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 fanfiction.net, 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.