Writing Woes: My Bad Habits as a Fanfiction Writer

It’s July! That means it’s Camp NaNoWriMo! So far, I’ve been lucky to find the time to write so that I am, on average, hitting my word and plot goals. This month I plan to finish off the first draft to my novel, and I’m trying to do that in around 50,000 words.

The first two times that I participated in NaNoWriMo (the official one last November, and the camp version in April), I tried to employ the techniques I used as a fanfiction writer to churn out enough words and get my story moving. As you know, I have been writing fanfiction for 13 years, so I thought that if I had been able to write for that long, then I must have been doing something right.

I don’t think I was wrong in assuming that. But I think I was wrong in thinking that all the techniques I used to spin out story after story would apply to original fiction. Comparing how much better I’m doing in my third NaNoWriMo than the first two, I think I’ve sorted out which habits I used for fanfiction that aren’t translating very well to my original story.

1. Show, Don’t Tell

Yup, you read that right. This is such a common advice for making your story better all the time, but I find that this isn’t the case for me. At least, it isn’t the case right now in my first draft.

I know why people duke out this advice frequently. I’ve read my fair share of books that just aren’t immersive. The best reading experience is when you feel, as a reader, that you’re part of the world you’re reading. To give this experience, writers must “show, not tell.”

The catch with this advice is that, IMHO, you really should not be showing all the time. This is a technique that I used as a fanfiction writer so that I could churn out those 15,000 word chapters that are so popular in fandoms. The more words you write, the more material your readers can engage in. That’s what they like. And fanfiction chapters are no big commitment to readers; they’ll gobble the stuff up at midnight, and wait (impatiently or patiently) for the next chapter.

So to beef up my chapters, I used to show everything. A character walking up the stairs? Yup, I’ll show how he took one step and the next, and I’ll probably describe what kind of internal conflict is prancing to the beat of those steps. I once read a fanfiction that described someone slipping and falling in so much detail, that it took more time for me to read the passage than for the character to fall.

While I think this is excusable in fanfiction, in the first draft of my original story I realized that it’s holding me back. When I need to advance the plot in the grand scheme of my story, does it really matter what the characters are eating for breakfast and how they’re eating it and what they think about it? Do I really need to spend a page describing said breakfast? Because really, that’s what showing means. Showing is supposed to bring the readers along for the ride, and how can readers be immersed in the experience of breakfast if I don’t describe it?

The thing about writing that I’m discovering rather quickly is that not everything is important. If something is not going to make a very big impact in your book, or it’s not going to advance the plot or the characterization in some way, it’s probably best if you keep it out. Hence, it’s totally okay to just say, “Bob and Bill had breakfast, and then drove away.”

Because this is an advcie that I see everywhere, I’m still trying to get used to the idea that I can just “tell.” But for the first draft, I know that I can always plump up my scenes later after I’ve established what exactly is important or not.

2. Resort to Introspection

I love, love, love introspective fanfictions. All those times we’ve wondered what a character was actually thinking in a particular scene? Or perhaps I’m reading an AU and I want to see how their mind works in this new world? I’m game! Introspection is one of my indulgent guilty-pleasures.

So naturally when I write, I tend to resort to introspective scenes quite often. I do it primarily to fill up my word count in a show-y kind of way (as I mentioned above), but I also do it to open the characters’ minds up to the readers. My one-shots are usually full of introspection; my multi-chaptered fanfictions that have overarching plots have less introspection, but they are still noticeably there.

And here’s why I think too many introspective passages won’t work so well in original fiction: you want to leave some of those inner dialogue up to the reader. There’s a reason why I’m attracted to introspective fanfiction, and it’s because I didn’t get them in the canon material. But depending on what kind of story you’re writing, the main job of the canon material is to tell that story effectively in a limited number of space; the thing is, you’re not always going to have the luxury of giving a blow-by-blow account of what your character is thinking, and chances are, there are more important parts to the story you should be writing instead. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am primarily geared towards character-driven stories moreso than plot-driven ones. All I’m saying is that we don’t always need to be in their minds all the time. Sometimes, it’s sufficient to just see through their eyes.

That said, I totally understand that there are novels out there whose primary job is to get us into a character’s head. Mrs Dalloway, anyone? But considering that I’m writing a children’s fantasy adventure story, there are other things that I might need to be developing.

(Late reminder, but from now on, when I say “story,” assume I’m talking about genre fiction at the very least, or more specifically, fantasy fiction.)

3. Write 10,000 word chapters

As a natural result of the first two, my stories tend to have extremely long chapters. Each of my fanfiction chapters have at least 3 scenes in it, whereas a typical chapter in a real book probably deals with only one scene at a time (not all, but mostly).

