Dr. Merlin's Guide to Fan Fiction

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Title: Dr. Merlin's Guide to Fan Fiction
Creator: Merlin Missy (Melissa Wilson)
Date(s): July 1996 [1], it was reposted by the author in 2007
Medium: online essay
Fandom: Meta, fan fiction
External Links: Dr. Merlin's Guide to Fan Fiction; and here
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Dr. Merlin's Guide to Fan Fiction is 1996 essay by Merlin Missy.

It offered new fan fiction writers tips on writing fan fiction.

It was mentioned in September 1997 as a "Personal Home Pages Weekly Feature."[2]

This fan is also the creator of the Mary Sue Litmus Test.


  • What Is Fan Fiction and Why Do We Write It?
  • It's the Plot, Stupid
  • Spelling Counts
  • The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Perry White, Subtitled: Get Thee to an Editor.
  • Who Is Mary Sue and Why Does She Have to Die?
  • It's a Style Thing
  • You Know What You Know, You Know?
  • Nothing Is Sacred
  • La La La, Subtitled: Songfic and You
  • And in the End

From the Essay

What Is Fan Fiction and Why Do We Write It

Fan fiction, very simply, is the genre of stories, poetry, novels, filk songs, and top ten lists written by fans of a particular series, be it television, literary, or what have you. If you've ever written a story about something you like, involving characters created by someone else with a legal right to them, you've written fan fiction. Welcome to the fold. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to limit myself to fanfic on the Internet, as it has found a welcome niche in the growing world of virtual reality. For some reason, the heroes we see on tv become more tangible when we ourselves can become the fiction.

Fanfic writers on the Net are a motley bunch. The youngest author I've met was ten. The oldest (that I know of) was in her sixties. The one thing they, and all of us, have in common is a fierce love of a particular series, so much that they wanted to let everyone else have a piece of the particular reality they had built up around it. That is the first requirement of writing fanfic. You must love your subject. This becomes especially important when you're in the midst of a 200k+ story, you know vaguely where you want to go, and writer's block hits. At that point, it is frighteningly easy to give up and delete everything you've written, and without a burning passion for your subject material, you might find yourself tempted to do just that.

Now, I could be noble and claim that my respect and adoration for a particular series is the only reason I write fan fiction. I would be lying. There are two real reasons why I write this stuff, and from what I've heard from other authors, they do the same. One reason is that story lines get stuck in my head until I can't concentrate on anything other than a particular plot or scene. In this case, writing is a means of self-defense. It either gets written, or I get carted away by nice folks wearing white.

Really, though, there is one single overriding reason that I and most everyone I know writes fan fiction for the Internet: FAN MAIL! Yes, I will admit to being a slut for fan mail. One letter will put me on Cloud 9 for the entire day, and I've seen the same effect on my associates. Of course we write for the series, and for our own piece of mind, but nothing beats getting a letter in your INBOX stating "This is the best story I've read in ages!" Well, maybe getting a story dedicated to you from a new author who was inspired by your work can qualify, too. [Hi Proteus!]

In a way, that's what this entire essay is geared to: getting you fanmail. (Somehow, I seriously doubt I'll be getting any for writing about writing.) I can't guarantee that you'll be getting more, but I can guarantee that the people who read your work will appreciate it more. I've also found that people who really enjoy a particular piece will take the time to spell out both the good and the bad points, and one good, honest critique, no matter how hard it might be to swallow, is worth twenty "I liked this a lot"'s.

Who Is Mary Sue and Why Does She Have to Die?

I honestly wish I'd kept a copy of the first essay I read about Mary Sueism. It was well-done, and I don't think I can do the subject half the justice the original did. However, I'll give it my best shot.

You already know Mary Sue. Mary Sue is the perky, bright, helpful sixteen-year-old ensign who beams about the ship. Everyone on the ship likes Mary Sue, because Mary Sue is good at everything. Mary Sue is an engineer, a doctor in training, a good leader, an excellent cook, and is usually a beautiful singer. Mary Sue often has mental powers that may manifest themselves as telepathy, precognition, or magic. Her past is tragic, more so than any other character on the series. (Many Mary Sues have a backstory that reads like a V.C. Andrews novel. This is a clue.) If Mary Sue is very young, she is often the offspring of one or two already established characters. If she's a little older, she will probably end up sleeping with the author's favorite character. Sometimes, she fills both roles. Her name is often the author's name, be it a net.name, a favored nickname, or the author's middle name (this is seen in the most famous Mary Sue of all time, Wesley Crusher, who was named after Trek creator Eugene Wesley Roddenbery [sic] ). By the end of the story, Mary Sue will be in bed with the desired character, will have beamed away amid cheers from all the regulars, or will be dead, usually accompanied by heavy mourning from the cast. The reader, on the other hand, will be celebrating. BTW, Mary Sue's twin brother can often be identified by his brooding, solitary behaviour, matched by his maverick disregard for authority (for a great example, see the very beginning of TNG's "Hollow Pursuits" alias Barclay, Part One).

