Five Lessons Writers Can Learn From Fanfiction

Written by A Guest Author

By Cat Sole

fanfiction: fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, film, etc.

Up until last year, I had completely dismissed fanfiction. From my limited exposure to the art form, I was under the impression that it was poorly written, a waste of time, and was exclusively for starstruck fangirls. Then a pandemic struck the world and we were all suddenly in need of content – and I found that I couldn’t have been more wrong. It took barely a week sorting through the multitude of work on Archive of Our Own before I was hooked, and only a month before I was trying my hand at my own fanfics. Nine months later, I’d written and published 500,000 words and learned more from that process than I could have imagined.

Here are five lessons I learned from fanfiction that are essential for every writer.

Audience:

If you open up Archive of Our Own, (or fanfiction.net, or Wattpad, but AO3 is the one I recommend), one of the first things you’ll notice is that a lot of the story concepts are weird. Yet, they still have views – every single one of them. Whatever characters writers pair up, or alternative universe they want to drop them in, or if they want to write a 100,000 word about the barista from the protagonist’s second-favorite cafe, those fics will find an audience.

When I started writing fanfiction, I wrote the scenarios I wanted to see. I didn’t expect other people to read, let alone enjoy them, and yet they did. As my stay in my fandom of choice continued, it was increasingly tempting to write for the characters or pairings that garnered the most hits and kudos (the AO3 version of ‘likes’). Every time this temptation came around, I reminded myself that fanfiction is supposed to be fun, and stuck to the fics I was actually excited to write, and was rewarded by not only a growing audience but a regular one. While ‘write the book you’d want to read’ is a common piece of writing advice, I got to see it in action here. Don’t play to what’s popular – play to what drives you.

Motivation:

The largest killer of the writing process, whether you’re new to the craft or a seasoned master, is motivation. While writing is hard, sitting down to write is harder, especially if you’re unsure if what you’re writing is ever going to get published. Even if it is, that milestone is hours of work and many months – maybe even years – in the future. Not so with fanfiction. While some writers upload works in one go, the most common method is posting chapter by chapter, which makes the motivation part of the writing process a lot easier in three ways.

Firstly, it’s much easier to approach writing and editing a 2000-5000 word chapter than an entire book. Secondly, there is a tangible audience awaiting your work. Having hundreds, maybe even thousands, of accountability partners works wonders for making your daily word count! Lastly, you are uploading work in exchange for praise. This is another unique aspect of fanfiction. The community is used to new and inexperienced writers, they already love the characters you’re writing about, and are very accomodating of all skillsets. Usually, when we share original work  we are looking for feedback, which means the dreaded critique and exposure of flaws. While we’re not writers to get pats on the back (if you are, you’re in the wrong business here), knowing that your work is going to be met with genuine enthusiasm and compliments makes sitting down to that keyboard a whole lot easier. 

Community: 

Writing can be lonely. We spend a lot of time in worlds of our creation with characters only we know, hoping the world we eventually introduce them to will treat them kindly. While having a writing group is great, everyone who turns up is usually look for something in return. They also usually consist of the writers you happened to know, or ones that were geographically convenient, as opposed to those with shared interests. With fanfiction, you’re in the unique position of having peers that are writing about the same characters as you. This means you can swap theories, tips and tricks, and gush over each other’s work. Associated fandom platforms such as Discord and Tumblr also mean you can connect with writers you enjoy outside of AO3 (which doesn’t offer a direct messaging service).

You are also sharing that community with not only other writers, but your favorite writers. We all have our literary idols, but few of us are going to get to strike up a conversation with Neil Gaiman or Sally Rooney any time soon, let alone get them to read and review our work in return. I still remember the first time one of my favorite fanfic writers left a comment on something I’d written – it was a confidence boost for the ages. Idols quickly became peers and later collaborators, and eventually close friends.

Marketing:

The best way to learn something is to do it. It’s also a fact that, in order to be a successful writer, you need an equally successful writer platform. I had absolutely no intention of building a writer platform on AO3, but the more time I spend posting and reading on the site, the more I learned and ended up building one anyway – mostly by accident. 

There’s a reason AO3 is considered the superior fanfiction platform. The layout is easy to read, and the tagging and search tools allow you to locate whichever combination of characters, fandoms, and tropes your heart desires. As I was searching for fics to read, I started to take note of what made me click on a fic and what made me skip over one. Then, what made me comment on a fic, what made me seek out other works that the writer had posted on, and so on. While some of these were obvious – like making sure your writing is of a certain quality and typo-free – the more time passed, the better I learned to tag fics, write summaries that caught readers’ attention, and how to direct readers to other things I had written. I learned not only what my brand was, but how to build and leverage said brand. Finally, I found several fan-run writing challenges (e.g. Big Bangs, Whumptober) that grouped me together with some of the fandom’s most prominent and established writers, introducing my work to an audience who was looking for that content. 

Passion:

Lastly, fanfiction reignited my passion for writing. I’d never wanted to stop writing, but it had become a slog, a chore, the thing I made myself do and felt guilty when I didn’t. I couldn’t remember the last time I chose to sit down at the keyboard because I wanted to, let alone it being an activity I looked forward to engaging with. After I starting writing fanfiction, writing would be the first thing I’d want to do in the morning and the last thing I wanted to do before bed.

Part of this was because I was allowing myself to write what I wanted to write and, looping back to the first lesson, found an audience who confirmed that I was writing was good. Soon, that passion trickled back into my original work as I stopped writing what I thought was considered good, and settled back into the things I wanted to write instead. This passion led to a higher word count in a single year that I had had in my whole writing career to date. If I hadn’t completed my 10,000 hours of practice before I started on AO3, then I most certainly have now. Because I was writing so much, I could see my progress, and how much I was improving – and the increasing view counts and regular readers confirmed that. 

Takeaways:

To summarise, the five lessons writers can learn from fanfiction are: 

  1. Write what you want to read; there’s a good chance others will want to read it too
  2. Break down long-form writing into sizeable goals, such as chapters, and give yourself motivation and accountability for each milestone
  3. Find a community of writers that share your passions and interests 
  4. Pay attention to how other writers are marketing themselves, and to what your brand is 
  5. Lastly, if writing has become a chore, find an outlet that makes it a passion once more. And who knows, maybe that outlet could be fanfiction!

Cat Sole is the co-host and producer of the film and writing podcast “Kill the Cat”. She is the screenwriter behind several shorts and series, including the web series “Codependent” and the award winning short films “The 11:59 to Washington Square” and “How to Write A Screenplay.”

 

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