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How writing fanfiction can help you become a better storyteller.

Following on the heels of my Orson Scott Card post, here is more opinionation about fanfiction… I am not that deep in the fanfiction community, but I still support it 100%. I think it’s a great way for writers to overcome some of their weaknesses in a supportive community, and have Definite Issues with some published authors’ bad faith attitudes about it.

I’m always impressed by the sheer number of fan writers there are — whole communities who love a particular work so much that they want to participate in it. Even more amazing to me is how many prolific — and good — fanfiction authors there are. These are people with day jobs, classes, and families, yet some of them find the time to write multiple novel-length works.

Good fanfiction writers have different strengths than writers of originals. When you write fanfiction, you tend to have a different way of thinking than when you write original stories. Fanfiction has its own set of storytelling challenges, but at the same time, it is often those very challenges that enable you to be completely free to express your ideas.

Though some writers don’t think writing fanfiction has any benefit, I disagree. Thoughtfully writing fanfiction can give you unique experience that you don’t usually get writing original stories. This experience can help you become a much better storyteller.

Freedom.

When you write fanfiction, you are free in many areas where pro or aspiring pro writers are not. Free from the marketplace, free from expectations, free to experiment.

Freedom from market expectations.
Fanfiction writers don’t have to worry about if their story is a sellable length or appeals to the masses. They don’t have to squeeze themselves into one genre or another. No one thinks it’s weird if a fanfiction author starts experimenting with different voices and points of view, or tells the same story over in a different universe.

Freedom from yourself.
Fanfiction also frees you from yourself. With original fiction, there’s always the question of much of yourself you are putting into your characters. Even if your characters aren’t like you at all, you still have to think about it, which can muddy up your stream of ideas.

This goes double if you’re writing anything adult. You have to keep checking to make sure your original characters are really themselves, and not just transparent tools for acting out your own fantasies.

With fanfiction, there is little danger of confusing you and the characters you use. Yes, you resonate with certain characters and issues, which are reflections of you in some way, but you usually don’t have to worry if your implementation of Harry Potter or Willow is an obvious avatar for yourself.

Experience with “sex in character” and believable relationships.
Even better, you get to write sex that is truly in character. Fanfiction makes you really think about a character’s unique sexual expression — the question isn’t only, “do they have sex”, but “how do they have sex, and how do they express their reactions?” Situations inherent in the original works, such as hatred between two characters, really forces you to think about the believable development of a romance or friendship.

Well-written romantic and erotic fanfiction between unlikely characters is always much more engaging, to me, than standard romantic and erotica because of the focus on deep characterization and believable character behavior. Too often, romance characters don’t go beyond the Male and Female archetypes (masculine / feminine are not personalities in themselves!), and the attraction between characters often has no other basis other than the characters’ being ideal specimens!

Trust in the reader.

This is probably the best aspect of good fanfiction — the trust in the reader. When you write thoughtful fanfiction, you get experience at not having to explain anything. The readers already know! You can focus on supplying the relevant detail to your story, but you don’t have to go back and tell their entire backstory. This is so refreshing to me as a reader! So many writers slow their original stories with excessive flashbacks, recounting of history, or explanation.

The success of fanfiction stories isn’t just because the reader already likes the parent work. I have read good stories in fandoms I know nothing about! Even though I was unfamiliar with the original characters and world, I wasn’t lost or confused. The author still provided plenty of detail but trusted me to get it, making for a good story experience.

Intimacy with characters.

During critiques, I sometimes find myself giving the advice of, “Pretend you’re writing fanfiction of your own characters.” Many authors don’t know their characters well enough, so they try to get to know them by working it all out on the page during the story.

But good fanfiction writers really know their characters, including their histories. They’ve thought about them at length, bonded with them, lived with them, and so the writers don’t feel the urge to explain everything as much. When you’re inspired to write fanfiction because you really know and love a character, you’ll have a high standard for your own original fiction.

This is the degree of intimacy you need to make an original character come alive, not just come across like an action figure you’re moving around to suit your story.

Community and courage.

Fanfiction communities are the most supportive environment I’ve ever encountered for writers, especially new writers. So many people get into fanfiction even though they’ve never written anything before. Support is so important for writers — people who really understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it — especially if you’re in a creativity-killing environment most of the time.

This goes double if you write adult fiction. The people around you in real life may not understand your desire to write erotic, horrific, or morally uncomfortable stories, but there are many people in fanfiction who get it. Having this community will give you the courage to release your work.

This situation isn’t unique to adult fanfiction. Even if you write original stories about puppies and kittens eating candy, there will always be people waiting to cut you down. If you have experience in the fanfiction world, it can give you the mental toughness you need to release your original stories, which usually make you feel more vulnerable.

Creativity because of limitations.

I’m an amateur electronic musician, and electronic music is all about working with limitations. Some of my best work was done because of limited choices or bad technology, not in spite of them. If I’d had unlimited access to money, time, or technology, I would have been either paralyzed by the infinite choices, or drowned in an ocean of minutae. I certainly wouldn’t have been as clever, decisive, or thoughtful in my choices.

Fanfiction is like doing a cover or remix. It gives you boundaries and limitations to work with, not work against. Those restrictions are what generate ideas. There are always gray areas left unexplained by the original work, things to wonder about, bits of tension never resolved. These restrictions ask story questions that you wouldn’t have thought of in your own original work, and you can really stretch your storytelling skills to answer them.

Challenges can really make you work.
For this reason, I love to read challenges. Fanfiction writers are willing to leap out of their comfort zones for even strange and bizarre scenarios, and the results are often surprisingly good. Perhaps the best challenges are those that make writers consider material that is uncomfortable for them, such as morally abhorrent situations. In art, discomfort is growth!

