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Once the stuff of underground zines, fanfiction has become a massive genre with many subgenres unto itself. They may be continuations, divergent plot lines, or simply tales from within that world. Maybe it's a coffee shop alternate universe or an AU in which the characters are in a war scenario a la "Two Two One Bravo Baker." Perhaps it's pairing up two non-conventional characters or furthering the romantic and sexual journeys of a canon pair. The fact is, if you can think of it, there's probably a fanfiction about it.
With fanfiction at the height of its popularity, stories have become so popular that they spawn fandoms of their own. These are fanfictions of a different breed — fanfictions with hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of comments, like, and shares. People write fanfics about these fanfics, they create comics and fan art, podfics, and music videos all about them.
One of the most prolific microfandoms might be the one surrounding the Supernatural fanfiction "Twist and Shout" by writers Gabriel and StandByMe, who go by Discover and Trunkcoats, respectively, on LiveJournal. The nearly 100,000-word epic has over 1 million views on the fanfiction hosting site Archive of Our Own. Just think about that: This story about Dean Winchester and Castiel in 1960s America at the beginning of the Vietnam War has been viewed, never mind read, over 1 million times.
With its own Fanlore page, "Twist and Shout" is a verifiable legend in the fanfiction community. As of right now, "Twist and Shout" has 75 fanfics inspired by it on AO3 alone, and an untold amount of fan art and other fanworks elsewhere on the internet, including the fold-out illustration by Petite Madame pictured below.
So when fanfiction is popular, what do the authors do? They're suddenly finding themselves flooded with comments, likes, shares, and views. How do they deal with being a member of fandom and then discovering they have a fandom of their own?
AUTHORS AND THEIR MICROFANDOMS
"A fellow author has written a screenplay for one of the fake films in 'Performance in a Leading Role,' which may actually become a produced film," MadLori, as she's known throughout the BBC Sherlock fandom, told SYFY WIRE. MadLori's fanfics have become some of the most beloved and talked about in what is, arguably, one of the most active fandoms on the internet. "Performance in a Leading Role" was an AU that turned Sherlock Holmes and John Watson into actors rather than a detective and his doctor, a topic that's garnered over 630,000 views on AO3 alone.
MadLori had published popular fic before thanks to her work in the Brokeback Mountain and Harry Potter fandoms, so she had a little bit of practice with how to deal with reactions to her and her writing.
"It's hard to remember how fandom worked in those days (we're talking 20 years ago now, the age of mailing lists and message boards), but my Harry Potter series started getting lots of replies to the alert emails I'd send out, and then it got its own discussion threads on the message boards, and then when I created a Yahoo Group for it, the membership exploded," she says.
She says stayed somewhat removed from all the fandom activity surrounding her Harry Potter fic, but that it was a nice and new experience to see people discussing her work and anticipating the next chapter's release.
It wasn't until she dabbled in BBC's Sherlock that things went nuclear. Fanart, fanvids, podfic, translations, book covers, full on bindings of her fanfics into physical books, comics — anything you could imagine, someone had made it.
Her favorite part?
"I loved interacting with other fans, readers, and writers, and writing my fic novel 'Performance in a Leading Role' while watching the reactions to it on Tumblr unfold was one of the most satisfying writing experiences of my life," shes says.
The Star Wars fandom is, obviously, one of the most prolific in the world. With decades of canon ranging from films to novels to television series, there is a lot of material to work with. Naturally, some of the fanfic would be popular. When Tor came out with their list of things it loved in 2018, there was a touch of surprise that it contained a link to a Star Wars fanfiction, "landscape with a blur of conquerors" by diasterisms.
This post-Star Wars: The Force Awakens AU has the First Order winning and Rey finding out her parents are actually Teneniel Djo and Prince Isolder of the Hapes Cluster, making her royalty. She is betrothed to Kylo Ren to maintain some attempt at peace in the galaxy. Written by a 29-year-old from the Philippines known online as diasterisms, "LWABOC" was the writer's first outing into the world of Star Wars, and, boy, was it a big one.
"The fanart, graphics, playlists, and fics of my fic have all been so amazing," diasterisms says. She admits that sometimes her brain is too fried to visualize outfits, so she uses ones her fans send in as suggestions to fill in the blanks for the fashion-heavy story. "People also send in their headcanons and what-if scenarios, some so hilarious that I've burst out laughing in public, and some so poignant that I've shed actual tears."
A self-described fandom lurker, diasterisms says she only "officially" joined the Star Wars fandom in 2015 once she started posting her fanfiction, so all the attention that "LWABOC" has received has been a whirlwind for her. "I did notice that more comments were trickling in and that people were tagging me in Tumblr fanart, edits, and aesthetic posts, but this was sort of a gradual accumulation and I was just really happy that there were people who liked my writing."
