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The original Sunburst!

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Winston's Fanfiction Writing Guide · 11:41pm Aug 16th, 2015

Note: this looks better on Google Docs. To read it there instead:
This is just sort of a copy/paste version of what's there.

Fanfiction Writing Guide
by Winston (http://www.fimfiction.net/user/Winston)



This document derives from personal notes written to myself as reminders of some things to keep in mind based on lessons learned and experiences gained in my years of writing fanfiction. Having compiled them, I realized that they might be useful to other people, so I decided to clean them up, organize them, and make it publicly available. My primary focus these days is in the My Little Pony fandom, so this guide is pretty centric to that, but most of it can apply to any fanfiction or just general fiction.

So here's some of what I've figured out:

Do These Things:

I. Be an observant reader first.

Reading carefully will help you become a better writer. Read a lot. Read the kinds of stuff you like. Read the kinds of things you hope to be able to write. Don’t just read them, though. Read them while you’re really paying attention—be an observant reader. Examine what works and what doesn’t, what you like and what you don’t like, and why. Take notes, at the very least mentally, or better yet in writing. Write reviews to organize your thoughts after you finish reading fanfiction you enjoy (go ahead and post them, too, because authors also like to hear back from readers so it’s good for both of you). No, you’re not in class, but all reading is a learning experience to the extent that you make the effort for it to be, and if you want to really learn how to write well, you need to be actively trying to discern what makes good writing good.

This doesn’t only apply to texts like novels, but to anything that tells a story. Movies tell stories. When you’re watching a movie, incorporate the same process. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t and why. What makes this movie good? What should have been better? What’s the message, what themes get played on? Who is this trying to speak to and what does it want to say? Do the same with TV, comics, video games, and more or less any other avenue for storytelling that you’re exposed to. Even stuff people write in online journals or blog posts or anecdotes they tell you in casual conversation can be picked apart to figure out why they were interesting or why you were bored by the end (although for politeness, maybe try not to look like you’re taking someone’s story about their funny or amazing weekend and dissecting it in your head while they’re still telling it).

Without getting too far in‐depth into the whole field of various literary devices, which could easily be an entire thick book worth of discussion in itself (and indeed, many have been written), there are a few that are the most helpful to watch. Three of the biggest are simile, metaphor, and symbolism. Of these, simile and metaphor are generally comparisons of tangible things (more or less) to other tangible things. Similes use connecting words (like, as, or verbs) to compare two things. One of those two things is usually something that the writer can assume the reader is familiar with, and its referenced attributes then describe one or more attributes about the other, possibly less familiar, thing. A metaphor is sort of similar, but it doesn’t use a connecting word, instead it just directly equates two things in a way that’s usually understood to be nonliteral. Using either device, the overall aim is producing vivid description and creating a sharp image in the minds of readers. No story is more engaging than one that readers can see, hear, and feel like they were right there, and using simile and metaphor to reference things that readers are intimately familiar with and borrow that familiarity for your own setting is a powerful way to do that. Always pay attention to how your favorite pieces of writing, the ones that draw you in the most, accomplish this.

Symbolism is more abstract. It conveys less tangible concepts via representations of their attributes in people or objects ‐ as the name suggests, it uses symbols to talk about things that are otherwise hard to clearly represent. It allows concepts to have a concrete physical presence in a story. Symbols can either draw from the popular culture we live in, or they can be established in the story world. Either way, tying concepts and the emotions associated with them to a physical presence adds a significant impact to some aspects of stories and characters within them. Watch for how literature you like sets up and uses symbols effectively.

There are many other literary devices besides these that you can and should research on your own, but the bottom line here is that good story writing is all about reader engagement, and carefully examining how this is done by the stories you like can help show you how you can do it too.

II. Admit it, you don’t know how to write.

Lots of people reading this have managed to get through high school, or even better, graduate from college. Having completed this level of education in which they had to write paper after paper and do written assignments every day surely means they must have learned to write like an expert in the process, doesn’t it?

Well, as Big Macintosh would say... “Nnnnnope!”

