I've been writing most of my life. I've written several novels, a non-fiction book, newsletters, over 200 blog posts and, yes fan fiction. I've learned something from all of my writing, but today I wanted to talk about the pros and cons of using fan fiction to hone your craft.
I believe that you learn to write by writing. It matters less what you write than that you just write. Fan fiction certainly fits. And if you write it, you are writing fiction, which is good practice for writing commercial fiction. Assuming you are aware of what you're learning, both good and bad from the experience.
I'm going to be contrary and start with the cons.
Cons of Learning from Fan Fiction
1. You don't have to write a complete story
Character, setting and background are all provided. You don't have to create those. It makes it easier, but it means you're not experiencing the full scope of what is involved in story creation.
2. In fan fiction, nothing has to happen
This was a big learning for me. Fan fiction stories can be moments in time, random dialogue between characters or a reworking of a scene. It's possible to write a story without a clear beginning, middle and end. Worse, it's possible to write a story with little to no conflict or dramatic tension. My first draft of The Case of the Haunted Vampire suffered from that. My husband read it and said, "Nothing really happens. I don't care about the characters or the plot." He liked certain scenes, but he didn't care about the story as a whole. Oops!
When I went back to rewrite, I realized I had fallen into the fan fiction trap of character development and dialogue but not enough strong story. The Case of the Lost Werewolf Puppy starts with a bang, and I'm working on having a compelling story to carry it along. Not making that mistake a second time!
3. Critique is spotty
People will read your fan fiction stories, unless you write in a completely obscure fandom. (Crossovers of Greatest American Hero and Castle perhaps?) People will even comment. While those comments will usually feed your ego, they may not help you as a writer. Readers are gentle with your stuff because they want you to be gentle with them. I got lucky early on and found a good beta reader who knew when to push me. She helped me take an okay story and make it good by telling me I was being lazy and could do better. And I learned from that. I'll read my stuff now and ask, "Would Liz tell me I'm being lazy?" You might not be so lucky.
Did I just talk you out of writing fan fiction? Sorry. Now let me give you the other side.
Pros of Learning from Fan Fiction
1. You don't have write a complete story
Wait a minute! Didn't I just say that's a bad thing? No, I said it was something to be aware of. But for a new writer, it's easier to have character, setting and background handed to you. That allows you to focus on plot, story and dialogue. Not having to write a complete story with a beginning, middle and end frees you to work on a particular writing element.
This is key. New writers have a tendency to have all their characters sound the same. Fan fiction is a good cure for that. You have to make your readers hear their favorite characters. Xander must not sound the same as Spike, or your readers will let you know. Fan fiction is the best place I know to play with dialogue and develop an ear for how people speak and how to express that in writing.
You aren't going to sell these stories, so don't worry about doing something weird or different. Who cares if it won't "sell." I learned how to write humor in fan fiction because there was no pressure. One of my best stories (which I will be rewriting for Paul and Dafydd) was a total experiment in point of view and tense. I alternated between first person, present tense and third person, past tense. I've never seen it done in commercial fiction, but it worked so well for that story. Readers loved it and were pissed when I killed off my original character, who was the one written in first person. The tense made them identify more with him. Too bad I can't use that when I rewrite this time. I've decided to go first person, past tense for the entire series.
Okay, not all fan fiction readers are good judges of writing (or character), but there's little point in writing just for yourself. Writing is meant to be read. Fan fiction levels the playing field. Anyone can write and develop an audience. Some think that's a bad thing. I think it's good. Self-publishing is going to level the field in commercial fiction. There are some very good fan fiction writers out there. I hope they hone their craft and then make the leap to self-publishing. Trust me. It'll be good for readers to experience writers like Kim Fielding. I "met" her through Buffy fan fiction. She wrote a very good book, Stasis, available on Kindle. Try her out and see what I mean. She illustrates the pros of this post.
And I gotta put this out there. I'm looking forward to writing fan fiction crossing my characters with other fandoms. I'm already planning a crossover between my Warlock Case Files and Castle. It'll be so much fun to write a disclaimer that looks like this:
Disclaimer: The characters of Paul and Dafydd do belong to me and are used with my permission (but probably not theirs).
Yes, I know, that's completely geeky, but in my case, the shoe fits. ;)