Monthly Archives: August 2008

Open Mike: Do You Support The ‘F Word’?

The Open MikeI’ll be taking a study break from Novelr until late December, which means my posts here will be fewer and further between. Yes, I know this sounds quite awful, but I’m currently studying about 4 hours a day and it’ll only get worse as my Finals approach. Guest posts and community alerts are welcomed – I can come online, but only in very short bursts – so please shoot me an email if you’d like to write something for the blooking community.

I’d like to do an open mike before I vanish. An open mike is a post where you take the center stage, be it in the commenting section below, or back in your own blog, about a topic I’ll be discussing today. Brains turned on, then? Alright.

Here’s what I’d like to know: would you rather censor foul language for the sake of your audience, or would you keep it in your story, because that is telling the truth? Where do you stand when it comes to vulgarity in fiction?

This is an argument I’m pretty unsure about, because there are very valid opinions on both sides. On one hand we have Stephen King, who defends his use of the f-word because he is writing about common, working-class people, and they say fuck more than they do foie gras. On the other hand (the cleaner one, you’d suppose) you have the argument that it is just impolite to litter your prose with, well, impolite language. The most creative treatment of vulgar language I have seen is by children’s writer Diana Wynn Jones. Yes, you got me right – a children’s author. In her book Wilkin’s Tooth the neighbourhood bully is a particularly rude child, and he frequently uses (in her words) ‘colourful language’. Jones treats this quite literally – her dialogue from the bullies is filled with “orange” and “black” and “you purple red green boy you!!” Witty stuff.

Where do you stand on this issue?

What Is The Classic .com Mistake?

Somebody Is Wrong On The InternetI recently came across a critical piece on two Novelr articles (this one and this one), published in Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 9 (a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media). Overall, I thought the entire thing to be well written, witty at parts, snarky at others, with a respectable open-ended conclusion about the state of e-book readers at the end. There is just one part that is bothering me, though: in his analysis of my post on the Long Tail he alleges that I make something he calls ‘the classic .com mistake.’

Ah, but the blogger makes the classic .com mistake, one Jensen doesn’t make:

Our target audience shouldn’t have to be just people who are willing to sort through the dross: if that’s the case online writing will forever be in the dark, pushed into the corners of the web by other bigger, better, more instantly gratifying web distractions. If, say 1% of web surfers are actively finding/reading online fiction, the ideal solution shouldn’t be just to find that 1%, but to expand upon it. In other words, we should not find a target audience—we have to create one, so the 1% becomes 5%, or more.

“If we can only get 5%…” That’s propounded by another problem—one that’s characteristic in this blog. Namely, the writer assumes traditional media are dying. “Newspapers are dying out, losing to online news sources…”—and in an unrelated post, “We know that the traditional publishing industry is upon dark times.” Ah, but never mind. We learn that “collaborative filters” are what we need to make online fiction more accessible for others—but, and it’s a big but, you have to get people to look at those filters before they’re of any use. The writer mentions a website, Pages Unbound, that can provide the collaborative filtering. I visited briefly. Wow. Ugly white sans text on a dark-gray background, making it hard to read. A front page that seems more manifesto than invitation—and the claim that readers may need mental adjustment to read web novels. Let’s just say that, as one who might be willing to read online fiction, I’m decidedly not bookmarking this site.

Here’s my question: what is the classic .com mistake? I have absolutely no idea – and his article doesn’t really explain – but let’s hold that off for awhile because I’d like to dissect his analysis to see if I’ve missed out anything.

He opens with a rhetorical question: “if we can only get 5% …”. He then follows this up with an attack on credibility (that I’m assuming traditional media is dying, when he thinks it’s actually not) but reminds his readers that this is a minor digression – the true problem is that our current collaborative filters are too ugly to be of any use.

There are three reasons why his analysis is flawed.

Firstly, the amount of people writing and reading blooks has grown two-fold over the past year or so. When I started covering blooking on Novelr the majority of blook writers were the blook readers (prompting, incidentally, this guest post by Gloria Hildebrandt). This has changed in recent times – the number of writers have grown, certainly, but the number of readers have grown even more. Two works, An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom and Tales Of MU have significant communities built around them, mostly drawn from LiveJournal, web comics and strategic advertising. The writer of said commentary has overlooked the simple fact that our 1% has grown into a 2%, and is set to hit 3 and more over the next few months.