Plenty of them think they learned, though, and if you’re one of them, it can be hard to swallow your pride and understand that you probably didn’t. This was a problem I faced myself for years. It may not be major egregious errors (or maybe it might be), but there will be little things you don’t know, and these little problems can really break a story when they start adding up to an amateurish presentation or a bad or incoherent reading experience. Said tags and their correct use are a common problem, as are issues of commas versus ellipsis, which hyphen or dash to use in each situation—there are at least three different types, did you know that?—and word homonym choices (their, they’re, and there, for example).

Going through all the finer points of common grammar and style issues is a whole separate writing guide in itself, so it won’t be done here, but you should absolutely read one (or more) of those guides. FimFiction.net has a good one (at http://www.fimfiction.net/writing-guide), and it covers a lot of ground that I had trouble with. The technical quality of my writing made a huge jump when I finally sat down and read through the whole thing thoroughly, which is what I should have done first before writing any stories instead of assuming I must know what I’m doing because I’ve been writing papers for school for so long. Turns out, writing dry essays and filling out paperwork, no matter how long you do it, isn’t the same as writing real literature and doesn’t teach you all of what you need to know, and it shows. Maybe you’ll be less obstinate than me and save yourself the wasted time and embarrassment and just read the guide first.

Even more comprehensively, you can pick up one of the various manuals of style that will tell you what’s good and what’s not. The Chicago Manual of Style would be the preferred choice by far, since something like 90% of publishing houses use it and the conventions it describes will almost always be what looks the most correct to the most people.

If all else fails, or you just need a quick answer when you’re unsure about something, there’s always Google. Google knows everything, if you know how to ask.

The point to all this is that until you’ve been around the block with these writing and style guides and manuals a few times, you’re probably not the quality of writer you think you are. There are resources out there that will help you become aware of and fix mistakes, so use them. Don’t be stubborn and bullheaded about insisting you know what you’re doing or that “this is just my style of writing and readers will have to get used to it”. No, they won’t. Wrong is wrong. Use those resources and learn to do it right. This is important, because just having your story look good and use correct grammar is half the battle of getting people to bother reading it at all.

All that said, you’re still going to make mistakes, because everyone does. Don’t worry about it, as long as you’ve done what you reasonably can to minimize them. Catching the ones you miss is what having other people review your story during editing and proofreading are for, and we’ll get to that a little later.

III. Understand that getting good at writing means doing a lot of writing.

This one is pretty much what it says in the title. Writing is one of those things that you get good at by practicing, and it takes a lot of practice. Write all kinds of stories. Write for contests, write for prompts, write random ideas you get out of the blue and see if you can make a good story from them. Use the writing contest and writing prompt groups that can be found on FimFiction (assuming pony fiction is your thing).

Just do a lot of it and do it frequently. It’s been said that a beginning author needs to write a million words and throw them away, then they’ll be ready to actually start writing something that might have a chance at being good. A million words is a lot. The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll get there.

IV. Accept criticism.

Criticism is the most valuable thing there is for a writer. Let’s hammer that home, because it’s important: criticism is the most valuable thing there is for a writer. It’s how you know what people thought of what you wrote. It’s the feedback that allows authors to get better. Without it, there would be nothing to induce qualitative improvement. Every story can, and hopefully will, be criticized. When the day comes that there’s a story written so perfectly that criticism can’t be found, everyone should stop writing because the perfect story has been discovered and further effort is redundant. Everyone would read that one perfect story and nothing else from that day forward.

Has that happened? Will that ever happen? No? Then accept that criticism will happen and that it’s a constant fact of life you’ll never escape as a writer—and that’s a good thing. Many people have difficulty because they don’t want to hear that their story may contain flaws that could be improved on, and take it as a personal slight that these would be pointed out. This has sparked much needless drama, antagonism, bad blood, and rage‐quitting. Don’t be one of those people. Understand that criticism isn’t meant to hurt you, it’s a tool to help you.

