Making the Transition from Writing Fanfiction to Writing Original Fiction
An original editorial by Jim Bernheimer (aka JBern)
If you've read this far, you're either interested in crossing over from writing fanfiction to original works, or you want to read about the authors that have done this. My own journey started in late 2005 when I posted my first chapter of fanfic. I used my Harry Potter stories as training wheels and I cringe every time I read one of my early chapters. Eventually, I felt I was ready to step out and try my hand with something original. This article is meant to offer suggestions and advice on how to go about taking that next step.
Fanfic is nice and the settings and initial characterization are already there. That allowed me to concentrate on plot and style. In my case, I played around with first, second, and third person points of view and also using past and present tense. After building up a nice sized fanbase of somewhere between six and eight thousand readers of my HP stories on fanfiction.net and fanficauthors.net, I decided it was time to start writing original works.
If you wish to do the same, the first thing you have to decide when branching out like this is whether you're going to completely separate your established identity and do things like take down your current fics or just leave them up. I don't have an agent or a major publisher advising me otherwise, so I've just let my stories stay and even add a one shot or new chapter every now and then. From my perspective, it's remembering/thanking the people who got me to this point. Other authors who have made the transition have made a big "to do" over removing their stories from the internet. Of course nothing can ever truly be removed from the internet. If I really wanted to read The Draco Trilogy or one of Maya's stories, all it would take is a quick trip to one of the many popular HP Yahoo groups and a posting to please email me a copy.
The decision about taking down your fics or removing a vowel from your name likely comes down to whether or not someone is advising you to do it. I'm still a small press author. Maybe there will come a day when an agent or publisher tells me that I need to put old JBern out to pasture. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.
If you want to swim with the big fishes (the five or six major publishing houses and their imprints), you need to be prepared for a long wait. It will take anywhere from three to six months for them to process your manuscript. If you are lucky and talented, you'll get some personalized feedback. If you're extremely lucky and talented, you'll get an offer or a rewrite request. The rest will either get a form rejection letter or no correspondence at all.
Many large publishers no longer accept submissions that do not come from agents they've worked with before. This has shifted much of the slush editing over to the agents. So, you may want to land and agent first, which requires another round of researching, querying and waiting. The agent and big publisher dilemma for a new author is something of a chicken and the egg question. If you manage to get one, it is far easier to get the other. The problem is getting your first break and that all comes down to having a good manuscript and it getting in front of the right set of eyes that will like it. All I can say is that timing is everything and look no further than JKR for the number of times she was rejected before getting published.
The publishing world is cold and uncaring. Your task is to make it care about you.
The UK branch of Harper Collins runs an online slush pile called Authonomy, which is something of a literary "King of the Hill" for partial manuscripts, but succeeding there requires not only a good manuscript, but the willingness to invest a significant amount of time to climb to the top of the heap. Just remember this - virtually every other member who is active on that site is trying to get their manuscript to rise in the rankings there as well. (Google Mary Walters and Authonomy for an excellent article by Ms. Walters on the subject of that website for further reading.) For alternatives to Authonomy there is also "You Write On" and "The Next Big Writer."
A good peer reviewing group is also essential. They can be the local "in person" kind or the virtual online communities. If you pick the online kind, you'll want one that meets on a password protected/login required site or an invitation only yahoo/google group. Otherwise, your novel is considered to be posted online already and that will affect whether someone will consider publishing it. This will also require significant effort on your part. To get feedback on your work, you will have to spend time critiquing other peoples' manuscripts. This is a good thing and will open your eyes to how other people write. You can learn quite a bit about your own writing from doing critiques of other works and eventually apply those lessons to your own writing.
Right now, you're probably just starting to get an idea about how much time you'll have to invest. I haven't even gotten to the part where you're actively marketing and promoting your book yet. We're still in the getting published stage, but don't get discouraged. Seeing your name on the cover of a book is worth it. Trust me on that.
There are tools that can help you self-edit. I use the free and paid for version of text to speech software from naturalreaders. It works very well and helps me pick up misspellings, poor word choices, and cumbersome paragraphs. I've also been dabbling with the free Y-Writer software from the author of the Hal Spacejock series. It's an honest to goodness storyboard where you can build your novel scene by scene, as well as incorporate character bios, setting descriptions, and as of the latest version, it includes a text to speech component as well.
Alas, no program will ever replace having an independent and hopefully unbiased set of eyes reading your work. Having a relationship with one of those Perfect Imagination people can serve you well and you should be grateful to anyone who is willing to read and offer corrections and advice about your manuscript. Ultimately, the slush editor or agent is a gatekeeper. Any grammatical mistake you make moves them another inch closer to hitting send on that form rejection email and moving onto the next item in their pile. Your task here is to minimize (to the maximum extent practical) the errors in your manuscript. It absolutely must read cleanly!
