Dr. Merlin’s Guide to Fanfic

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?


So you’ve decided to stay. I’m glad.
Fan fiction, very simply, is the genre of stories, poetry, novels, filk songs, and top ten lists written by fans of a particular series, be it television, literary, or what have you. If you’ve ever written a story about something you like, involving characters created by someone else with a legal right to them, you’ve written fan fiction. Welcome to the fold. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to limit myself to fanfic on the Internet, as it has found a welcome niche in the growing world of virtual reality. For some reason, the heroes we see on tv become more tangible when we ourselves can become the fiction.
Fanfic writers on the Net are a motley bunch. The youngest author I’ve met was ten. The oldest (that I know of) was in her sixties. The one thing they, and all of us, have in common is a fierce love of a particular series, so much that they wanted to let everyone else have a piece of the particular reality they had built up around it. That is the first requirement of writing fanfic. You must love your subject. This becomes especially important when you’re in the midst of a 200k+ story, you know vaguely where you want to go, and writer’s block hits. At that point, it is frighteningly easy to give up and delete everything you’ve written, and without a burning passion for your subject material, you might find yourself tempted to do just that.

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


So you want to write a story. Perhaps more to the point, a story wants you to write it. It’s been nibbling at your ankles, keeping you up at night with promises of great literature yet to be, and distracting you when you should be paying attention in class or at work. You already know the characters, as many of them are canon, and probably a few are your own, and they’ve probably been talking in your head. Relax. You (probably — I’m not a psychologist) don’t have schizophrenia. You’ve got a Creativity Demon. Good for you!So write it down. Write what you know about the story, and write the way that works for you. I write best when I do each scene in order, rather than skipping ahead and back and forth. Some of my writing friends work well when they write all the dialogue first, then go back and add descriptions. Some people write the last paragraph or last page, then go to the beginning and see if they get to that point. Some people write an outline and fill in as they go. If this is your first fanfic, you’ll have to see which way works best for you.

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.

Spelling Counts


This is one fact that I cannot stress enough. No matter how well your story might be written, how thought-provoking the concept, nor how in-depth your characterization, bad spelling and grammar will turn off more readers than any other facet of your writing. Sadly enough, spelling is one of the easiest problems to fix. The first rule is: if you want to write a story, don’t write it on-line. Write it in a word processor like WordPerfect (my personal fave) or MS-Word/MS-Works, or even shudder WordStar. If you save it as ASCII/Dos text (Mac users, probably text form), you can find someone somewhere who will help you upload it. Once you have it written, and before you have it on the Net, run it through a spellchecker. If there’s a word not in the spellchecker, pull out Webster’s Dictionary. The point is, good spelling will encourage your reader not to click away from the story before Page 2. And know that you won’t catch everything. (For example, during a reread of this essay in 2004, I found another typo.)
Some word processors also have grammar checkers. Use them. There is nothing shameful about not being able to spell, nor is it a mortal sin to confuse your tenses. However, if you don’t do anything about them, you’re going to catch well-deserved flak. Anyone who doubts this can check out the MST-ing taking place on alt.startrek.creative. When you’re done with your electronic checks and balances, upload the story. You’re ready for the next step (no, it’s not posting).

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


Subtitled: Get Thee to an Editor.[Subtitled for Buck Rogers Fen: Beta Beta Beta]

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.

Personally, I love to edit the work of my favorite authors, and when I can, I’ll spend hours reading and rereading, just to make sure it’s absolutely perfect. Getting the right editor can do wonders for your story, just as getting the wrong one (i.e. someone who will read it and tell you it’s great, no matter what you write) can be as bad as not having one at all. You’ll have to decide between having one editor that you trust implicitly, or a few whom you trust as a whole. For me, it varies, depending on the genre.
Small note: Not that anybody would ask, but I want to make it plain now. If I really like your work, there’s a good chance I’ll offer to edit it. It’s entirely up to you to decide whether you want it or not, and I won’t be offended if you decline. However, considering the constraints on my time from now until the turn of the (next) millennium, for me to ask if I can edit your story is the equivalent of asking if I can bear your children. It’s not that my editing skills are that good, it’s that I’ve got to adore your work to make the time to do it. So, again, not that anyone would ask, but if you were considering it, please don’t. Thank you.

