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Transitioning from Writing Fanfiction to Writing Original Fiction

We received the following ask anonymously on Tumblr:

I loved your “what is a story” post! Aside from structuring stories, are there any other things you think writers shifting from fanfic to original works tend to struggle with, or would do well to keep in mind?

Hey anon! I’m sorry this has taken me so long to reply, but it’s such a big question, it required a big answer. Especially, it’s a challenge to address because, as a creation medium, “fanfic” is far from a monolith. From a “how hard might a transition to writing original content be” standpoint, there’s a huge range – from people who write canon-compliant short stories coda stories that feel like they’re a living, breathing part of the source world, all the way through people who write epic million word AU stories about their own OCs who maybe at most tangentially interact with canon. Some people see writing fanfiction as “canon, the whole canon, and nothing but the canon,” while others see the original media as a jumping off point to play with other settings, tropes, archetypes, and story elements (“canon? I love canon! It makes a lovely whooshing sound as I fly on by…”). What a fanfiction author prefers to write, to some extent, influences what challenges they’ll face when they try to transition. 

For those who specialize in “all canon,” their strengths will often lie in research, analysis, understanding metatextual themes, and finding holes or gaps to fill with new content. They’ll likely be weaker in world building and character creation.

For those who specialize in “what canon?”, their strengths will often lie in world building, character development, and recognizing tropes and archetypes and reapplying them to new settings. They’ll likely be weaker in analysis and recognizing plot holes.

These are obviously generalizations; an “all canon” author who does, for example, post-canon or uses OCs, might have lots of experience with world building or character creation. A “what canon?” author who, for example, writes historical works or field-specific ones (eg, a super detailed hospital AU) might be fantastic at research. And, further, hardly any author will be 100% one or the other; most writers will fall somewhere in between those extremes, writing some pieces that are canon, some that are AUs, some where they try to write the character IC-to-a-tee, some where they go “OOC is the new IC!” 

Regardless of where a given writer falls on this scale (from “all canon, all the time” through “canon? what canon?”), the best two things any writer can do are: write more and read more. Especially, focus on reading (note this doesn’t have to mean literally “read a book,” it can be, “watch a show,” or “read a comic,” or “listen to a podfic”) original stories you enjoy, and engage with them “like a writer” (how to do that could stand to have a full post written about it, and doing so is on my list…). Look at how the author(s)/creator(s) use language, what the features of their world and characters are, how their plot is structured and paced, all the elements of the story. If it’s too much to take in at once, read multiple times and focus on one thing each time. You need to learn to recognize tropes and character traits, to see them and interpret them and understand that any given story is simply an assemblage of these features, and you can take the ones you like, discard the ones you don’t, and recombine them in infinite ways to tell any story you want. Take notes as you read – scrawl down tropes you recognize, character features that engage you, plot elements. 

Having trouble? Try to tag the work like you’d tag an AO3 story, if you’re having trouble recognizing tropes and how to subvert them.

Would you tag it “angst with a happy ending?” “Emotional hurt/comfort?” “Mutual pining?” Congratulations, you’ve found tropes. 

“Engineer!Character?” or “Character Needs to Learn to Use Their Words” or “Character is a Bad Parent” or “Asexual Character?” Congratulations, you’ve found character features, traits, and archetypes.

“Slow burn,” “getting together,” reunions,” “arranged marriage,” hey look, it’s a whole bunch of plot elements!

Learn to recognize tropes, and see how different creators use them and subvert them, will also help you see that when you write fanfiction you already do all the things necessary to create and write an original story

It can help to take a step back and consider your own oeuvre. What kinds of works have you already done? Which pieces have you pushed yourself on? What do you feel your strength is? Write more. Read more. Read posts like this one – there are so, so, so many excellent writing resources on the internet. And, when you write your own work, experiment with different approaches – learn about yourself as a writer. What time of day do you work best? Does outlining help you? Do you need an alpha reader to help keep you motivated? Grow your experience by writing – any writing – and get a handle on what works best for you.

