So…it’s the end of the 2010-2011 television season. All of my shows have officially ended for the summer (Hold on, Chuck, Castle, Bones, Fringe, Grey’s, yep that’s all of them). Which means that I have turned to my best friend over the summer hiatus…fan fiction. Yep, yep. That’s how I silence the part of my mind that is still going: “Wait, did that really just happen? AAAH! *giggle* Booth’s face.” Yes, the me that was perfectly calm after the Bones season finale has abandoned ship and the me that wants to write for a living is starting to churn out possibilities mentally. So, I read what other people think might happen to get my giggles and to daydream about next season. However, there’s this inherent problem with fan fiction. While some of it can be really good, there is a lot of stuff that is really, really bad. Or at least so riddled with misspellings and grammar goofs that I stop reading before it gets good. It’s a problem that comes when anyone can post something to the internet. I go through probably ten bad ones to find a good one. Many I don’t even open because I can tell from the title/summary that it’s probably going to suck. And with the ones I do read I often find myself making a list of things that fanfic writers should or should not do. A list that does no one any good when it stays stuffed in my brain. So for those of you that want to improve your fanfics (and gather more readers), please read on. Whether your brand new or a veteran, you might find something helpful…or at least thought provoking. Thanks to Dot for helping me fill in some of the blanks in my little list.

Now, I’m going on the assumption that everyone knows what fan fiction is–pretty self-explanatory. It’s technically not legal, but it’s kind of like speeding—if you don’t go too far over the limit (i.e. try to profit from your fan fiction) the authorities generally ignore you. It is meant for enjoyment, not profit and therefore is considered acceptable. It is also a very good way to improve your writing (more on that and conquering writer’s block in a previous blog). It’s amazing what you can learn about plot structure, character development, significant detail and dialogue when you already have the basics to work with. It’s great for practice or for when you need a break from your work-in-progress or when you simply want some way to satisfy your craving for the next book/episode/issue (It’s also good for when anime editors royally screw up a series ending and you will be depressed until you fix it).

The first and most drastic way that you can keep your readers is to proofread. I will say it again, and this time I’ll break out the capital letters just for emphasis: PROOFREAD. I have continued reading stories that plod, that have poor plot or an exceptionally abysmal amount of OOC-ness because the grammer didn’t give me any reason to pause. I have also passed up potentially great stories because the writing was messy. Posting something without proofing is a BAD idea. Let it sit for a few hours or, better  yet, the night (like I did with this) and then proofread, it’s easier to find mistakes. But always look for misspelled or misplaced words (or missing words in my case). Refine the grammar to the best of your ability and make sure that you’re capitalizing the first letter of every sentence…and the pronoun “I”. I struggle with this myself. My most notorious bad habit when it comes to writing is that I leave out words and then, when I proofread, my brain inserts the word into the blank space. That’s part of why I try to let it sit a day or two. Poor grammar and bad spelling just equal sloppy writing, but if you take care of these problems, almost any other sin you commit writing a fanfic will probably be forgiven (at least by me). For a little more on proofing, read The Red Pen is Your Friend.

You should treat anything you write seriously. Now, keep in mind that I use the term “seriously” in very loosely. What I’m trying to say is that even when you are working on fan fiction you should put effort into your work and be professional. I have a friend who rides horses and she’s always saying that every time you ride you’re either training or un-training your horse. I’d say that the same can be said for writing. Don’t get used to producing sloppy work. Use everything you write to hone your craft. Always aim to write well, whether or not the story will ever be published. This definitely applies to proofing your writing, but it goes further than that.

If or when you write your own book and want to publish it, you are going to have to be able to summarize your story. First question people are going to ask when they find out that you write for a living is what your book is about. Now is the time to practice being able to summarize a story in one sentence. When I look through fan fiction, it quite often is the summary that makes me decide to read. So don’t put things like “I suck at summaries, but the story is good” or “This is my first fanfic” in your summary. Guaranteed way to turn the reader off before they even start reading. Sit down and figure out what your story is about. Who is it about? What is the problem that they are facing? Whittle it down to a sentence or two and voila, you have a summary. You want something short, sweet and slightly sneaky. Now I don’t claim to be a master at the summary thing, in fact I am still working on it. But here’s an example of what I am talking about from a Batman fic that I wrote:

“Living with Gotham’s dark knight was going to be hard, but somehow, Selina had never figured this into the equation.”

Granted it’s a little vague…but doesn’t it make you wonder what the “this” is? Now that story is a one shot, summaries for a multi-chapter story can be a little more difficult because you have an entire plot versus a single scenario. However, it you’re smart and write down the general plot of your story you’ll already be halfway there. On that note, I have a confession to make: I have several unfinished fanfics because I was too lazy to write down the plot. Yep, I have at least three stories that have been left hanging and may never be finished and I have learned a very valuable lesson. Create an outline…or at least jot down a few notes about where you’re going with a story. That way you’ll be able to keep going and your fans won’t want to kill you. Just a little bit of wisdom I thought I’d pass on.

