50 Shades of Fanfiction: Also, The Time I Met James Marsters

For the most part, I like fanfiction. If you’re unfamiliar with what this is, fanfic is a story written about an existing universe and/or characters by a fan of the show, movie, book, or whatever that universe/those characters are based on. Some authors are viciously protective of their universes and won’t allow their fandom to write stories using their work (notably: Anne McCaffrey, George R.R. Martin, Anne Rice, Robin McKinley, and a few others). Others don’t really care quite so much—witness websites such as fanfic.net and the boatloads of Harry Potter and Twilight fic now floating around.

I first heard of fanfic when I was in junior high. One of my friends wrote one about Drizzt (which I never read, and at that point, I had no idea who Drizzt was—let alone what a Drow or dark elf was).

Fanfic was my introduction to “pop” fantasy. The light/easy stuff like DragonLance. It was also how I got into Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade.

Later, as I got older, I discovered that there was an online community playing characters from the TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I became a part of it. And via that community, I read my first fanfic—also based on Buffy. Later I expanded into reading and participating in lots of other fandoms, though the BtVS-based stories will always be my favorites. Particularly when they shipped Buffy/Spike before those two actually became a couple. (*Swoon!*) Mom, if you’re reading this, skip this next paragraph.

Anyone else remember Spike’s Spike? (Yes, it is exactly what you’re thinking.) That website fueled my obsession with Spike throughout my late teens/early 20’s like nothing else. God damn, I miss the stories on that site. Oh, young James Marsters… that trench coat… that smile…! *swoon!*

Digressing for a moment—the ironic thing? When actually face-to-face with Marsters IRL—yes, I met him in real life—words completely and utterly failed me. I turned into a googly-eyed, drooling, dumb-struck fangirl. I couldn’t find my own tongue. I moved my mouth in an attempt to say something witty and suave, but it came out more like, “Uhhh, mmmph, herp derp.” He gave me a glance and then started joking and laughing with my friend who was not so enamored of him instead (which is for the best, considering how all chances of my making rational discourse of any kind went out the window as soon as I saw him).

It was the one and only time in my life I’ve ever been struck speechless by meeting a celebrity, though I imagine I’d probably end up doing the same thing all over again if I ever ran into Alan Tudyk, Neil Patrick Harris, Alexander Skarsgaard, or Johnny Depp. And if I ever met them all at the same time, I would probably implode.

AHEM. Moving on.

For a long time, I immersed myself in the various fanfic and online roleplaying communities and culture. As I got older, my interest in fanfic waned, and I have not really been a close part of the online RPG community for a while. A combination of lack of time, “grownup” responsibilities, and the occasional lack of a computer and/or internet access kept me too busy to participate. Also, much to my dismay, most of my friends who I used to play and write with have moved on.

So. Getting to my point, all the talk about the 50 Shades trilogy lately has brought out the nostalgic part of me.

I have literally hundreds of thousands of words of fanfiction and chatlogs from my roleplaying days saved. Some of my fanfic is still floating around somewhere in the darkest corners of the internet. Some of it is great (read: about 0.0001%), and some is crap (read: most of it). I’ve taken small things from my old stuff—usually no more than a sentence or two, or perhaps as much as a couple of paragraphs—and polished it and made it sparkly and new and inserted it into my manuscripts before. For the most part, everything I’ve published has been new material, not a rehash of the old, though even Shia started out as an old RPG character of mine.

I haven’t read 50 Shades of whatever. Nor do I intend to. If you’re not sure how this book is relevant, the short story is that it started out as an alternate-universe (AU) Twilight fanfic called Master of the Universe and the damned thing is everywhere in the news. Since I haven’t been able to escape it, I’m going to write about it. How’s that for contrary?

Anywho, if you haven’t heard, all of the characters were human, and it is BDSM (bondage-domination-sadism-masochism) erotica. The author did what is referred to as “scrubbing the serial numbers off”—she renamed the story, removed all mentions of Bella and Edward and the rest of the Twilight-verse from it, then started selling them as physical and e-books called 50 Shades of Grey50 Shades Darker, and 50 Shades Freed. (Interesting side note: according to Dear Author, E.L. James has done a pretty shitty job of scrubbing considering her published works are still 89% like the original fanfic.)

The books then sold a ridiculous number of copies, were picked up for a ridiculous advance by a Big 6 publisher, somehow have hit the NY Times Bestseller list at #1 (with the other two in the top 10) for two or three weeks in a row, and the author is now in negotiations for a ridiculous sum of money for a movie deal. (I can’t figure out why there’s a movie deal in the works—offering a seven-figure deal for BDSM erotica seems a bit ridonkulous, as I have NO idea how the movie studio making the offer plans to get what is bound to be an X-rated film in regular theaters to recoup their cost in ticket sales. Somehow I don’t see what should probably be direct-to-DVD—if anything—being worth a $5M+ price tag before it even goes into production. But I’m not in film, so what do I know…)

The unwritten rule in fanfiction has long been: “Thou Shalt Not Make Money Off Thy Fic’s Established Fandom.” The reason for it is simple. If the fic is a blatant rip, plagiarizes, or in some way harms the reputation of the author/’verse, the author of the original material can lose their copyright if they don’t defend it, and/or can choose to ban the use of their material for fanfiction, and/or can take legal action to recoup damages. This has been known for a while.

James has changed the game by publishing her story and flaunting its roots/her methods. As an author, I’m honestly and frankly worried about the implications this has on publishing and copyright. That is the stuff of another post—though you might be interested in reading Jami Gold’s take on the ethics of the matter. I also think that there is information in the comments of note, particularly the one comparing just how much 50SoG still has a lot of connections to Twilight despite the AU connotation and “serial scrubbing” that was done.

