Writing Fanfic and Poetry

by Kathryn A

Writing Fanfic

So you want to write some fiction? You're all set with your great ideas, and you want to write something good. Here's a few things that I find helpful to remember.

Principles of Plot

Plot is character, character is plot.

What do I mean by this?

  • Plot is what happens in a story, right?
  • What happens is what the characters do.
  • What the characters do is determined by who they are.
  • Who they are is influenced by what happens.

(round and around and around we go...)

A good story is the result of synergy between the situation and the characters. The author sets up (or in the case of a sequel, has been left with) a situation, to which the characters react. In reacting, both the situation and the characters may change. And so it goes, until the end.

In order to write this well, you need to know your characters well, how they are likely to react and think and feel in any chosen situation. They can take on a life of their own, if the author really gets into the characters shoes.

Bad authors don't listen to their characters; for the sake of their predetermined original plot, they force their characters to do things that are out of character, thus flawing the story. Other flaws are thin characters, lack of character interaction, and excessive use of boring technical details. It's the characters that make the stories interesting. [Me, I personally find lots of spaceships and explosions to be boring in prose (on the screen it's different, a visual spectacle is worth watching). That's why I admire David Webber so much - he managed, in his Honor Harrington novels, to make his space battles tense and exciting - probably because he concentrated on the characters' reactions.]

Have a goal.

There is no such thing as writer's block. Writer's block is simply a name for one of two things - unmoving inertia; or not knowing where the story is going, not having a goal. Now, I don't mean that you have to have the whole story plotted out before you can write it, but you do need to have something you are aiming for. So that you can sit back at the end and say "I've done what I set out to do."

People can have goals for their stories without realizing that they do. I mean, a typical goal for a post-Blake (Blake's 7) is often "save everybody and give them a brand new ship so they can go off and have adventures". A goal for a Severus Snape/Hermione Granger (Harry Potter) story would be to get the two of them together. Other kinds of goals are less event-oriented, but still specific - like "I want to show the bankruptcy and hypocrisy of the Prime Directive".

A lot of time you'll have a beginning, and no end. That's okay. Just write down the beginning, and shelve it for a while. I don't call that a beginning, I call that an Idea. And most writers have more ideas than stories. Don't get frustrated by this - be happy. It means your imagination is still ticking over.

Another thing that can happen is that the plot can change because of the characters; by the time the author gets up to that bit, they realize that the character would not behave in the way that the author has intended them to behave (see above re: characters). Because of this, you may find it impossible to reach your original goal by your intended route. Don't worry. Somebody said to me once "if you write yourself in a corner and have to write your way out, it will feel like hell, but it will be your best work and that's when you learn the most."

Having a goal works on the micro level too; if you find yourself writing a long rambling dialogue that goes nowhere, pull back for a minute and consider what your goal for the scene is, and concentrate on steering things in that direction. You may have to cut out bits that you thought were really good, but be ruthless. You may well be able to use them later somewhere else, anyway.

However, if you are stuck (and if you want to call that Writer's Block, go ahead. Me, I think it sounds like some kind of incurable disease when you say that.) because you don't know what happens next, then work on something else, either some other project, or some other part of the same project - a later scene or something. There's no need to stare at a blank screen and kill yourself with frustration. Talking about the story with someone else can help, too. They might be able to think of something that you've missed. On the other hand, talking about a story too much can mean that you're talking instead of writing!

There's no such thing as an original idea, only an original treatment.

Don't worry if someone "beat you" to your wonderful idea for a story - go ahead and write it anyway. Just write it with a different slant. You are a different person, you are going to write the story differently.

Take this idea, for example - "What if a guy who's in love with a girl who doesn't care for him, finds himself reliving the same day over and over and over again?" Groundhog Day, right? But the same idea was used in the made-for-TV movie "12:01" - and the two movies are quite different. Groundhog day was a romantic comedy. 12:01 was a romantic thriller. The starting situation was different, the characters were quite different, the aims of the stories were different - result, you get two quite different movies, even though they started with the same idea. I liked both of them.

Remember what your characters don't know.

Yes, what they don't know. Because an author knows everything that is going on, they can often forget that the characters don't. Oh, it's obvious that certain characters don't know certain facts, but the author can forget how knowledge influences attitudes also.

The classic blunder is in crossovers where one lot of good guys meet another lot of good guys and they immediately get on splendidly - because they're all good guys, aren't they? The author forgets that these characters are strangers to each other, and therefore should react like strangers.

The opposite can happen also; when a character reacts to someone else as if he's Bad Guy when he doesn't actually know of any wrong that the other has done - even though the reader and the author know that he's a Bad Guy.

You can make your story more interesting by concealing things and creating misunderstandings, than if everyone and everything is nice. Or you can use reader's tendency to forget what the characters don't know, as a form of misdirection, setting the readers up for a later surprise.

