Sex, Misery, And Cliffhangers: How I Write Fanfic
Smut sells and misery is gold. Ship to your heart's content!
I've been writing my own stories since I was 12. But for the last four years, I have been writing many more words – in fan fiction.
My audience has grown since my first forays into creative writing; in 2013, I shared half a million words of fiction across fandoms including Merlin, Sherlock, and The Musketeers.
My best-known story is probably Torchlight, for the Elementary fandom.
Here are some things I've learned about writing – and fandom – since entering the vast and welcoming world of fan fiction.
1. Twenty-four hours to save the world.
Fanfic thrives on peril: kidnap, pursuit, the enemy advancing slowly with a loaded weapon. Bring it on, then dot dot dot, more next week! The best fan fiction ends each chapter clinging to a narrow ledge of lust and/or despair, causing readers to type reviews that plead for the next instalment. I always included cliffhangers in my writing, but lately they have reached Matterhorn proportions.
If you're not leaving your hero dangling over a flaming pit, Flash Gordon-style, then at least end a chapter on a sharp cut. Think TV scene changes. Avoid explaining what just happened, or wrapping it up at the end of each chapter. Your readers are the most expert audiences in the world – they get it.
2. Gayness. All the gayness.
Fan fiction is a place where sexuality and gender issues in general are acknowledged and explored. If you want to redress the (giant) imbalance of male to female lead characters in fiction, here is your chance to create a female D'Artagnan or Captain Kirk. In romance, writers explore relationships – 'ships – between anybody and everybody. And because of the general shortage of women in TV fiction, most of the available 'ship characters are men.
For me, the "gay thing" also demonstrates how often the main emotional connections are between two male characters – even when there is a male-female relationship on the show. Yeah, Arthur and Guinevere were married and stuff. But the drama in the BBC's Merlin is with Arthur and Merlin, because that's where the writers put the conflict and the emotion. See also Sherlock, Star Trek, and a host of other shows.
Fan fiction acknowledges this by producing an overwhelming majority of male-male romance fics for fandoms with underrepresented or completely absent female characters. There's a bigger question here about our apparent inability to legitimise deep relationships except via romantic and sexual love, but at a surface level, you have to 'ship people where you see the connection, and that is very often between the men. You don't have to write gay fic, of course. But you might find, under the magnetic pull of fandom consensus, that you want to.
3. Stop giggling, Batman.
The greatest compliments I've received are reviews saying my story reads like an episode of the show: It means I have the voices right. The cadence and lavish anecdotes of Raymond Reddington, the clipped speech of Spock, the dry ripostes of Lucy Liu's Watson – the voices define those characters. And mimicking these strong voices has inspired more distinctive voices in my original fiction.
The worst fan fiction has every character sounding like a stereotypical teenage girl. There's nothing wrong with that per se, except when those characters are Kirk, Uhura, and the Borg, none of whom are given to simpering, or ending a sentence with "lol".
4. It's a women's world, mostly.
The writers I've encountered online seem to be mostly women under 20 or women over 40. Or 60. I have never engaged with any fan fiction writer who identifies as male. In fact, all of fandom appears to be a kind of Women's Internet.
That's pleasant (yay, supportiveness), but also it's also a bit odd. There are plenty of fandoms whose members include men, and interestingly, these fandoms have enjoyed more legitimacy than those where women are now the main fanwork creators – think Star Trek and Doctor Who, which have long-established fandoms and a wealth of approved spinoff fiction, found in bookstores everywhere.
So where are the male fan fiction writers? Maybe they're pitching their fan fiction to TV production companies as "reimaginings"? Hmm.
5. Anything goes.
Writing fan fiction offers a way to try on new styles and genres, borrowing some ready-made characters and conflicts. This is great for a writer: You can skip right through the hard work of setting up a complex situation in which a young boy must hide his magical powers from an oppressive regime, and get right into wondering what would happen if. You can do it in poetry, you can write in sentences of five words each; you are free. Thanks, BBC Merlin writers!
Fandoms' acceptance of many styles can benefit your other writing too. You could pull a reverse Stephenie Meyer, and make your protagonists Out of Character (OOC), set up a situation strangely similar to that novel you're writing, and then have fan fiction readers test-bed your original fic.
And speaking of test-beds...
6. Sex is important, but so is cuteness. And misery.
There is sex. Of course. Fanfic translates to "scenes we'd like to see", and the number one thing we'd like to see is hooking up, and plenty of it. Accidental or enforced bed-sharing is my absolute favourite storyline: Oh no, we must huddle together for warmth, or safety, or something. Anyway, come here, you attractive comrade.
I tend towards the romantic – I am all about the implicit sex – but fan fiction has ample provision for writers to describe the act of love in sweaty detail. Sometimes I have to get the dictionary out.
If sex scenes aren't your thing, there are plenty of other genres. Try fluff – show your favourite characters exchanging Christmas gifts. (Hint: It's always a puppy.) Or how about angst – aka pure misery? I never understood the appeal of angst until I started writing it, but weirdly it is great fun to make your characters suffer – for love, and for long, tortured pages. Oh, the pain.
Some popular ships, seeking crew
7. Smut is popular.
The fastest way to get your story read by thousands is to write for a big fandom like Supernatural or Buffy, and slap an "Adult" rating on it.
If you want your faves to get it on, and the pen is in your hand, why fade to black? No, show it all in eye-melting detail, so that people reading it on the train have to hold their phones close to their faces and breathe through their mouths because oh my god did that really go in there.
The ubiquity of smut in fanfic is a surprise to nobody. TV writing features hot people in the most intense situations they can invent. Who can be shocked that viewers develop fantasies about The Doctor or Scully or Loki? Come on. You give the world sexy werewolves, and the world will sit at its keyboard typing "Drip the wax on me, Edward" and slavering over the hits their story will get overnight.
Side note: Most readers are in America, so post the latest chapter of your filthy masterpiece after 9pm UK time for your readers to get their fix of X-rated Pride and Prejudice on the way home from work.
Fan fiction writers live for feedback. Comments and reviews are literally the first thing I check each morning. Readers can, and do, offer comment chapter by chapter, meaning you know immediately if a story is working. You can also check your story's view statistics to pinpoint the exact place where interest fell away and your audience dwindled to a couple of your best buddies.
I've learned not to fear feedback. If readers hate a fic, they can read something else; for BBC Sherlock, there are literally 60,000 others to choose from. But even a bad review is a compliment because someone was sufficiently affected by your story to be outraged at something Spock said, or distraught that you didn't provide a trigger warning for a plot involving marriage. True story.
I now love feedback, and also I've learned that marriage can be very upsetting.
9. Feel the fear and share that fic anyway.
The first time I shared a fic, for Elementary, I was quaking. What if people didn't read it? What if they did?
Fan fiction gives you an automatic readership, because all fandoms – especially small or obscure ones – are desperate for good stories about their beloved characters. You take the plunge, and suddenly your story is on the internet for anyone to see.
Years after that first time, I still get a thrill when I share something new, but it no longer terrifies me. I've done it too often for it to be scary. People will like it or they won't. Instead, I'm already busy writing the next thing. That's another lesson fan fiction provides: write, share, then move on. And there's one final writing benefit: Because you cannot profit from any of it, the pressure is off. People will like it or hate it, but there are no expectations of monetary gain or Nobel success. You, the writer, are unshackled. You can write for love, for fun, for that one other person who wants stories for Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom.