Friday, March 20, 2020

What Do We Think of Fanfic Now?

A conversation between Dal Maclean and Nicole Kimberling

Good morning, Gentle Readers! 

I have a special treat for you on the blog today. Two of my favorite writing buddies are here to help promote Dal Maclean's new release Blue on Blue, but instead of doing the usual HEY, IT'S HERE, PLEASE BUY IT approach, Dal and her editor Nicole Kimberling (who happens to be one of my fav mystery writers, by the way) thought it would be a lot more interesting for you (and them!) to know...CHAT about stuff. In this case, about Fanfiction, which is where I first met Dal (The Professionals fandom, for them what cares to know).

And honestly, I love that idea because--let's be honest--we're all starting to blend into the white noise of a million authors trying desperately to hawk their wares at the same moment. More and more, I think that old school approach of personal connection and actual conversation, might ultimately serve us all better.

What do you think?

Anyway, without further adieu, my writing pals Dal Maclean and Nicole Kimberling!

NK: So, DM, when I was in the process of acquiring your first novel, Bitter Legacy, we exchanged several letters about your style, inspirations and approach to fiction writing in general. One thing you mentioned at that time was that you were drawing your inspiration from a “fanfiction tradition.” I thought it was fascinating that you had identified fanfic as having its own style and specific goals so that even when a person was writing original material, such as your novels for Blind Eye Books, it could be said to be derived from the aesthetic of fanfic. This was in 2015, when participation in the fanfic community was still considered déclassé and I found it refreshing that you’d represent for that writing community so boldly. So for the benefit of Josh’s followers can you run down your basic concept of the fanfic aesthetic?

DM: Well… I’m a big admirer of fanfic, and it’s where I started out. As you say it’s always been looked down on  a bit and mocked, maybe because it’s such a  female space, maybe because it’s by definition ‘amateur’, maybe it’s the ‘fan’ bit.  But I suppose I think of it as almost pure in its ethos of creativity for the sake of it - and actually I suppose, a bit culturally subversive in the way it takes an official, sanitized narrative and makes it what it wants. It can definitely be invasive, it can cross too many lines, but I think my basic concept of the fanfic aesthetic is freedom. It’s kind of red in tooth and claw, often reeking with angst, untrammeled by rules or ‘thou shalt nots’. Like a literary wild west with vanishingly few sheriffs.

It used to be that ‘kink shaming’ was one of the worst things anyone could be accused of in fanfic and as a result fanfic erotica went to some incredible places. As I understand it, commercial M/M was sort of the love child of slash fanfic and conventional MF romance and maybe that fanfic legacy explains the popularity of shifter and MPreg in M/M?  In fanfic that was everyday stuff for a long time. This all sounds very idealized and we all know there is some truly, truly terrible fanfic. But some is glorious, and all produced from and for love.

I think the marriage of slash fanfic with MF romance though probably brought the Romance Rules to ‘slash’ and with that, several lines that can’t be crossed by writers. I’m definitely in tune with some of that -- for example I love HEAs because I personally really disagree with the idea that good writing somehow requires unhappy endings).  But I also adore the fanfic attitude to angst and emotional/romantic challenge and redemption. Characters in fanfic are allowed to have genuine flaws and behave badly (in and out of their relationships) for whatever reason, and still remain heroes who can be redeemed. I think the fanfic audience tends to factor real and flawed heroes into the equation from the start, perhaps because the original characters showed flaws.  

Anyway, that–recognizable coherent character imperfections, and genuine mistakes which have to be overcome to reach the HEA, have always been, I admit, catnip to me as a reader and then as a writer. Angst and genuine redemption and none of the ‘but darling she’s my sister’ (full credit to Josh Lanyon for that perfect encapsulation of what fanfic would see as copping out on dramatic conflict). I think the love of a genuinely hard road for characters created partly by their own mistakes and natures, not just external obstacles or ‘misunderstandings,’ comes from the fanfic aesthetic.

