How To Write Fan Fiction
In the 20s and 30s, cheap, trashy, and extremely exciting magazines with giant ants attacking scantily clad women filled newsstands. Decent people stayed away from these stories of sex and violence and no true writer ever wrote such filth. Sixty years later we realize those magazines gave us H.P Lovecraft's Cthulhu and Robert Howard's Conan.
Today there is a new kind of pulp fiction, the fiction established authors and high-brow readers scoff at: fan fiction. With no editors, self-publishing, shaky legal ground, and certainly no money; fan fiction is the trash every published writer can stand over, sneering and pointing as it lays rotting in the gutter.
So why in Tunare's name would you write it? Fan fiction adds life to our virtual worlds. It fills in the cracks between pixels and polygons. It adds smell, taste, and touch to a world of sight and sound. It adds emotion, drama, and purpose. Fan fiction ties you to your game and your character to his world. It creates reason. It becomes reason. The more you write, the more you enjoy the game. The more you write, the more others enjoy their games.
Decided to brave the frontier of fan fiction? This article takes a look at the tools and the trade of writing fan fiction and offers a few tips to get you started.
Two books and two essays best summarize what one needs to write well. Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" is the 85 page bible of good writing. Buy it, read it, learn it, and understand it. No description I can give it can compare to Stephen King's wonderful endorsement in the forward of "On Writing" (more on this wonderful book later):
"[On Writing] is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do - not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit.
One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book (of course it's short; at eighty-five pages it's much shorter than this one.) I'll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style, Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is 'Omit needless words.' I will try to do that here."
You hear artists all over the place shouting out the most overused and tired metaphor we ever heard: "Think outside the box" (I wrap it in quotes because, like King, I don't want to step in the bullshit.) Writing needs rules. True creativity isn't figuring out how to violate the rules but how to write exciting fiction within these rules. Strunk and White define the playing field for you. It's the best $7 you can spend.
As King states in his forward, there are few necessary books on writing that are worth reading. In fact, many books are not. There is a difference between understanding how to write well with a book like Elements of Style and paralyzing yourself with so many stupid rules that you cannot even pick up a pen. A few general rules work well to build the foundation necessary for anyone to start writing. There is one other book and two essays I recommend.
The other book is the one quoted above. Stephen King's excellent book, "On Writing", covers both King's life and thoughts on the craft. It shows both his humble beginnings and offers a few of the most useful tips one can accept when deciding to write. Most important are King's two rules to good writing: Read a lot and write a lot.
A wonderful essay by the author of "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty Four", "Politics and the English Language," includes many of the same rules contained in the Elements of Style. Cut needless words. Use the active voice. Cut jargon or overused metaphors. Orwell's sixth rule, however, deserves special attention:
"Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."
Don't be an idiot. Don't follow rules if they end up making you look like a jackass.
The last essay I recommend is Ray Bradbury's "Zen and the Art of Writing". His rules are perfect Strunk and White sentences:
Work. Relax. Don't think.
Now let's talk specifically about fan fiction.
There are two elements missing from most fan fiction. One, it's too long. Two, it's not edited. Cutting down on what you write and having it edited by a good editor puts you far above most fan fiction authors.
I try to keep fan fiction stories down to 1500 words. I have no scientific evidence to suggest this as the sweet spot between being able to build a sensible story and losing a reader to an article about Sponge Bob, but it's as good a number as any. Most fan fiction I write stays around 1500 words. Any longer and I consider breaking it up into two parts.
Cut any paragraph, sentence, or word that doesn't move the story or help capture the reader. Follow the direction of science fiction author, James Patrick Kelly, who wrote an essay on good writing called "Murder your Darlings". No matter how much you love that sentence, if it doesn't help the story, lose it.
Here's a funny story. On the fourth draft of this very article, my friend and editor told me to cut the first three paragraphs. I moaned and groaned. I knew he was right, they should be cut but even I, in an article about cutting down your words, couldn't stand to murder my darlings. I love that paragraph about Howard and Lovecraft and I just can't stand to cut them. Still, he was right and this would have been a better paper without them.
One easy way to cut words out of each sentence is to switch it from passive to active voice. Writing in the active voice has a few advantages. Sentences are shorter. Narration feels like action. Actions are tied to responsible actors. Look for passive verbs in your writing. Many times they are necessary but sometimes they show a passive statement that can be written in the active voice. Watch for passive verbs like "I'm, is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, it's, he's, here's, she's, that's, there's, they're, we're, what's, who's, and you're" and think whether you might write the sentence in the active voice instead.
Once you've cut as much as you can bear, hand your tale off to an editor. Find an editor who understands the basics of writing as you do. You want an editor willing to cut, tear, mark, and point out dirty little adverbs. You want someone who will tell you when you've lost him. If you give the story to someone and get a nod and a smile back, they are of little use. Finding a good editor is hard but when you find one, keep him.
So you've read your Strunk and White. You learned how to murder your darlings. You know the difference between "The shore had waves crashing on it" and "Waves crashed on the shore." You have an editor willing to tear your work to shreds for the greater good of the Internet. Let’s talk about the stories themselves.
Fan fiction builds upon a pre-established world. It uses a defined society, magic system, cities, names, and history. You don't have to build up your own world. You've got one already built. Focus your story on the elements missing from the world instead of describing those already defined . Don't tell us how a nasty beast looks or sounds. Tell us how that gnoll smells. Tell us what holy cake tastes like. Fill in the voids in the game.
It's tempting to write a fantastic epic story but sometimes the personal stories work better. You stumble less over the world's facts if you keep the story small. Remember that your character is one of millions in the world, not the center of the universe. Not everyone can be Frodo or Gandalf. Someone has to be the Gaffer and the Gaffer's story may be a lot more interesting to an audience tired of hearing about that stupid ring.
So now you have a pile of fan fiction. Where do you put it? How do you get readers? Post your story to Usenet. Groups.google.com lets you set up a free account to Usenet. Your story will live in the largest and oldest source of words available on the Internet. Websites come and go but Usenet is forever.
Most fan fiction writers post their stories on the web. There are thousands of free websites that will host stories like yours but one good one is blogger.com. Though built for online weblogs, you can twist your weblog into a website full of fan fiction.
Message forums are also a popular posting place. Find the more popular message forums and post your stories in an appropriate place. Don't spam readers with your work. If they don't come to it themselves seeking what you offer, they won't want to read it anyway. Post in an appropriate place.
Keep a local copy of every story you write. Print them out and keep the printouts in a safe and dry location. While some mediums, like CDs, may keep digital data for five to ten years, books on paper can last thousands of years. If you care for your work's survival, keep a paper copy.
Fan fiction adds life to the world we choose to play in. Though considered by some as amateur unedited drivel taking up valuable Internet space better used for pornography and online casinos, fan fiction adds life to games built from tiny phosphors of light. Fan fiction can increase your own enjoyment of the games you play or the books you read and it can add to the enjoyment of others. Respect your decision and respect your words. I leave you with Loral's Rules for Writing, complied by the great masters of writing: Strunk, White, King, Heinlein, Orwell, Kelly, and Bradbury:
Write a lot.
Read a lot.
Cut needless words.
Use the active voice.
Avoid overused metaphors.
Write with simple nouns and verbs.
Finish what you write and begin something else.
Work, Relax, Don't Think.
And at last, your reading list:
Politics and the English Language
Strunk and White's Elements of Style:
James Patrick Kelly, Murder Your Darlings:
Stephen King, On Writing:
Robert Heinlein's Rules For Writing:
Ray Bradbury: Zen and the Art of Writing:
3 December 2004