themselves. As you say, many in the fanfic communities are as disturbed by the commercialisation of fanfic as authors are. Creative Commons licensing offers a way for a particular community to make clear that they are there to share and have fun, that the members don’t expect to make money from what they post in that community and that only members who share that ethos should join.

It is also potentially a way for authors to show fans that they appreciate that their works have inspired such interest, while still making the point that they care about their intellectual property.

In either case, though, it probably serves mainly as a statement of intent. Would it have any standing in a court? I guess we will have to wait for that to be tested!

Interesting post, Jami!

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Jami Gold June 1, 2012 at 8:52 am

Hi Imelda,

I’m so glad you found the article! (I’ve been awful about letting people know when I link to them lately. :) )

Yes, I think the CC license could give the fanfic communities the heads up that use of stories or characters would come with certain rights–they’re allowed–and responsibilities–no profit. It’s certainly an interesting thought.

In the big picture, most fanfic policies will work only if fanfic authors maintain a certain level of respect for the original author. Someone who doesn’t respect an author might ignore a policy as well. The worst cases of damage or profiteering might have to go to court, and in that case, the original author might be helped out if they could show that their policy was in place during the transgression. I think that would help their case in front of a judge, as it would show that the fanfic author knowingly and willingly went against not only whatever copyright laws might apply, but also the original author’s wishes.

As you said, that respect from the fanfic community might be helped if the original author show the fandom some respect as well, by showing appreciation for their interest through the use of the licensing or other means to allow fanfic. Thank you for bringing up the CC issue and thanks for the comment! :)

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Susan Sipal June 1, 2012 at 8:52 am

Great comprehensive post, Jami! I like how JK Rowling handled fanfiction – she gave awards to many Harry Potter fansites, including the first one to a site that had fan fiction. She seemed to have no problems with it as long as it did not encroach on her future work and was not for profit. Fan fiction definitely helped fan the flames for her upcoming books!

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Jami Gold June 1, 2012 at 9:14 am

Hi Susan,

Yes! I think it’s great to find a middle ground that recognizes the good side of fans and yet ensures that people follow certain rules.

It’s a similar issue to DRM in that respect. DRM punishes honest readers who just want to be able to move an ebook from one ereader to another. It treats all readers as untrustworthy pirates. Of course, those who are pirates know that DRM is trivially easy to break, so the honest readers are the only ones harmed.

Here, if we ban fanfic outright (which as I mentioned in the post, I can understand but…), it can create an atmosphere of treating all fans (including the ones who just really love you and your work) as potential criminals. Those who would go against a fanfic policy about profiteering are probably the same as those who would go against a “no fanfic at all” policy. So a middle ground of allowing the respectful fans to show their enthusiasm, while making clear that violators won’t be tolerated (and might be challenged in court), currently appeals to me the most. Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal June 1, 2012 at 9:46 am

Yes, totally agree. Most fanfic writers are in it for the love of the story. Would we as authors really want to discourage that love to stop a few?

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Jami Gold June 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Hi Susan,

That’s a healthy, non-paranoid way to look at it. :) Thanks for the comment!

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allreb June 4, 2012 at 8:17 am

The thing I would encourage authors to keep in mind about fanfiction is this: fans who are so engaged with your work that they want to write fic about it are basically the best possible fans to have. They feel such a strong connection to your work that they want to stay in your world, know your characters, and care about them deeply. That kind of sharing also means they’re likely to, oh, loan the book to (or buy a copy for) a few friends, so they have someone to discuss it with; to talk about it, review it, and encourage more people to read it online; to buy your next book the day it comes out; to go to your signings and readings when they can…

People who are that connected with your work are generally MOTIVATED fans, is what I’m saying. They’re the people you want your work to reach, because they set about trying to get it into more people’s hands. They promote it and build communities around it. And while there are outliers like James, who are apparently willing to use that, the majority of fans are just that — fans, who don’t want to make money off the work, they just want to play with it and want others to do so, too. (Or so is my experience as one of ‘em, anyway.)

