How To Build Community Around Your Fiction

A Community of Monopoly HousesThe Internet is really only fulfilling when you’re a part of a community. Admit it: one of the main draws of the blogosphere is waiting for your readers to comment, to squeal at your hero’s bravado or to laugh at your jokes. The attraction is there for all of us, really – at Novelr I enjoy nothing more than going through a storm of particularly furious commenting, reading arguments and evaluating alternate viewpoints, sometimes even laughing at the occasional lolcat. There is joy in communication and love in community. We all crave it. Hell, we all want it in our blooks.

So how do you go about creating community? Much has been said in Novelr about the whys of community, but little has been said about the hows. This post is my attempt to rectify this lack: it contains all the observations I have made and some of the things I have done to create communities (at Novelr and elsewhere) over the past three years.

Finding A Suitable Metric

The metrics usually thrown about when we talk about blogs are comments, RSS subscribers and visitors. The truth is that community cannot be measured by any one of these metrics alone. Subscriber count and visitors may indicate the number of long term readers, but if they don’t speak up then they’re merely observers in the community of your blook. Comments, perhaps, are a better indicator of community, but we have to remember that 100 ‘tat was amzng lol!’ comments does not mean you’ve got a great crowd on your hands (maybe an unintelligent one, but that’s a different story).

I measure community with two interlinked gauges. The first is the interaction between readers. When your readers argue, joke (even flame) each other they ensure that your blook/blog isn’t about you anymore – it’s about them. But we have to remember that reader-reader interaction is an inconsistent metric – there will be months where the discussions and arguments will be plentiful, and there will be months when nobody’s posting. This is normal, though entirely unhelpful – if you think community equals activity then you’re going to get one hell of a headache trying to cultivate a constantly high level of it.

The second gauge is interlinked with the first, and can be summarized with a few simple questions: do your readers talk about your site and the community of people around it? If so, what do they say? And how often do they do it? These questions touch on the intangible quality of ‘we’ness – the integral core of any group.

One thing you’d notice is that this second gauge can be found in all strong communities. Matthew Haughey, creator of the Metafilter community blog, points out that people will start talking about the site and the community sooner or later if it’s good enough, so he provides a place to do so on his sites. Conversely, if they stop commenting on the state of the site (or if they stop cracking inside jokes) then your community has more or less disbanded. Not died, certainly, but it has lost its soul.

I consider a site successful in community the instant people start talking to each other, and about each other (us). Now I’m not going to mislead you: getting there is hard, but not impossible; maintaining it once you’ve got it is satisfying, but hard in a completely different way.

How

Let’s start with the basics. First, enable comments. (No I’m not kidding). I’ve met several people who believe comments to be a poor medium for opinion making – they’d rather have their articles and stories linked back with a comprehensive, well written article.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that having responsive articles may be the ideal – it means people are taking the time to write about your work, for one – but preventing your readers from interacting with you is a great disservice to your site. It also prevents community creation, because there is no such thing as a community through email or personal message – you must have some form of medium through which readers can communicate with you, and see that others are communicating as well.

Okay, I just had to get that out of the way. On to main meat of this article:

1. Talk to them. In your posts. This is a lot simpler for blogs than it is for blooks, because blooks are really all story installments. First off, they can be fit in: I like how Jim Zoetewey puts up italicized author’s notes before his chapters in The Legion Of Nothing, and how Alexandra Erin puts up occasional non-story posts, talking about specific themes and scenes in Tales Of MU. But the truth here is that short sections don’t work well in creating community. Readers learn about you when you talk to them, in much the same way that they learn about your characters as you write about them in your fiction. Talking to your readers is the single most important thing you can do in your blook, but how exactly you can do that I’ll return to in a short bit.

2. Be honest. This sounds weird, but I’m putting this fairly high up in the list because it’s that important. Honesty isn’t some vague concept preachers talk about in pulpits. On the Internet transparency is one of the key things you’ll need to create and maintain a community – it’s the glue that keeps things together. That you will face drama on the Internet is an ugly truth. Because community is about relationships, and relationships are built on trust, it helps when you’re transparent in all your dealings with your readers – treat them fairly, and treat them like you know them personally, even if they’re being an ass. Things will be a lot easier for you.

