Studying the Masters through Fan Fiction

Part 2 of The Fan Fiction Experiment

A lyric conception—my friend, the Poet, said—hits me like a bullet in the forehead. I have often had the blood drop from my cheeks when it struck, and felt that I turned as white as death. Then comes a creeping as of centipedes running down the spine,–then a gasp and a great jump of the heart,–then a sudden flush and a beating in the vessels of the head,–then a long sigh,–and the poem is written.
I said written, but I did not say copied. Every such poem has a soul and a body, and it is the body of it, or the copy, that men read and publishers pay for.

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Have you ever had the concept for a story catch you unawares? It is both enervating and overwhelming. You think, Oh, what an idea! It’s perfect! But stories don’t write themselves, and having a story does not a writer make. No one is born fully equipped to write well.

Playing Violin
Playing Violin (Photo credit: garryknight)

Writing is like playing music. Even the most musically-intuitive artists never begin with the concerto. The music student tackles one thing at a time, practicing well-known arrangements to master certain skill sets. The devoted musician studies the classical composers and does the research, actively examining and trying out known methods and styles. The same thing works for a writer who wants to improve writing skills.

Fanfiction is a ready-made setting for all types of writing exercises. It’s perfect for studying the methods of the masters. Retelling the tale of another writer in your own way is an active examination of an author’s work. It provides the writer with a better understanding of the value of his/her own work. And that’s what every writer should be aiming for: increasing the value of his/her work. It’s not about merely telling the story but telling it in a way that hits the reader like a bullet, the way it first felt when it came into existence in your head.

Posting your exercises on a fanfiction site allows you to expand your perception of your work beyond your own opinion and your best friend’s gushing but a little biased opinion. You get to see how the method you’re exploring comes across to your reader. I’ve tried retelling a tale from a new point of view, adapting plots to merge two stories into one (the crossover) and I’ve explored “what if” plot derivations. I’ve tried using different narrative voices and added scenes to build character relationships and interactions that didn’t exist in the author’s original story. In this way my fiendish, plot-bunny imagination didn’t get a chance to work itself into overdrive too soon. I could keep my zeal in check until I felt like I could handle more.

How do you make a writing exercise out of a fanfic story? Like this:

1. Define your goal. What is the specific skill you wish to improve?

2. Pick one of your favorite stories, movies, etc. and think about creative ways to capitalize on the skill you’re trying to improve.

3. Write the scene. It can be a real scene you’re changing to work with your exercise or a scene you make up for that purpose.

4. Edit it. Edit it again. Give it to a beta to edit/comment on, polish it up for public viewing.

5. Post it. You can even add a brief foreword that you’d appreciate reviews about how the scene came across in relation to the skill you’re working on.

Friendly Saber Duel
Friendly Saber Duel (Photo credit: xddorox)

One of the top skills I see fanfic writers attempting to tackle is writing a fight scene. Hey, fight scenes are a high to write, although it’s sort of like learning to play “Clocks” by Coldplay on the piano when you only know how to play the melody of the “Heart and Soul” duet. But to give you a gist, let’s say I decided to write a fight scene. I would revisit the plots from some of my favorite books or movies to look for an opening that could involve a fight I’m going to create, be it fist fight, sword fight, Lightsaber duel, etc. (I’d probably choose to write it based on a popular movie category, like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, or I’d pick a superhero movie. That way I’d probably get some quick feedback.) I’d research what was happening in the story around the time of the scene I’m creating to make it fit the context. Then I’d write my scene, edit (and edit, and seek beta reader intervention, and polish), and post it.

When I received reviews, I’d pay special attention to those comments that expressed my reader’s comprehension of the action. If I received comments like, “I was confused,” “I couldn’t follow what was happening,” “Not sure who hit who,” I’m on my way to improvement because I need to step up my game and try again.

A standard bottle of Wite-Out
A standard bottle of Wite-Out (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revel in the mistakes because it’s the best way a writer learns to communicate clearly. Who gets it right on the first draft? The beauty of making mistakes on fanfiction is no one knows. You get to remain anonymous as long as you want to, deleting cringe-worthy stories until you get it right.

Have you modernized a scene from a favorite classic? What did you learn?

This series will continue on Friday with thoughts on reader/writer interaction, plus I’ll update on Wednesday to tell you what I’ve been up to. I hope you’re having a cozy Monday!

(Disclaimer: I could be wrong. You might be a concerto-mastering genius on your first try.)

Author: Rilla Z

I'm a scribbler. I'm genuine. My topics of interest are: this world, the worlds inside my head, and the world to come. Oh, and cups of tea. Yes, I write about my cups of tea.

4 thoughts on “Studying the Masters through Fan Fiction”

  1. I’ve never written what I’d call fanfiction, but I can see how it could help in this way. And I’ve seen “writer’s excercises” that are sort of like fanfiction in this way – practice writing in the style of X.

    Also – instant feedback, that would be great. I hate handing my writing to someone and asking for feedback, and then they hold on to it for months and never get around to reading or critiquing it. 😦


    1. Yes, it’s a nail-biter to hand over the piece you’ve worked on. Then, months later, that reader says, “Hey, I’m still planning to get to that.” The wait sort of wrings out all your hope. 😦


  2. I’ve never tried anything like this, but it sounds like a great writing exercise. I suspect even established writers could use it at those times they’re feeling uninspired or want a fun break away from the latest manuscript. 😉


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