Fan-Fiction: Writing

This page is for those of you who wish to try your own hand at fan-fiction writing and/or beta-reading.

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Writers and Beta Readers: Co-Creators in Fan-Fiction:

By Bea T. Kay

Copyright 2000


The explosion of fan fiction on the Internet has led to an astonishing range of good, bad and ugly posted stories. Unlike printed fanzines, where an editor works on smoothing out a story prior to publication and the reader has at least some assurance of polish, the Net allows anyone to post anything in any kind of shape. Sometimes the results are great and sometimes they’re awful beyond words.

Working with a beta reader(s) can help to make your stories stronger. A beta reader should be able to point out basic grammar and spelling errors, find point of view mistakes, pinpoint continuity problems and give you a concrete list of opportunities for you to improve your story.

A beta reader can help you plug up a plot hole or tell you to drop a scene because the exposition isn’t necessary for the story. A beta reader should not be your best friend from high school who “just loves your stuff.” What you need is a critical yet kind eye on your story combined with the ability to clearly articulate what is working and what isn’t. Someone who hands a story back to you and says, “Well, it was OK….” but can’t tell you exactly why it was only OK is not a beta reader. A beta reader should hand it back and be able to say, “ The characterization is right on the money, but your transitions are weak. Try beefing up this scene and keep an eye on your dialogue tags.” A beta reader can suggest re-wording certain passages, omission of flowery language and clarify the narrative exposition. A beta doesn’t necessarily have to be a writer but has to be experienced enough at editing to clarify mistakes and make suggestions for solving story problems. (Case in point- if your beta hasn’t mastered point of view, neither will you.)

Finding a beta reader on the Net is relatively easy. There are hundreds of message boards and mailing lists for fan fiction. Lurk for a while to get a feel for what type of fanfic the list likes, then put out a feeler message and see what kind of response you get. Keep in mind the particular interests of your board, though. If the list is pre-disposed towards Mary Sue Pitch Black stories, then asking for a beta for a slash Riddick/Krychek piece might be slow going…Or if your piece is a little different than the main topic, then say so in your preliminary message. That way, people who would be put off by your premise won’t volunteer to beta.

Your beta reader should, at the very least, buy into the scenario and universe you are writing. Asking a long-time gen Star Trek writer who loves Spock and Christine to critique an alternate universe slash Maul/Obi-Wan story may be asking for too much from her. Also, your beta reader should be able to put aside her own preferences and prejudices about a character and give you feedback on YOUR interpretation of the character. Someone who simply says, “Well, Maul wouldn’t do that!” is not going to be useful to you. Now, if your story doesn’t explain WHY Maul does do that, then your beta reader can point that out to you. “Your narrative is too sketchy to justify this character’s action. Give us more backstory and explanation.”

Your beta reader should give you:

1- Acknowledgment that the story was received and a time frame for when her work will be done. Everyone has their own limits on waiting. For some people, a week is too long; for others, up to a month is considered acceptable especially if you're writing a long piece. Keep in mind that editing is *work,* it’s not something to be dashed on a lunch hour unless all is you want is a quick skim. On an average 10 page story by an intermediate level writer, I’ll spend three or more hours doing edits.

2- Concrete feedback given in a non-hurtful manner. This should be very specific advice ranging from “add more physical beats in the dialogue” to “this is phrased awkwardly. Rewrite this section” to “the dialogue tags have too many adverbs.” It should also be given in a supportive manner that won’t leave you feeling defensive. Remember, feedback on your story is NOT a personal criticism of you, the person. You’re just getting criticism on your writing and suggestions on how to improve.

3- Reinforcement for the things that you are doing right. If all you get back from someone is totally negative, this will discourage you from writing. Smooth passages, a particularly evocative description and snappy dialogue should be acknowledged by your beta reader with a pat on the back.

What you should give your beta reader:

1- The best possible draft of your story and NOT the first draft. I cannot emphasize this enough. Don’t dash off a sketchy piece of work, then dump it on a beta reader to “fix.” Fixing is your responsibility. This also means basic grammar and spelling errors corrected so that she doesn’t have to spend a ton of time doing sixth grade school teacher’s work. Most word processing programs have a grammar and spellcheck function. Use them!

2- Give her the story in whatever format works for her: plain text in email, Word or WordPerfect attachment, whatever. Again, make her job easier. The investment of time and energy in editing can be considerable. Have the courtesy to make the process as smooth as possible.

3- A clear request of what kind of beta reading you want. Do you need a line by line analysis or just a brief skim for major plotholes and problems? Are you willing to change some characterization and backstory or are those elements “set in stone” for you? If there is a previous story that this story hinges on, make sure she has read it so that continuity and character development can be analyzed. If you have specific questions about the story, then list them for her to address. I usually have three or four particular questions on my stories ranging from ‘is the dream sequence too literal?’ to ‘how can I make Obi-Wan more sympathetic?’

4- Acknowledgment of the beta reader’s suggestions when received. Even if you don’t agree with everything she said, have the courtesy to say thank you for taking her time, effort and energy to improve your story. And no beta reader should have to write you and ask if you received her critique- it’s simply rude. She spent time and effort doing YOU a favor, you owe her the courtesy of a reply after she’s sent you the critique and quickly. Also, even if you don’t change any of the story elements, at the very least correct the spelling and grammar errors! If it’s already posted, behave like a real writer and make the rudimentary changes that YOU asked to be told about. And tell her what you’ll be changing per her suggestions. Acknowledgment of the beta readers in your story disclaimer if on the Net or a small thank you epilogue if published in a zine is also polite and is the ONLY feedback she will ever get about her hard work.

Choose a beta reader whose writing you know and respect. If she can write it well herself, she’s probably talented enough to help you write better. If you’ve already sent her feedback on her previous work, she may be more inclined to do some beta reading for you. And ask politely, don’t just send a story and expect someone you don’t know to do a beta for you. Once you’ve found a strong beta reader with whom you work well, hang on! She’s a wonderful resource for your writing and you may become friends as well.

Thanks to my precious betas: RedSith, Veronica and Teri. Bless you all!


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