Rob's Pile of Transformers: Manic Ramblings

Transformers Fan Fiction: A Long-Winded Dissertation

Intro: Didn't Anybody Read My Story?!?

 A nearly universal complaint among fanfic writers is the lack 
of feedback from readers.  While it's probably true that the 
group's massive volume of traffic means that fewer people 
read and respond to fanfics than in days of olde, I feel that, at 
times, there is also an issue of quality involved: better fanfics 
tend to get more responses.

 Put bluntly, and without naming names, some fanfics are 
better than others. Some are equal to or better than anything 
we ever got from the "official" sources; others were so bad I 
couldn't even finish them. Some made me smile, made me 
laugh, caught me up completely in their world, made me feel 
tension and excitement and sorrow. One or two even made 
my eyes water up.  Others just made me say, "uh-huh." 
Accordingly, some works deserve more, greater, and more in-
depth response than others do.  

 Some folks may feel that it's a cardinal sin to judge other 
people's fanfics, but how can you not have some reaction to 
a story, whether negative or positive?  I'm not trying to belittle 
the efforts of some writers or put others on a pedestal.  It's 
just that when I read Transformers fanfic, I have varied 
reactions to it. I've noted some things that seem to produce 
good stories (to me, at least), and some problems and 
stumbling blocks that fanfic writers commonly hit.  Maybe 
airing them will help someone write better, or just help give a 
fanfic writer a different way to think about what they're 
working on.

 As a very approximate rule of thumb, a fanfic writer can 
expect response to come in proportion to the perceived effort 
put into a work. If a story looks like it's finely polished, and not 
something just churned out in a single sitting, it is far more 
likely to get a response from readers. Personally, I know that 
when a story is carefully constructed, well-written and well-
presented, I am far more compelled to write the author and 
share my thoughts than if the story looks like a first draft. That 
means some of us have to slave over a story for countless 
hours, while a few lucky bastards can get the same results 
seemingly with no effort at all. Such is life. [On the other hand, 
it's not always the case.  A short story may get more 
responses than a longer one, simply because more people 
read and finish it.  Again, that's life -- but I've found that those 
few who do respond to a longer story tend to write more in 
their response, which is cool.]

 So, given that, what can you do give your story that extra 
tangy flavor that'll wow the readers and lure in those 

Part One:
How To wRite Gewd

 Here's some sketchy guidelines for turning out stories that 
will be at least respectable, if not heaped with praise. Note 
that, while all these are basically my opinions, many of them 
are based on things most English and writing instructors will 
tell you, and they're inspired by the things I've seen in fanfics 
that turn me off from reading them. If I'm turned off, it seems 
reasonable that others may be as well. 

* Follow the Rules
 This one comes to us courtesy of Dave Van Domelen, who 
posted a great little essay a while back entitled "Dave's Guide 
to Guides to Writing" or some such.  The gist of it was: any 
so-called 'rule' in writing can be broken, but to do so it's 
essential that you understand why it's a 'rule' in the first place.  
Most great literature involves breaking one or more of the 
'rules'; however, before you can write anything great, you 
have to be able to write well -- and to do that, knowing and 
understanding the 'rules' is essential.

* Read!
 Read everything you can get your hands on.  Notice how 
different authors put sentences together, describe things, 
introduce characters, set mood, etc.  Published authors are 
bound to be competent, at the very least -- so they're good 
role models.  Whenever I feel my own writing style is getting 
stagnant, I pick up a book or three and start browsing, just 
sampling the writer's style, seeing if there might be any ideas I 
could use myself.

* Use correct grammar and spelling.
Actually, this one is *not* my opinion; it's a stone cold fact.  
The importance of correct grammar cannot be overstated. A 
writer who expects to be taken seriously must have strong 
writing skills; the best story in the world can be completely 
sabotaged by poor grammar.  Writing mistakes jump out at 
readers, throwing them suddenly from the discovery of what 
your characters are doing, to "what's the author trying to say 
here?"  The reader can't digest your story if he is laughing at 
your spelling mistakes.  And no amount of deep insight, 
profound character development, and breath-taking plot 
twists can get around poorly constructed sentences. 

 It's okay for Grimlock to say "Us are on our way", but when 
something like that shows up in narrative text it's a huge 
distraction. It makes the story look childish and immature. 
Don't put down "your" when you mean "you're".  Don't jam 
your sentences together with "and".  Use a separate 
paragraph each time a new character speaks.  Don't use 
more than a couple of exclamation points at the end of your 
sentence -- and even then only rarely, if at all.

