Like many nerdy women with vividly active imaginations, I write fanfiction. And I enjoy the hell out of it.
But there was a time I wouldn’t have admitted that so easily. I didn’t even post my fanfiction online until years after college, when I sensed a refreshing absence of judgmental assholes in my life and decided to do whatever the fuck I wanted (incidentally, I also bought a custom, fully swimmable mermaid tail at that time). See, a funny thing about fanfiction is that even in nerdy company, you can get negative reactions for mentioning it. Judgmental assholes aside, lots of people—nerds and non-nerds alike—mean well but end up asking less than stellar questions about the hobby.
This is a list, dear reader, of the wrong questions to ask when you find out someone writes fanfiction. But maybe you do really want to know more about it. Never fear, reader, because I’m providing you with some alternative, non-sucky questions to ask instead!
1) Why do you write that?
Um, because I’m the definition of cool? I’m starting with this question because I don’t necessarily mind it, but the answer is so simple that it’s a little odd that people need to ask. Would you ask someone “why” they play video games?
I write fanfiction because it’s fucking FUN. It’s my favorite hobby and it makes me happy. Sure, to some it seems like a huge waste of time, and I get that. The cool part is that I don’t care. Golf kind of seems like a waste of time to me, but if you love it, I’m going to be super happy for you when you tell me you hit the green (???) today! Meanwhile, I wrote a thousand words in the comfortable indoors! Go team!
BETTER question: What do you enjoy about it? (My answer: I like throwing my favorite characters into new situations/storylines and seeing what happens!)
2) Can you make any money doing that?
Hey, probably not! Thanks for the reminder!
OK, this isn’t actually a sore subject for me. But would you say this to a friend who told you they love making cupcakes? Well, some people would make an “open a bakery” comment at that point, wouldn’t they? Let’s file this question under Please Stop Asking About All Hobbies Forever Thank You.
I understand where this question comes from—you hear about someone putting a lot of time and effort into something and wonder how it pays off. But this question sucks because it sounds like you can’t imagine why someone would write stories for free (see #1).
Without getting too soapboxy, one of the great things about fanfiction is that it only exists because people want to write it. There are a few lucrative opportunities these days, such as Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, but those are the exception for now. And I’m not saying I’m morally opposed to getting paid for writing fanfiction, although it would feel kind of like getting paid to pet kittens.
BETTER question: How long have you been writing it? (My answer: I started writing fanfiction as a teenager, and I’ve been dreaming up my own stories since I was a kid. Six-year-old Alicia was very invested in Lois & Clark, you guys.)
3) Isn’t there usually, like, SEX in that?
This is the reaction that gives me the most brain pain. Would you ask this question if someone told you they wrote romance novels or adult fantasy? (Does Diana Gabaldon get this question at parties?!)
What is it about fanfiction in particular that makes “erotic” a bad word? Turning your nose up at someone for writing stories that might include SECKS says a lot more about you (and our sex-negative culture!) than it does about any particular person’s work.
While it’s true that there is no shortage of fanfiction that includes sexual content, whether it does or not is no indication of quality. It’s similar to all other media that way.
True, some erotic fanfiction is hilariously awful (link probably NSFW), some is baffling or horrifying (Rule 34!), and a lot of it is terribly written and even less accurate, but…so what? People write fanfiction about anything and everything they want, so it naturally becomes an outlet for sexuality. If that bothers you, the great news is that you’ll never be required to read any of it.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I especially hate this question because, despite being a grown-ass woman and a sex-positive feminist, I’m still embarrassed by it.
BETTER question: Literally anything else.
4) Why don’t you just write your own fiction?
Here’s a fun fact: Original fiction is exponentially more challenging than fanfiction.
To be clear, “Do you write fiction?” is not a question I have an issue with in general; I’m usually glad to share that I do. But assuming that my time would be better spent on original work is shitty—like I need to prove that I’m a “real” writer and/or defend my hobby.
To put this in perspective, imagine telling someone you like to go jogging, and they reply with, “Why don’t you run marathons?” It’s easy to see how they made the leap, but it still sucks, right?
BETTER question: Do you enjoy other types of writing, as well? (My answer: Yes! In fact, I’m working on an article for a kick-ass feminist e-mag.)
5) Which characters do you write about?
Sorry, I’m too busy going into cardiac arrest to respond.
Actually, I’m probably giggling like an idiot, because now I’m thinking about my current ship and trying to answer you like a Reasonable Adult. Even my close friends who also write fanfiction know to phrase this like, “Can I ask what ship you’re writing?” It’s a personal question!
Here’s a rough guideline: If it would feel inappropriate for you to ask me about my bra size, don’t ask me which characters I write about. (Does not apply to sales associates.)
One of the reasons this isn’t something most fanfiction writers want to broadcast is because, hypothetically, it could make it much easier for you to zero-in on our work. Even though we know you’re probably not going to go all Lisbeth Salander and track us down, we’ll sleep better if you don’t have any clues.
BETTER question: How do you decide which characters to write about? (My answer: In general, I like to explore characters I love whose stories felt incomplete in some way.)
6) Can I read any of it?
This question is tricky, because in theory, there are writers out there who are totally fine with anyone reading their fanfiction. For the most part, though, these stories are highly personal creations, akin to diary entries or poetry. Unless someone you know is already sharing their fanfiction in a place where you have access to it, such as blog posts or Tweets, proceed with caution.
Also, this is a sincerely nice thing to offer, so it can feel weird to decline after talking about how much I enjoy the hobby. I appreciate that people are interested, but there are very few people I’ve personally invited to read my fanfiction. The friends who do read it are mostly those I met online via the same fandoms I’m writing for. That’s just how I roll.
But let’s say you are genuinely interested in reading someone’s fanfiction. That’s not a bad thing! It’s just better to avoid putting them on the spot. Also, please don’t offer unless you will actually read it if they share. It’s not weird if you don’t offer, I promise.
BETTER phrasing: If you ever feel like sharing, I’d love to read some of your work!
7) OMG how dumb is it that Fifty Shades of Grey was originally fanfiction?
STOP. WITH. THIS. Fanfiction is not the problem with Fifty Shades. Shitty writing is. Stop using fanfiction as an easy, cheap insult. You want to talk about how it’s a direct rip-off of Twilight, that it romanticizes abuse, or that the characters are flat and unlikeable? Please do (and check out Jenny Trout’s brilliant recaps)! Just don’t make fanfiction the punchline to the unfunny joke that is Fifty Shades’ popularity.
Confession time: One of my best original characters originated in a fic. Her background was completely my own, and I liked it so much I decided she belonged in an original story. Hashtag no regrets!
BETTER question: Would you like one of these warm doughnuts? (Seriously, STOP.)
There you have it. From now on, when you encounter the strange and timid fanfiction writer in the wild, you’ll be adequately prepared to not frighten her off. Fellow fanfiction writers, what annoying questions am I missing? I’m sure the list goes on!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have fanfiction to write. (No joke; it’s open in my next tab.)