5 Ways Writing Fan-Fiction Made Me A Better Writer

Come on, admit it, writers–at one time or another, you’ve written some fan-fiction.

O.K., maybe you haven’t, but I bet you at least thought about it at one time or another

It’s something that’s difficult to confess to. I was actually a bit hesitant about writing this post, until I saw an article by Peter Damian called Testifying For Fan-Fiction. It made me think, why are we so ashamed of it? Especially when, in many ways, I found it a valuable experience.

I never wrote Star Wars or Star Trek fan-fic (though I am a fan of both) or for Buffy or some of the other usual suspects when it comes to fan-fiction. The fan-fic I’ve written was for a fairly obscure weekly series that was based on Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. For a brief time in the mid-90s, there was a weekly show that followed Woodrow Call’s son Newt as he struck out on his own and settled in a little town in Montana. It starred Scott Bairstow as Newt and a pre-Will & Grace (and almost unrecognizable) Eric McCormack as the show’s antagonist. Kelly Rowan was a co-star during Season 2. She currently co-stars with McCormack in the TNT show Perception. (A total thrill for fans of the old show.)

The first season was kind of Little House On The Prairie-esque, with Newt marrying a local girl, starting a ranch and working part-time as a deputy sheriff. The show was not that successful, so they decided to retool it by killing off Newt’s wife and turning him into a bitter bounty hunter in Season 2. They renamed the show Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years.

The second season was awesome, very dark and very character-driven. I’m not going to go as far as comparing it to Deadwood–while the character development and dialogue were great, it never achieved Deadwood’s brilliance. It was still pretty damn good, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, almost no one saw it. I only found it because it happened to be playing on my TV as I was cleaning up after a dinner party on New Year’s Eve.

By the end of Season 2 I was an avid member of a Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years mail list. There weren’t a lot of us, but we were devoted fans. We were told that HBO was considering picking it up for the third season. Since Season 2 had ended with a wealth of possibilities for stories, we were hopeful that it would happen.

It didn’t.

Several of us wrote fan-fiction so we could in some fashion experience Season 3. I ended up writing six long stories and a couple of prequel stories before I decided to quit writing fan-fic and concentrate on writing things someone might actually pay for.

Still, I don’t think writing fan-fiction was a waste of time and feel I learned a lot in the process. Such as:

1. The importance of focusing on main characters and not letting secondary characters take over a story.  There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING worse to fan-fic writers and readers than the dreaded Mary Sue and Gary Stu. These are characters created by fan-fic writers that were not in the original material who represent the writer’s wish-fulfillment fantasy and who tend to take over the story. By trying to avoid creating Mary Sues, it taught me a lot about the appropriate use of secondary characters.

2. Research and accuracy matters, even with fan-fiction. Since this was a Western, we not surprisingly had several historical buffs and gun experts on our list. One of them called me out when I wrote a scene with a gun that was inaccurate. If there were anachronisms or other errors with history, you did not get away with it. People were nice about it, but these things were important to them, even with fan-fiction. It’s made me even more careful about details like this since then.

3. Always stay true to character. Interestingly, plot holes were less of an offense than changing characters to suit a plot point. It was while writing fan-fiction that I learned about the symbiotic relationship between character and plot.

4. You’re never going to please everyone. People have such a feeling of ownership over the characters and story to do with their favorite shows that it was inevitable someone was going to be unhappy, no matter how hard I tried to write something that is true to the spirit of the original. And I realized, that’s O.K. No matter what you write, someone’s not going to like it. Maybe lots of someones. It goes with the territory of being a writer.

5. One of the primary reasons you write is for the fun of it. This was one of the things that I valued a great deal about writing fan-fiction. It taught me to enjoy the process of writing. I was writing to please other people, sure, but mostly it was to please myself.

Have you ever written fan-fiction? Let us know in the comments section about your experiences!

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10 thoughts on “5 Ways Writing Fan-Fiction Made Me A Better Writer

  1. I have written several fanfictions, and I totally agree with all your points. I’ve read a heckuva lot more fanfics than I’ve written, and Mary Sues were the WORST. It always killed me to start reading a pretty good story, and then have a Mary Sue show up a few chapters in. Sometimes I’d try to struggle through a few more chapters, but in the end I always had to quit. I think the only exception was a Yu-Gi-Oh fanfic, but it was so off-the-wall that the Mary Sues actually worked in the context of the story.

    1. Thanks! I truly feel like that is the one thing about writing fan-fiction that helped me the most with my other fiction–first, being careful not to let any character become a “wish-fulfillment” character, and second, keeping minor characters in the proper perspective and the focus on the main characters. It’s something every writer needs to learn!

  2. No, neither will I refrain from turning characters carelessly thrown away by the canon authors into the cornerstornes of my fanfiction stories, nor will I ever refrain from creating Mary Sues. I see it as my holy duty to write in my way, and no amount of criticism will ever change that.
    Those who don’t like Mary Sues and magnified minor characters simply need to refrain from reading my stories, period.

  3. I have never written fan fiction (never even thought of it) but this is a great way of viewing it. And I do have some shows I’m slightly obsessed with. *Ahem* Buffy.

    I like your #5. And now I might just write some for fun. 🙂

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