Where did Fifty Shades of Grey come from?

When I first heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, I was baffled.  A women’s erotica novel making it to bestseller was not unbelievable – but it seemed to have popped up from nowhere.  How did E.L. James to go from total obscurity to one of the biggest names in writing overnight?

Whether you like Fifty Shades of Grey or not, its journey to publishing is fascinating – and with the Fifty Shades Darker movie in cinemas this month, I thought it’d be fun to delve into the history of these books.  Prepare for a tale of the most shocking kind of drama: Internet Drama.

To set the scene: it’s the early 2000s.  The last Twilight book has been released, and fans on the Internet are busy writing their own, not-for-profit stories about Edward and Bella – fanfic.

Oh yes, did I mention?  Fifty Shades of Grey originated as Twilight fanfic.

The shock!  The horror!  The … okay, you probably knew that already.

After the last Twilight book, it became in-vogue for fans to write alternate-universe fanfic in which vampires didn’t exist: Edward and Bella were just ordinary humans who fell in love, and had a lot of graphic sex (well, fanfic is rather famous for its erotica).  Writers borrowed ideas from each other, shared stories, and worked together.  If one person wrote a fanfic about Edward having tattoos, then four more tattoo-fanfics would crop up, and that was fine.  It wasn’t copying; it was flattering.  The community was collaborative in a way that’s only really possible when money isn’t involved.

Out of this community appeared a new fanfic: Master of the Universe by Snowqueen’s Icedragon.  AKA, the original Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James.

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Master of the Universe wasn’t an entirely new concept: sexy stories featuring BDSM already existed in the world of Twilight fanfic.  I don’t mean that to be disparaging – as I said, this community often bounced ideas off one another.  It was normal.  But Master of the Universe quickly became the most popular, for the simple reason that E.L. James was a flipping master of marketing.

The website Master of the Universe was displayed on had two key front pages: one that showed the most recently updated fanfic (as fanfic is usually posted online chapter-by-chapter over a series of days or weeks), and one that showed the fanfic that was getting the most comments.

E.L. James wrote short chapters, and posted them frequently.  This meant she was always at the top of the Recently Updated page, which earned her some interest.  Then, since readers could comment on each chapter separately, she also received a multitude of comments and got to the top of the Most Comments page.  This meant Master of the Universe was always visible, and kept attracting more attention and getting more popular.  Ingenious, really!

But now is when the drama kicks in.

Hmm.  I feel that didn’t have enough dramatic tension.

But now is when the ~*~*~*~DRAMA!!!!!!!~*~*~*~ kicks in.

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There we go.

E.L. James admitted to another person in the Twilight fanfic community that she didn’t enjoy being part of it anymore.  They held a charity drive, and although E.L. James took part, she later complained that she hadn’t wanted to.  However, she made more money that any other writer in the charity drive.  And if she could make money doing that …

Bella and Edward became Ana and Christian.  The other characters’ were changed (often to rather similar names: Carlisle became Carrick, for instance), and the chapters were split neatly from one whopping story to an easily-digestible trilogy.  The plot was mostly untouched.  When E.L. James published Master of the Universe under its new title, Fifty Shades of Grey, she already had an army of readers behind her ready to buy it – fanfic readers desperate to support one of their own.

When thousands of people on Amazon.com buy a new book at once, it hops to the top of the bestseller lists for the day.  Which attracts interest from other people, so they buy it.  Which gets it to the top that week.  Which attracts more interest.  And so it snowballs, Fifty Shades of Grey swiftly gaining a reputation for its human interest aspect (it was self published, three cheers for independence and the wonders of the Internet!) and for … well … all the spanking.

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You’d think Twilight fanficcers were E.L. James’s biggest fans to this day, but alas no.  Many of them now say that James betrayed them, taking the collaborative efforts of the community and using it all for her own gain – and topping it off by blocking many of them on social media, in an effort to distance herself from her roots.  In fact, it’s from these ex-fans that I got much of my information for this post.  You will not believe how tough it was to be unbiased when, righteous or not, my sources were overflowing with salt.  Like a good essayist, I’ll pop links to them in the bottom if anyone wants to check them out.

