Fanfic is an old phenomenon by now. As a child I found some fanfic my mother had written about The Osmonds. I don’t remember much but I think it was about her and her sisters meeting the band, mild-mannered hijinks, and a frog in a toilet. But from the late nineties on, as everybody and their moms went online, it changed, refined and distilled into an ultra high speed turbo form that is staggering to behold, from my place on the outside. The wordier fanfics routinely exceed the length of original novels, including those they refer to.
It raises a lot of questions for me, as an outsider who has been forced into proximity with it. I’m in a small writing community, and any given writing community these days is sharing space with ficcers, ranging from those who are shy and circumspect about it to those who talk about almost nothing else. The ficcers in my little community do not seem amenable to analytical conversation about it. The main questions today, which I can’t get answered there: Why can fic be written so quickly, reach such outrageous word counts, and why can it be read quickly as well?
This has become an issue because we’re doing word count -based activities, things like NaNoWriMo, and it seems like anyone doing fanfic can write two to four times as fast as the rest of us. When the same ficcers overcome the compulsion toward their comfort zone and do original writing they slow to a crawl. Fic literally is much easier to write for them, and I’m not sure why. They are willing to admit that. A common refrain is that “I was going to do something original but life is stressing me out so I’m just going to do fic again.” But they won’t discuss the why of it.
Ficcers also read fic faster than they read original writing – much faster. This has also become an issue in that shared space. Ask a ficcer to return a favor and read some original writing, they say “Oh yeah, I can read anything. Just read a 100k fanfic in one night.” Then they fail to read your 10K words of original fic and disappear in shame for seven months. A little research has shown me people who admit they have trouble reading anything that is not fanfic. Some say they can’t read something unless it’s tagged with every aspect of its content in a way that lets them feel comfortable before they start. The more sexually fixated just don’t read anything without their specific fetish or ship involved. But why can they consume this stuff as fast as its written, which is already outrageously fast? This doesn’t work in reverse, by the way. As a non-ficcer, I read fic the same pace as anything written to the same level.
Why all the words, guys? Of course, you don’t have to do any world building or character development, at least not the foundational kind. That surely helps, but it can’t be the whole picture, can it? There are a few conventions of fanfic that might help. A common issue is that any actions of a non-sexual nature are extremely glossed over. Was there a big world-shattering event that happened? It’s written almost in shorthand, like a news blurb. The writers are less interested in events than in character’s reactions to them, which is kind of reasonable on its face but can be really odd in practice.
In writing original fiction, every writer is going to have strengths and weaknesses – things that can speed them up or slow them down. It could just be they’re willing to lean into the easy stuff and freely skip doing anything difficult because that’s acceptable in their culture. Like fanfic doesn’t have to be entertaining or understandable to anybody outside of the fandom, so they don’t bother crafting something that would stand without the foundations established there.
Dialog is one of those easy things for ficcers. There’s a convention in fanfic of “ice cream shop” chapters. Something happens in a short chapter, then the characters process it verbally for a much longer stretch afterwords – often in a safe location where there’s no threat or sense of danger that the writer would have to keep in mind. Chapter One – Snape kills Dumbledore! One hundred words. Chapter Two – Everybody chills in a magically safe place eating candy and talking about chapter one. Five thousand words.
Another possible contributor to easy word count: porn. I had some firsthand experience of this. I was writing a story in a high fantasy setting where adventuring was associated with homosexuality to the extent adventurer was a euphemism for gay dude. The main character had inspired a revenge plot by characters that were basically the fellowship of the ring. I was lagging on word count and for a laugh I made the fellowship have a big orgy in a bathhouse. Just describing several characters having sex required enough words that it became one of my most productive days ever.
TL;DR: Why is fanfic written so fast and easy? Why is it easy to read for its fans?