I've been reading fanfiction obsessively and in copious quantities over the past couple of months, and there are a few thoughts I've got floating around my head that I want to write down before they escape me.
I am not deeply embedded in fanfic culture. It seems to be a pretty rich one, with a dense social fabric and a unique vocabulary, big enough to support many distinct communities--I've read a few million words (ack, really) & would really only describe that as 'dipping my toe in the water'. It's a big pond.
That being said, here's what stood out to me as an author who could stand to learn a few things from fanfiction. A lot of what I read is really beautifully written and really keeps you clicking through the chapters. Worth studying.
The number one principle--the best & worst quality of fanfic--appears to be: more of the good stuff.
Less buildup, more payoff. Take a payoff beat from the canon story and lean on it, stretch it out like taffy, extract the maximum possible punch from it. Reverse an agonizing episode from the canon (these characters I love almost kissed, but didn't!) and make it happen the way you want (they kiss! and kiss again! and more kissing!). Resolve a canon conflict that the creators aren't ready to let go of yet.
There are lots of other options. Sometimes it's just changing a few elements & seeing how the effects cascade into a totally different story. Sometimes it's about filling in gaps, quiet moments that the canon story skips over. Sometimes it's a character study. Lots of possibilities.
But more of the good stuff. I keep thinking of double-stuff oreos. If you buy the cookies because you like the cream filling, then clearly a cookie with twice as much cream filling is an improved product.
I say best and worst because in the best cases you get an unbroken emotional high. You're strung from one emotional peak to the next, and each one is completely satisfying. But in the bad versions, you get intense emotions that come out of nowhere and, as a result, have no impact. All sugar, no cookie--there's nothing to hold onto.
There's an element of cheating here. Fanfic benefits from the work that the canon creators do. Building a world, populating it, making sure the audience knows how everything looks and tastes and feels, building up a story from scratch, launching it into motion, generating momentum. A lot of fanfic is basically the literary equivalent of hijacking a moving car & deciding to go for a joyride.
On the other hand, a lot of it is so intensely sensory--more intimate, more immersive, making a silk purse out of a sow's ear by adding so much richness to the base material.
So I guess the lesson is: find more payoff. Mine for it. And if you have to delay, make sure to really lean on the payoff when you get there.
The other thing that really struck me while reading roughly the same story over and over again, hundreds of times... at least... is that everyone latches on to something different. The special moments, the ones that fanfic authors go back to & worry over & reframe again and again until they've wrung them dry of all impact--they're pretty varied.
Howard Tayler said something in one of the recent Writing Excuses podcasts about finding a "moment of awesome" in every scene. So maybe this isn't so much new or exciting as a particularly good match of idea to illustration. When I read a story where a canon event that I found boring is transformed into a concentrated nugget of delight, I have to realize: the potential is everywhere. Just dig deeper.