So now you know.  Yes, E.L. James was a fanficcer.  But more than that, she was a clever fanficcer.  She knew how to entice people to read long before she hoped to make money off her work – and then knew how to use her readers to propel her work to the top when she was making money.

What do you think?  Is E.L. James a genius, or a skeevy backstabber?  Is publishing fanfic a good way to become a ‘real’ writer?  Please comment and let me know!

Links to my sources:

Sorry, John Green

Some time ago, I made this post about why I don’t read John Green’s books.  At the time, I tried to be fair and pointed out that my problem was not with John Green himself – only that my taste in books doesn’t align with his writing.

In hindsight, though, I wrote that post from a position of being … well, peeved.  Mightily peeved.  Not at John Green himself, but at select members of his fanbase who really just wouldn’t accept I didn’t like his books (‘Well have you tried X?  And Y?  You must like one of them!)

I wrote the post with the intention of metaphorically beating them with it, screaming, ‘This is why I don’t read his books!  THIS IS WHY!  LEAVE ME IN PEACE!’  But I didn’t aim the post at them – I aimed it at John Green himself, which was totally unfair.

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Look at his lovely smiling face, I feel so meeeeaaaan.

Reading back, I’ve decided to edit the old post and remove my saltier comments.  They were unnecessary, especially considering my frustration wasn’t aimed at John Green himself at all.  John Green is an amazing man, who makes free educational videos with Crash Course, runs enormous charity drives like The Project for Awesome, and works on a variety of wonderful projects that he really doesn’t have to.  He does it out of the goodness of his heart.

Even though I don’t get on with his books (I mean, contemporary teen drama was never going to be My Thing), they encourage a lot of young people to read, and make a lot of people very happy.  Well, except The Fault in Our Stars.  As I understand it, that one makes a lot of people very sad.


Basically, all this to say: Sorry, Mr Green.  You’re super, and I was grumpy.  Although your books aren’t my taste, I wish you and them all the luck in the world (not, of course, that you need it).

BOOK LAUNCH: Blood of the Delphi

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My good friend (and, technically, employer) M.E. Vaughan is holding a book launch for the sequel to Sons of Thestian, which I recommended here.  That recommendation was based on the old edition of Sons of Thestian – it’s since had a beautiful revamp with a new cover, better quality materials and editing by yours truly!  And the sequel, Blood of the Delphi, is equally pretty and also edited by me.

I’m planning to attend, because these are awesome books deserving of loving and attention (yes, I know I’m biased but I’m also right), and also because I haven’t got to hold a physical copy of the new editions yet and I need to touch them.

So if you live in the Hampshire area or nearby and you fancy coming to a fun book launch and watching me stroke the covers of sparkly new books like a crazy person, please come along!


Source: BOOK LAUNCH – Blood of the Delphi

So How’s That Novel Coming Along?

I recently finished the seventh (seventh!) draft of my steampunk book.

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Yeah, a kitten lying down and falling off the pavement pretty much sums up my feelings on that.  I loved writing that book and I’m loathe to let go of my precious characters … but when your entire day’s editing consists of adding a semi-colon, then removing it, then adding it back, then cutting it out again, you know it’s time to stop.

So now it’s time for the scary part: hoping Actual Professionals like my writing.  After months of furious editing, it’s pretty weird to just sit back and twiddle my thumbs, waiting for a response.  And by weird I mean agonising.


So instead of twiddling my thumbs, I’ve started planning my next book.  And man I forgot how tough planning is.  At this stage, I suddenly understand all those people who write by the seat of their pants – the urge to just go and fix all the problems later is about as tempting as an open box of Thorntons left unattended in an empty kitchen.  You shouldn’t.  You know you’ll regret it later.  But oh god I’ll just have one, no one will miss it.

