10 Tips for Writing Fanfiction


So you’re interested in writing a little fanfiction, eh? I’ve had an impressive number of people email me asking how to become a fanfic writer. I was asked for links, advice, tips…anything I could share with you to get you started.

In the beginning I was answering every email with something like, “Pick a show, movie, play, music group, etc. and search the web for fanfiction-based on your choice.” Most of the folks who responded to that email said, “Yeah, yeah, I know all of that. I want you to give me some rules. I need a lesson on fanfic etiquette.” There are an innumerable number of rules and sometimes there are fandom-specific rules that writers must follow.

I don’t even pretend to know every rule out there so I thought I’d give you a list of principles that are broad enough to cover most fandoms:

If you use music to inspire you, don’t be afraid to say so

even if it’ll reveal your secret adoration of the group WHAM! Personally, I find that I write better when I’m listening to music. Music is such a universal language. When a writer uses music, the tone and tempo of the piece are reflected in the content of their writing. If they’re writing about an argument and are listening to something like “So What” by P!nk, it might bring up just enough bitterness in the heart of the writer that it spills onto the page in biting, clawing, wonderfully divine bits of nasty dialogue!  If a writer is in need of a song to inspire puppy dog eyes and first kisses, “Whisper” by Oval Opus would most likely do the trick. Remember that a writer doesn’t have to find a song to match the mood, though. There are times that music actually jump-starts  creativity and  ends up writing because of the song!

Let me suggest one other thing: If a song is the kindling to the writing fire lit under you, tell the reader. If you have to, print the lyrics before or after the song. Readers will often find the song you’ve used and listen to it in order to get the full understanding of what your writing was meant to portray. If the song moved you, chances are it’ll move your readers.

Don’t change a character’s personality unless you properly explain the reason.

Fanfiction is not written about original characters. Although there may be “cameos” of original characters, the story is based on characters owned by someone else. Fanfic, by definition, is fictional writing by fans. Works produced by the individual who created a character is often referred to as a “sitcom” or “movie” or some such thing. Remember that there are other fans out there who might read your work. They most likely will be livid if you turn their favorite nun into a murderous hussy. For this reason, you shouldn’t go changing much unless you’re going to commit to it 100%.

What does that mean? Well, take Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy) as an example. There is a lot of Buffy/Faith fic on the web. Although Willow and Tara were the lesbians on the show, people can’t seem to get enough of “Fluffy” (the term given to Buffy/Faith fic in which they’re in a relationship with each other.) How does a writer make that leap and have everyone else drooling for more? Come on, who could miss the opportunity to use resentment, jealousy and anger as the catalyst for an illicit love affair? The pairing works because they’re tough, feminine and HOT! If you can give a reasonable explanation of why you changed the character’s personality, the readers will forgive you.

Be creative, but don’t push it.

There are many things you can change other than the personalities of the characters. Era, locale, even some of their physical features are just a few of the things over which a writer has free reign. The fanfic community is all for stretching limits, at least some of the limits. But take this advice: don’t change the details so much that the reader no longer recognizes the characters.

Part of the draw with fanfiction is the ability to share your work with other fans. You should think of your writing as if you were writing the next episode of the show or an alternate ending to a movie. Readers will want to connect the characters they know and love to the new plots and twists you’ve dreamed up. If they can’t tell that the character in your story is the Buffy they know and love, it’s highly unlikely they will be reading your next masterpiece.

Be prepared for people to love your writing, want more and give positive feedback…orrejection 1 not.

Oprah says that the one thing she believes everyone in the world wants is validation. I agree with her. There are very few guiltier pleasures than relishing in the glowing comments your writing instigates. Happiness and creativity seem to flow when everyone loves you. Who wouldn’t want to hear applause and cheers from the emails about and comments on their writing? I could list a couple of names but I’m pretty sure giving a list of deceased writers is cheating a bit.

Taking the accolades is easy for the most part. The hard part is preparing your inner soul for the emotions that come from the words of a scathing, horrible, mean-spirited critic. You might find yourself swinging from one pendulum to the other (like me) when it comes to reading comments. If I read a radiant review, I’m ecstatic. If it’s followed by a negative comment, my mood is totally ruined. Since people will either like your work or dislike your work, you might find yourself going up and down on the happiness meter. Often I’ll have as many mood changes as I do critics!