Still at a loss where to start? Read on…


Worldbuilding

Every world, whether it’s high fantasy, hardcore space opera, or modern contemporary, will require worldbuilding. Worldbuilding isn’t just the big, universal questions like: “how does the magic/science work, where are the cities located, how do people live?” Worldbuilding is also: “what does the corporation where they work look like, what is in the characters’ neighborhood, what are the places and things that will need to exist to make the story idea function?” You don’t need to treat this as “all the biggest stuff,” and I guarantee that, as a fanfiction writer, you’ve done worldbuilding – even if all you write is 1k coda fics. You may cut some corners, relying on context, on the “big stuff,” but the small stuff still needs to be in a story or it won’t make sense. What works in fanfiction, by and large, is the same as what works in original fiction. You should never be leading your reader through a lovingly crafted description of the surroundings/magic system/neighborhood/space ship while the plot languishes. You never need to have all the details up front.. If you’re a planner, go for it, plan the minutiae! But if you’re a plantser or panster, don’t feel you need to transform magically into a planner just to write original fic! You don’t. I’m a plantser. It’s fine.

You can often assume a reader will know what’s going on (even if they won’t!), especially if the character would know what’s going on. Weaving information into a story isn’t a “thing you don’t do in fanfic” – improving your writing in fanfiction will teach you how to do this as surely as writing original fic would. The writing itself isn’t different. Drop a reader in, and introduce them to elements as you go. 

Introduce elements gradually, avoid info dumps, make sure the characters act like…this is just the world…they’re not going to (for example) explain things in detail if they’re eminently familiar with them. Use all the same tools you’d use when writing fanfic. Indeed, I think one of the biggest challenges a fanfic author will face isn’t “how do I worldbuild?” but rather, learning how to do consciously and intentionally something that they’ve surely been doing all along, because no story can be done without worldbuilding! 

Thus, we circle back to “read your own work and the work of others and see what you’ve done and what others have done.” Force yourself to see that you do worldbuilding when you describe their surroundings, when you introduce story elements, when you say what they’re wearing. All the details that make your fanfiction rich and vibrant are worldbuilding. You build the world around the characters – whether they’re canon or OC – and then they interact with it to tell your story!

(Now, all that said, if you’re like, “that’s all well and good but how do I even start when I want to create a whole new world?” There are a lot of good articles on that; I’m personally partial to this list of questions by Patricia C. Wrede.)


Character Design

You create a character every time you write. Yes, if you’re creating fanfiction, that character already exists in some form, but you’re still creating: you’re deciding, in the context of your fanfic, what aspects of that character you want to explore, what behaviors of theirs you want to highlight, what things they do you’d rather ignore. You dictate their actions, decide how they’re established canon behavior applies to the unique and different circumstances you are exposing them to be. This is true even if the story is “all canon;” that said, the more AU a story is, the more likely the characters are to be essentially “original characters in a mask” – yeah, you might be using the names from canon, but when all is said and done what you actually are writing about is a new character, featuring the archetypes you chose from the base character and manipulated into a new environment. AUs change character ages, professions, surroundings, backstory, appearance, species, gender, sexuality, family, birthplace, native language, ethnicity, religion, intelligence, presentation type, I could go on…when you make them from Ancient Greece instead of modern America, when you decide they’re a half-octopus, when you say “oh, they’re ace,” when you go, “what if they were trans,” when you think, “I’m really in the mood for some pwp A/B/O…” you’re creating new character with aspects of the original character. The goal is often to keep them “enough like” the original character to be recognizable, but that doesn’t change that, in many AUs (and sometimes even in canon fics!), if the character names were swapped out with a find-and-replace, a reader coming in would be hard-pressed to recognize the source material. They might even guess the wrong ship (this sounds just like a Stucky story! they say, while you know it actually started as Destiel).

This is because characters are composed of archetypes and personality traits. They’re aggressive, they’re shy, they’re brave, they’re risk-averse, they’re selfish, they’re a martyr, there’s a huge menu of options, and any given character is rarely black or white…and when you decide how to portray a canon character in your fic, you’re automatically, often without thinking about it consciously, saying, “these are the archetypes and personality traits I want to focus on, these are the ones that’ll be paramount for this iteration of this character, the others won’t come up.”

So, much like worldbuilding, the concern you have when you transition to original fic shouldn’t be, “I’ve never had to make a character WHAT DO?” it should be, “I’ve been making and modifying characters all along, how do I bring myself to do intentionally what I’ve been doing anyway?”

I’ll give you one guess what the answer is, ha. Also, yet again, there are a lot of resources to help an author learn to do this “on purpose.” A Google Image Search for “character design writing sheet” turns up zillions of results, for example – look through, try a few, see what works for you, make some characters just for fun!