 Everyone makes typoes and spelling mistakes; the trick is to 
proof-read and spell check so you catch most of them.  If you 
feel grammar is not your strong point, find a proof reader. But 
check it yourself first; practice makes better, if not perfect.  

 Remember, you are putting your work out to where hundreds 
of people are likely to see it... and where, in theory, MILLIONS 
of people could see it. Make sure you've got your best foot 
forward. Also remember, on Usenet, people have only your 
words to judge you by. As with any Usenet post, if your story 
has numerous grammatical and spelling errors, you will most 
assuredly look like an idiot, and most folks don't care to read 
a story that looks like it was written by an idiot. :P

 As an aside: personally, I grant a huge leeway in this 
department to writers who aren't native speakers of English.  
However, most of the foriegners who post to the newsgroups 
have darn-near flawless English, so it's pretty much a moot 
point. :]

* Revise, revise, revise.
 For most people, in most cases, a first draft should not be 
shown to the reading public. Don't just write -- rewrite, and 
then RE-rewrite. Then do it again. Let your story sit for a 
while, then come back to it, read it afresh, and try to decide if 
it's something really worthwhile, something you're at least a 
little bit proud of and really want to share with other people. 
Not everyone needs to work this way -- a few lucky souls can 
get it right on the first try.  And sometimes things just come 
out that are absolutely perfect and don't need to be touched 
one bit.  But in general the first shot doesn't hit the mark. 
There's nothing wrong with that; it's just something that 
needs to be recognized. Anyway, even the best first drafts 
can usually be improved with some effort. 

* Slow down.
Don't get in a rush to finish your work. The multiplicity of 
fanfics on the newsgroup at any given moment can make one 
eager to jump in with his own work. It's understandable; 
you're anxious to get in on the action, and share your story as 
soon as you've spilled it out into the computer. I felt the same 
way when I was new to the group. (Shoot, I still feel that way!) 
Transfandom online is an exciting and dynamic community 
that, at its best, strongly encourages one to participate. It's 
an impulse I had to tone down, though, to get some quality. I 
posted my first fanfic before it was really ready, and got zippo 
response. Later, when I'd rewritten a big chunk of it and 
worked more carefully on the new parts... well, I won't say the 
responses poured in, but I got a satisfying amount of 
feedback. It was worth the wait. Even now, I have to restrain 
myself from putting stuff on the 'net until I've made myself go 
over it two or three times, and really asked myself if it's worth 
someone else's time to read.

* Don't write to feed your ego.
If you go in expecting lavish praise, you will be stunningly 
disappointed.  In fact, if you "wait for comments from people" 
before you "write the next part" (a common disclaimer among 
fanfic writers), your story will most likely never be finished.  
Write because you love what you're writing about, or because 
you have a story to tell, or because you want to draw the 
reader into a world that's fascinated you. The reward should 
be the process of creating a story, the finished product itself, 
and the thrill of putting it out on the Internet. If you get 
responses, view it as a pleasant surprise.  Besides, one of the 
strongest points of a well-constructed story should be the 
ending and/or the conclusion of the plot - and therefore the 
ending will be one of the things most likely to draw in 
comments from folks.  And many comments are just, "Hey, 
nice story."  How can someone really judge a story as good if 
they haven't seen the ending yet? (reference: Beast Wars 
episode "Other Visits" parts 1 and 2.)

* Use consistent narrative tense, person, voice, and 

 "Narrative" refers to all the words in a story that aren't 
spoken by your characters.  It's basically you telling your story. 

 Narrative tense (past/present/future) must be consistent -- if 
you start off with a past tense like "Optimus Prime destroyed 
the Decepticons", don't suddenly switch to a present-tense 
"Megatron revives them all." In fact, it's very rare that present 
tense should be used at all. It works okay on a MUSH, where 
the "events" are actually happening as one reads. But in a 
text story, having to constantly read sentences like "the 
Autobots creep around the sides of Decepticon 
Headquarters and prepare to attack" sets the reader on 
edge. It very quickly becomes tiresome and annoying, and 
simply doesn't work in many stories.  Furthermore, it it's 
functionally incorrect in some cases.  If your narrative says 
"Shockwave lives to serve Megatron", well, what if Shockwave 
is killed half-way through your story?  Obviously he doesn't live 
to serve Megs anymore!

