What difference will it make, over time, if a growing percentage of young writers begin publishing and getting feedback on their work while they are still in high school? And what happens when those young writers compare notes, becoming critics, editors, and mentors? Will they develop their craft more quickly-and develop a critical vocabulary for thinking about storytelling?FictionAlley, the largest Harry Potter archive, hosts more than 30,000 stories and book chapters, including hundreds of completed or partially completed novels. Its (unpaid) staff of more than 200 people includes 40 mentors who welcome each new participant individually. At the Sugar Quill, another popular site, every posted story undergoes a peer-review process it calls “beta-reading.” New writers often go through multiple drafts before their stories are ready for posting. “The beta-reader service has really helped me to get the adverbs out of my writing and get my prepositions in the right place and improve my sentence structure and refine the overall quality of my writing,” explains the girl who writes under the pen name Sweeney Agonistes-a college freshman with years of publishing behind her.
Like many of the other young writers, Agonistes says that Rowling’s books provide her with a helpful creative scaffolding: “It’s easier to develop a good sense of plot and characterization and other literary techniques if your reader already knows something of the world where the story takes place,” she says. By poaching off Rowling, the writers are able to start with a well-established world and a set of familiar characters and thus are able to focus on other aspects of their craft. Often, unresolved issues in the books stimulate them to think through their own plots or to develop new insights into the characters.
Literary purists, of course, might question the wisdom of having kids develop as creative writers in this nontraditional way. But while there is certainly value in writing about one’s own experiences, adolescents often have difficulty stepping outside themselves and seeing the world through other people’s eyes. Their closeness to Harry and his friends makes it possible to get some critical distance from their own lives and think through their concerns from a new perspective. And writing about Harry offers them something else, too: an audience with a built-in interest in the stories-an interest that would be difficult to match with stories involving original fictional characters. The power of popular culture to command attention is being harnessed at a grassroots level to find a readership for these emerging storytellers.
Harry Potter fan fiction yields countless narratives of youth empowerment as characters fight back against the injustices their writers encounter everyday at school. Often, the young writers show a fascination with getting inside the heads of the adult characters. Many of the best stories are told from a teacher’s perspective or depict Harry’s parents and mentors when they were school aged. Some of the stories are sweetly romantic or bittersweet coming-of-age tales; others are charged with anger or budding sexual feelings, themes that could not be discussed so openly in a school assignment and that might be too embarrassing to address through personal narratives or original characters. As they discuss such stories, teen and adult fans talk openly about their life experiences, offering each other advice on more than just issues of plot or characterization. Having a set of shared characters creates a common ground that enables these conversations to occur in a more collaborative fashion.
Through online discussions of fan writing, the teen writers develop a vocabulary for talking about writing and they learn strategies for rewriting and improving their own work. When they talk about the books themselves, the teens make comparisons with other literary works or draw connections with philosophical and theological traditions; they debate gender stereotyping in the female characters; they cite interviews with the writer or read critiques of the works; they use analytic concepts they probably wouldn’t encounter until they reached the advanced undergraduate classroom.