One of the really fun things about hosting other people on this blog is the meeting new people thing. But this isn’t really one of those guest spots. I’ve know Cecilia Tan faintly for ages through the days of Livejournal and Harry Potter fandom, and now she has a new (old, long story, read the post) book out, The Siren and the Sword, which is book 1 in her Magic University series.
Today she has a guest post for us about fanfiction, today’s publishing tastes, and how she got from there to here and back again. So often, when we talk about fanfiction I feel like that discussion is defensive, fearful, or defeatist — there are certainly incredibly good reasons in the history of fanfiction culture for this to be the case. Cecilia’s take is refreshing, because it’s not about that at all. It’s about different ways to tell stories and what it’s like when the world finally catches up with what you love.
Confessions of a Fanfic Hipster
by Cecilia Tan
Yep, these days fanfic is not just considered “cool,” it’s red-hot mainstream. Not only has a former Twilight fanfic (50 Shades) turned the English-language publishing world on its head, a One Direction fic serialized on Wattpad (After by Anna Todd) recently sold to a New York publisher for a six-figure advance, and the romance bestseller lists are well-populated with P2P works. Which puts writers like me in the odd position of being like those hipsters who were doing something “before it got big.”
Unlike those hipsters, though, I don’t complain about people discovering our “secret.” We weren’t TRYING to create an elitist cabal that others would long to join. Fanfic writers are the intersection of two of the nerdiest groups on Earth: writers and fans. I don’t think most of us thought of ourselves as “the cool kids,” we were just doing something we love! But these days even nerddom is going mainstream: certainly fandom is. In New England, where I live, the recent Rhode Island Comic Con sold out of tickets and turned thousands of people away. So did Arisia, the big multi-fandom science fiction convention in Boston. And don’t get me started on how huge events like San Diego Comicon and Atlanta’s DragonCon are. They’re on a different (huger) scale from Woodstock and they happen every year. It’s cool to be a fan these days.
I’ll tell you why I think fandom and fanfic are such a draw now. It’s not the superhero costumes or the magic spells themselves. It’s because what we’ve been fighting for as a culture–as both writers and as fans–is the right to express ourselves and to wear our hearts on our sleeves. And that right is finally being accepted. A lot of us growing up lived among Muggles, basically, and were told by the Aunt Petunias in our lives to keep our love of “weirdo” things like comic books and “inappropriate” gender expressions and alternative sexuality to ourselves. The pressure to conform acts on anything that isn’t “normal,” including freely expressed sexual desire, fannishness, queerness, and kinkiness. That pressure to conform still exists, but it hasn’t stopped gay marriage from being legalized in more than half the states or 50 Shades of Grey from dominating the bestseller lists (pun intended).
You will see all of those repressed elements–kink, queerness, sex, and fannish love of source material–come bursting out in fanfic. This is why many many fics are not merely continuations of the source material, but seem heavily skewed toward the yearnings in the fannish heart. Unanswered questions in the worldbuilding are answered in fanfic. Slash introduces both eros and homosexuality into texts whose canons may lack them. Even heterosexual fanfic often skews hard toward romance. And romances can skew toward kink (viz: all the many kinky Twi-fics, of which 50 Shades was only one of a horde). And so on.
To put it succinctly: what’s not to love? Fandom is about love, intense intense love, with dashes of deep devotion and maybe even some obsessive need. Fanfic is about expressing that love–which results in some intense intense fiction, incredible emotional rollercoasters–and about satisfying that need. That sounds like exactly the recipe one should follow to cook up a bestselling romance novel, doesn’t it? That’s exactly why fanfic novels and fanfic-inspired works, as well as wholly original works written by writers who “trained” in fanfic, are hitting it big now. Because out there the public is discovering that they like this awesome cuisine that is the food of our people, and there are big companies who are ready to take what we’ve been doing in our hole-in-the-wall speakeasies and deliver it to the masses. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is cool now.
It’s not a coincidence that my career as a writer has taken an upturn since the public tastes have begun to run in my direction. I fell into writing fanfic in the early 2000s when my career was in a slump. In the 1990s I had built up a reputation as a maven of erotic science fiction, combining BDSM and sf/fantasy in my work with explicit, alternative sexuality. I wrote it and I also published it, founding a publishing house to promulgate the genre (Circlet Press). My work was in major magazines like Asimov’s and my collection of short stories was published by HarperCollins, one of the biggest publishers then and now. But by 2002 the tide in both the USA and the publishing industry as a whole was flowing in a conservative direction. Thriving erotica publishers of the nineties were mysteriously closing their doors. Harper turned down my follow-up collection and it took 10 years before I found a publisher for it. Circlet Press (and I) went deep into debt.