The point of this post, essentially, is me asking for strength.  Or rather, patience.  The patience to wait nicely while wonderful, clever professionals decide what to do with my novel.  The patience to actually plan out my next novel properly, so I don’t have to do seven drafts again.  Wish me luck!

Where to start with Discworld

Let me tell you something: I freaking love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.  I love the wacky universe that somehow manages to make sense (a disc balanced on four elephants riding a turtle through space – really?), I love the characters that start out like clichés but grow into so much more, I love Pratchett’s philosophy about human kindness and belief and the wonders of imagination, and I love the fact that all of this is packed into dozens of books that make me giggle from one cover to the other.

But when I recommend Discworld to people, they tend to view them the same way people view comics.  By which I mean, they look at the sheer number of them and panic.  How the hell am I meant to read all those?  Where do I even START?

The nice thing about the Discworld books is that, technically, you can start them anywhere.  The books run chronologically, and certain groups of characters pop up repeatedly (there are the Guards Books and the Death Books and the Witches Books …), but it doesn’t matter which book you actually start on, because they all explain themselves fully.  I started on Hogfather, the 22nd book in the Discworld series and the fourth in the Death Books series.

This, however, tends to terrify people even more, because now they really, really don’t know where to start.  So here’s my informal, quick guide on some of the best books to start with, and why.

1) If you like reading chronologically, or you like wizards, magic and Conan the Barbarian: The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic

The first book in the Discworld series overall, this story is about Rincewind the cowardly wizard exploring the entire world of the disc.  This is also the beginning of the Rincewind books, so if you’re particularly fond if him, you can skim on through his stories:

2) If you like murder mysteries, cop shows and urban drama: Guards!  Guards!

Guards! Guards!

These books follow the police force in the Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork (a dirtier, smellier and more magical Victorian London).  I’m always amazed at how magical crimes featuring dragons and golems can be solved using real common sense and detective work.  A lot of my favourite characters come from this series, from werewolves to dwarves to human men who are just damn fed up with all this magical nonsense.

More books in this series include:

3) If you like Shakespeare, fairy tales and witchcraft: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters

This series is about a coven of witches in the Lancre countryside, solving everything from their neighbour’s backache to an army of supernatural monsters on midsummer’s day.  Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg’s stories revolve around parodies of various magical stories, from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Dracula to Phantom of the Opera, but usually end up using practicality and common sense over hand-waving everything away with magic.

Technically, Granny Weatherwax first appears in Equal Rites, but I’d actually advise starting with her next book (when Nanny Ogg also appears) and then going back:


4) If you like sympathetic monsters, philosophy and spookiness: Mort


Mort is the first in the series of books about Death – Terry Pratchett’s Grim Reaper is actually a pretty friendly fellow, and thus has several books about him and his family.  These usually involve either Death going on holiday, and someone else having to take up his (not particularly pleasant) job, or Death’s family having to battle the Auditors – nasty creatures that want to wipe out humanity for the crime of being just too darn complicated.

These are the books I started on, and Death will forever be one of my favourite characters.



So that’s it!  To me, those are the best places you could start with Terry Pratchett, if you’re not sure where to go.  (If anybody’s crying ‘but Tiffany Aching!’ I’m so sorry, I haven’t read them yet!  I know, I know, shame on me.)

Is anyone else a Terry Pratchett fan?  Where did you start, and where do you recommend people begin?

Should you take a writing class?

It’s practically a cliché at this point.  A hopeful youngster meets their favourite author, wide-eyed and excited, and asks them, ‘I want to be a writer too, can you give me advice?’

And the writer, dead-eyed and serious, replies, ‘Don’t take a writing class.’

I’ve seen this scene play out in TV series and films.  I’ve actually had it happen in real life right in front of me, and I couldn’t help laughing – I was halfway through my MA Writing for Children at the time.

