There are some people who believe that there are two kinds of writers in this world – real and fan fiction. While, granted, there is a lot of bad fan fiction out there, there’s also a far bit of horrible “real” fiction, so it seems to me that the stigma of writing fan fiction must have more to do with the idea itself than the products that come out of it. This is something that strikes me as unwarranted.
I write fan fiction. There, I said it. I’m also a published author, and yes, I do think there’s a connection. So let me share my top few reasons why I think writing fan fiction can be worthwhile and even really helpful for any budding fiction writer.
1. It gets you writing. This is the most important thing for any writing-related activity. Forget about what you’re writing for a minute and just sit down and put words on the page. Fan fiction is great for writer’s block and getting yourself to stick to a writing schedule — think of it as a creative exercise, only one where you don’t even have to put in the effort of coming up with a setting. All your characters (or most of them) are already there, your world is already set, there are no more names and backgrounds to make up – the usual excuses slip away, and all you have left to do is write. A perfect way to start a writing session.
2. Play in someone else’s sandbox for a change. As I said, there’s no world-building to do. Why is that a good thing? For one, it’s a lot easier to see flaws in someone else’s world. Whenever you put a lot of effort into something (like deciding what the middle names are for your secondary character’s first-cousins-once-removed) you have a hard time seriously critiquing it. That’s just part of being human. In fact, anytime someone proudly tells me “I’ve spent more time on the backstory than on actual writing!” I cringe just a little, because usually it means that the story is so choked with expository dialogue, flashbacks and “did you know?” droning that there’s no room left for plot.
Worlds are great, but they’re a tool, not the goal. Stop fighting the urge to explain what’s going on in your political environment by writing in a setting all your readers will already know. You’ll get a new perspective on what world details you really need.
3. Practice using an outline …or anything else you know you should do but are really, really bad at, like writing at a certain time every day. Get into that writing habit you always thought would help by writing something that doesn’t have any pressure attached to it. If you mess up on your outline for a fan fic, chances are good no one will know, plus you’ll get a chance to fix it without having to turn a new one in to an impatient editor. Which brings me to my next point…
4. Get your crappy writing out of the way I’m really not advocating bad fan fiction here (it can be good! really!) but everyone knows you have to write a ton of bad things before you start to write the good stuff. So don’t use up your great ideas on your currently poor writing skills — hone those skills and waste no ideas with fan fiction!
Why use fan fic instead of just a “practice” story or writing exercise? Because writers always have this thought in the back of their heads – “maybe someday I’ll clean this up and publish it”. It makes us afraid to start and once we do, we go back and edit things when we should just keep on writing. The fact is, most of what you are writing as a beginning writer (or heck, even as a wildly successful one) you will never want to look at again, much less try to “clean up”. Take that option totally away from yourself and you will truly have given yourself permission to (temporarily) suck.
Release the mental block of “it’s not good enough”. Use that to write as much as possible. That’s the fastest way to better writing. And if your main character breaks out into song and you feel the need to rewrite “I’m a little teapot” for the occasion…well, (choose a good pen name and) the fan fic community will never tell.
5. Get people reading your writing Speaking of the fan fic community – it’s the craziest thing, but if you write a fan fiction story set in a world people vaguely care about, and you post it on Fan Fiction.net, people will read it. I can almost guarantee it.
Of course, if you’re looking for a decent number of readers there are things you can do to improve this – writing an interesting summary and reviewing other people’s fics in the same category are two of the most effective. But for the most part, someone will probably read your stories, especially if you write/update a lot. And while not every person is going to give you any feedback on it, a lot of them will take a look at your bio. Which is where you’ve of course listed any “real” writing you might want to direct them to, such as your blog or even a published work if you’re brave enough to link it with your fan fiction. You might even have listed your twitter (you are on twitter, right?) account, or facebook or whatever other public social media you’ve decided to keep up with.
Ask yourself, how great would it be to already have a fan base by the time your first book actually comes out?
6. Feedback is good Of the (of course) thousands of people who are going to read your wonderful fan fiction, some of them will post reviews. Not many at first usually, but soon you’ll probably get yourself a steady stream of…well, it’s a mixed bag. Keep in mind that these are not professional reviewers (mostly) and you’re unlikely to get an in-depth analysis of your work. However, what you will get is a general impression of two things: 1) what everyone loves about your writing (this will often take the form of quoting lines, which is great for telling what really worked) and 2) what everyone really, really, really hated about your writing.
I’m not talking about the trolls that occasionally pop up (yes you can block stuff) but that one section of yours that didn’t transition well, which even your best reviews mention with a “not sure about this…” That’s great! Quick and dirty way to find flaws that you would never have caught on your own…and now you know that you shouldn’t try to write a short story entirely in Pig Latin…and Iambic Pentameter. Who knew? Fan fiction readers are also great at pointing out Mary Sues and inconsistent characters, two things which can silently destroy your “real” writing.
One note here: make sure you respond to every review, and always be gracious. You will be rewarded with fans. Yes, actual fans of your work.
7. Encouragement is even better than feedback My longest fan fiction I ever wrote was finished about 5 years ago. (yeah…) I haven’t done anything to promote it in a really long time. And yet, about every two weeks or so, a new review shows up in my inbox, usually asking for the sequel. (It’s coming someday, honest!) What a wonderful boost that is when it happens! It tends to come just when I need reminding that even though I’m struggling with the story I’m working on now, people – real people I don’t know – have enjoyed things I’ve written.
On FF.net people can also do things like add a story to their favorites, or you as a favorite author, and you can get all the stats for that anytime just by logging in. Post in your bio that you’re a “real” writer as well (or that you want to be) and you’ll also sometimes get words of encouragement specifically on that. A large portion of people who spend time with fan fiction are writers who are going through or have been through the same stuff you have. Make some friends, meet some fans and boost your ego just a tad.
Now that I’ve got you all ready to write whatever fan fiction you want (…please don’t blame me for slash…or filks…)…there is one caveat I need to stick in here. (…or crossovers, brrr…or anything with furries…) There is one reason not to write fan fiction — if it stops you from writing anything else. It’s great to have fun with any writing exercise, but remember that’s what it is – exercise, just training for the real stuff. I enjoy fan fiction, both reading and writing, but if you consider yourself to be a writer, you need to write original material at some point. That’s the goal. Don’t lose sight of the main thing, just to be writing your own original stories.
But until then (or even during), fan fiction can help you become a better writer…under the guise of having fun. 🙂