Especially important, don’t argue back when someone offers criticism. That’s one of the worst mistakes you can make, and to compound it, it’s often a reflexive response that can be hard to resist. Here’s the reality, though: argument just entrenches people into insisting on the rightness of their side and their perspective, and the more you argue, the harder it becomes to change your mind—even when the other person is actually right, or it’s just down to a matter of opinion and no one is really factually right or wrong. When you argue and talk back, it blinds you to the valid points the other person might be trying to address and thereby prevents you from fixing problems. Instead, try to cooperate and see where they’re coming from. Maybe the other person is indeed wrong or expressing a minority opinion or suggesting something that’s not right for your story, but maybe they’re on to something. The only way to evaluate that confidently is to give their ideas fair consideration. Don’t see this as someone else trying to force their will on the direction your story is taking, because after all, if you’re the author, it’s ultimately up to you. You can always reject their argument when you’re making your final decision and not incorporate it as a change into your story, but at the same time, don’t just dismiss things out of hand.

Finally, remember to thank your critics and commenters. They’re doing you a favor. They read your story and they’re taking their time to share their thoughts and observations with you about it. Good commentary and helpful feedback from a fanfiction community is hard to get and should be prized and appreciated, not taken for granted.

Bear in mind that this is all talking about constructive criticism. Not all criticism is of this type. Once in a while, you’ll run into someone being negative just for the sake of negative. This can be degrading, insulting, or trolling. It might attack you personally. If this happens, do yourself a big favor and simply don’t respond. Don’t think about it, don’t fire back, just move forward. If the same person keeps doing it, block them and then immediately forget about them. Don’t start drama and don’t be drawn into drama. Dwelling on these things only makes you feel worse and discourages you from writing, because it feels like your hard work and effort is being punished. That shouldn’t be the case. Fanfiction is a hobby, and this should be fun and rewarding, not painful.

As a final FimFiction.net specific note, it’s considered a very bad practice to delete comments, even the aforementioned negative ones. When comments are deleted, no one can tell what their contents were, and it has a tendency to look like an author is just suppressing everything he or she doesn’t want to hear, which reflects extremely poorly on them. If you just leave negative or trolling comments alone, yes, they’re unsightly, but people will usually have a lot of understanding and it won’t be a hit on you because they recognize that jerks will be jerks and it’s not your fault. The general rule, with maybe a few exceptions like blatant spamming, is to never delete a comment.

V. Find pre‐readers.

Editors and pre‐readers aren’t quite the same, although it’s a blurry line and many people do refer to them interchangeably and perform both processes more or less at the same time.

Just like building a house, you need the foundation and framework set up right before you move into getting the smaller pieces put on. That’s pre‐reading, at least as it’s referred to here. It’s the first step of the process of having other people review your story for corrections that need to be made. It should be a wider scope looking at the overview of of the structure and feel of a story at a high level. Good pre‐readers can tell you how the story comes across as a whole and what kind of impact it has (or doesn’t have enough of), and the specific areas and parts responsible for that. This feedback will help you determine if parts or scenes need to be added or cut, where adjustments need to be made to characterization and what the narrative focuses on, and other large facets of the gestalt of a story.

Once these big adjustments to the overall shape are complete, then it’s time to move on to editing, which is addressed next.

VI. Find editors.

As mentioned, pre‐readers help you get the overall shape and feel of the story close to where you want it to be as a whole picture. Editing is for after the groundwork is in place—it’s all about getting the details right.

There’s two types of editing: content editing and proofreading. Of the two, content editing comes first. As the name implies, this phase is for getting the detailed content of the story right. It’s for making dialogue sound natural, eliminating awkward phrasing and wording, eliminating and fixing inconsistencies and minor plot points that don’t make sense, and the like.

Proofreading is the last editing phase that should be done right before publishing. This is a general sweep for lingering bits of incorrect spelling, grammar errors, and other technical issues with the language and text itself. It’s a final polish. Once this is complete, your story should be in a state such that you’re ready to show it to the world and feel good about it. Don’t publish a story until that’s where you are. Few things stop readers from bothering to read a story as quickly as basic grammar problems that you just let slide. Problems like those say that this story was written and pushed out quickly by someone who doesn’t care and/or doesn’t know what they’re doing.