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Jami Gold June 4, 2012 at 8:59 am

Hi allreb,

I agree. As I’ve mentioned in other comments here, the Twilight fandom suffered because of its success. It was so big that it attracted opportunists who were there for the fandom (to get reviews, attention, etc.) and not for love of the original books or respect for the original author.

Having a fanfic policy in place from the beginning–yes, before we think we’d ever need one–lets those motivated fans know upfront what our attitudes are. Those motivated fans can in fact help, by becoming our police force in the fandom and letting us know when they find a violation.

We’re seeing similar symbiotic relationships between authors and fans when the authors go DRM-free. The author’s fans appreciate the lack of DRM, and in return, they let the author know of any pirate copies they find.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience and for the comment! :)

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Ericka D. June 5, 2012 at 6:39 am

I’m actually an amateur fanfiction writer and I’m in the middle of typing the chapters of my first fanfiction when suddenly somebody updated and I read about FanFiction.Net pulling out some of the fanfics that includes sex, violence, etc. It immediately makes me down and there’s no idea coming out of my mind. The news feels restrictive to me. Their tagline is “Unleash Your Imagination.” I said before “Surely the owners of FF have some imagination and try to think of something else about this. What if our minds goes to darker places?” Then I’m reading one of your articles then I stumble to profiting from the fanfic is unethical then to this then it suddenly all makes sense.

I also disagree about what James did. She should make her name by herself and not by dragging some hormone-raged Twilight fans. I seriously hope that the FF won’t erase those fanfics. They (FF.net or anyone) shouldn’t generalize the writers when it’s just James who crossed the line. Those writers spent hours to years to create those fanfics and suddenly they’ll be pull out. Some of those fanfics are great and even better than FSoG. Hell, FSoG only has 29 fics in FF. There’s gonna be middle ground to this situation.

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Jami Gold June 5, 2012 at 9:27 am

Hi Ericka,

I wish I could say that FSoG and James were the only ones who crossed the line. This link is probably just a partial listing of all the Twilight fanfics that have since pulled to publish. Of course that doesn’t include any people in other fandoms doing the same thing now. FSoG gets the attention because of its sales numbers, but James is far from the only one unfortunately.

Yes, I’ve heard that FF has had that “mature” policy for years, but they seem to enforce it rather haphazardly. Plenty of things on the site violate the rules. Maybe they enforce by complaints? I don’t know.

But you’re absolutely right that James’s actions are shining a bright light onto a corner of fandoms that might not like what happens when people start paying attention. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Ericka D. June 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm

If Meyer keeps tolerating about this then the more people loses their respect on her. The more people loses their respect on her, the more these leeches will think that it’s alright to do what James and the other authors did. She has the rights to defend her work. In my opinion, even though J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (fandom I’m in) are better books than Twilight Saga, she shouldn’t let her brainchild, no matter how many hate this saga gets, be trampled on by some writers ripping off her idea. A saga this influential should show it’s power. It’s not just Twilight that is going to be affected.We’re basically depending on the original author’s idea.

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Jami Gold June 6, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Hi Ericka,

Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of: that it will get much worse before it gets better. I wish she’d defend her copyright just for the sake of all the other authors who don’t have the funds to chase things through court, but… *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Jennie Coughlin June 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I was actually blogging about this recently (http://jenniecoughlin.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/fifty-shades-of-grey-fanfic-profit/), as an author who started (and still writes) fanfiction. I just can’t get behind the idea of selling something that started as fanfic, regardless of how much the serial numbers have been filed off (to steal Gabaldon’s analogy). I think it’s disrespectful to to the original writer(s), as well as unethical. I’m one who falls in the “don’t mind, won’t read” category if there ever gets to be fanfiction of my original work, but some of your points make me wonder if that’s even going to be an option in the future if fanfic writers keep pushing the boundaries of the law. At some point, there’s going to be a backlash, possibly a court case, and things could get very ugly.

