Frequently Asked Questions List

What is fan fiction?
"Fan Fiction" is fiction based on a television series, written by fans. Fanfic—by and large—is not scripts but prose. While some have chosen to write their fanfic in teleplay form, those are few and far between. Pieces range in length from vignettes (1000 words) to short stories to full blown novels (50,000+ words). There has been fanfic in media fandom for decades, collected in APAs (Amateur Publishing Associations) and circulated through the post, and more commonly in "fanzines"—not-for-profit anthologies of short stories, poems, novellas, and novels usually accompanied by fan artwork, published by fans and sold through the post and at conventions like MediaWest, an annual 'zine con in the Midwest. Many professional authors (Jean Lorrah, A.C. Crispin, Peter David, and Susan Garrett, to name a few) had their start in fanzines.

Since the web hit big in the early 1990s, fanfic has spread through the on-line media fan community like wildfire, even moving from tradition genre subjects (SF, Fantasy, Horror, Espionage, Police Dramas) to rather unconventional ones (Sitcoms, Medical Dramas, Soap Operas). Many fanfic writes on the Internet, AOL and other forums have never seen a fanzine, and their first introduction to fanfic were the on-line Usenet newsgroups and archives of fanfic written by print fandom media fans writing on-line—which inspired them to write their own.

The marriage between on-line fanfic and 'zine fandom is uneasy—largely due to the print world's use of copy and content editors to ensure the quality of the published fiction, and the 'net's conspicuous lack thereof. Sturgeon's Law definitely applies, and the "slush pile" on-line is ten to a hundred times greater in volume than the 'zine world.

However, fanfic discussion lists and the now common practice of "Beta Readers" (friends of the author who do some copy and content editing, and provide editorial feedback) have sprung up to attempt to rectify this situation. True web "publishing" is rare, but some of the best fiction today is being written by on-line authors, and this fanfic is finding its way into the print world through various fan publishers culling their submissions from the 'net.

To learn more about fanfic in the media fandom world, I highly recommend Textual Poachers, a sociological text by Henry Jenkins which examines the creation and growth of fanfic and 'zines, and goes into great detail about the various genres of the medium, and contains interviews with authors, editors and publishers.

For more essays and sites devoted to fan fiction, check out: Dr. Merlin's Guide to Fan Fiction

How can I become a better writer?
Then write some more.
Oh, and write.
And have I mentioned, write?

Seriously, the best thing you can do to improve your craft is to write constantly. Have writer's block? Don't moan about it; write through it. Go ahead and write badly, just keep going. You can always cut out the parts that suck later. The important thing is to keep working at it.

However, before you share your work, make sure that it is the best work you are capable of.

This is done through a variety of steps, namely:
1. Editing.
2. Editing.
3. Editing.
4. Line editing (for spelling, grammar, typos)
5. Content editing (for flow, logic, story structure, and so on)
6. Re-writes.
7. Repeat steps 1-6.
And in addition to writing, try reading. Everything. Because you learn as much from reading as you do from writing. Especially if you read good stuff. And if you think people don't learn grammar, structure, content, and flow from osmosis, think again. Better yet, remember the last story you read with POV shifts every 2 paragraphs, no punctuation, and homophones up the wazoo. I guarantee that if you read for pleasure, you are less likely to make those mistakes.

Some cardinal rules:

If your characters have to act out of character for your plot to work, then your plot DOES NOT WORK.
I really don't need to explain this one, do I?

Put the quality of the work above your own ego.
Realistically, what does this mean? It means that even if your entire 12th grade class thought it was brilliant, that doesn't mean the person telling you the ending doesn't work, the pacing is off, and your spelling sucks is wrong. It means that constructive criticism, and putting the welfare of your story ahead of your own crushed feelings, will make you a better writer. And if it doesn't, then you need to examine your reasons for writing.

If you write because it's a fun social activity, because your friends do it, and because you love to read fanfic, and want to contribute to the sub-genre, that does not mean that you are somehow exempt from the same criteria that apply to all writers and all fiction. If you are only sharing your fiction amongst friends, that is one thing. But before you share it with the rest of the world, think about whether or not this is really something you should—or are ready to—share. If you put your name on something, first make sure it's something you want your name on, and be willing to listen to people if they tell you it can be better.

