A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Fanfiction

by Nathan

Before we get to the topic at hand, I would suggest that you not head into fanfic writing in hopes of receiving notice and acclaim from your readers. Chances are, you won’t get a lot of feedback, and what you get won’t always be positive. If you don’t go into writing fanfic with any such expectations, you’ll save yourself more than a bit of trouble.

That bit of digression dispensed with, we can begin.

As a recent fanfiction archivist, a slightly-longer-time fanfiction writer, and an even-longer-time fanfiction reader, I have read, written, and archived a wide variety of fanfiction. In doing so, I think I’ve picked up enough to offer, at the very least, some basic advice to beginning writers. This will not be one of those “method of writing” types of articles, but will focus more on specific, basic things that will help a beginning author. For convenience, I will list my points numerically.
  1. The very first things I will address should be common knowledge, as they have been harped on by people whose pages are more popular than mine … but probably aren’t, as they were the first things suggested for inclusion when I proposed writing this piece. Those are, of course, the need to use spellchecker, and get a betareader for your fanfiction. This is important because, quite frankly, if your story is too difficult to understand due to fundamental errors, most people won’t continue reading it (plus you may be receiving some unpleasant e-mails). The spellchecker should be on your word processor, and doesn’t take much time to use. Yes, this is basic, but you’d be surprised how many spelling errors you inadvertently make that you don’t catch.
    Betareaders are even more important; not only do they usually correct your grammar (which is a blessing to people like me), they can also point out plot errors, dialogue problems, and other flaws in your work. In matters like this, even if you choose not to follow the betareader’s advice, you can at least have another person’s perspective to take into account in your work, which is a definite advantage. If you don’t know where to find a betareader, you can look in a couple of places. First, you can advertise on the SFA posting board and see who responds. Another way is to go to the listings that the BTVS Writers Guild keeps on its betareaders page (this link is to the Guild page itself, just go through the menus to get there). I have seen other places where you can get betareaders, but I don’t know any of the people there so I can’t vouch for their quality.
  2. A second piece of advice: always be willing to change your work, whether this takes the form of changing whole parts of your story that aren’t working out, or endless rewriting. No matter how much you like certain ideas, you have to be willing to jettison them if they don’t work out. As a personal example, when I began “A Dark Future,” it started out much different from what you see now on my site, and that wasn’t a good thing at all. Four rewrites later, “A Dark Future,” Part One, ended up at least reasonably good. This doesn’t mean you’ll always get a story done exactly as you want it to, as writing is not a precise science by any means, but authors owe it to their readers to rewrite until they feel they have the story completed as best they can.
  3. Another thing I would advise is research. This is in regard to both show canon and other, more topic-specific, research. As to the show, you had better have a decent knowledge of the canon; otherwise you will hear about it from your readers. As regards other research, it is probably a good idea to have some feel for any special topics that are crucial to your plot, as well as a decent knowledge of the geography of the region the story is set in.
  4. Be very careful how you address social issues in your fanfic. If you want to work in an issue, fine, but I should warn you that preaching on an issue can turn off large numbers of readers and can ruin your fic. Certainly your fic can address a social problem, but please do not blatantly use the fic to preach your position on whatever issue you feel strongly about. For example, I read a fic a few years ago (the title of which I don’t recall), which featured a student bringing a gun into Sunnydale High and fatally shooting a cast member (Buffy, I believe). Now, there was definite potential in this fic, both to tell an emotionally gripping story and to take a solid look at a current problem (especially since this story was written pre-Columbine, when the issue of guns in school was not yet front and center in most people’s attention). In my mind — and I hate to do this because I dislike criticizing other people’s work — the author completely blew this opportunity, as the fic moved unrealistically in the course of preaching the author’s position on gun control. I’m not saying it’s wrong to try to advance an issue through fiction (Upton Sinclair is etched in literature history for doing exactly that), but you should remember that there will be people who disagree with you, so you should convince during the course of telling the story instead of making the story’s sole point to preach your position through the mouths of the characters.
  5. Avoid over-used story ideas. We all know that certain stories predominate (especially in Buffy fandom). Certain of these story types have been done so often that they have become a cliché (such as the recent trend toward turning Angel human so he and Buffy can be together). I would tend to avoid writing pieces of this type unless some fresh way can be found to approach them. The stories themselves might be good, but if you’ve seen a story type done time and time again, exactly the same way, your audience probably has as well.
    (Note: if you have an approach that plays off the clichés of this common plot type to make the story into something else entirely, that’s a different matter; even so, you may lose some readers before they get far enough into the story to discover the difference.)
  6. Read. Not just fanfic, either, but a variety. Read novels, short stories, whatever you’d like if you think it can make you a better writer. This is especially effective if you read as a writer, watching for what worked (or didn’t work) in any given writing. Some of the best authors (including Gaston Leroux, the author of Phantom of the Opera) have been prodigious readers.
  7. Finally, write what you’re happy with writing. Don’t shape your writing to build a readership or strictly to please your readers; chances are that it won’t work for that purpose, and probably it won’t be good fiction. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in the foreword to his short story collection “Bugambo Snuffbox”: “If your story opens a window and makes love to the world, then it will catch cold.” If you write something that is truly a tale you want to tell, others will notice and they’ll respond to it. And if they don’t, it still will be your story, the best you could do.
The list I’ve detailed above is by no means all-inclusive, and you’ll find other things that will help or hinder you in your efforts. However, I hope that with this list you’ll have some idea of how to begin and what to avoid. With the rise of the Internet, fanfic writing is one of the only completely open, creative outlets around with a variety of voices coming from all sides. I hope this essay will make it a little easier for you to add your voice to the din.

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