K – Klingons on the starboard bow: my most successful fanfic ever and what to include in a hit story

Reading Time: 5 minutes
  • azchallenge fanfic success tipsI 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.


Three things at once – how I avoid writer burnout

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Write three things at once - avoid burnout
Has your light gone out? Write something different. Switch genre or style to freshen up your words. Write three things at once to avoid writer burnout. (Dragon sconce, Corfu, 2015)

I wrote too much this week.* I mean too much of one thing. I had writer burnout. I am trying to maintain a steady 1500 words a day, similar to the NaNoWriMo daily target wordcount. It’s more than doable, even if you’re busy. Yet I reached Friday this week and could not face doing it. I was sick of writing this story, not the story itself (which I still love) but writing this world, these characters. I could not think of another way to have them look at each other, turn to each other, react except with a blink or a grimace.

I had story-specific burnout.

I was very tempted to just slump in front of X factor and message my judgement on each candidate to my BFF.

I didn’t, though. I have been driving a lot, doing thirteen hour days, six of them behind the wheel. And in my drives I’ve been thinking about some old stories, including a two-year-old Musketeers fanfiction which has a lot of love from my readers, two of whom messaged me this week asking if I was ever going to update it. I’ve also been thinking about Jack, hero of my Philip Marlowe/Bertie Wooster-style humorous fantasy stories.

So when I sat down Thursday night to catch up on writing, I wrote my Musketeers fanfic. It came easily, the characters seemed fresh and new and they moved in their distinct ways in the world I’ve made for them. The tiredness dropped away from my writing. I’m not saying it was great – I wrote and posted it very quickly – but it’s got a lot of reviews, all positive. I’m on track to finish it in three more chapters, which will bring this 2-year, 45,000-word romantic thriller to a close.

Then last night, bracing myself for some more of my official story, I just swerved aside and wrote a few thousand words of Jack instead.

Now I feel much better. I have achieved. (Jack as an overall story is now around 40,00 words, none of which have involved trying). And I’ve been in touch with my very loyal Musketeers readers who were gratifyingly delighted to have me back.

Tonight I must knuckle down and write my main story again. But I’ve enjoyed my break and learned that it suits me in ‘real’ writing, as it always did in fanfiction, to have several things on the go at once, so I can switch around between genres and styles when I tire of doing too much on each one. If I can consciously use this strategy, it will allow me to write stealth books in amongst my main one.

So if you’re exhausted or stuck – turn to one of your side projects and bash out some energetic new words on that instead. Don’t stop writing – just stop writing what’s burned you out. It will freshen you up and remind you that your writing can still be vibrant and compelling.

My approach

  1. Have one or two side projects – passion projects, if you like – which are not top priority but which you love.
  2. These projects are not loaded with pressure, only fun.
  3. Write for one of these projects as your recreation from your primary project.
  4. Go back to your main project refreshed.

This goes against all the wisdom which advises a ruthless focus on a single project until completion. but don’t think of it as a loss of focus. Think of it as a more productive alternative to X Factor.

How do you avoid burnout during a long project? Let me know in the comments.

  • *   I wrote this piece in September 2016. Since then, my Jack story has grown to 100,000 words and is almost ready for me to start the second draft.
  • I took time out to write a 14,000-word  fanfiction in November too, then returned to Jack.
  • I still haven’t returned to my ‘main’ story.  

Lessons from imitation – writing like others

Reading Time: 3 minutes
jeeves-and-the-wedding-bells imitation of wodehouse
Imitation offers writers the chance to practise new rhythms and language

I first read Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks a couple of years ago, when it was published amid a slew of well-known authors venturing into fanfiction. There was this by the award-winning Faulks, but also Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, (not to mention the rest of Austen’s titles reimagined as part of a wider project) new Sherlock Holmes titles by Anthony Horwitz, Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James, and more – each of which involved not just creating a fresh story, but imitation  of the original author’s style.  I have already blogged here about Longbourn by Jo Baker, and using others’ work as a jumping off point for your own inspiration. In this case, Faulks set out to write a new story about Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, the duo created in 1919 by PG Wodehouse. And I’m fascinated by Faulks’ skilled mimicry.

I am re-reading the book for pleasure, but also to examine again how Faulks achieves such closely-observed imitation of Wodehouse’s  light touch and precision humour. It’s not absolutely perfect, but what could be? Wodehouse wrote almost 100 books, and a quick count suggests that I’ve read 38 of them, so I am rather familiar with his style. (Also, good news: 60-odd more books to read, if I can find them!)

Pinpointing what works in an impersonation, and what doesn’t, is great practice at close reading. It encourages you to examine not just the language used by the original author but also the rhythm, and the manner of sentence construction.

I find badly-chosen language is the first thing that jumps out. Elizabeth Bennet exclaiming, “Oh my God!”  in casual conversation would leap from the page as something not found in the Austen originals. (Austen’s characters do say God at times – but the word is presented as “G-” when used as a curse, and only used otherwise in extreme circumstances.) Anachronistic language identifies a fake too – Dickensian characters ‘tuning out’ a boring conversation, or a Bronte heroine saying a carriage went ‘like the clappers’ – radio-related slang, and WW2 RAF slang respectively.

So how can we writers use imitation to improve our craft?

Different hats. As teenagers, we often try on different styles, different personas as we work out the kinds of adults we might become. I think as a writer it’s good to do the same, whether you’re a teenager or not. Try to be Dickens, or Austen, or Grisham or Child. Let’s face it, it would be pretty cool to be them, or maybe JK. So why not? Try on their styles.
Mad mashups. These pieces are for practice. Clash together unlikely style and subject matter. Try sci-fi noir in the style of Brontë. Write a Georgian comedy of manners in the style of Chandler.  Applying a style deliberately to unlikely content will also ensure that you are not copying these authors’ stories, only their execution.
Elementary, my dear Watson. Mimicry is good for developing distinctive character voices, too. Fanfiction is great for this. When you need Spock to sound like Spock, it’s no good if he giggles and describes stuff as awesome. He has to use the right language, in the right rhythm, or it simply won’t convince the fans. Pick a fictional character you like and give them lines. What makes Mr Darcy distinctive? Try dry, restrained language, short sentences, drop in some signs of classical education.  How would you know that it is Hermiine Granger speaking? Adopt a rather acidic tone, cut with earnestness, and use long sentences with impatient endings.
Focusing on the capture of these distinctive characters gives you good experience when you come to check your own work. Do all your characters speak in the same way? How could a reader tell them apart without the dialogue tags? Sometimes watching TV you can tell if one character’s line had been given to another, to balance out the scene. It jars a little  if the characters are well enough drawn. Listen for individual tics and habits.
All these imitations feed into the creative decisions you make about your own work. Trying on other voices helps you become aware of your own. What style will you adopt?

Imitation – references and resources:

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – a brand new Bertie Wooster story by Sebastian Faulks.

PG Wodehouse official website

The Austen project – contemporary authors reimagine Jane Austen’s classics.

Sherlock Holmes – new stories in the original style, by Anthony Horwitz.

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James – what happened after Elizabeth and Darcy were married.

How I write fanfiction – nine tips from me, for success in a very busy creative world.