Journal Entry: Fri Jan 24, 2014, 9:57 AM
Tips for Writing Good Fan Fiction
Hello! I’m Indy, or Indiana if you prefer the long version, and this is somewhat of a tutorial on what I look for, and find, in good fanfiction. I’ve been writing fanfic my whole life, and I’ve dabbled in many fandoms, most notably of which have been Sonic the Hedgehog and Portal. I’ll offer some insight as to how I write, as well as things I notice inexperienced writers tend to do. Before I start, I’d like to make a disclaimer that I am of course not an expert. Hopefully this is helpful to someone.
Understand Your CharactersThis is a very important thing to do if you really want to do a good job. You can write a story without understanding them, of course, but the more deeply you know the character, the deeper the story is going to be. You want the story to be deep. You want the reader to lose themselves in the story, and if something jumps out at them, they’re not going to be able to do that. You need to know the voice of your character in order to centre the reader in the world you’re building. If you’ve got the reader in deep enough, it’s not as likely that they’ll notice if you make a mistake. But it is important to know your characters. This is where the term ‘out of character (OOC)’ comes from: when an author doesn’t properly understand their character, and has them do things they wouldn’t normally do.
Take note of a character’s history and motivations. For example, say that you’re writing a Sonic the Hedgehog story and you’re writing about Dr Eggman. Okay, you might know generally how to write dialogue for him. He’s got those things he says all the time, right? But have you ever stopped to think about why he’s saying them? He’s got a reason for those catchphrases. There are many ways to interpret a character. You might imagine that he talks the way he does because he feels the need to look down on other people, because other people looked down on him in the past. You might imagine that he talks the way he does because he thinks he’s funny. Decide why he speaks and acts the way he does, and incorporate that into the way you tell your story. You want us to hear the character’s voice, and if the reader tells you they can, you’ve done it correctly.
Choose Your Words CarefullySomething that inexperienced writers tend to do is to write every character so that they speak in much the same way, and they generally write the characters the way they (the writer) talk. Don’t do that. Take the time to examine the types of words the character tends to use. For example, if you’re writing a story about Portal, would GLaDOS and Wheatley talk the same way? Those of us who’ve played Portal know that GLaDOS isn’t British. But aside from his accent and his slang, how else does Wheatley sound different from her? Wheatley tends to use shorter words, and he strings them into long, rambling sentences. GLaDOS uses more formal words, and she tends to mix long sentences together with very short ones. Wheatley also tends to say exactly what he means, while GLaDOS prefers to mean one thing, but say another. Of course, on occasion they will deviate from their normal patterns, but unless you know what those patterns are, any deviations you make will be very noticeable. They both have very separate ways of speaking, and to write them both in the same way would be to not explore their characters in the best way. Look at the sentence patterns of your characters as well. If a character tends to use short, to the point sentences, it doesn’t make sense for that to be the character who becomes the main focus in the ten page expositional chapter way down the line. Most people have a general way of speaking. Figure out what it is and use it.
Tell Us What You SeeIn some fics, authors tend to focus on dialogue, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, having large chunks of dialogue (in comic books referred to as ‘talking heads’) can slow your story down and make it uninteresting. I don’t mean to say you need to take the dialogue out. You don’t. But what you do need to do is intersperse it with action. Not big action sequences or anything, just describe what they’re doing while they’re talking, or tell us how they’re saying it. Sure, two people might be having a conversation. But have you ever had a conversation where both people just sit there and stare at each other? I doubt it. While people have conversations they look around, fidget, tap their feet, check their phones, play with their eyebrows… I could go on forever. Think about what the characters are doing during their conversations, and tell us what it is. Not only is that a lot more interesting, but it helps set the mood. If they’re fidgeting a lot, we know this is a scene with a lot of tension. If they’re frowning and crossing their arms, we know there’s probably going to be a confrontation. Someone once told me that I built up the tension in a chapter where nothing really happened. That is your goal. Make it feel like something is happening even if it isn’t.
While you’re doing that, keep in mind that although you for sure know exactly what the characters are doing and how they’re doing it, we don’t know that. For example, if you have a character who’s afraid, but all you tell us is that they’re afraid, that’s all we know. We don’t know what you’re seeing inside your head. We don’t know if they’re really scared, or a little scared, or that kind of scared where they’re hiding it. Tell us how their faces look. Tell us how they’re standing. Tell us what tone of voice they’re using. Be descriptive. It benefits a story hugely if the reader can imagine what’s going on. You know you’ve done it right if your readers tell you they could imagine the scene.