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Jami Gold June 9, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Hi Jennie,

Thanks for sharing your post! Yes, I’m with you on the unethical aspects of publishing fanfic.

It’s crazy, however, to see how much the lines are getting blurred. I know of some authors who wrote original fiction and then decided that rather than trying to find their own beta readers or critique partners–like real authors do–they changed the names of their original characters to match those of a popular story on fanfiction.net, just so they could get the easy feedback from fanfic readers.

Obviously a situation like that would create very AU characters and plots, as the characters were created to have nothing in common with those of the targeted original fiction. But this brings up a whole ‘nother set of issues.

The terms of service on fanfiction.net specify that work posted there isn’t copyrightable. So those authors are taking something that was original fiction and was copyrightable and turning it into something that is less than what it was. And for why? Just so they can get the kudos and reviews and feedback? That strikes me as somewhere between short-sighted and crazy.

Are they better than the other fanfic authors for starting with something original? Or are they worse for blatantly being in the fandom only to exploit the readers there? I don’t have answers for that. :)

As you said, things will probably get worse before they get better. We’re in the Wild West phase of fanfic, and a backlash is unfortunately likely. Thanks for the comment!

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Gloria Oliver June 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Great post , Jami! I also started out on fanfic to hone my writing skills. Japanese anime from the 70’s to be specific.

While doing fanfic on shows and movies is mostly ignored and considered free marketing by most circles, it’s always been a touchy subject with regards to fanfic based on books. Somewhat blurs the origin of the work for some people, if that makes any sense. Worse, a lot of NY authors actually have in their publishing contracts that they are liable for getting rid of fan fiction done on their works. If they don’t then the original author becomes liable to the publisher! It boggles my mind how they can dump that on the original creator’s shoulders, but they do.

Back in the day, if you admitted to writing fanfic, it pretty much got you a black mark as well. Now that a lot more authors have actually honed skills using the medium, it’s not as taboo to admit to it, so things gave gotten better there at least.

But to make money of something you didn’t actually create from the ground up seems extreme and disrespectful. (Years and years ago I turned down a friend who wanted to do a zine because it was for profit not just covering costs. Didn’t feel right.)

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Jami Gold June 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Hi Gloria,

Yes, there’s inherently less of a transformation when going from book format to book format. And that’s an interesting tidbit about publishing contracts. I haven’t heard of a clause like that before. That would be horrible!

Back when I did the Author Roundtable at the Dear Author blog, non-writer after non-writer talked about how they had no idea that creating characters from the ground up was so different than the way fanfic approaches it. It’s hard for non-writers to understand the level of disrespect there, I think. Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda July 6, 2012 at 7:28 am

Interesting article. Thank you.

In regard to Stephenie Meyer and Fifty Shades of Grey, I don’t think she realizes how much Christian is like Edward. I wonder if she would change her mind (with her quote, “Good on her”) if she knew?

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 11:05 am

Hi Amanda,

I can’t begin to imagine what’s going through Stephenie Meyer’s head. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Sean July 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Hi Jami –

I came to your post through Twitter, by a Twi-fan friend of mine who pointed here as evidence that EL James was hypocritically DMCAing fanfic of FSoG. I agree that, if she’s doing that, it’s mind-bogglingly hypocritical. However, you haven’t – or at least, I haven’t seen – posted any sources for those claims. Can you tell me from where you’re getting your information?

Thanks!
Sean

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Hi Sean,

Okay, I just in the last two hours saw the Twitter references to this post as “evidence” that James has a blanket policy against fanfic. I, personally, never made those claims. So let me back up and provide some context… :)

In a comment above, Vanessa said:

“When James was negotiating her contract with Vintage, she didn’t want to have fanfiction of FSoG which I found to be hypocritical because her book is not a novel, it’s a fanfic.”

