It may seem weird suddenly coming out of the gate with this, but I’ve been fascinated by fandom and fanfic for a long time. I have many feelings on it, and those are all things I’ll probably get into later at some point. For now, though, I want to dive in and look at things that we tend to brush off when thinking about fanfiction. Here’s the thing. I’m not trying to demean or lift up one form over another. There are as many reasons for writing fanfiction as there are regular fiction. I’ve become fascinated with how the form has evolved, as well as the aspects that are similar and different from regularly published fiction.
I want to make it very clear that you can take what I say with a grain of salt. I’m not trying to put writers of different types up against each other or embarrass anyone and, to that end, I’m not going to pluck stuff from archives and throw it under the bus. I may allude to things I’ve seen, but I’m not going to MST3K anything. That’s not what this is about. I do think, though, that while people talk about fanfic in a general or stereotypical sense, there is a lot we could actually dig into.
Let’s start with an issue that never used to be an issue back in the day of email lists when you could talk about a story chapter by chapter. This is something that I’ve noticed now that people can directly upload to archives. My first guess is that it afflicts new writers, though upon closer inspection I’m guessing it’s actually more of a universal thing. I’m talking about it because it’s an issue that attacks writers of original, traditionally published fiction, too. That’s right, I’m ripping on everyone, because that’s just the type of girl I am.
Blurbs and summaries. Summaries and blurbs.
I do not know how many times I’ve seen something like this:
Oh, I dunno, this girl meets this group and they go on adventures and I’m srry I’m rly bad at summaries you guys…
Sorry, I suck at summaries, I promise the story is better just read it!
Excuse me a minute, Advil time.
Look, I get it. It’s not easy to summarize a work, especially something where you’re publishing the summary before the story is finished and you’re writing free-form (in fanfic circles) or pantsing (another term for the same thing). It gets harder when you’ve just put out a lot of energy writing and formatting it. Believe me,I get it. A lot of professional and semi-pro writers struggle with blurbs (what summaries are called when they’re on the back of a book).
It’s not easy to sum up thousands of words in a paragraph or two even when you’re completely done with the manuscript and you know everything that happens. Sure, some people have editors or publishers doing their blurbs. I’ve done most of mine, though I had suggestions for Olde School from my editor. I took some of his advice and completely revamped it in other parts. I’ve also used three different blurbs for that book: one for the book itself, one for online marketing if I need to reduce the word count, one to fit on swag I hand out at conventions. I still get anxiety attacks when I have to reduce that complicated plot down to three sentences when I’m trying to sell a book to a person face to face or talk someone into letting me do a signing. It. Is. Hard.
However, you are shooting yourself in the foot by not giving yourself a decent summary/blurb, no matter what kind of writer you are. I tend to avoid any story that has the “I suck at summaries” line, just like I put back any book that doesn’t have a real description of what it’s about on it. I don’t care how many reviewer blurbs you have (for books), if your back is blank or there’s nothing relating remotely to the plot, there’s a problem.
Likewise, if I feel like if you’re that stressed in selling a story what am I supposed to think the actual story is? And yes, even though i don’t pay to read your fanfic, your summary has to sell me into giving you my time to read your work. If I’m at a store and see my favorite cereal, no matter how much I’m craving it, I’m not going to buy it if it’s in a damaged, torn-up box, because as much as I may love it, as good as it might actually be, I don’t really know what the contents are like and don’t want to take that chance. With fanfic, especially, you are depending on that summary because you don’t have a cover to help catch a reader’s eye. That summary is your cereal box, either damaged or bright and shiny.
I compare writing and publishing to dating a lot, and this is no exception. Forget movies and stories – if you are hanging out at the edge of a bar or at a dance, looking at the ground, hesitating, that is probably not going to get you the hot guy or girl. If you start talking to them and you are second guessing yourself in conversation all the time, they’re going to start to wonder what they’re doing with you. Take it from someone who’s had to learn that lesson professionally and personally, life ain’t like the chick flicks, no matter how great your heart is. At some point you need to spruce yourself up, put your chin up, make eye contact, and carry yourself well. You don’t have to go overboard, but sometimes making just a little bit more of an effort can make all the difference.