"It's all been very eye-opening," she adds. "I have also heard from readers who say that my story has gotten them through their own hardships, and knowing I was able to help people is also one of my favorite outcomes from this whole thing."
It's been a major comfort to her, as well, as she lives far from family and meeting friends in person has been difficult in her city. "I've made so many friends who have been there for me through difficult times. There's a real sense of community that I've never felt before, and it's just so great."
That's something Shaya Lonnie, author of the Harry Potter fanfiction "The Debt of Time" truly understands. Her story, one about Hermione trying to save Sirius Black that results in some time gone awry and surprise romances, helped not only her but hundreds of others.
"I've struggled with mental and chronic illness for most of my life, and at the time I was working from home and going through a battle with depression and OCD surrounding my feelings of inadequacy. Fandom saved me," Lonnie says. "Reading the amazing stories written by others and then seeing the impact of my own was like this strange little whisper in the back of my head saying, 'This is why you came here. This is where you belong.'"
"The Debt of Time" might have the most unique fanwork of them all: babies.
"The funniest and weirdest outcome of my stories is that there are now children that exist because of them. I'm well aware that I write romance, so when I'd get messages from readers stating 'This chapter helped spark something back in my marriage,' it wasn't exactly uncommon, so I didn't think much on it until a year later when I started getting 'I just gave birth to my "Debt of Time" baby!' followed by newborn pictures."
As of now, there have been 45 babies born thanks to her writing, something she can't quite believe.
"I did not expect 'The Debt of Time' to take off the way it did," she admits. "I was so grateful for the comments as they started rolling in. I don't remember exactly when it really took off because I was so invested in writing it. I was completely possessed by it."
Shaya Lonnie says she worked about 30 chapters ahead, which allowed her to post a new chapter every day. She believes this helped greatly in the popularity of the fic, as there was a constant flow of new content, something fandoms thrive off of. So much so that many of her readers have made their love of the series permanent.
"The first time I had someone send me a fanart of my fic, I was just overwhelmed in the best way possible," she says. "Another reader messaged me asking permission to use 'The Debt of Time' in a tattoo she was getting. That was something I could not believe at the time. Now, I have several readers who have multiple tattoos with 'The Debt of Time' references. That is truly an honor."
Most fanfictions come about because there is a desire for something more. Be it more exploration of a plot line or a relationship, or just a "what if?" For fanfic writer qqueenofhades, "The North Remembers" was written because George R.R. Martin simply wouldn't.
"I did not at all intend to write the continuation and conclusion to the whole A Song of Ice and Fire series when I set out, as it was just a way to work through my impatience after A Dance With Dragons and write some more of the story for the Starks," she explains "It quickly snowballed to include everyone. And here in 2019, the fic has been complete for five years, while there's still no hint of The Winds of Winter, much less A Dream of Spring. So at least I did finish my project."
She had no idea "The North Remembers" was as popular as it was until she was made aware it had its own TV Tropes page. qqueenofhades stayed out of it, though, allowing the fic's followers to discuss and debate on their own without her input. She admits she's glad she did, and also that she was initially hesitant to even post the fanfiction, given George RR Martin's stance on fanfic in general.
But it's quite possible her fic is the exception to the rule.
"I must stress that this was all relayed to me second-hand, so I can only relate what I was told," she explains. "I received a message from a reader who told me that they had sent 'TNR' to GRRM directly, who is sometimes known to correspond with his fans over email. I had no idea of this and would have been mortified if I did — honestly, I am not sure why they felt it was a good idea, and it could have gone quite badly.
"But (again, as I was told) the reader was surprised that Martin not only responded, but said that he had read part of the fic and was very impressed with it. He apparently felt that 'TNR' could be the exception to his dislike of fanfiction, and found the story gripping."
qquenofhades admits she has never spoken to Martin personally, nor would she have wanted to discuss her fanfiction with him, but was told and saw multiple times online that this had actually occurred. His apparent enjoyment of it "is certainly flattering."
THE FATE OF A POPULAR FANFIC
What happens, though, when a fanfiction becomes so ingrained into fandom discourse? Can it become too big to handle? Does it stop belonging to you?
"When your fiction has a certain level of visibility, in a way it stops being yours and becomes fandom property, and people can sometimes feel a sense of ownership of the fic, and by extension, you," MadLori says.