There are various groups on FimFiction.net that can be used to find pre‐readers and editors. In other fandoms, ask around on message boards.

VII. Use your tools effectively.

So you’re reading this on a computer, right? Presumably that’s where you’ll be writing, as well. Computers have a lot of software available to them these days that can really help you. Spellcheck, for example, is incredible. Don’t ignore those squiggly red lines underneath words. In many cases, all it takes is a single right‐click and a drop‐down menu will automatically suggest what you were really looking for. You don’t even have to retype it.

This is but one example. Another, of particular importance, is how computers and computer networks allow for fast and easy collaboration. We’ve covered pre‐reading and editing and how important they are, so the question then becomes how to make it as easy as possible to share story drafts and other information with your “team”. This sort of depends on each person’s circumstances, but generally speaking, these days the cloud is a great answer. Google Docs in particular is very commonly used, since documents can be set up to allow for public comments, shared only with specific people, and otherwise finely controlled. Many people write their rough drafts in Google Docs, share them for pre‐reading comments and editing, and so on until a finished version is ready to publish. It’s all about developing a good workflow that suits you.

Comfort and safety are also points that should be addressed. Sit in a comfortable position and read text at a comfortable size. Don’t strain to see tiny type, just enlarge your zoom to be where you need it. If writing is an uncomfortable experience for you, you won’t do as much of it. If it causes pain or damages something, stop immediately and find a better way that doesn’t. These seem like common sense things, but in our very computer driven society, bad things like ruined eyes and repetitive stress injury can and do happen to people. Make it easy on yourself so you can enjoy what you’re doing.

Finally, that trend toward the cloud and distributed computing and storage is great for easy sharing but the fact that your data isn’t actually resident on your own hardware can come back to bite you. Ultimately, data preservation is your responsibility. Keep a local copy (actually, more than one copy, since hard drives can and do fail) of anything you absolutely don’t want to lose. It’s usually pretty easy, especially in Google Docs. Just download a copy in whatever format you prefer to have your archive copy in.

VIII. Choose a presentation venue and format that makes your story look good.

Plain .txt files linked from a cheesy homemade website on a host like Geocities used to cut it, sort of, for distributing fanfiction back in the ‘90s when this internet thing was just taking off. I was around in those days. I remember it.

Twenty years later, not so much. A professional presentation on par with “real” literature from big publishing houses is reasonably attainable by anyone at this point, at least electronically, and there are quality venues in which your work can be viewed online. The obvious choice for pony stories would be FimFiction.net. Other fandoms may have their own solutions, or you may have to come up with your own. Some have their own message boards, which can be okay for posting stories on if they offer enough formatting control for the reading experience to be good. If all else fails, Google Docs, as well as being useful for the writing and editing workflow, can be a great place to present completed fiction.

There’s a few places you’d probably be best to avoid. Fanfiction.net (not to be confused with FimFiction.net) has a poor reputation these days, as they have apparently not updated their (rather frustrating) interface since the early 2000’s. They’re also a huge shotgun venue for every fandom out there, which means that they really attract no particular fandom in specific and hence your potential audience via their user base is very diffuse and probably quite limited. Deviant Art is occasionally mentioned because it’s great for visual artwork (and certainly you should use that site if you’re an artist), but their facilities for hosting writing in a suitable presentation are limited. I will note that it’s not all bad there, I actually published my first MLP fanfic on Deviant Art before I knew about FimFiction.net, and it was even featured from there on Equestria Daily. However, I was never highly satisfied with the presentation I could achieve and I feel like it would have been a better experience if I’d published it somewhere more suitable specifically for written work.

