What I Learned from the World of Fanfiction

My route into the publishing industry was not conventional. In fact, what sparked my interest in the first place was something that has only gained traction online in the last decade or so—fanfiction.

I started using Wattpad when I was 15 years old, hungry for those juicy, fictional scenes taken directly from a teenage girl’s mind and splashed onto the site without a second thought. The first time I read a piece, I remember my first thought was, ‘Wow, this hasn’t even been read through before she posted it’. However, that thought was quickly lost in the back of my mind as I consumed the content and became lost in the world of make-believe stories about all my favourite celebrities.

Eventually, that thought came back stronger and this time it stuck. ‘Why don’t these people edit their chapters before they post them online?’ So many good pieces were ruined by typos or grammatical errors that just ripped me right out of the story and back to the poster-covered walls of my teenage bedroom.

My favourite class in high school was English so it wasn’t long before I tried my hand at writing something myself. I’d had an idea for a while but was too scared to write it and potentially open myself to being shot down by the multitudes of critics in the comments of every story I read on the site. But eventually, I bit the bullet and gave it a go. The point of difference between my fanfiction and that of others I read, was that I actually edited my piece before I posted it. God forbid there were any typos in my work!

I wrote a chapter a week and posted it to Wattpad. At first, it was only because I wanted to give it a go, to see if I could do it, but I soon developed a following. I suddenly needed to pay attention to my profile page because people were paying attention to me. I had readers from all over the world sending me messages of both love and hate for the stories I wrote, so I decided I needed to create a profile page that reflected what I wanted it to reflect.

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s Virtually Me (2013) explains that our identities are no longer tied to just our physical markers such as race or gender. Instead, our identities are multiple, contextual, and specific to what we choose to share (Smith and Watson 2013). In creating my online identity, as an author of fanfiction, there were certain choices I needed to make in order to appeal to both my current audience and potential readers.

This is where I needed to be careful. Online identity is constructed and, as Smith and Watson (2013) explain, it is a careful balance, a choice in what we choose to share to create a specific image, and what we choose to hide to uphold that constructed image.

One of the key decisions I made was to make my profile related to the characters of the pieces I wrote, rather than share my name. Potential readers don’t search for my name, they search for the celebrities they want to read about. This was a conscious decision I made with the audience of this particular website in mind—another point that Smith and Watson (2013) make in Virtually Me. For Wattpad in particular, I discovered that centering my profile around the celebrities that I wrote about, made my profile appear in more searches on the website.

Striking a balance was tricky, but I think I have gotten it at least partially right. I have almost 6000 followers who actively follow my profile and over two million readers who read my works. Even six years after I wrote them, I am still getting new readers daily from all over the world, and I still receive daily messages from fans.

I don’t write on Wattpad anymore, though I do work with some of their authors to edit their work. I’d much rather help other people develop their work into something they would be proud to publish, but the lessons I’ve learned about what to share and what not to share when building a profile for a specific audience, is something I still apply to this day. Online identity is key to portraying yourself in the right way to the right audience and is definitely something to remember in the publishing industry.

Smith S and Watson J (2013) ‘Virtually me: a toolbox about online self-presentation’, in Poletti A and Rak J (eds) Identity technologies: constructing the self online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

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