I hope I never find myself in the position of having to take legal action to defend my creations. I love my characters and my work, and I love the idea of people enjoying it so much that they want to share their take on it with others. But my work is mine. And I will be pissed if someone tries to make a buck off of my creations without permission.

Is there anyone else out there who used to or currently writes fanfic? What do you think of this 50 Shades phenomenon? Any thoughts on scrubbing off the serial numbers? And, most importantly, do you share my undying love of Spike from Buffy?

Let’s hear it in the comments!

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9 Responses to 50 Shades of Fanfiction: Also, The Time I Met James Marsters

  1. Nikki-ann says:

    I share the undying love of Spike!

    I’ve met James Marsters on quite a few occassions (photographic evidence!) and he’s… well… brilliant! I tend not to know what to say when meeting celebs, but James always smiles and takes time to chat. First time I met him was just after he’d had the blonde locks shaved off (For which I was slightly gutted about… It seems I have a thing for blonde vamps as I’m a Kiefer Sutherland fan too!).

    I cannot believe it’s his 50th this year… seems OLD! Still, James is young at heart :)

    I’ve met Alan Tudyk… :D

    • Jess says:

      @Nikki-ann — Seriously? I had no idea it was his 50th! He is quite brilliant, and I would love to meet him again. Now that I’m older, I hope I wouldn’t swallow my own tongue while talking to him, but I can’t be sure… ;)

      @Nathan — Thanks for stopping by! The 89% was with regards to how alike the published version was vs. the fanfic version, not in reference to how alike it was to Twilight. I’m not arguing that the story itself wasn’t original–what bothered me was that she didn’t give credit to her source material (SMeyer’s work) in her published versions and used someone else’s fandom as a launching platform for her own success. Someone in the comments of Jami Gold’s blog post (which is linked above) pointed out all of the similarities to Twilight. I’m not going to rehash that here.

      <3,
      -J

  2. Nathan Wrann says:

    My wife is a huge Twilight fan and is currently reading 50SoG. This weekend someone mentioned the Twi/fanfic connection and my wife’s response was basically, “huh. I didn’t see a Twilight connection at all.” so even if the author’s scrubbing left 89% of her fanfic in place the 11% she removed was enough to make it very, very difficult (impossible?) to place it in the Twilight world. Which would then make it as original a story as original stories go.

  3. Jennifer says:

    The final, published version of 50 Shades may be 89% similar to Master of the Universe, however, Master of the Universe was NOT 89% similar to Twilight. The thing about varying degrees of “canon” in fanfiction is that on one hand, you can have a fic that so closely resembles it’s source that you can get confused about where one stops and the other starts… and on the other hand, you can have a fic that so little resembles the source that sharing character names is the only thing that qualifies it as “fanfiction” at all. I started reading MotU back when it first started. I’m not into the BDSM scene at all, so despite the popularity of the fic, it just wasn’t my thing and I stopped reading. Aside from the character names, I found almost nothing that linked it to Twilight. Again, admittedly, I only read the first couple of chapters, but I’ve heard the same comment from others who read and enjoyed the entire fic. Essentially, the situations and themes of the story were original from the very beginning. Was it created within the folds, and for the fans of the twific community, yes. Is it a retelling, or repackaging of the Twilight story, not even remotely. I’m thrilled for all the success E. L. James is having with her story, because it is just that… her story.

    • Jess says:

      Hi Jennifer! Yes, I know.

      Someone on Jami Gold’s blog left a comment detailing all of the similarities to Twilight. I’m not going to go to the effort of digging it up right now, but you can take a look there if you’re interested.

      My concern is more about what kind of line this has drawn in the sand about how loosely one can attribute their work to a certain source in fanfic that gets pulled to pub. For the first few days, there was no acknowledgement whatsoever that it was Twi-fic. Check the early press releases. It only came out later and it’s not being treated as any kind of big deal, which I found somewhat surprising.

      There’s more to it than that, but I’m kinda exhausted and not making a lot of sense even in my own head right now. Staying up until 2AM watching Game of Thrones will do that to you. ;) If enough people want to hear my thoughts on it, I’ll go deeper into why I don’t approve of this in another post.

      <3,
      -J

  4. Brooklyn Ann says:

    Mmmmm…SPIKE…..Droooooooooooool!
    I admit, a character is one of my books started out as a fanfic portrayal of Louis from Interview with the Vampire that I wrote when I was 13…but as I began writing my own creations, the character became his own entity. Now the only thing they have in common is hair and eye color because black hair and green eyes is a hot combo. :)

    I too am uncomfortable with the way this 50 Shades thing came into being. And the phrase “scratching off the serial numbers” just sounds sordid.

  5. Jess says:

    Oooh, that it is! *fans self*

    Yeah, I don’t think that phrase was ever meant to be complimentary. Fanfic, as I understood the “unspoken rules” of the community, was always intended to be a not-for-profit way of sharing your love for a fandom with other fans. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth that someone would use it to make a buck, but c’est la vie, eh?

    <3,
    -J

  6. Sullivan McPig says:

    I’m worried about this as well.
    I do not care how much different it is from Twilight. What I care about is that originally it is a fanfic. If this fanfic gets away with it, where do we draw the line?
    I think this whole incident makes it very difficult for authors to protect their work and characters.

    • Jess says:

      Yes, agreed. It’s not a clear-cut situation though, which is probably why nothing has been done about it from SMeyer’s end.

      <3,
      -J

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