I’m not very good at giving gifts. I agonize over Secret Santa or White Elephant exchanges, and I’ve long accepted that I will never match my mother’s uncanny ability to find exactly the perfect (and unexpected) present for every person. I’ve certainly had my rare triumphs (about which I am disproportionately proud), but when it comes to the holiday season, I find myself leaning on the old adage of It’s the thought that counts coupled with a shrug and some big puppy eyes.
But there’s one arena in which I have had confidence in what I have to give: fanfic exchanges! Like a Secret Santa, participants are assigned to one another and try to come up with something that matches the recipient’s likes and personality. Unlike a Secret Santa, everyone is giving the same gift: a new piece of writing crafted for the special occasion.
Yuletide (operating since 2003) is one of the biggest and most well-known fanfic gift exchanges, starting on LiveJournal and (in later years) also housed on Archive of Our Own. The rules are pretty straightforward: Fanfic authors post their wishlists of certain fandoms and/or character pairings and sign up to receive someone else’s wishlist. At the end of the preordained writing time (usually a few weeks), authors exchange fanfics, everyone reads, and it’s (usually) a wonderful time. Those who fail to deliver their promised fics are usually banned from the next year’s proceedings, and sometimes the organizers even get pinch hitters willing to write a request last-minute so that another writer won’t have an empty stocking, so to speak.
The Daily Dot has a great piece on the experience of participating in Yuletide, which draws in readers and writers of rare fandoms. But while Yuletide is a multifandom challenge, plenty of individual fandoms have set up their own gift exchanges over the years, constraining the fanfics to one particular fictional world. While I never participated in Yuletide, in 2006 I was part of the Midwinter Fic Exchange in the Tamora Pierce fandom, and it’s still one of my favorite things to have happened on the Internet.
I first started writing fanfiction set in the world of Tortall in 2002, when I was about 14, during which time I published my magnum opus in the fandom: a multi-chapter, “deleted scenes” story about how two minor characters fell in love. Having brought in over 14,000 views (more than certain articles I’ve written since), it’s still my most-read fanfic, 13 years later; I’ll occasionally get reviews and favorites sent to my inbox, which always brightens my day. Shortly after I finished that fanfic, I started high school, and put aside fandom for a few years. In 2006, when I posted my return to the Tamora Pierce fandom on a message board, an author who I admired (because I had still been lurking, reading the new stuff), wrote something akin to “Oh my god, you’re back!” Like, she had read my handful of fics, noted my absence, actively wondered where I went, and welcomed me back with delight and some awe. I was not even 18, and bowled over by such attention and affirmation.
I hadn’t realized until I checked the timeline, but it makes perfect sense that I dove back into the fandom that year by participating in the annual Midwinter Fic Exchange. Sure, I had participated in various prompt challenges for years, in which you dash off a quick drabble (100-1,000 words) inspired by a random word or phrase or image. But this was extra thrilling, because there was a particular recipient whose tastes you had to satisfy. I was being a little facetious above when I said that the fanfics are all the same, because that’s not actually the case. While most people wanted something with their OTP (One True Pairing), others preferred drama or a character study over romance; as Pierce had written at least five series by that point, there were a lot of different characters for people to request. Which meant all of the participants had to have read the majority of the books in order for all of the fics to be assigned.
I was ready for a real challenge. However, my excitement quickly turned to trepidation when I realized three things: (1) the recipient I had gotten was one of the best writers in the fandom, and one of my personal favorites; (2) she wanted characters from the one Tortall series in which I was not well-versed; and (3) she had requested femslash, or a love story between two female characters. I was a straight girl from a Catholic high school in northern California, so I had few real-life examples; the only queer female characters I knew about were Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It being the early 2000s, I read plenty of slash, but it was majority male/male. I floundered so badly that I had to ask the organizer for an extension as I panicked over what the hell I would write.
But rather than drop out—the ultimate party foul in these kinds of situations—I steeled myself and ground out a 1,500-word story. And in the process, I learned what makes fanfic exchanges so special:
It takes you out of your comfort zone. Now, it helped that in canon, both of these characters were married to men, and that the femslash pairing was something fandom had made up. They were also from two different series, so it gave me more freedom to imagine their interactions. But even as I distracted myself with drawing from real-world fertility rituals to write in Pierce’s proto-Egypt, I knew I was procrastinating on the key part: writing two women in love. Ultimately, I found a common thread between the characters: Two women married to powerful men, expected to bear them heirs, one pregnant out of duty while the other feels betrayed. It’s funny that I described the fic as being “very mild femslash,” which my teenage brain took to mean “no sexytimes.” In fact, I wrote two women in love, grappling with their circumstances, the way I would write a heterosexual couple separated by societal demands. While I came from a fairly liberal family, it took fanfiction for my first concrete realization that love is love is love.
The unified race to the deadline. I was a high-school senior, distracting myself from the dread and uncertainty of having just sent out my college applications with fanfiction. As I was one of the younger members in the fandom, everyone else was likely dealing with various college stresses and real-world issues. But we were all united, for however many weeks, by the focus of writing these fics in our spare time and looking forward to the present that would pop up in our inbox.
You fulfill someone’s holiday wish. This was probably the first time that I truly appreciated the concept of “the true meaning of Christmas”: giving up your own wants for someone else’s. I was terrified at how my recipient would react to her fanfic, especially when she didn’t immediately comment on the publicly posted fic, like many other people did. In fact, after publishing the post in December 2006, I didn’t get a response until April 2007—and she loved it! One of my favorite authors was telling me how fabulous my work was, apologizing for her delay in responding, and begging for a sequel. I had fulfilled her wishlist and beyond. Few pieces of praise have warmed me as much as that comment did.
You see yourself reflected in someone else. And, oh yeah—I got my own fanfic, too! A more recent fanfic friend got assigned me (though of course I didn’t know) and wrote me a sappy holiday story starring my OTP. Considering that I was one of the few writers who actually covered this couple, it was a rare joy to see someone write it just as well, if not better. It was almost as good as if Pierce herself had decided to write a “deleted scene” set to my specifications.
Who knew I’d find the holiday spirit in fanfiction?
Maybe you’ve read this and are horribly disappointed to learn that the Midwinter Fic Exchange is defunct, or that you’ve passed the deadline to sign up for Yuletide. Never fear! The best thing about fic exchanges is that they take place all year. You might have to dig through Tumblr and fan communities, but you’ll find ’em. I haven’t really participated in fandom since I started college in 2007, but I still beta-read my college roommate’s fanfiction for her annual exchanges, and so I get to see how tight-knit and generous the community remains. That’s the amazing thing about online fandom: It’s built on the notion of giving year-round: granting each other new stories in worlds in which the writers no longer roam; lending each other an ear when no one we know has read those books or watched those TV show; giving each other stories with the utter delight of not knowing what happens next.
Natalie Zutter had a ball rereading her fanfiction to write this piece, but is still too nervous to actually share a link to it. You can read more of her (non-fanfiction) work on Twitter and elsewhere.