Five things fanfiction can teach you about writing

Being a teenager is hard. You don’t fit in with kids anymore, but you’re not quite an adult. When I turned 13, I felt like I was too old to play with toys anymore. That was when I started writing–because I could have any toy I wanted, in my head.

What I wrote was Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction.

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Sonic fanfic. It’s seriously epic.

I wrote it madly for the rest of my teen years and into my 20s. I built a website around it, and hosted other kids’ stories and art. We had a fantastic community, all because I was trying to find my niche.

While writing epic adventure after epic adventure, and reading copious amounts of fanfiction, I learned quite a lot about writing a story. I also ingested anything on writing I could find–curriculum, The Elements of Style, Stephen King’s On Writing.

I learned:

1. It gets the cliches out of your system

We love cliches. That’s why we have archetypes (a fancy word for “stuff we tell stories about over and over”) and Hero’s Journey (farm boy goes on a quest and becomes a hero). But they’re called cliches for a reason–they’ve been done before.

As a new writer, you may not realize that what you’re writing is the same thing every new writer writes. All you know is that it rings your bell, and you write it like mad–nobody has ever seen this plot before!

Except that they have, over and over.

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It’s common when you’re starting out to retell your favorite stories in your own voice. No matter how well you tell it, it’s still the same story everybody tells (ex: epic fantasy, ragtag group of adventurers save the world). It’s hard to get published with these stories, because agents and readers go, “Ho hum, seen it.”

But with fanfiction, you can write the cliche, revel in it, get it out of your system, and move on. Once you’ve done that, you uncover the real golden ideas–the publishable ones.

2. It lets you experiment with self inserts

Self-inserts are a joke in the fanfiction community. They’re when the author write themselves into the story, usually as a perfect, wise, beautiful person whom all the characters love. They’re known as Mary Sues (or Gary Stu), because they usually have a humdrum name.

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I’ll bet you can’t guess what my self-insert was.

Self-inserts (“serts”) are another type of cliche that an author does well to get out of their system early. For one thing, perfect characters are boring. For another, savvy readers will sniff out a sert and call you on it. They’re the mark of a new writer.

3. You learn to finish

Finishing a book is a big deal. The Internet is littered with half-finished stories. Reading them is frustrating, because nobody knows the ending–not even the author. I’ve read some totally awesome stories, fanfic and original, that the author abandoned at the sticky midpoint.

You don’t get a fans if you never finish anything. Besides, endings are fun–they’re the payoff, the big confrontation, the place to have the big chase or the huge explosions.

You can’t get published if you never finish.

4. You learn to handle feedback

The lure of fanfic is the speedy feedback. You can have comments on a chapter a few hours after you post it–whereas on a published book, it takes weeks or months.

Quick feedback is fun–but it comes with a price. My dad always says, “Everyone is entitled to their own stupid opinion”, and boy, is that evident when writing stories. You’ll get good comments, and you get nasty ones, too. You get the guy who corrects your tiny mistakes, the fan girl who rages because she doesn’t ship your pairing, and people who just go, “Didn’t like it” without explaining why.

It can make you go bury your face in chocolate cake. But it toughens you up. The next time somebody leaves you a nasty review, you can paraphrase Tolkein and remark that you don’t like the kinds of book that they favor, so there.

5. You learn to write within the constraints of a world

Fanfiction and historical fiction have one thing in common: you have to write inside that world. You have to research the setting, learn the principal characters and their personalities and goals–then you have to write it well. A huge crime in fanfic is getting someone OOC–out of character. (There’s also PWP–plot what plot, but that’s a different problem.) This is something that people will gleefully tell you in reviews–you’re doing it wrong, lawl.

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You wouldn’t believe how gleefully people correct the “flaws” in this picture.

Writing within world constraints is a useful skill, even if the world is your own. The details have to ring true, whether you’re writing Regency romance or urban fantasy.

Does your Regency heroine carry a handgun? Muff pistols were a thing. They even had a sort of safety on them, so they almost wouldn’t blow your fingers off. How do I know this? Research.

Is your hero a private detective or a bounty hunter? Sometimes they do quite similar jobs. Again–research!

How is it possible that Sonic can run hundreds of miles per hour without burning off his own feet, or tearing a hole in his face when he hits leaves, bugs, dust, etc? The fans have some excellent quasi-scientific theories available to draw upon. All it takes is research.

In conclusion, fanfiction is an excellent place to exercise your writing muscles. A lot of what you learn there carry over into the big leagues of writing for publication. Some people convert fanfics straight to publication.

The Mortal Instruments? Harry Potter fanfic.

Fifty Shades? Twilight fanfic.

The Temeraire books? Master and Commander fanfic.

Sherlock? Well, that one is easy to guess.

Have you ever written fanfiction? Do you think it helped you learn to write?

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3 thoughts on “Five things fanfiction can teach you about writing

  1. I wrote my fanfic during my childhood rather than my teens (mostly), and it was absolutely part of my formative process as a writer! 😀 I started with Robin Hood (the Disney animated movie) fanfic as a young kid, then moved on to Star Wars fanfic…lots and lots of Star Wars fanfic. I wrote it on sheets of white printer paper, illustrated it, and stapled it together in books. Later I graduated to LotR fanfic, but by that point I was about 12-13 and had become more critical of my writing, and was bursting with my own ideas, so most of my LotR fanfic got abandoned a few pages or chapters in because I got distracted or lost interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mania was single-minded for years. I had so much Sonic in my brain that I didn’t have room for any other universe. Thank goodness that I eventually thought up stories that were all my own idea. 🙂

      Like

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