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that I have read several excellent stories with characters that fit every part of this description. Fortunately, there are authors who can take this character type, and make a figure just as memorable and vibrant as any ever seen on the series. My absolute favorite Mary-Sue-made- wonderful is Fionnuala Rowan, in Tara O'Shea's Gargoyles stories. If you haven't read them, you really really should. They're ... remarkable. There are others who've managed to do it well (I'm going to be slapped by some of them for not saying so here, but I've drawn a blank to names right now). Still, for the most part, unless you know what you're doing, if you see a character of your own fitting this description, find another way of telling the story. Please. Remember, fanfic is about characters we know and love, not about how much they like a new person who has nothing to do with their universe. Mary Sues not only stop fanmail, they often invite flames. Use them wisely, or not at all.

I don't claim to be an expert on any of this stuff. I've written a few stories, had a few good reviews, but I'm no more an authority than anyone else around here. I do know what I like to read, and I know what I hear complaints about, both in my work and on the work of other folks. This guide has been my way of letting other people know what I've been told. In the end, though, your best guide is your own mind. You can ignore everything I've written, and still put out a damn fine story. You can also follow every word and publish something ... unfortunate. It all boils down to what you put into your work, and what you want out of it. Don't be afraid to experiment, and never be afraid to ask. People are more than willing to give advice and opinions, but you have to be ready to accept what they say, no matter how hard it is to take at the time. The best piece of mail I ever received was about my very first story, "To Every Purpose." The woman went through it page by page, tearing apart every detail, pointing out every flaw in characterization, dialogue, pacing, and mood. A few things were in there on purpose, and I told her so, but others were things I never even noticed. After receiving over a hundred "This was Great!" letters, it was a bitter pill to swallow. I can never thank her enough. When you receive negative feedback, don't automatically flame the sender. Read it, think about it, and decide if it has validity. Then make your own decision as to what you're going to do with your next story, because there will always be a next story. And it's going to be a great one.

Fan Comments

From the Post at "Firefox News"

Firefox News Comments:

[Jade]: ...I have recently begin to write my own fanfiction (only the plot by now though) and I have learn a few tips on your guide that, I'm sure, are going to be useful for my writing. Tank you for sharing your experiences with us, i am really grateful

[Alex Winters]: Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Your article pointed out the truest truths, whether I'd seen them previoously or not. Some of it I disagreed with, some of it offended me. Frankly, that's a good thing. I haven't really written fanfiction in a while, too busy with life and other stories which are mine. Which, by the way, are getting a huge revising job after I finish with this review. I really liked the part about subplots, because in one story I'm pretty deep into I have one plot and one plot only. I realized that it needed diversity. So, pretty much what this long and drawn out rant is trying to say is. . . Thank you.

[Ruth]: I thought this a wonderful, insightful article, although I don't agree with everything, and you pointed out that I didn't have to. :) But overall I recommend this article highly and am going to put a link to it on my fanfic site, the Burning Pen. Thank you, Missy Merlin. ***

[Ashley]: I'm really glad I found this article. I had written a piece of fan fiction (and I thought I did a good job :p), but when I re-read it with this article in mind, I realized it could use a little work (understatement :D) Thank you for that!

[Emmy]: Amen! You said it all, and I'm about to go right back to my own work-in-progress and revise it with your advice in mind. Thank you!

[blondieAKArobin]: This entire set of articles was wonderful - I wish that every fanfic author would read them (especially the one about writing the whole story FIRST, then posting... I thought I was the only one who did that!) I'm keeping the link to these articles to pass on to all my author friends! thanks, Robin

[KryotoniteWriter]: So, I won't inflate your ego much by saying that this article was amazing ect. Because you already know that. Actually, I fould some of it boring. But, obviously, the boring information was useful as I read it through and am here, at the end, commenting. I'm book marking these articles after I post this comment. I believe I may even slip in recommendations for some of my fandom writers to come read it. Although some of what you said truely was "a bitter pill to swallow". Harsh reality. *takes a moment* Okay, i'm over that. Onto the candy. I loved this article. I especially like how we are in agreeance as to authors writing the whole story first. I've noticed that with many a fanfiction where the updates are spread apart and the story just doesnt seem to flow... Well anyways, I know your busy, I'll just leave it with an ego inflate - I love your essay. I'll probably go look for more of your work to read. Maybe I'll even find a fanfic or two of yours to read?

[Tazzi Catt]: Great article for the beginner but what about those of us who have been writing fanfic for years, especially for the problem of writers block. That is my worst problem and story endings. I have trouble ending the stories in a way that makes since. I have mostly done westerns and agree on the research and know your subject. I hate writers who get info wrong on horses, old western clothes, and guns. I don't write Star Trek, or Star Gate, both of which I love because I feel I can't do them properly.

