Have you ever watched a movie and wished it would have ended differently? Or read a book and wondered what really happened behind the scenes between chapters seven and eight? Perhaps you wish your favorite TV show would air an episode in which your favorite characters share a romantic interlude.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that there is way to have all of your wishes come true. Welcome to the wonderful world of fanfiction.
According to Dictionary.com, fanfiction (or fanfic) is described as “fiction written by fans of a TV series, movie, etc., using existing characters and situations to develop new plots.” In other words, it’s a chance to play in someone else’s sandbox.
Whether you enjoy writing fanfiction or just want to read some of it, the world’s largest collection of fanfiction can be found on Fanfiction.Net, which was founded in 1998 and now hosts over two million members. That’s right, I said million. The site has stories based on everything from the Bible to Harry Potter, and everything in between, from blockbuster movies and bestselling novels to some of the more obscure TV shows that only a handful of people have ever heard of.
As with any online community, Fanfiction.net also has its share of disagreements and outright feuds. There are good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, and sometimes the members themselves are more interesting than the stories they are discussing.
Which brings me to Critics United, arguably one of the most talked-about, hated, and possibly misunderstood groups on the site. In recent years, I have heard so many horror stories about these guys that I have to admit to being both curious and a little bit intimidated. I started wondering if any group could be as purely evil as they are said to be, so I spent some time “lurking” in order to find out for myself. I was surprised to find that they are actually a rather small group of site members with a clearly stated goal and some very strict rules and regulations for themselves.
I was lucky enough to spend some time talking with three of the group’s moderators, Spirit of Paladin, MrGoodyTwoShoes and Cha’s Aegis, to find out more about how the group works and just how how much of the gossip is true.
AJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I can’t wait to find out more about Critics United, so let’s get started.
Tell me a little bit about when and why Critics United was formed. What is your purpose?
SOP: Critics United was formed in August 2010 by DarkSacredJewel, also known as Jewel. She was very active in the Naruto section of fanfiction.net at a time when that category was getting flooded by rule-breaking stories. She tried to do something to fix this but found that she had little success on her own, which gave her the idea to create a forum devoted to help people understand the rules and reporting violators to assist the site administrators.
As mentioned above, CU’s primary purpose is to help people who break the rules find ways to fix their work so they don’t lose it, and report violators when there is no other option available.
Goody: We were far far more antagonistic when we started than we are today. Now we still deal with rule breakers but we also try to help authors by offering reviews and answering questions they have about the site.
Cha: Goody brought me in about two months after CU was officially formed. I had messaged Goody a few months prior and we had a brief exchange because I had complimented him on confronting a rule violator. It was a badly written Naruto fic and I think it had chat/script. At the time I was of the mindset, “Everybody does it!” and “It’s not my problem.” However, Goody’s review on this story made me think and I complimented him on it. We exchanged a couple of pms and left it at that.
Some more time passed before Goody contacted me and told me about CU. I didn’t quite get the concept at first and he had to reassure me it wasn’t a bully group. I knew if he was going to be a part of it, it was okay.
AJ: So let me ask you the question that I think most people are wondering: Why? Why do you feel that it is so important for fanfic writers to follow the rules of Fanfiction.Net? Why not just let it slide?
Cha: Why not? Why should the majority of writers who use this site and follow the rules have to put up with a few entitled brats who don’t? This site is free and has so few rules. We aren’t bombarded with a ton of ads and the site admins have put a lot of work into creating a pretty damn spiffy site that’s really easy to use. It’s a disrespect to the effort and time that has been spent to create this site for us. I may not like all the rules, but it’s not my playground. I don’t own it, so I respect the rules. Whatever the reasons the site admins have for the rules that are in place, we all should be respecting and following those rules.
SOP: We do what we do for many different reasons, each member may have his or her own motivation but in general, we believe writers should follow the rules of fanfiction.net not only because it is the right thing to do, but because rule-breakers can get the site sued and closed down; for example songfics* could attract the attention of record companies or MA** explicit stories draw the ire of PTA’s. A cease and desist notice could shut down the site and that would affect thousands of writers who do follow the rules.
I personally believe that in this case it isn’t fair that just because a minority can’t grasp the concept of rules, the majority could potentially lose months or years of work devoted to improve their writing or the friends they have met thanks to it. Fanfiction.net is a large community with lots and lots of nice people; they don’t deserve to be hurt just because a microscopic percentage of its users are unable to follow a simple set of rules.
Goody: In my case I had no one try to warn me that my one story was breaking the rules and I got busted for it. Not a fun feeling and I don’t think anyone needs to go through with that.
As to why not just let it go, I guess it’s just a thing with me. I don’t like seeing people who intentionally or unintentionally act like they’re better or more special than others in most cases.
Cha: As for not just letting the violations slide. If I don’t do my part to raise awareness, who will? Many writers don’t realize they violated the site rules and appreciate the heads up. The brats who get all snotty when caught don’t deserve a free pass when everyone else is perfectly okay with the site rules. The rules aren’t many and aren’t that restrictive. It’s so easy to work within them it’s not even funny. There’s no excuse for violating them.