If you don't have the time, but do have the cash, consider hiring a freelance editor. For my first two novels, I have relied on the group of people who were beta readers for my fanfics. They worked for free and did a good job, but even so, I still take a hit or two now and then that says my story is good, but it misses a professional editor's touch. Just like getting an agent or a publisher, do your research on any freelance editor you want to hire. Email them and ask for referrals/testimonials from previous clients because the rates for a full length novel will generally run anywhere from $200 up to $1000.
Up until now, I've discussed the path I haven't taken. I didn't have the patience for trying to play in the big leagues - to use a baseball analogy. I'm somewhere in the minor leagues right now playing AA or AAA ball. By that, I mean I'm in the small press world where the sales number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. As a fanfic author, I have a built in fanbase that helps me get the word out and has given me a modicum of success thus far. That's a leg up over others that are just getting into the business.
The other thing I did was ease into the world of original fiction by writing and selling short stories. It's actually a lot harder than it sounds. Writing good short fiction is different than novel writing. Instead of an opening chapter to grab the reader's attention, you've got roughly the first two paragraphs. You also only have a few thousand words to deliver the entire story to the readers. It's very challenging, but also rewarding. It can lead to membership in various writing organizations like SFWA, HWA, and ITW. Also, it's a good education into how the whole publishing shebang actually works. To this day, I still get a smile on my face for the first short story I sold to Norm Sherman's audio fiction site, Drabblecast. I collected just under $15, but it was my first sale.
One nice thing about the short fiction market is that it's big. There's plenty of competition out there, but there are also many more places to submit your story to and still a decent chance that you'll get feedback on your submissions.
Like anything else, there are good things and bad things about working with small presses and the short fiction market. First of all, you won't get wealthy. Let's just dispel that notion up front. A "pro" sale for a short story means five cents per word. On a three thousand word story, that's $150. Given the amount of sweat equity you've invested in writing those words, that's not a very big return on investment moneywise. When it comes to novels sold to small presses, your advance will likely be no more than one hundred dollars.
To be perfectly honest, you probably won't get wealthy with your first "big" publishing deal. A ten thousand dollar advance won't replace a year's salary (unless you're working for minimum wage). That said who couldn't use an extra ten grand these days?
My advice here is to not worry so much about the money. Consider short stories and small press novels advertising that you actually get paid for. You're looking to build name recognition and visibility outside of your established fanbase. Every piece of fiction you sell is another notch on your literary gunbelt. Get enough notoriety and anthology editors will start soliciting you for work as a headliner in their anthology or publishers my ask you to pull together one together for them. Like anything else, be careful that you don't let writing short fiction consume too much of your time. If you really want to be writing novels, then write novels. The same holds true for running blogs and virtually anything else. If you have the time to do it and make it worth your while do it, but if it reaches a point where it becomes too much of a distraction, you've got to back away from it.
Every month or so, I take a couple of hours and try to evaluate what I'm doing, where I'm headed, and what is or isn't working. Without an agent or publisher actively directing my career, it's incumbent on me to make certain that I'm making good use of my time. Invariably, I look at the list of things I planned to do in the previous month and see that I was too ambitious, so be realistic when setting your goals. You also need to be aware that, just like updating your fanfics, real life can get in the way and slow your progress to a crawl.
Anyway, back to my journey in the wonderful world of small presses. One thing I really like about the small press market is the flexibility when it comes to publishing your novel. I sent Spirals of Destiny Book One: Rider to Gryphonwood on March 23rd of this year. The editor got back with me in a month with errors and comments. (Generally, he takes three months to reply to people he hasn't worked with in the past, but since he published my first novel, we had a preexisting relationship and had already discussed bringing Spirals of Destiny Book One into the Gryphonwood catalog.) By the beginning of May, I had the corrections back to him and we were finished working with the cover artist I found on Deviant Art. The project was uploaded to Lightning Source in the first week of May and went "live" on May 6th.
You simply won't see that speed from a large publisher. A friend of mine just got her manuscript accepted by one of the big publishers last month and I am happy for her. Her book will be released in the fourth quarter of 2011. Understand that when you contact them they usually already have their next four quarters worth of releases ready. By that same time, I hope to have the sequels to Dead Eye and Spirals both published as well as an anthology that I'm putting together featuring some other very popular HP fanfic authors taking a crack at original short stories. I might even have the full length version of a novella that appeared in my Horror, Humor, and Heroes collection ready for print. You'll have to decide for yourself what path you take. Do what is right for you and your writing.
