Evolving out of Fan Fiction

4 Nov

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It seems like talk of fan fiction has been in the air recently. As someone who successfully made the transition from writing fan fic to writing original fiction, I thought today we could talk about the structural differences between fan fic and original fic, and how to make the change.

First, a little bit about fan fiction and why it’s good for you to write it:

(Before I begin this article I want to preface it by saying that I know there are legal concerns to writing fan fiction. This article isn’t about that; I just want to show how writing fan fiction may help young writers develop, and give a guide to current fan fic writers looking to move into original fiction).

FAN FICTION: TRAINING WHEELS FOR WRITERS

I’m a huge fan of fan fiction (:P). I remember back in seventh grade when I got so frustrated by a lack of romantic consummation between Rachel and Tobias in the Animorphs series that I just decided to write it myself. I’d never heard of ‘fan fic’ before, and so of course I thought that what I was doing was very original and groundbreaking (side note: does it seem to you that every writer thinks their younger self was a total dork?). That’s the beauty of fan fic; you can modify a pre-existing story to make it turn out however you felt it should have.

Emotional satisfaction aside, there are other benefits to young writers working with fan fiction. Here are some of them:

Pre-Existing World/Characters: Fan Fiction takes all the hard work out of establishing your own unique characters and world, and lets you borrow existing ones. This is beneficial to young writers because you already get to start with a wonderful plot/characters, and all you have to worry about is the craft of writing itself.

Length: Many works of fan fiction are quite short. Others are sprawling. Both teach the writer about story arcs; no matter the length of the fic, it has to have an introduction, some sort of middle action or revelation, then the denoument. I’ve seen some truly heart-breaking one-page fics, and some fabulous, wish-it-never-ended, 200-chapter fics.

To focus primarily on the short fics, works of such emotional saturation would have a hard time existing outside of fan fiction. Where else can your craft be judged based on one page, except in a universe where the readers already know your characters/world, and moreover are INTERESTED in them. The great thing about posting to fan fic sites is that your audience is already salivating and ready to read.

Craft: The medium of fan fiction is prime territory for using that infamous beginner’s tool -exposition. In fact, fan fic practically requires a lot of exposition (in the beginning chapters). Since young writers are naturally drawn to exposition, fan fic gives them a place where this device, normally seen as a faux paus, is actually perfectly normal.

Versatility: Fan fic also allows writers to explore different genres and scenarios they wouldn’t otherwise get to explore if they dedicated themselves to writing a novel. Writers of fan fic can take the same two characters, in the same setting, and create a hundred varying outcomes, from romance to comedy to outright fist-fighting. Fan fic encourages imagination, and really exploring the depths of the characters at hand.

TRANSITIONING

I made the leap from fan fic writer to regular writer when I had my first original idea (Antebellum). Finally I had a unique world of my own to explore, though in the beginning I wasn’t used to creating my own characters, so I borrowed some and gave them different names (don’t worry, they later evolved into their own unique beings).

I’ve heard several young writers express fears of devoting too much time to fan fiction, and harboring the vague but powerful worry that they really should be writing something ‘real’ instead of continuing their epic Harry/Ginny romance. While I can’t say it’s perfectly okay to continue to write fan fic forever, I can say that you should realize that you’re actually learning very valuable writing lessons, and your experience in fan fic will actually help your ‘real’ writing.

Fan fic writers become masters of emotion, and plot intrigue. These are skills that don’t go away. I learned lots of great tricks on how to write good action and climax scenes through reading fan fiction, then sitting down to write my own.

That said, there are a few bad habits that can bleed over from fan fiction into original fiction. When making the leap, here’s what you should watch out for:

Exposition: You. Yes, I mean YOU. You cannot write five pages of background on  your world and/or characters before the story begins. I’m serious. This DOES apply to YOU. While it’s great in fan fic to get all of that history out of the way so you can get on to the good stuff, in original fiction that does not fly. Just start at the good stuff! Weave your backstory into one-sentence narrative explanations and hints from dialogue. If there is one thing you take away from this article, it must be this: don’t begin with too much exposition!

(Also, don’t think that just because your characters are walking around and doing stuff that it isn’t exposition. If they’re having a mindless conversation just to establish their characters while you comment after their every sentence explaining their history together, that’s exposition. No conversation should ever be there ‘just because’. No ‘Wow I hate math class.’ ‘Yeah me, too.’ for an entire first chapter. Dialogue needs to advance the plot. Always.)

