Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Fanfic and the first million words

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Kung Fu Panda

A million words, we’ve all been told, is the minimum amount a novelist needs to write before achieving a basic level of technical competence. Like most such rules, it isn’t meant to be precise, and its true impact is difficult to gauge—we rarely know exactly how many words a writer has gone through before his or her first serious publication. Clearly, the most straightforward way of measuring this effect would be for a previously untested writer to produce a single work of fiction a million words long, and to track how the author’s skills evolved from first page to last. On its face, this might seem ridiculous, but in fact, there’s one place where this kind of experiment takes place on a regular basis: in the unregulated, unedited, often inexplicable world of fanfic, in which nonprofessional writers routinely write stories many times the length of War and Peace. In the past, I’ve mentioned A Different Lesson, the Kung Pu Panda fanfic that weighs in at a modest 632,000 words, and this page maintains a list of stories in multiple fandoms that are 800,000 words or more. And if an author can really hope to grow in competence after those first million words, you’d expect to see at least some evidence of it here.

So what do we find? Here, for instance, is a passage from the first page of an Avatar fanfic of close to a million words, which the author says is his first attempt at writing fiction of any kind:

When the spaceship was almost out of sight, it was time to celebrate! And then begin with preparation for the ritual which will allow Jake and others who were helping Na’vi to become the real part of The People, the mind transfer.

And here’s a passage from close to the end:

“Could you please take care of her? It will be hard for her once I’m gone.” Rick said in depressed voice, he knew damn too well that she won’t be able to live over this, he will leave her for the second time and this time he isn’t coming back…

Now, it’s all too easy to pick on fanfic for its stylistic shortcomings—and to be fair, the author here notes that English is not his native language—but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that any evidence of stylistic growth is elusive at best. All the same, the story comes from a place of real commitment: writing a million words of any kind requires an insane level of dedication, and judging from the number of favorable comments the story has received, it has been read by thousands of people. It might seem unfair, then, to hold it to standards that don’t have much to do with why the story was written, or enjoyed, in the first place.


Yet there’s an important point to be made here, especially for those who see fanfic, as I once did, as a training ground for other kinds of fiction. I spent years writing fanfic in high school and college, and was drawn to it for a very particular reason: I discovered that I could write a novel-length work of fiction and post it online, and by the following morning, I’d have responses from complete strangers who had read and enjoyed it in its entirety. For a young writer, this was a heady experience, and the chance to reach an existing audience of willing readers was enough to keep me going, even though I never thought of myself as a true member of the fanfic community. I saw it instead as a valuable way of building skill and confidence as a storyteller, and there’s no doubt that much of my work since, especially in science fiction, was shaped by the experience. In the end, I produced close to a quarter of a million words of fanfic over five years, and in the process, I learned things about plot, structure, and pacing that made it much easier, when I began writing my own work, to avoid many of the technical frustrations that confront writers trying to tell original stories for the first time.

But it came at a price. The trouble with fanfic is that it allows a writer to produce massive amounts of material while systematically avoiding the single hardest element of fiction: the creation of imaginary human beings capable of sustaining a reader’s interest and sympathy. Fanfic begins from an enviable position, with a cast of characters to which the reader is already emotionally attached. As a result, even after writing a million words or more, a writer can easily be left in a state of arrested development, with superb technical skills when it comes to writing about the inner life of existing characters, but little sense of how to do it from scratch. And without this basic skill, the time spent on those million words has a fraction of the value of the same amount of original work. When it comes to learning the nuts and bolts of craft, I’d estimate that a thousand words of honestly crafted original material, with all its attendant mistakes, is worth ten thousand words of fanfic—and the true ratio may be even higher. Of course, even bad fanfiction is likely to be read by someone, while a very good original novel may never see the light of day. But if you decide to write your first million words in fanfic, you may find, when you get to the end, that you’re right back where you started.

Written by nevalalee

December 26, 2012 at 9:50 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , , ,

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