Another big problem that many amateurs run into is handling point of view (POV). POV is the bane of every author at some point in their career. It is best mastered through experience. The more you write, the better you get at handling POV. However, POV isn’t something you typically announce. There are occasions where you do need to have that extra bit of clarity. For example, when you’re handling a story with multiple first-person narrators. Not that I suggest doing that first time out of the gate. Still, you want to develop distinction is your narrators so that even without the names at the top of the chapter people can feel who it is narrating. You want to have a chapter break or something similar to indicate that you are changing viewpoint.   Trust me, your audience will appreciate not having to guess at who is narrating. If you find it necessary to indicate who the narrator is, I’ve found that the least intrusive way is to put the character’s name in bold print at the top of the section. But don’t switch too often, constant switch of POV gets annoying and tiring for your reader.

Keep in mind that you are using someone else’s world and characters. Disclaimers, though it may not seem necessary, are good form when you’re posting fan fiction. Also, be careful about going AU (alternate universe). Granted, if you start a fic during book 3 and there are now books 4, 5, and 6, then there will definitely be differences between what you are writing and the actually storyline that the real author came up with. When I say AU I don’t mean a story you wrote because  you think Bella should’ve ended up with Jacob/Mike/Tyler/Ben. That’s okay (If you go for off-canon stuff like that). But there is such a thing as being too “creative” when you’re fanfic-ing. Fan fiction is about immersing yourself in another author’s world and working with that. My favorite compliment with my fanfics is when I’m told that the reader can’t tell the difference between me and the real author. It means that I’ve done a good job…that I have ninja-writer skills. However, don’t use another author’s story and characters to dress up your own story. It is one thing to wonder how Harry and Co. would fair in a normal high school. But taking Harry Potter and inserting him into a world that you created with nothing to tie him back to J.K. Rowling and her world is a big no-no. You need to respect the original author’s work and keep your own true to that in every way your talent/training allows you to.

Remember, the fan fiction scene is a community. The people who read your fan fiction are just as much in love with that world as you are. Which means that they will have their own opinions. And those opinions may not necessarily agree with yours. Hopefully, your story will bring them around to your point of view, but don’t get hostile. Even if they do.  Engaging in a…I believe the technical term here is “pissing contest” with any of your readers is very bad form. A little friendly debate is always fun, but know when you should just walk away.

While we’re on the subject of feedback and community. Let’s talk about reviews. Obviously, you aren’t the only writer of fan fiction. And all those other writers out there are craving reviews just as much has you are. I know, it’s hard. A lot of the time I don’t feel that I have anything constructive (or nice) to say. Now granted, “OMG! This was an awesome story. It’s the bestest, best (insert fandom here) story I have ever read!!!!!” is not very helpful. Good for the ego, but not helpful. I’ve started trying to point out two things: 1. What I liked about the story/What they’re doing well and 2. One thing that I think they could improve. For example, “I really like the way that you’re handling the characters, you’ve hit so-and-so’s character spot on. However, I’d be a little more careful when you proofread. Especially with the difference of “your” vs. “you’re”. Can’t wait for the next chapter!” Notice the specificity…and the judicious use of exclamation points. Being specific gives a person something to watch out for. And if you ever end up on the tail end of one of these reviews, don’t get mad. It’s much harder for you to see your own faults, so be grateful for the help. Always thank them for taking the time to review.

Finally, no discussion of fan fiction would be complete without covering the most notorious, obnoxious and cringe-inducing character of them all: the Mary Sue (if your name really is Mary Sue, I apologize, but I didn’t come up with the term). We’ve all read stories with him/her in it. She’s perfect, has every power in the book (along with the ability to immediately control them), has the looks of a supermodel, the genius of Einstein, and is loved by everyone who isn’t pure evil…and even that’s not a given, no one has converted more bad guys than Ms. Mary Sue. Typically, this character is the author inserting themselves into a story, and not in the cute Stan Lee having a cameo in the Marvel movies kind of way. I’m talking in the story-destroying, snore-inducing, hair-tearing sort of way. Let’s just take a moment and pretend that I am a Star Wars nerd (which I am) and I wanted to create my own character to insert into the storyline (which my brother and I did…we were big role-players as kids).  If I were to create a Mary Sue for the Star Wars world, she would be the world’s most powerful Jedi with the uncanny ability to see the future, who also happens to be an intergalactic senator, who single-handedly is able to stop the Empire, all while keeping Anakin from turning to the Dark Side and having a secret relationship with Obi-Wan. And did I mention that she’s Padme’s twin sister? Don’t you hate her already? Not only does she screw up the entire story, but she’s guaranteed to be a snob because she’s so much better than everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about an original character (OC). There are often necessary for whatever story you’ve created. But there is a line, a very big, glaring, “Do not pass Go, do not collect $200” line between an OC and a Mary Sue. Even canon characters can become Mary Sue-like if you don’t create real obstacles for them. Rule of thumb: If they’re perfect and have no problems, then dirty them up a little. Add a couple of flaws or/and take away some (or all) of their powers. The strange fact is, if you give us a reason to hate them, we will just love them all the more. (Don’t believe me? Two words: Severus Snape.) Keep an eye out for any character that is starting to become too Mary Sue-ish, whether it is a canon character, an OC, or even a character in your own original fiction.

All-in-all, there is some really good stuff in the fan fiction community. And some of it could be yours if you keep these things in mind. If any of my veteran fanfic-ers think of something that I missed, feel free to leave a comment. Also, I’d love some feedback on the length of this blog. Was it too long? Just right? Would you have preferred a two-parter?

Oh, and one last word of advice. Authors are obligated by their contracts to report any fan fiction that they receive, so don’t send them your story. No matter how awesome it is.