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There is a question about whether or not writers are born or made. I believe there are those born with the gift of wordcraft, but I also know that writing can be learned. I’m proof of it.
The hard part for those not naturally gifted is learning about and then executing good writing. That is where writing fanfiction can help.
You’ve probably heard of fanfiction. Perhaps you’ve even written some. Maybe you’re like E.L. James, Cassandra Clare, Rainbow Rowell, Marissa Meyer, Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howie, and Meg Cabot, all of whom once wrote fanfiction and who are now published authors. Even yours truly also started by writing fanfiction.
If you currently write fanfiction, this article can help use your fanfiction to work on various elements of your writing. If you’ve never written fanfiction, this article can still be of use to you as you can use it as an exercise to hone your craft.
What is Fanfiction?
Fanfiction are works of fiction written in somebody else’s existing world using their existing characters. Right off the bat, you’re probably wondering if it’s legal. Using somebody else’s characters and world would be copyright infringement. And of course, that is true if you wanted to make money from fanfiction.
But fanfiction isn’t about publishing and money. It’s an expression of love for books, TV shows, movies or other fictional media. It is like people who draw fan art except instead of drawing, they’re writing. It is a form of literary expression that allows writers to expand, re-imagine, and play within the worlds of their favorite works. And it gives nonwriting fans who read fanfiction the chance to see their favorite characters put into new storylines.
At first you might think fanfiction is something that has grown with the advent of the Internet, and fans being able to connect and engage around their favorite books, tv shows, movies, or video games. But fans have been rewriting or expanding favorite works for centuries. More recently, Star Trek fans created fanzines where fanfiction would be shared.
I started writing fanfiction at eleven years old (before computers!) using lined paper and a Pee Chee folder to hold my stories in. Then later in the 1990s, I started writing fanfiction using a different TV show. By then the Internet was established, so I was able to share my work with others who enjoyed the show and my stories. In fact, one of my stories was stolen, twice. It was that experience that had me wondering if maybe I could write. Truthfully, at that time, I was nowhere near where I needed to be as a published author, but through fanfiction, I was able to practice and learn. Even today, I still sometimes write fanfiction testing out new ways of writing.
Types of Fan Fiction
Canon: These can be long stories or short vignettes that stick faithfully to the world and characters created by the original creator.
Alternate universe (AU) fanfiction: These stories change elements of the original creations to explore different timelines, what-if scenarios, or other alternate forms.
Crossover fanfiction: For fans of more than one show, movie, book, or game, these stories combine characters from multiple universes into a single story.
Slash fanfiction (slashfic): These stories explore LGBTGQ romantic or sexual relationships between fictional characters. Initially it referred to only M/M fiction, it now includes any same-sex pairing, although some refer to F/F fanfiction as femslash.
Smut fanfiction: I imagine you can guess what this is. These are stories that focused solely on explicit sexual content.
Drabble: This is a term for any fiction with only 100 words, but is found in fanfiction circles.
There is one other form of fanfiction that has grown recently in which some authors allow other authors to write in their worlds. For example, Susan Stoker publishes books by other authors who write in her world. Dead But Not Forgotten, the most recent book in my Valentine Mystery series was written in her Operation Alpha world using one of her characters.
Why Write Fanfiction?
Writing fanfiction offers many benefits to new and emerging writers.
The World and People Already Exist: One of the biggest challenges in writing is staring at a blank page. What is the story? The setting? The people? In writing fanfiction, these elements are already established, so you can dive headfirst into that universe and start moving the people around. It’s like stepping into a literary wonderland where you can explore the landscapes, interact with the characters, and feel the emotions that already pulse through the original work.
Gain Understanding of Characters and How they Breathe on the Page: By delving into these pre-existing worlds, you gain an understanding of the dynamics between characters, their motivations, the conflicts, and the intricacies of their relationships, all important elements to writing a romance.
Further, fanfiction gives you practice in writing without having to delve into character development, backstories, etc. You already have all that and all you have to do is move them around.
Discover Your Writing Voice: While the world and characters might exist, how you tell your story isn’t set. Your voice is how your unique writing personality tells the story, from word choice, tone, structure, etc. As you experiment with different styles, explore various genres, and craft original characters, you uncover your unique writing voice and style.
Get Feedback and Kudos: Another reason to write fanfiction get reader response and excitement about your stories. These readers love to see their favorite characters in new situations, and you can build a fanbase from them.
Build Writing Confidence: The process of sharing your fanfiction with the fan world, and receiving feedback and appreciation from fellow fans fosters confidence in your writing abilities. Yes, it can be scary to share your work, but with fanfiction, you get practice in “publishing” so when you write original fiction, you’ll be prepared for the emotions that go with it.
Learn from Other Fanfiction Writers: By joining a fanfiction community, you can learn from other fanfiction writers. Engaging with fellow fanfiction authors, sharing ideas, and exchanging constructive feedback helps you grow and improve as a writer. As you explore the diverse works of others, you unearth insights, techniques, and narrative approaches that can broaden your horizons as a writer.
