Before You Begin Writing Online Fiction (An Introduction)

In this guest post Gavin Williams covers the basics of online fiction for beginners to the medium. Read on to find out more about him.

Coloured Pens In a RowHey, have you heard? Online fiction is the future!

Okay, maybe not. Online publishing is a non-traditional route for writers, and an emerging art form. Novelr’s creator, Eli, has asked me to share some of my experience as an online writer and reader with the Novelr community, in the interests of helping others who are hoping to start writing, and to facilitate the growth of the online book community.

Who am I? Glad you asked. My name is Gavin Williams, and I currently write “No Man an Island” and “The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin.” I read a lot of online fiction, and have a background in literature. A lifelong reader, I have a lot of interest in the future of the medium, and I think online writing will be a big part of that. It’s not the whole future, but it’s an intriguing facet.

Traditional publishing and online publishing are two very different mediums, even though their core material is the same: text. The written word. However, the way their text is presented, and the way their audiences interact with these two mediums, make them very different. We’re going to walk through those differences, in the interest of highlighting the strengths of online publishing, and educating writers in how to use these strengths to their benefit.

Part One: The Delivery

Traditional fiction comes to us in paperback and hardcover editions, on paper, usually in a bookstore. I love buying a new book (or getting an old favourite from a library) and then curling up in a chair and reading for hours. It’s a unique experience, as you get comfortable and let your imagination interact with the words on the page to create a world. It’s irreplaceable.

So, why should you read online then? Well, it’s got advantages too. A traditional writer might publish one or two books a year. You wait and wait for it to come, and that’s if you know about it ahead of time. Stephen King spent thirty years on the Dark Tower series, beginning it in college and ending it as a grandfather. J.K. Rowling started her seven book Harry Potter series in 1995, so it took about a decade to write seven novels.

But online fiction can be published every day, you don’t have to wait years or decades. It doles out its story one chapter at a time, but it’s immediate. This immediacy gives readers new material to look forward to, and can connect them deeply with a story while they wait for the next day’s instalment.

Charles Dickens wrote serial fiction, published in newspapers. It was greatly anticipated by the British audience, and connected people as they all eagerly awaited his continuing story. It gave them something to talk about and look forward to.

Online writers can create that same kind of excitement, by having a new chapter up for their waiting audience on a frequent basis. This suits online audiences quite well, as they will read episodes of their favourite stories during work breaks, or in-between checking their email. Short, intriguing chapters are ideal for the casual reader.

Part Two: Interaction

Traditional writers receive fan mail about their latest work. They might attend book signings or conferences. But the average reader never gets to speak to their favourite author.

With online fiction, interaction is built in. Chapters are usually set up to be commented on, and most writers answer their readers. An intimate communal experience develops, with audiences complimenting what they like, complaining about the things they hate, arguing over ideas, speculating on storylines, and then, actually hearing the writer’s two cents. Traditional publishing has nothing quite like it.

Some writers even set up forums for their audience, increasing their interaction and the development of community. Fan art, wikis and encyclopedias all become part of the experience.

Part Three: Structure

This might be the most important difference between online and traditional publishing, and one that writers might not be aware of right away. I certainly wasn’t, and learned it from experience. Now, hopefully that experience will benefit anyone thinking of starting a new story, and make your lives easier.

Originally, “No Man an Island” had a very busy opening scene, with eight separate characters competing for screen time. In a movie that almost wouldn’t matter, the camera would show them all and the story would move along. But for online readers, they couldn’t keep track of all the different names and find interest in the story. They weren’t sure who to care about, and where the story was going.

I had to sit down and analyze why this had happened. I knew plenty of traditional novels with big casts, and never had a problem. Indeed, they were often best-sellers, so audiences in general didn’t mind a big cast of characters. I listened to the comments (directly benefiting from Interaction) and tried again.

This time I wrote a chapter featuring only three characters, and highlighting one in particular. But again there were complaints. There was too much description and not enough action. I analyzed my writing again, and looked at other examples. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best-loved stories of all time, and is full of description. My chapter had less!

But LOTR is not online fiction. I learned something important about the difference between the two mediums. With a traditional book, I can sit for hours and finish it. Or, I can put it down and read more later. But, I know there is more, and that the story is complete. I can be patient with it.

But online writing is designed to be immediate. Audiences get frequent chapters, often weekly or daily. Those chapters need to capture their attention quickly, and give them a reason to come back tomorrow. Otherwise, the audience will go elsewhere. The story isn’t complete, and you can’t sit down with it for hours. Most online readers are taking a fifteen minute break from work, or are in-between checking emails. They need a reason NOW to enjoy your story, not in three pages or another chapter.

“The medium is the message.” With traditional, offline fiction, you know that in a few pages more will happen. So, the busy crowd scene is endurable (and possibly enjoyable) so long as it contributes to plot and the audience knows where it’s going. But online fiction happens one short chapter at a time, leaving people waiting. They want to know something important about your characters in chapter one, something that makes coming back tomorrow worthwhile. And a change in scene and time can look disruptive, because each day is formatted like the one before. In a chapter book, you have the transition of the blank page and a big bold caption: Chapter Two!

My book gets more interesting to online readers as they go on, because I learned to create deliberate snapshots of action — interesting in themselves, complete enough in themselves, leading the reader on to the next day with small cliff-hangers or unanswered questions. I applied that theory to the beginning, making an active scene focus on one or two characters with the others relegated to the background. I brought them in bit by bit in the next few chapters, expanding their roles while keeping the story moving. I relegated slower chapters into Bonus Story territory, to keep the pacing faster but to also give readers more depth to investigate when they had time. And feedback tells me it’s working.

