The unfinished history of works in progress
They don’t come every day, but there are a couple every week. The arrival of each new email alert causes a guilty jolt in my stomach. The messages are always kind, sometimes with a slightly impatient undertone. “I love this! I hope you post again,” read a recent one. “Are you ever going to update this??” said another. “Happy to beta any future chapters if you need!” Then there are the dozens of comments that use the word “more.” “Looking forward to more!” “You should write more.” “Can’t wait to read more.” If you scroll quickly down the page of reviews, that one word seems to jump out, inscribed indelibly on the screen. More.
Sometimes, usually late at night when I feel anxious about something else, I click through and re-read the story that is still attracting this attention. It’s a way of travelling back in time, of jumping back 18 months to the person I was at the end of 2015. The last episode of Downton Abbey had aired on Christmas Day, and after two years of intense lurking in the Tumblr fandom surrounding the series, I felt like it was my last chance to participate. Already I had seen signs of people beginning to follow other enthusiasms and drift away. The small yet tight-knit community I had been quietly delighting in for years would not be same for much longer.
On one of those dead, grey days between Christmas and New Year, I began to write. I focused on the below-stairs story that had fascinated me throughout the show’s six seasons, filling in a gap left when the characters travelled offscreen. It came easily: thousands of words in a single day, chapter after chapter without the need for a plan or structure. I soon had enough to think that I could start publishing the early installments without finishing the entire story, because I would be far enough ahead to stick to a regular publishing schedule.
The following Sunday, at the time when the next episode of the show would have aired, I uploaded my first chapter. It was the first time I had ever published any fic. I tentatively posted the link on my Downton Tumblr, explaining how long I had been lurking, and then sat up for hours watching as other members of the fandom discovered and read the first chapter of my story. I received dozens of messages of welcome and encouragement, and then many more responses my writing. People liked it. Nobody laughed.
For three more weeks, I continued this pattern: posting a chapter at the time when we would have gathered online to post along to the new episode of Downton, and then staying up most of the night to read and respond to comments. Monday mornings at the office passed in an exhausted daze; I would still feel slightly drunk on the responses of the night before.
But during this heady month I was spending less and less time thinking about the show in between posting chapters. Soon, days were passing between my logging into Tumblr to see the latest fan edits and gifs, and I was barely reading anyone else’s fic. Without a new series to anticipate, I became one of the people drifting away from the fandom.
I hadn’t written any more of my story since that one outburst in late December, and had no appetite now to go back to it. I had used up my stock of completed chapters, so when the next Sunday came I had nothing to post. I still stayed up to field the messages, but this time I didn’t type any replies. Watching all of the “I really hoped this would carry on!” and “You OK?” posts appear, I felt too guilty to explain that I just didn’t love the characters the way I used to.
Weeks, then months went by. The flood of “more” messages slowed to a trickle. After one particularly grim week at work, I deleted my Tumblr so that I couldn’t see those gentle requests anymore. I wanted to avoid the feeling that I had let people down. The guilt was still there, though, like background static.
For some reason—vanity, perhaps?—I didn’t delete the story or turn off the email alerts for new responses. It’s still there in its incomplete form, finding new readers, some of whom then ask whether it will ever continue. I don’t reply, but each one provides a tiny prick of extra guilt. It feels a bit like a bruise that I’ve had for a long time now, and every so often I push on it to check it’s still there.
Publishing unfinished fanfiction—often known as a “work in progress” or WIP—is a common practice. A brief glance at two big fic archives, fanfiction.net and archiveofourown.org, reveals the scale of it. On the former, in the Harry Potter section, there are approximately 734,000 stories in total. Of these, 365,000 have been marked by their authors as “complete”, meaning that just under half of them—369,000 are listed as “in progress.” In the same fandom on AO3, there are 140,537 stories, 21,892 of which are incomplete.
Even allowing for lots of cases where writers finished their fic but didn’t mark it as such, it’s still reasonable to estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of WIPs just in this one (albeit very large) body of fanfiction. On fanfiction.net, there are Harry Potter stories still tagged as “in progress” that haven’t been updated since 1999. One of these that I came across says in its summary that it is the “first part of a long story.” There are only two chapters.
There are lots of reasons why this might be the case. I’m definitely not the only person to start publishing a fic full of good intentions, only to fall out of love with a fandom before the story was finished. Writers lose inspiration, they move onto other projects, life events intervene.
But for all the myriad reasons a WIP might remain incomplete, there is one constant: on most stories, there will be an exchange between author and readers, played out in the margins. In the author’s note at the head of each chapter, you see the same phrases recurring again and again: “I’m sorry this update is so late”; “Apologies, this is a touch later than usual!”; “Life stuff has caught up with me.” Then in the reader responses, the same kind of messages that are still trickling into my inbox, a year and a half after my last update.