How to Hone Your Craft Through Writing Fanfiction
The aspect of fanfiction that makes writing easier is that the basic elements already exist, the world and the people. From that, you simply need to come up with story ideas and write. Things to consider are:
- The world itself. Is it in space? Set back in time? In a dystopian future? You know what it is and now you can practice describing it with words.
- The characters. What are their backstories? Personalities? Conflicts? Quirks? Again, you know these people, so now you can practice making them move and talk.
Practice Writing: As you move the characters through the world, you’re practicing your craft. Whether it’s mastering the art of imagery, refining your descriptive prowess, creating believable dialogue, or perfecting the delicate balance of showing and telling, fanfiction provides a safe haven to explore and stretch your writing muscles.
Practice Plotting:The fun in fanfiction is creating stories that you wish the book, show, movie or game had offered. Want to see two characters finally find love together? You can do that in fanfiction. Want to write an origin story for your favorite character? You can do that. Through this process, you learn to balance pacing, tension, and conflict. You can also learn to create subplots, weaving additional storylines for more engaging plots.
Play with Writing Styles and Perspectives: Fanfiction allows you to challenge yourself or try new things. I used fanfiction to see if I could write first person present tense stories. You can use it to practice writing from different points of view. If you’re a light writer, you can try your hand at something darker with fanfiction.
Develop Characters: While a fanfiction world is already populated, there’s no rule that says you can’t add more people. Through the integration of original characters, you practice creating well-defined people that interact with canon figures.
Challenges to Writing Fanfiction
While writing fanfiction offers some benefits by jumping into an existing world, there are a few challenges to consider.
Respecting Source Material and Canon: Fanfiction pays homage to specific worlds and people. While you might have some leeway in your story to push the boundaries, fans of this world have an expectation to recognize it and the people within it. It’s a delicate tightrope between artistic expression and the responsibility to honor the worlds and characters that have already captured the hearts of fans.
The secret to mastering this art lies in striking the perfect balance of embracing your unique ideas while simultaneously being mindful of the elements that fans hold dear. Remember that fanfiction allows for endless possibilities, but all contained in a single world.
Dealing with Criticism and Negative Feedback: Let’s face it, sometimes people on the internet aren’t nice or supportive and that can be true in the fanfiction world. Some fans might not like the story or how you presented the characters. Others might have comments on the quality of the writing itself. Criticism sucks, but it is a part of the writer’s life. Fanfiction gives you the chance to use feedback to improve and develop the thick skin needed to be an author. Embrace feedback as a catalyst for improvement, a chance to refine your craft, and an invitation to explore different facets of storytelling. Remember that fanfiction is an art form, and like all art, it invites subjective interpretation.
The Cons of Writing Fanfiction and Limitations
While fanfiction is a great place to practice writing, it has some limitations in what you can gain from this type of writing.
Cons of Writing Fanfiction
Lack of Originality: The fanfiction world was conceived by someone else and you’re simply visiting. The dependency on source material poses challenges in developing wholly original ideas and concepts. As much as you may yearn to break free from the source material, the pull of canon lingers. While you may craft new scenarios or alternate universes, the foundation must be rooted in existing canon. This can impede you creative potential, as you navigate the boundaries set by the original creators.
Many fanfiction writers made the move to original fiction at the point in which they felt constrained by the source material’s canon and wanted to create something original.
Dependency on Source Material: Fanfiction thrives on our love for the source material, but this very adoration can be a double-edged sword. As a writer, you find yourself relying on pre-established character traits and relationships to anchor the narratives. While this can provide a sense of comfort and familiarity, it may limit your exploration of characters’ growth beyond what the original work allowed.
Feedback Bias: Earlier I suggested some fans might be critical, but the more likely scenario is that fans will love your work no matter how well you write. The adoration from fans, while uplifting, might not always provide the critical feedback needed for growth. This is especially true since fan readers know the sources material as well and will layer that over your writing. This is a problem because your setting descriptions, or dialogue, or character expressions might not be to the level required in original fiction, but since fan readers know these things, they see it without you expressing or describing it.
Not Considered “Published” Works: When it comes to getting an agent or publisher, your fanfiction may not help you, although it shouldn’t hinder you either. Fanfiction posted online won’t be considered a publishing credit by agents and publishers. The only exception to this would be if you had a significant fan base, which is what happened to Anna Todd who turned her fanfiction about One Direction into the After series.
What Fanfiction Might Not Teach You About Writing
Fanfiction offers you practice in many elements of writing, but not so much in other elements such as:
Original World-Building: In fanfiction, readers already possess a level of familiarity with the worlds you explore. In contrast, original works demand that you introduce readers to entirely new realms of your creation.
Character Creation: In fanfiction, you have the foundation of pre-established characters. In the realm of original works, however, you have to build 3-D characters from the ground up. Crafting multi-dimensional personas with flaws, dreams, wounds, and conflicts sounds easy enough, but in fact, can be a challenge for many would-be writers.
