Fan-Fiction: Pros and Cons for Writers

Wow, I’m suddenly seeing a lot of views! Thanks to everyone coming over from Tumblr, I really appreciate it! Stay a while and look around – I’m updating every day, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep you amused. (The pressure to not suck has increased dramatically – okay, challenge accepted.)

So I’ve been reading about what the pros think about fan-fiction. (Gail Simone’s take is one of my favourites – several of my favourites, actually, she mentions it often, but try this one: http://gailsimone.tumblr.com/post/16734609373/im-curious-why-you-have-a-bias-against-fanfic-i-just ) Gail says, basically, fan-fiction is great and wonderful and you guys have a ball with it, but it won’t get you into writing comics. Ever. Which is fair enough. But what is fan-fiction good for, for a writer? Besides being delicious wonderful fan-fiction, of course.

So here’s my completely biased and unprofessional opinion. I’m not published (yet), and I’m not an expert by any means. Nevertheless, I’ve been writing fan-fiction for about fifteen years on and off, and reading it for even longer, so here’s my observations from what fan-fiction has done for my own writing, and that of my ficcer friends.

Pro: Writing is good practice for writing. If you do any kind of writing enough, you will get better at writing.

Con: You won’t necessarily get better at writing in a way that makes you more publishable. Fan-fiction has very, very different requirements to formal publication, and getting better at getting glowing reviews for your Frostiron fic will not necessarily mean you’re more prepared to write a deep literary examination of human frailty as exemplified by teenaged dyslexia. (It may be good preparation for non-fic slashery, though, and there is a market for that)

Pro: Feedback. Good feedback is awesome and makes a wonderful incentive, and constructive criticism is a boon to any writer. If you pay attention to what people tell you, you can improve enormously. Non-ficcers have to pay actual money for what you’re getting for free!

Con: Feedback. Bad feedback is miserable and soul-sapping, plus when writing your own works you won’t have feedback good or bad to motivate you, and if you’re used to that support it will be harder to forge ahead on your own.

Pro: You get used to churning out the words. If you can use fan-fiction to get yourself into the habit of writing every day, that will be a huge help to you when trying to create an original work. Discipline is majorly important. Even if you don’t write every day, finding out how many words you can write and how often, and what your best writing times are and how to avoid interruptions, will be a big help later. (NaNoWriMo is also great for this.)

Con: Abandonment. Fan-fiction carries few penalties when you leave a work unfinished – mostly just lingering guilt. But if you get into the habit of abandoning stories halfway through for something more exciting, you’re creating a huge block that you’ll have to struggle to get over when writing original work. FINISH STUFF.

Pro: Beta readers. Good beta-readers are gold. If you find them, hug them and love them and remember their birthday and thank them for their hard work forever. Yes, they’re enthusiastic amateurs rather than pros, but they’re still giving you what any non-ficcer has to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for – step-by-step analysis, con-crit and editing. FOR FREE. Seriously, send your betas a thank you card right now. Something cute. And if you’re really good to them, they may even be willing to give your original work a pass-through, for which you should thank them on bended knee. They know your work well, they’ll point out anything from typos to plot-holes, and will in general give you exactly what you need for your big self-edit round – a fresh pair of eyes. Can they get it to final publishing standard? No, probably not. Most of them won’t be pros. But a good beta-reader will always leave your manuscript at least a bit shinier than you could get it on your own, and that’s a huge help.

Con: Trolls. Some people get their jollies out of making other people miserable. Putting your writing out there is like putting out a plate of cupcakes with a sign that says ‘TROLL SNACKS HERE’. There’s an excellent chance that at least one of these vile, vicious creatures will find you, and they will eat your self-confidence for breakfast. Agents may be harsh, but they’re not actually trying to make you cry. Trolls are.

Pro: Practice at writing to length/genre. Story pacing is very different between a 2,000 word short and a 150,000 word epic. A 60,000 romantic tale and an 80,000 action adventure, likewise. Fan-fiction lets you explore different lengths and genres and find what works best for you and what you’re good at.

