Five things I learned from my old terrible fanfics

My kids recently got interested in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. This interest waxes and wanes, depending on who is raising chao at the time.

Anyway, this time when they got on a Sonic kick, I said, “Do you guys want me to read you my old Sonic stories?”

Their answer was Very Yes. So I started trying to read them the very first one I wrote when I was 15.

If I knew then what I know now:


1. Melodrama is not plot. I had pages and pages of little random dramas, but nothing really moving forward in the story.

There’s also quite a few loops. Professional writers use them to hit word counts. A character goes out to accomplish something, fails, and winds up back where they started. It adds nothing to the story, but hey, it added 5k more words. This is why fantasy books are so thick.

Solution: cut that fluff and keep that story moving. If I did this with the fanfic in question, it would go from 50k words of wandering fluff to 13k of tightly-written awesome.

This actually happened in a Sonic game. It was awesome.

2. Bring the Big Bad in EARLY. In that first story, Metal Sonic is the main antagonist. But he doesn’t show up until about the 3/4ths mark. My enthusiastic teen self built the plot like a Lego tower. Let’s add on THIS and add on THAT and who cares if it makes sense? The plot muddles around with weaker secondary villains before finally settling on the Big Bad.

Solution: have Metal Sonic actively oppose the heroes from the start. He’s terrifying. Let him terrify the reader.


3. Casts of thousands work fine for epic fantasy, but not for smaller-scope urban fantasy. I had eight main characters. Count ’em. Eight. And I really only liked four of them. So that’s who got all the character development.

Poor Tails. I apologize for always leaving you out in the cold. You get more love later in the series, I promise!

Solution: cut everybody not necessary to the plot. They can stay home and have an adventure next time.


4. The idiot ball: don’t give it to anyone. Ever.

This is when a character who has been competent up to this point does something randomly stupid to move the plot along. Horror movies are full of these.

“Don’t go into the house alone!”

“Why are the lights out?”

“I’m going to ignore the spooky sound coming from the back of the house.”

“We know the bad guy attacks girls when they’re alone … let’s go hunt for him and leave our girl alone!”

Solution: Characters have to do things that logically follow. Sure, people are stupid in real life. But this is fiction. It has to make sense. Give the characters some freaking survival instincts.


5. You know that perfect character who is perfect and never gets scared and has all the answers and is better than all the other characters? She’s called a Mary-Sue. She’s the author’s self-insert into the story.

:tears out hair:

Solution: Give her some freaking FLAWS. Let her make MISTAKES. My GOSH. I hate this character so BADLY. And she’s MINE.

I apologize to everybody who waded through my old stories. They’re awful and painful and … :whispering: … still available. I’d take them down, except I still get the occasional message from a fan who remembers them fondly.

Long story short, the kids and I skipped the first five stories. We’re just going to hit the ones where new characters get introduced. We’ll see if my writing gets any more succinct as we move forward in time.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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?

Book cover mockups and other art

I guess I’ve gotten so busy sticking pictures on Instagram and Facebook, I’ve forgotten to add any to my blog!

at the park

Over the weekend, the temperatures dropped below 100 for the first time since May, so I took the kids to the park. It was gloriously overcast with a nice breeze.

Overall, we just had a nice Labor Day weekend. My husband had four days off, and we got a lot of much-needed loafing done.

I started construction on some cover mockups for my next Spacetime book. So far, everybody prefers the one that shows her face.


And I haven’t even done any retouching yet. The catgirl look is pretty subtle.

I also got to draw some more Sonic-related artwork. This is Silver, who is trying to prevent a train wreck with his telekinesis (psychokinesis?).


I basically went crazy with the excuse to paint a nice rugged landscape. Also, trains are hard.

Glorious Sonic Boom concept art post, and step by step matte painting

So I’ve been playing Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric lately. And this game is so gorgeous, it makes my crusty artist’s heart sing. Check out some of this concept art:




Arent’t they wonderful? As a Sonic fan from the mid-90s, seeing this kind of treatment makes me sooooo happy. I’ve been playing it, and the world is massively intriguing. Kind of civilization built on top of a previous, advanced civilization, only the modern day people are slowly recovering the old technology.

