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Today I’m thrilled to welcome fantasy author Sylvia Izzo Hunter! Her debut novel, The Midnight Queen, is an absolutely delightful story with magic, romance, secrets, a plot to foil, and two great main protagonists (plus one wonderful, outspoken little sister!). It’s set on our world if it had followed a different course of history and is followed by two more books in the Noctis Magicae series, Lady of Magick and A Season of Spells.

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter Lady of Magick by Sylvia Izzo Hunter A Season of Spells by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

How Fanfiction Made Me a Writer

As any member of my extended family will tell you, I was telling stories long before I learned to write (or read). Wherever we were living, my mom supervised me by ear: if I stopped narrating for more than half a minute, she knew I was Up To No Good. What they won’t mention—because it would never occur to them—is that most of my stories were fanfiction. I was Laura Ingalls; I was Dorothy Gale; I was Jim Hawkins or David Balfour or the unfortunate cabin boy from Kidnapped; I was Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn; I was Caddie Woodlawn. In Grade 6, as a Language Arts assignment, I began writing an epistolary novel, which ultimately grew to engulf more than a dozen exercise books (without ever reaching any sort of denouement); its narrator was a young Jewish girl who lived on the Lower East Side of New York in the early twentieth century. (I can’t remember her name, which seems like a bit of a betrayal.) She had many sisters; they Had Adventures, including brushes with potentially fatal illnesses. If you’ve ever read a book by Sydney Taylor, you will already have guessed where I—an 11-year-old in the mid-1980s, born and mostly raised on the Canadian prairies—got that premise and those characters. I knew you couldn’t just steal other people’s stories, of course, but I think I figured that if I diligently filed off the serial numbers…

See, I was a Jewish kid in a not-at-all-Jewish social environment, longing for representation (just one of many, many ways in which I didn’t fit in), and the All-of-a-Kind Family were the only fictional Jewish kids I’d ever met.

All 0f a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts

The next thing I started, worked on for years, and never finished was inspired primarily by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I borrowed from my mom’s nightstand when I was eleven-ish and officially read in English class in Grade 12, and secondarily by Willo Davis Roberts’ The Girl with the Silver Eyes and all the Shoah memoirs I read as a teenager, from the sweet and hopeful When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr to Elie Wiesel’s Night. This epic dystopian saga featured, in no particular order, anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing, orphans of war/resistance, plucky kids looking out for one another, a black-market economy, medical experiments, sweet teenage romances, telepathy, tragic death, cross-dressing, children surviving Gestapo-esque raids by hiding in kitchen cupboards, underage prostitution, and daring escapes. Years later, as some of my less pleasant life experiences started to need some kind of outlet, it also featured cancer, miscarriage, infertility, sexual assault, painful breakups, and an enormous amount of confusion about how relationships actually work.*

Talk about breaking down genre barriers: for at least 15 years, my writing was alternately and simultaneously fiction, fanfic, RPF, and journalling, all in the same series of exercise books, spiral-bound notebooks, and blank-books.

Sometimes—usually as class assignments**—I wrote short stories, which (more or less) had beginnings, middles, and ends. But my own writing, the writing I did because I wanted or needed to, was always open-ended, unending. I often wrote little vignettes, the understanding of which depended entirely on a deep background knowledge of one of the worlds I’d made up. (In the world of fanfic, I would later discover, “missing scenes” like this are practically their own genre.) I didn’t tell people that I wrote fiction; I didn’t think of myself as a writer, even though I wrote A LOT; and I would never in a bazillion years have let anyone (especially anyone I knew) read anything I wrote for fun.

And then, in the early 2000s, at the ripe old age of 20-something, I discovered—don’t laugh—Fanfiction.net. I had just read Tamora Pierce’s Immortals Quartet and wanted more of those characters, and by that time I had heard of fanfiction,*** so I went a-googling until I found some. I read a whoooole bunch of Daine/Numair fic. And then, one day, I wrote some. I made an account. I posted a story. (I say “story”, but that implies it had a plot; it didn’t.)

And people liked it.

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce Wolf Speaker by Tamora Pierce Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce The Realms of the Gods by Tamora Pierce

That first little story, which I now find deeply embarrassing, is still up there, because people liked it.

The next thing that happened was that, a few little vignettes later, I wrote something in parts, with a plot. I finished it. People liked it. Then I started writing a longer thing. People liked that, too, and commented wanting to know what happened next. I finished the story—the very first long-form thing I had ever written that had a beginning, a middle, and, crucially, an end. A couple of other writers in that fandom contacted me: Did I want to join their crit group? Yes, yes I did. And so the next time a scene and some characters spontaneously happened in my head, as they sometimes do, and I started writing that down, my new crit friends wanted to read what I’d written. And having read and critted it, they wanted to read more. They read my non-fan stuff, and I read theirs, and we all taught each other an enormous amount, and by the end of 2007, I had written a book. And I had showed it to people, and I had survived the experience.