I think M/M romance though even with its fanfic antecedents increasingly wants unflawed, perfect characters and chafes against heroes who fuck up or aren’t always ‘heroic’ in the strictest sense? Maybe those heroes break the Romance contract?

NK: I think the trend toward the utterly blameless romantic leads comes from the rise of YA, tbh. It’s putting that classical ethically unsullied YA hero/ine into an adult storyline. YA as a genre is really about coming to terms with (or violently rejecting) the moral ambiguity of adulthood. The reason that those sorts of characters can become tedious in romance is that romance is about learning compromise in order to find adult partnership and proceed to build forward into the world. In traditional het romance that’s manifests as having children and building the next generation.

I’d argue that MPreg is a simple extension of that first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage progression. A softer version of this can manifest as a chain of mentoring where, say, the primary couple in book one of a series rotates into parental “established couple” mode to help the romantic leads from book two get together, and so on, eventually knitting together large, extended families of choice.

In other M/M romances you’ll see the proverbial baby carriage replaced with teaming up to create something different, like a business, or sports championship  or to seize the crown of a fantastical realm or gain leadership of the shifter pack—or whatever. J

DM: Interestingly I once read advice from a (mainstream) author that out of all the pieces of advice I saw, stuck with me: if there’s a bad situation in your story and you have the chance – *always* make it worse.  Always up the ante for your readers. That’s a fanfic dynamic and I do sort of miss it.

NK: Sure—I mean it’s a dynamic of good storytelling in general. In fanfic though you’re allowed to jump the shark in spectacular ways that—even when kinda dumb—can be really enjoyable on a, “woah, you really went there . . . bold move, my friend!” level.

DM: Of course with fanfic you’re playing with other people’s toys in a ready created universe which your audience already knows and loves which is a different starting point to original fiction. But I think that – writing fanfic - does give you the drive to know your characters inside out, and that moves on to the ones you subsequently create. In fanfic you’re using characters you already know inside out – other people did the work on that - so you have a fair idea what they’d do in any situation. Maybe that helps drill fanfic writers to prioritize character integrity over plot because a fanfic audience will always know what each character would do in a given situation? Or maybe I’m romanticizing it? I think its good training anyway.

What do you think as largely a non fanficcer? Do you see anything left in M/M romance of fanfic antecedents?

NK: I think the main thing I see is the urge among fanfic writers to humanize flat, one-dimensional or perfunctory characters, especially characters who are presented as villains. That’s come through very strongly into M/M where we see characters who are much more morally ambiguous than we’d normally see in mainstream romance.

DM: That’s a really good point. Often the characters that fanfic authors start out with have potential that isn’t realized in the original work. Or those morally ambiguous characters or complex bad guys can be the ones that capture the imagination of writers and make them want to probe deeper and expose new layers to them, like… The Penguin and The Riddler in Gotham for example? Or Chevalier de Lorraine and Monsieur in Versailles – morally complex.

NK: God, I loves me some good nygmobblepot  fan art . . .

* drifts away briefly to search the hashtag on Tumblr for new stuff *

Er . . .  ahem . . . anyway, back to fanfic: what do you think An Archive of Our Own’s recent Hugo win means for fiction writing going forward?

DM: Well… I don’t know. I mean I think it’s a brilliant achievement . And its mainstream recognition for the power and reach of fanfic, but maybe that’s not what fanfic’s about. I think what MM has shown is that the mainstream embrace *can* overwhelm what fanfic is, rather than the other way round.  

Do you think it’s a good thing – that it increases respect or credibility for fanfic?

NK: Well, the Hugo is awarded by a popular vote so what it shows is that fanfic participation has grown to actually BE mainstream—at least in the speculative fiction community. We all have either written fanfic or had a dozen friends who did.

Fun Fact: the first piece of fiction I ever edited was a K/S slash piece for the “First Time” zine. So in a way I got my start in fanfic too, just as an editor, rather than a writer.

