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How to Write a Successful Fan-Fiction

Updated on May 27, 2014
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With today's nearly unlimited access to the internet and the countless fan-fiction archives available to avid fans, readers and writers, writing and publishing a fan-fiction is exceedingly easy. In fact, while many specialized fan sites (i.e. MuggleNet) have moderators who review stories before submission and accept or decline them based on whether the work is in-character, canonical, well-written and grammatically correct, there are several fan-fiction sites that have very loose guidelines and instant self-publishing features. While this makes it possible for anyone of any writing skill or dedication to publish fan-fictions, it also makes finding well-written, well-rounded stories especially difficult, as one has to sift through all of the badly-written, uninteresting and grammatically decimated works in order to find the readable ones.

Fanfiction.net is one of the most popular and largest fan-fiction archives on the web, but as such, its rules and guidelines are ridiculously lax. Even so, there are still many wonderfully talented writers and fans on the site, and it is always well worth the search when you find a story of the highest caliber. This "diamond in the rough" is a rare gem, and it is always worth the extra effort to make your story one of these successful and well-written stories.

But how do you go about writing a story not only worth reading, but a story that is successful and gains a sizable following among the thousands of other stories in the same category? Here are a number of ways to write a quality, successful fan-fiction:

Know Your Subject

Before you even begin to think about writing your story, make sure that you know the fandom and the subject that you plan to write about.

Make sure you know the characters. Harry Potter doesn't need to be a passing face, a casual acquaintance. If you are going to create a story centering around him, you need to know him inside and out. Sure, you can describe him physically; J.K. Rowling gave us a pretty specific template to go by. But do you know how he thinks? What he fears, what he loves? How he talks? How he interacts with other people, and how other people interact with him? If you are going to make your fan-fiction believable, you have to know your characters and the way they react to each other and the world around them, even if you are putting them in a non-canonical situation or relationship. The key to writing a good fan-fiction is to make your characters as believable and in-character (IC) as possible even in the most foreign of situations.

I recently posted the final installment of a Psych fan-fiction in which the main characters were thrust into a situation much more brutal, bloody and violent than anything they ever experienced in the show. One of the hardest aspects of writing the nearly 70K word story was keeping everyone in character despite the completely non-canonical situation. While the show has its dark moments, and while there is a murder nearly every episode, it is surprisingly light and fun, relying more on comedy than angst and darkness. One of the greatest compliments I received from a reviewer on fanfiction.net was from a reviewer named Polaris'05, who said:

Also... the dynamic between Shawn and Henry is AMAZING. You're doing FANTASTIC at keeping the emotions true and the responses believable. Even though we only got brief glimpses of these interactions through the show (notably Shawn Takes a Shot in the Dark), you have them so true to character. The show never went this dark, and yet I have no trouble at all seeing Shawn and Henry like this... which means you're a fantastic writer! :D Kudos!

If you have to watch and re-watch or read and re-read the episodes, movies or books you are writing about in order to get the characters down, then do it. Another way to get to know the characters better is to read a lot of quality, popular fan-fictions in that category.

I was a fan of the BBC show Merlin long before I started writing fan-fiction for it. It wasn't until I had watched every episode to date and had immersed myself into the world and community of Merlin fan-fiction that I began to write my first story. And while that story, a crossover with Harry Potter, was much more successful than I ever would have imagined, looking back on that story, there were several moments where the characters did or said something out of place, showed too much emotion or didn't show enough, etc. Since then, with each new story I write, I find out a little bit more about the characters that I didn't know before, and I feel like my writing improves with each new work.

And if you want your characters to be different than they are originally, whether in behavior or sexuality, or any other major changes you might make, be sure to label your story as Alternate Universe (AU) or Out of Character (OOC). You can also specifically label the fan-fiction according to the changes you have made. For example, a Merlin fan-fiction where Merlin is evil and it's nothing to do with an enchantment, you might add the label dark!Merlin to your summary. If you are including non-canonical relationships in your story, whether they are slash (Slash, M/M, etc.) or simply non-canoncial male-female relationships, it is always a good idea to let your readers know right off the bat! If not, you risk angering hardcore fans of other couples, which can lead unkind words and hurt feelings.

I wrote a Flight 29 Down story years ago, and I didn't warn the readers about a pairing that I promoted in the story. This is the review I got in response to that 'ship:

NO NO NO! what do you mean girlfriend? jackson and taylor are NOT together! this ruined the story!

So, to recap: know your fandom, know your characters, and make sure you let your readers know at the beginning if you still plan to make the characters OOC, AU or in a relationship that is not canonical.

Having a good handle on your subject matter and being able to speak in the voices of the characters goes a long way in creating a successful fan-fiction.

