Being a Better Writer: Fanfiction – School or Crutch?

Don’t forget, Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection is out now!

This post was originally written and posted January 19th, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Welcome back, everyone! It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s the beginning of another week, and I’ve got news. Some good news. Good news I won’t give you the details of yet, (as I’m still waiting on a few specific ones) but still pretty good news. Okay, really good news. I’ll give you more later this week, but for now, let’s just say those of you who like going to conventions may want to keep February 12th-14th clear on your calenders.

Alright, that’s that. Now, without any further ado, let’s get to this week’s topic of choice! Fanfiction!

So, this topic might seem a little odd to a few of you, but it’s actually based on a question I’ve been asked several times over the last few weeks, both by those that write fanfiction and those who don’t. A lot of prospective writers—even those who have been writing fanfiction for some time—seem to have a question that goes something like this: Is fanfiction really the best place for me to be practicing and building my talents? Or am I wasting my time, or perhaps being less productive than I would normally otherwise be?

Well, the answer, as with most things in life, isn’t as black-and-white as we might hope. Because the shortest, most to the point answer I can give (so that all of you can go back to your daily schedules) is: maybe.

Huh, not very helpful, I expect. Let’s try a slightly longer answer. It varies.

Alright, still not very helpful. I guess we’re going to need to go with the full long answer. At it’s core, there can be nothing wrong with writing fanfiction. It’s fun to do, there’s a built-in audience, and you get a chance to revisit characters and worlds that you love and enjoy. And—if we’re honest—it’s generally easier, too. Fanfiction comes with a large portion of its required content and brainstorming already done, making quite a bit of it a simple matter of lining up the crux of one’s plot/idea and simply pulling the trigger (you know, actually writing it). With all these points in its favor, it’s little wonder that fanfiction is so popular.

But with these advantages comes a catch, the most infamous catch of them all: when you’re relying on fanfiction to do that heavy lifting for you, you’re not learning.

Don’t get me wrong, fanfiction is fun stuff to both work on and read. But the very things that make it fun and appealing to so many can, at the same time, actively harm your writing talent, even stall your writing progress entirely. What was once a fun pastime can, with very little realization, actively damage your own writing prospects and reduce your own writing capacity if you’re not careful.

Yikes.

Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case. While yes, fanfiction can be an entirely negative influence on your writing, that doesn’t mean that it will be. I’m not trying to slam fanfiction here. Obviously, I myself have pumped out several hundred thousand words worth of fanfiction, and have attributed it to a growth in my skills rather than a detriment. The trick is coming at fanfiction with a critical eye and making sure that you don’t fall into some common traps.

See, the very things that make fanfiction so appealing in the first place are also the things that can—in the end—end up hurting you. Fanfiction, as I pointed out earlier, can end up doing most of the heavy lifting for you. Characters? No need to dream up your own and work on fleshing them out. A show or book has already given you what you need! No need to worry about backstory, that’s already been taken care of! Fanfiction makes this writing business easy. If you were working on a completely from scratch work, you’d need to come up with all that stuff by yourself. But with fanfiction, all that heavy lifting has been done for you, and you can simply drop your storyline concerning “Harry Potter falling for Hermione Granger” or “Luke Skywalker defeating stormtroopers with his lightsaber” into the existing universe and go. Crud, even swapping the universes with those last examples (Harry Potter in Star Wars or vice versa with Luke) isn’t too demanding—after all, the universes and character work have been done for us.

This isn’t necessarily bad. I want to reinforce this concept. Just because fanfiction often heavily relies on pre-existing materials or characters does not cost it any value, intrinsic or otherwise. The sheer number of Star Wars,Star Trek, or even War Machine books out there should be more than enough to tell us that there is a market for not just fanfiction, but professionally written and published fanfiction.