I have no knowledge of Vanessa’s source for that tidbit about Vintage, so I can’t speak to that point. I do know that Vanessa is well versed in the fanfic world and may very well have sources, but I don’t know for certain in this particular case. Here’s what I do know:

In the time between when the media first exploded about Fifty Shades of Grey (March of this year) and the time of this post in May, EL James filed DMCA complaints with Google and Bing (and probably other search engines) to remove the Master of the Universe PDF from their results. (You can be your own source by typing Master of the Universe PDF into a Google search and scrolling to the bottom of the screen for Google’s little DMCA note.) Back when I first started looking into this issue, the PDF of the fanfic version of FSoG was freely available as MotU via a simple Google search.

There are a couple of issues with this action. First, while a part of me respects a writer’s desire to remove evidence of previous activity on the internet, that desire does not translate to a copyright infringement. Second, the Terms Of Service of fanfiction.net (where FSoG originally lived in its MotU form) specifically state that all postings there are not copyrightable. Third, court law has not determined whether any fan fiction is copyrightable, no matter where it’s published/shared/posted.

But by ELJ filing DMCA claims for MotU, she’s stating that a) it’s copyrightable even though it’s fanfic, b) it’s copyrightable even though the PDFs circulating the internet were copied from her postings at fanfiction.net where the TOS specifically states otherwise, and c) its iffy legal position is solid enough to make Google and Bing change their search results. Has a court ruled on that? No. But she’s filing legal documents anyway, thereby falsely claiming that there are no legal questions here.

Again, I don’t know how I feel about even uncopyrightable material being shared against the wishes of the writer, but the DMCA takedown notice is like a legal nuke when used to enforce desires and wishes. I don’t want DMCAs to lose their legal power because someone falsifies information simply because they’re pouting about the unfairness of people not respecting their wishes. *bites tongue to prevent rant about unfairness, disrespect, and pots and kettles calling each other black* :)

The second thing I know is that someone posted a fanfic of MotU, changing the names to be a Draco/Hermione story. The story has since been taken down at fanfiction.net, but I saw it before it was deleted (I don’t know which party was responsible for the deleting). I saw with my own eyes the comments from James (Snowqueens Icedragon) that the article quotes. Yes, she was really there, and yes, she really said, “This is my story that you are plagiarising. Please remove it.”

So, was she picking on the story because it was fanfic? Or because it was a name-change-only version of her story? I don’t know, and again, I don’t claim to.

This is another one of those gray copyright issues. If MotU isn’t copyrightable, does that mean people can copy it, change only the names, and that be okay? I certainly don’t know the legal answer to that question, and I’m torn on the ethical side of it too. :)

However, what I, personally, found interesting about the whole issue was James’s unflinching decision to state the violation so definitively while ignoring her own ethically gray choices. This is similar to the DMCA issue in that James is absolutely convinced that MotU is copyrighted even though several facts throw that into legal dispute.

So, to sum up… :) I don’t know what may or may not have happened in James’s contract negotiation with Vintage. However, the two things I know for certain show a willingness on James’s part to state things as legal facts–to the point of filing legal paperwork with those claims–despite evidence to the contrary. And those actions have had a chilling effect on the perception of whether others can do to James what she did to Stephenie Meyer. Beyond those questionable actions on her part, I know of no definitive proof or source that James has a blanket policy against fanfic.

Let me know if you still have questions. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Sean July 6, 2012 at 5:55 pm

At the risk of sounding like a brown-nose: That was awesome. I have no further questions, and feel indebted to you for taking the time to write such a detailed and honest response. There’s plenty to muse about, here – but I don’t know that my questions could possibly have been better answered.

-Sean

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Hi Sean,

No worries. I knew you weren’t the only one with those questions. :) Thanks for bringing it up and giving me the opportunity to address it!

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Artie July 7, 2012 at 7:15 pm

While it’s true that you can argue that once you post anything on the internet, it’s there to stay, I wanted to point out that a very large portion of MotU was posted on Icy’s private website, after being pulled by ff.net. Therefore, the argument that it “belonged” to ff or that according to its TOS not subject to copyright, are off the mark.

