There are many routes into fiction and the writing thereof. Some are more respected than others. One that draws more debate than any other, though, is Fan Fiction, or fanfic.
There are two opposing perspectives on this. One is that it does no harm. Some authors actively encourage it – JK Rowling is the most famous of these, although Stephanie Meyer also has her adherents. Famously, the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy started life as an eroticised fanfic (so-called ‘slash fiction’) using the characters from her ‘Twilight’ series.
Other authors take the opposite position. One writing more eloquently than most on the topic is George R. R. Martin, author of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ (upon which the HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’ is based). He explained his opposition on a number of grounds, not least of which was that it opened a kind of Pandora’s Box of non-control that would be difficult ever to reign in again.
As for me, I’m not sure where I stand. I began long-form creative writing with fanfic. I wrote X-Files stories with, yes, Mulder and Scully, and then I graduated to a much longer and more involved story, a first stab at a novel, that was set in Dale Brown’s universe of stories featuring Patrick McLanahan. That tale, called Stealing the Thunder, got to 20,000 words before I became aware of the particular relevence of the words ‘copyright infringement’. And it started off as one type of story before trying, desperately hard, to become something else entirely, lurching wildly from geopolitical thriller to hard military sci-fi. But it was a launch pad, and I took some valuable lessons from it, and I was able to lift the original character of an engineer called Paul Ray direct from those pages and give him his own enormous narrative that I am still writing.
Which brings me to where I stand on fanfic today. Should my books ever be published, they feature a sufficiently large and developed universe that it could probably withstand people playing there too. But I am jealous of my characters (in the sense of being protective of them). The metaphor of a sandbox is often invoked. I think it’s a good metaphor. It’s robust and adaptible. In this case, I say: Feel free to play in my sandbox, but bring your own toys. Some toys I may provide – I have a comprehensive list of spaceships of the Terrestrial Navy, for example, and should my books be published I would probably make that list available for people who wanted to start telling stories featuring them and their crews – but my characters are mine, and they’re off-limits.
Unless, of course, you have special dispensation. My good friend Chris and I once agreed, years ago (I wonder if he still remembers this?), to write short stories based in each others’ universes – my hard scifi one and his steampunk fantasy. I started writing one that featured a battle between insectile airships and blood angels; he wanted – or so he told me at the time – to write a story about the much-feared but little understood Black Choir of my trilogy. Since the Black Choir, at the time, was referred to only in a few scattered references spread over several hundred thousand words, he decided – not un-sensibly – to hold off until I had provided much more information. He is still waiting, because although I have now written almost 120,000 words of the book in which the Black Choir appear outright they have yet to make their debut in all their fearsome glory. Because I know and trust Chris and his authorial instincts, he gets to play with my toys, as and when he has the opportunity to do so. There are, as yet, few others I would allow the same freedom (one of them, as it happens, married Chris!).
I think it’s good to retain some modicum of control. But I can’t deny that I found Chris’s request flattering. To have toys considered cool enough that they are worthy of envy, even outright theft, reaffirms their value, even if you cannot possibly condone that sort of behaviour. To write a universe considered so interesting that other people want to explore it suggests that you have, indeed, found something interesting in the first place.
One potential advantage to my current lack of publication is the knowledge that I can happily get on with writing in that universe without the potential of some chancer to come along and claim I stole their idea. It also means that canonicity, in the event of publication, will be clear. And just for the record, I hereby lay claim to the story of the Stargazer War (set 30 years before the present trilogy) and the Enigma Variations and the defence of Civilisation (set 200 years later). Again, my toys, and not for sharing.
I think fanfic is a good place to start writing. But it’s not a good place to stay. Sooner or later creative writing has to get creative. In learning to fly you have to spread your wings, launch yourself away from the things you know… and soar.