The phone rang sharply, waking up a sleepy JC Chasez. JC groaned and looked at the clock. 2 a.m. This better be good.
"JC, do you want your children?"
JC sat up wide awake. Kathy. The cold voice of his ex-girlfriend chilled him to the bottom of his soul. She was the woman who used him and broke his heart...
Someone with the pen name Christina Kallilli, who describes herself as a high school sophomore from Boston, wrote this breathless fiction, and she wants the world to read it. Well, a certain kind of world, anyway: fellow members of a literary subculture that exploded online in recent years and is especially flourishing at www.fanfiction.net Just in the past 18 months or so, FFN, which launched in late 1998, has attracted tens of thousands of teenagers who like to read and write fan fiction--stories based on celebrities (such as JC from boy band 'N Sync) or popular characters from literature, TV, even comics. The site lists more than 100 "fandoms" in the book category, ranging from Anne Frank to Young Jedi Knights; under music, there's writing built around everyone from David Bowie to David Cassidy. While most other fan-fiction sites are boutiques devoted to Harry Potter or The X-Files, "FFN is the giant shopping mall," says Tara O'Shea, 28, who started writing fan fiction at age 11. Says Chris Burks, creator of www.lit.org a site for original fiction writers: "There's nothing else like it. Nobody else is archiving so much or has such an open editorial policy."
FFN has some 115,000 members. A third of them are 18 and under, and about 80% are female, according to creator Xing Li, 24, a computer programmer who lives in Los Angeles and calls the site "strictly a hobby." Registration is free but permitted only if you click the box marked "I'm at least 13" (there's no accounting for dishonest answers). Writers upload stories directly to the site, assigning a category and rating from G to NC-17. There's no screening process, no editorial board; most features are automated, and Li relies on members to report inappropriate behavior (he has booted a few troublemakers). Anyone can post anything, then sit back and wait for the reviews to roll in.
And they do. For many writers, that's the best part. Reader comments are logged one click away from the actual story. "It means a lot to get reviews," Kallilli wrote in an e-mail to TIME, "because then you know if you're doing a good job or something isn't working." Her 18-chapter saga, "Second Chance, Second Life"--about JC's romance with his kids' nanny (it's rated PG)--has elicited 151 reviews since it appeared last fall. Most are of the "I loved this story!" and "Great ending!" variety. Not exactly the same level of feedback you'd get from your English teacher.
But there's real value to having your peers cheer you on, says Merle Marsh, a prep-school administrator and author of several parents' guides to the Net, including Everything You Need to Know (But Were Afraid to Ask Kids) About the Information Highway (Computer Learning Foundation). Marsh applauds the site for encouraging young people to read and write; she only wishes they weren't writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "It would be better if they were coming up with their own characters," she says, "but maybe this is the way they need to start."