8 Tips on How to Become a Successful Fanfiction Writer

Illustration by Ramiro Roman

I noticed on the Internet there’s a stigma attached to being known as a fanfiction writer. Go online and search for writing tips or advice; there’s a wealth of information on the topic, but generally with the intent to self-publish or solicit a publishing house. Almost never do you see advice catered to those who write fanfiction, and that’s missed opportunity.

Just look at the success of authors who got their start in fanfiction; such as E.L. James, Rainbow Rowell, and Amanda Todd. Authors who “graduate” from fanfiction to eventually create their own original works are a growing niche that mainstream markets have yet to fully embrace.

I’ve written fanfiction for over 20 years. Currently, I’m on the path writing my first YA novel, using my two decades’ worth of experience to mentor the new generation of writers on how they can position themselves as authorities in fanfiction.

1. Have a Beginning and End in Mind for Your Story

One of the biggest pet peeves I have with fanfiction is stumbling across an AMAZING work of fanfiction, only to discover it was never completed.

Another pet peeve is getting invested in a story, then realizing halfway in that the author is grinding their gears, making up the story as they go along without a clear goal in mind.

Avoid the never-ending story or the dead fic, the bane of fanfiction. Before sharing your work with others, be absolutely certain you can visualize a conclusion.

A good strategy is to make an outline that details the major points of your story from beginning, middle to end. Another good tactic is to create a story web, especially when dealing with multiple characters.

Don’t enter the cave if you can’t see any light at the other end of the tunnel.

2. Write Consistently

The beautiful thing about a television show is that it has a scheduled time so viewers can set their expectations for new episodes. The Simpsons is always on at 8AM Sundays, The Price is Right is always 11AM weekdays, and SNICK (remember SNICK?!) was always 8-10PM Saturdays.

As with other creative outlets (podcasting, YouTube), it’s important to set a schedule and adhere to it. People will drop off when there haven’t been updates for months at a time, even if the story is amazing.

I used to be guilty of starting a story and not finishing it for several years, only updating sporadically. I hadn’t realized it then, but I was killing my opportunity to develop an audience by not posting on a consistent schedule readers could follow.

I finally learned my lesson when I participated in NaNoWriMo. I HAD to write on a daily basis to reach my goal; and, as a consequence, the fanfics I wrote during this time period were better received because they followed a schedule. I now employ the use of an editorial calendar and post to my website and Medium once a week — and I see my engagement steadily growing as a result.

3. Do Your Research

Part of the reason you write fanfiction is because you love the source material and know it like the back of your hand. Still, it’s important to do some research for your writing to avoid plot holes and inconsistencies.

I know everything there is to know about the NickToon Hey Arnold!, but even I would occasionally re-watch the series boxset or check the show’s wiki online to make sure I conveyed little details accurately.

A well-researched story is an immersive story.

4. Promote Your Work

“If you build it, [they] will come” is a line from the movie Field of Dreams — it’s also the worst advice when it comes to writing. It implies that all one has to do to garner a huge following is simply post one’s fanfic on the Internet and fans will come flocking in droves to support it. I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t work like that.

Your writing may get that little spike of traffic in the first few days, but that’s only for as long as it stays on the front page of fanfiction.net. After which, readers are generally lazy and won’t make the extra effort to go searching for your story after it gets buried with all the others.

If you’re writing a fanfic, visit fan communities and forums and inform people of your project. Promote on social media; for instance, inform readers of updates to your story on Twitter.

Caveat: While it’s a good idea to get the word out about our story, try your best to not be annoying about it. Promotion is all well and good, but please, please, PLEASE do not badger people into reading. Don’t hijack other people’s posts about their fanfics to promote your own, and don’t mass-email an entire fan community just to boost your readership numbers. This especially holds true for older stories written several years ago.

5. Incorporate Artwork with Your Writing

There was a fanfic I ignored for quite some time, convincing myself I wasn’t into the subject matter. Then I stumbled upon some fantastic artwork for the fanfic that made me say “Well, maybe I’ll check it out.” I read the entire story and it became one of my favorites in the Hey Arnold! community.

A story becomes more engaging when accompanied by artwork. Even if you’re not an artist, the benefit of fandom is that you can borrow from fanart (with permission, of course!) or commission an artist adept at creating the exact visuals you intend to showcase along with your story.

6. Engage with Your Audience

When someone leaves a review, be sure to thank them. Author notes at the beginning or end of chapters are another good way to publicly acknowledge feedback from readers and to keep them engaged with your writing process.

It’s always a good idea to interact with other members of the fan community, especially other writers. It will help you build rapport and will make the promotion of your work more likely, as people that are friends are more likely to share each other’s stories.

That said, while it’s good to acknowledge your readers, avoid the temptation to tailor your fanfic to the whims of fans who leave feedback. If you have a particular vision in mind for your story, don’t change tack when a random reader suggests X should happen in the plot instead of Y.

7. Don’t Get Bogged Down by Feedback

An advantage of writing fanfiction is the instant gratification it offers. You can post what you wrote online and within minutes someone can respond by liking, favoriting, following your story, or leaving a comment or review.

For someone who gets addicted to a steady stream of likes and validation, it can be torture to post something and not get immediately inundated with praise and positive feedback. It can be a downright buzzkill to log on and see only negative feedback as well.

If you’re like this, you have to take a step back and assess why you’re writing fanfiction. Ideally, it’s because you have a story to tell, and not just to see your likes and follower count rise. It’s nice to have your writing be appreciated, but, for your own well-being, it’s important to not eagle-eye the statistics.

Here are some useful suggestions to stay focused on your writing and quell the constant urge for approval:

  • Schedule a Day to Check for Reviews
  • Remind Yourself that Creating New Content Begets New Feedback
  • Remove Yourself from the Computer

Repeat after me: YOU CANNOT PLEASE EVERYONE. There is a popular saying that “you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” The same holds true for writing.

In the fanfiction world, I used to write some of the most well-received crossover stories in the Hey Arnold! fandom. While I got positive feedback, I was also met with a lot of indifference from the larger audience because a. I was bucking the trend by not writing romance (I skewed more toward science-fiction and fantasy) and, b. crossovers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

I could have cowed and written the stories that I knew would be popular, but I stuck to my convictions and wrote the stories that were important to me. They may not be among the most highly recommended Hey Arnold! fanfics, but I feel good knowing that I wrote the best fanfic I possibly could.

Feedback is a double-edged sword; it can bolster you to finish the next chapter of your story, or it can feed into your feelings of imposter syndrome. Accepting feedback and deciphering the constructive criticism from the trolls will help strengthen your resolve as a writer.

8. Understand That This Can ONLY Be a HOBBY

Perhaps the least-welcoming advice of the bunch: it’s important to recognize that to be a fanfiction writer is to be the ultimate hobbyist.

You can’t share your fanfiction with the creators who inspired you, as it may not be appreciated (Anne Rice forbids fan versions of her material) or lay the groundwork for potential lawsuits. You can also never sell your fanfiction because you can’t claim ownership on the intellectual property from which you borrow.

When Hey Arnold! ended, the fans may have gotten a satisfying conclusion to the series, but I still felt like I had more stories to tell. That’s when I knew I could no longer confine my talents to the limitation of fanfiction.

The moment you entertain the idea of publishing or selling your writing, you’ve reached a stage of self-realization in your craft that requires a professional mindset. You must take the next step and start to create your own worlds and characters. Fortunately, you’ll be well equipped with all the experience of fanfiction writing under your belt!

Do you agree that fanfiction is a legitimate step on the path to becoming a writer? Or is it a time-wasting hobby that takes energy away from improving one’s writing skills?

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