If you think the slushpile in self-published fiction is large, just imagine the difficulties of finding good fanfiction. I’ve been reading and writing fanfiction for many years, and I’ve seen it all, from stories so good I forgot I was reading a fanwork to stories so bad I couldn’t make it past the first page.
As with published works, reviews only go so far. I’ve known great writers who’ve never achieved a critical mass of popularity in a fandom and whose stories have few reviews. On the other extreme, I’ve seen positively horrible writers who have lots of friends who “cheer them on” by reviewing each chapter of 100-chapter monstrosities, leading to hundreds of reviews for stories that can barely find their way out of wet paper bags.
So how to pick through the slush to find the good stuff? Fortunately, there are some sensible tips I can recommend to help you find good stories.
Red Flags To Be Aware Of
Let’s start with a few red flags I’ve discovered over the years.
1. Stories that go on for more than 20-30 chapters
This isn’t automatically the sign of a bad story, but I’ve learned to be wary. Many-chapter stories are often a sign of authors who have ideas they don’t know how to end. The first few chapters are good, but stories can degenerate into long rambling messes. Proceed with caution and read reviews carefully.
2. Shameless begging to “Read and Review my story”
In my experience, the more frantic the appeal, the worse the story. I’ll stop reading the first time I see an author’s note that says something like, “Please read and review or I’ll stop writing.”
Do not confuse this with authors who engage their reviewers with “thanks for reviewing” and “hope you enjoy the next part.” Those authors understand building reader relationships, and are often quite good.
3. Abandoned stories
Alas, they are common. I include myself in this category. I have a half-written Torchwood/Firefly story that’s been sitting on my hard drive for more than two years. However, it’s not on any archive site, so no one’s waiting for me to finish because no one (except now you) knows it exists. Maybe someday.
Unfortuately, many fanfiction authors write and publish in real time, and when life hits, the story is abandoned, leaving readers hanging. If a story has been “In Progress” for more than a few months, tread warily. For me, the story in this category that I remember most clearly was a fantastic Dragonball Z story which had been abandoned for more than a year. Later, I heard that the author had died. I still wonder how it would have ended.
Enough of red flags. Now, how to find the good stuff.
When I say know your archive, I mean know who tends to post there, which can vary by fandom. Fanfiction.net, for example, has a wide age range of writers. In the fandoms I read, the authors who post to FF.net tend to be younger, and I often find better stories on AO3. That’s not true for each fandom, so a bit of research is helpful.
Oh, and the link above completely ignores LiveJournal, which is not a fanfiction archive per se, but does contain many fandom specific communities, where you can find fics, art and recommendations. Fair warning. If you like to read stories on your eReader, there’s no easy way to download stories from LiveJournal, but many authors archive their stories on other sites.
I like LiveJournal for “Big Bangs.” No, that has nothing to do with Big Bang Theory. Fandom Big Bangs are events matching writers with artists. The standard Big Bang features stories of more than 20K words, though some have mini-Bangs, where writers can submit shorter stories. Bangs are great because the stories must be complete and beta-read. You are guaranteed a complete story that has been reviewed by at least one other person. As an added bonus, there’s usually awesome art. Some fandoms (and sub-fandoms) hold these each year, and authors spend all year writing their entry. The DeanCas Big Bang is an example of one that ended recently. As you’ll see if you browse that one, many authors “publish” their stories on AO3, which makes downloading and reading easy.
Single fandom archives are often tricky to download from, but they often have the best stories. A Teaspoon and an Open Mind (Doctor Who/Torchwood archive) is an excellent example. There’s no way to directly download, but the overall quality of stories is high enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Look for Recommendations
My favorite place to start with a new fandom is TV Tropes. Many fandom pages on the site have a FanFic Recommendation page. (Here’s an example for Supernatural.)
I like these because tropers explain why they like the stories. It helps weed out the types of stories I don’t like. (For example, I can’t stand high-school AUs, but wow, they are popular.) They recommend both stories and authors, which is handy. Once you discover an author you like, it’s often possible to figure out what they like. I figure if I like an author’s writing, I’ll probably like what he or she likes. I’ve been able to find some great authors that way, like a fantastic BBC Sherlock writer I might not have discovered otherwise because she only posts to FF.net, which, as I said above, isn’t my favorite archive.
As I said earlier, LiveJournal is a great place to find recommendations. Most fandom-specific communities have some place for recommendations. As I was writing this, I discovered Epic Recs on Livejournal and found what looks like an excellent Firefly story. Pardon me while I take a break to read some fic…
Ahem. Back again. Sadly, the story wasn’t that good, which shows that even the best system won’t guarantee success.
If you’re like me, you like to download stories to your ereading device of choice. I wrote an article earlier this year which discusses some tricks to make that (relatively) easy.
However, if you don’t want to go through that much hassle, you don’t need to. My husband, who yes, reads fanfiction–probably even more than I do–reads stories on his iPad. He opens the story in Safari and reads it there. He doesn’t even use the “Offline Reading Mode” which goes to show he hasn’t learned much by living with a tech blogger. If he’s going to be away from WiFi for a while, he just opens up a tab for each story and closes them when he finishes. About as easy as it gets. (This does mean that a portable hotspot is a required accessory when on vacation.)
The above system won’t work as well on an eInk reader with a sad browser, but I suppose it could be done in a pinch. Those of you with eInk devices will probably prefer downloading your stories. AO3 is the easiest to download from. Fanfiction.net has put policies in place to make it difficult, but it still can be done if you use the Fanfiction Downloader program. Calibre has plugins that are supposed make it seamless, but they mysteriously stopped working for me.
And I think that’s everything you need to know about finding and downloading good fanfiction. Anything I missed? Feel free to share your best sources of recommendations.