I think the way to sell online fiction is to work with its unique features. Interactivity and speed of Delivery. But it’s as an alternative experience to offline fiction, not a competition with it. Readers read. I’m not giving up print novels for the internet, but I’m also not going to stop enjoying reading a new chapter every day and then sharing comments with the author directly. Both are satisfying.

But hopefully my experience will make your online story that much better. All the best, and keep reading!

Gavin Williams writes No Man An Island and The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin. If you like his work feel free to drop by Pages Unbound and leave a review for him there.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Learning To Write · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://www.nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    I justed wanted to publicly thank Eli for inviting me to visit, and I hope readers found it useful.

    See you on the flipside (;

  • http://arcanadium.monoxide.ws/ Spotty

    I couldn’t write without the interactive side of things; I’m a self-proclaimed comment *cough*.

    On the delivery side of things, I’ve commited to 1-2 updates a week, and usually manage to pull off two updates totaling 1100+ words a week, so I’m happy with myself on that front, even if it doesn’t size up to my idol other authors.

    On the topic of cliffhangers (should read: interest), this is a very important part… As you noted above, readers need a reason to come back. Where I’m going to strike off from what you said though is you’re analysis of paper books. I, respectfully, disagree.

    I know, personally, a book needs to hold my attention just as much, otherwise when I do put it down for an hour or two… I might just forget to come back to it again. Which tends to happen alot with both my online and offline reading. I know for a fact I used to keep track of a whole heap more webcomics than I do now, and that I have alot of half read books in my cupboard.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin: and I’d like to publicly thank you for sharing. =) Good stuff, Gavin.

    @Spotty: I dare say that offline prose doesn’t need to be as attention grabbing as online prose, for a myriad of reasons: the screen is hard to read off from, the Internet is a distracting medium, etc etc.

    Yes, books still need to be attention grabbing. But I can get through some that start off very boring and still finish them. It’s just that online a boring start is going to kill the whole thing right off for me.

  • http://www.nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    @ Spotty – It depends on the novel. If I’m bored after one chapter, it’s not likely that I’ll keep going. However, my definition of “boring” is different than some people, as I’m known for reading 1000 page novels. I was reading the Hobbit was I was five, and Lord of the Rings before I was ten. A lot of people find The Fellowship of the Ring boring, but I like it.

    (I’m not bringing up the age thing to brag, but to illustrate a point about reading – everyone has different levels of tolerance, patience and enjoyment. I read the Hobbit so early because it had pictures from the movie, I thought it was a big kid’s book. I followed it up with LOTR because it was a sequel and I wanted to know what happened. After that, no book was intimidating.)

    But a lot of books, like LOTR, I only read because I knew I could take my time with them. It didn’t matter if I could only read for ten minutes or three hours, the story itself wasn’t going anywhere, so I could come back. With online fiction, the audience itself is not likely to sit there for three hours. The online attention span is faster paced, and has different values than the readers of fiction through history before now. Literature was leisurely, and our current culture (largely internet and television driven) is not.

    Traditional literature was written so readers and authors would take their time with it. Dickens and others were paid by the word, so it paid to have lots of description that modern novels don’t include, because their audience is different.

  • http://srsuleski.com/ srsuleski

    Dickens and others were paid by the word,

    Ha! That explains so much. ;)

    Very nice article, Gavin, I think you expressed the advantages of web fiction very spot on.

    I have heard many things though, about today’s publishing world that say how you have to catch the reader right away, keep them hooked, etc. and that’s referring to print media. I think that everything these days, is geared more toward immediate satisfaction. Or, at least, readers or yesteryear got more satisfaction out of a leisurely pace and today’s consumer wants bangs and booms to keep their interest.

    Then again, books like “The Historian” come along and bash that notion. A more boring book I’ve never read (and I’ve read many classics) but it still becomes a bestseller with raving fans.

  • http://arcanadium.monoxide.ws/ Spotty

    @Gavin:

    I agree that the whole attention thing is probably a smaller issue in the print media, I’m just pointing out that it’s a decently large issue too.

    And I used to read alot but that seems to have dropped off to almost none in recent years, sadly…

    @srsuleski:

    There are always raving masochists running around.

  • http://srsuleski.com/ srsuleski

    Ha, yes. I read halfway through, waiting for it to “get good” before I realized that it was never going to. But I finished it anyway, because I didn’t have anything else out from the library, and had yet to discover online fiction.

  • http://unicornbait.blogspot.com Windvein

    Suleski,

    Talking about dull books becoming famous, only three poeple read Origin of the Species, but everyone and their mom was like, “Ooh, Darwin.” ;-)

    I think it’s almost a flip of the coin how much readers will take. Do you leave them wanting more or satisfy them? I deliberately made the chapters to my work Unicorn Bait short. I got complaints about that, but then some people said it was perfect. I know when I finally reach the end of UB and edit it, I’ll be going back and combining chapters because it will over seventy chapters as is. That’s a daunting number of chapters.

    Balancing how much clicking people are willing to do, and how long they’re willing to stay on one screen is a tough call.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    On Darwin: I suppose it’s because back then there wasn’t much choice. You either had books, or you had … housework. So books were leisurely and slow and just perfect for that sort of life.

    Now? Hah. Books vs Internet vs games vs TV vs God-knows-what. Writing has changed to reflect that.

    PS: Your Darwin remark, Windvein, also reminds me of this book about The Properties of Moss being a bestseller in 1800s England. Crazy, no?

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