How Fanfiction Taught Me About My Writing

I was talking the other day about spending too much time lately writing a fanfiction. (It’s Fallout, if you must know. And no, you can’t read it.) I was feeling bad about spending all these hours cranking out words for something that isn’t an original work. Now, I enjoy fanfiction. I get a real kick out of writing and sharing it, and I also love reading it. I can start reading a new fic at 11pm, and then realise four hours later that I’ve inadvertently started a 130,000 word monstrosity and it isn’t even finished. I have, in the past, accidentally stayed up past dawn because I was so caught up in a fanfiction. Some are very, very well-written. Fanfictions have been officially published, for Star Trek and Star Wars and others besides, so what’s the problem in reading something on Archive of Our Own ? It’s basically an ebook, right?

But writing it is a bit different, in a sense, because there’s a lot of other writing I should be doing. Short stories, poetry, and novels are all sitting on my to-do list and demanding attention. I need to be posting, I need to be submitting, I need to be editing. So when I sit down and spend four hours obsessively writing a fanfiction, a part of me feels guilty about that. It’s writing, and yet in some ways it’s still wasting time, and telling myself “it all counts towards your 10,000 hours” doesn’t help much.

But here’s the thing. I actually learnt something about myself, and my writing, from this flurry of irresponsible activity. This time wasn’t wasted, and the time I will spend on it in the future won’t be wasted, because it’s helped me really understand something about the process of writing long fiction that I had never realised before. That is because when I write fanfiction, my process is totally different from how I usually write a novel.

What have discovered I like doing, what keeps me writing a long piece of fiction, is spitting out a scene and continually going back over it. I’ll write a scene or a chapter, I’ll move on to the next one, and then I’ll reread the first one. I’ll edit it, sometimes substantially. Maybe the first draft of that scene was very sparse, because I wanted to get the basics done without getting hung up on the intricacies of how the characters were moving or the quality of the prose. Maybe I was stuck on word choices and having trouble, so I wrote some terribly worded lines and moved forward. That’s all fine in a first draft, of course, and you know it’ll be fixed in the next one.

The trouble is getting to the next one. In NaNoWriMo, I don’t generally find I have time to edit. You’re not meant to edit, you’re meant to plough on through and get the words done. That’s fine and important. What I’m discovering is that I can actually add 2,000 words really easily by going back to one of those earlier scenes and fleshing them out. What’s more, I get further entrenched in my story because I’m rereading scenes as I go and making them into more of what I want them to be.

Sometimes that means I write something, and re-write it, and then I just trash it. I’ll have realised that this passage has to go somewhere else entirely or it just isn’t right for the story at all. It ends up right at the end of the MS, out of sight beyond a bunch of line breaks, to be recycled as something else later.

Why don’t I do that in NaNoWriMo? Honestly I think it’s because I didn’t actually realise how many words I could churn out by writing in this way. I didn’t want to read back over in case I ended up deleting and culling, or even just wasting my time, when I could have been adding to the wordcount. And yes, sometimes words, sentences, even whole paragraphs end up on the chopping block. But usually they’re replaced by more than I’m removing, and when they’re not, that’s OK. NaNo is a very driven process, it’s madcap composition, and I like that. I like the speed of it, the whole runaway train thing it has going on. My problem is that when I don’t have the push from behind that NaNo provides, I can’t really write that way. NaNo has a month of build-up, it has an established and supportive community, and it’s already set in my mind as a must-win situation, even if I don’t always make it to 50k. My experiences with the April and July Camp NaNoWriMo programs have all been miserable failures, because they don’t have the same sort of drive for me. When I take the lessons learnt from writing novels, they’re usually NaNo lessons, and they don’t apply very well to my writing outside of that particular program. I end up with a bunch of projects I start and then lose interest in.

What I started doing in Chasing Regrets was the sort of process I use for fanfiction, and the reason I was doing it that way was because it started as a short story. I wrote the story, I reread the story, I edited the story. Over and over. And then I kept writing the story. I added another scene, and scraps of a third. I went back. I edited the original piece. I continued down and edited the next. I lengthened it. I finished the next scene. It was growing way more organically than it would have done otherwise. I promise you that had I just sat down with the idea I have now and tried to novel it out, I would have trashed the idea in about two days. And in fact once I started thinking of it as a novel, started planning the future of it and setting my brain into novel-mode, I strangled it. The words have been hard coming, because I’m thinking about pushing forward and not about letting the story grow.

Likewise, in fanfiction, you hardly ever finish an entire first draft and go back over it. This is because you post chapters of it as you go. Early chapters have to be refined, and often passed on to beta readers, so that they can be posted while you are still working on later chapters. It’s a completely different situation to most novels, wherein you’re writing the entire beast and refining the entire beast before it sees the light of day. There are situations – and it’s not uncommon – where a writer will have to put their fic aside for whatever reason and they never return to it, so you’re left with a cliffhanger, only to notice it hasn’t been updated since 2011 and you’re screwed. Other times a writer will be well into a story and realise they have to change something significant, so the original is left to sit as a sort of museum piece while the draft is edited and posted again as a “rewrite”. So there are some problems inherent in the process of writing fanfiction in this way, chapter by chapter rather than posting it all when it’s done. On the other hand, getting feedback from earlier chapters is great for maintaining your enthusiasm in the work.

I had honestly never thought about writing a novel this way. My novels tend to be chapterless anyway, because I don’t really see the point in them, so in my mind they’re monoliths. Created as a block and refined as a block. Now, after writing novels for years – years! – I realise I actually prefer to work in a totally different way.

The only real issue is that once I have a scene I love polished to perfection, there’s always the desire to share it. You want to plaster it all over your website and say LOOK! I DID A THING!, and you can’t do that with something you intend to publish, really. But I realised that Patreon is perfect for situations like that. I can (and have) sent poems to patrons so they can see what I’m working on and enjoying, but that I can’t post here because I intend to submit them to a magazine. I can do the same with novel scenes; someone has already seen chapters of Chasing Regrets because she is basically the saviour of my Tip Jar and I was having some trouble in making some decisions. (Links, by the way, on your left. <—— )

That time feverishly typing out stories about someone else’s characters was not misspent. Yes, it contributed, as all writing does, to my incremental improvement as a writer. But – unexpectedly – it also provoked a realisation about my process that I might not otherwise have come to, and that is, frankly, priceless.

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