If you are serious about your writing, and want to put out the best work you are capable of, then be prepared for work-shop style critiques. If you can't take it, then either develop a thicker skin, or re-evaluate your reasons for sharing your stories (be it on a mailing list, or publishing them to a website or a fanzine) in the first place. Negative feedback is just as constructive and 100 times more useful in most cases, as positive, and is not to be confused with flames, a personal attack, etc. Just because you may not agree with something someone has said about your work does not mean her or she has flamed you. Try and use critical feedback to view your work from a new perspective. You can pick and choose what advice you take; but all feedback is useful in one way or another, and should be given due consideration and never simply rejected out of hand.

Also, if you are giving feedback, no matter how much or little you like the work, try and be courteous and unbiased in imparting your opinions. Just because you disagree with someone else does not mean they do not have any valid points. Likewise, just because you like the author as a person does not mean you have to defend their work regardless of its merits, or lack thereof. In reality, you are most likely harming them by not telling them how they can best improve their writing, and allowing them to believe they have nothing else to learn. This is, frankly, bullshit. All writers keep learning and growing, with every story or novel they write. And we all learn something new that can help us become better writers. There is always more to learn.

Yes, this is fandom. But that does not mean that the standards are any lower here than anywhere else. Just because it is motivated by love rather than money, that does not mean that we shouldn't set the bar higher and strive for the very best in our work. Those who insist the difference between fan fiction and unpublished professional fiction is quality are, frankly, full of shite. Good fiction is good fiction, no matter what the arena. And as a writer, you should always strive to tell the very best story you can.

Use critical feedback to improve your work
First and foremost, as a writer you must learn to distinguish critical feedback of your work from a personal attack. If you cannot look at your own work critically, then you will never improve as a writer. The hard part is not taking critical feedback personally, and not rejecting it out of hand simply because it hurt your feelings. You do not have to make every change suggested to you by a reader. However, you do have to examine all feedback and decide—impartially—if there is merit to it, and how to use it to improve your work. It requires you to be able to separate objective criticism from subjective.

Yes, there is such a thing as personal preference regarding style, plots, and characters. Yes, those preferences can bias a reader for or against a certain type of story, or author. This is subjective. Personal preferences aside, you can hate someone's work while still admitting and recognising that it is well-written. You can enjoy someone's plots while acknowledging that their dialogue and pacing is inferior. And you can even love a story despite typos and POV shifts. However, in terms of whether or not something is well-written, in terms of technically—the spelling, grammar, structure, plot, flow, etc.—either it is, or it is not. That has to do with facts, not perceptions. It's subjective versus objective. And all the personal preferences in the world won't help a story if it is out-and-out poorly constructed and executed. The mechanics of the work dictate whether or not it is even readable.

You can have a story or novel that is technically perfect—and dull as dust. All the perfection in the world won't make it more entertaining. Likewise, you can have a flawed story that is vastly entertaining despite its flaws. But that doesn't mean the story would not be even better if the flaws were repaired. It doesn't matter how much good feedback it got—it will always be better if the craftsmanship is better. But the writing itself—the mechanics of it, not the style, theme, or voice—is still either well-written or not. There are no grey areas when it comes to certain aspects of writing. You can't ignore the craft and the skill any more than you can ignore the innate talent and instincts. Both are required for good fiction, but at least if you are lacking the talent, you can try and offset that by honing the skills.

While personal taste is always an issue, certain things (such as the importance of editing, plotting, re-writing and re-editing) will never ever change. And in the end, it's all about how much you really care about the work. If you want to become a better writer, then you do the work. If you love to write fan fiction and don't have the time, or inclination, to research, edit, plot, re-write, and polish—unless your talent and innate skills are very great—the result is simply going to be of a lower calibre than that of a writer who does take it more seriously. In that situation everyone loses. The writer loses a chance to write a better story, and the reader loses a chance to read a better story.

Accept the fact that not everyone who picks up a pen and starts to write—no matter how good their skills—has the talent.
The hard truth of the matter is simple: not every writer who starts writing fanfic should be publishing. You can learn the skills, and you can work all you like, and you can be enthusiastic, earnest, and a wonderful person, but in the end, some people are not good writers. And there comes a point at which people need to realise that saying so is not always a flame or personal attack; that no matter how much a fan writer loves writing, and feels great about sharing their work, and pours their heart and soul into their fiction, all the good intentions in the world cannot make a bad story a good one. Only talent and skill can do that.

The steadfast belief that good intentions and quantity of work can somehow turn every writer who fancies herself a good writer into a good writer is a fairy tale. Not everyone who writes fiction—be it fanfic, or aspirations of becoming a published author—is a good writer. But mediocre (or even out-and-out bad) writers can become better if they actually work at the craft.