If you’re really struggling, try using one of those sheets to write up different “versions” of the same character you’ve written in multiple fanfics. Like, pick a canon fic you’ve written, and make a sheet for the main canon character, then pick an AU you’ve written, and make a sheet for that same canon character. You’ll notice pretty quickly that they each write up differently – they’ve got different goals, different motivations, different ways they react, even though they’re the “same” character. Pick the two “most different” versions you’ve written of that character, and compare, and it’ll start to be pretty clear: you’ve been making characters all along, so just…keep at it.


General Concept/Plot

“But what story should I tell?” can be a tough question to answer, especially for fanfiction authors who usually write shorter pieces, inserts, codas, and the like. The first thing to remember is…there’s no reason you should tell different kinds of stories! You can write a 2k fluffy meet cute between OCs. Not every original fic needs to be a 500k epic fantasy world saving adventure. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t write exactly the same kinds of stories. Yes, you’re not going to write a “fix it” or a coda for your OCs, but you can absolutely write “moment between” original pieces. You can write drabbles. You can write shorts, novellas, pwp, anything.

However, if you want something more involved…I think you’re starting to get the gist here but I’ll reiterate one last time…look at your source canon material and at the fanfiction you’ve been writing. What were the story elements you chose to incorporate when you made your transformative piece? What do you love about that source material that you’d like to emulate? Do you enjoy a good mystery? Do you like the agonizing drag of slow burn? Do you crave that “I COULD JUST SMACK THEM BOTH” of idiots to lovers? Do you want historical drama, political machinations, high adventure, space battles? Consider what story elements drew you to that fandom, what about it made you go, “THAT’S the one I want to write for!” Consider which story elements you most enjoy playing with when you write fanfiction. Then…do more of that. If you love a good plot twist, or an air of horror, or BDSM, or, or, or…that’s a good start for figuring out what story to tell. 

It doesn’t have to be what you’ve written the most of, to be clear – but absolutely it should be something you love and want to emulate. If you don’t love it, what’s the point in writing it?

Figuring out what story you want to tell with OCs isn’t magically different than figuring out what story you want to tell for fanfiction. Your best bet, truly, is to go about things using exactly the same strategy you use for fanfiction. If it helps, you can even plot it using fic characters – pretend it’s an AU, figure out the story you’d tell with canon characters in that AU. If you’re playing with archetypes as discussed above (spoilers: you are), and you’ve put together a world for them to play in, creating a story to tell in an AU using “established” characters is exactly the same as writing original work, except you give them different names, and you don’t throw in random references to canon or quotes that insiders will get.


The biggest mistake most writers make when they transition from fanfiction writing to original fiction writing is treating original fiction as some ineffably Different And Unique And New form of writing. It’s not. A good original fic and a good fanfic will have many, many elements in common (YES, even if the fanfic is set in the canon verse!).

The best advice I can give, honestly?

Do exactly what you’d do when you sit down to conceptualize a new fanfic, but every time you hit up against “Oh I can’t have them say that, that’d be OOC,” or “Oh, I can’t make that happen, that technology/magic doesn’t exist in that world,” or “Oh, I’m going to have to change that, there’s no canon character that makes sense for a role like that,” you can go “OH WAIT THIS IS ORIGINAL I DO WHAT I WANT!” and you make that thing you want them to say be IC for them, you change the technology/magic/whatever so what you need exists, you create a character that’ll fit that role.

Fanfic or original fic, the story is always your sandbox.

Now – go build some castles!


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Ten Things We Hate About Trad Pub

Often when I say “I’ve started a small press; we publish the works of those who have trouble breaking into traditional publishing!” what people seem to hear is “me and a bunch of sad saps couldn’t sell our books in the Real World so we’ve made our own place with lower standards.” For those with minimal understanding of traditional publishing (trad pub), this reaction is perhaps understandable? But, truly, there are many things to hate about traditional publishing (and, don’t get me wrong – there are things to love about trad pub, too, but that’s not what this list is about) and it’s entirely reasonable for even highly accomplished authors to have no interest in running the gauntlet of genre restrictions, editorial control, hazing, long waits, and more, that make trad pub at best, um, challenging, and at worst, utterly inaccessible to many authors – even excellent ones.

Written in collaboration with @jhoomwrites, with input from @ramblingandpie, here is a list of ten things that we at Duck Prints Press detest about trad pub, why we hate it, and why/how we think things should be different!

(Needless to say, part of why we created Duck Prints Press was to…not do any of these things… so if you’re a writer looking for a publishing home, and you hate these things, too, and want to write with a Press that doesn’t do them…maybe come say hi?)

