Let’s talk about fanfiction to original fiction.
I’ll be the first to admit I don’t read a ton of YA. I think I got my YA phase out of the way when I was a YA. And most of my exposure to YA stories in the past 15-ish years has been from… fanfic. Love fanfic. Read it all the time. Write it all the time (although considerably less so since I’ve started publishing).
But I wanted to read Novik’s books specifically, to see how her original fiction compared to the voice she demonstrates in her fanfic.
The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard. The real story is, the miller’s daughter with her long golden hair wants to catch a lord, a prince, a rich man’s son, so she goes to the moneylender and borrows for a ring and a necklace and decks herself out for the festival. And she’s beautiful enough, so the lord, the prince, the rich man’s son notices her, and dances with her, and tumbles her in a quiet hayloft when the dancing is over, and afterwards he goes home and marries the rich woman his family has picked out for him. Then the miller’s despoiled daughter tells everyone that the moneylender’s in league with the devil, and the village runs him out or maybe even stones him, so at least she gets to keep the jewels for a dowry, and the blacksmith marries her before that firstborn child comes along a little early.
Because that’s what the story’s really about: getting out of paying your debts.Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver
You may or may not have heard that Novik is a prolific and well-known author in fandom (multiple fandoms, but I came across her first in my own first fandom, Harry Potter). She speaks openly about her fanfic writing and fandom experiences, and because of that, she was one of the first people who convinced little me, ten-years-ago-me, that I could write a real book, too. That I could go from fanfiction to original fiction.
So, Naomi Novik, if you ever read this: Thank you for Prodigal. House Proud. AO3. Teaching me without knowing me. Existing.
I don’t want to go into a full synopsis or breakdown of Spinning Silver’s themes because other #bookstagrammers have done it first and better than me. I want to talk about why Spinning Silver stands out among YA (and even adult) fantasy novels. What makes Spinning Silver such a remarkable, unusual, and well-loved book?
The answer: Novik writes like she’s writing fanfic.
Spinning Silver is, fundamentally, a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Already we’ve got a hint of fanfiction, but since Rumpelstiltskin is in public domain, we can call it a retelling rather than fanfiction. But the fairytale premise of the story is where the comparison ends because Novik deconstructs, reconstructs, flips, spins, and twists the original story on its head. It’s both a modern imagination of Rumpelstiltskin and also a nostalgic one. It’s one of the many princess tales I would’ve loved to have as a child because these princesses have agency.
Agency to do good. To do neutral. And yeah, even to do evil.
But what is evil, really? How do you draw the line between who’s life is worth saving when you can’t save them all? That’s a moral quandary often shied away from in fiction, but, perhaps without the heavy gaze of agents, paying reads, and traditional publishers overlooking, fanfic authors have been readier to toe.
Going from fanfiction to original fiction can be tough for writers—sometimes they’re forced to give up fanfic altogether, or “burn” their old fics from the internet, or keep silent about it. I love that Novik was able to—and chose to—avoid that. One of the reasons given for agents and publishers wanting traditionally published authors to disavow any fanfiction they wrote is because it may be vastly different in structure, scope, and steaminess from what’s considered ‘publishable’. To traditionally publish a novel, it needs to fall within certain industry norms, like word count and genre. Fanfiction doesn’t have those requirements; it is purely market-based: Writers can write whatever they want, but the market will decide what becomes “popular”. Sometimes what becomes popular would never get published traditionally, had it been an original story.
A famous example? Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. This is a fic that got people who don’t even read or like fanfic to read and like fanfic. It’s huge. It would never have been published by a traditional publisher (assuming it was an original story). I never finished reading that fic, but I enjoyed it for awhile.
Novik’s Spinning Silver reads like it could almost be fanfiction. It has that same feel of bucked trends, twisted tropes, and disregard for norms.
One of the major characters is forced into this situation at the end of the book and she makes a choice that left me—and many other—readers reeling. Angry, even. Frustrated, for sure. Would she have made that decision if Novik hadn’t been a fanfic writer? I’m not so sure she would’ve.
