I’ve been active in seven different Pern Fanfiction clubs during the fifteen years I’ve been involved in fandom. (Whoa. How did I ever find a husband?) Never more than two clubs at any one time, and only one most of the time. But with that many in my pocket, I’ve observed a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t to keep a club alive and happy. My comments will be pretty specific to Pern fandom, but roughly apply to most varieties, I suspect.
Let me start by saying that “what works” depends a lot on what you expect to get out of joining a fanfiction club. My personal motivation is to be able to write easily and freely in a world that is comfortable to me with a group of other folks whose company and writing I enjoy. Simply: to have fun. In support of that particular goal, here are the lessons I’ve learned:
Let people make mistakes.
So a character just walked into a room and commented on the ugly decor. Well, you very plainly described the decor in a post three months ago, and it was *not* ugly then. Who’s this new writer to redecorate your room?? A new writer, that’s who. Or an old writer who got confused. Rather than writing them a public scolding saying “you’re wrong! fix it!” you might do well to consider rolling with it. Make up a mini-plot to explain the change in decor, then fix it so it’s fun and satisfying for both of you. If this simply cannot be arranged for whatever reason, consider just ignoring it. If you put up a new post two weeks from now praising the glories of the wondrous decor, probably no one will notice that it went through an ugly phase. If you can’t handle ignoring it, a nice, private message calmly explaining the need for a change goes a lot farther toward goodwill than a public lambasting.
Let people write stupid characters.
They exist in great quantities. In clubs I’ve been in, they’ve been called Mary Sues and Twinkies. They have it all: gorgeous looks, charming character, a tragic history, a beautiful singing voice, a long-lost twin sister, a talent for communicating with animals, and they’re horribly misunderstood. Et cetera. I’ve seen clubs try to control the impulse to write these characters, with varying success. While such characters should be discouraged in seasoned members, they’re completely harmless in the end. Once a new member has written a few of them, they’ll develop a taste for more complex characters and no one will be worse off for an extra doe-eyed, red-headed orphan running around the Weyr.
Make special honors available, then give them out liberally.
In Pern fandom, it’s the gold dragon. Everyone wants one. Unfortunately, they do need to be somewhat limited to keep insanity to a minimum. I’ve seen this problem partially solved in a couple clubs by putting the bronze dragon on a roughly equal pedestal: rather than just giving bronze dragons away to anyone who asks, certain conditions have to be met – say, you have to have been a member for x long, or you have to help the club admins with some chores, or you have to win an in-game contest. These are great incentives. They give members goals to aim for and make them feel great about themselves once achieved. But here’s the key: those incentives should be obtainable for all. A club that only has room for three members or one member to have a Really Special Character is not a fun place for anyone except those three or that one. Withholding privileges because a member isn’t a good writer, because a member might flake out and leave in a month, or because you just don’t like a member? That sucks. Reward loyalty. Reward participation. Reward effort. If you can’t give everyone shiny dragons, that’s okay too. But seek out ways to make your members feel appreciated, and they will return the favor.
Make it really easy to join the group.
When last shopping for a club, I sifted through dozens of well-established clubs that were probably a ton of fun. I rejected all of them because their websites were confusing or I found novel-length pages of rules explaining the seventy-five ways I could get myself expelled from the club or joining in required me to write three drudge-level characters and pass a background check. Who wants to deal with that? Wait to spring the really deep stuff (like the judicial process the BoD undergoes to excommunicate power-posers or the dice mechanic for determining hatching colors) for some secret members-only page that no one can see until they’ve already been suckered in through the front door. This is important, because…
To keep a club alive, you have to have a constant stream of new participants.
It’s really great to have a core group of writers you know and love and write well with. You are the heart of the club and you keep things moving. However, new writers are what keep things interesting. They bring enthusiasm and ideas that you never have access to if you don’t bring them in. Recruiting is dirty business, though. Finding new members is hard work. Then, when you find them, you discover they’re not all gems. For every 10 people you get, only two of them will stay longer than a month (or past the first hatching). For every 10 who stay, only two of them will be people you really enjoy writing with. It doesn’t matter! Having the bodies and the input does matter. If you don’t like to write with them, chances are good someone else will, but a club goes stale without fresh blood now and then.
Benevolent dictators are good for business.
If I ever decided to start my own club (haha), I would be a benevolent dictator. With a dictator, someone’s word is always law. If you join a club with a dictator you don’t like, you just leave and find some other club. Easy. When things are too democratic, club politics can get very, very messy. Members try to pit one club admin against another, or campaign to win in- or out-of-game favors. Admins can quarrel endlessly about a plot, wind up compromising to get it approved, and in the end no one is really happy with it. No… if I owned a club, I’d get folks to help me out with the chores, and I’d appreciate them and reward them and love them forever, but when tough decisions came up, I’d say “We’re gonna do this” and that’s the way it would be. In cases where I’ve been a club admin, I’ve always been known as the one who wants to let the members get away with everything. So I guess you’ll know whether or not you want to join my imaginary club based on that.
And that’s what I believe about running a successful club in Pern Fandom.