Abigail Fenton 4th August 2018
It starts with a familiar name, then takes a bit of a twist. Dean Winchester embarks upon a steamy affair with Castiel in the summer of 1965, only to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Head cheerleader Regina Mills meets and falls for lovable band geek Emma Swan. Oscar-winner Sherlock Holmes, and down-on-his-luck auteur John Watson are cast as a gay couple in a highly-anticipated indie-drama flick.
These are all premises of popular “fan fiction” stories on sites like FanFiction.net, Archive of Our Own (Ao3), Wattpadd and LiveJournal. In them, amateur writers borrow characters and places from their favourite fictional universes, and reshape them into their own perfect visions. Wrongs are righted, lives are saved and relationships that never got a chance to shine, on screen or page, get a second chance in a fan fiction depository. Despite getting a bit of a bad rep, over the years, fan fiction communities attract millions of people, and that online popularity is starting to bridge the gap between fan fiction and traditional publishing. What was once disregarded as “Twilight smut” can now be reshaped into a book that sells over a million copies worldwide.
Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, otherwise known as international bestselling author Christina Lauren, became BFFs in 2009, through writing Twilight fan fiction. On FF.net, they retold the iconic Bella Swan/Edward Cullen romance as a tumultuous love/hate relationship between a demanding boss and his diligent personal assistant. The Office, as it was named at the time, was a steamy sensation, generating over two million hits before being taken offline by Hobbs, who found the attention “a bit overwhelming”. It was, perhaps, the most famous piece of Twilight fan fiction on the internet.
A stake in publishing
It was the overnight success of fellow fic-turned-“legit”-fiction-novel Fifty Shades of Grey, in 2011, that prompted Billings and Hobbs to revisit The Office, a few years later. They revamped the storyline, spinning it into a more original yarn — Bella Swan became Chloe Mills, a hardworking intern who is about to earn a degree in business administration; Edward Cullen became Bennet Ryan, an inconsiderate but attractive CEO or, well, a beautiful bastard. Beautiful Bastard was published by Simon & Schuster in 2013. Since then, it’s spawned four sequels and five accompanying novellas, and has been translated into 30 different languages.
Despite these immense accomplishments, Hobbs says that there are still people who look down on the pair because of Beautiful Bastard’s fan fiction origins. “There have been people who haven’t taken us seriously,” she says. “In those cases, we try to let our books and our success speak for themselves. Beautiful Bastard may have originated as fan fiction, but only 20% of the story remains in the finished book. Out of 20 novels, to date, it was the only one that began online.”
Writing fan fiction was like playing a sexy video game where I controlled the world
There is a misconception about fan fiction, stresses Hobbs. “People look down their noses at it because they assume that it’s all poorly-written self-insert or wish-fulfilment. Some of it may be that, but the fun thing about writing fic, for me, was that I didn’t want to do — and would never do — any of the things my characters did. It was like playing a silly, sexy video game where I controlled the world. Do you get a shortcut by starting with someone else’s character? Sure, but Lauren and I have both read fic that was better than a lot of traditionally published books.”
Together, the long-time besties host workshops, speak at events and attend book clubs up and down the US. They’re regular guests at Book Expo of America (BEA) — by far the biggest annual book fair in the country — as well as the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference, which provides support and networking opportunities to those who want to pursue writing romance fiction as a career. They also regularly attend San Diego Comic Con, where they first met in person, in 2009. They’re passionate about fiction, the literary community and each other, and neither one of them has any desire to go it alone.
We don’t know how solo authors do it and stay sane. We’re each other’s lifeboats
“We got along so well that we decided to write a short story together, then a book,” says Hobbs. “A book became a couple of books. Then it became a couple more. The great thing about having a co-author is that there is always someone to share the load. There’s always someone to go through the ups and the downs with you and talk things through. We live in different states, so there can be logistical issues, but we honestly don’t know how solo authors do it and stay sane. We are each other’s lifeboats, in a way.”
Beautiful Bastard and Fifty Shades are far from the only fics to be resurrected as novels. Upon a first reading, there aren’t a ton of similarities between The Mortal Instruments and Harry Potter, but according to Cassandre Clare, JK Rowling’s golden trio served as the inspiration for her mega-famous urban fantasy about a group of Nephilim (the decedents of fallen angels and mortal women) who guard the world from evil forces. Naomi Novik’s Tremeraire series, which retells the Napoleon War, “but with dragons and zombies and stuff”, used to be fan fiction for the movie Master and Commander. Though it’s hard to believe that there was even a time before Wicked was the second most popular musical ever, let us not forget that Gregory Maguire, who penned the book, is basically the world’s richest Wizard of Oz fanboy.
Want Edward to be a vampire? Sure. A human mechanic? Cool. Want him to be a cat? That works, too
Still, for decades now, fan fiction has mostly existed as something separate from cash and contracts. Copyright concerns are few and far between when authors aren’t looking to profit off their work, and fan fiction helps to build communities where budding authors can hone their skills and develop their craft, for free, as well as provide each other with feedback and support.
“There’s a freedom to fan fiction,” says Billings. “There’s no editor telling you what to write, you don’t have to please anyone, you don’t have to write anything just because you think it will sell. You get to pick up those characters wherever you want. Want Edward to be a vampire? Sure. A human mechanic? Cool. Want him to be a cat? That works, too. There are no rules and you can write for the simple joy of writing.
I didn’t know I had anything to say until fandom gave me a voice
“Twilight was my first big fandom. It was a giant community of mostly women who were writing, reading, reviewing and promoting each other’s work simply because we all loved something, together. I didn’t know I had anything worth saying until fandom gave me a voice to say it. Christina and I often refer to it as ‘fandom boot camp’. I can’t imagine how I’d survive the publishing world without the tools it gave me. I learned how to write, how to interact with readers and how to take criticism, online. Basically, I learned how not to be an ass.”
Publishers, it seems, are slowly starting to realise that copyright issues can easily be avoided by changing names and details, and that being an online star means you have built-in buyers.
“When we were first querying an original YA novel, we deleted our social media accounts,” she says. “It was a painful thing to do considering that we had almost 100,000 followers each, but we thought it would be a black mark against us. When we told our agent about our online posts, she thought we were nuts to have deleted them. These days, you need to stand out above the crowd. Having a platform like that — that allows you to reach readers — is a big way to do it.”
Christina Lauren certainly stands out above the crowd. Whether they’ll help pave the way for legions of aspiring authors, who yearn for a shot at becoming professionals, is something that remains to be seen. As for Hobbs and Billings, they have only one goal: to keep writing. It’s one they’ll easily achieve. Their first mainstream fiction novel, Love and Other Words, hit the shelves earlier this year, and is set to be followed by a “funny, swoony romance” called Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating, in September. Perhaps most excitingly, they’re set to adapt their 2017 romance novel Roomies into a “music-driven” romcom, produced by Andy Fickman and starring actress Jenna Dewan of Step Up fame.
Main image credit: Alyssa Michelle
Abigail Fenton 4th August 2018