Here are some links to help you on your journey to becoming a better writer:
  • The Craft of Writing
  • SFWA's links to essays on writing
  • Links to Web-Published Articles About Writing
  • Writing about Writing
  • The English Department
  • Tips for Fannish Writers
  • Getting There From Here
  • Strunk and White's Elements of Style
  • Watt-Evans's Laws of Fantasy
  • The Turkey City Lexicon
  • Sandy and the Bitkahs present: The Big List of Fanfic Peeves Although written for slash, it applies to gen fiction just as well. Highly recommended!
  • Slash fanfic is like a banquet... Although written for slash, it applies to gen fiction just as well. Highly recommended!
  • How To Write Almost Readable Fan Fiction Highly recommended!
  • Holy Mother Grammatica's Guide to Good Writing Highly recommended!
  • Who is "Mary Sue"?
    "Mary Sue" is the term used for a character who is either:
    1. A thinly-veiled fictional version of the author herself
    2. An original character who is the protagonist of the story
    Not all "Mary Sues" are cardinal sins. If a good writer commits "Mary Sue", it can still be an entertaining, well-written story despite the above classifications. Examples of this are:
    The novel The Romulan Way by Diane Duane
    The episode "Lower Decks" of Star Trek: The Next Generation
    The character of Engineer Reg Barclay (Dwight Schultz)
    However, on the whole, "Mary Sue" stories are written by new writers whose first idea for a story follow a pattern of self-insertion (acting out their personal fantasy vicariously through an original character), and their "Mary Sue" characters suffer from the following characteristics:

    1. She's perfect. Literally. Everyone likes her, she can fix the warp core with a bobby pin and a smile regardless of whether or not she's an engineer, she's got an excellent singing voice, and she's psychic too...

    2. She's got violet eyes, martial arts training that makes Trinity from The Matrix look like Elmer Fudd, hair down to there, and is usually sleeping with or the daughter of someone we all know and love.

    3. She's maverick, headstrong, stubborn, always wins in the end, and always shows "them" how her way is better.
    Regarding gender: Mary Sue is not an exclusively female phenomenon. Harry Stu tends to be cocky, maverick, and has all the girls swooning while the captain admires him for his courage, daring, cunning, swashbuckling, computer hacking, and romantic abilities.

    Mary Sue characters exist in canon (Wesley Crusher was Gene Roddenberry's Mary Sue, Janeway is Jeri Taylor's, and Seven of Nine is Brannon Braga's,) as well as professional Star Trek novels (Stone from Rock and a Hard Place and Calhoun from New Frontier are Peter David's contributions to the sub-genre). They vary in degree and are not always guilty of Mary Sue behaviour, but have exhibited enough signs to be deserving of the label.

    Afraid your original character may be a Mary Sue? Take the The Star Trek: Voyager Mary Sue Litmus Test.

    Here are some essays and websites devoted to the subject, that will help you learn how to identify a "Mary Sue" and pointers on how to grow out of that stage of your writing:
  • Mary Sue Merchandise
  • The (Original) Mary Sue Litmus Test
  • Mary Sue, How to Avoid Her
  • Who is Mary Sue and why does everyone hate her?
  • Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism
  • Who is this Mary Sue person, and why am I supposed to care about her?
  • Mary Sue
  • The Mary Sue Society
  • Too Good To Be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue
  • Ohmygod, I've been writing "Mary Sues" all along! Should I stop writing forever?
    Everything and anything you write helps you become a better writer. And yeah, Mary Sues aren't everyone's faves mostly because—on the whole—they tend to be personal fantasies of the author, rather than stories about the characters we know and love. And yeah, a lot of people when they open a VOYAGER story are looking for the VOY characters, and aren't wild about a new character taking up "screen time" (think Seven of Nine last year).

    But please please please don't let that dampen your enthusiasm! Keeping writing! Don't be frightened or become discouraged just because you learned something new. And like we've all said, Mary Sues—really good ones, and not the scary kind—can be very good stories and loads of fun. However, try and branch out, and grow past the need for a Mary Sue to tell your stories.

    If your original characters continue to take up all your time and creativity, consider creating your own universe for them to play in, and leave the Star Trek universe behind.

    If you are so in love with the Trek characters that you can't not write fanfic, then by all means, continue to write fanfic! But try and keep your supporting cast to human scale, rather than operatic, and don't let your additions to the crew eclipse the canonical characters to the extent the show's characters become guest stars in an episode of The Adventures of Mary Sue.

    You know what? Even the professionals write Mary Sues sometimes. Look at Peter David's Capt. Mackenzie Calhoun. Calhoun is every single Mary Sue cliché in the book, and while that means some of us won't read Star Trek: New Frontier novels, THOUSANDS of fans love them and keep buying them.

