Lev Grossman, S.E. Hinton, and Other Authors on the Freedom of Writing Fanfiction

The Outsiders. Photo: Jed Egan/Photo: Nancy Moran/Sygma/Corbis, Warner Bros.

We tend to think of the fanfiction writer as an obsessed amateur, pounding away at the keyboard for sheer love of the subject. But professional authors are fans, too, and the following successful novelists have dipped their pens in the fic inkwell. Here’s what they had to say about the experience. 

S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders)
I’ve written three or four stories for Supernatural, which is my favorite TV show. And a few years ago I wrote three Outsiders stories to see what kind of a response I would get. I use a different name, naturally. People would say, “Wow, you really got the characters down right!” And I’d be like, Glad to hear it. The feedback from fanfic readers tends to be really simple. Along the lines of, “Oh my God, I love this! Keep going!” Nothing specific, like what you’d get from an editor. But it is immediate, and there’s something to be said for that.  

I seldom spent more than a day writing a fanfic story, sometimes less. It’s something I did for fun, and none of the stories are really meant for more than a few minutes of enjoyment. For The Outsiders fanfiction, I will say that I set the characters in a different time period. And I mean really different. This story would have been historical even when The Outsiders came out. The boys face their first Christmas after the end of the novel, and the death of Ponyboy and Darry’s parents. I was amazed at how incredibly easy it was to get back on the page.

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I told two stories from Darry’s point of view, which is an indication that I’m older now. I don’t know if I’d even try one from Ponyboy’s point of view anymore. In the original story, Ponyboy sees Darry as this annoying parental figure who is bossing him around all of a sudden. But writing from Darry’s point of view, I felt a lot more sympathetic towards him. I saw that he was trying his best to be a good caretaker. I didn’t have to alter Darry’s character at all in the new story, because there was plenty there from the original to be enlarged upon.

Two of the best stories I’ve ever read in my life, published or not, were fanfiction. One was actually an Outsiders story. The writing was gorgeous. Really beautiful — the way the writer conveyed the characters. So I wrote to her. She was European, and it took her a while to believe that it was really me. I said, “I think you’ve really got a future in writing, so keep it up.” Fanfiction can make me cry as easily as any other story.

Lev Grossman (The Magicians)
I’ve contributed to fandoms for Harry Potter, Adventure Time, and How to Train Your Dragon, and I would say that the challenges in fanfiction and traditional fiction are essentially the same. In fanfiction you’re working with characters and in worlds created by somebody else, so you don't start from scratch. But novelists don't always start from scratch, either. They write about real historical figures, and they borrow characters, the way Jean Rhys did in Wide Sargasso Sea, or Tom Stoppard did in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The trick is to make them your own.

I often think of my books as responses to other books. It's a bit like the theory Harold Bloom writes about in The Anxiety of Influence, about how poets create by responding to their predecessors. Some fanfiction does this very well — very resourcefully, very daringly, very outrageously. And I've learned from reading it. I think fanfiction’s negative reputation comes from our contemporary obsession with the idea of originality. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that we put a huge amount of emphasis on stories as intellectual property. There are great reasons for doing that — I might not have a career otherwise. But there are other ways to think about originality. For example, Shakespeare thought nothing of borrowing characters. He didn't invent Hamlet, but borrowed him and used him for his own purposes. Virgil didn't invent Aeneas, and Goethe didn't invent Faust. I think plots and characters circulated more freely back then. That freedom could give rise to masterpieces.

Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries
I started writing fanfiction before there was the internet. I loved Star Wars, so that was the fanfiction that I wrote. Until my mom was like, “Just to let you know, you’ll never make any money doing that.” And then she explained the whole thing about copyright. I was 11. Even then I was interested in making money off of writing, and I was like, Oh, crap. I’m not going to do this anymore! But I do encourage it for young writers, because I think it’s a good way to learn. You’re using somebody else’s world to play around in. However, I always strongly encourage people who are serious about writing to leave that world as soon as they feel confident. Clearly that’s somebody else’s stuff, and you want to go out and earn your living. I loved doing it, but then I grew up.

I was actually really surprised and pleased when I found out that there was a ton of fanfiction based on my own books. But I definitely don’t read it, for practical reasons. You don’t want to subconsciously end up copying somebody else’s ideas about your own work. My lawyers told me that.

Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings (Beautiful
Hobbs: At first we kept our fanfiction background a secret, because we had been told that it was a black mark in the publishing industry. If publishers knew where we were coming from, they wouldn’t take us seriously. So we submitted our manuscript the traditional way, right around the time Fifty Shades of Grey came out. Then we admitted that we had written these stories on the internet that had really, really big followings. And our agent thought it was great! So we gave her a new story that was about 20 percent fanfic and called it Beautiful Bastard. It sold right away.

Billings: I write Hunger Games fanfic to this day. Even if you’re a big author, your fanfic readers won’t let you get a big ego. They put you in your place. 

Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game
When I was starting out, fanfiction didn't exist except in Star Trek and Star Wars fandom — and I wasn't part of those. However, I’ve contributed to two homage anthologies. My story "Origins" was set in Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe, and my story "Feed the Baby of Love" was set in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine universe. Both writers had been very important to me as a reader and a writer learning his craft, and I am still very proud of the work I did for both anthologies.

I always tell my writing students that if they just stay home and write a 100,000-word novel, they'll probably learn more than they will from attending any writing class, including my own. The advantage to fanfiction is that because someone else created the world, your creativity will be focused on character, story, and performance; the disadvantage is that instead of finding worlds and stories inside yourself, you're worshipfully following behind someone whose vision may not be as deep and true as yours.