Lots of writers are getting their start in fanfiction these days, especially in the m/m romance genre. I started writing fanfic in late 2003 and was still finishing some up even after I’d sold Liar’s Waltz. It can be a great apprenticeship, I think, and there are some lessons you can bring with you as you move into the pro writing world. But there are also some you should leave behind.
Bring with you
Discipline and Reliability
If you’re posting a fanfic chapter by chapter your readers want you to update regularly. Of course there’s nothing to force the writer to do so – except for a sense of obligation to keep a promise to the reader. If you were able to do this, to make yourself get on and do the work, despite the siren calls of other activities, that can only serve you well as a pro-writer. It will help you turn in your edits on time, or keep up a regular blog schedule, or at the most basic level, get your ass in the chair getting your work done.
The skill to summarise stories succinctly (try saying that five times fast.)
Many books on writing ask you to sum up your story in one or two sentences. If you’ve spent years posting stories on fanfiction.net, you should already have a good idea how to do that in a way that sums up the story and attracts the reader. (Assuming you were not one of those people who used to put up “I suck at summaries. Just read it, ‘k!!”) The longer story summaries on sites with more room are also good practice for writing blurbs. Because, FYI, you the writer have to write those. The publisher’s marketing department may edit them/sex them up a bit, but you write them. And in any case you have to write the blurb-like story summary in a query letter by yourself.
If you worked hard to keep your fanfic character true to their canon personality, you’ve learned a lot about keeping characterisation consistent through a book. You’ve learned how to ask questions like “is this really the way this character would react to this?” Your own characters have to stay in character too, so those fanfic writers who paid a lot of attention to characterisation have learned valuable lessons.
Practice in dealing with feedback and critique
Fanfic writers have a lot of engagement with reviewers. They can learn to deal with it gracefully. They can learn to develop a thick skin. It’s the same with critique. There are fandom specific critique groups, there are beta readers. All provide valuable experience and practice for dealing with critique for your pro work and for one day working with an editor. The trick is finding the ones that offer valuable, honest critique and learning everything you can from the experience.
Things to leave behind
Long fanfic stories are rarely published all at once and then read over a few days, like a novel. It’s much more common for a long story to be posted in instalments, sometimes on a regular schedule, sometimes on a very irregular one! This means that many of the stories don’t have the same structure as a novel. Or at least not a modern novel. They may resemble serially published novels of the 19th century. Many of those were great novels, but submit one of them now and it may well be rejected for not being paced the modern way. So as you move from long serialised fanfic to pro novels you may need to study up a bit on novel structure and be careful of how your story is paced.
The roles of supporting and minor characters
(A certain person knows where I got this point from!) Almost every character on a TV show/movie/book is somebody’s favourite, and as such they are usually welcome to be the star of a scene, even if they aren’t doing much to move the story forward. We like to see them anyway. It’s fun, it’s like a cameo. But it doesn’t work as well with a minor character in original fiction. The reader gets a bit baffled. Why the concentration on this person? What do they have to do with the story? Can’t we get back to the main plot? Pro fic demands much stricter character wrangling.
Too much detail about everyday life of the characters
In fanfic it can be a lot of fun to follow the characters who are normally busy fighting crime, or saving the world, or kicking ass, to the supermarket, or spending a quiet evening at home. It can be kind of adorable in fact – there’s even a genre for it “Curtain Fic.” But with original characters the readers don’t yet know or care about, it’s just dull. Cut to the chase. Leave the curtain fic for the people who write the fanfic of your book! 😀
Too much contact with readers
You have to change the way you interact with readers when you go pro. I became good online friends with some of the readers of my fanfic and remain friends to this day. Fanfic readers and writers have lots of contact and the readers are usually happy to have it. It’s very much a community. But there isn’t quite the same closeness in the pro world. The readers and reviewers on Goodreads for example may not like having the writer responding to their reviews and discussions. It may feel intrusive. The writer has to realise they’re not part of the community in the same way as before. They’re now the provider of the original content and it’s a different role than the fanfic writer.
Any other ex-fanfic writers have found there are lessons that served you well and others that you had to unlearn? Or as a reader had you noticed echoes of fanfiction style writing in books, or fandom style behaviour from writers?