Dear Story Nurse,
I’m a mostly-retired fanfic writer trying my hand at original urban fantasy. I would very much like to be able to write from an outline, but I’ve been going completely blank when I try to plan my original stories compared to fic. However, my most typical process has always been to more-or-less happily ‘pants’ through a very very rough draft and then mold what I find into a story shape. That’s worked ok in the past, but now that I’m attempting original fiction in earnest, I’m encountering a problem that I would have found utterly comical to imagine happening to me.
In fanfic circles, I was known for writing doomed star-crossed lovers and other sorts of intense angst from canons that were full of horror and suspense. Villains were frequently my most favorite characters and I wasn’t shy about letting the heroes make enticing yet oh-so-regrettable choices.
Now that I’m writing my own original fic, which is supposed to be about decadent and frightening vampires, everyone’s behaving like a flawless paragon of reasoned maturity and working out their problems and desires in the most responsible ways possible. And so every plot conflict I try to set up is quickly defused, nothing scary or suspenseful ever gets to happen, and not one of my characters is willing to step up and do any of the villainous or catastrophic things I enjoy so much in other people’s stories.
It’d be one thing if I was discovering a heretofore unknown love of writing slowburn coffee shop original universe fic, but that sort of thing has vastly more tension then what I’m generating. I’m boring myself to tears!
I’ve never been unwilling to torture a character I’ve loved (quite the opposite) and I don’t think that’s all or even most of what’s happening here. It almost feels as if I’m afraid to get in some sort of trouble for having any of my characters behave anything less than ideally. I don’t know where that would be coming from, as I’ve never had any anxieties or confrontations regarding that with my fanfic. Perhaps borrowing someone else’s characters allowed me to fearlessly explore their pain, flaws, and terrible decisions because I wasn’t the one responsible for them.
I just want to be able to write stories that are fun for me to write, however dark or fluffy they turn out to be. Instead, all I’ve been writing are pages and pages of bland mush that I had hoped to find quite spicy. Your wisdom is appreciated.
There’s a lot going on here! I suspect you’re primarily hampered by two things: a focus on characters as the source of your problems, rather than as a reflection of them, and the habit of comparing your original fiction writing with your fanfic writing. Your letter scratches the surface; now it’s time to dig deeper.
Dear Story Nurse,
I’ve been writing fanfic for as long as I can remember, since before I even knew fanfic existed. When I got online at age 11, I tumbled into that world and learned so much about writing. I’ve had at least something on the go all the time since then. I’ve now reached the point where I feel I need to be writing something of my own.
It’s not that I lack an understanding of how to transition from fanfic to original on the technical levels of building characters and worlds; it’s that I can’t seem to get the same level of enthusiasm for my original worlds as I do for other people’s. It doesn’t help that a lot of what I like doing as a fanfiction writer is playing with the fact of having a shared canon to do weird postmodern things; I’m obsessed with having characters meet alternatively written versions of themselves from variant incarnations of canon, I’ve written a story which allegorised the lackluster sequel interpretations of two video game characters to my own experience of depression, and so on. But what’s most painful is that it’s making me poor. Inspiration for fanfic comes to me effortlessly and with a big ‘let’s do it!’ feeling—original fic ideas never feel so exciting. It doesn’t help that as I’ve become a better writer the effort required to write fic has increased to the point where it is no longer sustainable for me to write fanfic—I have to write it, because the ideas kill me if I don’t, but then I’ve just written something that won’t get me any validation and certainly won’t improve my career prospects, and the guilt is almost as bad as the guilt of not having written the idea in the first place.
You’ve already given ideas to someone looking to graduate from fanfic to original fic, but please can you provide some advice for someone who needs to quit fanfiction to get money and validation, but can’t keep my heart from obsessing over new things I can do with video game characters?
The word “guilt” really jumps out at me from your letter. You’ve gotten yourself into a bind because you’re perceiving your energy as a scarce resource that’s depleted by writing, so no matter where you put that resource, you feel like you’re spending it unwisely. But what’s actually depleting you isn’t the act of writing; it’s the shame you feel about how and what you’re writing. I can’t give you advice on how to quit writing fanfic, because I’m skeptical of your assertion that you need to. What I can advise you on is how to stop pouring your energy into the guilt-pit so you have enough for both fanfic and original fiction, with some to spare.
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Dear Story Nurse,
I have written tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of words of fan fiction. Some of it exceptional, some of it terrible. Some of it in forty-thousand-word multi-chapter works about main characters having big adventures, some of it in a couple of hundred word-long drabbles about a micro emotion on a background character’s face.
It’s National Novel Writing Month next month, and I would like to write something that’s all my own. Or at least try to.
I have no idea how to start from scratch. Any advice?
—NaNoWriMo Novice (she/her)
Dear NaNoWriMo Novice,
I have wonderful news for you: every work of art is derivative! That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as original work. But just like fanwork, original work exists in the context of other works, and of the world. This means you can write original work exactly the same way you write fanfic: begin with an existing thing, and then decide how you’d like to change it, build on it, imitate it, and/or argue with it. No need to start from scratch, because there actually is no such thing as starting from scratch.