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All eyerolls aside, there’s a reason why people throw this advice around like the gospel truth: a writing class cannot buy you talent.  If you go into a writing class expecting to pay X amount and wind up with a book deal, millions of fans and rolling in royalties … you’re going to be disappointed.  A writing class cannot buy you talent, because money cannot buy you talent.

What buys you talent?  A lot of hard work, that’s what.

So what can a writing course do for you?  Are they worth the cost?  (Because wow, my BA Creative Writing and MA Writing for Children combined cost about £16,000 – and if you need me, I’ll be crying about my student debt in the corner.)

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If it weren’t for my BA and MA, I wouldn’t be as good at writing as I am.  My course forced me to improve.  I had to write each day, had to be brave enough to show my writing to other people, thick-skinned enough to accept their criticism, and driven enough to make improvements based on their suggestions.  All of these are things you’ll have to do if you want to be a professional writer.  All good things to practise before you attempt that leap.

On top of that, my writing course surrounded me with fellow writers.  I got to hear their opinions (sometimes in the form of furious debates), and as much as we criticised one another, we also gave glowing reviews.  Nothing improved my confidence like knowing other writers liked my work, and nothing improved my work like knowing exactly what parts they liked, and what I needed to change.

I loved my BA so much I opted to take an MA even though it meant another year away from home, and a whole lot of money.  I wouldn’t go back on my choice to take a writing class for the world.

If I were to amend the cliché, I’d say this: don’t take a writing course unless you’re prepared to put work into it.  Don’t take a writing course expecting to have your book deal handed to you on a silver platter.  Don’t take a writing course because you think piling money into it will automatically grant you talent.

But if you’re willing to work hard, show some humility and listen to your teachers and peers – and if you have the money to spare – by all means, enjoy your writing course.

The Prettiest Book Covers

I was working in the library the other day, and I noticed how damn pretty some of our books are, even the ones I haven’t read, and will never read.  So today I’m going to gush over our prettiest book covers, some of my favourite pretty books, and just prettiness in general.

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

This design is just my absolute favourite.  The clock, the paper-cut out figures, the blue clouds … ahhh it’s just so classy and beautiful.  What you can’t see on-screen is that all that gold is shiny on the real cover.  So pretty!


The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

Again, the screen doesn’t quite do this justice.  That green and pink really pop in real life, bright and vibrant and gorgeous.  I love those decorative hands, just fancy enough to draw your eye, but not so busy they hurt your eyes.  Love it, love it, love it.


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Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

I have the old Josh Kirby edition of Hogfather at home, and when I first saw this cover it took all my self restraint not to rush out and buy it.  It’s so clever – you see the skull first, and then the Christmas ornaments, and it just ties into the story so well.  Favourite!


Sedition by Katherine Grant

This one relies pretty much entirely on the typography, and holy wow it succeeds.  All those swirls and twirls around the S are beautiful and classy, and that’s made all the better by the piano keys at the bottom.  Seriously simple, seriously pretty.


Seed by Lisa Heathfield

Again, what you can’t see on the screen is that the entire cover of this book is shiny and reflective.  It’s a real eye-catcher on a display table, the colours seeming to swim as you turn it.  The typography is almost ghostly on the real cover – super cool.


What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

This one isn’t so much pretty as just cool.  At firstt, I thought the cover was a weird, computer-generated pattern.  It was only looking closer that I realised it’s a photo of a block of flats.  Clever photography, clever cover.  I love it.


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Every Mountain Made Low by Alex White

This cover is the definition of simplicity.  The yellow stands out beautifully, the chalk-like city soft and a little spooky, the lone figure in the centre wonderfully eye-catching.  And a fantastic title to boot!  What a lovely cover.


These are by far not the only beautiful books in our library, and I could gush about this all day!  What are your favourite pretty book covers?  Send them to me so I can smile and sigh over how gosh darn lovely books are.