Writing Fan-fiction, and What it Taught Me About Writing

a guest post by Sylvie Soulet…

A co-worker noticed the Arnold figurine on my work desk. “You like Hey Arnold?”

“I adore this show,” I blurted out, a bit too enthusiastically for a Monday morning.

“Oh cool – I used to love the show as a kid,” she replied.

That was the extent of our conversation, and while brief, the exchange stuck with me for the remainder of the week. As I looked from the Arnold figurine I won in a contest, to the keychain I purchased from an artist in Japan, to the tacky licensed locket lanyard I scored from Hot Topic, and finally my Arnold Shortman POP figurine, I became introspective. Why did I love the show?

Hey Arnold! premiered in 1995. I was eight years old at the time, the prime age to gravitate toward a cartoon series about a football-headed fourth-grader living in the big city. And yet, instead of growing out the show like my work colleague, I went the other way, opting to double-down on the fandom.

I was introduced to the Internet in the late 90s, and subsequently had the floodgates opened to the world of the fansite: pages upon pages of likeminded individuals with the same love of Hey Arnold!, devoted to forums, fanart and fanfiction. It was on the fanfic-centric sites that I expressed my love of the show.

I was an active member of the community during its peak in 2002, when Hey Arnold!: The Movie arrived in theatres to middling and disappointing commercial and critical reception). There was promise of a movie sequel to bookend the mystery surrounding Arnold’s missing parents. Alas, alack – it was not to be; the movie bombed and the sequel shelved, leaving the fans in frustrating limbo for over a decade until the change of guard at Nickelodeon appeased them with The Jungle Movie in 2017.

The movie came and went, the fans were given their satisfying conclusion, and the bizarre saga of the 90s Nicktoon was finally concluded.

And yet, I am still very much attached to Hey Arnold! Why? The co-worker I spoke with asked the same question, and I couldn’t give her an adequate answer.

I used to think I held onto the show as a lingering vestige of my childhood; something I associated with a happier, carefree period in my life. But now that The Jungle Movie has been released and the characters thrusted into the 21st century for the next generation of viewers, that reasoning no longer rang true for me.

It was then I realized: it wasn’t just Hey Arnold! I loved, it was the act of writing, and how that passion was awakened through the show.

Even before the series premiered, I loved to write; in the third grade I wrote an illustrated story about a witch with a talking cat. In the fifth grade, I wrote a story (again about witches) that involved every student in my class.

It was around this time I discovered fanfiction, and my creative juices really started to flow.

I’ve been writing fanfiction for over 20 years – that’s two whole decades (wow!). Over the years I’ve gleaned some important lessons from my writing, which I hope to someday parlay into writing a novel of my own original ideas.

Just Finish It

With the exception of what I write for NaNoWriMo, I planned the structure of my fanfics before I would write them. This was to prevent myself from encountering the neverending story.

I can’t tell you how many times I would read an engaging story, only to be crushed when I reached the final chapter and discover the author hadn’t updated in over 4 years. Or I would follow the progression of a story in real-time, only to have updates spread further and further apart, until the story died a slow, meandering death.

I believe the best strategy for new writers is to just get started – but once a story is started, FINISH IT. The light must be seen on the other side before you enter the tunnel.

You Can’t Please Everyone

I write Hey Arnold! fanfiction. That in itself is not a very large community; if you check fanfiction.net, the show doesn’t even place it in the top 20 of story counts.

I don’t generally write stories in the most popular genre: romance (fans are rampant for the now canon Arnold-Helga shipping). I’ve written several fanfictions that are crossovers with other series, narrowing my pool of potential readers even further.

I know my audience; I’m not going to please the fans looking for fluffy, schmaltzy stories where Arnold and Helga gradually fall in love. My specialty comes from crafting compelling stories that aren’t often seen in the community.

When writing my manuscript, I’m aware that I will be alienating people that aren’t interested in YA novels. But guess what? They’re not my audience! If I attempt to craft a novel that tries to appease everyone, then not only do I run the risk of not pleasing ANYONE, but I’ll no longer be making a novel that I can be proud to call my own. And on that note…


Write for YOU

The beauty of writing fanfiction online is the ability to receive feedback on one’s work. If someone is totally blown away by that one plot twist in Chapter 9, you’re definitely going to hear about it. Conversely, if a person does not appreciate certain plot elements or discovers some glaring plot hole in your work, you’re also going to hear about it. Which is why it’s so important to write with a clear intention of your goals.