Small presses by virtue of their existence don't have the resources that a large publisher has, but another facet of the discussion you must realize is that even with a large publisher, you're going to have to do much of the legwork yourself in the ever contracting world of publishing. A big publisher and many of the modest sized ones will make certain that advance review copies (ARCs) of your book get into the hands of popular book blogging sites for your genre and to places like publisher's weekly, but you'll still find yourself scheduling many of your interviews, blog tours, book signings, and convention appearances yourself. People working for your publisher will help to the best of their ability, be that supplying the ARCs, or setting you up with interviews on blog sites, but ultimately, you have to be your own hype machine.
Blog tours, guest posts, and things like this editorial cost very little. (Except time you could be writing.) Generally, you send a signed copy of your book to the blog owner and they read it, review it, and either interview you about it or let you do a guest post and talk about your book and your "writer's journey." The bloggers out there are great. They get to read a large number of books and people come to their site to see what they think about such and such. Some even accept a .pdf through email, which saves you on postage. Bloggers like it when you're willing to do a giveaway and either send them extra copies they can distribute or I like to have them email me the winner's name and address and I personalize the copy for the winner and send it out. Just be certain you specify that the contest is for US only (if you live in the US) or whatever is appropriate for where you live. International shipping rates can add up fast.
The point here is to get people talking about you! Get on book club reading lists. Get into your local library system. Work with the independent bookstores and the chain bookstores and set up signings. Try to build some "buzz" around your brand name. You also have to decide how much time you're going to be spending marketing your book and balance that with the fact that you need to keep working on your next novel, short story, or sequel.
Hopefully, you'll be able to apply lessons you've learned to your next effort and that part will get a little easier. The whole game becomes more complex as market your older books and stories while continuing to write the next ones.
Science fiction and fantasy conventions are a money pit. It's all about advertising and getting your name out there. Beyond the registration fee, there's the table fee (hopefully paid by your publisher), and the cost of transportation and lodging. If you're fortunate enough and have a publisher that will take care of all those things or are a special guest of the convention, you're in the small percentage and I envy you. You're also probably a headliner at that event and nothing I can tell you in this article is something you don't already know. Each night in a hotel generally runs between $90 and $100. You'll have to sell books like crazy to make up for it.
What you need to be doing at a con is participating in panels and networking with other writers in your genre. You need to learn how the other writers are successfully building their followings and emulate what can possibly work for you while avoiding the things you see that don't seem to be working well. A steampunk author that I'd befriended online had a table decked out in swag (bookmarks, business cards, and other freebies), so I asked her where she ordered her stuff from (Vistaprint) and now I'll have similar items for my table in the future.
Just a month ago, I was on the panels at ConCarolinas. As the moderator, I got to ask questions to Doctor Jerry Pournelle, who has had one very successful career in this business. As a panelist, I got to argue with Carrie Ryan about whether there really is a market for YA science fiction and be part of a rowdy alternate history panel with the likes of David Coe, Faith Hunter, and A.J. Hartley. It was a good time. You also meet fans and interact with them. Odds are, by the last day of the con, no one has any money left. Still, just because they didn't buy your book that day, it doesn't mean they won't in the future.
I'm getting better at being a "people person," but many writers are introverts and struggle with being a salesperson. At some events, I felt like one of those seagulls in Finding Nemo babbling, "Mine! Mine!" as the customers go by. You absolutely must love your novel(s) and be willing to talk about them. Practice in front of a mirror or have friends role-play with you. I'd recommend browsing the other tables and letting the other authors try and sell you on their novels to see how it is done. Your task here is to become the best salesperson/advocate for your book that you can be. Otherwise the perspective buyer will simply move on to the next person.
Once again, the only person who is responsible for your success as a writer is you.
The last thing I'd like to discuss is the potential backlash when you are breaking away from the fandom. Personally, I prefer to consider myself a writer who happens to also write fanfics, but like it or not, there is a stigma associated with being involved in the fanfic community. (Just as there is with anyone who has self-published. I've done both, so I must be doubly cursed!) The haters may come out in force and you'll need to prepare for that possibility. They might discount you because they "heard" you wrote fanfics at some point, or they might be the same folks who trolled your fanfics, but if you have a good story that resonates with your readers you're just going to have to roll with it and try not to engage in a public squabble with hostile reviewers.
For me that hasn't happened with the exception of a troll or two, but you can go to the Amazon review pages for Miss Clare's books and see for yourself what you may encounter. Every writer needs thick skin, and as a fanfic writer trying to stretch his or her wings and branch out, it is doubly important.
That's all for now. Anyone who would like to discuss this further with me can visit my website and contact me, poke around, and perhaps even (shameless plug) download some previews of my novels and give them a try. Best of luck to anyone out there preparing to take the plunge into the world of original fiction.
Posted by: Robbie