 Narrative person (him/you/I) should likewise be kept 
consistent; don't go from "Megatron had killed every living 
thing present" (third person) to "You saw a staggering 
number of dead Autobots" (second person).  It is a rare story 
indeed that can accomodate a second-person narrative 
tense, and first person requires careful attention to detail and 
tone if it's going to be successful.  As a default, plain old third 
person works best for most stories -- though first person is 
best for getting inside a character's head.

 Trickiest of all is keeping a consistent narrative voice. 
Narrative voice includes ALL the words of the story that aren't 
spoken or thought dialogue. Narrative is commonly objective -
- it doesn't call the Decepticons dastardly or the Autobots 
heroic. That's for the characters to do. Narrative doesn't crack 
jokes, get excited, or make judgements; characters do. The 
only time narrative commonly steps outside the objective is 
when it serves in place of a character's direct thoughts; it can 
reflect the character's impressions or appraisals, ie: "Optimus 
sighed. Megatron's evil genius was sure to find another 
opportunity to strike soon. And the tremendous burden of 
stopping him fell squarely on Prime's shoulders." Note the 
difference between that, and the following, where the 
narrative makes inappropriate judgements: "The evil 
Decepticons swooped down from the sky, firing their lasers 
and decimating the courageous Autobots. The Autobots 
fought back like the heroes they were, but they were helpless 
to stop the treacherous onslaught of their enemies!" Blech. 

 Third person narrative voice is also pretty formal. A third-
person story shouldn't be written in the casual tone of voice 
that I've used in this essay... it will sound sloppy and 
amatuerish. A story's narrative should avoid contractions, 
slang, interjections, addressing the reader, and opinionated 
commentary on the action.  Don't be lured in by the appeal of 
using a casual narrative voice to make your story seem cool... 
it's very hard to do.

 Finally, there's narrative perspective -- how much knowledge 
the narrator has and gives to the reader.  As narrator, it's 
natural to reveal things beyond the basic physical action of 
your story.  As I said, narrative can sometimes serve in place 
of your character's thoughts; a common technique is to tell a 
story from a single character's point of view.  It can also detail 
past events, a character's motives, or even mention things 
that haven't happened yet (as foreshadowing or as a tension-
building device.)  But when doing all this, be careful not to 
jump around too much.  It can be disconcerting to go abruptly 
from one character's thoughts to another, or from the limited 
knowledge of the characters themselves to an omnicient 
narrator's point of view, unless there's at least some kind of 
"buffer" or transition between the two.  My personal rule of 
thumb is normally to stick with one character's thoughts per 
scene.  It sounds limiting, but it actually can help produce a 
stronger scene precisely because it forces one to edit 

 What point of view should the writer take to tell a story? 
Generally, stories that are closest to the action (describing it 
in careful detail,second-by-second) are best; they make the 
story more immediate, the outcome totally up in the air. One 
reason television is such an exciting medium is that almost by 
default it puts the viewer in the middle of the action, and 
shows that action directly. How exciting would the space 
battle in "Return of the Jedi" be if we didn't see it, but were 
instead told about it by Han Solo later on? Pretty dull, huh? 
Same thing holds for text stories -- retrospective points of 
view are things that should be used *very* cautiously. Dave 
Van Domelen's "Sky Link" story did this very well -- the 
retrospective angle added a sense of heavy sadness to the 
story. We knew from the start how it was going to end; the 
ending wasn't the point. But such exceptions are... well, the 

* Explication is evil.
To put it another way, "show, don't tell." As much as possible, 
avoid long, static paragraphs describing situations, 
environments, histories, and back story. Instead, take the 
reader through events as they happen. Fill in the environment 
as the action and dialogue proceed. Have the character's 
back story come out in pieces, through dialogue perhaps. 

* On the other hand, you don't have to show everything.
 You have to decide what parts of your characters' lives to 
show. What's important, what's not? Do we really need to be 
told that the Autobots transformed at the end of the battle 
and drove home, or can we just cut directly from the 
aftermath to a scene in Autobot headquarters? As tempting 
as it may be to detail every last moment of a character's life, 
careful selection is sometimes a more powerful method of 
relating events. It might mean cutting out things you've 
written, but it'll make the story tighter. 