Con: The market for short stories is extremely limited. You cannot make your living there, although the experts say they’re a good way to get a foot in the door. Fan-fiction can lull you into a bad habit of writing exclusively short – 20,000 words at most. If you’re looking to publish anything but romance novellae (romance is pretty much the only genre still publishing the novella, at least from novice authors), you need to buckle down to a couple of serious epics. Likewise, you can mix your genres at will in fan-fiction, but that’s poor practice for selling an original work, where the publishers are notorious for wanting a very clear genre choice.

Pro: Practice at characterization, dialogue and plotting. These are some of those things you just have to practice and practice and practice. Nothing marks the amateur – or bad – writer like patchy characterization, weak dialogue, and a limping plot. The more you do these things, and the harder you work at getting them right, the better you’ll be.

Con: Characterization, dialogue, and plot with the training wheels on. With fan-fiction, the characterization is usually already strongly established – that’s kind of the point. Ditto for speech-patterns in dialogue – hopefully nobody is writing Tony talking like Thor, or vice-versa. Even plot is easy, since you can just rewrite a plot-line from the source material or dip into the well-established pool of tropes, dares and so on. Getting into bad habits here, I speak from experience, can make creating your own consistent characterization and original plot much, much harder.

Pro: Fan-fiction is awesomely fun, you will make lots of new friends and share stuff with fellow fans and it’s great.

Con: Fan-wars and fic-controversies are not fun. I got stuck in the middle of a fic controversy once. It was not delightful and I spent very little time in the fandom after that. Fandoms are like koalas – they’re cute and fluffy and irresistible and can turn savage very quickly if provoked. Or looked at funny. Or if you’re between them and the leaf they happen to want.

SUPER BIG CON: World-building. In fan-fiction, you need to do very little of this, if any. Even re-settings for time and space still use the basic world-template. It is hard to do and you need to practice and fan-fiction will not help you. If anything, it makes it harder, because it’s this whole big huge lump of work you’re not used to having to do.

Basically, you get out of fan-fiction what you put into it. If you treat it as serious practice as well as fun and use it to get better at plotting and completing long works, polishing your characterization and dialogue, mastering the editing process and honing your short-story skills, it will help you enormously. If you get into bad habits like story-abandonment, shoddy characterization and wish-fulfillment, or over-dependence on support from others, you’re essentially shooting your writing in the foot. Personally, I know my writing has improved a hell of a lot since I started, but I’ve also picked up a couple of bad habits that have been hard to shake.

So, have I missed anything? Let me know!

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3 thoughts on “Fan-Fiction: Pros and Cons for Writers

  1. Fanon is another con, I think – people get into a habit of accepting whatever is the fashionable view of a character or situation without going back to the source. Very bad habit if you’re planning to write historical fiction.

    Surely SF and fantasy still publishes shorts and novellas? And many of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books are made of a linked series of novellas.

    • SF and Fantasy does, usually in magazines or anthologies, but only a few and the competition is fierce, as far as I can tell from my research so far. Romance, on the other hand, is enjoying something of a novella renaissance with the rise of e-book sales, as ‘bite-sized’ stories for a couple of dollars are selling very well.

  2. Good to see it all laid out! I think fanfic is a great proving-ground for those who want to go on and sell original work, and a chance to have some creative fun.

    Have to disagree with a couple of minor things, though. Non-ficcers don’t have to pay for reviews or beta readings. You can, but there are plenty of free options available to non-fanfic writers. Reviews and betas might be easier to get in the fanfic world, due to the community that automatically surrounds you, so there is an advantage in convenience. But cost really doesn’t have any impact here. If anything, non-ficcers have more avenues for professional advice (which fanficcers could probably use if they really wanted!).

    Also, as regards story length, that only really matters if you’re planning to sell your work to a traditional publisher. E-books are breaking down all of these barriers, because in e-books the length only affects the price. Short stories, epics, and everything is between is fair game. It all depends how you want to get published!

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