The Ten Commandments of Writing Fan Fiction

[Jessica broke the Eighth Commandment when she published her first novel.]

The great thing about fiction writing in general is that there is only one rule: there are no rules. And this is largely true in fan fiction writing as well ... except (c'mon, you knew there had to be an "except" coming up some time) ... there are a few rules that the conscientious fan fiction writer should try to keep and obey. These rules, quaintly called "The Ten Commandments of Fan Fiction Writing," exist in many forms, having been compiled by many different authors. What follows is my own interpretation of the quintessential code of law.

I. Know thy canon.
"Well, I was only following your advice," Sybil said defensively.
"My advice?"
"Write about things you know. All I know is Cabot Cove."
"I had no idea you knew it that well!" said Jessica.
-- The Sins of Castle Cove

This is the first law of fanfic, and arguably the most important. If you’re going to set a story in a pre-existing universe, it’s only fair that you learn and obey that universe’s basic laws of physics – its “canon” – if you want your work to be taken seriously. Nothing makes me cringe more than reading fan fiction about a series that the author is clearly unfamiliar with. As followers of my book reviews know, this was a major irritant for me when I was reading Donald Bain’s earlier MSW books (he’s gotten much better about obeying the canon since then). Writing AU (alternate universe) stories is fine, but they only work if you can demonstrate a working knowledge of the canon you are deliberately altering.

II. Know thy characters.
"I didn't write about them exactly as they are,” Sybil went on. “I disguised them. I made some people taller, some people shorter ..."
"You made me older," Jessica said with a trace of bitterness.
-- The Sins of Castle Cove

This is the second law of fanfic, arguably as important as the first. Unless you are writing a thinly-veiled semi-biographical revenge expose as Sybil was (something I don’t recommend), believable fan fiction demands that the established canonical characters you are borrowing must be recognizable to their die-hard fans. If you don’t know that Jessica can’t drive, or that Mort Metzger was with the NYPD, then you have much homework to do before you can presume to use them in your stories.

III. Honor the rules of spelling and punctuation.
“I might never have made the connection, except earlier today in the coffee shop while Munroe was preparing the menu, I happened to notice he'd misspelled the word 'mince' in the same way as in that note you showed us after Marion's body was discovered.”
-- Love’s Deadly Desire

Okay, so maybe a misspelled word saved the day in this particular case, but in general there is no virtue in the egregious misuse of punctuation, bad grammar, or first-grade level spelling. Although I am willing to vet stories before posting them, it would behoove you to edit your own work before submitting it so that you don’t make my job too difficult. The spellchecker is a mighty gift unto writers from The Man, and you should make ample use of it.

IV. There are no new ideas, just new ways to express them.
“I’ve found that writing can get stale if I'm not stretching myself. I have to guard against slipping into patterns, doing it the same old way. Maybe everyone does.”
-- Love’s Deadly Desire

Someone once theorized that all the stories in the history of the world can be boiled down to eight basic plots. What keeps stories fresh is the way these plots are reworked and retold. Don’t be afraid to take an old chestnut and run with it in a new direction.

V. From weakness is born strength. From conflict is born plot.
“Come on, now, Jessica!" Ross said, seeing her doubtful look. “Isn't conflict what motivates your stories? The engine that drives your characters? It's no different in business, only we call it competition. Keeping the energy high, keeping the creative juices bubbling - unfortunately, in this case the pot seems to have boiled over."
-- The Return of Preston Giles

Conflict and character flaws are your friends, so let them not be strangers under your roof, lest your story be boring. Without conflict, there is no plot. Without flaws, characters are no more than flimsy two-dimensional constructs. Put your characters up a tree, expose their flaws and weaknesses, then throw rocks at them. Your characters may not thank you for this rough treatment, but your readers will.

VI. Thou shalt not plagiarize.
“At the moment I'd rather talk about what you have here in this briefcase.”
"That's the third time you've asked me that!" Eudora said angrily. "At the risk of repeating myself, story notes, that's all!"
"I'm sorry, but I think it's much more than that." Jessica picked up the briefcase. "What's in here, Eudora?" she asked. "Work? Whose work? Yours ... or mine?"
-- Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall, part 2

Stealing someone else’s work to claim as your own is never an acceptable tactic, and carries the risk of bringing the fury of the original author down upon your head – as Eudora McVeigh found out to her sorrow in the above example. Give credit where credit is due. ‘Nuff said.

VII. Beware of Mary Sue.
"Well, I have one consolation," Jessica sighed. "The teacher-writer in the book couldn't solve the murder either."
"As I recall, it was that bright student of hers that solved it," said Seth.
-- The Sins of Castle Cove

Given the trashy nature of her first novel, Sybil Reed’s “bright student” character is almost certainly a Mary Sue. Who is this oft-lamented “Mary Sue?” In short, she’s a character (male or female) who is so utterly perfect that she is utterly unrealistic. She is smarter, prettier, and more talented than anyone else in the story. Mary Sue is sometimes an OC (original character) and sometimes, as in Sybil’s book, a self-insert (personification of the author as a character in the story). She has an annoying tendency to upstage the canonical characters, which is a big no-no. If one of your characters looks like she’s morphing into a Mary Sue, you need to put her back in her place, pronto.

VIII. Thou shalt seek out the counsel of a beta-reader.
“You remember the last time I came up to visit?” Grady asked. “Well, I found your manuscript, and I read it. I hope you don't mind."
"My book? Of course I don't mind. But I certainly wouldn't want anyone else to read it," Jessica replied.
-- The Murder of Sherlock Holmes

Nobody’s perfect. Because of this, the wise writer who aspires to publish has another person read their story with an objective eye, to spot the flaws they are unable to see for themselves. In Jessica’s case, she purposely didn’t share her first manuscript with anyone because she had no intention of submitting it for publication (luckily for us, she has enough talent that Coventry House accepted it anyway). But if you are writing fan fiction that you hope others will read, you would be well-advised to have someone else read your work before you submit it. Who shall be your beta? Choose someone who has a good grasp of the written word, an eye for detail, and the honesty to tell you upfront what elements of your story just aren’t working.

IX. As thou givest, so shalt thou receive.
“I think if you give love, that's what you get back.”
-- Deadly Lady

Leaving feedback for other writers is the surest way to receive feedback in turn. Fan fiction communities are more communal than most with their give-and-take; in this lies their strength. But they only work so long as everyone plays nice. There is nothing wrong with concrit (constructive criticism) so long as it is, in fact, constructive, and worded so as not to hurt or offend.

X. Honor thy art.
“It doesn’t matter if you decide to take up writing at the age of twenty, forty, sixty, whatever. What matters is the quality of your writing, and the quiet determination of your most secret heart. And striving for quality will not always come easily. You may throw out half of what you write – that’s okay. The idea is to keep going, keep writing. It will take a great deal of energy, but it will be worth it. In the end, it all comes down to four things: patience, direction, determination, and strength.”
-- A Story to Die For

Writing is a craft, but it’s also an art. You will improve your craft if you practice, but you will never elevate your art if you don’t allow something of yourself to enter into what you write. Therefore, set your imagination free, write to what you love, and, as Jessica emphasizes in the quote above, don’t become discouraged – keep trying.

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