Saturday, May 7, 2011

Fanfiction Pros and Cons

Fanfiction.  It's one of the most despised forms of written entertainment.  I'm not talking about the kind where you get the author's permission and write something worth publishing.  I'm talking about the nitty-gritty, written form of playing pretend by adults who are too old to dress up as their favorite characters on Halloween.  (I still dress up, but that's a whole 'nother issue.)

First off, why is it despised?  I can give the answer with a single word and an acronym:  Sex and OOC (out of character).  Some authors really don't like it when someone 'desecrates' their character by turning them into sex fiends.  They also don't like it when people rewrite the character's personality to fit their own image.

There's a third reason, though.  That's Rights with a capital 'R'.  If the audience foresees the direction a story is going and writes it before the author, then it makes it hard for the author to claim originality.  In other words, there's a possibility of a creative Rights violation--even though the character's creator might not have read the fanfiction in question.

It all gets pretty messy, which is why most people in the publishing industry stay FARFARFAR away from unauthorized fanfiction and treat the word 'fanfiction' like a curse word. 

But let's get this straight:  Fanfiction isn't a lesser form of entertainment. 
It's often misguided, and there's always more mud in the slushpile than gems, but digging through fanfiction is an enjoyable past-time for thousands of people.  More importantly, fanfiction was created because people were so inspired that they felt a need to vent their imaginations.  Regardless of the output quality, fanfiction entertains.  Therefore no one can accurately judge its value.  It's priceless, just like two kids roleplaying 'house' to pass the time.

As you've probably guessed by now, I've written fanfiction.  I spent THREE years writing a fanfiction series based on a manga.  I didn't do it for money.  I didn't do it for fame.  I did it because I read a manga and fell in love with the characters to the point that I said "I want to see what happens in this situation", but I didn't have the patience to wait for the original author to write it.  Heck, she might never, but I really, really, really wanted to know how it would play out.

I didn't know fanfiction existed when I opened a wordpad file and started writing.  All I knew was it was the first time I'd written anything since I'd given up the 'childish' dream of being an author.  I don't think I need to mention how horrible I was.  That first chapter lacked a lot.  So did the second.  So did the third.

But I kept uploading my progress online and the most amazing thing happened.  A single person read it and reviewed.  I'll never forget the feeling I got from that.  Where I once had to beg people to read my writing, someone came of their own free will, read, and they asked for more.  I seriously wanted to cry.  I DID cry when I received my first piece of fanart (see slideshow for collection).

I kept writing.  For three, almost four years, I kept writing.  I kept building off my first fanfiction--adding characters.  And settings.  And writing speed.  At my peak, I cranked out 10k in a day, where it'd taken me a week to write that first misbegotten chapter.  My final stats put me at more than 3 million words and every word was a lesson learned.

That's right.  I didn't misstype.  I said LESSON LEARNED.  Fanfiction can be a HUGE benefit to starting authors.  I recommend for every author to spend a year writing--and uploading--fanfiction.  It's better than any conference or class because you get feedback directly from the audience.  Of course, the quality of the feedback will vary, but they aren't shy.  Fanfic readers will flame you when you cross the line and you'll learn what a fangirl/fanboi is really like.

For any author who seriously wants to try fanfiction as a starting point, here's a little advice:

1.  Plot.  Believe it or not, fanfic readers do want plot.  You'll find stacks upon stacks of characterXcharacter (romance pairings), but a non-romance story with a novel format will get attention.

2.  Genre.  Don't be afraid to play around.  You're not writing for money, so write to explore.  When I first started, I amazed myself.  I never seriously considered writing anything other than high fantasy, but I suddenly found myself writing crime, horror, romance, tragedy, paranormal, and even a bit of mystery.  Broaden your scope.

3.  Break Barriers.  Those people who write characters in pornographic situations are disgusting?  Nope.  They're daring.  It's natural for authors to worry about 'the line' since they won't get past editors if they cross it.  The line of too bloody, too smutty, too morally questionable, too unrealistic, too cliche.  You know the line I'm talking about--the line where you pull back and say 'maybe I shouldn't...'  But can authors really afford to play it safe?  Well, I say, make the most of internet anonymity and break through that barrier.  A whole new world waits on the other side.

4.  Go Too Far.  I don't mean erotica.  I mean plot twists.  Pull the rug out from under the readers and see how they react.  See how many times you can do it before they stop and say 'this is just stupid'.  They will say it, too.  They're not shy.  But you can learn how far you can go before a story loses credibility.

5.  Piss people off.  I mean it.  Write something you KNOW the fandom will hate, like a scenario where the villain wins and the hero becomes a whiny little twit.  Put yourself in a position to be flamed.  Trust me, it'll hurt even if you know it's coming.  But this will help you build a resistance to harsh critiques and bad reviews. You'll need a thick skin when you become a professional.  You can't afford to get defensive when you step into the publishing industry, so use fanfiction as a place to learn to cope.

6.  Research.   Places like is invaluable for research.  They give readers a way to subscribe to your story so they're emailed whenever you update.  They also give you stat pages that can help you learn where your strengths are.  Watch the page views over time.  What chapters do readers come back and re-read repeatedly?  What chapters have the lowest hit count?  What happened in a chapter where the reader hit-count drastically dropped?  What chapters gave readers the urge to say something/review?  This kind of information is invaluable and it'll take your whole career to collect it through the traditional publishing route.

6.  Practice.   Fanfiction is practice.  For people like me who aren't good at keeping a scheduled journal/blog, fanfiction allows you to practice your craft in a stress-free environment.  You're not looking to sell the story to editors.  Your career isn't hinging on how many readers it gets.  Your future won't be destroyed by a bad review.  Use fanfiction to vent your imagination and unload all the garbage scenarios you've been carrying around.  Your original novel will thank you when you're looking at it with a clearer vision.  You just might get better at writing, too.  I know I did. 

Having said all that, there's also things you WON'T learn through fanfiction.  Here are a few things that I didn't consciously know about until I felt ready to shop my first novel (the one that's now shelved):

1.  Showing good, telling bad. 
2.  Passive writing is boring. 
3.  Flashbacks remove immediacy.
4.  Chapter length affects pacing.
5.  Too much description shuts down the imagination.
6.  Realistic dialogue doesn't make good dialogue.

Well, I think that's it for now.  Most of this was rambling, but hopefully you gained some perspective on fanfiction.  It has its pros and cons like anything else.  The industry treats it like the black sheep, but experiencing it can only make an author grow.

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