Written by Emily Harstone

How Fan Fiction Made Me A Better Writer

I started out writing when I was very young. In high school, I spent most of my free time writing. This was true of my first few college years as well. In my free time I wrote novels. I didn’t share them, except with the occasional friend.

I was writing into an abyss, or I felt that way, and I know a lot of authors do. At one point a friend of mine sent me a story she wrote on the website FanFiction.net. I read her story, and then started to read a few other stories. I quickly found some that were engaging and interesting.

I read for a couple months. Then I started to feel like I should write one myself. I wrote fan fiction for three years, and I learned so much about writing during those three years. Things I never expected to learn when I wrote my first story.

If I started doing this now I might have made an account on Archive of Our Own. However, this was a long time ago and fanfiction.net was by far the best option at the time.

Below are five of the most valuable lessons I learned from writing and publishing fan fiction.

Anonymity is a Gift

Everyone on Fanfiction.net writes under a username. In class, when people critique your work, they know you, they know your name. That often factors into feedback you receive. With friends they are already biased towards your work.

When I was sharing my work with friends and in school, I always felt like I had to write a certain kind of story. With anonymity I was freed from that burden. I could write about anything I wanted, which takes me to my second point.

The Freedom to Experiment

Even though I liked writing fan fiction, and I really loved some of the stories I read by others on the site, I never felt like I had to take it seriously. I still worked on my novels when I needed to work, but to warm up I would write fan fiction. I would experiment. It was a lot easier to experiment with an already created universe, with established characters that I knew well. I started to play a lot with genre.

There is a sub genre within fan fiction called AU (Alternative Universe). In an AU story you don’t have to stick to the established facts of a story, for example if you were writing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer AU story, Buffy could be the Vampire, and Angel could be the Slayer. Writing AU stories gave me a much better idea of how to experiment with genre and tropes. It allowed me to be creative with plot while still working with established characters.

I became a better writer because I was able to focus on what I wanted to, and I had all this additional source material (the television show) to back me up when I needed it. In this way, I was able to focus on plot with one story and character development with another. I could work on one element of craft at a time without being overwhelmed by all of them.

Character Development

I love strong independent characters with good personalities. However, when you first start writing, there is so much to learn about character development that it can be a little overwhelming. It takes a lot of work to create a character and make them compelling and consistent.

When you are working in fan fiction you have the opportunity to create original characters from scratch, but also work with already created ones. Any original character has to be particularly compelling because they will be competing for page time with already established and loved creations. This challenges a writer. If readers don’t like an original character they will let you know in the comments section.

Writing the already established characters is also challenging. Sure, you know a lot of information about them from watching them on the screen or reading other stories, but it can be hard to accurately portray their mannerisms, talking style, and any number of other important details. If you get these details wrong readers will let you know.

I learned so much from working with the established characters, perhaps even more than I did from creating my own characters in fan fiction. I feel like my ability to write dialogue that sounds distinctly like different characters came out of my experience writing fan fiction.

Rewarding Comments

Writing is often something one does on one’s own, and when you are starting out you are probably not getting much, if any, readership feedback from people who do not personally know you. This is not true with fan fiction.

Of course, you have to earn those comments. You cannot just assume that just by writing something you will get any feedback. Usually the better your story, the more comments you will receive. Of course it helps to write in a popular fan fiction category. If you are the only one writing fan fiction about a show, your readership rate will probably be very small as well, no matter how well you wrote the story.

When I first started writing I did not understand the characters as well, or the audience. Over time I learned a lot about what readers wanted. The anonymity helps one receive good, unbiased feedback. I really learned a lot about what readers wanted by writing fan fiction. Because people comment on individual chapters as the story is in progress you get a good idea about which chapters are the strongest, and which ones don’t work so well.

Having readers leave regular comments gave me the kind of encouragement I needed and didn’t receive for my “serious” writing. It takes time to build a readership, but it is very worth it.

Additional Feedback

Once I had been doing it for a while, I had a fair audience of followers and a lot of feedback, around that time three people offered to be my beta readers. A beta reader is someone who reads and edits your work before you publish it for free. I didn’t have to ask them, and they were all fans of my writing so they were invested in the story and generally edited my work within a day. They also would give me additional feedback about which story lines worked the best.

It is rare and wonderful to have that sort of help.

In Conclusion

I stopped writing fan fiction because I started to have less and less time to write “for fun”. I also felt like I had learned what I needed to, in order to move forward with my “serious” writing.

However, I will always be grateful for the lessons I learned while writing fan fiction.



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