"How to get your fic read" by Ghost in the Machine.
There are hundreds of thousands of works on , and other archive sites with more being added all the time. With so much to choose from, it can be very difficult for a new author to be heard among what can be thousands of other voices. So what can be done to increase a story's chance of being clicked on, and once clicked on, being read?
Some fandoms are simply more popular than others. Almost any "Digimon" story will draw more readers than an "Oh! My Goddess!" fic. The quality of the work doesn't matter. More people are familiar with Digimon, so more people read Digimon fics.
Mind you, this can backfire if a fandom is too popular. When there are dozens of new stories or chapters appearing in a fandom on any given day, it's easy to get lost in the crowd.
I don't advocate writing for a particular fandom just because it is a popular one. Authors should be true to their ideas and write what they want to write. Thus, I acknowledge that fandom popularity plays a part in whether a fic gets read or not. (As does author popularity.) But that's not what this essay is about. So setting that issue aside, let's proceed.
The first thing is simple. Upload your story in accordance with the rules of the site on which it will appear. If you want people to read your work, they have to be able to find it. If your story is taken down for violation of a site's Terms of Service, then it can't be read no matter how good it is.
If you can't tolerate a particular site's rules, then don't post there. Archives are doing you a favor by hosting your work. Their use is a privilege and not a right. Please remember this and act accordingly.
So once the story has been properly loaded, what then? The first thing that one sees of a story is it's title and perhaps a brief summary. In certain small fandoms, people may read, or at least look at, every new story that is posted. But assuming there's some competition, this is the first place you can gain or lose a potential reader.
Nothing turns me away from a story faster than misspelled words in the title. A misspelled author's name might be intentional, but a misspelled title is a dead giveaway. If an author can't be bothered to spell their title correctly, what are the odds that the story behind that title will be worth the effort of reading?
Finding a good title can be a difficult task. Referring to a major character, prop or theme of a story can make finding a title easier. Calling a story "Untitled" makes me think the author doesn't have an idea of where their story is going. That doesn't mean it's a bad story, it's just one that I'm not as likely to read.
After the title comes the summary. Handled correctly, summaries are your friends. "I don't want to give away the story with a summary" is perhaps the worst of all acceptable options, but only for short stories or poems. Seeing "I suck at summaries" usually means the author also sucks at story telling. Better no summary than that. Other warning flags include:
"I wrote this on a sugar high."
"I don't know why I posted this."
"I know this story sucks."
"I want 5 reviews or I won't post the next chapter."
A good summary should let the reader triage your story out of all the other available stories that he (or she) hasn't read yet. It should mention the main character(s) involved. It should be truthful. Good spelling counts here as well. If the story contains material that some might find offensive, even if you as the author do not, you should mention it.
Avoid netspeak in your summary (and story). It limits your audience to other netspeakers and the few willing to translate netspeak into English. (It also reduces my estimate of your IQ by a good ten points.) The only exception I'd be willing to make is for transcription of an online session or text message. Anyplace else, it just looks tacky.
Now let's assume that a random reader has looked over your title and summary. Deciding that it might be interesting, they click on the link. Congratulations, you've got a potential reader. Try not to lose him.
Every fanfiction story should start with a disclaimer. Preferably something more detailed than "Not Mine." The creators or owners of the characters used should be listed. When in doubt, go with the original creators. Ownership can change, but creators don't.
For many writers, Author's Notes come next. Used properly, they can greatly enhance a reader's understanding. Used improperly, they just clutter up the story. Personally, I try to save mine for the end of the story. (When I use them at all.)
The main reason I dislike excessive notes in a story is because it interrupts the flow of the work. When trying to get 'into' a piece, it's annoying to be distracted by the author stepping out of the story to make comments. Especially when it's something that could have easily been put into the story in the first place.
Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, it's time to get to the story itself.