3. Reply to your comments. As in, almost all of them. I know that comments may be very flattering things (I’ve got 25 per post! I’m famous!), but the point of community is creating worthwhile relationships between reader and writer. And you can’t really do that if you collect comments as trophies. One of the first things I learnt when I started blogging was that readers value replies. They feel treasured if a blogger appears in their own commenting section, sleeves up, hands muddied and hair tousled, engaging in that droll task of Interacting with The Reader. They feel welcomed. Feeling welcome is a wonderful thing in my book.

4. Initiate conversation about the community. Don’t wait for people to start talking about each other – take the first step and refer to them as a group. At Novelr I frequently encourage discussion regarding the state of the blooking community, and I believe this to be one of the main reasons why Novelr has become an unintentional rally point for many blook writers. Start talking about you and your readers as a unit, and they’ll start to see it as one.

5. Moderate disputes. All good blogs need good enemies. The trick is to make sure people make up afterwards. You can’t avoid drama on the Internet, but you can create an ethos of civility: stop issues in your commenting section before they get out of hand, or at least maintain a heavy presence throughout the spat. Display maturity and good judgment, and your community will do the same – I’ve talked about how comments mimic the style and mood of the blog, and this applies here more than it does anywhere else.

The Blooking Context

Earlier I said that talking to your readers is the single most important thing you can do to create community in your blook. And I admit it’s a lot harder to create community on blooks, simply because most readers really have nothing to comment about other than the story (and the chapters in web fiction are often too short to be of any discussive value – Joe beats up the bad guy … so what?). But is it possible? Certainly. There’s a huge community around Tales of MU, for instance, and it’s sprung up around two cores.

The first core is Erin’s personal blog. This is where most of the community creation is done – readers pass from MU to her blog, read a few entries, and then subscribe to both. You’d realize that the community is more apparent in her personal blog than it is on the actual story pages – but also that they exist in both. The second core is her forum. It’s a lot harder to maintain a forum than it is to maintain a blog, but the returns (community wise) are far greater. Again, notice that the community creation is powered by a blog – her personal one – which then helps to funnel readers into the forum.

The lure of Alexandra Erin’s personal blog can be easily explained if we draw upon what we know of the living web. Mark Bernstein writes:

Undressing, literally, figuratively, or emotionally, has always been a powerful force in personal sites and web logs. Pictures don’t matter in the long run; what matters is the trajectory of your relationship with the reader, the gradual growth of intimacy and knowledge between you.

Community is about relationships. When readers care about what you’re creating (or about you) they hang around more often. Erin’s personal blog deals with the day-to-day struggles she faces writing MU – something her readers already love – and it is this that makes them hang around and interact with her as well as each other. She is but another character on the web, apart from the ones she creates in her fiction, and the readers care. They watch her grow. They stick around.

Conclusion

If you want community, write more than just fiction on your blook. Keep a behind-the-scenes blog, if you will, to document your process. It’ll be a lot easier to talk to your readers like that rather than to attempt community creation through the commenting section of your story.

Final thoughts? Let your readers in. Show them that you’re human, that you’re like any other character in your fiction, and that they should care. Talk them, argue with them, make them laugh. Show them the other side of your story – the side where it’s still malleable junk in your head. Tell them the story of how you cat peed on your last draft, or how you dog chewed your masterplan. Ask them questions and respond to their replies. But above all let them in. Community is never too far behind when you do.

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Category: Writing Web Fiction
  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    The most important way to foster community is give of yourself. It’s not enough to write a good story. You have to let people see who you are in the comments and on some form of related personal blog. I let people see a great deal of who I am, even though this is my pen name. (Some day I’ll be able to link it with my real name, just not yet.)