Know Where Your Story Is Going

I've never been one to plot out a story before I start writing, at least not meticulously. If you want to make a written outline or plot out every major event that you plan to happen in your story, that's great, and I applaud your patience.

If you are not into outlining and planning, but like to make it up as you go, that's fine, too. However, if winging it is more your method, it is always a good idea to at least have a general idea of where your story is heading. This isn't to say that there aren't some wonderful stories that didn't have a clear direction when they started or that were made up as the author got ideas for them. But it is much easier to keep writing, keep your plot going, and ensure your readers of steady updates if you have an idea of where you are taking your story.

There have been several times in the past that I have had a great idea for a story, but I didn't plan out ahead at all. I started posting, posting chapters as I got the ideas and inspiration for them, and had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with this stubborn plot that was suddenly staring me in the face. A few of those stories turned out pretty good, but others were quickly abandoned as I lost interest and desire to write more, as I had no clear direction.

The latest story I posted, mentioned previously, wasn't physically outlined, and I didn't plot out every event. I did, however, have the climax and resolution firmly in mind, with a general idea of how I was going to reach those points from the beginning. There were some surprises in store for me, despite my planning, and that will usually happen, even with the most meticulous planning as the story takes a turn that wasn't expected. But all in all, writing was so much easier and smoother because I knew where my story was going, and I was able to tie everything in together without missing or forgetting any important details, and when I tied it all up in a big red bow, everything was coherent, all Ts crossed and all Is dotted!

It's much easier to get the motivation to write a well-rounded story if you aren't pulling every event out of thin air; make it easier on yourself and do even just a little brainstorming before you start to earnestly write and post your story, and it will have more of a chance of being not only completed, but successful.

Be Original

This may seem cliché, but having an original plot and writing style will go a long way in your publishing a popular fan-fiction.

As the poet in Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun. This doesn't mean, however, that we as fan-fiction authors are doomed to repeat the same basic, generic plots over and over again. Instead, even if some of the elements of different stories are the same, you can still make your story your own by adding your own original twists, ideas and writing style.

It can be hard to be original, especially in a fandom where so many people have written stories. In fact, a few years ago, I was struck by some of the major similarities in many, many of the Merlin fan-fictions that I had read and decided that I simply had to satire it. This led to my writing a crack!fic in which Arthur decided to write the greatest fan-fiction ever using the most common factors he'd seen in Merlin fan-fiction.

The story ended up getting more reviews than I'd anticipated, and everyone seemed to enjoy it, not only because it was complete and utter silliness, but also because it was true. But even though it is true that a majority of Merlin stories begin in the woods on a hunt, and that Morgana is destined to smirk evily and often, and that Merlin and/or Arthur will almost certainly be whumped something fierce, and that a magical artifact will pop up to block Merlin's magic, and that Merlin's magic is often revealed, and that the prince and the servant will have many rounds of witty banter, there are many stories that involve some (or all) of these elements that are still original, fun to read, and very gripping.

And the fact of the matter is that more often than not, even if you are to find a unique niche to camp out in, there are probably at least a couple other people who found it first and you're going to have to be okay with the prospect of sharing it with other writers.

For example: one of the more original plot lines I have seen in the Merlin fandom is that of "Prince Merlin," an AU world in which Merlin as well as Arthur is royalty. And yet there are several stories with this basic plot. Two of my favorite are The King's Legacy by llLethell and Taken By The Storm by Sagebush. Both of these stories have the theme of "Prince Merlin," but they are completely different and each unique in their own right. Just looking at the description of each work is enough to see that although they're not using a new idea, they are individualizing their respective stories and are making their works, while similar in context, original.

The King's Legacy:

"I hope you are rolling in your grave brother, I will find your son, and I hope he is like you. I will ruin him and gain a lovely weapon in the process." Cenred spat on the grave, "I win Balinor."

Taken By The Storm:

Three knights. Two enemy princes. One war. The consequences will affect the whole of Albion. "When all is lost, how can you hope?"

To summarize, don't let your story be a carbon copy of half of the other stories out there. Even if it has a few things in common with other stories, make it your own. Make it an original story and concept so that you will attract readers tired of reading the same story over and over again.

Don't Give Up

I know, I know. This is even more cliché than the last one. But it's true.

Like most things in life, writing a successful fan-fiction isn't an easy task. You'll hit writer's block, you'll get bored, something won't make sense, you'll have a lull in reviews, and so on and so forth. Once you have an idea, don't give up. Just keep plodding through the plot, even when it gets tough and you hit a roadblock.

