Another year gone, another Goodreads Reading Challenge failed. For all that I feel like I’m always reading, I seem to find it exceptionally difficult to meet this pesky little challenge that I, like so many other Goodreads-obsessed people, set for myself at the beginning of every year. Every January, I decide that I’m going to read dozens and dozens of books for fun by the time the year ends. And every December, I open Goodreads to the inevitable realization that I, yet again, have failed to meet this goal.
If Goodreads let me count the troves of novel-length fanfiction, or fic, I’m constantly reading, this wouldn’t be a problem. I read for fun all the time — a lot of this time, however, admittedly ends up being spent on the website whose icon I have front and center for easy access when I open Safari on my phone: Archive of Our Own, or AO3, one of the most popular fic websites.
The second half of my life so far — age 11 to age almost-21 — has been overlaid by an all-consuming obsession with fandom, an obsession that started in 2010 when I was trying to watch “10 Things I Hate About You” on the ABC website. I stumbled upon comments that linked to stories about the series on FanFiction.net, or FF.net. Within minutes I discovered that self-published stories about “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and “The Lord of the Rings” — the three biggest fantasy worlds in my life at the time — could also be found on FF.net, and thus began my most passionate relationship to date.
Fic changed the game for me. Throughout elementary school I’d been fairly open about my desire to write, taking to answering “an author” when asked what I wanted to be. It had never felt quite real, though; it always seemed like some kind of distant, faraway dream, decades away from fruition, if it ever came to fruition at all. But the idea of freely putting my writing out there with the added barrier of said writing being about pre-existing characters, which are often set within the framework of pre-existing fanfiction tropes, revolutionized my world.
After about two months of being a reader on the site that started it all, I started posting my own (downright terrible, but perhaps acceptable for my age) stories. Aside from one instance in which I was flamed to the point of deleting my never-to-be-finished “Percy Jackson” fic, I have to say the beginning of my fic-writing career was not too shabby. I made my first-ever internet friend through FF.net’s direct messaging feature after I commented on her “Harry Potter” fic, and she ended up writing me into the story as an original character. I returned the favor a few months later when I started writing and posting my own multichapter “Harry Potter” story.
After about two months of being a reader on the site that started it all, I started posting my own (downright terrible, but perhaps acceptable for my age) stories.
The year 2010 was also the time of my gay awakening, which meant it was a time of extreme internalized homophobia. Queerifying characters in fic is probably more common than keeping them as straight as they are in the canon, and at first I stayed far, far away from those “boy x boy” and “girl x girl” stories, as if I was afraid they’d somehow taint me or, worse, somehow immediately expose to everyone around me that I was eleven and starting to think I was probably-maybe-almost-certainly into girls.
The first time I dared to read a femslash fic, I was so emotionally confused that I left a ranting comment about how terrible being queer is, and how dare they do this to the characters I loved so much. The author responded rather kindly, thoughtfully explaining that there is nothing wrong with being queer.
At age eleven, sitting and sweating in my desk chair during the summer before entering sixth grade, I cried and cried after reading their words. No one had ever told me it was okay to be gay. No one had ever told me it was okay to be who I was. At that point, my only frame of reference for queerness was the scathing real world and the much more accepting world of fanfiction.
By thirteen, I was comfortable enough to come out to a friend for the first time. At twenty, I frequently write about LGBTQ+ media and issues. I can’t really say whether or not this would have happened without all the queer representation I experienced through fic — queer representation that made up for the smothering heterosexuality of media that fic writers seek to remedy.
Although it all started on FF.net, I made an AO3 account on March 16, 2013 and I haven’t stopped writing since. It’s objectively a nicer website, as it’s easier to navigate with a meticulous tagging system that lets you find exactly what you’re looking for.
It’s on AO3 where I’ve read most of the fic that has had the biggest impact on me as a writer. I think a lot of the time, fic being self-published (and also seen as the pitiful practice of lonely teenage girls with no social lives) leads to this perception that it isn’t any good, or at least can’t possibly be as good as traditionally published fiction. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of questionable content out there. Of course there is, if anyone can just post anything — AO3, for instance, does not moderate content. I’m sure a bit of imagination can fill in what “questionable” means in that respect.
But take into account the fact that fic writers do this for no profit and in their spare time. This past summer, for instance, I read and greatly enjoyed a “My Hero Academia” fic that was 208,585 words long — mind you, that’s longer than “Moby Dick.” AO3 is also to blame for my preoccupation with nonlinear writing styles, a creative decision forever imprinted on my brain after weeping over a Bilbo Baggins/Thorin Oakenshield fic that was over 100,000 words long.
I study literature, and without a doubt in my soul I can say there is fic out there that is better than a great deal of fiction published through conventional routes.
I call writing the single greatest love of my life. Literature comes along with that. I study literature, and without a doubt in my soul I can say there is fic out there that is better than a great deal of fiction published through conventional routes.
So if FF.net was the training ground, then AO3 was where I got serious, although that’s somewhat misleading to claim. AO3, you see, is where I got experimental. I’ve published a lot less on AO3 than I ever did on FF.net, as I made the switch around the same time as I traded in mindless middle school classes for advanced placement high school classes.
What I have managed to publish, however, is work that I’m admittedly proud of. I have a tendency to gravitate toward less-loved characters, toward less-loved romantic pairings (yes, 99% of the fic I read is “shippy”). In these less-traveled spaces I traversed quietly but fiercely, bringing my favorite side characters into the forefront. Although my AO3 journey began with me reading fandom power pairings such as John and Sherlock from BBC’s “Sherlock” (I was fourteen and it was 2013, so, like, duh), I never quite found myself inclined to contribute to that particular archive or to my other, more popular reading dalliances.
Instead, I wrote for smaller fandoms, or for smaller nooks within larger fandoms. I spent a substantial amount of time dedicated, for example, to the Hannibal Lecter books and films and, of course, the NBC television series “Hannibal.” To date, my favorite piece of all that I’ve ever composed is a two-part “Hannibal” fic, written between the ages of 15 and 16. Go figure.
When writing fanfiction, I’ve never felt any pressure to do anything for anyone other than myself. It’s a liberating and unique feeling, one I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Kind reception is nice, and I’ve always felt validated in receiving it, but that’s not quite the feeling I’m chasing by staying glued to AO3. Reading fic is a tried and true coping mechanism, a way of having the characters I hold near and dear at my fingertips, no matter where I am, in an archive of my own.