Now, it wasn’t a book I could sell, not yet—that took five more years, several more drafts, a lot of query letters to agents (and almost as many rejections), even more drafts, and extensive editing by my agent and my editor. But if it hadn’t been for honing my skills in the safely anonymous playground of fic, the self-confidence I gained from positive reactions to my stories, and the other writers I met in the comments section (who helped me learn to write better and also taught me how to skate through a check, so to speak), it almost certainly wouldn’t have been written at all.

Writing someone else’s characters in someone else’s world pushed me to go beyond what I was already good at (inventing characters, writing dialogue) and work on what I had more trouble with (plot, action, story arc). Through writing alternate universe fic—putting those characters in a new setting while keeping them recognizably themselves—I got better at understanding and conveying what, deep down, makes a given fictional person who they are. Fic writers push all kinds of boundaries all the time, and as a deeply anxious person I think I needed to see people trying these {brave | ridiculous | inexplicable | hilarious | disturbing | off-the-wall} things and (mostly) being supported by their peers in doing so. And putting my pseudonymous fic out there for the whole Internet to (potentially) see and criticize was, though I didn’t realize it at the time, the first step towards being able to send out query letters and partials to actual agents with my real name and address attached to them—not to mention the crucial writer skill of getting a 15-page revision letter in your inbox and going “Oh, OK, here are some helpful comments” rather than “OMG WHAT WILL I DOOOOOOO”.

The popular image (or one popular image) of the writer is of a creative genius / tortured artist / “crazy” person / Certified Intellectual toiling away in splendid isolation until A Book is produced. Of course everyone’s different, and of course there will always be a lot of sitting down by yourself at your keyboard (or whatever) and Making Shit Happen on the page; but for me, community has become key to the writing process, and to my growth, confidence, and identity as a writer—and fandom is where I first experienced that sense of supportive-plus-challenging community among writers and readers.

I sort of hesitated to make fanfic the subject of this post, because I know of much-famouser-than-me pro writers who write fic (or used to write fic) and get a lot of grief about it. But this is a post I was invited to write for Women in SFF, and the writers I’m thinking of are, like me, women. It would be nice to suppose that the experiences they describe are unconnected to gender, but let’s be real: unpaid fan writing is still a majority-female space (or, at any rate, it’s thought of as such), and I think it would be naïve to suppose that’s not a big part of why it’s so often mocked and so seldom taken seriously.

I also don’t want to suggest that writing fic is a valid and valuable activity only as some kind of rehearsal for or stepping-stone to “real” writing—which is an argument I hear fairly often and with which, for the record, I strongly disagree.

That said … I have written fic, and I still write fic when I feel like it, and I’m quite proud of some of it, nor have I tried particularly hard to conceal my fic-writing tendencies—so, I said to myself, why start now? (I realize I may yet regret that decision.)

So, to close out my patented “Yay fanfic!” rant (which all of my friends have heard at least once before), here are some true things about me and fic:

  • I am 100% a better writer because of the tens of thousands of words of fic I’ve written in the past dozen-ish years.
  • I am 100% a better writer because of the mutual critique I’ve engaged in with fic-writing friends.
  • I still read fic, though my fandoms of choice have changed, and there are fic writers I admire every bit as much as my pro-writer idols.

And, finally:

  • Fanfiction helped make me a pro writer, but even before that happened, it had already made me a writer. Fic writers are writers—whether or not they (we) ever “go pro” or even have any interest in doing so—and if you write fic, you are a writer, and don’t let anyone make you believe you’re not.


*I also wrote what I have since learned to call “RPF” [for the uninitiated, that’s “real-person fic”] about myself and my high school friends. This portion of my literary output, however, remains much, MUCH too embarrassing to be discussed outside my own head. Ever.

**I even had one prof, in a course on satire in my second year of university, who assigned us to write a story or poem in the style of one of the authors we’d read in the course, which I think is the closest I’ve ever come to being asked to write fic. That prof was awesome.

***Fanfiction by some semi-accepted contemporary definition, that is. I had of course been consuming fanfiction for well over a decade without realizing it, since I spent a non-trivial amount of time from Grade 10 onward reading and/or watching Shakespeare plays.

Sylvia Izzo Hunter Sylvia Izzo Hunter lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her spouse and daughter and their slightly out-of-control collections of books, comics, and DVDs. Over the course of her working life she has been a slinger of tacos, a filer of patient charts and answerer of phones, a freelance looker-up of unconsidered trifles, an Orff-singing stage monk, and an exam tutor, but has mostly worked in not-for-profit scholarly publishing. When not writing spec fic, she works as a freelance editor and writer, sings in two choirs, reads as much as possible, knits things, and engages in experimental baking.

Sylvia’s favourite Doctor is Tom Baker, her favourite pasta shape is rotini, and her favourite Beethoven symphony is the Seventh.