AJ: There is a common perception that fanfiction is for teenagers, but I know you three are all adults with careers and possibly families. What is the appeal of fanfiction for adults? What do you get out of it?
SOP: The best answer in my case is entertainment. I don’t write it myself, but I find it fun and interesting to see new takes on characters I am familiar with and when I find a story that makes justice to a franchise and its characters I feel glad to read it and experience a little of the joy the original property made me feel when I first saw it or read it. It is on these cases where congratulations to the author are in order.
Also, fanfiction is not credited enough as the creative outlet it actually is, which is a shame.
Goody: I enjoy reading good stories and with fanfiction many writers give a “what if” scenario to the original canon I already enjoy. Good writing is good writing no matter of the age of the author.
In most cases I have no clue as to the age of the writer so it’s something I don’t really think about.
Cha: I was into fanfiction for years before I ever heard of the term. Writing is a creative outlet for me, but I never had the imagination to make up my own characters or worlds. That aside, sometimes I didn’t like how the plot of my favorite fandoms turned out. I had my own concepts swirling around in my head and gradually put them down on paper, well, now into MS Word.
I basically get a relaxing, creative outlet that I can share with others and it’s a way for my favorite fandoms to live on long after the original stories have ended.
AJ: Is there any truth to the rumors that you delete stories?
SOP: No, we can’t do that. Only the site administrators have the power to delete stories.
Cha: And I’m glad we don’t because I’ll be the first to tell you it’d be far too tempting to delete a story out of spite because the writer was being a total brat. The site admins are faceless, unknown entities to us that aren’t involved in the drama we have to put up with, so if they delete a story, it’s based on the fact it violated the site rules.
Goody: I have no clue where this stated but there is no truth to the rumor that we delete stories. If we did have that power then there would be a lot more things being removed than there has been.
AJ: What about the rumors that you target stories out of jealousy, or simply because you don’t like them? Have any of your members ever gone after an author’s entire body of work?
SOP: Those rumors are so incorrect I consider them hilarious. They do get annoying because a lot of people believe them without bothering with looking at our forum and learning what we’re about, though.
So, no we don’t target anyone, and we have specific rules for our members to prevent that from happening.
Goody: I’ve heard that but I don’t know where people can get it when in our reviews we tell people what the issue is with the story in question.
In the early days we were more open to going after an author’s body of work but once we realized that could be seen as bullying or targeting we stopped that practice. Sadly not all members played by the rules and yes, we’ve had some cases of people doing it.
Cha: I may remember a writer because they were a total douche bag and am more likely to check on any new stories they post if I see it in the site updates, but I’m not going to go out of my way to monitor them unless they are a repeat offender historically. I’ve got better things to do with my time.
In the early days I may have gone after a writer’s entire body of work a couple of times because all they had were rule violations. Seriously, I remember one who had about 40 stories and every one of them was MA content. That was before we revised our group rules and just report one story in the hopes the writer would wise up and fix the rest of their stories if they didn’t want to lose them. Going after a writer’s body of work, regardless of how many are legitimately in violation, was smacking too close of bullying, which is why we adjusted our methods.
AJ: It sounds like you have a lot of rules for your members to follow. What sort of actions do you take against any of your own members who violate your rules? Have you ever had to discipline one of your own?
SOP: The member rules have evolved over the years because we’ve found those are the best ones when it comes to showing detractors we are not the spawn of Satan many would have you believe.
We have applied week long bans to members who ignore our rules repeatedly after warning them and if they cause conflict and trouble, we would be forced to let them go. In short yes, we’ve had to discipline or ask past members to leave because their conduct was inadequate.
Goody: We’ve had a few former members go rogue and had trouble dealing with them till we added [the rules] in. It also shows people that we aren’t just a bunch of vigilantes running wild.
As for what we do it depends on what the person did. Most times it takes a quick note or a short PM (private message) and things are sorted out. We have had at least two cases where the people involved were just not getting the message and we had to kick them out of the group.
Cha: There’s typically a learning curve with new members and there have been times when a mod has had to coach a member. It’s usually a case of where they didn’t quite get the purpose of doing things a certain way, but if they’re willing to try we’ll work with them until they fully understand. However, there have been times in the past where the member has chafed under our rules and we cut them loose. Like our site rules, our group rules aren’t for decoration.
AJ: So, let’s say I have a story on Fanfiction.Net that breaks a few rules. It’s a sexually explicit piece of erotica that includes song lyrics. What can I expect to happen when CU becomes aware of my story? Walk me through the process.
SOP: If a member finds a violator, the first step is to leave a review alerting the author about the problems with the story and offering suggestions on how to fix the fanfic; keep in mind we have many members so their reviewing styles vary but they all do this in their own way. After this, the member waits for a response and then the following happens:
- If the author replies asking for assistance, the CU member will help said author fix the story. They can ask in the forum if they have questions on how to do this. In this case the story is never reported.
- If the author does not reply but fixes the story on his or her own, then the story is never reported.