[mimcee]: I like your article a lot. I had just written a fanfic and I think it's going to be great now that I've read your article. Thank you so much! ^^

[Nalita]: Wow. Just wow. You're a star.

[Jen]: No! Why has it ended? Why is there not more? OK, silliness aside, this essay has been a wonderful read with some very useful tips which I plan to write down for possible use at a later date. Thank you very much for writing this - I am sure your eloquence on the subject has helped many authors (myself also now). I kept getting dozens of 'this is great's from my reviewers, while I'm quite sure that my story writing really can't be that good. What I needed was for someone to give me a heads up on what's acceptable and what's not, and I'm very grateful I found your essay. I'm hoping it will help my writing in the future...

[Juli]: This is amazing. After reading this article, I have realized the things that were wrong with my previous fanfiction, and I am about to go fix those. I think that this will help improve my fanfic writing skills greatly. Thanks for posting.

[ines]: Thank you for posting this! As a first-time fanfic writer, this was incredibly helpful! There were some basics I already knew about (grammar, mary-sue's, etc), but reading this really made me realise some things that were wrong with my writing style, and also inspired me to keep going. I was slightly embarrassed by not being able to write action scenes, but you made me realise, if I don't even like them, why even write them in the first place? Thank you so much, yet again!

[Anna]: Thank you for taking the time to write this. I am a fan fic writer, and some of the "don't's" you mention are really hard to avoid for me. I tend to get too involved in small details and send my (potential) readers to sleep with the pointlessness of it all. Me and the delete key. We don't get along:) Will try to make freinds.

[Alexandra]: ~ English is not my native language ~ Nobody's perfect and nobody can be perfectly right, but it was a really interesting to read. It's already been a couple of years that I write stories and I always like this sort of type to get better and better. You can never have enough of those kind of text. I'm not a fan of songfic - not at all in fact - but they are some really good. The problem with those, it's that in general it's that people don't search a plot, they just put de lyrics add a couple of words and think that's it's the greatest thing ever. The songfic actually need more work than a normal fic to really be interesting and not use the popular song & really search for good lyrics would be a good things too, anyway... Nice essay (=

[Pink Bismuth]: This was a very informative and useful article and I'm very glad to have read it. I feel thoroughly chastised for past works and yet, I'm oddly inspired to write more. I have been planning to write a story lately; I believe the things I've learned from this article will be very useful in my endeavors. Thanks for the advice!

[ChrissyIssy]: Thank you for writing this. I found it extremely enlightening; the tips and notes gave me feeling of slight confidence in some areas of my craft while popping the unnecessary parts of my writing ego. The tone was commendable; dry, lightly sarcastic with that feeling of that one person who will never lie to you about your talent ("Actually, no. That story really sucks" comes to mind. Thanks, sister dear). I've dabbled in an array of fanfiction types, and, as such, I now know that I: am good at creating very much flawed but lovable characters, suck at writing songfics, have a hard time leaving it at a oneshot, and am absolutely a review whore. My most serious issue with my writing (and believe me, there are many) would have to be my oh-god-no-inspiration-must-stop-for-story-for-six-months-and-start-another syndrome. Again, thank you for writing this. If you care to read any of my stories on fanfiction.net, I am under the name chrissyissy. If you don't, I really don't blame you.

[Rhi]: This really got me to think more about what I write and how I take people's advice. Yesterday, somebody messaged me saying that something I had written was good, but the beginning didn't really flow and seemed a little blunt. At first I was a little taken aback but, after reading this, I went through and read it and she was right! So I'm in the process of re-writing it now and I think it'll make it a lot better. Thanks a bunch - this has really helped me develop as a writer :)

[DreamPyre]: I've seen stories where authors put song lyrics or lines of a poem at the beginning and/or end of a story, which can get some of the benefits of songfic (for shorter stories, at least) without as many of the risks. Of course there are disasters of that type, too, but it seems to have a higher success rate than regular songfics (or, the failures are more likely to be regular failures, and less likely to be 'ARGH I will crush you for creating that abomination! As soon as I return from my despair-induced death!'). I'm not sure if you'd count those as songfic or not, but they're at least related. If you can't find a good beta, another option is to finish whatever you're writing, then put it away (I have to hide it from myself) so you won't look at it for long enough that you forget what it's 'supposed' to say. It works better with shorter stories (and ones you spent less time writing), and isn't quite as good as a beta, but it's better than nothing.


  1. ^ What Snoo? (previous months have data in reverse order), 1996
  2. ^ " "Dr. Merlin's Guide to Fanfic" was mentioned in this week's Personal Home Pages Weekly Feature! *bounce*" - What Was New in 97? (September 1997)