In today's NYTimes there's an article, the first in a series, called Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? The awesome Linda Braun will talk about just this topic (and more) at the YALSA YA Lit Symposium, so if you haven't registered yet, do so! There are many, many good questions raised by this article: What is reading? Is it better, worse, or the same to read online as it is to read a book? Are today's teens doomed because many of them would rather spend time online than reading books? The point in the article I want to talk about, though, is fanfiction.
Liz B. and I will present on this topic at the YA Lit Symposium. We have an hour and a half to present and let me tell you, it is not enough. I bring up fanfiction because one of the teen subjects of this NYTimes article, 15-year-old Nadia Konyk, is a mostly reluctant reader who loves fanfiction.net. Now, FF.net has many, many flaws, but I will say this about it: It's relatively easy, easier than many fandom-specific archives, to use. Anyone can create an account for free. Anyone can upload stories in a huge variety of fandoms. Anyone can comment, or leave a review on a story. Of course, it's easy to see the flaws in this system. Anyone can upload badly written stories full of grammar errors, and they often do. Anyone can flame another person's story, and they often do. But what the NYTimes article doesn't address is that Nadia is expanding her literacy by reading fanfiction.
Fanfiction forces you to look at characters in new ways and think differently about their actions and motivations. When you write fanfiction, you think of characters beyond the way they appear on the page. You think of all the things a character might be capable of but isn't seen doing in the series. For example, would Ron Weasley ever use an Unforgivable Curse? What if Tally Youngblood hadn't thrown her necklace into the fire and chose instead to rat on David? With fanfic, the possibilities are endless. You can write fanfic in prose or poetry or word art. You can write about any character in just about any book or TV series or movie out there. Fanfic does not have to stick to the point of view of the series of the book, and it doesn't have to be about the main character. One of my favorite Harry Potter fanfics of all time is mostly made up of original characters and the only recognizable name from the series is Albus Dumbledore. The writing and the author's attention to detail and characterization are truly spectacular. One of the things I personally like about fanfic is that it gives writers the chance to develop one particular writing skill, such as first-person point of view or past perfect tense, without worrying about building an entire world and its characters.
The one big caveat with fanfic is that good fic is hard to find. I would say that 85% of what's on Fanfiction.net is utter dreck. Another ten percent is readable but mediocre. Four of the remaining five percent are good stories with solid writing, but nothing special, and one percent is outstanding. I don't have one set formula for finding good fic, but try these tips:
1. Do an interest search on LiveJournal. LiveJournal is a place where fanfic and fanfic communities thrive.
2. Find an author you like, and see who this author has favorited on ff.net and/or on LiveJournal.
3. Many fandoms have their own fan boards and discussion sites. Harry Potter, for example, has FictionAlley, which houses fanfics and recommendations forums.
4. If you're a romance fan, you're in luck. Fanfiction is FILLED with romance. On ff.net, you can limit the characters in the story and read about your favorite characters to your heart's content.
5. Pay attention to the story's summary. If the summary is enticing, chances are you'll like the author's work.
A lot of finding good fic is trial and error. Mostly error. I've read a lot of bad fanfic in my time and chances are, you will too. The time spent reading the bad stuff, though, is worth it when you find the good stuff.