    Keep writing. If it's what you're meant to do, then you can't not keep doing it. If it's not what you're meant to do... then someday, hopefully for your sake and ours, you will learn to recognise that and come to terms with it.

    What is a Beta Reader and how can I find one?
    The term "Beta Reader" originated in computer software. "Beta Testers" and "Beta Readers" were those individuals who reviewed software before its release, to check for bugs, critique ease of use, and basically test it to make sure it's something that should be loosed upon the world. Online fan fiction adopted the term several years ago to refer to volunteer copy and content editors who preview a story and provide critical and constructive feedback to help the author whip a story into shape before it is loosed upon the world.

    A beta reader should be someone with a strong grasp of the mechanics of writing, but need not be a writer. However, a certain level of knowledge regarding spelling, grammar, pacing, plotting, and copy and content editing is required in order to truly help a writer edit his or her work before he or she publishes it to a mailing list, newsgroup, fanzine, archive, or website.

    Line and content editing are vital, but at the very least, a beta reader should be able to:
    • Tell you what's working, and why
    • Tell you what's not working, why, and give suggestions on how to fix it
    Beta readers who simply volunteer because they wish to be the first to receive new fiction, without providing critical and editorial feedback, are frankly a waste of time and should be avoided. Beta reading takes an enormous amount of time and effort, and a skilled beta reader is the author's greatest asset.

    For more essays and sites devoted to beta reading, check out:
  • Volunteer to become a Beta Reader
  • P/T Collective Archive Beta Reading and Poetry Board
  • The Mannerly Art of Critique
  • The Mannerly Art of Disagreement
  • The Writer's Corner: Beta Reader Index
  • Beta Reader HQ
  • Bedlam: About Writing
  • FFSupport Mailing List
  • Beta Unlimited Mailing List
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction:
    1. Angst does not always equal good drama. Do not kill/maim/torture a character just for effect. Writing a tearjerker just because you want to manipulate the emotions of your readers is not a sign of depth or skill. Keeping the scale and intensity of your stories closer to reality than Opera, means that the genuine emotion you provoke in the reader will be all the more powerful for being attained through subtlety and skill rather than cheap theatrics. Readers identify more with a realistic protagonist's plight than they will the Nibelungen.

    2. Relative length is in no way proportional to quality. There are startlingly brilliant vignettes in this world, as well as incredibly well-written novels. Just because something is long does not mean it is automatically good. And anything under 1000 words had damn well better be 1000 incredibly well-choosen words. Quality all comes down to talent and skill. And while the skills can be taught, and honed, God hands out the talent.

    3. Show, don't tell.

    4. If a character has never referred to another character by a pet name in canon, then it is not always very likely that he or she would start now, even if they have entered into a romantic relationship. Keep your character's traits in mind when you decide to write this into a story—it can be a bit of a stretch for your reader, otherwise, and undermine the integrity of the story you are trying to tell.

    5. Don't set out to write a series from the get-go. Write a self-contained, stand-alone story, and if, down the road, you write a sequel, so be it. If you are determined to write a trilogy, then plot accordingly, and keep each of the individual segments self-contained, with their own conflicts and plots that are identified and resolved by the end of each segment. Carrying sub-plots over from one to the next is fine, but ending in the "middle" of a story on a cliff-hanger is ill-advised. It's a cheap, manipulative device that worked great for Dickens' publishers in the 19th century and the Republic serials of the 1930s to keep those nickels coming in every week-end, but it doesn't always translate well in short stories, novellas, and novels. Likewise, don't advertise segments of a series if they have not yet been written. It can be construed as pretentious and often very, very annoying. Even if you're Robert Jordan.

    6. Try to avoid including popular 20th century music in a story unless it's extremely clever and original. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule. But those exceptions are rare. Unless you've got a really solid thematic reason, or clever new way of using this old cliché, steer clear.

    As with all maxims, there are exceptions. Authors such as Charles de Lint and Steve Brust use traditional folk music to great effect, but usually this is limited to quoting lyrics at key points of the story, and the beginning and end. It's a stylistic choice, and fits well with most of their urban fantasy. There are also several excellent novels and short stories out based on ballads. Tam Lin and Twa Corbies, for example. Which, you will note, are over 300 years old yet still recognised today. Always keep this in mind when choosing music in Trek fiction. Staying power makes all the difference. What will really be a classic 300 years from now?