 In my list of "fanfic cliches", I complain about people writing 
stories that focus on incidental details from the Movie that 
don't really relate to the plot of their story, and about 
characters with odd speech patterns being written 
phonetically: "Wazzzzzzzpinator talks like thizzzzzz!"  One of 
the great powers of a written story is that it leaves a 
component up to the imagination.  Therefore, part of the trick 
of writing is figuring out how far to describe the details.  A 
great amount of detail can add mood and focus to a story.  
But it can also muddy things up.  Beyond a certain point, the 
reader is not going to "see" or "hear" things the same way 
you do in your head, no matter how much you describe them.  
Remember that before you bog yourself down in trying to 
capture Ironhide's every last nuance or explaining just what 
the deal was with that pebble in the lower-left corner of the 
screen beneath Huffer's foot in the barricade scene from the 
Movie.  Keep in mind what the reader really needs to know -- 
the important thing is that Ironhide's a rough-n-ready ornery 
guy with a Southern drawl, not the exact way he pronounces 
Optimus Prime's name.

* Know the difference between an essay and a story.
 This one, I confess, is pretty vague.  It's related to the one 
above about explication.  If you don't zoom in enough on the 
story you're telling, at some point it ceases to be a story, and 
becomes an explanation.  In general, a story should be 
chronicling events up close, as they happen, or recalling them 
in great detail.  If you really want to examine Warpath's 
philosophy of life in extreme detail and don't have any kind of 
plot to go with it, you might try writing an essay instead.

 Exceptions to this can include stories told as excerpts from 
journals, stories told by characters within a story, and general 
flashbacks.  Like I said, it's a pretty vague suggestion.

* Listen to how your characters speak.
Most real people don't give long speeches, nor do they give 
the sort of atrocious explication that is so rampant in the 
comics -- especially in the middle of a battle.  Before you 
settle on any dialogue, try to imagine hearing your characters 
speak out loud, and figure out if it sounds like something 
someone would actually say.  This works especially well if 
you're writing about  characters from the cartoons.

 While we're on the subject of dialogue:
 1) Make sure the reader can figure out who's speaking.
 2) Be careful how you use slang such as "gonna" and "goin'" 
in a character's speech. It's okay to do it some, but it can 
quickly become annoying and distracting when it's done to 

An Aside: What Do I Mean by "Bad Writing"?

 There are several levels of "bad writing". The most common 
"bad writing" on the Internet is due to errors of spelling, 
grammar, and usage --these are careless or unknowing 
mistakes in the application of language, things that are for 
the most part indisputably wrong in a technical sense. These 
are also the most easily corrected... and for native speakers 
of English, the least forgivable.  The rules for grammar and 
spelling are pretty much concrete -- if you don't know them, 
you can look them up.  Learn your native language, and learn 
it well -- it's an amazingly powerful tool.  Yes, the grammar 
they bludgeon you with in high school DOES serve a purpose.

 But there's more to "good writing" than just mastering the 
technical skills.  In order of increasing complexity and 
difficulty, weak writing suffers from the lack of:

1) proper spelling
2) correct grammar/sentence structure
3) correct useage of words and phrases
4) organization (presenting ideas or plot in a coherent and 
understandable manner)
5) ideas contained within the writing, including plot, character, 
setting, etc. -- in short, what you're trying to say
6) levels of meaning within the expression of the ideas - 
subtleties, shadings, foreshadowing, implications, room for 
interpretation, social relevance, themes, etc -- things that 
evoke emotional response from the reader, and tie the 
material into their own life.  It is this last level that raises great 
writing to the level of literature, by the way -- gives it meaning 
beyond the actual events of the story.

 A lot of fanfics never make it past the first four items, which 
are all things that must be overcome by practice and study.  
The average 'fic stops at #5.  The rare ones that achieve 
some degree of #6 are most often the ones that leave us all 
going, "DAMN that was good!"  

 #5 is the basis of writing -- you can't write if you don't have 
some sort of idea to express.  Personally, even if I *do* have 
an idea I feel is worth writing about, I won't turn it loose until I 
feel I can also infuse it with some degree of #6 -- so that the 
idea isn't just expressed, it's expressed in a way that I find 
pleasing, with some flair or creativity or double meanings or 
some such.  Someone on once said that it's 
important that the writer include details and sublties that the 
reader/viewer might not be aware of.  I can't say just why, but 
I agree.  Lacing your words with subtle meanings or 
references can add a nice extra dimension to a story... even if 
you're the only one who sees it.

Back to Rob's Pile of Ramblings
Or, onwards to the infamous list of fanfic cliches.