Fluff/Ego Stroking: This one’s gonna be tough, because fan fictors love them some fluff. I know, I do, too. But while it’s okay to include self-indulgent extras in fan fiction, it is NOT okay to do that in original fiction.

For example: an entire chapter devoted to hair-stroking, nuzzling, and gentle kissing. In fan fic readers lap that up. In original fiction, we do want to see your main couple in an ‘aww’ moment, but we also want to see your plot advance. 3,000 words of lovey dovey fluff will turn readers off.

As for ego stroking, in fan fiction it’s okay for your character to go off on a diatribe about why they hate a particular brand, or food, or political party. Or, rather, it’s more okay than in original fiction. Because it’s definitely NOT okay in original fic. We call those sort of non-essential asides ‘indulgences’, or, if you make an entire character based on them, a ‘Mary Sue’. You know about Mary Sue. Don’t even pretend you don’t. In original fic, ‘asides’ get you an eye-roll from a reader, and a big, fat, red strikethrough from a CP. Don’t do it.

Pacing: When you’re writing a decent-length fan fiction, particularly of the romance genre, and if you have a few dedicated readers who beg for your next chapter, it’s very easy to just throw up something entertaining but plotless, and call it a day. Your readers demand updates, and you need some time to pass in your story, so your characters take a chapter to go to the park, cook a meal together, play chess, go shopping, etc. It’s the character bathroom break of writing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if it’s not necessary, it needs to get cut. If you want to show time has elapses, say ‘the next day’ or something.

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Well, I guess that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

If you want to hear more about what I have to say on the basic craft of writing, click here. Otherwise, I’m going to open the floor for questions. Do you write fan fic? What’s your favorite ship? How did you successfully transition out of fan fiction into original fiction? See you in the comments!

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Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is http://www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.

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Apparently Mercedes Lacky concurs! Read her inspirational article on encouraging writers to write fan fiction here

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33 Responses to “Evolving out of Fan Fiction”

  1. Eskay November 4, 2010 at 1:02 AM #

    I transitioned from fan fic to original fic a looooong time ago, and I’ve actually had some success with writing since then. I don’t talk about my fan fic writing very often– or ever– but I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as deep a connection to the characters I create as to the ones I culled from other’s work. It worries me to no end. When I wrote fan fic, my characters seemed completely real to me, and I delved into their deepest thoughts and emotions with complete ease, even though I altered them considerably from their original forms. Now, my characters seem like characters: flat and generic. Do you have any suggestion for bringing them to life and creating a connection? Thanks and great post btw. 🙂

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:10 AM #

      I thought about your question on the drive to work today, and here’s what I came up with:

      There could be a few reasons you don’t feel as deeply connected (are your characters not as complex? Is your story close-ended, so there are fewer paths to explore?), but I suspect that probably the main reason is that you’ve never written fan fiction about your own characters.

      Fan fic lets us really explore the dark depths of characters, while original fiction rarely takes us to those places… I definitely felt closer to my characters when I started writing fan fiction for them. They got to do things they never would in the canon stories, and somehow it really mapped out who they were to me.

  2. Susan November 4, 2010 at 3:27 AM #

    Very good post, Savannah — and great suggestions for transition from fan fiction to original. It took me waaaay too long to figure that stuff out… Especially the “starting with action”.

    I was really into Pern fan fiction (Anne McCaffrey), and then I dabbled in some N’SYNC fan fiction… Gosh, I am so embarrassed about that last one — I was just a wee bit obsessed with Justin Timberlake.

    Yeah, I’m blushing bright red right now.

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:01 AM #

      I was super into reading/writing Animorphs ff, but then later I read as much Harry Potter ff as I could get my mouse on. 🙂

      Hahaha Justin Timberlake.

  3. Kat Zhang November 4, 2010 at 4:00 AM #

    Really great post, Sav! Some days I actually wish I could go back and write a bit of fanfic. It’s satisfying in a different way, especially when I fall in love with a new TV show, book, movie, etc and want to explore the characters in my own way. But writing original fiction has sort of spoiled me, I guess! I feel restricted in a fanfiction world and can’t really get into that groove anymore where I feel immersed enough in someone else’s world to make it my own in a story.

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:01 AM #

      I know what you mean. When I try to write fan fiction I just get sad because I want to be able to USE the story…

  4. Heather November 4, 2010 at 4:06 AM #

    I used to write Kingdom Hearts fanfiction. Even if reading over some of my old stories makes me cringe now, I think it definitely helped me improve as a writer, and getting reviews from readers tellling me they liked it really boosted my confidence.

