Lessons From Writing Fanfiction
Why do I write fanfiction?
I've been writing since ... as long as I can remember, really. But what really got me going with it was discovering fanfiction.
Ten years ago, I was a roleplayer on an avatar forum. That meant I was writing with a partner, one of us writing from one character's point of view and the other from another character's. For me, roleplaying was only roleplaying if it was fanfic-style. No original characters please!
I started getting really antsy over how long my roleplay partners would take to get back to me with their responses. I would write out in secret what I hoped they would reply with, my version of the next part of the story. My two-line parts soon became two paragraphs, then four or five.
Eventually, they would get sick of me writing quite so much, and expecting the same back. So I took it upon myself to write the whole story solo. In my little universe, I had invented fanfiction. Then I stumbled upon a website where thousands of people were doing exactly the same thing - Fanfiction.net (and later AO3).
Ten years ago, then, I began my life as a fanfiction writer in earnest. Looking back, my first few years' worth of content was dreadful. Juvenile, out of character, overly-flowery descriptions ... the whole works, and then some. These days, I'd like to think my maturity and graft comes through. Not to blow my own trumpet, but my stories are much better received than they used to be.
So what is it about fanfiction exactly that helped me, and many others like me, develop so much as a writer?
Write Badly First
You can't get better at something if you don't keep trying. Sure, some people have a knack for certain things, but what allows you to become truly great at it? Practice.
Since I was a child, I'd been afraid of showing my writing to others in case they thought it was bad. But then suddenly, here was fanfiction! Lots of it, and a good deal of it terribly written.
"Mine can't possibly be worse than that one," I'd think to myself after reading a passionately written but error-riddled story. And that would give me the boost of confidence to post my work online.
From the kind of reactions your work gets on fanfiction websites, you can work out what you're doing right, what you need to change. You write more to see if a different approach gets better results. You read others' works to see what readers like.
You start bad. You get better.
"Write what you know."
It's a popular phrase, but after I discarded it I've been able to write so many amazing, bizarre things. Writing fanfiction means writing for a community who know your source material well, so getting to know the source material is important. But beyond that, branch out, experiment, find out what you like writing and what you don't.
Fanfiction has so many possibilities. From space-opera AU settings to Omegaverse premises, there's almost nothing that hasn't been explored by previous writers. And if you can think of it, there will be an audience for it. Whether that's fans of your source material, or fans of your alternate setting, someone will want to read it.
So go wild and try writing something totally out of the box. Fanfiction is the place to hone your weird and wonderful creations.
And even if you just need practice writing, say, male characters. Or modern-day settings. Choosing a source material to write from that has those aspects you want to practice can allow you to do that, without going too far beyond your comfort zone.
Ask For Feedback
One of the major things I've always struggled with as a writer is getting feedback. I'm not great at taking criticism. I tend to stew on it for a few days before I get over myself and act on it. But as a fanfiction writer, my biggest concern is the enjoyment of my readers. I wanted to improve, so my readers would get more pleasure from my stories. So I began actively seeking out critique and feedback.
And reader, it was the best thing I could have done. Getting specific feedback on your work, not just from your readers but from other writers, allows you to pinpoint where you can improve. It gives you the tools to actively make those improvements. And then you can get almost immediate feedback on your improvements.
Truth be told, it is hard to take at first. But if you let yourself know that it's all in the name of making your writing better, and that those giving the feedback want that for you too, it gets easier.
Think of it like a teacher grading your work. They've written in the margins what was wrong, what could be done better, how it could be done better. They're not doing it to make you feel bad, but so that you can get a higher grade next time. The grade you deserve.
Do Your Research
Personally, I find research to be the most fun part of writing anything. You get to learn new things, and you get the smug glow of knowing you have your facts right. What set off this passion of mine? No prizes for guessing - writing fanfiction!
Not only do you need to be thorough with researching your source material, but also pretty much every other detail that goes into your fanfiction. Because, speaking from experience, people pick up on it when you don't know what you're talking about. I once had to research the proper method of wrapping one's hands for boxing practice to edit back into a fanfic after someone pointed out to me I'd got it wrong.
Developing an enthusiasm for research, and finding your own method for it, is key to being a good writer. Whether you write fiction, informative articles, or advertising copy, you need to make sure you're not bullshitting. Because someone will notice. In fiction, there's a lot you can get away with by waving your hand and saying, "That's just how it works in this universe."
If you have a concrete foundation of facts and real-world knowledge, though, it will help readers become immersed in your story. And make even the most extraordinary plot become believable.
Write What You Like
Lastly, but definitely most importantly, fanfiction taught me to write whatever I feel like writing.
Some people don't like the character I'm writing about? So what - I enjoyed writing it.
Society looking down on my work because it's smutty? Who cares - I'm expressing my sexuality.
This story premise has been done with the same characters from the same source material a thousand times over? Oh well - time for me to have a go too!
Fanfiction is, ultimately, about furthering your enjoyment of some form of media. You should write for yourself first before worrying what other people are going to say about it. And let that extend into your original works. As soon as I told myself I was allowed to tell myself the story first, that the first person to please was me, writing a book didn't seem so daunting. Especially about topics and experiences we don't hear about a lot in the media, representation we don't receive and that isn't as popular.
Write what you like. Whatever you like. Then you know at least one person will enjoy it. You.