This was originally written by Merlin Missy in 1996 and posted to Firefox News in 2007. Some references are now dated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet
Hi there. So you want to write fan fiction. Maybe you’ve already written a story or two, posted them to the appropriate newsgroups, and have received feedback, mostly positive. If so, you’re probably feeling pretty good, and thinking to yourself, “I shouldn’t be reading this. I already know how to write this stuff, and it’s easy.” Who knows? Maybe you honestly don’t need it.
Maybe you’re the next Alice Walker, or John Irving (or Kibo, for that matter). If so, you don’t need to be reading this. However, if one or two of the responses you received were less than favorable, if someone was confused, or even if you got a lot less fanmail than you anticipated, maybe you should take the time to read now. Heck, it’s only advice, and it’s relatively free, depending on what service you’re using to access (my own service is school-related, so I only have to pay $2500/year plus fees). Besides, it’s either this or check out the spam in the alt.startrek.* hierarchy.
What Is Fan Fiction and Why Do We Write It?
Now, I could be noble and claim that my respect and adoration for a particular series is the only reason I write fan fiction. I would be lying. There are two real reasons why I write this stuff, and from what I’ve heard from other authors, they do the same. One reason is that story lines get stuck in my head until I can’t concentrate on anything other than a particular plot or scene. In this case, writing is a means of self-defense. It either gets written, or I get carted away by nice folks wearing white.
Really, though, there is one single overriding reason that I and most everyone I know writes fan fiction for the Internet: FAN MAIL! Yes, I will admit to being a slut for fan mail. One letter will put me on Cloud 9 for the entire day, and I’ve seen the same effect on my associates. Of course we write for the series, and for our own piece of mind, but nothing beats getting a letter in your INBOX stating “This is the best story I’ve read in ages!” Well, maybe getting a story dedicated to you from a new author who was inspired by your work can qualify, too. [Hi Proteus!]
In a way, that’s what this entire essay is geared to: getting you fanmail. (Somehow, I seriously doubt I’ll be getting any for writing about writing.) I can’t guarantee that you’ll be getting more, but I can guarantee that the people who read your work will appreciate it more. I’ve also found that people who really enjoy a particular piece will take the time to spell out both the good and the bad points, and one good, honest critique, no matter how hard it might be to swallow, is worth twenty “I liked this a lot”‘s.
It’s the Plot, Stupid
Plots are very important to this process. While you can write a story without a plot (PWP = Plot? What Plot?) you probably want to start with one. In fact, that’s probably the nature of your Creativity Demon: a plot that won’t go away. Or maybe you just have a scenario. What’s the difference? A scenario is “Captain Kirk is a woman.” A plot is, “Captain Kirk goes to an alien planet where he is transformed into a woman by a Gender Ray, and has to readjust to his new lifestyle in the middle of negotiating a trade agreement.” (Plot appropriated and modified from Ruth Gifford’s excellent “My Fair Jeanne.“) If you can’t tell someone else what the rising and falling action is, or what the goal is that the character is seeking, then take some time before you write and figure it out for yourself.
How long do you think this story is going to be? If you’ve got one plot, then the natural length of the story is probably not very long, say under 30 kbytes. What does it mean when your story is already over 100 kbytes and still isn’t near finished? Well, see if you’re spending too much time going over the same ground. Are you putting your characters through the same scenario again and again? Are they spending a lot of time thinking long paragraphs about their feelings for each other? Maybe you need to break away from the lead character(s) for a bit, and work on a subplot. That’s right: a second, third, or fourth plot, possibly related to the main plot, and possibly not. For example, while Captain Kirk is relearning how to fasten his clothing, maybe Chekov is dealing with his feelings for a cute ensign, and Uhura gets news from home, and Spock is performing an experiment. All of these plots may come together at the end (in many good stories, they do, and in many, they remain separate like in real life). The longer your story, the more you’ll want to develop a minor plot or two. It’ll help you focus on your main plot once you’ve distanced yourself, even if just for a scene or two.
Always keep in mind while you write that there are other characters in the universe who don’t care if your One True Pair ever get together, or if your lead character gets what s/he wants. These characters may not show up in your story, especially if it’s a short story, but you as the writer should remember that they exist.
A special note for everyone posting to Fanfiction.net: when you post, you give a summary of the story. If you can’t spell correctly in the summary, I’m not going to read your story. If you misspell the title of your story, I’m going to point at you and laugh, and still not read your story. Also please note that if your title and/or summary give away the end of the story OR if the summary contains the phrase “a mysterious new” *insert description of your character here* I still won’t read your story and I may make fun of you in a public place because I’m mean.
