Fans of Harry Potter and other literary characters are breathing new life into their heroes, making up unofficial storylines and publishing them on the net. Much of it is terrible, but some is sublime. So is this where the next JK Rowling is lurking?
By Andrew Walker
BBC News Online
Just imagine this. Right here, right now, tens of thousands of writers across the globe are indulging in a vast collective outburst of creative energy.
They are riding the crest of a new and growing internet phenomenon, a wholly original literary genre: fan fiction or, as it is better known, fanfic. Not limited by the boundaries of conventional writing, and sometimes taste, its possibilities are endless.
Don't want to wait for the next Harry Potter? Then don't, just log-on to fictionalley.org and choose from thousands of new scenarios.
Want a new Star Wars film? No need to fork out the estimated $100m plus for a next big-screen feature, just go to faans.com and wallow.
Do you miss Mulder and Scully? Then resurrect the X-Files on starpulse.com.
All human life is here: Gollum joining the X-Men, Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet enjoying - enduring? - married life as Mrs Darcy and even Captain Kirk canoodling with Mr Spock.
Pride and Parodies: Married life with Mr Darcy
Some fanfic is professional, sublime, crafted. Much is terrible.
Many of the writers are female. Many are American. One of the most prominent of them, Dr Merlin - alias Melissa Wilson - was just 13 when she made her first attempts at writing fanfic.
"I blame my father," she says. "When I was little, he told me bedtime stories of how the characters from Star Wars came to our town, and how I helped them fix the Millennium Falcon."
Later, in college, she discovered the internet and a whole new world opened up before her. She wrote her first real fanfic in 1994: "It was long and goofy, and it starred Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I still get feedback on it from time to time, and that makes me happy."
Today, through her extensive website, she hands out advice to other aspiring writers.
To many aficionados, the doyenne of internet fanfic is Tara O'Shea, a professional web designer and journalist living in Chicago.
Now in her late 20s, she has been writing and illustrating fanzines and fanfic for nearly two decades and has an impressive back catalogue.
"To date, I've written short stories, novellas and novels based on programmes such as Disney's Gargoyles, Nikita, Star Trek: Voyager, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Wonder Woman."
Star Wars fanfic is legion
And she is impressed by the range of fanfic currently on the internet: "Every genre is represented, from action to horror, romance to mystery, science fiction to historical. You can find everything from romantic comedies, to erotica, both heterosexual and homosexual in nature."
And there are many sub-genres: Mary Sue's feature lead characters based on an idealised version of their writer, songfics are written around popular lyrics and "what ifs?" deal with alternative history.
Perhaps fanfic's most controversial area is slash fiction. This sub-genre, written - and read - mainly by young women, features same-sex relationships between fictional characters.
For example Spock/Kirk or Harry/Malfoy - the slash referring not to a knife but to the punctuation mark.
Seen by its writers as a new nonconformist form of female sexual expression, some stories are romantic Mills and Boon parodies, while others are explicitly pornographic.
"Heaven forbid Mickey Mouse falling into the wrong hands," quips Tara O'Shea.
The relationship between fanfic writers and published authors is a complex one. Some writers, most notably the late Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, and JK Rowling, have welcomed fanfic - though Rowling is unhappy about sexually explicit parodies.
There's no shortage of fans, of course
Others, like fantasy-meister Terry Pratchett and Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire, have taken a hard line, publicly asking writers not to use their characters or stories.
"I do not allow fan fiction," Rice's website recently stated, somewhat pompously. "The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. It is absolutely essential you respect my wishes."
To this end, Rice's formidable lawyers have chased all fanfic based on her work off the internet. But fanfic's legal status is complex.
Copyright expert Robin Fry, of the London law firm Beachcroft Wansbroughs, says there's "no copyright in characters - only in a book's storylines - so material 'inspired' by others may well be acceptable. The Willows in Winter or Bored of the Rings don't disguise their origins and that's fine.
"But if the public become confused over the source or think it's the real McCoy, then a freezing order's not far behind.
"I wouldn't recommend anyone to pitch Barry Trotter or Dr Atkins Beer and Chips Diet Revolution to an agent."
And pitching fanfic ideas to literary agents might just be the next big thing. Already a number of fanfic writers have been published, mainly writing fantasy and sci-fi.
Will fanfic produce the new JRR Tolkien?
Surely, though, more will follow: what price the new JK Rowling, Robert Harris or JRR Tolkien emerging from the net? With all those thousands of writers out there, the chances are high that some will achieve greatness.
But to Dr Merlin the pleasure is in the writing: "For most of us, that will never mean a publishing deal, but it could mean posting to a public place and receiving praise and criticism within an hour of publication.
"Frankly, that's what we want: other people to validate our work, to tell us 'This was great! I totally agree with your take on the characters!' Our payment is the ego boost."