    Also, there is a difference between basing a story off a song, and using a song in a story. For example, there would have to be a phenomenally good reason for anyone in the Trek universe to be familiar with late 20th century pop music. While Tom Paris may have a great affection for the period, he is the exception in the Trek universe, and even that varies. To date, Tom has been primarily interested in the 1930s through the 1960s. I'd say it's stretching it to have him listening to anything more modern than the Beatles, perhaps. Bubblegum pop from the 80s and 90s is definitely becoming a cliché in fanfic. Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, however, seem to have become in in-joke among Trek writers, so who knows...

    If you can make it work, more power to you. Just keep in mind that it has become a cliché, and writing one that works is often more difficult than people realise sometimes when they start out. Top: if you really feel a particular song relates to the characters, then try quoting the song lyrics at the end of the story, rather than referencing it at any time in the story itself. If the story can stand on its own without prior knowledge of the song upon which it is based, then you may not need the song itself.

    7. Stories should have a plot, even if it's something as simple in structure as "Tom Paris mulls over his situation, and comes to a decision." or "Chakotay kidnaps Janeway for three hours in the holodeck to explain to her that endangering her life and her crew is not good leadership tactics. Then, they sleep together. A lot." That plot should having rising action, a climax, and then falling action. Even if you are writing a character-driven vignette, you still need some kind of structure. Otherwise, what you have written is a story fragment, or scene, but not a story. Even so-called "Plot? What Plot" vignettes have a structure of some kind.

    8. Spelling counts.

    9. Grammar counts even more.

    10. If you research your topic (be it researching the Trek universe socio-political climates during a specific period of UPF history, or Iowa in the 1950s) your story will be the better for it. Treat SF like a period piece—the same as any historical fiction. Whether it's a western, or a Trek story, your job as an author is to create a solid landscape for your reader.

    11. Once you set up your universe's rules, stick to them.

    12. If you're going to write time travel, make sure you understand time travel. Otherwise, your readers will never understand time travel. For example, know the difference between a causality loop and a working paradox. Examine your favourite time travel stories, and study how they work (or don't work, as the case may be).

    13. Don't rush to finish a story just to have it out by a certain date, or to be the "first" to have a particular type of story out. Give your story the time and attention it needs.

    14. Don't start publishing a story serially unless it is finished. Not only do you rob yourself of the opportunity to revise and edit earlier sections based on later ones, you rob your readers of a potentially tighter and better story. Also, if you don't know where you're going, it shows. While having a deadline can keep you writing continually—which is a good thing—no one wins in a situation where the author is simply holding court, posting a story piecemeal simply for the purpose of collecting "we want more!" feedback along the way.

    15. Just because a story gets good feedback does not mean you are obligated to write a sequel. Although it is very tempting to continue a story because you enjoyed the attention and want more of it, stories should be written because the idea demands you write. Stories that matter have a beginning and an ending, and prolonging a story simply for the sake of satisfying your audience's need for "more" can result in a rambling, poorly plotted story that loses its impact the longer it drags on. As stated above, and many times throughout this FAQ: put the quality of the work above your own ego. The work itself is paramount.

    16. Read a story aloud for flow, and to polish dialogue that may be awkward and unwieldy. Reading aloud is also a great way to spot typos and errors that you may unconsciously skip over when reading.

    17. Don't be afraid to step away from a piece for a while, and then come back to attack it with a fresh perspective. This is especially important if you have been working on a piece for a very long time, and are feeling like you can no longer tell up from down in terms of pacing and quality, because you're too close to the work to be objective. In the same vein, go back and re-edit and rewrite sections of past work after six months or a year—just because a story is archived somewhere, that does not mean that you can't improve it over time.

    18. Dialogue is crucial, and being able to capture the "voice" of a character can be very difficult. Each character has specific speech patterns, sensibilities, and behaviours. Spend time watching your favourite episodes and pay close attention to what the characters say, how and when. While having an ear for dialogue is a talent that can't always be learned, mimicry is a skill that can be attained through hard work, observation, and at the very least, stealing bits of dialogue from the episodes themselves. Read through your dialogue, and ask yourself, "Is this really something [so and so] would say?" Pay particular attention to word choice and colloquialisms.

    19. If a story gets stalled, and is simply not working, it's okay to shelve it. Not every idea yields a readable story, and sometimes, no matter how much hard work you've put into it, it simply won't pan out. Don't be discouraged—just try a different idea, or step back for a while. And keep all your story fragments. You never know when you might find a way to work them into a new piece.

    20. Keep a notebook handy to write down snippets of dialogue or ideas as they come to you. Whether you're in class, on the bus, at work, or home in bed, you never know when inspiration will strike.
    Have a question about fan fiction that's not answered here? Let me know.

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