Anyway, I had to make a stab at drawing something like this, myself. It’s time for a matte painting!

Note: A true matte painting is made with photos. This is what they typically look like.

Dubrovnik Matte Painting

Since I’m an utter noob, I just painted over a free render from deviantart.

So! Here’s the render I started with.

As you can see, a fairly serviceable render. It’s just called Jungle Ruins.


Here I painted in the background. I started with just a lot of vertical strokes of light and dark green. Then I darkened the trees, and used a lot of Photoshop texture brushes to suggest foilage, moss, vines, all that messy jungle stuff.


I painted in the characters in various stages, as I worked out the light direction, and how they were going to interact with their environment. The statue was tricky, because it had to match the background as much as possible. I painted it with rough, messy Photoshop brushes to get that stony, mossy texture.


Now for all the foreground leaves and plants. This helps the bottom of the render to blend into the jungle. I could have done more on this, but I was just experimenting. My next will be better. Anyway, the arch above the statue, in particular, got lots of moss and vines, and leaves catching the light. Lots of moss hanging from the vines.


Beams of light for the win! This was when I added the highlights on the characters and statue, because I knew how strong the light was supposed to be, and what color it was.


I made a new layer, flood filled it with blue green, and set the layer setting to Soft Light. Makes a nice green cast over everything. You could achieve this same effect in physical media with a blue green wash.


Last was a lot of little details, like the circuitry on the statue, implying that it’s waking up in the presence of people. Gotta have a story in the picture, you know?

And there you go! Painting this was basically like eating candy, only afterward, instead of having a sick stomach, I had a piece of artwork. Score!

I can’t wait to try more paintings like this, only, you know, spend more time and make them far more awesome.

Sonic characters and story motivations

The kids have been playing Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 lately (chao!). I’ve been helping them along, and watching over their shoulders. And enjoying the music. 🙂

It’s been funny to observe the ways the various writers have handled these characters over the years. But I think the most drastic (and saddest) change has been what’s been done to Knuckles.

Sonic, Tails and Knuckles
Sonic, Tails and Knuckles

Each character has a motive that they carry from game to game, or cartoon to cartoon. Sonic’s goal is to save the world. Tails’s goal is to be like his hero, Sonic (and help him out in all kinds of ways).

Knuckles started out with a goal. When he was invented, he came with a strong role–the guardian of the Floating Island, and the Master Emerald. This was in his very first game, Sonic 3 and Knuckles on the Sega Genesis.

Apparently this idea was too big for subsequent games, because Sonic Adventure 1 had the Master Emerald and the island. Sonic Adventure 2 had the Master Emerald only. And that was the last time any of that appeared in any games/shows.

Mine's bigger.
Mine’s bigger.

Now Knuckles is just this character who hangs around with absolutely zero goals. He’s become the musclebound marble of the trio, only good for a laugh. He went from being this driven, obsessed, paranoid dude with some spiffy real estate, to being a doofus with no purpose.

It’s valuable lesson in writing, really. Every character has to have a goal. It’s even better when everybody’s goals are at cross-purposes, because then you have fun conflict. If one guy doesn’t have a goal, he’s the one who usually gets killed off. But Knuckles can’t get the axe, because he’s one of the main Sonic cast. So he gets bounced from game to game, increasingly more useless.

Don’t do this to your characters. Give them something to do.

Sketches and artwork

I’ve been working on some art commissions lately. I thought it’d be fun to show the one I finished last week.

First off, my commissioner asked for a scene from one of her fanfics, where a guy finds baby Sonic lost in a snowstorm. So I did some thumbnail sketches of how this might look as a pic.


She liked the one with the guy holding up the lantern, so I sketched it out in a larger size.


When she approved that, I colored it. I did the background first, working off a spiffy picture of some mountains in the Swiss Alps somewhere.


It’s supposed to be a very cold, sad sort of picture, with muted warmth from baby Sonic in the foreground and more warmth from the guy in the background, with the lantern.

Also, snowflakes are really fun to do. These were just a fat airbrush set to a really big size, so the dots were a couple pixels wide. Most are dark blue and some are lighter, right around the light source.