In my recent Psych story, I came to a place where I was trying to work out the bad guy's history and there was a huge inconsistency in the backstory. I was tempted to move on to a different story, but I had already worked so hard and long on The Finch and the Mockingbird that I knew I couldn't just stop writing. So I continued to think through the problem, brainstorming possible solutions. I also talked to other people, asking them their advice and generally just working it out out loud, with someone else as my sounding board. Even though it took a while, I eventually came to a solution which was thankfully well-recieved by my readers.

Also, if you are writing and publishing at the same time, don't let negative reviews (flames) or a lack of reviews discourage you from continuing your story. If you get constructive criticism and you think the reviewer has a good point, change your story accordingly. But if people are leaving flames, delete their posts and ignore them. Here's the thing about flamers:

Flamers are pathetic. They take the most insignificant little thing in a story and criticize it, and then start calling the author names or flaming them personally, instead of focusing on anything that is actually in the story that might need constructive criticism. And they’re cowards, so they post anonymously.

This is just another form of cyberbullying. Don't let flamers bully you into abandoning a story you love and have worked hard on. Shake it off and let it go, and write according to what you want to write and how you want to write. Don't take their insults to heart.

As for a decline in reviews, don't let that discourage you either. When I started to get concerned because I hadn't gotten nearly as many reviews as I had the last several chapters on The Finch and the Mockingbird, I made a little mention of it in my author's notes. I got a review from ViniVidiVinci that expressed the point I am trying to make much better than I ever could:

As a fellow fan-fic writer I know how important it is to hear back from your readers - but please don't get discouraged if the reviews are fewer in number on occasion. Sometimes I get lots - other times not so many but people still keep reading.

And it's so true! If you give up on your fan-fiction, it will never be a success, so make sure that you keep on writing and don't give up, or you're going to end up with a half-finished, not-so-successful story taking up space on your hard drive and taunting you every time you log on to your favorite fan-fiction archive.

Don't let this happen to you. Trust me, when you write those two three-letter words, THE END, it will be so worth all of the frustration and hard work.

Do Your Research

This is important. If you are writing a story that includes medical information, do some research before you write the hospital scene. Knowing nothing medically is a lot easier to get away with when you are writing for a fandom including magic or in history where herbs, honey and leaches seemed to be the go-to illness and injury fixers, but when you're writing something that is in a realistic, modern setting, you need to at least do a little research about the diagnosis and treatments you inflict upon your poor, badly whumped characters.

This whole concept of researching for a fan-fiction is actually quite new to me, too. Back when I first started writing for the Hardy Boys fandom, nearly ten years ago, I wrote a story called A Day Off. It was fairly well-read and liked, but near the end I had some seriously unrealistic and inconsistent medical plot devices that are almost embarrassing to look back on now. If I had done just a tiny bit of research on the subject, I could have easily avoided reviews like this:

Um, hate to be a wet blanket, but if Joe was already buried, wouldn't he have been embalmed?

A little constructive critique - yes, people have mistakingly been declared dead. But, this would have made more sense if Frank visited Joe in the morgue & then this happened.

(And yes, embalming is done even with a closed casket.)

This isn't a flame or even a negative review, but it throws into sharp relief how uninformed on the subject of funeral procedures and the impossibility of someone being buried six feet under, still alive, and being able to still be alive a few days later, and somehow have enough air to knock on the coffin and be heard (again, from six feet under) and rescued. I was grossly mistaken and I believe that it lowered my credibility as an author.

I once read a story for The Ranger's Apprentice series, which is set in feudal England, by the way, where after Will was injured, an ambulance, sirens and all, squealed into the scene for him, after which, I did a double take, shook my head, and clicked the back button. It's okay if you get a few details wrong. But try to get the major ones right. It really will help build your repertoire as an author and grow your fan base for your story.

Now, years later, I've finally gotten it into my head that if I'm going to have historical or medical or geographical information in a story, I need to have at least a general idea of what I'm talking about. For The Finch and the Mockingbird, I'm unashamed to say that I beat Shawn up something terrible. But I am even more unashamed to say that I did a ton of research about the injuries, implications, treatments, and long-term problems associated with these injuries. And I was definitely well rewarded for all that time spent researching:

I can't think of a single fanfiction writer that would go to such lengths to get the information right. Like this wasn't a brush off 'yeah Shawn's pretty screwed up,' but a detailed explanation with fancy medical words and all. Like, seriously, I think it's gotten to the point where I would totally ask for your autograph if I ever somehow met you in person.

and

WOW, for someone without medical experience, you coulda fooled me! Kudos for the amount of research! I actually do have some medical experience and you've done fantastic! :D I didn't see anything that wasn't right.

