Once Upon a FanFic: The Ten Commandments of Crossing a FanFic Over to Original Fiction
Once upon a time, I was a fanfic writer. And I wrote a fic. At the time, it was The Fic. Thousands of reviews came pouring in, people screaming at me in all caps how much they loved it and how much it meant to them. This was the story that changed my life.
Armed with the readers’ encouragement, I took my fic into the OF (Original Fiction)world. Over the next year of querying and entering it in contests, some things became glaringly clear:
Fanfic and OF are NOT the same.
In fanfic, there are no rules. Write a romance where everyone dies? Been there, done that. Write a 65k novella that is all fluff, no conflict, and barely has a plot? Got a whole closet full of those T-shirts. Write a 130k epic with multiple POVs, more plot than a DiCaprio/Scorsese collaboration, and emotional arcs that leave your readers shredded in the best way? Well, that’s the goal . . .
My point is, these stories are glorious and beautiful, and they WORK in their natural habitat. But when we try to bring them into the publishing world, there are problems. Things to learn. Unwritten rules that only become clear once you take a chance, and are told you’re doing it wrong FOR THEM.
Because, remember, it’s not wrong. It’s fanfic. It doesn’t have to obey anybody’s rules but your own. But if you want to put it out in the OF world? Well . . . here are some rules I have for myself when crossing a story over, and as such, I highly recommend them.
The Ten Commandments for Crossing Fanfic Over to OF
Thou shalt know their genre, and as thus, its conventions
Thou shalt know thy word count restrictions
Thou shalt not use adverbs or filter words
Thou shalt not defy said
Thou shalt not confuse dialogue tags with action beats
Thou shalt not rely on assumed reader connection to characters
Thou shalt challenge characters without prejudice: having both an internal and external plot line for each main character, or any provided a POV
Thou shalt not let the climax occur in the wrong spot, nor the epilogue last too long
Thou shalt not be afraid to change that which was already beloved, or to decline a rebuild
Thou shalt not give up writing, nor forget thy worth
All right, let’s take these one at a time, shall we?
1. Thou shalt know their genre, and as thus, its conventions
When you’re writing and publishing a fanfic, you chose a genre upon upload. Romance. Fantasy. Horror. Not that different here, except that genres have . . . You guessed it! Rules. These are called conventions. Every genre has them, and they’re usually pretty clear.
In romance, the most common conventions are that the romance plot has to be central to the story, and it has to end in a Happily Ever After, or a Happy For Now. Not that hard. But if your epically awesome and groundbreaking fanfic is a romance all the way, except the characters don’t end up together because of the most important reason ever, an agent is going to say: Sorry, it doesn’t fit the romance genre conventions. Pass.
Houston: you now have a problem. If you don’t have your genre clear cut, which an agent will know based on whether you follow the genre conventions, they can’t sell the book because the book doesn’t have a shelf in Barnes and Noble. That’s the easiest way to explain it. It has to fit on the shelf, and that shelf has rules. You can break some, but not all, or you don’t get a shelf. Sorry.
Also, this does not only apply to your genre. It also applies to your age category (MG, YA, NA, Adult), and your sub-genre (Contemporary, Historical, Psychological, etc.)
2. Thou shalt know thy word count restrictions
Just like having genre conventions, in the OF world, there are limits on word count.
Find out what they are.
Don’t ignore them.
Or you’re going to be sitting in a closet, laughing at the magical butterflies that are distracting you from having to cut 45k before the agent will even consider your revision. Trust me, the magical butterflies are not your friend.
3. Thou shalt not use adverbs or filter words
Quietly, sneakily, loudly, whatever. Lose it. Lose it now. Kill it with fire.
Based on your descriptions of surroundings, along with pacing and tone, you shouldn’t need these words to paint a clear picture for the reader. If you do, revise until you don’t. Not to mention, these superfluous words take up space in the novel you just realized you have get from 110k down to 85k because of word count limits ;)
Also in the realm of superfluous words are filter words. I see, I hear, I smell, I look, I feel, I know. (Adjust for s/he for third person, of course, but I’m a firsty.)