Know the History of Your FandomNow, I understand some people like to write AU stories. But for those who don’t, or for those who will write AU stories but tell the reader that the backstory is canon, you still need to know what has happened in your fandom. For example, if you’re writing an AU story about Dexter, and you’ve decided that you want to write about some period of time between the end of season seven and the beginning of the next season, keep in mind what’s happened so far. Yes, we know Dexter collects blood slides… but we also need to remember that he stops collecting them after a certain point (I actually don’t remember what season it was, that’s why I’m not specifying!). That’s important to the plot of the show, and that makes it important to your plot. If you forget that he no longer collects them, but you include that into your story, that’s going to stand out. People are going to call you on that, and you’re going to get reviews that say, “Hey, I thought he stopped collecting those way back when –“ That’s an avoidable mistake. Be careful. Remember, the more you put into this, the more you’ll get out of it.
If you don’t know something, look it up. Like I mentioned up there, I don’t know what season Dexter stopped collecting slides in. All I remember is what he did with the slides. Take the time to look it up on the fandom Wiki, ask someone, or watch that part of the episode again. It doesn’t hurt to take the time to figure that out, and it only makes your story better. Remember, some people know their fandom history really well, and the more errors you make, the less likely it is they’re going to come back to your story, or to your work in general, if they think you don’t know what you’re talking about. And I’m guessing you want them to come back.
Know What You’re Talking AboutWhen you’re writing fanfiction, it’s pretty important to have a good knowledge of what you’re trying to write about. If you’re writing about characters building something, take the time to get to know how the engineering process works. If you’re writing about two characters trying to manipulate each other, take a look at how psychology explains manipulation. Don’t make it up. Chances are, your readers will know. And again, that takes them out of the story, which is not something you want to happen. Get to know your topic. It might be a little time-consuming, but in the long run you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re trying to do, and you might learn a lot of cool stuff on the way. I had to look up vortigaunts for something I was writing earlier this week, and I found out a lot of cool stuff I can for sure use in future writings. Fanfiction might be an opportunity for you to escape stuff, but it is also a very unique learning opportunity. If your characters are going to ride horses across the prairie, go check out the different types of ways that people ride horses. A character who’s never seen a horse before is going to ride it differently than someone who has been riding them all their lives, or even something as small as a short person riding differently from a tall person. Show us you know your topic. It’s impressive to read a fanfic and learn things you never knew before, and this is actually a draw for me personally.
Watch the Words You UseThis is kind of the same thing as knowing what kinds of words your characters use, but a little bit different. For example, if you’re writing a story about Dr Kleiner from Half-Life and you have him tell Gordon about ‘that orange suit you wear’, well, that doesn’t make sense. Dr Kleiner knows what the suit is called, and he’s a scientist. He might not always refer to it as the HEV suit, but it’s a safe bet that having him tell Gordon about the ‘HEV suit’ instead of ‘the orange suit’ is going to make it sound more like him. Decide on the tone of your story and go from there. Barney might call it the orange suit, but Dr Kleiner wouldn’t.
Terminology is also important even when the characters aren’t speaking. Is the person you’re writing for smart? If they see a computer, they’re likely to know all the parts, right? So in a story about a scientist, they would probably refer to the screen of a computer as ‘the monitor’, when a story written about someone off the street would probably go ahead and refer to it as ‘the screen’. A smarter character is more likely to know the type of cat that walked by them on the street, while a more laid-back character will probably refer to the cat in a different way. I recently had to write about GLaDOS doing surgery on a bird. I almost published it with her just saying that ‘the topmost bone on her left wing is badly crushed’, but GLaDOS is both a scientist and a supercomputer. She is extremely likely to know what the bone itself is actually called, so I took a minute and looked up bird skeletons. It’s these little things that add to the believability of your story.
A good way to keep a story rich and interesting is to use a lot of different words. And I mean a lot of different words. An easy way to do this is to write a sentence in Microsoft Word (I’m saying this because it’s what I happen to use), then put the cursor over one of the words. Right click, then select ‘Synonyms’. A list of words will appear that are words that mean almost the same thing as the word you used. If it’s giving you a weird list that has nothing to do with anything, just click ‘Thesaurus’ and it will open up the dictionary pane. Then it will give you several different words for every different meaning of your original word. Do this for as many words as you like, but keep the words understandable. There’s a line between enhancing the story and making it too complicated. If you don’t know what the word means, chances are your readers won’t either. But again, when you’re doing this make sure it fits in with the character’s voice. You might think ‘glowering’ is a really cool word, but would your character really use it? Or would they be more likely to use the word ‘glaring’? A little thought goes a long way.
