Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing Fanfiction: One Man's Techniques and Practices

Over the weekend, I received an email asking me what my process is for writing fanfiction, and asking if I had any advice for a budding fanfic author.  I sent back a response of course, but this is about the dozenth time I've gotten such a request.  Since it seems to be a common question, I've decided to make a slightly more in-depth answer to those two questions and post it here.

I must confess to feeling like something of a charlatan for writing this: while I like to think of myself as a competent author, I'm quite certain that there's not a single person who would point to me as "the best author in the fandom," least of all myself.  As such, offering advice on how to write seems to assign me undue importance.  Nevertheless, I've done my best to provide some relevant and hopefully not too conceited insights.  For anyone interested in writing, and especially for budding authors, I hope there's some useful information here.  Below, my thoughts:

Let me start with the obvious (obvious to me, at any rate): there is no "right" or "wrong" way to write fanfiction.  There are only processes and techniques which produce positive results, and those which don't.  As such, there's only one hard and fast piece of advice I have to offer to authors: if what you are doing isn't producing the results you want, do something different.  Simple and vague though it is, I honestly believe that this is the single best piece of advice I can offer anyone on the subject.

Before we can go any farther, however, we must look at what "positive results" are.  Since amateur fanfiction is by definition a hobby, rather than a job, there is only one answer in the broadest sense: we write for our enjoyment (as an aside, my colon key is getting a real workout writing this post).  So what makes writing enjoyable?  Well, that answer will depend on the author.

There's the simple pleasure of putting your words to paper/word processor, of course.  For some authors, that's all the satisfaction needed.  But for myself, and for many writers, the joy of having others read and appreciate what you've written is a powerful motivator.  In addition, there's the sense of satisfaction to be had from knowing that you've written something of high quality, regardless of the praise or attention it draws.

Not all of these may apply to you as an author, of course.  Plenty of fanfic writers are content to never "publish" their stories; the satisfaction of having written them is enough.  For others, quality is a secondary concern, or is only a means of getting people to read and enjoy their fanfic.  Some folks may be motivated by other things entirely.  But my point (long though I've taken to get to it) is this: once you know what it is about writing that you enjoy, it quickly becomes clear whether or not your current writing technique is effective.

So what's my writing technique?  Well, it's one I've developed over the years and which I know gets me results I can be happy with.  To be perfectly clear, I don't recommend that everyone (or anyone, for that matter) should adopt my practices.  I offer up a look at how I write fanfiction only as a window into my personal technique, which may or may not include elements which you as a writer will find useful.

With all those caveats out of the way, here goes: all of my fanfiction starts with a simple prompt or idea ("What if Pokey Pierce was a member of a secret organization that professionally ruined parties?"  "The tale of Taliesin's birth, with Celestia cast in the role of Ceridwen." etc.).  Once that's percolated around in my head long enough to grow some meat, I write out a summary of my prospective story.  This is usually quite short (half a page or less), and mostly consists of a list of major plot points I want to hit.  Once I've got that written down, I sit down at my computer and start typing a rough draft.

I write the draft from start to finish--I have learned from experience that I am unable to write major scenes first and "fill in the gaps" later.  I write in spurts: a few hundred words, then get up and practice the piano for a bit. A thousand more, then fill the bird feeder.  Another page or two, then go for a quick walk.  I need these breaks to put in order what I'm about to write, so that when I sit down I can just type without trying to figure out what I'm going to do next.  I consult my summary regularly during this phase, but I don't feel any obligation to hold to it stringently.  Mostly, it's just there to make sure I don't go wandering off on tangents (a perennial problem of mine, one which I've found the summary helps with immensely).

Once the rough draft is finished, I let it sit a while.  Several days, preferably.  When I come back to it, I want to be looking at it with fresh eyes.  The first revision is the "big" revision for me: during this stage, I'll frequently find myself forced to make dramatic changes to what I've written.  Stories can shrink or grow by half, and entire side plots or significant characters may be added or deleted.  Basically, I read through the story a few times, and every time I find something I don't like, I change it.  Once I can read what I've written from start to end without seeing any major narrative alterations I want to make, I call that the second draft and am done with it.

For another day or two.  Then come the final editing rounds.  This consists of anywhere from two to approximately ten million read-throughs during which I make what are sometimes called "invisible edits:" changes that don't significantly affect the story.  It can be grammatical or mechanical errors, awkward and unwieldy phrasing, or smoothing out significant tone shifts, but the story has essentially taken its final form by this point.  Once that's done, I have a friend look over my story (she's not a big fan of the show, so her assistance mostly consists of pointing out any remaining mechanical problems), and then I'm done!

Until several weeks later, when I go back and notice one or two painfully obvious mistakes that I managed to miss when I submitted my story for the internet's approval.

So why do I write like this?  Well, it generally gives me results I can be happy with.  It does have its weaknesses, however.  The most obvious example is that the stop-go writing style I use when typing my rough draft often produces major shifts in tone throughout the story.  A lot of my subsequent editing is dedicated to smoothing out these transitions (when I look back at some of my earlier writing for this fandom, it's painfully obvious to me where I took a break and then came back to continue writing later).  The process is slow, and leads to lots of incomplete stories: at this moment, I have nine stories which I've written anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to several thousand words of, none of which I'm likely to continue.  And those are just the ones I felt held enough promise that I didn't delete them.

But when I do muddle through and finish a story, I know I can be happy with it.  When I look back at the stories I've put out for this fandom, I sometimes cringe--could I really have written that?--but on the whole, I'm able to feel satisfied with what I've done.  And although I have yet to write anything which I can't retrospectively spot dozens of problems with, that's just part of writing: I'm a better writer now than I was a year ago, and I see problems that didn't even occur to me then.  For me, the knowledge that I did the best I could (combined with the reassurance that despite that, my best work is still ahead of me) is the satisfaction I seek.