Do a search, flag, then cut. Instead of: I smell the coffee brewing in the kitchen. (Flat.) Try: The aroma of the bitter coffee grounds swirl through the hallway, choking my already frightened throat. (She still smells the coffee, but Not Flat.)
Kill the newbie shortcuts – the adverbs and the filter. Take the time to do it right, and it’ll pay off in the end.
4. Thou shalt not defy said
Somebody (I think on Pinterest) decided to make all writers go insane, and launched some attack on the word “said.”
“Cry out!” they suggested. “Wail, wallow, screech, snap . . . anything but said!”
They made a whole list of options, and the lists have not stopped forming.
Um, fuck that person. If every dialogue tag is described with a new thesaurus vomit option of said, it’s distracting. For me, it’s downright irritating and before long, I’ll realize I’ve stopped reading the story, and instead, I’m wondering how many times they right-clicked to the thesaurus or if they really came up with all these options on their own.
If you have anything other than said, it should be few and far between, and for a very good reason. Like yell or shout if someone is yelling or shouting (although typically, punctuation should take care of that for you.)
Don’t buy the hype! Said is not dead!
5. Thou shalt not confuse dialogue tags with action beats
This learning curve was a long time coming for me. And yes, some people will claim that this is a stylistic choice and it’s not a hard and fast rule, and that’s fine. For everyone else . . .
This is a dialogue tag:
“And then he clucked in the chicken outfit,” she said, laughing.
It describes who said the dialogue, and/or the way it was said.
This is an action beat.
“And then he clucked in the chicken outfit.” She laughed.
Laughing is an ACTION that happens near the dialogue, but is independent of it.
Now, when I was writing fanfic, dialogue tags and actions tags were pretty much interchangeable. But in my OF writing experience, this is not correct. Most importantly, action tags should not be punctuated as dialogue tags, because we don’t speak in actions.
“And then he clucked in the chicken outfit,” she laughed.
We can say something while we’re laughing, but we don’t laugh words. At least, not coherently. Just try it, I dare you ;)
“And then he clucked in the chicken outfit.” She laughed.
“And then he clucked in the chicken outfit,” she said, laughing.
Okay, we got it? Cool. Now, fix it.
6. Thou shalt not rely on assumed reader connection to character
So here’s the thing: when we’re writing fanfic, our readers already know the characters. They already love them, forgive them, and if you are/were anything like me as a fanfic writer, I took full advantage of that.
That does not work in OF.
Your reader has no reason to give your character the benefit of the doubt. There is no pre-existing transference of loyalty, admiration, or attraction. You are going to have to earn it. All of it.
Once you think you’ve can win the reader over outside of the fanfic world, get beta readers and CPs who did not read it as fanfic, and revise again as advised. Characters should be flawed; multi-dimensional; if not relatable, at least understandable. And when we read your story, they should be brand new people we’ve never met before and get to fall in love with for the very first time, no matter whom they were originally based upon.
7. Thou shalt challenge characters without prejudice: having both an internal and external plot line for each main character or any provided a POV
So on that same line as earning reader’s trust and their love for our characters, we also need to reevaluate our approach toward our characters when crossing a fanfic over to OF. We have to be meaner to those we would normally take it easy on. We have to break through tough exteriors faster. Our characters need to take action as well as be acted upon, and we need to make sure the stories are not only balanced, but driven.
In fanfic, the purpose is . . . there is no purpose.
Okay, I take it back. It has a purpose. But not always a plot...
We can rattle on forever with fluff, and that’s okay. Or, you can have a plot, but you can take your time in middle, exploring plot bunnies as you see fit, and no one bats an eye. Maybe you write smutty one-shots. I get it, I wrote like 20 of them. But in OF, we always, always need a reason to keep going. Something that pulls us from the first page to the last one, and pushes us forward throughout everything in the middle.