Sometimes you may receive a piece of feedback that elevates how you choose to go about your story. Sometimes you’ll receive feedback on introducing elements that simply won’t fit. Once, when discussing my Hey Arnold! fanfic with someone, the person adamantly suggested I inject the story with characters from horror-themed franchises, like Jason and Freddy Krueger (hey, it’s already a crossover, right?)

While I appreciated that someone was compelled to offer suggestions on making the story better, I had the wherewithal to know that Chucky and his brethren had absolutely NO PLACE in my vision of the story, and politely declined, thank you very much.

If I wanted to just gain this person’s devoted readership, I could have made the change. But I wouldn’t be happy with the final product. I wouldn’t be authentic; I would simply cater to the whims of the reader, whose tastes could change at the drop of a hat. It’s important to stick to your guns and to only tweak things in your writing if you actually think they will bring alive your vision, and not simply garner more likes.

Artwork Helps

As I’ve mentioned, I love to write about Hey Arnold!, but my drawing skills can’t hold a candle to the amazing fan artists within the community.

And it can be difficult to stand out in a sea of fanfiction, even if the premise of my stories is unique. One advantage I discovered is to add compelling story art to attract readers.

I read an entire fanfiction that I otherwise wouldn’t have given a second glance because I was mesmerized by the corresponding fan art. I realized how important it was to include images along with my stories to garner attention. I commissioned fan artists to create cover art for some of my stories, and as a result, my readership grew.

This applies to the world of traditional and self-publishing as well. Selecting the right cover art really helps to sell one’s work. This is why, when I’m at the stage to publish my novel, I’d prefer to go the traditional publishing route; I’d like a team of professionals to create the artwork from my ideas (in self-publishing you are tasked with all the minutiae that comes with publishing a book, from the page format to the look of the font).

It’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, but rather than have it as an afterthought, I would want to give my novel every opportunity to succeed.

Do Your Research

It was effortless to write over 1000 words on this topic. That’s because I know the ins and outs of fanfiction from doing it for so long. As a fan of Hey Arnold!, remembering minor, obscure details of the show come naturally for me, which made it easier to enrich my writing.

I’m breaking new ground by writing a novel of my own creation and ideas. There are elements I wish to incorporate into my story that I am not well-versed in, so I must do research to make sure my writing is accurate. Thanks to Google, most answers are at my fingertips. The writing software Scrivener makes it convenient to store my research notes so that I may refer to them at a moment’s notice.

Go Where Your Audience Is

I’m a Hey Arnold! fan. Ergo, I write fanfiction about the show Hey Arnold!

I wouldn’t email a person that reads Star Trek fanfiction and beg them to read my stories; likewise, I wouldn’t think highly of someone who asked me to read their non-Hey Arnold! fanfic.

When I was promoting my writing, I did it where I knew I would find other fans: on the Facebook fan page. On Reddit. Even on Tumblr. Wherever there were little pockets of Hey Arnold! fandom, I sought them out and shared my work. I may have had more success going to a general fanfic community and announcing my story was complete and ready to be read, but I’m sure the majority of people I reached would not be interested, and I would just be grinding my gears and wasting time.

When I shop around my manuscript, I will make sure it’s to places that specialize in young adult fiction. I’m not going to bother to submit query letters to literary agents that only look at historical non-fiction, and I won’t as to have my work beta-read by people who only deal with criminal drama. If I want the most optimal feedback for my work, I will need to seek out the publishing houses that cater to the type of genre I’m trying to sell. It’s not just business savvy – it’s common sense.

It intimidates me to speak so candidly of my time writing fanfiction, but I know I’m not alone. There are many prominent authors in the market today who have gotten their start writing about a pre-existing property. E.L. James wrote Twilight fanfiction before eventually creating the smash hit series Fifty Shades of Grey, and Wattpad writer Anna Todd is set to have a movie based on her One Direction fanfiction out in 2019.

I hope that by speaking about my past, I can reach the would-be novelists out there and inspire them to elevate their writing to something beyond fanfiction. We’ve been honing our talents for the properties we love for years. Now it’s time to make our efforts worthwhile.

Sylvie Soulet has had a passion for writing since she was a little girl. And now, she’s finally decided to pursue her lifelong dream of writing a novel. When not deliberating over plot holes and negotiating extra-lean word counts, Sylvie can be found in small-city Toronto. Check out Sylvie’s website here.

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