If you’re someone who needs positive reinforcement in order to write, prepare yourself to slam head first into the brick wall known as writer’s block. Positive reviews are icing on the cake. Negative reviews are one person’s opinion. If you’re a writer you must write. Do not let the negative comments hold you up. And don’t rely on positive ones to inspire your writing mojo.

If you’re going to write smut, choose your words carefully.

For those of you who don’t know what “smut” is, think “overtly sexual, dirty-talking, adult works akin to trashy romance novels…only with a special dose of naughty.” Everyone knows that there are as many names for genitals as there are genitals to be named. Therefore a smut writer must be keenly aware of the wording used to describe their characters’ moments of bliss. If you got totally raunchy you might offend someone. But if you go the total opposite direction, you might come off as a little clinical-like using the full name of body parts instead of their more common abbreviated names.

Also, for Heaven’s sake, if you’re going to write a love scene, make it believable! Real life sex is funny, soft, clumsy, loving, passionate, hard at times, quick and much more. For instance, don’t have one of you characters caught dangling from the ceiling wrapped in fishing line and dressed like a carp because she’s dating a fisherman. That’s just….wrong….and most likely impossible!

sueingDon’t use real people’s names unless you know them and/or have gotten their permission.

This is always a touchy subject. For the most part, creators of characters you use won’t even bother with chastising you for using their people. But if you want to write real person fic (RPF), the likelihood of you getting in trouble almost triples! It’s one thing to write about Hermione and Harry in a relationship. But it could get sticky if you paired Emma with Daniel.

Use a disclaimer to cover your…y’know.

Disclaimers are your friends. Disclaimers are necessary. Draft a disclaimer and use it everywhere. When I was posting fic for the journal I had, I covered all of my legal bases with these lines:

Title: This is My Disclaimer and Other Legal Mumbo-jumbo
Author: Me.
Fandom: (This is the source of the original work): Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Rating: (We’ll get to this in a minute)
Pairing: Jane Doe/Sue Smith
Disclaimer: I don’t know Jane. I don’t know Sue. I don’t own either one of them. I don’t mean to cause harm, confusion or headaches. If either of the ladies this story is about would like discuss future works, you know how to get in touch with me. Also, please don’t sue me…I don’t do well in jail and I have no money. Void where prohibited.

Putting all of this information at the very beginning of every story not only gives you a template to go by but it very well may cover any potential liability issues. Will it get you off the hook if Jane Doe decides to sue for slander? I don’t have a clue. But I can tell you this: It can’t hurt!

Be responsible and use the rating system to warn readers about adult content.ratingSystem

When you’re writing fanfic and posting it online you have to remember that not every person reading your work will be old enough to read it. Sex, violence and foul language might be considered OK for adults but not children. Keep in mind that you’re not the only one on the web searching for Harry Potter every day. A girl in her early teens might run across your Potter/Malfoy fic and get way more education than she’d bargained for! There are generally (and widely) accepted rating systems for fanfiction.

First of all, fanfiction ratings are the literary equivalent to movie ratings-G, PG, PG13, PG17 …you know what I mean. I typically use a simple strategy for rating my work: G, PG, R, and XXX. But I’ll follow up with a reason. So my rating would look like this:

Rating: PG for language, sexual situations, and violence

It’s better to give this information up front before the reader even gets started reading. This will save them embarrassment and you a ton of grief! You can find more information about ratings at www.fictionratings.com.

Only write about what you love.

If you’re a die-hard CSI fan, don’t stress out over trying to write a decent fic about Three’s Company! Your work will be better and you’ll feel better about your work if you just write what you’re passionate about. Don’t force yourself into a new fandom if you’re not ready for a challenge. Write what makes you happy and do not apologize for it.

Share your fiction with the rest of the world and validate the work of others.

As previously stated, I love feedback. But I have to be honest and say that I’m not very good at commenting on other people’s writing. I read stories all of the time and delight in them, but I fail to comment most of the time. But I’m going to make a pact with myself right now and vow to make an honest effort to comment on every fic I read, whether I enjoyed it or not. Perhaps you should do the same. This is a freebie: Have fun writing the fic in the moment…you’ll enjoy it even more when you read it again a couple of years later. I know that feeling from experience!

Do you have any other tips to share with others who are looking to write fanfic?

Daria image courtesy of: www.outpost-daria.com/art_fanfic.html

Emily Smith is a writer, photographer, and designer who hails from Southwest Alabama. In her spare time she writes fanfiction and adds needless content to her novel.


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