    In response to your question, I definitely think my younger self was a total dork, but lovably so 😛

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:01 AM #

      Oh, totally. We were all loveable dorks, every one 🙂

  5. Aurora Blackguard November 4, 2010 at 4:07 AM #

    This was so good! I love this and sort of reminds me of how I have like four stories I never finished because the interest just falls through. I wrote for the Alice Academy anime, primarily because you had all these kids in one (evil) school and they all had weird powers and that sent me off on a tandem because there were unlimited possibilities!! Oh and the main guy character was ADORABLE (they were also, all ten).

    Err… it’s kind of funny because I started writing original fiction but I wrote really bad stuff (I basically plagiarized a whole story and just changed the names)then I came across FF. I loved it. Now that I read it I feel embarrassed and proud. It’s really bad shit but I was a really out-there kid. 😀 I love writing original fiction but nothing will change with my love for Natsume nad Mikan.

    I still read the manga!(if that’s any indication of my obsession with it)

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:02 AM #

      There’s nothing like the love a young writer has for their favorite fandom. I still have a huge soft spot for Animorphs 🙂

  6. Nhi November 4, 2010 at 4:28 AM #

    Definitely agree and love everything about this article. The funny thing is that I am *still* writing fan fiction as of this point (well not right NOW, per say, with exams and all but still…).

    I was going to leave my poorly written works as they were – but I decided to do a complete makeover and do actual outlines and such for them. Just because I’m weird and like to go that extra mile. (:

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:03 AM #

      Nothing wrong with outlining; it teaches you valuable skills, even if you’re only using them for fan fiction. 🙂

  7. Rowenna November 4, 2010 at 8:45 AM #

    Great post–I’ve never written fanfic, but the lessons here are definitely for anyone! I’m curious as to how many writers got started writing fanfic–and I wonder if I didn’t because I’m on the older side of the “young-ish writer” arc. OK, maybe I’m just feeling old because I found a grey hair today 😛

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:07 AM #

      Me, Sammy, Kat, and Billy got started writing fan fiction, but the others started on original fiction. I’ve had a lot of writers tell me they started out with fan fiction, but I do definitely think that younger writers today are more likely to have gotten their start writing fan fiction.

      I’m sorry about your gray hair! I hope it makes you look lovely and refined 🙂

  8. authorguy November 4, 2010 at 9:11 AM #

    I recently wrote my first fan fic. I was so bothered by the way the Hannah arc played out on Chuck that I wrote a fan fic to give her a happier ending. It was even consistent with the show, since it happens outside of their knowledge. I have several times written bits that were inspired by other books, but they were small and I fit them into my novel A Warrior Made.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 9:52 AM #

      How fun! Did you post it anywhere?

      • authorguy March 2, 2011 at 2:49 PM #

        Yes I did. I put it up on my website as a freebie, and it’s up on FanFiction.net, where it got one whole review so far.

  9. Mac_V November 4, 2010 at 10:55 AM #

    Great post, Savannah! I transitioned from fan fic to writing original works myself. It was Harry Potter that did it too! It’s one of the reason I love those books so much– they contributed to my desire to become a writer. (I just re-read all seven in two months on top of work, homework, and life. Now that time will be dedicated to NaNoWriMo, woo!)

    I completely agree with everything you said, especially the bad habits that carry over. I loved that fluff. I miss the fluff. It’s hard not to write the fluff into my current stories, but I’m trying! I always feel a little strange telling people I began writing fan fiction because they give me this look like “wow, you didn’t start out with your own ideas?” It’s so wonderful to know other people found their beginning with fan fiction too.

    LTWF really makes me feel like I’m part of a world of people who have had similar experiences to me. I really love this blog. ❤ THANKS!

    Mac 🙂

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 11:08 AM #

      Aww! I can’t believe people would rag on you for writing fan fiction instead of original fiction to start out with. We crawl before we run!

      And you’re right, the fluff was the best part. And the one-shot, emo depression ones. Omg I love angst.

  10. Hannah November 4, 2010 at 11:14 AM #

    Let’s be honest. I love fanfiction. That’s how I first got into writing and it worked as my training wheels so much. I still read it, and I think I learn more about the craft of writing from fanfiction authors than real fiction authors.

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 11:21 AM #

      The thing about fan fiction is that it’s a labor of love. There’s no incentive other than to have a good time. I think that’s why people are so drawn to it, and why we learn so much from it; we want to make our story the best it can be, not because we want to get published, but because it makes us happy!