In addition, if anyone here has picked up a copy of the book, you’d see on the very first page, a statement that ties it to its origins as Master of the Universe. Clearly Ms. James is not trying to hide its origins.

As for whether Ms. James has any “blanket policy against fanfic, there exist several FSoG fanfic on ff.net. The only one that was reported was one that was clearly not an actual fanfic, but a word-for-word case of plagiarism. If that’s not clear enough of a statement, a blogger who actually cared about fact finding might try reaching out to the actual source. I guess it’s more fun to speculate and make not-so-veiled, fake tongue-biting allegations that encourage more comments and fuel the fire of this mob.

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Jami Gold July 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Hi Artie,

“a blogger who actually cared about fact finding might try reaching out to the actual source.”

I would agree with you except for the fact that the only reason people have been coming to this blog post in the past two days is because they heard this post had evidence that James disallowed fanfic. Since I never said that and this blog post wasn’t even about that subject, all I should have to do is clear up the misunderstanding with a “Nope, I never said that.”

I shouldn’t need facts beyond that. I shouldn’t suddenly be obligated to fulfill this fact-finding mission when it has nothing to do with me or the subject of this post. Look at the title of the post. Read the content of the post. Pay attention to the date of this post. It existed for over a month without anyone taking away that false impression of the content.

Does any part of that indicate I was doing an investigation into James’s policy on fanfic? No.

So why would I do that fact finding when I wasn’t investigating that bigger question and never claimed to be? I was clarifying what I had not said and explaining what I knew in context to Sean’s impression of James DMCA’ing fanfic. Period. The end.

Also, nowhere in here did I state that James was trying to hide FSoG‘s origins. And I didn’t ask for this Twitter misinformation to be spread, and I’d rather be writing my story than writing essays here, so I certainly didn’t do anything to “encourage more comments.” Don’t add to the fire by bringing up more accusations or putting intentions in my mouth, and I won’t suspect you of being a “bunker babe.” Deal? :)

(***Edited to add: I see that you are, in fact, one of James’s “bunker babes” and have personal conversations with her. In that case, why didn’t you go directly to the real actual source–James, herself–and ask the question of her fanfic policy and post it here to educate people rather than attacking me? Hmm? I’ll keep my speculations about your intentions to myself.***)

Yesterday, I heard the rumors circulating on Twitter about James’s policy. When I asked for a link (See? I didn’t just repeat the rumor I heard), I was given the link to this post. At first I was amused in a “wait, what?” kind of way. Then I was confused at how people could be taking away that impression. After Sean’s comment, I addressed his impression. Not the whole overriding question. I corrected the misinformation about this supposed DMCA’ing of fanfic and stated what I knew personally about James’s activities in regards to DMCA complaints and fanfic.

James’s fanfic policy was never the point of this post or the original comments to it. I shouldn’t be on trial because someone pointed you this way with inaccurate rumors and I wasn’t vehement enough in my correcting the information above and beyond the original point of this post and the misinformation I personally knew of and could correct. Yet that’s exactly what you’re accusing me of. Sorry, I don’t play that game.

*ahem* Now let’s get to the rest of your comment. :)

Thank you for providing the information about the FSoG fanfic on fanfiction.net. That’s good to know.

And that’s an interesting question about whether removing fanfic from ff.net would suddenly make their TOS not apply anymore. (I’m referring only to those MotU sections that had started on fanfiction.net. The ff.net TOS obviously shouldn’t apply to any new chapters that were never posted there.) I don’t know the answer to that. I haven’t gone through their TOS to see whether any aspect of it applies in an ongoing manner, and even if it did, who knows how the courts would rule. That’s a complicated area where fanfic meets copyright-ability meets ff.net’s TOS meets the publishing industry’s standard for first publication rights. (The assignment of rights in the publishing industry heavily emphasizes the first place it’s published (and in this case maybe, posted).) I won’t pretend to even make a guess at how all that could play together. :)

I hope that addresses your perceptions. Thanks for the comment!