    After some spirited sex advice in the comments, my husband, who goes by Sir, started up the “Ask Sir” section on our forum. People ask him questions and he gives advice (and yes, he’s qualified to give it). Other readers chime in, too.

    Not being defensive is also critical. Accept well-intentioned criticism with a “thank you,” even if you don’t intend to do anything about it, and deflect bad-intentioned criticism with a thank you. Early on in my story, people were leaving “you suck” comments. A lot. All I would write is “This is not your story, then, and I am not your storyteller. Thanks for stopping by.” It’s all I ever say to those kinds of comments. I rarely get them now, because it’s obvious you won’t get a rise out of me. I don’t have time and won’t spare the energy.

    I also make sure I thank every single person who sends me a donation. So far, this is easy. :) But I intend to keep it up. I also reward registered users for participating with “points,” which are redeemable for special bonus stories.

    I’ve been creating online communities professionally for a long time–since 1994–and I’ve used everything I know to get MLM up and running quickly. I now have close to 200 registered users, 600 unique visitors a day and nearly 1,000 visitors overall a day. I went live in late February ’08. 25k page views a week in under six months is a pretty strong launch. And community building is the key.

  • http://windvein.blogspot.com Windvein

    Geez, now I feel guilty for not keeping my writing blog updated regularly. Thank, Eli.

    Seriously, you’ve given me a lot of food for thought. I am always impressed by web stories that gather a large fan base and get people interacting. It’s magical.

    I’ve held off blogging much about my process and day-to-day woes, but it seems like a lot of readers do appreciate it.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    Windvein, “Scary Mary” is KILLAH. I need to check Unicorn Bait out. You should have a huge fan community!

  • http://windvein.blogspot.com Windvein

    MeiLin, thanks!

    But see, I hide underneath this rock. It’s nice and shady.

  • http://www.themutantstory.com/?page_id=2 Sonja

    This is something that I’ve kinda sorta thought about. I knew that forums were often used as an attempt to gain a community, but I’ve seen so many just kind of flump so I wasn’t too keen to do something like that for Mutants.

    And I had no idea about the personal blog. Interesting.

    Thanks for this, Eli.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com jz

    For better or for worse, I haven’t made much of an effort to create any sort of community–though there are (brief) moments when it sort of erupts anyway. The most recent example being a brief discussion of Kurt Vonnegut started by a character comment.

    I do have a personal blog that, oddly enough, I haven’t been writing much in since starting my serial (and is mostly read by friends anyway). I’ve linked to it, but haven’t done much cross promotion.

    At the moment, oddly enough, it’s actually got an article about the current state of web fiction. Normally it tends to have random observations about my life, children, and (occasionally) my cats.

    Sonja: I’ve always had rather mixed feelings about forums too. It seems like up until you pass a certain number of readers they end up being very empty. Personally, I’m not sure if I’m up to the point where forums would be useful (and/or embarrassingly underused).

  • http://inmydaydreams.com jz

    Oh, Eli… I just noticed that the lolcats forum link has an extra “http” in it and thus doesn’ t work.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Good catch, Jim. Corrected it.

    @MeiLin: That was a wonderful addition to the post, and you’re absolutely right. I didn’t consider your site while I was writing this post, but looking back I realize you’ve actually got a better community thing going on than AE. By the way, giving your husband his own section in the forum is pure genius, as is the point collecting. I can see the draw of that already!

    @Windvein: Huge rocks don’t make very good picnic places. ;P

    @Sonja, Jim: I’m actually quite scared of forums now. Novlounge’s left open, but I’m not actively promoting or creating discussions in it, so it’s left to dry. I ran a forum for the good part of 4 years, but now I’m forced to let it rot. The community still exists, though, I just have to reopen the site.

    I prefer blogs. They take less constant work compared to forums, and they’re easier to navigate.

    PS: @all: you may want to check out anything Matthew Haughey’s written on creating and maintaining web communities (like this, for instance) – in many circles he’s regarded as the single most qualified authority on community creation.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    Here’s what interests me: All the fear and loathing around comments and forums. Why?

