Once Upon A Time...

Profic vs. Fanfic

Is it really a question of quality? Or of filters?

by LJC

Once upon a time, the editor of a line of popular and long-standing television tie-in novels was asked by an ardent fan what he believed the difference is between fan fiction and unpublished professional fiction.

His answer was "Quality."

This is, of course, a load of crap. Good fiction is good fiction, regardless of the arena. However, what the professional publishing arena has that then fan arena lacks is filters.

In the publishing world there are minions to slog through the slush and dig out the gold and (in theory) only the gold makes it to the shelves of your local bookstore. That said, one man's gold is another's man's dreck. However, in small press vanity publishing, anyone willing to spend the money can publish a fanzine. And anyone with a computer can usually find a way to put their latest opus on the web or out to a Usenet newsgroup with a minimum of fuss. So the filters (slush piles, editors, etc.) that exist in the publishing world are not always a part of fanfic.

Should they be? As far as I am concerned, line editing is not an option. A writer will endeavour to purge her or his manuscript of all typographical, grammar and spelling mistakes before inflicting it on the universe at large. Anyone who does not will never be anything more than a mere wannabe wasting the universe's time. Harsh? You betcha. True? Yep. Does that mean I expect all fanfic to be mistake free? Heck, I still find copy errors in professionally published novels. And no doubt, you will find errors in this column. But any story riddled with typos, homophones, and lack of proper punctuation—no matter how good the story may be—rarely gets past my first glance. I just don't have the patience to wade through a terribly crafted story to find the gold that may be buried in all the muck.

Content editing, however, is a trickier fish to fry. A good editor will be able to work with an author to help whip a novel or story into publishable—and readable—shape. Most fan authors simply cannot do it on their own. Not only are they too close to the work, but inexperienced authors usually do not have the critical skills to know if something sucks or not. The difference is, a writer will make that effort to improve her work, and seek out others to help her do so. The practice of beta reading is growing, although like good fan authors, good fan editors are rare and should be cherished and showered with Godiva chocolates at every available opportunity.

However, speaking as someone who has been writing and reading fanfic (in print and online) for 15 years, I can safely say that when the filters are there—when you have a an excellent author with a good story to tell and an editor who knows what she's doing—then the product is as good or better than any sanctioned tie-in. And when you look at the plethora of story-crippling guidelines that Pocket's Trek novels have been bogged down with in the last 10 years or so, I'm more likely to find what I'm looking for in fanfic these days than the majority of the stuff Ordover and Paramount are green lighting these days with the rare exceptions of tried-and-true favourite authors who know how to rise above the limitations.

Authors who work for love and for profit such as Susan Garrett prove that the quality doesn't change—only the venue. And frankly, if I had to choose between the Macedons and JM Dillards of this world, sorry, I have to go with Little Otter. There are writers out there whom I will always want to read, and they are not always the folks who get paid to write. Moreover, I sure don't think an out-and-out incompetent novelist such as Jeri Taylor can hold a candle to any of my favourite writers—fan or pro.

Is the slush pile 100x larger in fanfic? Yes. Is it harder to find the good fic? Yes. But I've read crappy novels, and I've read crappy 'zines, and I've read unbelievably crappy on-line fic, the same as I've read incredible novels, tremendous 'zines, and extraordinary on-line fic. It's just so much harder to get to the good stuff when everyone and their sister are self-publishing on-line. But make no mistake, good fan-written stuff is out there. And if anyone ever tells you otherwise, you send 'em to me, and I'll straighten 'em out for ya.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts