Guest Post: The Unlikeliest Road From Fanfiction to Agenting

Note from Sooz: I’m DELIGHTED to introduce you all to the subrights and film/tv assistant at New Leaf Literary & Media. She has a great post today that I think will resonate with many of you just as it resonated with me. So many of us in writing and publishing got our starts working with fanfiction. But I’ll let Jess take it from here! 🙂

Up until a year ago, I thought I had a dirty little secret.

From the age of fourteen to thirty, I read, wrote, and beta read fanfiction. I didn’t know there was a name for it when I started (this was a world before, message boards, and of course, Tumblr), but more than that, I never realized that these stories would end up changing the course of my life. I was a terrible student, but I was creative and happy, and the more I wrote, the more I honed skills I never quite knew I had. And when I ended up majoring in screenwriting, getting told by professors that my dialogue was too clunky and not realistic enough, I wrote more fanfiction. I watched more episodes (at that time it was hours upon hours of Law and Order: SVU), I listened harder, and I kept practicing. It wasn’t for a grade, there wasn’t so much pressure, and I taught myself to fix all of what was wrong. It was only months later when I started to get complimented on my dialogue and so I continued to switch back and forth between screenplays and fan fiction.

One was mandatory. The other taught me things school never did.

In the past sixteen years, I’ve spent time in three different fandoms religiously, and dabbled in a fourth. I hid it from the people in my everyday life, ashamed of a stigma that had been attached to fanfiction since it became whispered about like sin. Things like, “only people with no friends spend their time online, obsessed with a TV show”; “It’s just poorly written porn”; and any other number of insults that I’ve heard throughout the years. But in my secret online life, I started to get a reputation. I was a good writer, but more than that, I was an even better beta. I could look at someone’s work and see the bigger picture. I knew what was missing, what would make it better, but most of all, I discovered that as much as I liked writing, I loved writers more. I loved their enthusiasm and watching their work blossom and take shape and become something beautiful. The knowledge that I helped make someone else’s work stronger made me want to beta every story in every fandom, even if I had no time. I took on more than I could chew, started to write less, and fell in love with this life.

And then a year before I turned thirty, everything changed. A friend I knew through fanfic had written a novel and wanted me to beta it. I was flattered and excited, and I spent the entire weekend reading through it, making edits, and wishing deep down I could do this for a living. And instead of living a life that was no longer right for me, I left all my former dreams behind, including Los Angeles, where I had been living for the past eight years, and moved back to a city I swore I would never return to again. I took informational meetings at literary agencies and got an internship at the incredible New Leaf Literary and Media, Inc. It took less than three months until I was hired in a permanent position and where I’ve spent the last year. Every day is an adventure and every day I am grateful.

Without fanfiction, without those years of writing and editing, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t have discovered incredible people along the way who believed in me and made me better; I wouldn’t have gotten dialogue down to a science; and most importantly I wouldn’t have discovered what I truly love. I’ve grown up with fanfiction writers who have later become published and I’ve met people who liked the idea of writing, but didn’t discover their life dreams of it until they wrote and posted for the world to see.

I realize now, it was never something to be ashamed of. So whether it’s writing or editing, or even just learning, embrace the fanfiction. It might just change your life.

Before moving back to her home state of New York, Jess Dallow spent eight years working at a talent agency in Hollywood. Deciding books and cold New York winters were more her speed, she became an intern at New Leaf Literary & Media before being hired as the subrights and film/tv assistant. In her spare time, Jess can be found at either Sprinkles or Chipotle, stuffing her face with cupcakes or guacamole (thankfully, not together). You can follow her on Twitter.


8 Responses to Guest Post: The Unlikeliest Road From Fanfiction to Agenting

  1. Beth Feb 17 2015 at 11:22 am #

    Jess … you amaze me.

    Readers, I can personally attest to the raw talent Jess possesses. I’ve spent years reading her work and assure you that it is on par with any novel ever found on contemporary best-seller lists. In fact, as much as I enjoyed “Gone Girl,” I thought Jess (and her sometime collaborator) could have done far better with the storyline.