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anais mark July 7, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Name change only stories aren’t fanfic by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve seen a similar situation with a tiny fic no one cares about. The story was removed. No one who knew about the situation said anything other than how glad they were that someone brought it to the author’s attention.

It seems akin to authors requesting that their fic not be translated. We’re all operating outside, over, around and through the rules.

If authors, and there are actually more than one of them profiting from what used to be a fic, make money while Stephenie Meyer carries on without much of a glance their way, I don’t care.

Operating one the “time is money” principle, all authors are gaining quite a bit from this venture. I’ve not pulled to publish but I can’t put numbers to what I’ve personally gained from the fandom (and I don’t mean friends and stories that I love).

I’m just not getting the unkindness directed at one story. If I don’t do my homework and get caught, getting mad at the kids that didn’t and implenting new rules to penalize them won’t fix my grade. I’m sure I’m not taking this seriously enough for most but maybe the vista needs opened up here. More authors than James are in the mix. Not acting that way makes us look like we’re on a witch hunt or just butt hurt that no one offered us buckets of money and adoration for something that started out as a lark.

Being dodgy in “clarifying” the remark about the Draco/Hermoine fic has made me not as interested in reading this blog anymore. She dinged A fic. I’m personally uncomfortable with pulling to publish but I feel like a cyberbully agreeing with many writers of the same opinion, so acid are their industrious tongues/fingers.

And I’m only so loquacious because I just spent 20 minutes reading this article and the comments. Heh.

I like discussing the politics of it but feel like fic is so underground by nature truly open dialogue is few and far between.

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Jami Gold July 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Hi Anais,

I understand where you’re coming from, believe it or not. :)

Name-change-only stories of copyrighted works are certainly plagiarism. There’s no question about that. In this case, does the fact that it was a name-change-only on a non-copyrighted fanfic story make a difference?

As I admitted in the comment, I certainly don’t know the legal answer to that question, and I’m torn on the ethical side of it too. That’s not me being “dodgy.” That’s me being honest.

I haven’t condemned James for wanting that Draco/Hermione story taken down. I can absolutely understand her position on that. If I were interested in being a cyberbully, I wouldn’t have voluntarily pointed out that it was a name-change-only story. Regardless of whether it legally qualifies for plagiarism or not, James had a legitimate reason for her request that the story be removed.

I posted my comment so that this post wouldn’t be used as “evidence” for something I don’t think there’s evidence for–that her request on one name-change-only story equaled a blanket policy against fanfic. If you’ve interpreted me trying to calm the waters as me being a cyberbully, then I’m confused.

Again, I was the one who linked the list of published fics to point out that James is not the only one doing pull-to-publish. I posted this article for authors of original fiction, so they would understand what fanfic is and what issues they should keep in mind. If James were the only writer following the pull-to-publish path, this post would be unnecessary, as only Stephenie Meyer would be affected. The simple fact this post exists proves that I know this issue is bigger than her.

However, she’s the most well-known example, so yes, most commenters are talking about her. I allow comments through, even when they’re tangents from the point of my post. Therefore, the conversation here in the comments has been led into a discussion specific to James, but that doesn’t change my overall points.

I welcome you to post a comment about other authors or other fanfic issues so that you can help lead the conversation in a new direction. :)

“Operating one the “time is money” principle, all authors are gaining quite a bit from this venture.”

I’m not sure what you mean by this. Are you making a case that original fiction authors gain money when fanfic is created from their work? Fanfic does possibly spread the word about the original story, but otherwise, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Do you care to elaborate?

I hope that clarifies my clarification. ;) Thanks for the comment!

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Gayle W July 8, 2012 at 6:59 am

I am really late to the game here having found your post referenced on another website. Also, I will admit that I have not read all of the comments above but have really enjoyed the ones I have.

MoTU was the very first fan fic I ever read. What a way to get introduced to that world!

Yes – I read it because it was a fan fic of “Twilight”.