I find these metatextual narratives fascinating. Mostly, the dialogue remains civil, with the author apologizing and the readers encouraging. Occasionally, though, you come across a story where things have gone sour—readers post about their sense of betrayal at the lack of updates, and the author will detail how they find the constant reminders difficult to deal with. In some cases, I’ve even seen authors say that the pressure they feel from all the messages is getting in the way of their continued writing.
Unfinished WIPs are so common that many fic readers will specify that they avoid reading incomplete fics, so as to avoid both becoming attached to a story that may never have a published ending, and any potential unpleasantness in the comments. To try and understand what lies beneath these conversations that surround WIPs, I asked a number of fans from across different fandoms what their experiences with this had been.
Many of the people I spoke to said that they did their best to avoid unfinished fic. Linda told me that she will read a WIP, but is very picky. “I usually decide not to read WIPs because I want to make sure that I get a complete story,” she said. “I totally get that these authors are doing this for themselves, but if they aren’t updating I don’t want to invest in WIPs.” Alice, a 29-year-old fan from Scotland, said that she will start reading a story that’s marked as incomplete, but only “as a last resort,” if she has “exhausted good complete works in a fandom, or this is the final work by an author that I haven’t read.” She always checks how it ends first, though, to be sure the author hasn’t left the characters “in a dire and unresolved situation” before she gets fully invested.
Some spoke of bad experiences resulting from over-investment in WIPs in the past. Tumblr user captainkirkmccoy now tries to avoid WIPs—during time spent in the Supernatural and Sherlock fandoms, reading of WIPs, “destroyed me that they weren’t being updated regularly. I had every alert imaginable and would check every day for updates. It was intense.”
But others said there were definitely circumstances under which they would start reading an incomplete fic. Hannah, a Yuri on Ice fan, said that although she reads WIPs very rarely, she will sometimes take the risk on the recommendation of a friend or Tumblr follower, “or if the premise is enticing and the author seems to be updating on a regular basis.” Similarly, one anonymous Tumblr user got in touch with me to say that they will start a WIP “if I already know the author is likely to finish it (i.e. I’ve read many of their stories before and they’ve never abandoned a story).”
The amount of fic available in a fandom can be a strong influence on the decision whether or not to start reading a WIP. Jay, a 19-year-old fan from Austria, said that although they used to avoid incomplete fic, they’ve now relaxed that view. “Right now (mainly because I read in a fairly new fandom where almost all fics are WIP or one-shots) I don’t really care any more.”
Of all the people I spoke to, only one anonymous Tumblr user didn’t express caution at the idea of reading a WIP. “I have no problem reading incomplete works, even if I stumble upon them years later and it’s clear they’ll never be finished,” they wrote. “If the beginning is interesting enough, I can always finish the story in my head!”
The perspective of those who write fic as well as read it tended to be a little different. Ashley told me that she feels hypocritical about WIPs, “as someone who generally avoids reading [them] and yet simultaneously publishes unfinished work.” She loves to binge-read completed fic, and prefers to download it as a PDF rather than reading online, meaning that “WIPs are a pain because I have to keep redownloading updated versions” — yet both of her published works are WIPs that she “definitely does intend to finish.”
Tumblr user doctortay said that “the risk that a fic may not ever be finished has never really stopped me from reading a WIP,” and cited their own experience as a writer for this perspective. This is where I’ve found myself in the months since publishing my own WIP—having been on the writer’s side of the situation, it’s hard to feel annoyed with others who leave their fics without new installments for years at a time.
In traditional book publishing, the practice of serializing a story—releasing it in a series of installments in pamphlets or a weekly or monthly magazine—has almost entirely died out. Although this distribution method was used from the 17th century onwards, Charles Dickens is generally credited with popularizing the practice via his publication (beginning in 1836) of The Pickwick Papers in monthly installments.
There were good reasons to publish like this then: it enabled readers to spread the exorbitant cost of single-volume novels over a longer period, and it allowed authors to pick up new fans via word of mouth as their stories went on. It worked for Dickens—the first section of Pickwick sold 1,000 copies, but by the end it had a print run of 40,000. He went on to publish his other novels in the same fashion, with great success, as did other major 19th century authors like George Eliot, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy.
As well as helping readers with publishing costs and authors with attracting an audience, serialization had an impact on the ways stories were told. Interrupting the narrative on a regular basis produces tension that a single-volume novel could never have—the reader is left with the space to wonder what might happen next, and the onus is on the author to end each segment in such a way as to bring the audience back next time.
Hillary Kelly, in a call for the return of the serialized novel in the Washington Post in 2015, wrote that “the constant influx of unresolved plots and elliptical section breaks stoked a fervor for fiction in Victorian England.” (This fervor was satirized by the author Elizabeth Gaskell in her own serialized novel, Cranford, which began publication in Dickens’ journal Household Words in 1851. One of her characters, Captain Brown, is killed by a train because he is so immersed in reading the latest Dickens installment that has just arrived.)