I took refuge in fanfic. Although I had dabbled in fanfic before (if you search the Internet very hard you might find a Catwoman/Batgirl BDSM story from 1991 or a Wonder Woman from 1995…) I fell headlong into Harry Potter fanfic in 2006. With my career in a slump it was the best, most addictive way to “keep in shape” imaginable. I found not only a fulfilling way to keep up my writing chops, I found a receptive, supportive community who were not only as into Harry Potter as me, they were also were interested in the same social justice issues I was: erotic and sexual equality, freedom of sexual expression, alternative sexuality, feminism and empowerment of female needs and desires in both fiction and real life. AND writing! The fanfic community was (and is) a community of writers, of word-lovers, and deep nerddom, digging into the minutiae of worldbuilding and character motivation. It was like being a pro athlete whose league folded and despite having nowhere pro to play, finding a gym full of workout partners who loved and supported each other anyway. It’s a world of love.
It was for those my fandom friends that I wrote books like The Prince’s Boy, a gay BDSM high fantasy romance that if you squint hard can be read as a Harry/Draco AU. In the manner of a fanfic WIP, I wrote it as an online serial over the course of two years, to see if I could induce the same level of squee from my original characters and bring the same level of pleasurable addiction to my audience as I did with my fanfic. (Not a spoiler: yes, I did.) The subsequent book edition won Honorable Mention in both the Rainbow Awards and the NLA Writing Awards, so apparently the squee went beyond slash communities to the wider world. I think the love I got from my fanfic readers went right back into the story.
My fanfic friends were also the readers I wrote the Magic University books for. Magic U. grew out of countless fandom conversations about what education after Hogwarts must be like. J.K. Rowling said in an interview she thought there were no wizarding universities: after Hogwarts people were completely ready for wizarding life. That seemed impossible. For one thing, how did Snape become a potions master, then? (By owl correspondence course?) For another, many of the students in the book seem to have poorly grasped the spells they’ve been taught…! But I digress. I not only spent a lot of time thinking about how a magical university might work, I was also thinking about what characters who were 18, 19, and 20 years old might be like. After all, we leave Harry and cohort in the canon just when their love lives and sex lives were about to potentially get interesting. Most of the fanfic I wrote involved them at age 18 or older so as not to be illegal (or squicky) for involving underage characters, so I was writing about that age group a lot. All that thought, along with other criticisms I had about Rowling’s universe (why can’t spells go around corners? why do the Weasleys wear secondhand clothes when there seems to be no limit to what can be conjured?) came together in the magical system at work in Magic University.
The Magic U books first began to appear in 2009, originally published by Ravenous Romance. Because of the book’s strong fanfic ties, I wanted to bring things full circle, and so I convinced them to contract not only the four-book series from me, but an anthology of stories in the Magic U. universe by other writers. Fanfic, in other words. But before I could invite people to participate in the anthology, I began to find Magic U fanfic “in the wild.” So exciting! People were already starting to play in the sandbox without even knowing it might lead to something more. Because they were doing it for the love. I think they felt how much I had poured into the books and they responded. I ended up inviting two of those authors I stumbled across on fanfic archives into the book, and filled most of the rest of the slots with longtime HP fic friends. (And I wrote a few stories myself! Hm. Does that make them canon?)
A lot has changed, though, since five years ago. For one thing, the mainstream interest in BDSM proven by 50 Shades has led me to have a very busy writing schedule for some very big publishers. But I recently got the rights to Magic U back, and so I’m putting the series back in print (and ebook) at last. If you’re thinking you want to jump into the fanfic pool because you’ve heard it’s the hip thing, hey, come on in, the water’s fine. I welcome people playing with my ideas and my characters, even when they diverge from what I would have done. And who knows? Maybe some idea will spark for you that will start off in another direction and become the next bestselling trend. It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last!
The Siren and the Sword
Kyle Wadsworth arrives on the Harvard Campus only to discover, much to his surprise, he’s magical. Thus begins his four-year journey to learn where he fits in the world, which ultimately becomes a quest for true love.
Upon arrival at Veritas, Kyle quickly joins a group of peers who become involved in solving the mystery of a seductive siren in the library, while they learn about the magic inside themselves and around them, as well as the secret history of magic and those who practice it.
Kyle’s trials and tribulations range from his need to meet the bisexuality prerequisite before he can study sex magic to the fact that the ancient prophecy he translates for his thesis project seems to be about himself. If Kyle is right, he’ll need to find his true love, or the world as we know it is doomed.
Cecilia Tan is the award-winning author of romance and fantasy whom Susie Bright calls “simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature.” Her BDSM novel Slow Surrender won the RT Reviewers Choice Award and the Maggie Award for Excellence. She lives in the Boston area with her partner corwin and three cats.