I know that many people got really mad when she P2P but I am one of the few people who really didn’t feel that way.

If MoTU had been written using character names from a different book or genre entirely then would it have really garnered this much attention? I would guess not. I truly think that the whole story could have been written using the name Dick (no pun intended) and Jane (This should give away my age if I can remember those book characters!) for that matter and no one would have ever related it to “Twilight” unless they wanted to insert those character names on their own.

Truly, other than the name changes there was really nothing else she had to change to move the entire story line from a “Twilight” fan fiction to just another book.

I am currently about 80% through the FSoG trilogy and have no problems inventing my own character faces to the names that are used in these books and they have nothing to do with MoTU or “Twilight”. (And trust me – I am a huge “Twilight” fan).

I do think that ELJ is the pot calling the kettle black though with her copy write and DMCA crap – just a little arrogant to me. I can do it but no one else can type of thing. Sounds a little petulant to me.

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Jami Gold July 8, 2012 at 10:42 am

Hi Gayle,

Yes, you are late to the game–mostly because the ethical questions of the story itself and the characters have been discussed ad nauseum on a post from March about the ethics of fanfic. And after 350+ comments there, I don’t want this post to be taken over by the same topic. Please! :)

Several commenters there posted about similarities between the Twilight and MotU/FSoG characters and plot, specifically addressing your statement that:

“no one would have ever related it to “Twilight” unless they wanted to insert those character names on their own.”

Read that post and then check out the comments left here, here, and here for those lists of similarities commenters provided (that I can recall off the top of my head).

Some readers aren’t able to step back from the trees of superficial details and see the forest of subtextual similarities, but that doesn’t change the facts. Every lip biting, echoed phrasing, stalker behavior similarity between Edward/Christian and Bella/Ana, and the mirrored plot points themselves, is not mere coincidence due to using common tropes. No, those were all placed there on purpose because James was trying to evoke the original characters and plot line in her story.

For example, with the plot point of Edward/Christian saving Bella/Ana from the car/bike–yes, books have “save the heroine” scenes all the time (I’m writing one right now)–but in MotU/FSoG, the scene plays on the same beat for the same emotional turning point for the same characterization details for the same revelation purposes as in Twilight. It is a copied plot point with superficial details changed.

Whereas my “save” scene is the first scene of the novel, the heroine is unconscious and doesn’t even realize it’s the hero who saves her, and the emotional turning point is on his end and is one of disgust. The scene doesn’t play the same role or purpose in the story.

And that’s just one example of the subtextual details that defenders don’t understand. Authors write things a certain way on purpose. Everything is deliberate.

James wrote every mirrored plot point and characterization detail to deliberately copy Twilight because she was intending to evoke the original story. That’s what makes MotU fanfic. And that’s the difference between simply using common tropes and outright copying.

Authors of original fiction take inspiration from countless sources, blend them into something new and different, and add their special twist. They give the character roots and sit back as he/she/it grows beyond their imaginings to fill the spaces of the story. The characters will, in fact, lead the direction of the story with their growth pattern in ways the author never expected.

Fanfic authors take inspiration from a single source–where the character already exists in its fully grown form–and prune its shape to superficially change its appearance and make it fit into the story they want to tell.

One is from the ground up and one hangs out at the top. Opposite approaches. The implementation matters, and fanfic implements the story idea by copying characters that don’t belong to them. And that’s where the ethical line falls.

If you wish to continue this discussion about the ethics of the MotU/FSoG story or these characterization/plot point similarities, please feel free to comment on that other post–just not here. (Please! I beg you! :) ) Thanks for the comment!

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vanessa August 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm

You iknow how J.R. Ward doesn’t allow fanfiction, well it turns out there are fanfic communites for those books. you are right if the fandom doesn’t respect the authors wishes, why should the author respect the fandom community

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Jami Gold August 24, 2012 at 6:05 am

Hi Vanessa,

Interesting. Unfortunately, that doesn’t surprise me. *sigh* Thanks for the information!