Crafting Character Arcs and Growth over the Course of a Story: While fanfiction might allow for character development within established canon, original works require you to mold the characters’ destinies entirely.
Developing Relationships and Dynamics Between Original Characters: In fanfiction, you explore the dynamics between pre-existing characters. In original works, the challenge lies in creating authentic and captivating relationships between entirely new personas. You must navigate the complexities of friendships, romances, and conflicts in a way that feels real to the reader.
Creating Compelling and Unpredictable Storylines: While fanfiction benefits from the foundation of established plotlines, original works present the exhilarating albeit challenging opportunity to create unique and original narratives. Fanfiction writers often use the formula or structure of the source material, whereas in original fiction, you have to decide your structure to offer intrigue, mystery, and unexpected twists that keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Balancing Pacing, Tension, and Conflict in New Narratives: Fanfiction often derives tension and conflict from the original material. In original works, you are the architect of every rise and fall of suspense, which requires you to learn about pacing and tension throughout a story.
Writing Book Length Works: Fanfiction comes in all lengths from short story to never-ending hundreds of thousands of words tomes. But books have very specific word counts, especially if you want to be traditionally published. A first-time author will have a difficult time selling an original romance that is less than 50,000 words or more than 90,000 (unless fantasy is involved in which case you might be able to have up to 120,000 words). With that said, knowing this, you can use fanfiction to help you learn how to plot and write within these word count constraints.
Transitioning from Fanfiction to Original Romance Writing
As you become an expert fanfiction writer, you develop the skills and experiences that lay the foundation to write original romance stories. There are several ways to make this transition:
Turn Fanfiction into Original Fiction: Many fanfiction writers start their transition by rewriting a fanfiction into a new story. In doing this, you may want to use a similar world and characters by simply changing names, but you need to be careful with this. You can land in hot water if your “original” is too easily recognized as a fanfiction but with different names. If you read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Gray, would you have recognized Edward and Bella from Twilight? Or how about Anna Todd’s After series? Did you think of the band One Direction? Or Clarissa Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series? Did it remind you of Harry Potter?
The trick to transitioning from a fanfiction story to original fiction involves more than changing names. You want to change their backstories. If the backstory from the fanfiction is important to your new original story, change some element of it. If the character was orphaned, change when or how or where that happened. Change what they look like. Change the settings and locations. In the end, it shouldn’t be recognizable as fanfiction.
Fanfiction Reimagined: There have been many books lately reimaging myths or The Beauty and Beast fairy tale. These books have the essence of their original counterparts, and yet are completely different. You can do this with your fanfiction characters. You can have the essence of them, and yet they’re completely reimagined with different jobs, backgrounds, and settings (this is what I did). This is a safer bet than taking one of your old fanfictions and trying to turn it into original fiction as outlined above.
100% Original: Sometimes transitioning from fanfiction to original story is easier because while you’ve made changes, you still know the characters. However, there’s no reason why you can’t jump straight into something wholly new and original. Create brand new characters. Build a new world. If you get stuck on developing characters or a world from scratch, check out books, blogs, and other resources that can help you. Or just start writing and let the characters and world evolve as you write.
The Journey from Fanfiction Writer to Published Author
Bridging the chasm between fanfiction and professional writing may seem daunting, but many authors have made the leap. In fact, now that you have a fanfiction fanbase, you have a group of readers ready to support you!
The process of getting published has many moving parts whether you want to self-publish or traditionally publish. It all starts with revising your book and hiring an editor. After that, you can seek an agent or publisher, or go the self-publishing route.
There is a great deal of information and resources on getting published that I encourage you to read. The more you know, the easier the process is!
Also, consider grabbing a copy of The Romance Author’s Novel Organizer, which is packed with note pages, checklists, planners and more to take your romance story from idea to published book.
Want to Try Your Hand at Fanfiction?
Do you have a favorite book, TV show, movie or video game? Did you ever wish the characters did something different or that the creator explored some facet you felt fell short? Write it! Use this exercise to work on areas you feel your writing can benefit from such as how to write setting or dialogue. Or use it to test out new ways of writing such as writing in first person if you normal write in third.
You don’t have to write a complete story. It can be a single scene or vignette.
Where to post your fanfiction:
There are many sites onto which you can post your stories. This will help you gain feedback, and it’s possible you’ll grow an audience that will follow you to your original fiction.
Here are a few sites to check out for posting your fanfiction. Some are easier to use than others and some offer more bells and whistles.
Also check on Facebook for fanfiction groups. The fanfiction that I write is posted in Google Docs and I share the link in a Facebook group dedicated to fanfiction of this particular show.
Be sure to check my interview with Suzy England, who I met originally when we both wrote fanfiction for the same show. She’s now a traditionally published author! Write with Harte members can also check out this deeper dive into how she used Wattpad to build her audience that led to her publishing career. Not a member? You can join here for free.
Do you write fanfiction and have more thoughts on how writing fanfiction helps writers? Or maybe you have a question about writing fanfiction. Let me know in the comments below.