DM: Robin Hood!!!! I remember reading those!

NK: Yeah, I was pretty terrible at constructively communicating then—I had yet to develop my charming bedside manner. (lol)

DM: Well you’re bloody good now. And your bedside manner is just what this fanfic dilettante needs to whip her into shape. Actually… that sounds a bit fanficcy.

NK: Now that you’re an author and you have fans of your own pitching ideas for your characters has your perspective changed?

DM: I honestly can’t think of anything more flattering as an author than creating characters or a universe that readers love and are inspired by sufficiently to want to write about them or draw them.  I don’t think there can be a greater complement than that as a writer.  It's certainly what spurred me to write fanfic – and write creatively for the first time – falling in love with certain characters and universes, and becoming frustrated by having their story limited to what was handed down by the writers and actors.

To answer your question properly, a couple of people who read Blue On Blue early on and understood that the story as I told it was now largely over instantly came up with some amazingly clever storyline ideas for some of the side characters. Not least a fizzing start of a fic with Pez (from Object of Desire) and Mark Nimmo (from OOD and Bitter Legacy). I absolutely love all that.

But then some (usually very big) authors do get upset by fanfic. Can you understand that? I’m asking because I struggle to.

NK: I think probably its because there are fan writers who overstep or even reverse the intention of a story. And because there is a tendency among fanfic writers to equate fanfic that is based on a television show which has several writers, in addition to producers etc., and is therefore already a shared-universe kind of model, with stories written by a single author for a single intent.

After bearing the burden of single-handedly creating those hundred thousand words or so, it can be insulting to have somebody show up and essentially say, “your version of your story was okay but look! I made it better by undoing what you did!” (Especially if the fanficcer is particularly tacky or lacks social skills in the first place.)

And there is the ever-enduring question of ownership of a fandom, as we’ve seen played out in the Star Wars universe and more recently the Harry Potter fandom.

But I think that most fanfic is written from a place of admiration and a desire to participate in an author’s world. So, if an author cringes at the notion of another person impuring their undiluted concepts and vision with fan stories, fan art, video homages, mood boards, character alignment charts and the like, then that author must ask themselves whether they are ready to participate in public storytelling. Because if you have success, you will have all these things in addition to reviews, criticism and even . . . the dreaded specter of editorial input.

DM: Ha! Yeah that sounds fair.

NK: So, Gentle Readers, do you have thoughts about fanfic? Please comment below! We’d love to have a chat with you!


Dal Maclean comes from Scotland.  Her background is in journalism, and she has an undying passion for history, the more gossipy and scandalous the better. Dal has lived in Asia and worked all over the world, but home is now the UK. She dislikes the Tragic Gay trope, but loves imperfect characters, unreliable narrators and genuine emotional conflict in romantic fiction. As an author, and a reader, she believes it’s worth a bit of work to reach a happy ending. Agatha Christie, English gardens and ill-advised cocktails are three fatal weaknesses, though not usually at the same time. Her first book, 'Bitter Legacy' was a 2017 Lambda Literary Award finalist (Mystery), and was chosen by the American Libraries Association for their 2018 Over the Rainbow Recommended Books List.

Nicole Kimberling is a novelist and the senior editor at Blind Eye Books. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other works include the Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years as well as an ongoing cooking column for Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. She is also the creator and writer of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” a serial fiction podcast, which explores the day-to-day case files of Special Agent Keith Curry, supernatural food inspector.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I read fanfic for many years. I don't read so much now, because there's just not enough time in the day. There was such a sense of community and I remember getting a canon book and being so excited about the fanfic that was to come.

    1. I honestly never read too much fanfic--I wasn't really online until much later than my peers, I think--but I do find that I really enjoy fan art--like to a ridiculous degree. :)

    2. That is exactly it! The last book I felt like that about was probably Captive Prince. Though that began as an original fanfic ironically.