So, that's my big secret.  Ask me again in a few months, and there will probably be a new wrinkle or two to my writing technique (remember: when you aren't getting the results you want, change something!), but that's how I go about writing stories for the present.  If anything you've read above has given you any insights into how or why to write, then I'm prepared to call this post a success.  If not, sorry about that.  But regardless, remember this: we write fanfiction because we enjoy it.  So enjoy what you do.


  1. Something you wrote has given me an insight into or how to write, so CONGRATULATIONS!

    It would be interesting to hear from other writers as well though. Maybe someone else will say their system in the comments.

    1. Holy filibuster, Batman! This turned out to be a lot longer than I expected.

      Chicken Vortex, I suggest you check out the Pony Fiction vault, if you aren't already aware of it. It's a collection of popular/high quality fanfics combined with author interviews. One of the standard questions on those interviews is "What is your typical writing process?" and there's a lot of good information there (as well as in the rest of the interviews, really).

    2. New picture!

      Anyway, I didn't know about that, so thanks. I shall look into it.

  2. Your process is so identical to mine that the difference aren't worth mentioning. Interesting...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I was expecting a whole lot of comments about other writers' systems. Oh well, let me get this started.

    My process goes something like this: I have the beginnings of an idea for a story. Then I force myself to bang out a beginning, an ending and the major direction of the plot and significant subplots before putting fingers to keyboard. This planning is very important, because I've done the "make it up as you go along" thing, and that very seldom resolves itself nicely.

    How I actually write it depends on its length and how I'm feeling. Very short pieces will get written from start to finish, but I like to jump around a bit with longer pieces.

    With each chapter, I'll hash out an idea of how it's going to go in my head (in a similar way to how I work out ideas for stories as a whole) and then I'll make a quick scene skeleton, which looks a little like this:

    Chapter X

    [Characters meet the seaponies!]


    [Switch to secondary characters as they plot and scheme]


    [Much SHOO BEE DOOing occurs]

    And then I'll flesh out each part of the skeleton in whatever order I feel like writing it in. That order is usually "from beginning to end", but in a piece that shows a bunch of different perspectives, I feel free to write each scene independently and then swap them around and figure out what reads best. And sometimes I like to write the first scene and the last scene and then fill in the middle bits afterwards. Other times I just jump around randomly (not too often, though).

    >I write in spurts: a few hundred words, then get up and practice the piano for a bit. A thousand more, then fill the bird feeder. Another page or two, then go for a quick walk. I need these breaks to put in order what I'm about to write, so that when I sit down I can just type without trying to figure out what I'm going to do next.
    I do this too. I'll generally write about 700-1300 words and then take a break to do something else. I try to plan out how my scenes are going to go as thoroughly as I can before sitting down to type them, else I get frustrated.

    Because I love *** breaks, I find that I'll generally write bits between these breaks out in their entirity in one sitting. That, I think, aids the consistency of my writing to some degree.

  5. Heh, two writing styles posted so far, and both diametrically opposite from mine ^_^

    Generally, my own approach tends to be a lot more bohemian; when I get an idea, I make sure NOT to plan anything, or even think about it too much. However, it usually includes not just a story prompt (e.g. "accident at major weather factory just before harvest season sends the country haywire"), but also a vague image of the main character (e.g. "tech-pony who absolutely hates their job, but still does everything the boss says just for a promotion and more money").

    After a few days, if the idea still seems cool (and often, it doesn't!), I then finally sit down and write out the first chapter. Keep in mind, aside from that vague idea, plus a list of pre-made names (I'm horrible at making names on the fly, so I just keep a list of cool ones ^_^), I have literally nothing else at this point. I then take my main character, put them into a situation that will soon get interesting (to allow a few pages for the introductory warm-up), and get writing.

    Then, I write stuff, literally as it comes to my head. The factory has an OCD shift supervisor? Why the hay not! Say a safety inspector's coming around on a visit, too, and the main character has to lure her away from the accident-prone sites (ponies aren't very good at engineering, after all). So, I make up characters, much of the opening situation, even some sub-plots, quite at the whims of the opening. You can see what I meant by 'bohemian' here ^_^

    After the intro, I take out a pencil and chart out the general direction of the story. Nothing specific, just the over-arching acts (e.g. "general panic", "information gathering", "big operation goes wrong", "doom&gloom", "final desperate attempt" ).
    Then, I proceed with the rest of the story; of course, it's all in pencil, so it may change at anytime, if I get a cooler idea a third of the way through or something.

    I agree, it's often a huge headache to get it tied up in the end, but I've generally had good results, and I like the feel of the story in the end; again, this is purely personal, but writing with an outline feels a bit confining to me, whereas these horribly disorganized plots feel a bit more 'organic'.

    For the actual writing, I usually go along a linear path (I've found that if I write the "zomg so awesome" scenes and the ending first, I just can't be bothered to write the rest of the story, so I force myself to go strictly start->finish). After that, I go back and re-read 1-3 times, fixing grammar derps and adding more emotion/description/build-up where necessary (I read way too much bad sci-fi as a kid, so I still have trouble with that). After that, off to the beta-reader[s], a final editing round, and then (maybe) submit.
    Oh, and I keep a notepad around with me, just if I get a cool idea while taking a walk/doing work/whatever.

    Standard disclaimer about questionable quality results applies.

    PS: The final, and most important part of this writing style is also writing WORDS WORDS WORDS describing it, instead of actually working on the story like I'm supposed to!

    1. Eeep, that ended up longer than I expected...