Spelling, Grammar, and PunctuationYes. I know. You’ve heard about it a million times. And I understand why you might not think it’s important, when you’ve got a great story out there. But the story is only great if everyone can read it. I am by no means the typical reader, but when a story lacks proper spelling and punctuation, I’m likely not to keep going and I am definitely not going to enjoy it as much as a properly written story. If I’m reading your story, I want to read something for fun. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it very fun to try to figure out what the author was saying because their spelling is off or they don’t use commas properly. Find someone to help you. Believe me, I know how it feels to finish writing something and then just want to upload it straightaway. Don’t. Go over the story. Try to figure out why Word is putting those green lines under your sentences, and whether it’s safe to ignore them. If Word is giving you blue lines, take a look at those too. If you see those red lines, check to see if the word is spelled wrong, or if your spellchecker just thinks that person’s name is spelled wrong. If it’s spelled correctly, consider adding it to your dictionary so that you can get it out of the way and focus on the words that actually are spelled wrong (for example, I had to add ‘GLaDOS’ to my dictionary because I got tired of Word telling me it was spelled incorrectly). And watch your formatting! A giant chunk of text is not fun to read for anyone. Use formatting to your advantage. Write large blocks of text for descriptive passages. Hit Enter at the end of every line to keep your paragraphs short and build tension. The way your story is built can be just as important as the contents of it.
On a side note, keep your private thoughts out of the text. Some writers like to put stuff in brackets in the middle of their stories saying what they’re thinking while they write it. Don’t do that. Save it for the author’s note. Hearing your voice when the reader is trying to imagine the scene you wrote is like getting woken from a dream. It pulls the reader out of the story. You want them in the story. That’s the whole point. If you have something to say, put an author’s note at the bottom. And some of you might be thinking, “But I put it in the story because I didn’t think they’d read the author’s note!” I’m sorry, but if they don’t want to read the author’s note, they probably don’t care whether you put it in the story or after it; they don’t want to read it, period.
Edit, Edit, and Edit Again, and Edit Once More for Good MeasureI’m sure you’ve heard this one before as well. And you’re probably saying, “But I do edit!” Hang on. There’s a right way to edit and a wrong way to edit.
The wrong way to edit is to read over your story and think there’s nothing to fix. There is always something to fix. Even if you’ve edited that sucker eight times, I guarantee you on the ninth edit there’s something you could have done better. I do probably eight or nine read-throughs before I post something, and when I go back and reread the story after I’ve posted, I’ll still find errors in the text. The right way to edit is like this:
You need to look for mistakes. You’ve made them. That’s a fact. You wrote ‘who’ instead of ‘how’, there’s a quotation mark missing from the fifth paragraph, or your spellcheck somehow missed that one problem word. And when you feel your spelling, punctuation, and grammar is up to par, check it again to make sure. It doesn’t hurt to do one more check. The world won’t end if you don’t post it five minutes after you finish writing it. I promise.
Then what you need to do is look over your story as objectively as possible. You need to ask yourself for every part: Does this make sense? Is this part of the story contributing to the plot? Have I made this object obvious enough that everyone will remember it ten chapters from now? Here’s something to keep in mind when you write: If you need to explain it to the reader after the fact, you wrote it wrong. I’m not trying to be insulting. I’ve done it myself. And you might have written the most symbolic fic in the world, all filled with double meanings and innuendos and whatnot, but if the reader has no idea what you’re talking about, you’ve failed in your task as a writer. And that task is to present to the reader what you’re thinking about the subject. If you need to answer it in the comments, or you need author’s notes the size of novellas (guilty as charged) to explain the story, you have not written it properly.
So once you’ve gotten the spelling, grammar, punctuation, logic, and plot threads under control, go ahead and post. But you need to actively edit your work, instead of doing it just because I told you to, if you’re going to write a good story. If you can, find a beta. That is the best, easiest way. They’ll be able to point out things you didn’t see were missing, ask questions you didn’t know needed answered, and spell words you didn’t know existed. If you’re on fanfiction.net, go to the Betas tab and look one up. If you’re just on dA, look for fanfiction groups that offer betas. Those people want to help you. Let them. And take their advice, especially if they’re better than you. Chances are, these beta readers are people who have been writing longer than you have. And even if they haven’t, they still have something to offer. Be careful when you’re choosing betas, however. If they don’t have a history in writing, they might not be who you’re looking for. They might have good intentions, but ultimately someone with a lot of good, published stories or an English degree is probably a better beta than someone who’s just doing it because they’re bored.