    I have run online communities now for 13 years and never have they descended into the flame fests you all seem so worried about–at least not for long. You must set the tone YOURSELF. If you indulge yourself in defensive flames of criticism, you’ll let people know it’s that kind of place. If you respond differently (and you must respond), you’ll let people know you intend to keep your “home” a safe and happy one. YOU SET THE TONE.

    I also think it helps to have the story blog integrated with the forum and the writing blog (for lack of a better term) in the same site. It’s why I use Drupal. When I finish this hiatus (I got a paying gig I couldn’t turn down), I intend to get back on the Drupal for Digital Novelists thing I was working on and work with one of you as an example. (I think it was Gavin that expressed interest, and if you’re out there I apologize publicly, Gavin, I didn’t mean to drop you on your head. :) )

    If it plays out the way I think it will, it’ll be more money than most of you will want to pay for set-up and hosting. But it’ll offer a serious turn-key set of open source tools for building both your web novel and your community–and thus, your audience. In other words, it’s money you’ll get back if your work pulls the initial readers. I’m okay with it only being a few people; I have writing of my own to do. :)

  • http://atmtoc.blogspot.com/ Allan T Michaels

    Eli,

    Good article. Although the lolcat link still isn’t working for some reason. I get 404d.

    I have a personal blog, but it hasn’t been updated much until recently, and I guess I need to work on more cross promotion on my stories. For some reason, my comments seem to have dried up lately, though the readers are still there. Must just be one of those swings you mentioned.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com jz

    With regards to LOLcats link: Yep. It includes the path to the WordPress login page followed by the path to the correct page.

    With regards to MeiLin’s comment:
    Speaking only personally, I don’t have a loathing of forums due to flamefests (I’ve never recieved an intentionally nasty comment so far) so much as a fear of putting one in and having one that’s more or less empty.

    I’ve seen a few of those out there on sites that get more traffic than I do.

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    You have to prime the pump a little. You have to be willing to get in there yourself. Usually when forums (fora?) are empty, it’s because no one knows they’re there. For instance, until I changed how my site displays what’s newest to include the blog and the forum, a ton of people didn’t know it was there, even though it was in the menu bar and referenced in other places.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    MeiLin: I share the same sentiments with Jim on forums. I’m not afraid of flamers (they pop up anywhere there’s interaction, anyway), and I’m pretty good with kickstarting a forum-based community. But I simply don’t have the time to maintain one – even if it is a very fulfilling thing to do (my schedule is very erratic).

    The way I see it, a forum’s not worth it if you don’t have the time/commitment/energy to make one succeed.

    PS: that Drupal idea is really cool. I won’t dare to touch it, not at my current skill level (heard it’s hell for coding amateurs – and the templating engine is clunky), but … yeah. =)

    @Allan: oops. Fixed (hopefully for the last time).

  • http://www.meilinmiranda.com/ MeiLin Miranda

    The forums at MLM take the least amount of time of everything I do for the site. Absolute least.

    Drupal is only hell for coding amateurs if you want to write a module. Otherwise it’s gotten so easy to install I would recommend it for anyone who knows enough to do the following:

    –Create a MySQL database via phpmyadmin or some other tool

    –Create and change permissions on directories

    –Upload files to your webspace

    If you can do those things, you can work with Drupal 5 or 6. It installs itself once the files are uploaded and the MySQL database is made (but not populated–it populates itself now). Modules now install themselves. Themes are simply a matter of uploading files.

    But if you want to customize Drupal beyond what its (many, many) modules already offer, it’s a tricky thing to code for a beginner. I don’t write modules unless I have no other choice, and I almost always do; there are modules now (CCK, Views) that allow you to do things that you used to have to write a module to do.

    Back when I first started using Drupal, about five years ago, I was proud that I could roll out a basic install in about ten minutes with a bunch of routines and protocols that I worked out for speed. Now anyone can do it in less than half that amount of time.

