What Fanfiction Taught Me About Writing

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Fanfiction (for the uninitiated) is the term for fan-written stories about established universes and characters, as long as the original author is okay with it. There are two big platforms for FF: Fanfiction.net, and Archive of Our Own (AO3).

I can’t remember who first showed me Fanfiction, but in June 2008 I created my own account on Fanfiction.net. About the same time, my dad convinced me to start watching Stargate SG-1 with him, and my inner sci-fi nerd bloomed.

My first stories on Fanfiction.net are sappy, angsty Stargate Atlantis one-shots that inevitably end with John Sheppard and Elizabeth Weir admitting their chain-of-command-forbidden feelings for each other and totally getting away with it.

Eventually I branched more into Ironman, Castle, Stargate SG-1, CSI: New York, and Star Trek (2009 movie and forward).

In hindsight, it took absurdly long to write a shred of Harry Potter fanfiction. It’s possible I didn’t think I could do it justice… But there’s a saying in the Fanfiction community: write what you want to read.

And I wanted to read a well-done time travel story where Snape goes back to fix things with Lily.

So that’s what I wrote. It took me five years, 230,000 words, and by the end my drive to write fanfiction tapered off… A lot.

The Thing About Writing

Writing is hard work. “Real” writers write every day, despite how they feel about it. We don’t write when “inspiration strikes” because those moments are few and far between.

The best writing is not the 500 words I put out every day, but in the time spent thinking about it afterward and rewriting it (if it’s something I choose to rewrite.)

I know firsthand that first-draft stuff kinda sucks. Especially from when I was a kid.

Those first draft manuscripts that I mashed together into my 2018 NaNoWriMo project were pitiful in comparison.

But the first draft from NaNo was also just that—a first draft. And I know that the second (and possibly third) drafts will be even better.

I never re-wrote any of my Fanfiction stories. Instead, I pounded out each chapter, gave it a once-over to ensure I fixed up any spelling mistakes, took a few notes about where it fit in the overall story arc and plot, and then hit publish. I didn’t care about making it perfect, I cared about giving it to my readers.

In many cases, the feedback from those readers influenced how the story unfolded, but not by much. When I started writing that long story in 2010, before I even started college, I had no end in mind. The characters took me on that journey as much as it took the readers.

What Fanfiction Teaches Young Writers

Writing Fanfiction is so forgiving. Ninety percent of the stories out there suck, because they’re written by 12-year-olds with no concept of how to properly use commas or consistently spell words. (Not to mention they try their pudgy hands at writing scandalous and unrealistic sex scenes.) No matter what you do, people will praise your work. That gives confidence.

Writing Fanfiction teaches you how to be creative. Even though you’re working with established characters, it’s up to you as the FF author on where those characters will go—and it’s up to you to decide if those actions are “in character” or not. Sometimes the out-of-character stories are hilarious, sometimes they suck.

There’s a “review” system on Fanfiction.net which allows logged-in users to leave reviews attached to their usernames. If an author allows anonymous reviews, anyone can leave a comment, but the auther can delete those comments if they want. I allow anonymous comments on my Harry Potter behemoth, even though it leaves the door wide open for hate or “flames.”

Someone recently left an anonymous review filled with foul language, calling me names and cursing me because I had the audacity to leave them hanging one last time on a character death. I left an easy way for logged-in users to find out more information… But guests would have to suck it up or log in. This guest reviewer took major issue with that, and used the anonymity of the internet to insult me.

And that’s another thing I learned from writing Fanfiction: haters will always hate, and most people don’t know how to write real constructive criticism. Nowadays, reviews like that one make me chortle. Seriously! These people have nothing better to do than insult and harass the author of a story finished four years ago!

Open Experimentation

The beauty of Fanfiction is that you can write whatever you want, for almost any fandom you want, and nobody will bat an eye.

That makes it the perfect playground to discover your own writing style and figure out what “category” of writing you enjoy or are good at (I’m unnaturally good at writing angst).

It’s a true “safe space” for writing.

And that’s what fifteen-year-old me needed when I first sat down to write an angsty story in the Stargate world.

It gave me the confidence to keep trying, even when my stories were terrible.

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