Take Feedback SeriouslySome people ask for reviews, but they don’t really want reviews. They want you to tell them how great the story was. And this might be you. You might have your day made by someone’s “Ohhh they’re so cute together!”, but when someone has something not-so-good to say about your story, it upsets you and leads you to block the person. And if this is in fact you, I have a question:
Do you want to get better as a writer?
If you do, take the feedback seriously. If the reader feels something is off, take the time to understand why. If they feel something’s not right, that means they weren’t immersed in your story. And you want them immersed in your story. No, not every story will be a masterpiece. Not everything is. And no matter how good the story is or how well-written, there will be people who don’t like it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve made a mistake. Learn from it, and go on to write more stories. If you get a harsh review from someone who genuinely just wants to rip into you, ignore it. But if someone’s offering you well-intentioned advice, consider it. And I don’t mean read it and say thanks, and forget that ever happened. I mean keep it in mind the next time you write. It will help. I promise. It’s okay if not everything you write is fantastic. As long as you learn from it, you will improve. And if you really want to improve, write a lot. There’s this thing that says that ten thousand hours makes a genius. Good writers didn’t wake up and set their fingers to their keyboards and magically produce the best fics ever. Ohhh no. They started where you started, with stuff that makes them cringe when they read it, stuff with a cobbled-together plot, the worst spelling you’ve ever seen, and characters that make cardboard seem pliable. There’s this really annoying phrase I’m gonna impart, and it goes like this: practice, practice, practice. You will never, ever get good at something if you don’t! Does improving your writing take a long time? I’ll answer that with another question. Does getting better at hockey take a long time? Does learning to play Chopin’s Etudes take a long time? Does completing those pesky Portal test chamber achievements take a long time? The answer to all of those questions is, absolutely! If you want to get better, put the time in. I cannot stress that enough. I have literally hundreds of pages of handwritten crap in my microwave stand, but if I didn’t write all that crap I’d never be where I am today. I’d be stuck in the ‘writing absolute crap’ phase. (And please don’t take it to mean everything a new author writes is absolute crap; I’m only referring to myself here)
Write For Yourself, Not For OthersI know I’ve been saying the whole time that you need to make the story an experience for your readers. And you do. If what you care about are reviews, faves, or the like. But if you write for the readers and not yourself, the story will never be all that it can be. Why? Because the person who needs to care about the story most is you. You are writing it, and ultimately, are you not the most important reader? You are putting the hours into writing it. If you don’t care about it, and I mean really, really care about it, and you’re just writing it because you promised your followers you’d have a chapter up on Friday, that’s not good. I for one can tell you that I very rarely write for anyone else. I do accept prompts, but I never guarantee that I will fill them. I appreciate reviews, but I don’t need them. I appreciate faves and follows, and I do enjoy it when people tell me that my story was inspiring or stayed with them. But I didn’t write it for them. I wrote it for me. The most important thing to do is to make it an experience for yourself.
If you like that unpopular ship that you’ve never seen anyone write for, write for it. If you want to explore the origins of that bad guy that everyone hates because you think there’s more to him than meets the eye, explore them. Write what you want to read. This guarantees that you will care about what’s happening in the story, and you’ll do your best to make it good. If other people care about something, let them write about it. I am not ashamed to tell you my favourite author is myself. Why? Because I care about what I’m writing, and to me at least, that care comes out in my work. I write what I want to read. Do I have other favourite authors? Yes, of course I do. And as far as I can tell, they write for themselves, and not because there are twenty people waiting for a new chapter to come out. They take their time, they let life get in the way, and they write what they want to read. Look at some of the fics on fanfiction.net with the highest amounts of follows and faves. Some of those fics have been around for years, and are not even that long. Take your time. Do your best to make yourself proud. Write something you’ll be able to read three years from now and still enjoy. In the grand scheme of things, in three years your story will be likely buried in the archive or on the eightieth page when you search up fanfic for that fandom, but it will always be on your computer exactly where you left it. Make yourself proud!