By having both an internal and external arc for characters, we have plenty of pieces moving that keep the story in progression, even while in the middle of the book—one of the hardest places to keep the pacing going. So for me, as a romance writer, this is what having an internal and external summary for each main character looks like:
HEROIN INTERNAL ARC: She wants to be with the boy, but the boy makes her cry, and she doesn’t want to cry, but she’s also secretly carrying the boy’s baby.
HEROIN EXTERNAL ARC: She got this new job, but if she takes it, she’ll have to move and leave everything behind
HERO INTERNAL ARC: He is really scared of commitment because of his parents’ divorce, but he loves the girl and wonders if true love exists after all
HERO EXTERNAL ARC: He wants to travel with his men’s burlesque group, but after his brother got arrested, he has to stay home and run the family store before it goes bankrupt
So . . . see how that’s plenty of story to carry? Something for the reader always to shoot for, romance or external, no matter what page they’re on? All characters need conflicts, flaws, and goals. They need to drive their own story as well as react to the catastrophes we throw at them. They need to have fear in context, love for reasons more than abs, and stakes and consequences that are based in reality.
Dig deep, and layer. Over and over again. And never stop asking why. Why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they’re feeling what they’re feeling. Keep asking, and you’ll start to find the story within the story. That’s where the treasure is.
8. Thou shalt not let the climax occur in the wrong spot, nor the epilogue last too long
Back in the land of do-whatever-we-wanted-ness, climaxes were . . . sometimes there. Sometimes, there were a lot of them, depending on how long the fanfic. But in OF, you gotta get that sucker in the right spot.
Whether you’re using the three part structure or a continual build to a climax, research genre conventions, read read and read some more, and make sure you’re not hitting it too early, too late, too many times, or none at all. This is one of the most difficult things to accomplish, and whether you’re trying to cross a fic over or have many successful traditionally published books under your belt, I doubt anyone gets this right the first time. So keep trying, keep pushing for more intensity, keep opening your mind to new possibilities, and you’ll find that sweet spot.
Equally, with the epilogue, keep it short and sweet, if you include it at all. Fanfic’ers want all the fluff, fluff all the time, but OF readers want it in minimal amounts. (Insanity! I know.) So instead, keep that epilogue as something you can post on your blog during pre-order promotions, or write a novella off it. But once your climax bubble pops, wrap it up. Quick. And get that end in there.
9. Thou shalt not be afraid to change that which was already beloved, or to decline a rebuild
Look, all this stuff I’m saying? It’s a lot of stuff. But it’s important stuff that took me years to learn, and honestly, this isn’t even all of it. And here I am condensing it into some list like it’s “Easy.” It’s not easy. But if you don’t grow, you don’t get anywhere. Period. That can be an even more difficult truth to swallow when you have a story that was successful and beloved in the fanfic world.
Believe me, I get it. I so get it.
And that brings me to the dirty reality of crossing a fanfic over to OF: it doesn’t always work.
Some fics can be changed, if you have the guts to change them. Some can’t make the jump, not without losing things fundamental to the original story, and that’s too far a jump to make.
(Also, this goes without saying, but make sure you remove all copyrighted elements from your fanfic, i.e. canon names, world building details, song lyrics, etc.)
My own story ended that way. That fanfic I wrote? That The Fic? It couldn’t cut it in the OF world. I could, I was told, but the story didn’t work for reasons like genre conventions, word count, technical learning gaps and overall, how much in need of a rebuild I was.
I chose to let that story live forever as fanfic, and it is still posted for free, earning more faves and follows and reviews every day. It still works. It is still loved. But in its natural habitat where the rules don’t matter, because there aren’t any. And that brings us to . . .
10. Thou shalt not give up writing, nor forget thy worth