Of course, not everyone is serious about good writing in the fanfiction community. Some people use the characters as a way of expressing themselves and their fantasies. They do not worry about good storytelling or good writing — just like a guy who has played guitar covers for twenty years but hasn’t gotten any better.

But thoughtfully created, fanfiction offers some unique challenges and benefits that can help you get to the next level. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but what say you? Leave your comments below.


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Top 5 Myths About Self Publishing

I talk to a lot of writers and editors about self publishing, and I hear a lot of wildly unfounded opinions. This article addresses the top five myths that come up, over and over. I’m writing from experience — as a profitable self-published writer and niche publisher, I can separate the facts from the fiction.

1) Self-publishing is easier than getting published traditionally.
It’s easier for your publisher to accept your writing, since they’re both you. This is the attraction of self publishing to a lot of writers, especially ones who don’t fit comfortably into the mainstream publishing business. But creating the book is only half the job of a self-published writer.

Self publishing requires a lot more work than getting published by someone else. You have all the responsibility of creating a good product *and* you’re responsible for selling it! That’s more than double the workload, and not everyone is cut out for it.

Obviously, though, there are some things that are easier with self publishing than traditional publishing. You can put out a book really fast — the only release schedule you have to worry about is your own. You’re not limited by traditional text lengths, so your 30,000 word stories are commercially viable. You have complete creative control over your writing, format, cover art, and everything else, and you don’t have to wait for revisions to be approved.

2) Every writer can self publish.
If you’re the kind of writer who hates promotion and marketing, if you resent every drop of time that takes you away from writing, or if you just want to be “the talent” and leave the business stuff to other people — self publishing is definitely not for you unless you have no other option. It will be an uphill battle, and you’ll hate every minute spent on business. This isn’t bad or wrong — it just means that you are a dedicated writer and want to give 100% of your energy to writing.

On the other hand, being in complete control has its rewards, especially if you believe that traditional publishers aren’t pulling their weight. If you like the business side of publishing, and you look forward to learning more about selling, marketing, and branding yourself, then self publishing could be a very valuable experience.

For some people, it is satisfying to interact with readers both as a writer and as a business. But you have to think of it as two separate activities: writing, and owning a business. For many self-published writers, working around the clock is the reality. If you don’t have the time to both write well and perform the business tasks, self publishing may yield more frustration than rewards.

3) Success in self publishing is based on luck.
I want to laugh every time I hear this. Luck has very little to do with your success! Before I even wrote my book, I researched, spoke to people in the market, and started promoting myself. I asked, “Would you buy this, and for how much?” I looked online to see how popular my genre and topic were, and if there were any forum discussions about it. If you’re writing in a genre with an established and thriving market, such as romance, you’re than much farther ahead than I was, starting out.

Success in self publishing is no different than success in any other kind of business. It is based on having a product that is desired by enough people, your own disciplined efforts, and good enough application of some basic marketing principles. As your own publisher, you have to make everything happen. People who claim that it’s based on luck are usually either naive about business, or they’re looking for an excuse for why they personally didn’t succeed at self publishing, calling it “sour grapes.”

4) Getting started in self publishing is really cheap.
It is not “really cheap,” but it doesn’t have to be really expensive, either, especially with the current technology available for little or no money. Your startup cost depends on what skills you can leverage, and what you have to hire out for.

For my own company, I was able to start for very little money up front because I had a lot of vocational skills. I knew how to do basic web design, I could write and lay out my own books, and — most importantly — I had decent basic marketing skills, which improved as time went on. My books are in PDF format, so there was no printing cost.

But starting was not free. Even though I didn’t invest a lot of dollars, I still invested a lot of skill, time, and knowledge capital, all of which have cash value. If I didn’t have any of those skills, I may have spent $1000 on design for the books and website alone. And to market the books may have cost a high monthly fee if I hadn’t been aware of some basic good marketing techniques for small businesses. This brings us to the last, and most important myth of all:

5) Marketing your self-published writing takes a ton of money.
If it does, quite honestly, you’re probably doing it wrong. When people think about promoting their writing, they think of publicity, book tours, and mass campaigns. These can be effective, but they are not smart choices for a small startup business. That’s what you are: a small startup business, and you need to look outside the publishing industry for the best ways to leverage your marketing dollars.

My marketing is all done online. Initially, my online promotion budget was around $100 / month in carefully-selected banner opportunities, article distribution services, and AdWords campaigns. That’s tiny, compared to publicist’s monthly fees and tiny space ads in magazines.

I didn’t just sit around and wait for people to either buy or leave — that would waste at least 95% of the traffic, which means 95% of my ad money would also go to waste. No business can afford to do that, especially selling low-cost items like books.

Instead, I captured as many visitors as I could by giving them the opportunity to sign up for my email list. As my list of members grew, I was able to give them more chances to buy the book they were interested in, but not ready to buy the first time.

This method alone is responsible for my earning a profit the very first month. Any writer with their own website can easily do this! It does cost money, but it’s far less than spending $40,000 per year on book tours (not uncommon) and thousands per month in publicist’s fees. The whole idea of self publishing is for you to be in control, and this is the most direct way you can do it — by being able to reach interested potential readers directly with an email list.

I know I keep talking about this, but I really believe that building an email list (and knowing how to use it) is the most powerful technique for controlling the future of your career.

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Tuned in to the state of publishing: Michael A. Stackpole

Here is a writer who is taking responsibility for his career by staying on top of changes in the marketplace. He’s pretty tuned in to the current (and sucky) state of publishing. He should know — he’s had novels in print since 1988, but he has had to deal not only with book publishers, but also game and comic publishers.

He writes many compassionate and realistic essays about publishing, self publishing, ebooks, and related topics. Check out his website for his intelligent contribution to this discussion.

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