Fanfic first, novel... eventually

A word on the virtues of fanfiction, my gateway drug of choice.

My introduction to fanfiction was back in the 90s in the heyday of The X-Files. (Shout out to my fellow Gossamer Project readers!) I thought for sure people would think I was weird for reading it, so I instinctively kept it a dirty little secret between me and other lonely internet dwellers, clinging to the glow of a computer monitor at 3 a.m.

I now realize not everyone online was cloaked in shame and solitude. I was super depressed at the time, so that was my worldview, and The X-Files was basically all that was keeping me going. In my opinion, fandom in general can be a totally healthy, exhilarating thing, something that brings people together; I was just not healthy.

And you know what? Some people do think fanfic is weird. I'm sorry you're missing out.

At this point, I feel the need to explain to the uninitiated that despite its reputation, fanfic does not automatically equal smut. Yes, you can find eye-poppingly dirty stuff about any character ever created, but there's also a wealth of G- and PG-rated material featuring friendships, romance, parenting, grief, and random shit that's totally bonkers in just the best way. I've read a bit of everything and think there's room for all of it. And there's some stunningly beautiful writing out there, work at a level I can only aspire to.

Anyway, cut to more than a decade later, when my life had completely changed course. With a little help from my wife, I found my way back to the fanfic world, this time in a fandom for a different show. I tunneled fast and deep, consuming basically all the fics I could get my eyeballs on. Still, it didn't occur to me to try and write my own fics.

Writers, you see, were people who had interesting things to say, and because of that, I never thought of myself as one of them.

Here's where my logic was faulty: "Interesting" is subjective.

I've loved writing for as long as I can remember. In practice, that meant almost entirely nonfiction. I journaled a ton in high school and got super nerdy about writing papers. I did take some fiction writing classes in college, but my degree is in journalism, so any professional work I've done has been in that vein. That's right; even when people gave me money to put words on a screen that I came up with myself, I didn't believe I was a writer. I felt like anybody could have written what I wrote. It wasn't unique or special. To me, the idea that I had a voice of my own was basically bullshit.

On top of that, I'd never once finished writing a piece of fiction just for fun. In fact, I very rarely started them at all. My downfall was that I've never felt creative in my life; pulling ideas out of thin air, whether in writing, composing photos, or decorating a cookie, is this totally paralyzing struggle for me. Someone says "let's brainstorm," and I start to hear my heartbeat in my ears. I don't know if it's because I put too much pressure on myself to birth a fully-formed, near perfect creation, or if I'm just really boring. Whatever the case, coming up with something from scratch is, more often than not, on the verge of torture.

But look at me now, I'm writing a book! And it's make-believe and everything.

It all changed for me when I was listening to one of my favorite Tegan and Sara songs for the fiftieth time, and I was struck with the feeling that it fit the pair of women in my favorite fandom. My mind kind of threw an idea together about what that might look like, and it wouldn't leave me alone. Without any real concentration on my part, more pieces of the puzzle kept popping into place, and I swear to you I was like, "What is this feeling?" This had only happened to me one other time, but just barely (more on that soon).

So finally I set out to write it, fully expecting to run out of steam. I didn't have every last element figured out, and I had no clue what the ending was at all. Winging it felt completely unnatural, but I had nothing to lose.

Usually, "nothing to lose" doesn't feel like a real scenario to me. Even if no one else will ever see what I'm writing, I will see it and know it didn't come together well or isn't as funny as I wanted or whatever, and that feels like a loss.

It's such an impossible standard, to not even be allowed to fail in your own imagination.

I think in this case, though, nothing to lose meant nothing to gain. Writing fanfic felt like an open acknowledgement that I wasn't trying to write the next Pultizer Prize winning novel. I wasn't even using my own characters; how serious could it be? E.L. James aside, a more realistic best-case scenario with fanfic was I would post it online anonymously and people would enjoy it for free. Maybe they'd let me know. But it wasn't going to turn my world upside down (spoiler alert: I was wrong). The stakes were pretty low, and there was freedom in that.

There's a reason teachers tell you to place limits on yourself, to stay within certain lines to help your writing. For me, having an established world and characters, plus the parameters of song lyrics, plus the fact that nothing major would come of it, was such a tight box to work in that I managed to loosen up for once and try to fill in the gaps. The result was not only that I finally reached the words "the end," but I came up with 17,000 others before them.

To say I felt empowered would be an understatement. I was Dumbo and I'd found my feather.

Feeling vulnerable and nervous as hell, I posted my story to the fan community. I found a small but kind audience, which was rewarding in a way I hadn't expected. But it was just a bonus compared to the knowledge that I was able to bring an idea to fruition after all and enjoy the process. So I did it again. And again. I tried different voices and tones, developed an outlining process that makes sense to me, and just got in a lot of practice. I was finally flexing muscles I hadn't allowed myself to use.

Because here's the lesson neither teachers, mentors, nor friends had ever been able to successfully convey to me: It will come to you. That's it. You don't have to know it all right away. Just do the thing.

It's not that no one tried to tell me; I just profoundly believed they were wrong. I've known and worked with a lot of people "it" just comes to, all the time. I've witnessed it in action, words tripping over each other to flow from their mouths and pens. Sure, not all their ideas were winners, but they were better than the big, fat nothing I was putting out there.

I wasted so much time hating myself for not being one of those people. Thinking it meant I wasn't talented, that I'd never be successful, that I simply couldn't produce anything.

To be honest, I still feel that way a lot of the time. But now I have proof that I'm wrong: 85,000 words written and edited in under a year, when my previous count was zero. (For the record, that's not necessarily a lot, but I'm proud anyway.)

My hope is if I did it before, I can do it again.

Years ago, I had an idea for a single scene. I just saw it play out in my brain one day, out of nowhere. I've always been super curious about it, but at the time I didn't believe I could come up with a story for it to be a part of. Now I do. And I have. There's no way I would have come this far without the friendly training ground fanfic provided for me to get those muscles in shape and build a little confidence in myself.

The other really helpful and unexpected thing I got from fanfic is a fantastic friend. We chat almost every day, about writing and remodeling our homes and life, and her endless encouragement has kept me afloat and engaged with this thing I really do love to do.

Having a super supportive wife to bounce ideas off of didn't hurt either.

I know I'm talking like I've already achieved so much, yet I don't actually have a book to show for it. You'll just have to trust me that this is a major development; reaching an entirely new mindset is not an insignificant thing. But I do realize it's only the first of many daunting steps. Novel writing is going to be a bigger, more complicated challenge than the fluff I wrote in fandom, but that's okay. I'm ready to let go of my feather.