Just so we’re clear.
The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Perry White
I know from experience that I can’t edit my own work worth a damn, especially after I’ve worked on it for months on end. Words that I *know* belong there automatically appear when I read through, despite the inconvenient fact of their non-existence. Therefore, I can say with perfect equanimity: have somebody else read your work before you post it to a public forum. By this, I don’t mean your best friend and/or biggest fan. There are good reasons for this. To be effective, an editor cannot be afraid to tell you to toss out entire chapters, if they really don’t fit in with the story. Your editor has to have the time and desire to go through your story with a sharp eye, ready to fix any and all errors that your electronic checker missed for whatever reason (there, they’re, and their being one of the most common [and annoying IMNERHO]). There are a surprisingly large number of people out there who are willing to do just that, for nothing more than an advance peek at your next work.
Who Is Mary Sue and Why Does She Have to Die?
It’s a Style Thing
Okay, we’ve dealt with the basics. First, you spell check, then you grammar check, and finally, you give it to someone else. This is a pretty good way to start improving. Nevertheless, there are probably some of you who already do all that, and still you’re not getting the response you want. This is where Dr. Merlin hands out advice on style (kindly ignore the mismatched socks and the holes in the blue jeans — I’m a chemist, not a fashion consultant).
Everyone realized at once that the giant space alien was just Data's cat.
is for “everyone” to be a Borg.
In order to keep your scene flowing, stay in one point of view at a time, and have a definite switch (with blank lines or some other delineation, rather than just the closing of a paragraph) between characters. You can have as many points of view as you want otherwise, but make sure you keep them separate (unless, of course, the effect that you’re going for has to do with not know who’s thinking what, at which point you can basically skip this bit).
You Know What You Know, You Know?
Meanwhile, if you think in terms of who’s going to marry whom, and what their children will be like, and how the relationship between this couple closely parallels the one between that couple, write about that! And if you can write both action and character interaction and maintain great plot and pacing, I think I may have to hate you.Seriously, don’t try writing what you don’t see in your head. If you don’t see the maneuvers of the Xanatos Corporate Guard getting into position, don’t write a story about how they fought off an invasion of the Paisley Dragons. Likewise, if you honestly don’t hear Captain Picard murmuring sweet nothings to Doctor Crusher, don’t try to put in a scene with them snuggling just because it might appeal to a few more readers. Go with what you know and what you feel and what you see in your head. If it’s real to you, you can make it real to the rest of us out here, and to hell with what the popular movement is this week. More people will remember a well-written story on something you know than a half-baked attempt at something you really don’t care about much. This is not meant to point fingers at anyone; I am really hard-pressed to think of any stories that seem forced (gratuitous sex does occasionally fall under this category; again, it’s a matter of doing it well). Also, if you think you might be good at a genre you haven’t tried before, by all means, go for it. But do yourself and your reader the favor of learning about your subject, either through research or inquiry, before you post your final result.
Research is an undercredited tool on the writer’s workbench.
Nothing Is Sacred
Allow me to demonstrate. At the beginning of 1996, I took it upon myself to write a story combining two of my great loves: Trek and Gargoyles.
The point to the above anecdote is that nothing you or I write is sacred text. Although our own words may be the most beautiful we have ever read, there are many times when they should be deleted for the sake of the story. It hurts the first few times you delete an entire page. It hurts worse when a three-page scene has to go, or a chapter, or even the entire damned story because you forgot one little detail from first season … sigh again However, if you can bear to cut your own words, and rewrite as necessary, you have what it takes to write a really good story.
La La La
Subtitled: Songfic and You.
For a very good essay on this topic, please see Tara O’Shea’s Column “My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks” at the Once Upon a Time Archives.
And in the End
The best piece of mail I ever received was about my very first story, “To Every Purpose.” The woman went through it page by page, tearing apart every detail, pointing out every flaw in characterization, dialogue, pacing, and mood. A few things were in there on purpose, and I told her so, but others were things I never even noticed. After receiving over a hundred “This was Great!” letters, it was a bitter pill to swallow. I can never thank her enough.
When you receive negative feedback, don’t automatically flame the sender. Read it, think about it, and decide if it has validity. Then make your own decision as to what you’re going to do with your next story, because there will always be a next story. And it’s going to be a great one.