This was something she deeply felt with her Sherlock fic "Alone on the Water." The downright notorious story made the rounds on Tumblr to a startling degree. It's even on Goodreads. The story deals with loss in multiple ways, and post after post was made about how it had affected readers; posts about the "sob fests" that would occur after fans read it and fans warning others to proceed with caution, as it really was the saddest thing they had ever read.
The reaction was (and still is) so profound that MadLori relinquished hold on it.
"At one point I had considered writing a follow-up [to 'Alone on the Water'] but there is such a strong sense of fandom ownership there that I decided not to. I felt that the story really no longer belonged to me, and that's okay," MadLori says. "The shared experience of crying over 'Alone on the Water' is not about me, it's about many fans having the same catharsis and sharing it with other fans."
There's also a heightened sense of responsibility, something diasterisms admits she feels more as "LWABOC" becomes more and more popular.
"I've felt overwhelmed but in a good way, like, overwhelmed with gratitude and with love for such a warm, supportive community. However, precisely because more people are reading it, I do feel that I've become more responsible when it comes to handling sensitive topics," she explains. "I now err on the side of caution when it comes to warning for potential triggering material and I sometimes ask other people in the fandom to do a sensitivity read for certain chapters before I post."
Shaya Lonnie has admitted that "Debt of Time" wasn't very diverse and has since made her following works more inclusive. "It's main focus was on healing, comfort, and a general lesson of 'Live your life, enjoy your life,'" she says. "Stories that I've written since then have tackled underlying messages of consent, tolerance, forgiveness, redemption, and what I hope is a more realistic look at relationships that exist both romantically and within families and friendships... It does make me feel responsible. People are clearly reading my work, and because my voice is being heard, I do make a more conscious effort to teach with my stories."
Sometimes, however, that still won't please the masses. qqueenofhades had to deal with such a reality for her Game of Thrones fic, and it's one of the reasons she's thankful she never got too involved in the fandom itself.
"I used to get quite a few comments trying to 'correct; me or telling me to focus more on character X instead of character Y, or that I had not done what so-and-so thought I should. Frankly, I am happy to invite anyone to write their own 617,000-word version of the ASOIAF story, and they can do it just the way they like," she says. She is quick to add that not all her experiences were negative, but it's hard to ignore the entitlement of fans these days, even when it comes to fanfiction.
"I'm glad I was initially oblivious to most of the critique that came with it. For the first two-thirds of the fic, I was updating very quickly (every few days), so when chapters came more slowly because of real-life complications and other interests, there was pushback and discontent." She says she would remind her readers that she was providing them with two novels worth of material for free and asked for patience. "[E]ntitlement in fan culture has in general become more of a problem over the last several years. Both in harassing canon creators and other fans, and this is an unfortunate change."
ADVICE FOR FANFIC AUTHORS
For those who may be seeing you fanfiction take off or a microfandom is already there, there's some advice from these authors that have run the gauntlet, for better or for worse.
"Stay out of it. Write the fic, that is your job." MadLori is pretty adamant about this. "Whatever reactions your readers have are theirs, not yours. Don't engage. You can be friendly without being involved in your own fandom. A fandom is not about the creator but about the fans in it, and you can't be one of them."
Along with the great, enthusiastic fans, there are also those who will make sure to tell a fanfic author everything that is wrong with their piece. In dealing with those, qqueenofhades suggests taking a step back, as well.
"Toxic fans are present everywhere now, unfortunately, but a sense of perspective and knowing when to step away will help you a lot. After all, it is just a story." She tends to keep to herself as well, citing that in the end, your creative property is yours, no one else's. It's great to have fans, but you're really still writing for yourself. "You should not feel bad about deciding what to tune out and what to focus on, and in the end, it is still your story that you are writing for free, in your spare time, and because you enjoy the source material and want to have fun with it."
Diasterisms agrees: "It's completely okay to take a step back whenever you're feeling overwhelmed or burned out. More people will understand than you think."
After all, fanfiction readers and writers are part of a fandom, yes, but they're also their own little community. While there's always those who will want to tear down another fic because they don't like the pairing, the story, or because it's more popular, the majority of the fanfiction community isn't like that. They're celebratory and passionate, creative and beautiful.
"Write because it's a story inside of you that is clawing its way out of your soul," Shaya Lonnie says. "Don't bend your plots in ways that don't make you happy just to appease the masses. Enjoy every moment, every word.
"Your words are being read across the entire world in countries you may never set foot on, by readers who may be gone tomorrow, by people who need a break from the stress of their job or school or from the grief [over the] death [of someone] close to them. Take that seriously. Fanfiction isn't written to make money. We do it for the love of the fandom — for the love of the story."