Beyond merely dividing a story into chapters and the need to retain readers’ interest along the way, there are many parallels between the Victorian serialized novel and contemporary fanfiction. Authors like Dickens and Thackeray would often begin publishing installments of their novel before they had finished the whole thing, and then write to the weekly or monthly deadline. Anthony Trollope, on the other hand, preferred to structure and write the whole novel ahead of the first section’s publication, and was on occasion critical of those novelists who made it up as they went along. Just like fic authors, these writers would miss an update if life intervened—Thackeray was delayed with a section of Pendennis in 1849 because of illness, and Dickens with Oliver Twist in 1837 when his sister-in-law Mary died.
These serialized stories were sometimes left unfinished, too. An early novelist in this form, Charles Brockden Brown, was forced to leave his story The Memoirs of Stephen Calvert without an ending when the magazine it was appearing in shut in 1800. Gaskell, Trollope, and Dickens all died with serial novels partway through publication. In the case of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, the story lacked only its denouement, whereas with Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood only six of the planned 12 parts had been published and no more written, meaning that today’s reader still has no idea who murdered the titular character. (Multiple Edwin Drood continuations have been published, and fan interest in it continues to this day.)
The practice of serializing fiction in periodicals continued throughout the twentieth century, although the format saw a marked drop off with traditional publishers once technology allowed books to be mass-produced and then, after the 1950s, when TV took over as a major source of household entertainment. Some authors and publishers still found serialization to be an advantageous method of storytelling: in 1984, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities first appeared in 27 installments in Rolling Stone, and in 2004 Alexander McCall Smith’s comic Edinburgh novel 44 Scotland Street ran in The Scotsman newspaper over six months. At the same time, amateur presses, zines, and—by the 1990s—websites were using serialized publication to distribute all kinds of stories, rather than just novels.
Even once serialization had mostly disappeared for novels, it remained a vital method for communicating narrative and interacting with an audience. Television, especially drama, has always delivered its stories in regular installments, and the rise of prestige small screen projects and anthology series in the past 15 years has only enhanced this association. Films, too, are increasingly organized into franchises with characters common across installments, often with overarching narratives—the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most obvious example, echoing the way comics are published. Book series play with staggered publication as well—Philip Pullman’s newly-published follow-up trilogy to the His Dark Materials books, The Book of Dust, is a serialized story, told in three parts, which spans the chronology of the original series and more. He’s using the multiple installments to slot two different, overlapping narratives together, to fill in some gaps and create others.
Serialized stories encourage discussion and analysis. There is plenty of evidence of Victorian “reading groups,” where friends and families would come together to read aloud the latest installments of a favorite tale, and of book exchanges, where a single pamphlet would make it round an entire community. This impulse to share and discuss parallels the way a new chapter of a popular fic will be consumed and dissected by its readers on platforms like Tumblr.
In the same way, the space between each part of a serialized story can be filled up with fan activity—it’s no coincidence that many fanfic fandoms center on serialized source material. Lots of fic grows in the gaps between installments, especially as fans wait for a new episode to be released and their imaginations get to work in the interim. My own doomed Downton fic exemplified this—I wrote about a gap in the canon narrative that occurred between episodes, and I published installments on the same schedule as the show’s transmission, because that’s the rhythm that the fandom had evolved around. Had I encountered Downton long after it had finished airing and entered the fandom with the entire canon already extant, my response to it would likely have been different.
Many of the same editorial consequences of serialization in 19th century novels are reflected in today’s multi-chapter fics—narrative tension, character development, and suspense, to name just a few. Marescha Muys, a fan from Belgium, told me that the consequences of serialization are one reason why she likes to read and write fic at all. “It gives room for a more elaborate plot line, and it gives the writer a chance to incorporate themes and a very slow change in the characters themselves,” she said. “For me, a one-shot may have a great plot, but the writer can’t evolve the characters all that much from the source material. A really good writer can start from the source material, and 50,000 words in you’ll realize ‘this is still the same character I love, but they’re not the show character anymore. They’re now also the writer’s character.’” She says she writes multipart fic for similar reasons: “I like elaborate plots, foreshadowing and backshadowing, character development, and leaving things to develop for several chapters for maximum impact.”
In the 19th century, serialization died out once the cost of book production fell—the book-buying public could afford to buy novels in their entirety right away. Its survival online is partly a product of technology (it’s easier to read and host something on a screen in shorter linked installments than a 50,000 word block of text) and partly a product of the amateur fic-writing space, in which people fit their creative activities around other aspects of their lives. This makes the chance of an incomplete WIP that much more likely—just as Dickens found, life sometimes gets in the way of the next update.