IX. Open strong.

Hook your reader. Hook your reader. And, finally, hook your reader. That’s how your story has to open. Paint a vivid picture and tell us what’s happening. Tell us why we should care and why it’s going to be interesting. ‘Hook your reader’ means exactly that—like a fish on a hook, they shouldn’t feel like they have to push forward into your story with an effort, rather, it should be compelling to the point that they’re being drawn into it because they just can’t help it, they have to know what’s going to happen.

With that in mind, there’s a few things specifically not to open with. One of the more common boring openings is a weather report. Some authors try to justify it as setting the scene, but here’s reality: people talk about the weather when there’s nothing else going on. It’s noncommittal and trivial, just filler. Your story is not supposed to be noncommittal and trivial, and none of it should be filler, it’s supposed to be interesting and have something important to say. If your story starts by talking about how blue the sky is and that it’s a nice day, a significant number of readers are rightfully going to hit their back button right then and there and go find a real story to read.

Also not recommended are cliches. These include waking up, showcasing a character’s acquaintances, friends, and enemies, a character bemoaning their problems or circumstances, and various others you can research on your own.

Generally speaking, your opening should start getting right into the plot and main conflict of the story as soon as possible. Don’t start off on an irrelevant tangent in the belief that it will help establish characterization (which is what constitutes some of those cliches mentioned above that you should avoid). Characterize in the course of simultaneously advancing the plot and getting things moving quickly.

X. Be original and interesting.

Original, of course, meaning to the extent that it’s possible. It’s been rightly pointed out that this has sort of difficult for a few thousand years, ever since the Greeks figured out and wrote basically all the types of stories there are to tell, if in a very generalized sense. Original at this point is more about variants and twists than entirely new concepts.

That’s okay, though, because those basic story frameworks were developed and have persisted for a reason—they’re good. They’re the stories people want to hear. More important than trying to completely break their mold is to make your variant on them interesting. Interesting is what counts over original. Originality in the sense of a new and novel variant does count, and can be very interesting, but when push comes to shove a lot of people will just as gladly read a new and interesting retelling of a familiar story.

How, then, to be interesting? Well, now we’ve come back full circle to the point that this guide opened on. Be an observant reader. Pay attention to what makes you like the stories you like. It’s hard to say in anything close to a comprehensive manner how to be interesting, since there are many ways to accomplish it which can be researched at length on your own, but that’s really the final word to being successful at telling stories—good stories are interesting stories, however you accomplish that. Figure out how to be interesting and you’ve got this fanfiction thing down.

That's it for now (and I think it's more than enough for one blog post). Maybe at some point I'll continue with more in-depth posts addressing each of these things on an individual basis and going further into the details than is possible for the sake of length in these big-picture conceptual overviews. Until then...

Report Winston · 727 views · #fanfiction #writing #guide
Comments ( 8 )

Thanks for the tips.

I will definitely keep this in mind as I take my first tentative steps to writing pone-fic...

Very cool stuff! I found this through your post on the Writer's Group, and it just got you a follower! :pinkiehappy:

I've been thinking about making my own guide at some point, but this one is great. I may get lazy and just link people here instead. :rainbowwild:

I will be watching...


I. Be an observant reader first.

This is probably the most important part of this guide. One must first crawl before they walk, and one must walk before they can run. I do have something to add, though. Before I started writing, I started off editing for other people. I saw what they did and how they did it, I saw how they developed a story, and on top of that, I got to see how a story is made from the ground up. So when I started writing, I already had a grasp of how things should look on fimfiction, which gave me a huge boost that a lot of other new writers didn't have. On top of that, those that I edited for, people with a few hundred followers, advertised me and my works when I published my first story here, so that gave me an even bigger boost. Now look where I'm at. ^^

3330731 That's a great point. Editing for other people is a good way to get started, and even after you've progressed to writing your own stories, doing some editing work for other people from time to time helps you keep a sharp sense of why things work and what strikes you as good writing and what doesn't.

And yeah, some extra promotion from an already established author never hurts, either. :twilightsmile:

3330737 On top of that, if you edit or proofread for someone, it's common courtesy for the person you worked for to give you credit by saying you edited it on their story's page. It's simply another way to get your name out there, and when there is nearly 190,000 users on the website, anything helps to get you recognized.

