Friday, March 9, 2012

Fan Fic as Bestseller? Reader, It Happened.

by Sara N.
Oh, fan fiction. You're a strange little offshoot of fandom that's bursting with wish fulfillment, salaciousness, bad writing, Mary Sues galore — and the occasional hidden gem. Who would've guessed you would be the birthplace of a hugely popular novel?

Consider the BDSM novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which is currently #1 on Amazon's bestseller lists for romance and erotica novels. It's also the #1 Kindle erotica download and the #6 Kindle download overall.

Get this: Fifty started life as fan fiction.

Fifty tells the tale of a billionaire who meets a college student and eventually introduces her to his "red room of pain," where ... well, let's say the tie on the cover of the book is used for more than dressing up a man's suit.

It suddenly seems a little menacing.
So let's play a game. Read the plot synopsis from Amazon and tell me if you can identify what popular characters the story was originally based on:
When literature student Anastasia Steele is drafted to interview the successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, she finds him attractive, enigmatic and intimidating. Convinced their meeting went badly, she tries to put Grey out of her mind - until he happens to turn up at the out-of-town hardware store where she works part-time. Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.
 Need another clue? An story offers this quote from the novel:
For all the trappings of success — his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving adoptive family — Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. ... [He's] attractive, very attractive [with] unruly dark-copper-colored hair.
Still not sure? Here's a description of the heroine from a article:
Our heroine is not one of Fabio’s ravishing redheads or raven beauties. She says things like “Holy crap” and writes witty e-mails. She has never really been kissed, or even tempted, preferring to spend her evenings in the library. She is pale and “scruffy,” and so uncoordinated that when she first meets Christian she trips and falls onto the floor, much as Bridget Jones would. 
Yep, you got it. Christian = Edward, and Anna = Bella. Fifty is based on the fan fic “Master of the Universe,” originally published online by an author using the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon.” Turns out, the author is a British television executive named E. L. James, who was inspired by Twilight, then changed the names of her hero and heroine to publish it unencumbered by the Twilight mantle.

"Oh, Edw- I mean, Christian!"
Wrap your mind around the meta-ness of all of this for a second. Twilight inspires a popular fan fic, which then becomes a bestselling novel featuring characters who seem cut from the Edward/Bella cloth.

Full disclosure: I haven't read the book or its two sequels, so I feel like my hands are tied as I try to write about it. (Did you see what I did there? Hands are tied? Are you laughing yet?) Because I haven't picked up the book, I can't vouch for how closely the characters hew to the ones that inspired them. However, the article refers to Anna as driving an old VW Beetle and turning Christian on by biting her lower lip, and Christian is frequently described as a control freak. On that evidence alone, I'm going to assume the Bella and Edward characteristics will be somewhat recognizable to fans of the series. 

Have we officially become the snake eating its tail? Book inspires fan fic, which morphs into new book. One can only assume Fifty Shades of Grey fan fic exists somewhere online; perhaps one of those works will be published someday, and it will tell of the exploits of "Randolph" and "Jenna."

What intrigues me is the thought that a fan-created, online-only story has become a runaway success. There's a snobbish, knee-jerk reaction that can occur when you hear this news: Quality fan fic? Read and enjoyed by a broad audience? Really?

Really. In fact — and I cannot believe I'm admitting this in public — I went through a phase several years ago when I read fan fic about The Office. (Go ahead and point and laugh. In my defense, it was during the long summer following the season 2 finale kiss and the season 3 premiere fallout.) The thing is, a handful of the Office-inspired stories were terrific. Lovely and sad, delicate and funny. Change the character names to anything other than Jim and Pam, and I do think a few of those stories would have been well-received as literature in their own right.

In short, there's no shame in finding inspiration in other creative works. And this non-traditional path to publishing success shouldn't surprise any of us, really, given the the shake-ups happening in the literary world with the advent of the internet, e-readers, tablets and smartphones.

