I’ve been a fanfiction author since my early teens—a few years after I began writing original long-form SFF—and I’ve learned more about the art and craft of writing from fanfic than I have in any classroom. It’s allowed me to develop and hone my skills while having fun, rather than completing assignments, and exposed me to a wonderful variety and range of other people’s work over the years.
Crucially, fanfiction is a discipline of its own, and it can teach you some specific things that will be of use to you in whatever kind of writing you choose to pursue.
Let’s start with the big picture:
The reasons people write fic generally come down to story: either the desire to change some aspect of it, or to explore an aspect further. So far, so good, but if you look a little further under the surface of your own preferences or tendencies you can begin to learn a little more about why those things are important to you. Why is it that you want to write fix-it fic for this kind of situation every time you encounter it? What does your desire to whump the hell out of certain characters tell you about the kind of story elements you find compelling or interesting, and what can you do with that information in constructing stories of your own?
No one is good at writing in another person’s style at first; it will start out as pastiche, but if you keep at it, and look at other people’s versions of that style, slowly you will gain control over what specific decisions you are making to emulate the original or to riff on it. This goes all the way back to Byzantium: being instructed to write a piece in the style of a specific author or orator was one of the ways young Byzantine scholars learned the art of rhetoric. As a fic author, working on this particular aspect expands your vocabulary of what makes a style, what appeals in others’ work and why it has those impacts, which helps you develop your own command of style and voice.
Books on how to write generally agree on very little other than that one should read a great deal and also write a great deal, and this is another benefit of being involved in the fic community: you get to read a lot of other people’s work, some of which is better than others, and you get practice with every story you write. Fanfic authors tend to be prolific, which is a good thing—even if the individual stories are not yet stunning works of genius, they each represent just that little bit more practice under your belt. This is important; it doesn’t matter how much of a fantastic writer you are, if you don’t practice you get rusty, and you also can’t develop increased sophistication and control. In an active fan community, authors have the opportunity to change and improve all the time, and learn from each other, while enjoying the material they’re engaging with and sharing in a common experience and library of referents—and they can collaborate, challenge, and encourage one another. Which leads me to…
One of the things I love most about writing fic is the option of writing from prompts—give me one or two characters, a setting, and a situation, and I will write you a story right now. It’s like wind-sprints for your brain, and it is tiring but also exhilarating, and the more you do it the easier it gets. It works in the realm of original fiction just as well—if you’re writing within a universe you’ve already invented, you are doing precisely the same work as if you’re writing prompt fanfic, with the added benefit that nobody can accuse you of being out of character.
This is one of the best parts about writing fic and posting it on the internet: instant gratification. There are few writing disciplines in which this reward via reactive commentary is so readily available. For young writers who are beginning to explore their skills and talents, the encouragement of reader comments is invaluable. If you’re not sure you are doing a good job, having people comment with even the simplest positive statement is enormously helpful—not only is it active positive reinforcement, it is clear and present evidence that what you have written is being read; that it exists, and is being paid attention to, and that it matters. Later on you will want more useful information than just I like this story, but when you are starting out—sometimes that’s all you need to hear, and it can mean the difference between someone continuing to write and get better and someone giving up because they don’t think anybody cares.
Following on from reaction, perhaps the most important thing you can learn from writing fic is how to take criticism. The critique you receive from commenters may not actually be of any practical use—but that doesn’t mean a slew of omg I love this! comments don’t have their value. It’s enormously different from the kind of feedback you can expect to receive on original fiction: at best, you’ll get to meet with your class or writing group once or twice a week, perhaps, and read part of a story, and get the reaction of a handful of people who are required to give you their responses. When you put your fic up on the internet, literally anyone who has access can read it and tell you what they like and don’t like, or that you suck and should feel terrible, or that you changed their life. It’s a completely different paradigm, and it allows you, the writer, the opportunity of practice in deciding how and when you want to pay attention to your critics.
Not everyone is going to like what you make; this is true for any kind of work. The earlier you get used to this, and to the variety of responses you get, the easier you will find it to put your work out in the world and be able to face what follows. The sheer scope and volume of reaction available to fanfic is a kind of luxury in itself; it allows you, the fic author, to develop a (necessary) protective shell without revealing your most vulnerable and personal original work to the pitiless view of the rest of the world. You can learn a lot from the kind of responses your fic elicits: if the majority of commenters like this but not that, or ask questions about a particular element, or wish to tell you that you are the worst because you have mischaracterized a particular individual or relationship, clearly what you have done has caught attention—and possibly hit a nerve. It is up to you to determine how much this affects you, and what you want to do with it.
Fanfiction is a fantastic way to grow and develop your skills as a writer, and as a creator of content in general, while having a good time. The things you can teach yourself—and learn from your fellow fic authors—will stand you in good stead no matter how many fandoms you pass through. I will never stop writing fic, because it makes me a better writer with each story I produce, and because it gives me a simple and abiding joy—and I can’t think of a better reason than that to put words down on a page.
Vivian Shaw wears too many earrings and likes edged weapons and expensive ink. Her debut trilogy starring Dr. Greta Helsing is published by Orbit; her short fiction has featured in Uncanny and is forthcoming in Pseudopod. She is a stickler for research and currently lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Arkady Martine. Look for Strange Practice and Dreadful Company now out, and Grave Importance coming in late summer 2019.