1. Work lengths dictated by genre and/or author experience.

Romance novels can’t be longer than 90,000 words or they won’t sell! New authors shouldn’t try to market a novel longer than 100,000 words!

A good story is a good story is a good story. Longer genre works give authors the chance to explore their themes and develop their plots. How often an author has been published shouldn’t put a cap on the length of their work.

2. Editors assert control of story events…except when they don’t.

If you don’t change this plot point, the book won’t market well. Oh, you’re a ten-time bestseller? Write whatever you want, even if it doesn’t make sense we know people will buy it.

Sometimes, a beta or an editor will point out that an aspect of a story doesn’t work – because it’s nonsensical, illogical, Deus ex Machina, etc. – and in those cases it’s of course reasonable for an editor to say, “This doesn’t work and we recommend changing it, for these reasons…” However, when that list of reasons begins and ends with, “…because it won’t sell…” that’s a problem, especially because this is so often applied as a double standard. We’ve all read bestsellers with major plot issues, but those authors get a “bye” because editors don’t want to exert to heavy a hand and risk a proven seller, but with a new, less experienced, or worse-selling author, the gloves come off (even though evidence suggests time and again that publishers’ ability to predict what will sell well is at best low and at worst nonexistent.)

3. A billion rejection letters as a required rite of passage (especially when the letters aren’t helpful in pinpointing why a work has been rejected or how the author can improve).

Well, my first book was rejected by a hundred Presses before it was accepted! How many rejection letters did you get before you got a bite? What, only one or two? Oh…

How often one succeeds or fails to get published shouldn’t be treated as a form of hazing, and we all know that how often someone gets rejected or accepted has essentially no bearing on how good a writer they are. Plenty of schlock goes out into the world after being accepted on the first or second try…and so does plenty of good stuff! Likewise, plenty of schlock will get rejected 100 times but due to persistence, luck, circumstances, whatever, finally find a home, and plenty of good stuff will also get rejected 100 times before being publishing. Rejections (or lack there of) as a point of pride or as a means of judging others needs to die as a rite of passage among authors.

4. Query letters, for so many reasons.

Summarize all your hard work in a single page! Tell us who you’re like as an author and what books your story is like, so we can gauge how well it’ll sell based on two sentences about it! Format it exactly the way we say or we won’t even consider you!

For publishers, agents, and editors who have slush piles as tall as Mount Everest…we get it. There has to be a way to differentiate. We don’t blame you. Every creative writing class, NaNoWriMo pep talk, and college lit department combine to send out hundreds of thousands of people who think all they need to do to become the next Ernest Hemingway is string a sentence together. There has to be some way to sort through that pile…but God, can’t there be a better way than query letters? Especially since even with query letters being used it often takes months or years to hear back, and…

5. “Simultaneous submissions prohibited.”

No, we don’t know when we’ll get to your query, but we’ll throw it out instantly if you have the audacity to shop around while you wait for us.

The combination of “no simultaneous submissions” with the query letter bottleneck makes success slow and arduous. It disadvantages everyone who aims to write full-time but doesn’t have another income source (their own, or a parents’, or a spouse’s, or, or or). The result is that entire classes of people are edged out of publishing solely because the process, especially for writers early in their career, moves so glacially that people have to earn a living while they wait, and it’s so hard to, for example, work two jobs and raise a family and also somehow find the time to write. Especially considering that the standard advice for dealing with “no simultaneous submissions” is “just write something else while you wait!” …the whole system screams privilege.

6. Genres are boxes that must be fit into and adhered to.

Your protagonist is 18? Then obviously your book is Young Adult. It doesn’t matter how smutty your book is, erotica books must have sex within the first three chapters, ideally in the first chapter. Sorry, we’re a fantasy publisher, if you have a technological element you don’t belong here…

While some genre boxes have been becoming more like mesh cages of late, with some flow of content allowed in and out, many remain stiff prisons that constrict the kinds of stories people can tell. Even basic cross-genre works often struggle to find a place, and there’s no reason for it beyond “if we can’t pigeon-hole a story, it’s harder to sell.” This edges out many innovative, creative works. It also disadvantages people who aren’t as familiar with genre rules. And don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an argument that, for example, the romance genre would be improved by opening up to stories that don’t have “happily ever afters.” Instead, it’s pointing out – there should also be a home for, say, a space opera with a side romance, an erotica scene, and a happily-for-now ending. Occasionally, works breakthrough, but for the most part stories that don’t conform never see the light of day (or, they do, but only after Point 2 – trad pub editors insist that the elements most “outside” the box be removed or revised).