So how about you, dear reader? Would you pick up a novel inspired by fan fic? Or would its origin hold you back?
Pin It


  1. Ooh, I bet Laurie could guess that I would have to answer this one! My novel (self-published, of course) has been available for three months. It's currently got 36 five star reviews on Amazon, 8 four stars, and a four star average on Goodreads. I've earned about $3000, maybe a bit more, and this week hit 8 on the Books > Romance > Fantasy & Futuristic list, right between Twilight and New Moon. I wasn't shy at all about admitting its fan fiction roots -- it's dedicated to the cast, creators and crew of the television show Eureka and my acknowledgements thank all the wonderful people in the Eureka fan fiction community. So would I pick up a novel inspired by fanfic? Um, yep. And did I worry about whether it would hold my novel back? Well, actually, yes I did. But I didn't really care. I've loved fanfiction, both writing it and reading it, and I think that the wonderful, crazy, sloppy, sometimes good, sometimes terrible creativity in the fanfiction world is one of the best things the internet has created. Anyone who's too snobbish to appreciate that is missing out. Their loss. Meanwhile Eureka fans who read my book get the great fun of spotting hidden Eureka references and Eureka fanfic readers get the even greater fun of spotting specific fanfic tropes (rule one: shirtless Niall Matter makes every story better). I didn't know that 50 Shades of Grey was originally fanfic, but I did a proposal for GeekGirlCon for a session on "From Fan Fiction to Self-Publishing" and if they say yes, I'm definitely putting that in my Powerpoint!

    1. That sounds like a fantastic GGC panel! I hope they accept it, particularly because it sounds like a growing genre.

  2. Years ago I didn't have a book to bring with me on a cross-country flight so I printed out a 500 page Harry Potter fanfic that I heard was a great. (Of course, I used the work printer because it could actually handle a print job that big.) It was little embarrassing explaining why I was toting around an industrial sized binder around with me on vacation but I enjoyed the story.

    I would definitely buy a book based on fan fiction but I doubt I would ever buy one based on Twilight.

  3. One of the lessons you must learn as a writer is that there really aren't any original ideas. The concept of star-crossed lovers in Twilight isn't new, nor is it's love triangle. It is how the author gives life to the characters and life to the story that thrills the reader or not.

    I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey (not into romance or erotica) but I DID buy Wendes' book a while back when it was mentioned here. I really loved some of the characters in it, and the story was sweet and interesting. I'm fairly picky about the books I enjoy and finish too. I didn't know much about Eureka, but it never bothered me that it was based on that. The story was fresh.

    There is a huge amount of work that goes into writing a solid, novel-length work without grammatical errors and plot holes. Basing it on another story isn't much different than basing it on an outline. You can still screw it up. Readers WILL notice, and it won't do well.

    Office fanfic? LOLz

    1. I know, I know. There's no defending it. :)

  4. Sorry to lower the tone, but when I saw this I assumed it was going to be about this Wesley Crusher fan fic instead -

    1. Heh. I giggled over that for a good 10 minutes the other day.

  5. I should probably mention that if I didn't specifically state the relationship to Eureka in my acknowledgements, no one except a serious, serious Eureka fan would be able to tell. It's mainly the Quirky Town trope ( which wasn't original to Eureka, either. Gilmore Girls fans and Cassadaga residents are just as likely to think, hmm, this seems familiar. (There are other references but they are never major plot points, just slipped in there for my fanfiction fellows to smile at.)

    And thanks, Amy! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I got my first paper copy this week and my son looked at the cover quote and said, "gosh-darned sweet? eeek," and I said, well, dude, sorry to disappoint you, but it is, in fact, sweet! LOL.

    1. Hey Wyndes - I also read your comment over on Ilona Andrews blog.

      I'd been trying to come up with my feelings on this, and I think you nailed it with the tropes discussion. I agree that every writer has in some part been influenced by the works they've read/seen/heard.

      When it comes to putting it out there to make money off it is where you better be sure it's an original idea. So, if someone rewrote Harry Potter and just changed things so that Hermione ended up with Harry, or Harry ended up with Ron, or Harry & Draco got together in the end, but the rest stays the same, no. Not that it couldn't be fun to read (and that you couldn't find hidden gems), it's just I don't think you should make money off it.

      However, if someone plays with the tropes involved - magic school, chosen one, good vs evil showdown, then I'm OK with it. I'm pretty sure that there will be a whole bunch of young writers influenced by Harry, and that's wonderful.

      @Rhian - I thought of the Wesley Crusher book too. I don't think I could bring myself to read it, though. :)

    2. I'm pretty sure every YA novel set in a boarding school these days was influenced by Harry Potter! And wow, there seem to be a lot of them. Not that I can name names -- I pick them up in the bookstore, see that there's a boarding school involved, and put them right back down. Same with vampires, unless I already know the author. Overgrown mosquitoes, IMO.

      One of the things that I love about fanfiction is the sheer depth and variety. Some of it is creepy crazy, of course, and I tend to only read the T ratings (despite having written some M ratings of my own) but I've found just as much original writing and creativity in fanfiction as in bookstores. (Given the number of copycat books on bookstore shelves, I'm not sure that's saying much, really.)