Novik allows each of the three main girls—Miryem, Wanda, and Irina—to make tough moral decisions, but more importantly, she allows them to almost (and in one case, to actually) make the “bad” decision. They contemplate it, as coldly as the winter that sets the story.
It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of pragmatism and emotion… it’s real-world decisions, not plot devices.
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Paleo+Keto Brownies in the oven and now time to finish up this really excellent book by @naominovik while I lounge around in a chocolate-smudgy apron. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In the background: my little brew maiden is helping her dad brew beer in the kitchen. We had to really time our #kitchenwitchin today. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I’m having so much fun living as my heroine in my WIP! It’s giving me a lot of ideas for how to really bring her story and her life to, well, life. ???⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ What’s on your agenda this beautiful Sunday?
One of the things I loved most was how Miryem comes back owing a debt; the lender becomes the lendee and while she is brought low, in a sense, she is surer of herself than she ever was before.
It’s a fairytale that feels real, and that, in itself, is a concept familiar to fanfic readers. To dive into a world you already love, but to see well-loved fandom tropes, accepted headcanons, and real world pop culture merge into a concept both familiar and fresh. To see female characters grapple with issues women experience today, in a way that’s both removed and very real.
Then there is the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the way the romance was handled was very “fanfic”. And I loved it.
I also loved the theme of mothers—admittedly one of the lighter themes, but I did say I wasn’t going to spend time recreating what other #bookstagrammers had already done better.
Wanda’s mother, who dies in childbirth, is buried under a magical tree with the other five babies she’d lost before. Wanda goes to the tree to pray and the tree responds in such a way that we the reader, and Wanda, believe that her mother’s spirit is still in there. Her mother is with her throughout the book. When she begins working for the Mandelstams, Panova (Mrs.) Mandelstam treats her as if she is her own daughter, and gives her a lovely bit of advice near the end, as a mother:
You don’t have a mother anymore, but let me to speak to you with her voice a minute.Panova Mandelstam, “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik
Miryem is the only one of the three main characters who has a living mother, but they all have their own mother figures. Wanda with Panova Mandelstam and Irina with Magreta.
Finally, there is Flek, a Staryk servent. The weight of the decision she makes for Miryem isn’t immediately known to the reader, but when it hits, it hits hard. As a mother of a small daughter myself, it hit me real hard.
And fanfic isn’t necessarily about mothers, but it is often about deep and sometimes meanderingly-woven emotional themes. Yes, many books are like this, but the way it is presented here in Spinning Silver makes me nostalgic for fanfic rather than nostalgic for published books with themes of mothers. It feels different, in an, I suppose, ineffable way. (Perhaps you, dear reader, can help me put it to better words?)
I first picked up Spinning Silver because I knew the author’s fanfic, not because I like YA or fairytale retellings. I’m usually indifferent on YA and not particularly drawn to fairytale retellings (funny, since I read so many Hogwarts-years retellings!) but I wanted to read as many books as I could by known fanfic writers, and this is where I started. I couldn’t have started with a better book.
More importantly, I want to read more authors who go from fanfiction to original fiction. I want there to be more of these authors. I think our books are special. I think our histories shine through. Novik says it herself: Fanfiction is a part of literary history.
If you’re a fanfiction author reading this and you have a desire to write a book, write it. You are good enough. You see yourself growing with each new fic. You will only grow stronger still if you write your book. And if you need a little encouragement along the way, please do join our Discord group for writers and authors. We’re friendly!
Spinning Silver is beautiful, immersive, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, frustrating, and nostalgic—all wonderful things to have in a book.
(Yes, even frustrating. It’s good to get so tied to characters, worlds, and settings that they have the ability to frustrate you!)
I’m so glad I read it, and I think you will be, too, if you add it to your TBR.
Super meta: Fanfiction of a fanfic author’s original fiction
I can’t think of a better homage to one of the most prolific fans ever, and one of the founders of the OTW, than having fanfic written about her own original fiction. Check it out. You might find some you like.
Maybe you’d even like to write some yourself. I’d say that all of our writing can only benefit from writing fanfiction every now and then.
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