by Cathryn Burge
I started writing to win an argument. Or rather, I started sharing my writing because I wanted to win an argument. I’d been writing in secret since I was ten. I’d got into this argument on an online forum about Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show about which I was (and am) fiercely passionate. I forget the precise topic of the debate; all I remember is jaw-clenching, hair-tearing-out frustration at my inability to get my opponent to see reason. Viz: agree with me. To my mind, I was being rational and clear, quoting closely from the show. To my opponent, I was simply wrong.
Naturally, I wasn’t prepared to let it go at that. I wrote a scenario as true to the show as I could manage, and had the characters act out my idea of where the show might go. The advantage of fiction over debate, I realized, was that I could set the rule. I knew there were some limits (the original work in the case of fanfiction, and internal consistency in original fiction), but essentially I was God and could never be wrong! So starting the Buffy characters from Point A, I wove in my own interpretation of them so that they necessarily reached Point B. It was tremendously satisfying. I’m not sure I ever shared that story; all I know is that it was a turning point in my life.
I’d always loved writing. As a kid, I used it as a way of entertaining myself, and to fend off feelings of boredom or isolation. I favoured stories where a hero stepped in to restore order to the chaos created by (fairly mild) villains, such as the dastardly Footwear Fred and his penchant for stealing shoes.
As a young adolescent, my motivation changed a bit. I was still using writing to stave off boredom and loneliness but, if I tell you my genre switched to angsty love stories involving teenage girls and androgynous pop stars, you’ll probably guess that hormones were a huge driving force. My writing back then was part-wishful thinking, and part-playing at relationships in a way that felt safe.
Then life intervened, swallowing up all my time, energy and spare brain space: school exams, socializing, university and marriage, then family. I was still spinning vague stories in my head but none of them ever reached the page.
And they possibly never would have, had it not been for that Buffy argument but, having written one fanfiction story, I started writing more. And more. And posting them online. Initially, I was driven by obsessive love for a show that was dark, intelligent, hopeful and funny. I wrote for free, shared for free and expected nothing back. I was amazed when people responded, and quickly became intoxicated on their praise. It was like a drug; I couldn’t get enough of it.
I know some people are sniffy about fanfiction. Be original, they say. Where’s the satisfaction in using someone else’s characters? If you didn’t waste your time on that, you could be making money from your own work! I could digress here into how much money professional writers have made from their own fanfictions (Sherlock; Merlin; the Bond novels of Simon Faulks, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz; John Updike; P.D. James; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies …) but the truth is, most fanfiction writers aren’t in it for the money. Their reward is writing for readers who are as passionate about an original work as they are, readers who know and recognize all the little canon details the writers work in. One of the great things about posting fanfiction is that you have a ready-made, engaged audience that isn’t shy about giving you feedback. Whereas your nearest and dearest might offer an awkward ‘Yeah, it’s … good’, fanfic readers will positively gush if they love a story. Equally, if they hate it, they’ll let you know. Best of all, some of them will even tell you why. Whether they love your work or hate it, readers who give feedback help improve the way you write and that’s a wonderful writing motivator!
Writing can be a lonely business; the fanfiction community is anything but. Some of my readers have become virtual friends, and others real life ones. A lot of them are writers themselves, and interested in the craft of shaping stories. I love having people to discuss style and content with; character and plot. I’m especially grateful for the ones who have offered to beta-read my stories for me – and the ones who’ve given line-by-line reactions to how my stories made them feel have been worth their weight in gold. That’s the kind of feedback I like to give other writers (when I have enough time) because it’s beneficial to me as well. I’ve learnt so much through analyzing other people’s writing.
There is another motivation for writing fanfiction, the almost-opposite of obsessive love, and that’s dissatisfaction with the original material. There are characters and stories I’ve loved in, say, the first couple of seasons of a TV show, only to gnash my teeth in annoyance at how the writers chose to develop them in the third. When that happens, I’m straight off to my keyboard to write the story as it should have been. Using writing to fix something isn’t confined to fanfiction, either. Child-me and adolescent-me also wrote to fix things: boredom, loneliness, social pressure, confusion. And now, as adult-me turns more and more towards writing original works, I find myself trying to fix bigger issues in the outside world: prejudice, inequality, sexism, cruelty and intolerance.
For me, the greatest motivation for writing is feeling I have something to say and that someone out there will be willing to listen. That’s a comforting given when you’re writing fanfiction; having the faith to believe people might be interested in my original fiction is a different matter entirely although I’m getting slightly more optimistic about it. Joining writing groups has helped enormously: when actual living and breathing people ask pertinent questions, I get such a feeling of validation, and it thrills me when someone says they’d like to read more of my work.
And now to the last on my list of writing motivations: money. For decades, I’ve been fortunate in being able to write for the sheer love it because I had another job that paid the bills. I recently lost that job, so the possibility of earning money from writing is something I’m finding increasingly difficult to ignore. Who knows? I might earn a fortune – or then again, I might not. But I know I’ll keep writing whatever happens because I’ve got the most important motivation of all: it’s something I love to do.