One of the many quirky and interesting things about Dreamspinner Press’s staff is that many of us first discovered m/m romance through the world of slash fanfiction – “Harry Potter,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Supernatural,” and many many others. In general, if a work submitted for publication was originally fanfiction, we’ll notice unless the author has done an outstanding job of removing every single little detail. Now, don’t let that make you fret; we don’t discriminate. A good story is a good story, and what a publisher cares about is whether the story can stand on its own, out of the fanfiction-universe context, and also have original enough characters and setting that no one gets in legal trouble.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the “ethics” of fanfiction, and while I can only speak for myself on this matter, I think that it boils down to ownership of creative materials. A writer can’t steal/borrow obviously unique characters or worlds, but they can make their own; after all, there’s nothing outstandingly unique about tropes like an orphaned boy who stumbles into an exciting new world, a compassionate vampire, or a fantasy-world elf. The key is to change enough of the details so that a non-obsessive fan won’t recognize it. (An obsessive fan will recognize anything – even if sometimes they get it wrong. I once read a submission and would have sworn that it was Arthur/Eames from “Inception,” except that it was a novel-length story that was submitted less than a month after the movie was released, making it highly unlikely that someone would have seen the movie, thought about the pairing, and written a novel over 60k words so quickly.)
So yes, I think that it’s fine to cannibalize/rework your fanfiction and send it into a publisher. Many of our authors work like that, and why not? As long as you’re not infringing on anyone else’s creative material, use whatever tools you have to inspire you. Tolkien and Shakespeare both borrowed from real historical events and folk tales; I think I once read an interview where Anne Rice said her character Lestat was modeled on the actor Rutger Hauer. If they can do it, why can’t you?
All right, so now that you’re feeling good about turning your fanfiction into original fiction, let me tell you what I think it takes – making the characters and their world you own. All of it. If you’re writing a story about two guys who are hunting demons, and they have an “almost-brotherly” relationship, well, I’m going to catch that it’s Sam and Dean from “Supernatural.” If your contemporary characters are both over six feet tall, from Texas, shockingly good-looking, and have parents/siblings/best friends who all share the same name and occupations as the real life family and friends of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, I’m going to notice – I read “People” magazine in the hair salon too. You need to not only change the physical descriptions and names of the main characters, but the names and occupations of their friends, family, settings, etc. I know this seems onerous, but it’s these sorts of details that I, as an editor, pick up on and that pulls me out of a story I approached as an original work.
|Photo Credit: graur razvan ionut|
Finally, one of the most difficult aspects to alter is the world/setting. If your fantasy-world shares some fairly unique attributes as one in a movie or book or TV show, it’s going to be difficult to strip off the fandom elements and replace them with something wholly your own. Generally speaking, while contemporary settings translate just fine, anything too specifically sci-fi or fantasy takes more work to revise. It’s difficult to get out all the elements that signify a “Star Trek” story, for example. (Not impossible, though.) A good question to ask while working on your revisions is “What other examples of this have I seen, other than my source?” If it’s an element that has only been used once (or only once in an obvious way), you should probably change it. If it’s a more general trope, go for it.
From a publishing perspective, what I think publishers don’t want to see is something that’s a screaming red flag of copyright infringement. Publishers are fairly intelligent, well-read, pop culture savvy people, and they’re a diverse enough group that there’s a high probability someone will recognize your fandom (heck, they might even have read your story in its fanfictional incarnation). That’s okay, but it means that your story needs to be revised a little more before they’re going to feel comfortable about publishing it; after all, if the submissions reviewer or editors recognize it, your readers/reviewers might too, and they’re going to be a lot more harsh about your brilliant Victorian-era detective Edmund Shamrock and his good friend Joseph Wilson.
Just in case I’ve given you a complex and made you feel insecure, let me take this opportunity to reveal that several of Dreamspinner Press’s stories started out their lives as fanfiction. Some even by our best-selling authors. I’d never “out” anyone by name, but rest assured that the author used someone else’s characters/world/personalities as the foundation for telling their own story. That’s okay - the more alive a character or world is in the mind of the writer, the more alive and real it becomes for the reader. It’s not a shortcut, and it’s not a sin. It’s more common that you think, so go for it – polish up your old fanfiction stories, tweak and revise and make the details your own, and send them in!
Julianne Bentley is a member of the submissions team for Dreamspinner Press. She’s also an obsessive slash fangirl with omnivorous tastes. (Opinions expressed herein are not necessarily representative of Dreamspinner Press.)