To that end, what if you saw something like this in an archive?
A boy grows up and doesn’t know who he is. His family’s mean to him but there’s really more to him than anyone knows and I swear the story’s way better because I suck at summaries, guys! Just read, plz!
Would you click on that when there are literally hundreds of other stories you could click on under the same fandom that may be better presented? Yes, in fanfic things also depend on the tags and pairings, but right now we’re just focusing on summaries. Maybe you’d give it a chance, but I wouldn’t, and judging by hit numbers on a lot of stories with summaries like that, a lot of other people won’t, either. I’d assume the whole story is written like that, and nothing about that draws me in. These days there’s way too much competition to risk a wimpy summary.
You know why that’s all problematic? The above snippet is a very condensed, half-assed summary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Think of what the world would have missed if that book had that for a promotional blurb.
Fanfic writers, I’m speaking specifically to you now: I understand you may be nervous, especially if it’s your first time putting your work out there. Maybe it’s your first time writing a specific fandom, a certain pairing, or adult content. Fanfiction is also very much about community and of course you want people to like you and your story! It takes guts to put a story out there, whether you’re doing it professionally or not. Don’t you owe it to yourself to give your fic the best shot it can have? Don’t you want it to be the equivalent of that person you can’t stop glancing over at because they’re presenting themselves well and intriguing?
You must care about that story, because you went to the trouble of writing it, right? There must be some desire for people to read it because you’re posting it online for people to see. With that in mind, don’t sell yourself short. I get summaries (and blurbs) seem like a pain and a bother, but at the end of the day, that’s what people are going to have to go by. They may love the pairing you write, they may love the fandom, but if you can’t stand out from the other stories around you, you aren’t going to get hits. It’s the equivalent of wanting the guy or girl to notice you but standing as far to the back of the room as you can in sweats while staring at the ground with your hair in your face. Do. Not. Sell. Yourself. Short.
Original fiction/book writers, I mean you, too. I am tired of seeing incomplete summaries on books that may tell me a little bit about a world but don’t hint at the plot or character names. I don’t really care what other people have to say about you yet. I don’t care how you got published. If I’m just learning about you, I want to know what your book is about. Not just that it’s a bold piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, not just that there are three factions of mechanized merpeople duking it out until the alignment of the stars is right, not that there’s a three-thousand-year-old prophecy. Give me fragments and your book goes back on the table or shelf.
Here’s what I want to see, be it fanfic or original published fiction. Who, What, When, Where, Why, How. Not a lot, but enough to tease me. Give me character names. If it’s reader insert in the case of fanfic, that’s fine, substitute the word you. Give me places. If time periods are relevant, tell me that. Give me just enough of the plot or set up to draw me in and leave me hanging at a place where I’m going to want more. If there’s something that the plot may hinge on that you can hint at, by all means, do that. Build tension. Ending with a question is a great way to draw someone in, otherwise you can hint at a plot twist or heavy drama. Whet my appetite and make me want to know more.
How about this:
Three thousand years after nuclear war, life on Earth goes on under the water’s surface. Three tribes of aquatics: the Finned, the Amphibs, and the Shelled are headed to war, bringing with them technology so complex and perverted it will render the seas unlivable. Ysha is a member of the Selkies, the peaceful fourth tribe that is deemed untouchable because of their neutral stance. Something strange lurks under her skin, though, a promise of a tale that was whispered of back when the living walked on the land instead of swimming beside it. Soon the stars will be at the point they were when those whispers first began. Can Ysha gather her courage and fulfill her destiny before time runs out, or will she destroyed by those whose minds are focused on blood, power, and robotics?
Or something. I mean it’s weird, but I’d read the hell out of that. Granted, I’m not familiar with archive summary word count restrictions, but still, give me something to go by that makes me want to read your story!
