- I never expected to write a Star Trek fanfic. I always liked the TV show as a kid, but was in the ‘OK but no great fan’ level of interest. I like SF, but I couldn’t name any specific episode – or most of the characters. And then they recast Star Trek for a new audience, and suddenly I was extremely interested because they had written a modern story and had proper CGI and it was all exciting and thrilling, the way it must have seemed in 1966. ‘I must write,’ I cried in 2013, and so I did.
My throwaway, non-canon, completely AU (alternate universe) Star Trek fanfic story got more hits per day, consistently for weeks, than anything else I’ve ever written. It was amazing. I think it stands today at 80,000 hits. That’s not big compared to Twilight fanfic, but for me, it’s pretty good. At the time, I was writing fanfic in the Sherlock fandom – also very big back then – and if a fresh chapter didn’t attract 1000 hits overnight, I’d be disappointed. But this Star Trek one was in another league. Long after the story had ended, it kept – keeps – getting views. I don’t know how people are finding it, given that it must be way back on page 900 of the fanfic websites by now. But people are still finding it, and they are still reading it.
I got so much feedback too. That is my favourite benefit of writing fanfiction: engagement, day by day, with your readers. I learned so much from the feedback (more on that below). My story was ‘different to other fanfics’ they’d read (I get that a lot). And it was an ensemble piece, which I had never tried before, and found I absolutely loved writing.
I’ve often idly wondered what was it about my most successful fanfics that made people love them so much. How come, years later, I still get breathless reviews from people who sat up all night reading them (some are long – 40,000 words, 60,000 words) or from people who thought they wouldn’t like it but then loved it – people who laughed and cried. One Elementary fanfic, Torchlight, has somehow earned a placed as a classic of its kind on TVTropes.com.
So what can I learn from these experiences to apply to my original fiction? Based on the feedback I got, here are my ideas for a successful story:
Know the conventions of your genre. A lot of fanfiction is experimental, playing with structure and form within the bounds of the story premise. This is great for writers learning their craft, and for readers to experience new forms. But for success, I find that understanding reader expectations is key. So a Sherlock or Elementary story must involve a proper mystery, and a Star Trek one must involve tech/space/politics/alien culture. I know that for my main genre of fantasy, readers will expect at least some action, some magic, and detailed worldbuilding.
Strong romantic arc. Two characters, with plenty in common but plenty to hold them apart, are thrown together by Duty or Peril.
Related: Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST). I’ve been told that UST is my thing, and certainly, it’s what I love when I read stories or watch TV. Smouldering glances and people not saying what they mean and readers thinking hey, is something going on here? It is! I love it. A bit of UST – even if maintained to the end with no get-together for the characters – can really pep up a story.
A proper story. A lot of fanfic is written purely for gratification, or because the author wants to see Mr Darcy meet Dracula. But the most successful stories have a fully-developed plot with its own internal logic and a character arc where the protagonist has changed and grown by the end. I know people are somewhat bemused by fanfic, but I can tell you, the standard of writing is often very high. Original or fanfic, you can’t just string together ‘scenes we’d like to see’ and then stop. You need a plot.
Ensemble cast. The tale of a ragtag band of characters is harder to write than a story focused on a single protagonist, but it brings so many benefits: your story can be in several places at once; you can showcase your setting and make your mystery more complicated; you can play with a multitude of different characters voices. Readers love the B characters as much as the A characters, sometimes more. Look at Jane Austen fanfiction to see how many are devoted to Mr Collins or Kitty.
Thrilling action. Like romance, this depends on your genre, but including the heart-racing action scene will lift your story. It might be a scene in which Kirk, with a broken arm, wrestles a half-finished escape pod through enemy fire to the safety of a hospital ship (ahem!) or it might be where your romance’s heartbroken heroine has to tackle motorway driving for the first time since passing her test. Whatever the level of excitement you need for your genre, make sure you extract the most impact from it.
Humour. Even the most angsty fiction benefits from humour. It might be rather dark and sarcastic, or it might be side-splitting one-liners from your main charcater, but a touch of humour elevates every story. Humans are compelled to use humour, especially in tense situations, and a humourless protagonist is a fast way to turn me off. I find that the harder I try to write something serious or sad, the funnier it gets. Watch this space for my hilarious account of escape from domestic violence.
A snappy summary. This is vital in fanfiction, and all fiction. I will not click on a story where the author has put something like, This probably sucks, I don’t know why you’d read it but please review me lol! Or where they have mis-spelled the word summary. The summary should mention the characters involved, the basic premise, and a hook to make readers want to click to Chapter One where you will, of course, grab them and never let them go.
I’m still pondering what magic combination of plot, characterisation, romance and humour made my most successful stories so popular. If I have a lightbulb moment, I’ll update you. And by the way, none of my fiction features Klingons.
If you’re curious about the fics mentioned:
The Logical Choice (Star Trek 2009 movie) An imagined first meeting between Uhura and Spock at the Academy, and the story of their romance. There is respect, and interest, and the promise of something more. Meanwhile, conspirators plot to sabotage Starfleet’s flagship.
Torchlight (Elementary). Blackout in New York. It started with a touch, and whirled out of control until she never wanted it to end, and then it was over and the lights came back on. Sherlock and Joan and being in the dark.
Wolves (Three Musketeers) Anne of Austria is on a straightforward journey. All is well. She has protection. But she cannot shake the feeling that something is wrong. Featuring everybody. A light-hearted adventure.
I’ll be back tomorrow with Love, and how to write it when you’re really not in the mood.
15/04/2017 at 16:23
It’s funny; I’ve been meaning to catch up on these A-Z posts for a while, but you mention Klingons and I’m like, “I have to read this NOW!” And then you cop to not even writing about Klingons. 🙂
My husband writes Daria fanfiction (the secret that’s not quite a secret because I seem to like to tell my writing buddies about it), and I agree with you that some of it can be quite good. I think he could make a career out of writing if he wanted to, but he likes pursuing it on the side, so I’m good with whatever he wants to do.
I understand your tips are based on the feedback you got for your fanfiction, but I think I would disagree that EVERY story needs a romantic arc. “Beau Geste” is the first story that pops into my head that doesn’t have one, and is still a good story (but then I read the abridged version because it’s what I had on hand). Maybe that goes back to the conventions of your genre that you mention first.
Anyway, I guess I’ll go read your other posts now. 🙂
15/04/2017 at 18:53
Hi Louise and thanks for commenting! You’re right about the romantic arc – not every story needs one, but stories with zero romance – not even a hint – are not to my taste. Quite a few of the fandoms I was writing in have a strong No Romance Here contingent where only family or platonic relationships are the focus. I think my preference for romance comes from my total devotion to happy endings. Even my go-to example, Jack Reacher, gets involved in a little romance in every story, though he’s not much for commitment.
When or if I work out what makes a bestseller in original fiction, I’ll update this post! -Sef