  11. Bri November 4, 2010 at 11:17 AM #

    This is a fantastic post. You covered everything that I had to change when I switched from fanfic to original fic: getting the backstory out of the way immediately, the fluff, and the pacing. The fluff is still a little hard to fight off, I may sometimes write plotless fluffy scenes with my characters to satisfy that urge, but I leave them out of my manuscript 😛

    Also, I love fanfiction and people who point out that it is a helpful tool, so yay you 😛

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 11:22 AM #

      haha thanks! I will defend fan fiction all day long.

      I write fluffy asides, too, but of course they never make the final cut 🙂

  12. Arianna Sterling November 4, 2010 at 4:41 PM #

    I started out with fanfics (mostly Sailor Moon & InuYasha), none of which were very good, to be blunt. My younger selfs fanfiction was terrible. The first things I wrote I considered worth it were original fiction–granted, by my standards today it was still awful, but who doesn’t have that problem?

    Now while I’ve mostly grown out of fanfiction, I will admit that I wrote one last year in my Creative Writing class. I’m very much a fan of Death Note, utterly in love with L, and I felt the need to give him a girlfriend. So I created an OC, painstakingly kept L in his weirdo-character-self, and pounded out a DN fanfic. Totally got an A for it.

    But other than that, I grew out of writing fanfiction years ago.

    ~Arianna S.

    • savannahjfoley November 4, 2010 at 6:40 PM #

      It’s awesome that you got to write fan fic for a grade! One time in seventh grade we all had to go to a dedicated, 30-minute reading class, and for about a week one of my friends read an Animorphs story I had written, for credit, lol.

  13. Armith-Greenleaf November 4, 2010 at 7:31 PM #

    Goodness, fanfiction taught me a lot! One of the main things being English, which was the biggest reason why I started writing (also, those were very long vacations…) Then I fell in love with writing and the rest (so far) is history.

    My fandom was Beyblade. I know I said it already when we all posted bits of our old writings, but it still makes me wince a little to admit it. 😛

    The good thing was that the anime was so terrible, it allowed even more possibilities to write fanfic than other fandoms, which was why Beyblade was so popular in the anime department. I got really creative with my plots and twists, and I’m happy to say it’s something that stuck.

    Mary Sues and blunders also taught me a lot lol! Although I was never a fan of the exposition, it’s something everybody did so much that I got sick of it fast, and just for that reason I didn’t do it. Later (in the original story writing scene) I found out the right thing was not to do it. 😛

    I don’t read fanfiction anymore, but occasionally I get a craving for it, especially when I get into a new anime/manga/comic (yeah, I didn’t really do Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings or other books, tv shows or movies fanfiction), but there are still some amazing writers in fanfiction! 😀

    • savannahjfoley November 5, 2010 at 10:43 AM #

      I know what you mean about the craving… sometimes you just have to curl up and sift through fanfiction.net ❤

  14. June November 5, 2010 at 1:11 AM #

    Thanks so much for answering all of my questions, Sav! 🙂 It’s so informative and really helpful as I try to transition from fanfiction to my own original fiction 🙂 But you’ve successfully done it, and so has many other LTWF girls, so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to too 😀

    • savannahjfoley November 5, 2010 at 10:43 AM #

      No problem. Best of luck in your transition!

  15. Jess November 5, 2010 at 9:09 AM #

    I about died laughing when I read Mercedes Lackey’s Nano encouragement email this morning. You’re ahead of the game. 🙂

    • savannahjfoley November 5, 2010 at 10:47 AM #

      I know, right?!?!?! I saw that come across at 11 and forwarded it to the group. I think Susan called me a ‘visionary’, lol.

  16. Sammy November 5, 2010 at 12:29 PM #

    WIN.

    I wrote fanfic back in the day. It started with Harry Potter, because to this day I still refuse to ship Ron/Hermione. Then came La Femme Nikita, this awesome 90s spy drama that I adore to this day. Some Law and Order:SVU got thrown in there, too, when Elliot and Olivia just weren’t getting together and I wanted his wife to die (did anyone see that episode where my dream nearly came true?!).

    Then I started reading things on FP instead of FF and realized I liked the idea of coming up with my own stories better than borrowing someone else’s.

    I don’t think I’ve written fanfic in years now. Which almost makes me sad.

  17. Julie Eshbaugh November 6, 2010 at 4:18 PM #

    How funny is that connection with Mercedes Lacky’s pep talk?! Obviously, great minds think alike!

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