Jack Sparrow wakes to find himself thousands of years in the future, somehow preserved by a voodoo spell gone wrong during his last adventure. Sheltered in the underwater caves of the peaceful, hidden Selkie tribe, he’s worshiped as a god because he’s the first human seen by any of this new world’s populace. Thrown into a bloody, aquatic world war between the violent Amphib, Shelled, and Finned tribes, surrounded by strange, advanced technology that he doesn’t understand, and with all the rum gone, Jack struggles to find a place for himself in this strange new world without becoming a pawn. When he meets the timid yet beguiling Ysha, can he convince her that she has her own place and doesn’t need to hide in the shadows? Is there hope of him ever getting back home or will he be forced to choose sides and hope he survives?
Again, I would probably read that. Notice I’m pretty much just hitting the highlights, hinting at the basic plot, but giving myself a lot of room to change things up if I need to? That slight vagueness can also make readers wonder what’s going to happen.
Okay, so what if we’re talking a story where the goal isn’t plot and tension?
After attempting to negotiate with the three other tribes, Ysha finds herself wounded and hiding in one of the Selkies’ secret caves. A certain re-generated pirate also is hiding there, and he recognizes the haunted look in her eyes. Unable to allow her to grow depressed with her failure, Jack helps Ysha regain her strength, entertains her with stories from his youth, and maybe, just maybe, he can convince her to give him a chance. In turn, maybe Ysha can convince Jack he has a future with her.
Bam, slap a hurt/comfort tag on that and we’re good. Add some merbunnies and call it fluff.
But what if…just what if we’re talking about something a little more…extracurricular?
Holed up in a secret hideaway after failing to reconcile the tribes, Jack learns a particular quirk about the Selkies: their mating season provides them with urges that overtake everything else. Embarrassed by her behavior and nervous because it’s her first season, Ysha tries to fight the intense attraction to Jack. Little does she know that the strange human pirate knows a thing or two about seduction and is more than willing to educate her in every necessary lesson…and a few extracurricular activities.
Tag that sucker with whatever kink it is that hybrid robo merpeople and time-travelling pirates do, and there you go.
Granted, I’m being a little facetious, but I would at least give those summaries at least a chapter’s worth of my time over an excuse as to why someone is bad at writing summaries.
For a real example, here’s my blurb for my horror e-book, Mooner. I’m using this one because it’s short, to the point, and has a decent hook at the end.
Like many young men at the end of the 1800s, Bill signed on to work in a logging camp. The work is brutal, but it promised a fast paycheck with which he can start his life. Unfortunately, his role model is Big John. Not only is he the camp’s hero, but he’s known for spending his pay as fast as he makes it. On a cold Saturday night they enter Red’s Saloon to forget the work that takes the sweat and lives of so many men their age. Red may have plans for their whiskey money, but something else lurks in the shadows. It watches and badly wants a drink that has nothing to do with alcohol. Can Bill make it back out the shabby door, or does someone else have their own plans for his future?
That at least makes you think, right? you know what’s going on, you think you kinda know where things are going to go, but it still leaves enough hanging to make you wonder.
I will be honest: I don’t always like writing blurbs, myself, but I do. For my book page I write them for the short stories I have in anthologies so people will know what my contributions are actually about. Any and all examples can be found here.
Are they all spectacular? Nah, but they get the job done. I’ve gotten people talking at the very least and actually buying from those, which is the whole reason for them.
My point is that you do not have to be afraid of summaries and, for heaven’s sake, don’t apologize for your work! If you care enough to post it, post it well. You don’t have to be super extravagant. Even if it’s just a couple of lines, give me something. Try. Run it by a couple of friends you trust before you put it up or send it to the publisher. Spell and grammar check that beast. You don’t have to smash me in the face, but at least try to turn my head. Readers are out there wanting to read your stories. Don’t give them a reason to keep scrolling or looking through the shelves. Readers want to believe in you and want to read your work. Give them a reason to.
I don’t know if this trend is about modesty or if people just don’t know how to summarize their work and are burned out by time they get to that point. It has to stop. After all, summaries and blurbs may seem like an annoyance, but they have a pretty important purpose: they’re there to get people to read your story, your ideas, your hard work. Isn’t that worth a little extra effort?