Who Is Mary Sue and Why Does She Have to Die?

I honestly wish I’d kept a copy of the first essay I read about Mary Sueism. It was well-done, and I don’t think I can do the subject half the justice the original did. However, I’ll give it my best shot.
You already know Mary Sue. Mary Sue is the perky, bright, helpful sixteen-year-old ensign who beams about the ship. Everyone on the ship likes Mary Sue, because Mary Sue is good at everything. Mary Sue is an engineer, a doctor in training, a good leader, an excellent cook, and is usually a beautiful singer. Mary Sue often has mental powers that may manifest themselves as telepathy, precognition, or magic. Her past is tragic, more so than any other character on the series. (Many Mary Sues have a backstory that reads like a V.C. Andrews novel. This is a clue.) If Mary Sue is very young, she is often the offspring of one or two already established characters. If she’s a little older, she will probably end up sleeping with the author’s favorite character. Sometimes, she fills both roles. Her name is often the author’s name, be it a net name, a favored nickname, or the author’s middle name (this is seen in the most famous Mary Sue of all time, Wesley Crusher, who was named after Trek creator Eugene Wesley Roddenbery). By the end of the story, Mary Sue will be in bed with the desired character, will have beamed away amid cheers from all the regulars, or will be dead, usually accompanied by heavy mourning from the cast. The reader, on the other hand, will be celebrating. BTW, Mary Sue’s twin brother can often be identified by his brooding, solitary behaviour, matched by his maverick disregard for authority (for a great example, see the very beginning of TNG’s “Hollow Pursuits” alias Barclay, Part One).
Before I go any further, I would like to point out that I have read several excellent stories with characters that fit every part of this description. Fortunately, there are authors who can take this character type, and make a figure just as memorable and vibrant as any ever seen on the series. For the most part, unless you know what you’re doing, if you see a character of your own fitting this description, find another way of telling the story. Please. Remember, fanfic is (for many of us) about characters we know and love, not about how much they like a new person who has nothing to do with their universe. Mary Sues not only stop fanmail, they often invite flames. Use them wisely, or not at all.

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).

One of the things that throw professional editors off a story is the switching of point of view in the midst of a scene. I’m serious; this is the major gripe I’ve seen from editors for magazines, books, anything. It’s jarring to be looking out of Captain Janeway’s eyes one minute, and then to be suddenly inside the head of Queen Titania, staring back at her. Humans simply don’t think inside two heads at once (although I’ve heard Betazoids can). Also, the only way for the following line to be true:

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).

One last thought on style: keep it consistent. Please. If you want to tell a story from the first person POV, fine. If you want to use present tense, perfect. Keep it there.
Merlin’s Personal Peeve Regarding Style Part 1: Don’t have two characters think or say the exact same line in your story, unless it’s intentional.
Merlin’s Personal Peeve Regarding Style Part 2: Write your entire story, then post it. I can’t say how many times I’ve started out writing one story and ended up writing something completely different. I’m not necessarily displeased with the results, but then I’ll usually have to go back and change the beginning to make it fit. You can’t do that if you’re writing and posting in parts. Again, it’s just my own personal opinion on the matter, and one you’re more than free to disregard.

You Know What You Know, You Know?

I will admit right now to all and sundry that I couldn’t write an action scene to save my life. I realized, much later, that the endings to two of my Gargoyles stories were remarkably similar. This annoys me. Basically, it’s because I don’t see violence in my head. I see verbal standoffs, tense negotiations, even psychological clashes taking place between two equally-matched opponents. I don’t see space battles, and I certainly don’t see fights between characters. Heck, when most people write crossovers, they have the characters from the different storylines fight one another. When I wrote “All Through the Night” (think: crossover with every part of the genre I could justifiably throw in), my characters threw a party. This is called Writing What You Know.If you can think the thoughts of “the grunts,” the soldiers who go out and do the real fighting, and if you can write a battle scene real enough so that your reader knows what it’s like to be there, by all means, write it! Not everyone can do that. As I said, I certainly can’t, and I admire anyone who can, and can do it well.