Now, if this is the case, why am I calling fanfiction a crutch? Because, at the end of the day, it often is. Earlier I used a particular phrase with regards to writing fanfiction. I said “Fanfiction … can end up doing most of the heavy lifting for you.” Which is what we want, right?

Well, only at first. Let’s work with an analogy here. Say that you want to be a bodybuilder. A professional bodybuilder, with all the strength and flexibility you can muster. Now, you decide that rather than go to a gym, you’re going to do this on your own and kill two birds with one stone by taking a job in construction. “It’ll be hard,” you think to yourself, “but with all that heavy lifting I’ll be doing, I’m sure to bulk up!”

So you go to your first day on the job and—by Thor’s underpants—this job is tough. You can’t lift much of anything. In fact, you can only lift about ten percent of what you need to. Luckily, there’s another worker there who happens to be pretty buff and helpful, and they offer to get your heavy stuff for you, leaving you with only the lightweight lifting that you can handle.

So this goes on for a few weeks, and the lightweight stuff gets a little easier. So you decide to try and lift the heavy stuff. Nope. You still can’t do it. It’s too heavy. Discouraged, you go back to the lightweight stuff. The process repeats itself, the heavier stuff always too heavy, and you continue only to work with the lightest materials.

Hopefully you’re seeing the analogy here. Fanfiction is a job like this, where there is a big, tough co-worker who is more than willing to take up as much of the heavy lifting as you’re willing to pass off to them. And if you continue to pass off all the heavy work, you’ll find that your own strength never improves, or perhaps even becomes weaker. In other words, because you’ve let the fanfiction do the majority of the hard parts, your own talent never improved, and you found yourself confined still by certain aspects of writing.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fanfiction doesn’t have to be detrimental. It only can be. Yes, you can use it as a crutch, as a way to take the weight off of your own talent. Or … you can use it as a school.

So, what makes the difference between the two approaches? Well, let’s look at some of the more common crutches that fanfiction takes the heavy weight for: Characters and world. Normally, if you sat down to write a story from scratch, you would need to come up with your own characters, full of fleshed out backstory, personality, and behavior, and then create a world in which those characters could shine and come into their own (note: this even applies when writing books set in “the real world,” see something like the amount of work that went into The Hunt For Red October).

If you’re writing a fanfiction however, suddenly the work of that normally goes into those two areas becomes entirely optional. You can simply use the characters and world from whatever fan universe that you’re writing for. Creating backstory, coming up with unique personalities … all of that heavy lifting can be done instead by whatever universe you’re writing for. You can simply fill in the blanks and let things happen. And then, as mentioned earlier, all you really have to do is write the words themselves.

Sadly, this often does become a crutch for new writers. I frequently see writers who have done a large amount of fanfiction assume that they’re ready to dive into their own wholly self-created works only to find that their own works, now bereft of being able to rely on someone else’s characters and world, are a complete and utter disaster because they don’t actually know how to create their own content.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than letting this aspect of fanfiction be a crutch, we can, with a little forethought, make it a tool to our own improvement.

Let’s look back at the weightlifting analogy. Now, in weightlifting, one of the more common generally accepted ideas is that you continually improve little bits at a time by adding more weight. Taking that idea back to writing fanfiction, what we can do to make fanfiction a tool rather than a crutch is simple: we let ourselves take more and more of the weight.

With character and world, for example, we can gradually lessen the amount of material that we take from our respective fandom. For instance, we can write stories which involve non-universe characters that we create on our own rather than the universe’s characters. While we’re still taking advantage of the universe’s setting and world, as a writer we will then be forced to create and juggle our own character’s backstory, personality … well, all that goes into a character, really. Then, once we’ve reached a point where that becomes less of a “weight” and becomes more second nature, we can move onto creating our own world—beginning with something still set inside the universe itself, but perhaps only referenced or entirely new, but grafting that into our writing.