  2. Great chat!! I really enjoyed it! And yes... I do read a lot of fanfics myself and wrote a few too. Completely agree.

  3. Now I love Dal even more! Thank you, Josh!

  4. You're quite welcome! We enjoyed writing it. :)

  5. I enjoyed that! It's always cool tho get insight into authors' inner workings and thoughts on writing in general. I had a couple of fanfic universes I was obsessed with for a long time until life just got too busy to keep up with, and getting new chapters (or whatever) was unpredictable. It did lead me to M/M fiction and I haven't read much else since. I especially love the continuing romance/ mystery series. I feel invested and it's a wonderful escape from Real Life. I'm embarrassingly excited when favorite authors release new books. Thank you, ladies, for sharing your talent and your time!

  6. Good fanfic is good, but it's also rare. And maybe it's because my tastes changed, but I feel as though there was a "golden age" around 2005-2010 and since then fanfic has trended slowly worse and worse. Though to be fair, one of my main complaints is the ludicrous, ubiquitous "Omegaverse" genre which seems to have bled over into actual published fiction.

    Another complaint I have, as a gay man who reads a lot of m/m fiction, is that the writers of fanfic--usually younger women--have no idea how gay men's minds work, or men in general really. It's not that women can't write good male characters--the three of you all being great examples (by the way Ms. MacLean I absolutely ADORED Bitter Legacy)--but there's something noticeably "off" about the way a lot of fanfic writers portray dudes in general and gay dudes in particular. This problem compounds itself when they attempt to write male characters from a generation older than their own, because we're left with ostensibly tough guy hockey players or professors or police officers with the mentality of high school age girls.

    Of course, half the time the characters in an m/m romance in fanfiction aren't gay at all, or even bisexual. They're "gay for you," which means that they're straight and have never thought about a guy like that before but suddenly they're super attracted to the soft spoken nerd tutoring them in Defense of the Dark Arts or whatever. Or they "don't want to put a label on" what they're feeling (a nice sentiment, but it doesn't really work like that, sorry). I think this is because fanfic authors don't really have any interest in gay characters or issues, they simply want Harry Potter and Edward Cullen to bang each other.

    And there's nothing wrong with that, of course. I don't begrudge any fanfiction author (or published author, for that matter) the desire to write anything they want, for whatever audience they want. But the gay men I know aren't typically interested in reading fiction written from that perspective.

    I don't want to paint all fanfiction authors with the same brush, either--there are many who write wonderfully, sometimes better than a good many published authors. I've read novel-length fanfiction that was beautiful, and, even more often, is a lot of fun. It's just that more and more, I think of these well-written stories as oases and the desert between them is becoming more and more vast.

  7. Thanks, Nicole and Dal! I loved reading your thoughts about fanfic! I've been reading fanfic for ages and am now at a point where the number of words that I read fic exceeds the number of words I read in "real" (meaning: published) books. There is excellence to be found in fanfic writing just as in published books, as well as mediocre writing. I find that I have favourite authors in fanfic now and that I follow them from fandom to fandom, going as far as reading fic first and watching/reading the orginal source after the fact. :-D

    I enjoy the boldness and imaginativeness of fanfic, "going where no man has gone before" and miss that in books sometimes when you encounter the same old, same old (as it happens sometimes).

    I agree with your point of character coming first in fanfic and plot second. Either the fanfic-writers study the source within an inch of its life to not misrepresent the heroes or to be able to fill them with character in a believable way when the source left them flat as a paper cutout.
    Anyways... fanfic, yes.

    Looking forward to Dal's new book! Can't wait! :-)

  8. This was great! I read quite a lot of Torchwood fanfic in the day. There were indeed multiple MPreg stories maybe because it was set in the science fiction genre. Fascinating though -to me- the best fanfic I ever read was in a Panic! At The Disco forum. I was policing what my then middle schooler was up to and stumbled upon this fantastical behemoth. It was amazing. I like to think that person indeed up in the literary world somewhere.