I realized how much this held me back in writing my original story, because I wouldn’t feel comfortable ending a chapter within, say, 1000 words even though I’ve already written what needed to happen in that scene. And I’d go, “How can I make this longer?” And so I would resort to #1 and #2. That meant I was spending time not advancing the story in any meaningful way. Ironically, because I was so used to padding my chapters with #1 and #2, I didn’t think about writing more effective scenes in their places. I would feel “stuck” on a chapter, because that other scene that would advance the plot obviously belonged to the next chapter, and I would keep postponing it. Terrible habit.

4. Take Weeks To Write a Chapter

And this definitely follows from the first three. As a fanfiction writer, I set my goal for finishing each chapter within two weeks. For 10,000 words this seemed reasonable, especially because I’m a commuter and I work full-time. But sometimes, even when nothing is happening in a chapter, I would wait out those two weeks and try to churn something.

It took me a while to convince myself that I absolutely don’t need to spend two weeks on a chapter. I could write whatever I can today, and if tomorrow I feel like there’s nothing left in a chapter to work on, I could move on.

Well, when I started this last week, I think I had more example of bad habits on my mind. Now that I am finishing up, I realize I can’t think of anymore. So why don’t I take some advice from myself, and it this post right here? =)

5 thoughts on “Writing Woes: My Bad Habits as a Fanfiction Writer

  1. As a first time NaNoWriMo participant, I can’t speak to all of these (or the commitment that you’ve made – I wanted to make my goal 15 hours for the month since I’m doing revisions- I thought, I can do half an hour a day- ha. The only reason I’m up to 6 hours is because I worked on it for 2 hours in one day!)

    Anyway, I think your points are helpful accross any change in your writing projects.

    For example, I’m going from writing one shots – with at most three scenes – to a novella length prologue. This is also my first time having to invent any characters – beyond an occasional store clerk for example.

    I am revising my first draft, and find that I have some similar and some opposite problems:

    Introspection. Yup. Having written fanfics that were entirely inside someone’s head with no dialogue at all, I’ve found several parts were my protagonist mulled over his life to excess. He also made some pretty cheesy observations that are being slowly cut out.

    I’ve also found in my first draft that, for fear of making it too long, I barely showed anything. It reads more like a timeline, with a sprinkling of doomy thoughts interspersed wth observations that have no basis in the story (possibly in my head, but the reader would be like,”huh?”)

    Random observations include:
    In most fanfics, you take it for granted that the reader knows the whole story – from descriptions to culture, etc. Even though I am writing fanfiction, there are some differences from cannon that have to be explained (like maybe the OC is short, or has a raspy voice, or has a tendency to be clumsy or maybe you have to show something only hinted at in cannon). I’ve noticed I have to go back and fill in descriptions, or add dialogue to create more interest.

    Not sure if this was helpful, but I think my main point is that you’re not alone – and just keep trying – you’ve got this!


    • Thanks for the reply, Bookworm! I love hearing about your writing experiences as well!

      Haha yeah, sometimes we get so used to writing from someone’s head that we include things that they are likely to think even if there’s no bearing to the actual story. Definitely happened to me before as well.

      Oh interesting that you had the opposite problem of not showing enough. Is it more of an outline then? I also do outlines myself, and they’re very vague; which is why I always run into plot holes anyway even if I do outlines. That’s interesting.

      Yes, you’re totally right about your observations on fanfiction. We know that the readers are reading are fics because they’re already familiar with the world and the characters. There are things we don’t have to think about showing because we take it for granted. And so we focus on other things, but with original writing we really have to remember what important things we must mention.

      Thanks for the encouragement! Best of luck to you too.

  2. Hi Leng,
    I’m writing this as a comment on this blog post because I’m not really sure how to say it to you at all XD
    Don’t worry, it’s nothing terrible! It’s just that I drop by this wordpress blog of yours now and then, and read your musings on writing … and having now read your fanfic for this years Hamiathes Gift exchange, I wanted to give a piece of advice:
    If your original works are like your fanfics, YOU MUST KEEP WRITING!
    Okay, what on earth do I mean? What I mean is that I am a published writer myself — not fiction, but journalism, besides writing fanfic and original fiction in my spare time. And, over time, as I have written and written, I can look back now and see that my work has changed and improved, some of it from advice but mostly just from writing and writing. 😀 And, reading your fanfic, I could see that it’s a lot like what I used to write — it is good, it just needs the tightening up that comes from a lot of writing.
    This is, therefore, meant to be a word of encouragement — a hand stretched across the Atlantic to say “Come on, you’re made of the stuff to be a real author!”

    • Ahh, Helen, you don’t know how happy your comment made me! It honestly made my day. Thanks so much for the advice.

      I think what I’m finding is that I really love writing fic, but I underestimated the transition to writing original work, not only in terms of the skill needed to build everything up from scratch, but also in terms of the the way I feel about characters.

      Thank you for the encouragement! Sometimes it’s so easy to doubt, you know, but little nudges like this go a really long way!

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