And who knows? The person you edit for or the person who edits for you might end up becoming your best friend!

1&2: Reading, writing, and telling stories in general are forms of communication. Modern communication is a very very thoroughly studied thing, that the average person doesn't understand the first thing about. Intuitively, or through rote, we connect our "what"s by the "why"s behind them.

We make a claim, preface it with a qualifier, and back it with evidence through a warrant. The warrant is the "why" that connects the "what" we claim, and the "what" we claim reinforces that claim. And, everything we say is a claim. There is the implicit claim a story makes: that it's worth the reader's time; as well as the explicit claims: the events that occur therein. (See also: The Toulmin Model).

Understanding that we don't know how to write is itself an understanding that people aren't formally taught how to communicate. We learn that informally from our environment. Communicating effectively is the key to writing effectively, because writing is just the written form of communication. Manuals can only help us with the technical aspects of writing: the rules of grammar. Understanding how we communicate tells us how to structure our narratives.

3: Do a lot of writing is unhelpful advice.
Everyone knows practice leads to mastery, but rote repetition is a fool's errand. It's been claimed, and largely proven, that anyone can learn anything in twenty hours, if they're considerate about how they learn.

Consider why your writing, and what you want to learn with your practice. The first step is generally finding a process you're comfortable with. Before you sit down to write anything, think about what you want to accomplish with that bit of practice. Don't write for writing sake alone.

9) A strong opening is one that sets the right expectation while leaving you reader wanting more. Too often I find people advising that a hook has importance it doesn't. So much so that people treat it like a separate entity all together. The reality is that the opening portion is intended to do a lot of things all at once, and focusing too much on any one of them neglects the rest. Your story has to quickly establish the theme and setting, introduce the characters, and outline the conflict. It brings the readers into your world and most importantly it establishes an expectation.

That expectation, that promise of what the readers will get if they invest their time, is what is most important because fish get off hooks all the time. You want to be sure that your reader is invested in the story because of the story, not because of the piece of a metal you tacked onto the beginning of it.

Focusing on the hook to the exclusion of setting a realistic and proper expectation will, in the long run, result in your readers feeling lied to and their trust that the story's claim of being worth their time, is ultimately untrue. That obviously leads to resentment, negative attention and feedback.

10) Ultimately everyone is original. They are the product of the unique combination of circumstance and conscious. To tell someone to be what they already are is a facade. Rather than focus on one's originality, their special-snowflake-syndrome, I would suggest instead focus on what makes a story worth telling, even if it's been told a bajillion times before. Then focus on their take, and adding their spark to it. As for interest.

There is no inherently interesting quality. It can't be contained or created. Interest is a shared experience of similarity between author and reader. Setting the expectation of what your story is about will allow readers of similar interests to find it, and explore that interest with you the author. Don't worry about if an idea is interesting because there is no such thing. Worry about if you can convey that idea relatabily, because that relatability is how we define interest: how well we relate to the idea defines how invested we can become in its exploration.

3330737 And yet another way to get noticed is to partner up with a newer artist. Here's how it worked out for me:

I had this 2.4k word one shot that did pretty well. A lot of people demanded that I continue it, so I eventually came up with a good story for it. Thing was that the idea I had demanded a piece of art that didn't exist. I made a blog post about it, and some stranger stepped up and sent me a message saying he'd draw it for free. I looked him up on deviant art, and while I loved his art, his follower count was low. Like, I think he had 36? I had about 1k at the time I think, but he says that the moment he posted the cover art for my main story, he got around 500 followers from it. And since he drew me this awesome pic, my story blew up. We both got a ton of attention for our respective works, and we've had a blast with it.

After that, he's drawn me several pics for me to write stories for, and we've grown together ever since. He's at about 1.1k followers now, and I gained about the same amount that he did. I actually got to meet him for the first time at this year's Bronycon, btw. Super cool dude.

I parodied a cliché as opening to one of my stories. Does that count? :rainbowwild:

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