Rule One of Writing: Never waste the reader's time. That's not original, I swiped it from Larry Niven. Actually, his version goes, "It is a sin to waste the reader's time." I prefer to leave the concept of sin between you and the greater power of your choice.
Beyond that, it's pretty much an open field. As long as you have something worth saying, I'm fairly tolerant about the details. Mind you, I prefer stories that are spellchecked and have proper grammar. Stories that are formatted so that I can read them. (With fanfiction, stories with characters that are in character, or if not, at least with reasons for the changes.) Stories that are internally consistent and well researched.
There are very few authors who can ignore one or two of the above facets of writing and still turn out good stories. They're rare, but they do exist. However, for great stories, there is no room for slop. Everything has to be top-notch.
When I review, I tend to be harsher on stories I think could be great if the author put in the time and effort to polish them properly. (When I edit, I break out the baseball bat and the microscope. But that's another essay.) If an author goes to the effort of reworking their story to address concerns that I've brought up, it's pretty much a guarantee that I'll read more of their work down the line. Since this essay is about getting your work read, I thought I should mention it.
In my essay "How to avoid writing bad fanfiction" (blatant plug), I go into spelling, grammar, formatting and research. But below are a few more things that can make the difference between having your story read and someone clicking the back button.
Inconsistency: Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Inconsistency is doing the same thing over and over again while getting different results. If the result is different, there should be a reason for it. One that the reader can see. If there is no reason, that's a plot hole that just opened up.
There are many, many ways inconsistent elements can crop up in a story: An author uses two different spellings for the same name, or in rare cases, two different names for the same character. (I've seen a professional author do that. You should have seen the look on his face when I pointed it out.) The author has someone fire seven times from a six shooter without reloading. A character's description or location changing suddenly might be inconsistent.
As an author, you have two defenses against inconsistency. Paying attention to detail is one. Explanation is the other. A change isn't inconsistent if there is a reason for it. How much of that reason is explained to the reader is up to you, but the reader should be able to see that there is one.
Accuracy of details: As an author, you should be able to defend any piece of information given as fact in one of your stories. If you say a fever of 110 degrees isn't serious, you're wrong. If you say it's a hundred miles from Nerima (Ranma 1/2) to Azuba-Juban (Sailor Moon), you're wrong. If you say New York City is the current capital of New York, you're wrong.
However, don't confuse a fact for a character's perception of a fact. Character X may be cruel and inhumane. But if Character Y never sees that, they might act as as if Character X is an okay guy. Also, most characters aren't omniscient. There will be things they don't know. But when you mess up something they should know, then you may have a problem on your hands. (I say 'may' because everyone screws up occasionally. Stress plays games with memory too.)
But please, when questioned, don't hide behind an answer of "I'm the author and I said so." If you can't defend what you've written, should it be there in the first place? When I see a material fact wrong, it calls into doubt the author's take on everything else. Especially when the incorrect information affects the story.
Mary-Sues: That's a topic for another essay. I'll get to her eventually.
There can never be too many great stories. Being able to find them is just as important. I hope this rambling commentary has been of some use to the people that read it. If any of this helps a writer become a better writer or makes a good story into a great story, then I'm happy. If it helps me or other folks find those great stories, that's good too.
Not responsible for advice not taken. Your mileage may vary. Restrictions and exclusions apply. Not responsible for advice taken either.
Ghost in the Machine
A side note on script format: Some folks can't stand script format and will not read anything that uses it. I'm not one of those. In fact, one of my favorite fanfiction series uses scripts. But I'll admit, good script is rarer than good prose.
Script format is often used by beginners. More properly, it is often misused by beginners. Proper use of script requires more than dialogue. Read any play by Shakespeare and you'll see more than just a bunch of characters talking. Actions are described. Details of scenery and costume are present. Most beginners don't put these particulars into their work and its lack shows. The reader is left with people on a blank stage. If the reader is unfamiliar with the characters the author is using, they're left with only voices in the dark. Very unsatisfying I'd think.