What to do when you can’t write…(adult language advisory)

…steal words from other people.

Now, hold on there, pilgrims. I know that most artists ‘steal’ from each other. Most of the time we try a little finesse, taking bits here and riffs there, and sewing it up into a recognizably different package.

There are only a few basic plots, after all.

But with the explosion of online display sites, roarin’ fast bandwidth, and massive search capabilities, something hilarious and infuriating comes up more and more often.

Outright plagiarism.

Yep, it’s a quaint term to the Millennials raised on sampled, recycled, re-used, and rebooted cultural icons. But plagiarism is real, and it hurts real people. Especially when the faking fakers are making real money off their thefts.

We all know E. L. James made millions off her repurposed Twilight fan fiction ‘Masters of the Universe’ when she filed off most of the serial numbers and turned it into Fifty Shades of Oh God Whoever Wrote This Has No Idea What Real D/s Is. For good or ill, most of Fifty Shades is apparently actually James’ own work, albeit recycled. More on that later.

Cassandra Clare took her Harry Potter fan fiction from amateur to pro when she re-wrote it as the Mortal Instruments series (Now in film, to somewhat lackluster reviews.) What many new fans don’t know is that the first fan fiction series got Clare booted off one display site, under allegations that she stole from other fan fic writers and professionally published authors. Clare’s not hurting – she’s got more movie deals in the works, and an army of fans.

Recently some idiot named Jordin Williams got caught blatantly stealing other writers’ work.

And now, courtesy of some alert people on Goodreads, we have a new circus act at which to throw stale popcorn: Shey Stahl.

Why the hell do people do this? I know, I’ve asked this before. And I know that getting a backlist is an all-important task for new authors. ‘Publish Often’ is the mantra for any author, self-published or not, who wants to build a loyal readership.

But in this day and age, if you steal blocks of text, you ARE going to get caught. Eventually. It’s better to keep to your own stuff, and be honest about it. I’m playing with a M/M erotic romance right now that may use scenes I first developed for a fan fiction series over a decade ago. It may fly, it may not. If it has wings, I’ll do the honorable thing and take down the first round of fics. I even posted a notice where most of my fan fiction lives, to let my very tiny cadre of readers know about it ahead of time.

Is it just that Shey seems to have stolen only fan fiction? In another writing forum, I regularly see comments about fan fiction being illegal anyway, and already a ‘rape of the creativity of the creator’ – so stealing from it is basically a victimless crime, eh? The fan fiction writers had it coming to them, right?

Fair warning here: I am going to use some trigger phrases. Fan fiction writers who get their work stolen are in much the same Catch-22 as sex workers who get raped. Most of the outside population just shrugs and does some version of slut-shaming. But it is a problem. The ones stealing fan fiction do it because they think they can, with impunity.

Fan fiction is not just written by idiotic tween girls, as is the popular perception. A lot of the really good stuff, in any given fandom, is written by professionally published authors blowing off a little steam behind a pen name. Or by really talented amateurs who take their hobby seriously. Some of what I have read as fan fiction could beat the stuffing out of similar ‘original’ stories in the same genre.

Yes, I would concur that some fan fiction is ‘rape of the creativity of the creator’, especially if it’s badly written and inexcusably out of character. But some is just a sincere appreciation and continuation of the original. (And even though not legally sanctioned by author or publisher, quietly accepted as value-added by many fans of the original.)

So when I see cases like Shey’s, I can’t help but want to see the perpetrators called to some form of justice.

Their offenses are relatively small, in the grand picture. But they belong to the same species of selfish, entitled douchebags who pocket money dropped by blind men in line at Wendy’s. The students who get professional degrees they haven’t studied for by buying term papers, possibly putting their later clients or patients at serious risk. Even the ones who became hedge-fund and derivatives managers, and whose greed essentially destroyed the world economy. The ‘I got mine, everyone else can go suck it’ crowd.

Fan fiction gets written, traded, shown off, and argued about. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it probably should not be sold. (There are projects in the works to do just this. I remain doubtful, even though they may just be contracted novelizations dressed up in shiny new ways.) I’m experimenting with repurposing fan fiction because 1) I know the end result will be wildly different than the fan fiction series I first wrote, and 2) I think it could make a charming original novel. While I did not make up the fan fiction characters, I did make up the situations framing the stories. Those are mine, and I feel comfortable spinning them into something original.

As for Shey’s staunchest defenders, who really don’t care where the stories came from in the first place? They’re douchebags, too.

2 thoughts on “What to do when you can’t write…(adult language advisory)

  1. Heh. I once read a claim that fanfic writers might pose an actual, physical threat to *real* writers. I replied that since I was both, was I in danger of beating myself up?

    Never got a reply to that.

  2. Crane Hana says:

    Funny thing, I’ve never had a good answer to similar questions. Yes, I was staunchly anti-fan fiction at one point, before I saw its utility for me as a writer. And I know that I am borrowing other writers’ characters and world-building when I write fan fiction. I do it for love and curiosity, to nudge a story into new directions.

    So I do not sell it, and I don’t profit from it directly.

    I was a ‘fan’ writer for 25 years while my original stuff was unpublished. That doesn’t mean I was only writing fan fiction (I have the notebooks, hard drives, and the million-words-of-crap to prove otherwise). But fan fiction got me through some terrible writing and real-life bottlenecks.

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