Principles of Style

Hook 'em

The opening paragraph, verily, the opening sentence of a story, is vital in getting the reader's attention. Getting their attention to start with makes it more likely that they will actually stay and continue reading the story.

So what is likely to get their attention? Action, dialogue, mystery, beauty. One should try to hook them, or intrigue them, or beguile them, so they will stay.

Here's some examples, both professional and not:

"Cilny -- we are in danger."
The shadows did not answer.

  • Tanith Lee, Kill The Dead

It's a port city.
Here fumes rust the sky, the General thought. Industrial gases flushed the evening with oranges, salmons, purples with too much red. West, ascending and descending transports, shuttling cargoes to stellarcenters and satellites, lacerated the clouds. It's a rotten poor city too, thought the General, turning the corner by the garbage-strewn curb.

  • Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

A miracle doesn't always happen in an instant. Sometimes it takes hard work, time and perseverance. When time is not bent, there is no Bad Wolf to set things right, only Rose.

  • Kathryn A, Necessity

Sooner or later, everyone comes to Babylon 5.

  • Jenny Hayward, Voice From The Past

His dream was different this time. Even more terrifying than usual.

  • Toni, Fieldwork

Turn up the heat, for pity's sake.

  • Kimberly Murphy-Smith, The Clouded Mind

Show, don't tell.

Exposition is boring. Information dumps are boring. Long narrative passages are boring. In this movie-oriented culture, stories become more exciting if you take a camera's-eye view of it, showing what happens, one scene at a time. This gives your story immediacy.

This isn't to say that narrative is a Bad Thing. Narrative is useful as a change of pace, as something to rapidly move over less important parts of the story, to cover long periods of time, and so on.

Another exception is first-person narrative. If your main character is telling the story in his/her/its own words, then of course, you're going to have narrative instead of a (third-person) scene. But this is not boring, because you have the immediacy of being inside the head of that character, seeing it all from his point of view, hearing his words, in his own idiomatic way.

Another level of "show, don't tell" is, show the reader what your characters are like, don't tell them. Don't say "Fred was easily excitable". Instead, demonstrate Fred's excitability with some arm-waving and frantic dialogue. If Mysterio is mysterious, don't tell us this, but show us some of the odd things which make him mysterious.

RUE: Resist the Urge To Explain

You don't have to tell your audience everything. You don't have to explain all the background in your opening paragraphs. That is boring and treats your audience like idiots. Yes, you, the author may need to know all the background, but they don't need to know it all at once. Drop things in in passing. Paint a picture, don't write a treatise. Don't explain things - just drop enough hints that the readers can figure it out for themselves.

You don't even need to give the readers a history of the characters, whether they are original characters, crossover characters, or well-known series characters. Let the reader get to know the character by watching and listening to them, as the story goes along. After all, in Harry Potter, we, the readers, got along perfectly fine for four books assuming that Severus Snape didn't know Lily Evans before Hogwarts, so your readers can get along perfectly fine without knowing the entire history of how certain characters met, or what kind of a childhood they had, or whatever.

Unless it's relevant to the plot.

But even then, you don't have to info-dump all over your readers.

Detail brings Verisimilitude

Adding detail to descriptions makes them come to life, adds realism. Detail helps paint the picture with a finer brush. It's part of showing, rather than telling. The room is shabby - how is it shabby? Spots worn in the carpet, threads unravelling from the cushions, sagging springs in the sofa, no curtains in the windows, dust on the skirting boards? The character is sloppy - how is he sloppy? Bits of food on his clothing - or in his beard? Odd socks? Shoes untied?

Don't go overboard, but detail helps. If the story comes to a grinding halt in order for you to paint the landscape, then detail becomes a Bad Thing. Moderation in all things.

One technique I find helpful is to play "taboo" with the most obvious word; that is, the word that you most want to use to describe someone or something, don't use it. Use a whole sentence or paragraph instead, avoiding that word altogether.

For example:

Hermione Granger was angry.

Instead, something like this:

Hermione's eyes narrowed, and her lips pressed together, caging the words that wanted to burst forth. Her nostrils flared and her fists clenched.

Point of View

If you're writing a story in the third person (he said, she walked, it died), and particularly in the modern style where we go scene by scene like a camera, then point of view is important. Whose head are we in? From whose point of view is the camera rolling?

A simple little rule: one scene, one point of view.

I've read quite a few stories where a scene will start off in one character's head, and in the next paragraph we've jumped to the head of someone else. Now, if you find yourself doing that, there's two things you can do:
- either (a) restrain yourself and keep in the head of the first character, and try to show the reactions of the other character, - or (b) make it a new scene.

There's nothing wrong with starting another scene in the middle of the same conversation, one microsecond after the end of the previous scene. Doing that simply makes it explicit that you are "switching heads", and that makes it easier for the reader. Of course, if you find yourself switching too often, then maybe (a) is the better approach.