By doing this, what could be a crutch becomes a school. By easing into character and world creation one step at a time, writing fanfiction can become an educational experience that sharpens our writing skill and talents. Creating a new location for a favorite universe, for example, requires a critical analysis of how our new creation fits into material that is already established. Does our new location fit the themes? The aesthetics? How does it fit into the overall “feel” of the universe? In asking oneself these questions (or even learning about them the hard way), we learn, and our writing improves.

So, the ultimate long answer: Yes, fanfiction is worth writing, but only if we let ourselves learn from the experience, and that means putting a critical eye to our own work and asking ourselves what we intend to accomplish or learn each time we put our fingers to the keyboard. It means always desiring to improve our own work, and making certain that when we’re working with fanfiction that we’re putting our attention and our dedication in the right place. That we’re not just writing for attention, or to play in a universe we love, but to try new things, to expand our horizons and innovate in a somewhat defined sandbox that allows us the freedom to experiment and more directly see the results of our actions.

Now, this doesn’t mean fanfiction can’t be fun. At the time when I wrote The Definition of Strength, it was one of the hardest things to write I had ever written. I was trying a couple of new things I had never done before, and challenging myself with a number of difficult scenarios (juggling Sabra’s own philosophical musings with Celestia and Luna’s own immortal viewpoints was at times headache-inducing in difficulty). And yet, I had an absolute blast overall, even despite the headaches it gave me. I enjoyed my work on it, and my sense of satisfaction at the end was immense. To date, it remains one of my personal favorite stories, despite being one of my most challenging to write, and is one of the highest-rated stories on the site it was posted to. Challenging myself with something new and difficult paid off, and since then writing characters and situations that are in nature similar to Strength has been a lot easier.

But I still had fun. Even while challenging myself and tackling new angles I’d never before experimented with, I was still enjoying the process of creation.

Now, there is one other thing I want to talk about before I call things good. While yes, it is true that we can learn from fanfiction, it is also true that we can learn the wrong things in the process. And here, I’m not as much speaking about letting ourselves learn to do the heavy lifting as I am speaking about the community that surrounds fanfiction.

Here’s the thing. Fanfiction, being a feature of the internet, brings along with it every other aspect of the internet. Including the most classic and universal feature of the internet: Everyone has a voice. And I do mean everyone. This means that just like everything else online, anyone can offer their own feedback, thoughts, or concerns about your work.

They can even offer “advice.” And this is where the school part gets dangerous.

Imagine, if you will, a university where there are no assigned teachers. Anyone, at any time, is free to climb on their soapbox in front of everyone else and offer their opinion. They can say or claim anything they wish. And, in this scenario, they often do.

This is the situation that fanfiction finds itself in. Anyone can offer advice. Anyone can claim to be “highly skiled w/ Ernglish.” Anyone can stand up on a podium and crow their own accomplishments, achievements, and proclaim that they offer some sort of advice that you need to listen to because “they are important and educated.” It happens everywhere. Heck, it’s happening right now, with this very post. Yes, I am part of that crowd that’s offering advice and claiming that I can help educate you on matters of writing.

The trick is that anyone can make these claims whether or not they actually can live up to them. And this is where the danger arises. Because often, people who are making these claims have none of the experience or education necessary to make them, but on the internet we can’t know that. They can claim to the contrary. They can “fake it.” And unlike a real university, there isn’t going to be an organized, reputably-educated group of people calling the shots to see if these so-called educators actually are what they claim to be. And while there are many groups that claim to be such, they often prove to be little more than a group of like-minded individuals who simply agree with one another online that they are “educated,” and use their own inner-circle encouragement as “proof” that they know what they’re talking about.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a lot of good advice given online. But I’ve also seen a lot of bad advice too, much of it coming from individuals or groups who claim to be reputably educated sources. For example, I’ve seen people who were unaware that there is a specific military spelling of the word “material” which denotes that the material in question is militarily related (the word is materiel with an “e”, so you know) argue that the word has been misspelled and urge the author to change it. Not so bad. But I’ve also seen prominent places that hold themselves as “high standard fanfiction reviewers” unfortunately driving home all sorts of balderdash nonsense about writing, everything from “foreshadowing is boring, good stories never foreshadow,” praising heavily overdone purple prose, or even miseducating writers due to their own lack of knowledge by arguing for a specific journalism style of possessive apostrophes while thinking that it was MLA style (they aren’t, and are two separate styles of use for possessive apostrophes).