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Vanessa August 24, 2012 at 9:30 am

As I have told you before I wrote fanfiction and I still do to this day it is in fact good writing practice my papers in English have improved significantly. but my fics are based strictly on the canon universe the author created.

it may sound hypocritical of me not to allow fanfiction but after witnessing what the Twilight fandom has been doing, who could blame an author for pulling their rights to fanfiction

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Jami Gold August 24, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Hi Vanessa,

I don’t blame you or any author for the decisions they make about fanfic. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Sherry G. January 1, 2013 at 11:20 am

I’ve enjoyed reading your post and the comments very much. I got into reading fan fic during the three-year span between HP4 and HP5, because I was so longing for more Harry Potter. I still read it, HP and twilight fan fiction. In regard to HP, I mostly read stories in which Sirius Black lives and is able to raise Harry, because I so want that boy to have a family. In Twilight, I prefer the canon based vampire stories, but I love seeing Jacob Black shown as a bad guy.

When I got into Twilight fan fiction, at first I was amazed at the all-human genre, because though I’d never read or liked vampire stories before, taking vamps out of Twilight, makes the stories basically just romance/mystery/drama stories with twilight character names and personality characteristics. For a long time, I wouldn’t read the all-human stories, till there were fewer and fewer vamp stories to find. But for me, there will always be a thought that taking vamps out of Twilight is like taking magic out of Harry Potter.

I have written a long Twilight fan fic, but it was based in canon, vampires, only I made Bella blind, because I am, and I wanted to explore how she would have discovered the truth and how her blindness might have been affected by becoming a vampire, as well as a way to do a little educating, since I’ve read some deplorable depictions of blindness in fan fiction. I have written a couple very short all-human fics for sort of Christmas gifts to readers, but again, they are still very obviously Twilight based, and I’d never consider pulling them to publish, even if I wanted to expand them enough to make them into books.

I’ve got my first novel manuscript with a publisher, and it has never been a fic previously. it’s straight from my own imagination. I did have a sort of opposite fear though. the main male lead has two best friends, and I worried that people might *think* it was a take-off on Edward, Emmett and Jasper Cullen. I’ve been assured that it doesn’t come off that way, but that’s a tiny example of how the whole pull to publish thing can affect us all. will future readers think our work was once fan fiction?

And yet, writing my long fic gave me a chance to put writing of mine out there to be read my total strangers, to get feedback. It’s not the same as the kind of feedback I may get when the novel is published. People who read fan fic have their own thoughts and feelings about the world and characters. But it gave me a chance to hone my writing skills and gave me the guts to write my novel. I don’t think I’d object to fan fiction on my novel, but on the other hand, I can’t imagine that anyone would want to write fic based on it.

What I’ve loved about fan fic, as a reader, is a chance to visit the world of stories that have captivated me in many ways, to spend more time with the characters or to read alternate universes stories that send the world in directions i’d wished they’d gone. Still, I reread HP every so often, because no fan fic can take the place of the wonder of the original world, even if I didn’t always like all the things that happened in that world.

Thanks again for such a great article. And forgive this very long reply!

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Jami Gold January 1, 2013 at 11:42 am

Hi Sherry,

No worries! I love conversations in the comments. Thank you for your insightful reply. :)

“[F]or me, there will always be a thought that taking vamps out of Twilight is like taking magic out of Harry Potter.”

Ooo, yes, I get this. As you said, it turns the story into a standard romance or suspense or whatever story. The non-canon nature of many Twilight fanfic stories probably increases the pull-to-publish draw–and issues.

Great point too about how once we admit we’ve written fanfic, some might think our original stories fall into that category as well. I don’t have that problem as my stories are of a completely different genre (and not MG/YA, like HP either), voice, characters, world, premise, etc., but I can see those who write romantic suspense or contemporary romance having that trouble. Interesting–and kind of sad–that original fiction might still be assumed to have a whiff of fanfic about it. *sigh*

Good luck on your stories and thanks for the comment! :)

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