Point of View can be a very powerful thing; something that can add zest and interest if you, for example, write a story from the point of view of a character that normally doesn't get much screen time - a minor character, or, even more interesting, a villain. The familiar made strange is something that has always appealed to me.


Get a dictionary (and a thesaurus).

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that the best spellchecker is the one in your brain. If you make less mistakes to start with, there will be less that you need to correct. More obscure words aren't in many spellcheckers anyway. That's where a good dictionary comes in handy, to check the spelling and usage of a word you aren't sure of. Me, I still know more words than I know how to spell, and words that I think I know the meaning of from context, but not their precise meaning.

A thesaurus can be useful too - and not just in finding lists of words for Data to spout! Often enough, there's a word you used in a sentence, and then the very next sentence you use the same word again. It's usually better to replace one of those with a similar word, so you aren't repeating yourself. That's where a thesaurus comes in. And then possibly the dictionary, to double-check the meaning of the replacement word in case it isn't quite what you need.

I didn't use a thesaurus much, until I managed to find thesaurus software I could use on my computer; that made it much easier to look up words.

Read a lot.

The best way to learn to write well, is to read a lot of good books that you like. Which I'm sure I don't have to tell most of you, since most people who write, write because they want to read stuff that they like, and there isn't enough of it. If you read lots of good writing, then good style and grammar will hopefully percolate into your brain cells. Of course a good English teacher is invaluable, but I reckon most of us here have finished High School by now, and there's not much one can do about one's English teacher anyway.

Other Reading

I highly recommend "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and Dave King. It is full of wisdom, some of which I already knew, but didn't know it with the precision with which they pointed it out. It is full of helpful techniques for improving your style, immediacy and punch.

Writing Poetry

My first piece of advice is - don't.
Not unless you take it seriously.
It's very hard to do well - much harder than prose. If you really really have to write it - then that's when you should write poetry. When it won't let you go.

Free Verse

A lot of people treat poetry as if "writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." It isn't. You can't just chop up a sentence into different lines and call it a poem.

You can't just
chop up a sentence
into different lines and
call it a poem.

Unfortunately, that's what a lot of people do. Which is why Sturgeon's law applies very heavily to fan poetry.

The difficulty with free verse is that it doesn't seem to be the kind of thing one can teach techniques about. The main feedback one could get would be "it worked" or "it didn't work", but not why it didn't work.

But I can talk about what I aim for.

A poem is a slice of the heart. Trying to capture a feeling, a mood, a thought. A poem is a trap for time, a butterfly net, a way to get those fleeting feelings frozen, like the mastodons were, as fresh as they day they died. A poem cuts with the precision of a scalpel, lays bare what sleeps inside. Poems are honed by the pruning of words, the addition of phrases, the seeking of rhythms. A poem evokes, connects, echoes and touches. Catharsis comes in writing, for pinning your feelings with a microscope, to take a step back to look at them squarely, means that in them you no longer drown. A poem is born of frustration, of delight, of revelation. A poem is about feeling, about soul. A poem does not; a poem is.

See - I just wrote a poem! 8-)

Much fan poetry is told with the voice of some particular character, trying to capture their feelings and thoughts after some momentous event, or about some other character, or both. A common failing of fan poetry is projecting the author's own voice and feelings onto the character which they are purportedly writing the poem from the point-of-view of. And not realizing it. Remember what your characters don't know.

Rhythm and Rhyme

If you are going to be writing non-free verse, there is more technique to that, keeping within the discipline of the rhythm, and picking the rhymes. And if it's narrative verse, then you also have to remember the story-like stuff about it. Verse, because it provides a framework that you have to fit into, is both easier and harder than free verse, simply because constraints can both guide you, and get in your way.

Rhythms follow certain patterns. Some people follow the rhythms without even noticing how they do it, but if you have trouble keeping to the rhythm of your poem consistently, here's something that I've found helpful. Write down your baseline line (the line to whose rhythm you wish to stick). Say it aloud. Split it up into syllables (beats). Figure out which ones have emphasis, and which ones don't. Write that down underneath the line (with, say, X for emphasis and - for non-emphasis). You then have the pattern for that line, and you can use that to figure out how some other line doesn't fit the pattern. Note that a verse can have more than one pattern of rhythm, say the first line has one pattern, the second another, the third is the same as the first, the fourth the same as the second, or whatever. (That's a classic ABAB setup). A thesaurus can be useful to help find words with the meanings that you want, that have a fitting syllable-pattern.

There are techniques for finding rhymes too. Of course, you don't have to rhyme, but if you want to, then you need to find the matching words. A thesaurus can be very useful here too. Another thing I've done is go through the alphabet to find rhyming words. Say, you're trying to find a word to rhyme with 'oot'. Going through the alphabet, you find boot, coot, cute, hoot, loot, lute, moot, mute, shoot, toot, and ute. Of course this is only useful for one-syllable words, but that may be all you need.

There are rhyming dictionaries, and they can be nicely useful. Or not, as the case may be.