A major difference between fanfiction and serialized novel publishing, however, is the level of communication possible between writer and readers. Messages can be exchanged on the very platform on which the story is being published; notes can be appended to each installment. As a reader, I’ve experienced the sense of betrayal when a writer who previously updated their popular story like clockwork disappears, and I’ve also had a small glimpse of what that feels like from the other side.
It’s the tension at the heart of any non-professional endeavor—I would like you to keep doing this thing that I enjoy, but which I know you aren’t paid or contracted to do. Most of the fans I spoke to said that they would nudge an author along with messages, but only ever in what they considered to be a positive way. Lynn, a 48-year-old Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries fan from Maine said that she would contact a writer “in an encouraging way—‘I really hope you come back this. I’m looking forward to more’—that kind of approach.” I heard lots of instances of this same sentiment.
But Mazarin, a 40-year-old Sherlock and Yuri on Ice fan, responded to my initial question about contacting the author of a WIP with a definite answer to the contrary. “Absolutely not. Never. It’s verboten to me to do that,” she wrote. When I asked her to expand on this, she said: “Well, having been in the position of writing a WIP myself quite a few times, I will say that for me, the pressure is immense, especially if it’s popular. The guilt when you’re really behind on updates is even worse. I’d never want to make another writer feel that way, though I know not everyone sees WIPs as I do. For me, it’s a contract between the writer and their readers, and I hate breaking it.”
Mazarin finished by saying, “Fandom is a gift economy, so whatever messes up that dynamic I try to avoid.” For her, encouraging or cajoling an author of a WIP to continue writing would be to disturb the fannish ecosystem and put disproportionate pressure on another’s creativity.
The idea of fandom as a gift economy—where labor and objects are presented to the community at large without the expectation of compensation or trade—is well documented. In a 2014 paper for the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures, Tisha Turk wrote,
“Fandom’s gift economy is. . .fundamentally asymmetrical: because a single gift can reach so many people, and especially because it can go on reaching people well after the initial moment of distribution, most fans receive far more gifts than we give. Even the most productive fans generally don’t make as many vids as we watch, code as many sites as we use, moderate as many convention panels as we attend, or create as many links as we follow. This asymmetry is critical to fandom’s functioning because it balances out the asymmetry in the other direction: not every gift recipient will reciprocate with ‘the gift of reaction.’”
For many fans, fan creations like fic are gifts, not to be demanded or extracted from writers but appreciated if and when they appear (although this by no means that communication between writer and readers along the way can’t be a wonderful thing). Another fan I spoke to, Veronica Horwell, articulated this well—for her, a WIP is about the journey, not the destination:
“My favorite fic has just passed 40 chapters, 250,000 words, over more than two years, and may be at most 66 per cent done. I’m now in regular private correspondence with its author—we turn out to have much in common, although not our continents—and moreover, reading it again from the start, I’m utterly unimpatient for any ending: it’s a prequel to canon, so we all know where it’s going, the bildungsroman is what matters.”
Another fan, Anna Marie G, told me about the unforeseen comfort that a WIP can provide. “I remember one PPG fic where the author posted like clockwork every week and the latest chapter posted the day after my cat died,” she said. “I messaged her about what a good distraction it was from my non-stop crying.” Anna counts this as a positive experience with WIP, and it’s a good expression of Turk’s gift economy thesis. Fan labor—whether it be writing a fic, editing a video, or maintaining an archive—isn’t done with the expectation of reciprocity, but it can make a big difference to someone’s life.
There are several unresolved tensions at the heart of fandom’s relationship with WIPs. Every fan I spoke to for this piece could instantly name a favorite unfinished fic, yet many also said that they try to avoid reading WIPs at all. Many said that they prefer to write one-shots—a single-chapter story—but admitted to having published and then abandoned several unfinished longer WIPs. A majority said that they would contact a writer of a WIP to offer encouragement and support, but several also said that receiving such messages about their own writing didn’t always make them feel good.
None of this needs reconciliation—people are contradictory; life and writing are complicated. Several people who named their favorite WIPs messaged me later on to say that, regretfully, they couldn’t send links because the author appeared to have take the story down. Even if they had previously expressed frustration at its unfinished status, not being able to share the source of their joy with another was a cause of sorrow.
After all of these conversations, I turned my mind back to my own sad little Downton Abbey fic. Should I take it down? Should I still feel bad about the fact that I will probably never update it again? Should I stop looking at the comments readers leave on it and forget it altogether?
Perhaps I should leave it where it is, as an expression of the person I used to be. I like being able to see that it’s still bringing people pleasure (albeit tempered with frustration at its incompleteness), and it feels valuable to have participated in what seems to be one of fandom’s near-universal experiences. It feels very human: who among us hasn’t started something we can’t finish, or made grand promises that remain unfulfilled? Sometimes, I feel a bit like a WIP myself.