    I will say one thing: Don’t go to drupal.org to try to figure out how to use Drupal. Sadly, the site is written for professionals. If anyone ever does want to give it a shot, ping me and I’m happy to answer questions.

    (Sorry to go all off-topic, but I’m a Drupal evangelist. :) )

  • http://srsuleski.com/ srsuleski

    I’ve got a personal blog…. but it’s so personal I keep in on LiveJournal and make it Friend’s Only.

    I try to friend Readers who I notice have LiveJournals, but yeah. I suppose I could add a wordpress blog onto my site to talk more about the writing process and some personal things that aren’t “too” personal. I used to not want a forum of any kind though I’ve sort of started to consider it. Basically it seems like too much work to maintain, esp. as I’ve got NovLounge, WebFictionGuide, writing, and real life to worry about. It’s like… wow, a forum for srsuleski.com too? Madness!

  • NiSp

    i’ve only just started out on the whole blogging thing (yeah late bloomer) and have jumped straight into publishing my novel as well. am furiously taking notes as i read these articles and hope i can read them later!

    thanks for all the advice – i can use every drop i get!

  • http://www.takingoff.org Nat JM

    I’m a musician and a writer.

    As a musician, I know all too well the importance of building a community and I have managed to do it – slowly but surely.

    But as a writer, I wasn’t too sure about how to do this because it seems to be a subject less discussed, at least in the online circles I move, and most writers I know offline are totally clueless about blooks. This article, and your whole blog in general, is so helpful so a big thank you for this Eli.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Glad to help, Nat. You’re welcomed. =)

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  • Lorne Henson

    Enjoyed this, but it also raised a big new question.

    What’s so different about an online or web novel and a print novel that makes the former demand a ‘community’? Thousands of successful novels are published in print each year, and none have a community about them. We buy them and read them alone, and that is enough. Truly great books we talk about, we read reviews in magazines or newspapers and we talk about them with likeminded friends. But no print books need a ‘community’ to be successful. Why does it seem different for online books? Is it because these novels are so much less successful (ie have so few readers that they do need to connect online, being the only way for them to reach each other)?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    That’s a false premise, I’m afraid. A community is a feature of web fiction. It doesn’t demand one so much so as it attracts one, as part of its inherent digital structure. Success has nothing to do with it.

  • Lorne Henson

    So would you say that all web fiction has this online community about it? That would also distinguish web fiction from ‘ebooks’ as well (such as self-published Kindle novels, which don’t always have corresponding web-forums).

    Are you saying the actual ‘digital structure’ of web fiction (the fact that it’s in a file, on the web) is what makes it have a community? So in other words if you took a book like DFW’s Infinite Jest and published it in a file, on a web-server, that too would attract an online community? And is it a rule, then, that all web-fiction (successful or otherwise) must have some kind of online community?

    Finally, since I’m new to your site, I’d love to see what you & others believe are the best writers publishing web fiction today (or in the past decade, or past 20 years, or whenever).

    Thanks again.

    LH

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Not all web fiction has community, certainly. But think of it like this: you’re commenting on this blog, no? If you are, then it’s likely that you’ll be commenting on a web fiction site, one with comments enabled. And the author is likely to be pleased by that – he’ll comment right back. And before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going.

    So that’s web fiction: put fiction on the web, add comments, and respond to those comments, and before you know it you’ll have a community clustered around your writing. That’s all there is to it. Success doesn’t even enter the picture (and I’m not sure why you keep insisting on trying to connect success to whether a piece of web fiction has community or no – it doesn’t matter).

    There are communities clustered around the best web fiction, of course. They tend to appear in the comments within hours of a chapter posting, arguing about this character and that character and so on so forth. And I’ve had formerly-published writers come up to me and tell me that they’re doing this web fiction thing for fun … and then a couple months down the road tell me that they can’t imagine writing any other way now, because of their reader community. It’s very fulfilling to have people comment/talk to you about your work, especially if it’s a couple of hours right after you put up a chapter.

    Want the best web fiction? Go to Web Fiction Guide and surf around.

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