By Elizabeth Kays
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #60, 2004.
A homeschooled teen introduces us to the facinating world of writing about your favorite characters... and instantly "publishing" your work.
Do your students struggle with grammar skills? Do they have trouble completing writing assignments? What about problems with writing in general? "Fan fiction," a little-recognized area of fiction writing, may be a surprisingly peaceful way to encourage your children in writing.
In fan fiction, writers tell stories about characters from books and movies, instead of coming up with the characters on their own. Fan fiction is an extremely broad term: if someone takes a story and adds more chapters, changes a major event, adds a character, or retells it in any way at all, it can be called fan fiction. This makes it an excellent supplement to literature classes, because it takes the ideas presented in a book or play and pushes them a step further - even further than creative writing goes.
In creative writing assignments, students are usually asked to write a diary entry for a character or add a conversation between characters. In fan fiction, writers go further and rewrite entire stories or add another dimension to them. A creative writing assignment on Romeo and Juliet might say, "Write a diary entry by Juliet the night she met Romeo." While this explores Juliet's character and makes a student think creatively, it would require even more exploration and creativity if the assignment said, "Rewrite the ending of Romeo and Juliet so that both of them live. Then, show what happens to the families afterwards," or even, "Write about how the feud between the two families arose in the first place." What if the assignment simply read, "Write a piece of fan fiction based on Romeo and Juliet?" These types of open-ended questions spur creative thought and hone writing skills more than simple creative writing does. They also encourage students to ask their own questions, instead of always accepting what they read. Creative writing is good, but fan fiction can take it a step further.
One nice facet of fan fiction is the many places to post it on the Internet for others to read. I post some of mine at www.fanfiction.net, a site entirely devoted to fan fiction. When I post on the website, other people see my new story under whatever category I posted. They can read it and post replies, reviews, comments, and corrections, which are invaluable to any writer. This provides a great forum for homeschoolers to have their work reviewed by other writers, a service often unavailable locally. Besides fanfiction.net, websites about specific interests like Star Trek or Redwall often have a section devoted to fan fiction on that topic.
Fan fiction can add to a creative writing or literature course, but it can also be a great way to help children start writing in the first place. For the reluctant author, it presents an opportunity to tell stories about favorite things, like Spiderman or The Lord of the Rings. This encourages students to begin the writing process and eventually makes it easier for them to come up with stories on their own. On the other hand, for avid writers who carry around notebooks full of adventures, internet posting gives them a chance to let other people see what they've written. It lets them get outside their constraints and helps them build confidence.
Unfortunately, any good tool can be misused, and fan fiction is no exception. Most of the people who post on web sites are not Christians, so, in viewing other peoples' work, readers have to watch out for bad language, sexual references, "slash" (making characters homosexual), and "Mary-Sues" (no-substance, gushy romances). Fortunately, most sites have a rating system similar to movie ratings, so readers have some guidelines. Writers rate their own work, which could be a problem, but most sites have a system to report mis-rated stories. Because of this, most posters follow the guidelines. Story descriptions generally tell readers if the story will have any slash, Mary-Sue, or romance. I usually avoid anything rated over PG, unless someone recommended it to me or I know the writer.
Working in this kind of secular environment can be dangerous, but it can also be a good chance to lead by example. If students post good writing that doesn't have offensive language, they are practicing how to communicate with non-Christians in a not-so-friendly arena. They are showing people that it is possible to have a well-written story without adding homosexuality or violence. This can be a chance to help reach others for Christ, or at least to change their opinions of good writing. Of course, if you, as a parent, don't feel comfortable letting a child read random stories, you could always read a few yourself and choose which ones you want students to read. You could even print stories out and then show students where to review the "fic" online, so they never read anything unsupervised. Usually, reviewers who comment on students' writing are fairly clean and considerate, and if it is a writer's first story, they review more on content than style. Occasionally, people do use language when reviewing, but not often. Just remember: most of the writers on these websites are teenagers, and their reviewing styles often correspond with that age group. Fan fiction sites are probably a better place for teenage students to post than children, just because of the difference in self-confidence levels. There are some absolutely brutal reviewers. As for internet security issues, most sites like fanfiction.net are reasonably safe. Writers post under a screen name, and they can normally choose whether or not to show their email addresses on their homepages.
If you start to explore fan fiction sites, you will probably realize that the terminology can be almost as hard to understand as all of the Instant Message abbreviations. Here are a few of the most common: "fanfic" and "fic" all refer to fan fiction, a "fic" often being somewhat shorter. If someone offers to "beta" a student, it means he would be willing to have the student email him writing for editing purposes. "AUs" are "Alternate Universes," where a major event in a story has been changed or the same event is told in a different way, and "R&R" means "Read and Respond." An "A/N" is an "Author's Note," a "Disclaimer" keeps you from being sued, and "bashing" means the story makes fun of something. You will find a lot of "Mary-Sue bashing" on fanfiction.net!
While fiction is the most creative type of writing, fan fiction is a good way to tie a literature course to a writing or grammar course. As a student begins to write, he automatically learns about grammar and style. Even if he doesn't post any writing at first, a parent or group of friends could review and edit the work. This makes it easy to become more interested in writing and learn about grammar in the process. Fan fiction is a wonderful way to practice writing, and it works off of students' current interests.
When I used to write, I would start well and then never finish. Fan fiction helped me learn to finish what I've started, because most websites have a way for you to post multiple chapters, so as soon as you write a chapter, you can post it. When you have three or four reviewers begging you to "upload" new chapters, you tend to keep writing, which helps me stay focused.
Fan fiction is a not-so-widely-used tool for homeschooling, but I hope we can change that. Even if students don't post any work, just thinking about altering favorite stories helps inspire new ideas and creative thought. If you do decide to have children post, remember to keep an eye on what stories they read and warn them about the dangers. It would be a good idea to visit some sites yourself and read a few stories, just to see what it looks like. However you choose to use fan fiction, I encourage you to find out more about this resource. No matter what kind of writers your students are, they will jump at the chance to play with favorite stories.