What’s a good way to train yourself to write a great novel? Writing fanfiction. Of course fanfic is becoming less and less taboo, so much so that it feels silly to trumpet it as a Good Thing because, obviously, it’s not a Bad Thing. Regardless, I want to talk about *why* a background in writing fanfic can be useful when it comes to writing original fiction. Many successful authors, particularly YA authors, hail from fandom–including and especially Harry Potter fandom, my old stomping ground.
Fanfic writers get characters
For all that you usually hear that fanfic writers don’t know how to develop characters because they’re used to the characters already being developed for them, fanfic writers figure out early what makes a character tick (and stick)–and how they can replicate them in their fiction. When you’re writing in someone else’s canon, you pick up voice and subtle differences in voice between characters because if you can’t nail it, the commenters let you know. No one wants to be accused of writing “OOC” (out of character), unless it’s a fanon interpretation, or crack!fic and intentional. You become aware of character tropes and what makes them attractive/effective, especially in “ships” (relationships)–Harry is the Good Guy Hero, Draco is the Snarky Badboy, Snape is the Complex Anti-Hero, Remus the Ruffled Wounded Soul, etc.
When it comes to crafting original characters, sure it may not come immediately or naturally, but the fanfic writer knows their tropes, knows how to nail voice, and knows how to craft characters that make others want to play with the canon. A good fanfic writer also knows which voices they write best: the characters that resonated the most with readers, etc. Then you can take those archetypes and roll them into new, original characters.
Fanfic writers grab hold of details
When you’re extending someone else’s canon, the key is to create your own story/vision, while having enough detail from canon so the reader feels the fic blends in with the original world. Details come from vocabulary, spelling (see: HP canon spellings!), physical details of setting & character, character ticks, deep backstory, etc. When it comes to writing original work, a fanfic writer knows to pepper in the details that others can grab a hold of like they have. This can lead to rich world-building and backstory.
Fanfic writers figure out What People Want To Read
You don’t write fanfic in a vacuum. People write fanfic to post it, share it, get comments, squee with each other, cry/make others cry, etc… fanfic is a collaborative experience; fandom is a community. And when you’re in the fanfic game, you know what you have to do to get readers, illicit a reaction, participate in the community. You learn what’s cliche–both the good cliches people love to read, and the bad ones people in fandom have sworn off–you figure out how to give your fanfic a hook that will make people click to read. You know what plot beats to hit in your given ship/genre that make people squee, comment and rec.
And then the fanfic writer can translate what they’ve learned into whatever genre they’ve chosen to write original work in. Of course, said writer needs to do the same amount of reading/exploration/observation as they’ve done in their fandom (due diligence = important), but they come out of it knowing what the hooks are, the characters that sing, the worldbuilds that make people want to build a fandom. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most complex, innovative YA novels of late were written by people who either wrote fanfic, or were active in fandoms (reading a ton of fic can be as constructive as writing it).
Fanfic writers learn their strengths & weaknesses
There is nothing more illustrative than real-time, continual feedback on your writing. This is true of any online forum that enables you to post work on an ongoing basis and receive feedback from readers, whether you’re writing fanfic on Archive of Our Own or original work on Wattpad. Online readers, especially fandomers, are enthusiastic and quick with their opinions; if they love your work, they’ll let you know… and as many people will let you know what doesn’t work. Comments will tell you what people love about your writing as you develop your style–maybe it’s the dialogue, or the hilarious one-liners, or your beautiful prose, or the plot twists that make them cry. I’m a believer that knowing what you write well will help you write your Best Book, and knowing what you’re not so gifted at can help you improve.
Fanfic writing teaches humility… or at least, it should
It’s natural to compare yourself to others, for better or for worse. Fandom provides a unique and constructive opportunity to see what your peers are producing, and what people go gaga for, even if it isn’t your own work. Maybe you write the emotionally gut-wrenching novel-length fics that top the rec lists, but maybe you don’t… and that is OK! People like your hilarious one-shots, so maybe you’re really good at humor. You don’t have to write the Next Great Literary Novel to write something awesome. Or vice-versa–maybe you can’t crack a joke to save your life, but people tell you you make them cry, and that’s awesome.
The point being, the fannish community should be an opportunity for you to recognize what you’re good at, but also accept that you’re not good at everything, and there are those out there that can write better stories than you can. It happens. But you still have a lot to offer, so it’s OK to not be as good at something as someone else.
Fanfic builds confidence
Hopefully, in addition to engendering some useful humility, writing fanfic builds confidence. You don’t have to be the most popular fic writer to touch people, and know that what you’ve written can affect someone goes a long way in building confidence in your ability to craft a story. Confidence is half the battle in going pro–confidence to finish a novel, revise it, query it, go on submission, etc. Confidence will get you through the inevitable bad reviews (everyone gets them), though humility and perspective are useful here, too.
Fanfic lets you experiment
There are so many ships, genres, styles, etc. that you can experiment with in fanfiction. And since most fics are short–certainly not novel length–it’s easy to play with a new style and see what happens. Maybe you try a serious one-shot to see if you can write a tear-jerker. Or try a crack fic and see how you do with surrealism. It’s just one fic, and it’s worth a shot. You can stretch yourself!
Now, there are plenty of things that fanfic can’t teach out about novel writing–it’s a different medium, for sure–I had no idea how to actually write a book from start to finish until I actually did it. But the pros outweigh the cons. When someone asks me for writing advice, depending on their fannish proclivities, I like to recommend writing fic, because it taught me so much.
My fellow fic writers–say hi in the comments!