- If the author replies stating they won’t fix the story (sometimes in a rude way) or ignores the review and updates other stories then the CU member can bring the fanfic to our forum where only two more members can review the story offering further assistance. This means only three CU members review any story in violation, no more. This is to prevent accusations of harrassing. It is at this point where the story can be reported for violation.
- As soon as the story is fixed, CU will stop reporting the fanfic and it will be marked as compliant in the forum.
Goody: If it’s me then I would review alerting you to that your story is over the acceptable rating for the site along with noting that using song lyrics that you don’t own isn’t allowed. I’d also offer you suggestions on how to fix it, in this case reworking your explicit content to fit with the rating or consider moving the writing to a site where it is allowed. I’d also suggest removing the lyrics entirely and that you should reference the song as opposed to using the lyrics as padding.
What happens next is on you.
If you reply “I didn’t know, I’ll fix it right away, thx” and make the adjustments then that’s as far as it goes .
If you reply with insults, bad excuses (everyone else does it, I’m a rebel, I’m young and want to have fun, etc) or just ignore me and go about your story with no changes then I would add it to the Stories in Violation thread at which point you can expect two more reviews (as we have a three review limit to try and avoid dog piling and the appearance of bullying) from Critics United member (hopefully) giving you different suggestions/ideas on how you fix your story.
In the end, it’s on you if you want to adjust or not.
Cha: Every CUer is different, so I’m going to explain how I do it. I’d write a signed review like this:
According to the site rules MA content and song lyrics aren’t allowed. These are easy fixes as you’d only have to edit out the MA content and imply the characters had sex. If you wish to still post the entire scene, you can post it over at adultfanfiction.com where MA content is allowed. I do that for my stories that have expanded, explicit scenes.
As for the song lyrics, just remove them. You can have a short author’s note at the top of the chapter directing readers to your profile where you can post a link to a YouTube video of the song readers can listen to while reading. Honestly, your story doesn’t need the lyrics anyway. It disrupts the flow of your narrative and I find it distracting since it takes me out of the story.
These are easy fixes you can do in a few minutes that will keep your story compliant and not risk being removed by the site admins if reported.
Now if a you react badly to me, I do my best not to feed into your anger because usually it’s simply a knee jerk reaction. If I avoid the sarcasm and make reasonable points to pick apart your reply, chances are good you will calm down and make the changes. If you asked me to, I’ll even do the editing for you because sometimes a writer doesn’t know how to imply a sex scene. If the violation is fixed, I go on my way.
For some reason, if a writer reacts badly reacts badly to one CUer, they’ll be nice and listen to someone else. Maybe they say it better than me. Doesn’t matter. You might listen to them and still fix your story. So everyone else at CU will stop reporting your story for its violation when it’s clear you fixed it.
We don’t keep reporting stories even after the violation is fixed.
AJ: Do you allow authors you have reviewed to have a say if they come into your forum, or is it true that you block anyone who voices an opinion you don’t agree with?
Goody: We have a chat thread, a Q&A thread and even a complaint thread for people to use. If you have a valid thing to say then we’ll read it but be ready to be challenged if you make wild statements.
I get the feeling that most people come in and expect us to just sit there and take them cursing up a storm, telling lies and just plain insulting us and are shocked when we ban them because they can’t follow our rules or even be civil to our members who are trying to discuss things with them.
SOP: We are actually very lenient, and as long as the author follows the rules of the forum and the complaint thread (which can be summed up with this sentence: “don’t be a rude asshole if you don’t want to get banned”), then the person won’t be blocked/banned from posting at CU.
Cha: A writer has every right to confront us, so we let them have their say. Sometimes we let them ramble on and on. Usually once they have their say they move on.
I don’t feel we have to extend that courtesy to anyone else, especially when they’re coming in misinformed and not bothering to take the time to look around our forum. We’re very transparent about what we do. So if they are just coming in to vilify us without even giving us the slightest chance to explain who we are and what we do, then, absolutely, we’ll block them. Everyone has a right to their opinions and we have the right not to have to sit there and listen to ignorant condemnations.
This seems like a pretty good place to take a break since this is turning out to be a lot more informative than I expected. Please come back next week to read part two of my interview of the moderators of Fanfiction.Net’s Critics United, when we talk about “The Purge” and CU’s “Worst Response” thread, and more. In the meantime, please check out Fanfiction.Net to see if you find anything you like. You just might be surprised.
As always, I welcome any comments or opinions. If you have any specific questions for my guests, I will do my best to see if I can get them to provide an answer.
* A songfic is a story that has song lyrics woven into it. On Fanfiction.net, they are only against the rules if the lyrics are copyrighted. Songfics containing original lyrics or lyrics from songs in Public Domain are acceptable.
**MA stands for a “Mature Adult” rating as opposed to “Mature.” MA refers to stories that would be on par with movies that are rated NC-17 or above. Fanfiction.Net expressly forbids any stories that should be rated MA; in fact, they do not even make the MA rating available to their members when posting stories.