See? It pays off if you take a few minutes of your time to research. I was absolutely glowing when I got these reviews that told me I'd written an accurate hospital scene! Trust me, you will be too!


Use Correct Grammar

I know this sounds like it should be a given, but there are so many fan-fictions out there that have great ideas and plots, but that are so poorly written most people don't even bother trying. Don't let this happen to you.

Use punctuation, paragraphs, capitalization, quotation marks and spell check.

also don't write ur hol story in txt tlk either its srsly painful 2 look @ and even more painful 2 try 2 read it so most ppl don't even attempt it

See what I mean?

And if you have trouble with grammar, don't hesitate to seek out a Beta reader to help you. Beta reading is available on fanfiction.net as well as other fan-fiction sites, and Betas are a great tool to help you not only to edit and improve your story, but to improve your writing as a whole. There's nothing wrong with having trouble with grammar, and if you have a typo or two (or three) in your story, so what? I've had my fair share. Sometimes people have pointed them out and I've fixed them, other times I've just let them be. Not a big deal.

But don't allow your story to be looked over because of a flood of errors. I guarantee you that there are many quality-plot stories out there that are under-read and under-appreciated because the readers have a hard time getting past the aesthetics and the surface.

Make Your Summary Appealing

One of the biggest turn-offs for a fan-fiction is when the summary says something along the lines of, "It's better than it sounds," "I suck at summaries," etc. If you tell me things like that, what makes me want to read it in the first place? I don't want to be told negative things about the author/story before I've even clicked on the link to the story. Even a three word summary that catches my attention is better than one of the above.

Make sure you spell everything in your title and summary correctly, because if a person uses text talk in their summary or can't even spell a word in their own story's title, it's not going to be a very encouraging message to send to your potential readers, and many of them will probably just skim over your story without even giving it a shot because of the mistakes in the summary.

Don't give anyone an excuse to skip your work simply because your summary is misspelled or littered with self-degrading comments about your summarizing skills or assurances that it's better than it sounds. Don't try to justify your work or convince people they should read it. Create a brief, concise description of your work and let the summary speak for itself. Also, don't beg people to read your story in the summary. That's definitely another no-no if you want people to read your story. Rely on your writing skills and the story itself to gain readers. You don't have to stoop and beg for people to read. Let them come to you, and it will be so much more rewarding!

Have Fun!

Seriously. Have a good time. Don't try to please everyone with your writing. You can follow all of these tips and still be miserable and write a story that isn't great because you aren't writing to have fun with your story! Ultimately, you need to write what you want to write and how you want to write it, because if you're writing solely for other people, you're always going to be faced with disappointment because you aren't writing for YOU.

So have fun, write because you want to, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Fan-fiction isn't exactly the precursor to a Pulitzer Prize (that I know of at least), but it's a great way to practice your writing, gain new friends, readers and followers, and simply to connect with people who share the same interests. It's not a science, it's an art.

Enjoy yourself, and write because you love it! That's what I do, and it's worked out great for me!

Comments

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    • Elizabeth Bowers profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth Wilson 

      4 years ago from Tennessee

      That's so cool! I started today, and I'm really loving it so far! It's so cool to meet another student of the university on here! What a coincidence! Hope you are doing well! :D

    • Torrs13 profile image

      Tori Canonge 

      4 years ago from North Carolina

      I'm just finishing up my third term and all has been going well with it so far! No complaints here :-) I have really enjoyed my classes (I'm doing the master's in psychology program, focusing on child and adolescent development).

    • Elizabeth Bowers profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth Wilson 

      4 years ago from Tennessee

      Thank you both very much for reading and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And @Torrs13: Oh my gosh, a fellow student! Is this your first term or have you been taking classes longer? Just wondering because I've never done online classes before and I'm kind of freaking out a bit... lol, but SNHU seems like it's going to be amazing! :)

    • word55 profile image

      Word 

      4 years ago from Chicago

      Hi Liz, Very good advice here You must be excellent at writing fictional stories. I probably try that, myself one of these days. Keep up the good work :-)

    • Torrs13 profile image

      Tori Canonge 

      4 years ago from North Carolina

      Good information here! I'm not very familiar with fan fiction, so I feel as though I learned something new today by reading through your hub. It sounds like you have a good grasp on how to be successful with it! Also, I read that you are completing school online through SNHU... so am I! Nice to find another student here :)

    • Elizabeth Bowers profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth Wilson 

      4 years ago from Tennessee

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing! I'm looking forward to reading more of your Hubs too!

    • RachaelOhalloran profile image

      Rachael O'Halloran 

      4 years ago from United States

      Good advice here for those who enjoy writing fan fiction. Voted up and shared.

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