Fanfic tends to get a bad rap and sometimes is cast as the shameful secret that writers hide about their past for fear that it might damage their reputation as a serious author. It’s “unprofessional” or “just a hobby” or “silly” or “not creative enough.” Anyone who’s ever been in a fandom can easily dismiss all of those criticisms: we’ve all read those fics that are just as good – if not better! – than some published stuff and have the competence, gravitas, and ingenuity to rival anything on the shelves of your local bookstore. And the stigma against fanfic seems to be lessening in recent years, though it’s definitely still there.
For many people, fanfic is an important part of their evolution as a writer – it hones their skills and provides opportunities to grow in ways that improve and strengthen their abilities. Here’s what fanfic can teach you:
There are essentially no real rules in fanfic – oh, there are things that you can do that people might not like and may be vocally against, but if you can weather that, you can do anything you want. Fanfic gives you the ability to say “what if?” What if you change this one moment in canon? How does the plot spin out differently? What if you put these two characters together who never interact in canon – or a character from one TV show with a character from another? How do they play off each other? What if you put your 19th-century-dwelling characters in space? Anything you can imagine can happen in fanfic.
It’s also a way for the writer to try new things and explore different interests. Maybe you’ve only ever written romance, but you love reading cozy mysteries. Give cozy mystery writing a go within a world you already know from your favourite book/movie/TV show and play with that built-in universe. It’s a gentle way to experiment with a different genre.
There are so many things you can do with fanfic. You can play with length, from writing epic sagas to flash fiction, and test your abilities to be verbose and concise. You can play with tropes. You can play with technique: maybe you’re a pantser who decides that they’re going to write the whole story before they post OR you’re a planner who’s going to try write a chapter at a time and hope for feedback to inspire you along the way. There are so many possibilities that will allow you to develop your skills as a writer in fanfic.
Writing to beats
If you’re writing fanfic, you’re probably also an avid reader of fanfic. Read enough of it, and you start to absorb the general rhythms of a story of varying lengths, and you can also read the comments to understand what people are (or aren’t) respond to. So maybe you realize in your fandom that tons of backstory clogs up the main plot or that people don’t want to read epilogues. Or maybe it’s as simple as when to introduce the main characters or when and how the black moment should hit.
Fanfic is also great for understanding how to build tension. Nothing destroys a fanfic reader like a chapter ending on a cliffhanger and the interminable wait until the next post. (All long-time fanfic readers have known the pain of a cliffhanger that takes YEARS to resolve until the writer comes back with a new post.) Figuring out how and when to raise the stakes in the story and build trepidation and anticipation in the reader is a good tool to have as a writer, and fanfic is an excellent place to learn it.
The good and bad parts about fanfic are the feedback from readers. On the one hand, one comment that says “Love it!” can make your day and one comment that absolutely understands what you were doing with that chapter can affirm your whole purpose. On the other, a sharp, critical comment can ruin your week, and no comments at all can send you into despair. Fanfic gives you the opportunity to learn how to absorb these comments on a small scale. If/when you publish, your book will be out in the world and under scrutiny from book reviewers, Amazon/Goodreads readers, Twitter, etc.; taking criticism is never easy, especially when it feels like people are wilfully misunderstanding what you write, but fanfic can help you develop a thick skin.
Fanfic can also introduce you to betas and other people who will review your work and offer good, constructive criticism. These people are worth their weight in gold and can be instrumental in pushing you forward in your work.
Community and Collaboration
My favourite part of fanfic is the friends I’ve made and the community that surrounds the fandoms I’ve been in. Some fandoms can be rather toxic, but I’ve been lucky enough to hang out in good ones. I’ve been in ones where I’ve only been an observer, and that’s great and I still enjoyed the fic and watching what was going on in the fandom, but being actively involved in the Jane Austen fanfic (JAFF) community has been much more rewarding for me than sitting on the sidelines. Finding the right fandom and the right corner of the fandom for you is necessary, but once you’re there and part of it, you get to know people, you get deeper into the fandom and the secret code that everyone in it seems to speak (all fandoms have their own language, acronyms, shared mythologies, accepted backstories), and you can show what you have to offer and lean on the community for support. I wouldn’t be here writing this post and editing romance without being a part of the JAFF community, let me tell you, and I'm very grateful for all the friends I've made because of fanfic.
Building relationships with readers, with betas, and with other authors will help you grow as a writer because these people provide different ways to improve: readers tell you what they want (directly or indirectly), betas tell you how to change things to make the story flow better, and other authors tell you what worked for them and what didn’t and can commiserate and celebrate with you. All of them are potential fans down the line if/when you publish, and other authors can also be potential collaborators on stories. And if you’re very lucky, you’ll get friends for life.
Fanfic can help your writing in so many ways. If you ever come home from a movie, turned off a show, or closed a book and thought "but I want MORE," see where fanfic can take you!
I’m SO EXCITED to be talking about fanfic, adapting Austen, and editing JAFF with Angela Hart on YouTube tomorrow (Thursday, June 21, 2018) at 8PM EST. We’re streaming live here, but the recording will be archived – so if you can’t watch live, that link will still get you there! And if you have any questions about fanfic, feel free to send me a message here or on Facebook/Twitter.