7. The lines between romance and erotica are arbitrary, random, and hetero- and cis-normative.

This modern romance novel won’t sell if it doesn’t have an explicit sex scene, but God forbid you call a penis a penis. Oh, no, this is far too explicit, even though the book only has one mlm sex scene, this is erotica.

The difference between “romance” and “erotica” might not matter so much if not for the stigmas attached to erotica and the huge difference in marketability and audience. The difference between “romance” and “erotica” also might not matter so much if not for the fact that, so often, even incredibly raunchy stories that feature cis straight male/cis straight female sex scenes are shelved as romance, but the moment the sex is between people of the same gender, and/or a trans or genderqueer person is involved, and/or the relationship is polyamorous, and/or the characters involved are literally anything other than a cis straight male pleasuring a cis straight female in a “standard” way (cunnilingus welcome, pegging need not apply)…then the story is erotica. Two identical stories will get assigned different genres based on who the people having sex are, and also based on the “skill” of the author to use ludicrous euphemisms (instead of just…calling body parts what they’re called…), and it’s insane. Non-con can be a “romance” novel, even if it’s graphically described. “50 Shades of Gray” can sell millions of copies, even containing BDSM. But the word “vagina” gets used once…bam, erotica. (Seriously, the only standard that should matter is the Envelope Analogy).

8. Authors are expected to do a lot of their own legwork (eg advertising) but then don’t reap the benefits.

Okay, so, you’re going to get an advance of $2,500 on this, your first novel, and a royalty rate of 5% if and only if your advance sells out…so you’d better get out there and market! Wait, what do you mean you don’t have a following? Guess you’re never selling out your advance…

Trad pub can generally be relied on to do some marketing – so this item is perhaps better seen as an indictment of more mid-sized Presses – but, basically, if an author has to do the majority of the work themselves, then why aren’t they getting paid more? What’s the actual benefit to going the large press/trad pub route if it’s not going to get the book into more hands? It’s especially strange that this continues to be a major issue when self-publishing (which also requires doing one’s own marketing) garners 60%+ royalty rates. Yes, the author doesn’t get an advance, and they don’t get the cache of ~well I was published by…~, but considering some Presses require parts of advances to get paid back if the initial run doesn’t sell out, and cache doesn’t put food on the table…pay models have really, really got to change.

9. Fanfiction writing doesn’t count as writing experience

Hey there Basic White Dude, we see you’ve graduated summa cum laude from A Big Fancy Expensive School. Of course we’ll set you up to publish your first novel you haven’t actually quite finished writing yet. Oh, Fanperson, you’ve written 15 novels for your favorite fandom in the last 4 years? Get to the back of the line!

Do I really need to explain this? The only way to get better at writing is to write. Placing fanfiction on official trad pub “do not interact” lists is idiotic, especially considering many of the other items on this list. (They know how to engage readers! They have existing followings! They understand genre and tropes!) Being a fanfiction writer should absolutely be a marketable “I am a writer” skill. Nuff said. (To be clear, I’m not saying publishers should publish fanfiction, I’m saying that being a fanfiction writer is relevant and important experience that should be given weight when considering an author’s qualifications, similar to, say, publishing in a university’s quarterly.)

10. Tagging conventions (read: lack thereof).

Oh, did I trigger you? Hahahaha. Good luck with that.

We rate movies so that people can avoid content they don’t like. Same with TV shows and video games. Increasingly, those ratings aren’t just “R – adult audiences,” either; they contain information about the nature of the story elements that have led to the rating (“blood and gore,” “alcohol reference,” “cartoon violence,” “drug reference,” “sexual violence,” “use of tobacco,” and many, many more). So why is it that I can read a book and, without warning, be surprised by incest, rape, graphic violence, explicit language, glorification of drug and alcohol use, and so so much more? That it’s left to readers to look up spoilers to ensure that they’re not exposed to content that could be upsetting or inappropriate for their children or, or, or, is insane. So often, too, authors cling to “but we don’t want to give away our story,” as if video game makes and other media makers do want to give away their stories. This shouldn’t be about author egos or ~originality~ (as if that’s even a thing)…it should be about helping readers make informed purchasing decisions. It’s way, way past time that major market books include content warnings.

Thank you for joining us, this has been our extended rant about how frustrated we are with traditional publishing. Helpful? No. Cathartic? Most definitely yes. 🤣

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