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.