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

Despite what you (and I sigh) may want to believe, in a year there will be five people who still remember the story we post today. Three of them may remember the names of all the characters. Therefore, despite all the time and effort you have just put into your masterwork, unless it’s a net.classic in the making, nobody’s going to care a year from now. Also, unless you’re at the top percent of the top percent, and lucky to boot, no one is going to read your fanfic and offer you a book deal. Sorry, but this is reality. Don’t despair, though. Think of it as a freeing experience. You can write as much as you want of whatever you want, and unless the Supreme Court decides the First Amendment is for weenies no one can stop you. Use the Net as a means of honing your writing skills. This can be accomplished easily, assuming you pay some attention to the above suggestions, and take the following one to heart: the Delete key is our friend.


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.

Mainly, it was because somebody wanted to read a DS9 story, and I hadn’t written one yet. I figured I could have it out by Valentine’s Day, and considering my chosen subject, it was appropriate. I worked on the story, and sure enough, by the time V-Day rolled around, I had it ready. It was posted. It sucked. I knew when I posted the story that I wasn’t happy with it, and as time went on, I was less and less happy. Eventually, I pulled it from the archives, dumped an entire chapter, and rewrote most of the rest. The new version went out on April Fool’s Day. Appropriate again, considering my foolishness. But I’m happier with it now.

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.

Don’t. Just don’t.
No type of fiction is necessarily bad by nature. Really. You can find great examples of just about any kind of ‘fic you’d care to name. It’s a long and laborious process to find the good stories sometimes (hence the existence of this essay) but they do exist and are generally worth the trouble of digging.
That said, there are surely good songfics out there, wonderful stories which effortlessly combine great fiction with beautiful lyrics, resulting in graceful tales that touch the hearts of all who read them. There are probably about a dozen of them in all of fandom. Yours isn’t going to be one of those. Sorry.
Most songfic takes the lyrics from a currently popular song and then intersperses them with text. It’s an attempt to make a (most often angst-ridden and/or romantic) story more emotional by grabbing onto the connotations of the song.Note the words “currently popular.” Does everyone remember “My Heart Will Go On?” Now does everyone remember the time they heard it and finally realized it was *not* a deep, romantic ballad about love beyond death, and was really just a manipulative, drippy pop song with not very original lyrics? ‘Kay. Popularity is transient. The song you ‘fic today is probably already the “I can’t believe you still like that drivel” among the cool kids. Really.
Note 2: For the uninformed, when you take a song and change the lyrics to work with your fandom of interest, that’s not songfic. That’s filk. Filk to your heart’s content.So don’t. Just don’t.

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

If you’ve made it all the way through this, not only am I impressed, I’m amazed. I figure maybe two or three folks will stick through it for the sake of saying that they did (it’s that Best Friend as Editor thing again). If you’re not a member of my immediate family (by which I mean the BONC family tree) I am very grateful. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this stuff. I’ve written a few stories, had a few good reviews, but I’m no more an authority than anyone else around here. I do know what I like to read, and I know what I hear complaints about, both in my work and on the work of other folks. This guide has been my way of letting other people know what I’ve been told. In the end, though, your best guide is your own mind. You can ignore everything I’ve written, and still put out a damn fine story. You can also follow every word and publish something … unfortunate. It all boils down to what you put into your work, and what you want out of it. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and never be afraid to ask.

People are more than willing to give advice and opinions, but you have to be ready to accept what they say, no matter how hard it is to take at the time. (Note that you don’t have to agree or follow along, but if you don’t at least acknowledge it, you’re not doing yourself or your readers any favours.)

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.

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