I’ll show off my second commission once I get it finished.

Pony and griffin, and other art

I’m trying to get back into my art mojo, and the first pic I’ve finished in a long while has been for Jess Owen’s griffin contest. The contest stipulates that since the griffin island is more or less Iceland, you can only use creatures that are found on Iceland. I wanted to try to draw one of the pretty little Icelandic ponies. And a griffin.


Click to enlarge

For a pic done while coming out of an art hiatus and being very rusty, I’m satisfied with it. I might go back and tinker with it, though. I wanted it to be a little more sparkly.

I’m also messing about with this sequential art story idea thing. Not sure what it is, because it’s not a comic or a graphic novel. It’s just a series of pics with an ongoing story in the description. Kind of like a concept album, like Pink Floyd or the Decemberists do. Only pics. I have a little Sonic story I’d like to tell, and I need to brush up on my Sonic art again.

Not to mention composition and landscape skills. I did some sketches and every single one of them had two figures. Ugh!

I’m dabbling a bit with Spacetime book 4, too. It still needs a lot of thought, but it’s finally coming together. I had to reconcile the political thriller plot with the magical plot.

Why I dislike Eragon

Recently I waxed eloquent to a friend about why I disliked Eragon, by Christopher Paolini. But she likes it, and I think I offended her. I didn’t mean to.

So I got to thinking–WHY did I dislike the book so much? I read the first book when it came out, and my sister and I thought it was the worst book we’d ever read. So I started remembering where I was in my life, and what I was comparing Eragon to.

Without further ado,

Why I dislike Eragon by Paolini

Eragon came out in 2002. In 2002, I was deeply involved in the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom. This website was an active fandom hub, I spent hours on my forums, and all my friends were debating the game and furiously writing their own fanfiction adapts. I was writing and posting up my own adapt of Sonic Adventure 2, and its sequel, Flux (an excessively dark story about the end of the world and a bait-and-switch antagonist).

Among other things, I’d also written a fanfic based on World War II where a dictator swarms the world with his Borg-like robots and the heroes are hopelessly outgunned. It was epic fantasy in every sense of the word.

Let me summarize what SA2 is about, without the character licensing:

A mad scientist breaks into a military facility and frees a creature calling itself the Ultimate Lifeform. It’s genetic experiment. It’s invincible. It has crazy powers. It’s a complete antihero. And all it wants to do is blow stuff the heck up.

The heroes set out to stop the madman and the experiment. Their quest is mixed up with the world’s magic and the gems that control it–hidden launch pads hidden inside pyramids, monsters, secret agents, and a space colony that carries a world-destroying superweapon locked away inside it.

As the heroes delve deeper into the strange stories surrounding the colony, they realize the genetic experiment actually has quite a tragic past. After all, being an experiment is hard on anybody. They talk him around to saving the world, but his last secrets come to light and things have already been set in motion that will destroy the world anyway. The experiment sacrifices himself to save everybody.


And that’s just the game. Think of what it’d be like as a book! And a bunch of us set out to do just that.

Around about the same time, I was dabbling with an original story about a guy who meets a griffin and they go on a valiant quest together, fighting bad guys and fantasy races, finally battling the bad guy in an epic swordfight on his airship as he’s attacking with his armies. It wasn’t up to my usual standards, and I scrapped it.

Then we read Eragon, and it was sub-par fanfiction of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Dragonriders of Pern. (And the title is one letter removed from Eregion, the region in Lord of the Rings containing the Shire.) As a fanfiction writer with high standards for fanfic, it galled me. And it was more or less the same story I’d just written and scrapped.

I was hanging around epic writers and thinkers like Shax Davis, who wrote one fanfic tackling different religions, and another tackling different schools of political thought. Reading published books that were anything less was an affront of my teenaged tastes.

So, I’m sorry if my viewpoint offends people. It’s quite all right to like Eragon. But I was steeped in a fantasy culture with extremely high standards at the time, and it didn’t measure up. I guess it just goes to show that our opinions of the media around us are informed by where we are in our lives. I guess it’s also why one person will hate a book and another person will love it. Different opinions and life experiences. 🙂