    In her fanfiction works, the characterizations Jess provided to legions of hungry readers were richer than the often one-dimensional personas we saw on-screen. Jess could take a scene from Law & Order: SVU that may have lasted 10 seconds and create a masterpiece of fully-developed and spot-on scenes that should have been provided to us by the actual creators of the show. Further, a special talent of hers is to create the back-story or epilogue to an episode. What happened when the show was over? What did the characters do with their residual feelings? How did they decompress? Again, she knew them better than the show’s creator, showrunner, and writers did.

    I keep in touch with Jess and miss her fanfiction writing. Luckily, I have most (all?) of it saved and just like episodes of SVU that are in syndication, I can read them over and over. They will never get old. I can’t say enough how proud I am of the career that she’s built on pure talent.

    Jess Dallow. Remember that name.

    One day we will be lined up to see the movie adaptation of an amazing novel she’s written.

    I can’t wait.

  2. Rochelle Feb 17 2015 at 11:51 am #

    Loved this post! I learned a lot from my writing classes and even more from writing fanfiction as well. Like you, Jess, I knew what my weaknesses were (plot, mostly: I struggled with putting characters through hell) and I actually sought out writing fanfiction to change them. I grew up with nerdier friends than I was who introduced me to the world, so when I wanted to improve my writing, I knew the term and the website I would go to. I don’t think there is a better, safer way to learn to write than fanfic.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Ishta Feb 17 2015 at 12:05 pm #

    Thanks for this post. It’s a good reminder to follow your passions, even if they take you in a different direction from the one you’ve set your mind on.

  4. Marc Vun Kannon Feb 17 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    I was a published author before I ever heard of fanfiction.
    I write fanfiction at an insane clip. In less than three years I’ve written 500K words, rewriting the episodes of my favorite TV show, called Chuck. The third season had an incredible story that was buried under bad plotting, so I started in order to fix this, and reveal what I saw underneath. I planned to stop there, but the fourth season had all of the faults and few of the virtues of S3 so I continued, and now I am starting the fifth and final season of the show (estimated total 600K words). It plays in my head and won’t let me write anything else until it is done, so hopefully I’ll get it done this year. I wonder if I should take a scriptwriting class.
    Fanfiction has been of some help as a writer. I am very good at dialog and action-y bits, less so at plotting and especially world-building. I’ve had some readers say they loved the stuff I wrote, but needed more context, so I’ve been working at fixing my scenes more in space and time. Others like what they call ‘fluff’, which isn’t what we call fluff but is equally hard for me to write. Fanfiction is a great laboratory of styles and practice. But after 3 years I’d like to be able to stop.

  5. Kim Graff Feb 17 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    This is such a great post! Fan fiction is totally what got me into writing and helped me start to hone my skills. It was also a great way to learn how to take criticism and comments and reviews—you know how flaming came be on some forms, so it’s a great place to start building a thicker skin.

  6. Nicky Feb 17 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    This is a wonderful article. Any type of writing is helpful when we are trying to improve our craft. Breaking away from our conventions teaches us things that we would never learn if we continued allowing ourselves to be limited. Writing whatever we are passionate about is true writing from the heart. We write for ourselves first. Great article from a wonderful writer.

  7. Alexa S. Mar 3 2015 at 11:21 am #

    I love this post! It was actually fan fiction, too, that inspired me to even start writing in the first place. I hadn’t really had much experience with it, but I liked reading and thought, “Hey, why not write stories about the people I wanted to write or meet or know in real life?” It lasted for many years, and while I don’t do it as much now, I’ve definitely got to say that it’s a big reason that I’m even interested in writing today. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Nirali Mar 4 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    This really inspires me. I’m in college right now, planning on majoring in dramatic writing and want to work in the literary world or film world. I run a fanfiction recommendation blog (which means pretty much nonstop reading) and occasionally write and beta. I’ve been in the fanfiction world for eight years now, and I don’t really see an end. It’s too amazing to give up. I’m really glad you found your career through it. While it may not be the path I go on (who really knows?), I’m really happy you exist, as weird as that is for me to say. I can’t wait to read books you publish in the future, and I think I’ll go back and read some of those SVU fics 🙂

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