I’ve even had one individual online insist that because they couldn’t find a specific ruling on a grammar rule in an MLA handbook they claimed to own, not only was I wrong with my use of commas, but the internet was wrong (I linked several sources), the published books I quoted showing use of the rule were wrong, and also my editor. No, not any of my pre-readers, but the professional editor I employed who did publishing work for a living. This individual actually had such a high opinion of their own “education”  (which, as they pointed out, was owning an MLA handbook) that they insisted that each and every thing opposing them was wrong, and that they were correct over all of them, and that my editor clearly needed a new job, along with the editors, I suppose, who’d published all the other books that did this.

Right.

So while Fanfiction can be a useful school, it can also be a school full of all of the worst kinds of misinformation, information that will actively hurt your writing education. Does this mean that it still can’t be helpful? Of course not! But along the way, as you write fanfiction, you’re going to have to learn to pick through all the inevitable “advice” that will be thrown at you and learn for yourself what’s good … and what’s bad. There’s plenty of both out there, and unfortunately you can’t always trust such advice to label itself as such. There are plenty of writing guides or “rules” that various people in fanfiction will enforce that actually aren’t rules—just one individual (or a group of like-minded individuals) deciding that their preferences are superior. There are plenty of people dispensing advice that are simply misinformed—they don’t realize, for instance, that the possessive apostrophe rules their high school journalism class taught them are actually different from the norm. Or that materiel is a correct spelling. And there are going to be those who, like the individual who declared my editor didn’t know what he was doing, simply refuse to admit they’re wrong, no matter how much evidence they may face.

And the worst part of this is that you’re just going to have to learn for yourself when to listen … and when to ignore. Because you’ll do wonderful amounts of both. There’s an old biblical bit of advice that holds pretty true to this scenario: By their fruits ye shall know them. Whenever anyone (and I’m including myself in this bit of advice) offers you advice, don’t take it at face value. Weigh it, consider it, think about it. Do some research of your own if you think you need to. If the individual makes grand claims, check into them and do some digging. You can’t trust everything you read on the internet. Come to think of it,  Abraham Lincoln himself is often attributed with that statement, which is an amusing practical lesson once you think about it.

So, in summary. Writing fanfiction can be a wonderful tool for improving your own writing talent and “graduating” into creating and writing your own original fiction. Fanfiction provides a “safety net” of sorts, a tool that can make the heavy lifting of writing easier, allowing a writer to dip their toe in the water and wade into the kiddie pool without drowning. Then, as their own talents improve, they can use fanfiction as a way to practice with new concepts and areas, gradually wading further and further into the depths of creating their own work and creating more and more away from the starting boundaries and safe-zone that fanfiction represents.

At the same time, fanfiction can be a debilitating crutch. Writers can use it to shore up their weak points … but then never bother to work on those weak points, relying on someone else’s work to carry them. Or they can be poorly advised by well-meaning but ultimately wrong individuals and end up harming their work overall.

So, worried about writing fanfiction? Don’t be. Do be wary of it becoming a crutch, of it standing in your way. Be aware, and let fanfiction be the safety net it can be while you refine your skills and educate yourself. Fanfiction is fun. It’s a great way to play in a familiar, comforting zone while still allowing yourself room to grow, and it can be a wonderful tool for helping ease you into concepts and territories of writing that may be overwhelming at first.

So keep writing your fanfiction. Just make sure of one thing while you’re doing it.

That you’re getting schooled.

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