My friend Jess has been stuck with her story for a while now. I'm hoping that by bringing our old RP characters into her plot, we can resolve some of the long-standing issues and get her unstuck. So far it's going pretty well, but the more we work on it , the more we realize that it's going to be a LONG, complicated project. (I'm doing my best not to transmit my "curse" and make it five times longer just by being present.)
As I was thinking about her project, I remembered my experiences with my own AU stories, and I remembered several people asking me how I maintained my interest in such long, difficult projects. They would say things like "I can't spend more than a month or two on any fanfiction before I get bored with it or get stuck or find something that interests me more. How do you keep going?"
Well, there isn't just one answer. The answer is different for every story. My writing process is somewhat different each time depending on the needs of the project. The one commonality I can point to right away is a question I've learned to ask myself: "Why are you writing this anyway?"
Writing any kind of fiction well requires a lot of work. Regardless of your skill level as a writer, it takes a significant investment of time, energy, and attention to detail in order to develop characters, a workable plot, and to turn those things into an actual story instead of an idea floating around your mind. Writing a good canon fanfiction requires all those things plus an even greater attention to detail, because you have to be able to effectively voice characters you didn't create, remember the rules of their world, and enough about the continuity of the events in their lives to make your story believable within the context of the franchise your writing. Writing a good AU story ups the ante even more. I talked about some of the reasons for that in this post, called Give Me the Background. (That post also attempts to address the oft-asked "Why do you put so much work into a fanfiction anyway? Why not just write your own story?")
To put it simply, the skills that you use when you're writing an AU are the same ones that you use in any story, but you have a harder sell. You're taking something that your audience already loves and changing it in some fundamental way. That means your characters have to be believable and accessible in order for your audience to see what is changing and keep on loving them. Your plot has to be strong enough and well thought out enough to pull off your changes and bring the whole project to a satisfying conclusion. Most of all, you have to be able to balance your plot, your characters, your knowledge of your fandom, and something else that is usually less easy to define. Your story has to stay, at its core, something that feels like part of the franchise you're writing in. There's no one way to do that. There's no formula for success. I can't tell you in words what makes a story feel like Star Wars or Star Trek. I can't voice what it is that makes those franchises both magical to me but completely different from one another. I still know them when I see or read them.
You can have the coolest idea in the world for a story, but if you lose your audience, you're only telling it for yourself. That's okay. All stories are "for the author" to some degree. At some point in their creation, most of them also become "for the audience." There's nothing wrong with telling a story just for yourself. I have some that I write just for myself, that I have no intention of ever posting on the Internet or publishing in a book. The only thing is, those stories get less of my time and energy when I'm busy. Part of asking "Why?" is figuring out whether your story is for other people, because in doing so, you figure out how much of a priority the story is going to be. The biggest thing I've learned when it comes to writing about AUs is to ask myself why before I start.
I think "Why?" is a good question for any author to ask at various points in the writing process. It helps us to remember what it was that made this a story worth telling in the first place. It has been even more important to me while writing AU stories because I find them harder.
Sometimes — usually with "alternate history" stories — an AU gets started because something got the author's hackles up in the canon verse. Maybe their favorite character died or the show writers took a new, dissatisfying direction with the series plot. Maybe the show ended on a cliffhanger, but then it's debatable whether the story can really be termed an AU.
Sometimes the AU starts with a continuity hole, a dropped plot line, or a seemingly innocent "what if...?" that turns into a persistent, nagging, pain in the ass idea that won't go away. Sometimes, an AU is the only way to "fix" or "explain" obvious problems with the canon story. Sometimes, there is what I like to call the "accidental AU." An author starts working on a story while the franchise is still in production, it starts out perfectly compatible with canon, and then diverges from the on-screen plot as things go forward. That has happened to me with all but one of my Stargate SG-1 stories.
To me, the answer almost always boils down to "I love these characters and I want better for them." That's why my stories usually focus on dropped plot lines or on trying to bring about healthy growth and relationship choices for the characters without messing up the core themes and atmosphere of the franchise. That one gets tricky since most of my fandoms have messed up characters and settings that deal heavily with loss, grief, and trying to make a difference in spite of them.
I started writing a series ending for a kids' show from the 1980s, and I chose to make it an AU because the 80s were not a time when kids' shows paid much attention to their own internal continuity or even made sense. Making that story an AU was a way to help "explain" goofy things that would have annoyed me if I'd left them alone. I work on that one every now and then when I'm stuck or bored with my other projects. I've spent the last four or five years chewing on an idea for a Star Trek: The Next Generation AU that fixes or deals with my "pet" dropped storylines and continuity problems. I'm waiting for the right collaborator and enough time for that one. I guess those last two don't get high enough on my priority list because there's nothing I see as a glaring, painful problem for the characters. There are just annoyances. One series deserved an ending; the other deserved continuity and follow through. I think those things are important, but I know myself well enough to realize that they aren't what drives me to put one story at the head of the queue while another one goes on the back burner.
So, you can have very different reasons for writing every story that you write. All of them are valid, and none is better than any other. It's just important to have one, for have a handful. I've read (or I guess I should say stop reading) a lot of fanfiction where it seemed as though the author lost direction. When that happens, I usually lose interest, because I lose the sense that I can trust the author to get me to the journey's end. The few times I've finished the story like that, I usually felt like I wanted back the time I had wasted getting to the end.
My stories always pull fast ones on me. I've come to expect that by the time I'm finished, the story will have changed three or four times from the way I saw it at the beginning. It's easy to lose direction when this happens. Sometimes, I have to keep slogging through even though I don't know where it's going, but when and if I end up hopelessly lost, I come back to the question of "Why?" because if I can answer that one, I know there's a story somewhere that needs to be told.