Secondly, while the writer is correct in saying that Pages Unbound is ugly and non-functional this comment no longer applies for two reasons. Firstly, PU has closed, and a better filter (or filters, if plans for another one takes off) have replaced it. Secondly, much of the growth has been because of PU, and its close integration with the community could be felt in the outcry that followed its closing. Many readers and writers got their first start through PU’s review system – which despite its flaws managed to spark off a number of new, high quality blooks.

Thirdly, and lastly, my belief that traditional media is dying out has no logical connection to the ‘classic .com problem’. Why the writer included it there is beyond me. Whether they really are dying is open to heated debate – the said writer points out that local newspapers, for instance, are thriving because they provide local content, whereas only the large dailies are suffering. I do believe, however, that a good example does not a good argument make – while we can say that radio has not died with the emergence of television I’d like to point out that its significance has been greatly reduced. We no longer hear of people being glued to their radio sets for football commentary or nightly entertainment. The same will probably happen for traditional media – they won’t die completely, for sure, but they’ll certainly exist in a semi-significant state, less relevant than they were before.

PS: On the writer’s comment that 1000 True Fans is a gimmick – I point to Tales Of MU, amongst other works. Alexandra Erin’s full time job is writing it.

(Image from XKCD)

Vonnegut: How To Write With Style

Kurt Vonnegut This article orginally appeared in Palm Sunday (New York, Dial Press 1999) from pages 65 to 72, 9 years before Vonnegut’s death. I thought I’d share it here.

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful– ? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

1. Find a subject you care about

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

2. Do not ramble, though

I won’t ramble on about that.

3. Keep it simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Bookmarked! Free Books; Pirated Books

Alan Giles, blogging for The Bookseller, yesterday wrote an article comparing Radiohead’s album experiment to the book industry. He points out:

But here’s the most surprising conclusion from “In Rainbows”; despite an explicit invitation by the band to legally download the album for free, huge numbers chose to do so illegally. Research by Will Page, chief economist of copyright organisation MCPS-PRS Alliance, and Eric Garland, c.e.o. of online media researcher Big Champagne, reported 400,000 such “torrents” in the first day, and 2.3 million over the first 25 days. Yet by any standards the album has been a huge commercial success. Page and Garland conclude that “torrents and legal downloads are complements, not competitors”.

He comes to an interesting close when he talks about the music industry’s attitude towards piracy in the 1980s:

.. the (then) record industry publicly argued that “home taping is killing music”, while recognising that hard-up students who had developed a love of music through illegally copying might become core buyers in later life.

It is worth pointing out here that piracy doesn’t affect the publishing industry as much as it does the music one. I’d be more worried about the lack of offline readers and the lower margins the publishing industry faces today than the possibility of copyright infringement. Though, on the other hand, I admit to downloading a copy of Breaking Dawn recently (ehheh!) after finding out that the Malaysian release was delayed for a week. The difference here being that I’d buy the book the instant it hit local bookstores – owning a paper copy is priceless and forever, and a lot more meaningful to me than a .lit file. (Special thanks to Sharon of Bibliobibuli for highlighting this article)

Other links worth checking out:

  • Some of my predictions regarding Pages Unbound’s close have come true: discussions about a replacement/clone site have sprung up in the PU forums. Interested writers contact Rose here.
  • The New York Times on why we capitalize our ‘I’s.
  • A long transcript answering the question ‘How Is the Internet Changing Literary Style?
  • Just found out about Yochai Benkler‘s book The Wealth Of Networks. Benkler explores the reality of making money through user generated content, though Nicholas Carr has a wager going on that the only reason volunteers still exist is because there isn’t really any way to make money off them. The book is available for free here.
  • Daniel Hall writes in The Economist about how technology is fragmenting the music industry, and – like many others – goes on to throw the gauntlet in the book industry’s direction.

If it seems that more and more people are seeing the parallels between both industries, then it is because they are. The Internet has disrupted many things for many people and the general situation we’re seeing on the ground now is mass confusion. Which equals opportunity. Exciting times, this.

PS: Alexandra Erin‘s not gotten back to me on the future of Pages Unbound, so I’m in the dark as to what her descicions are. Somebody help, please?

Pages Unbound Is Closing

Closed DoorAlexandra Erin recently announced the closing of her filter site Pages Unbound. It must have been a very difficult decision for her to make, and I respect her move to do so – she’s got 4 other serials to maintain, after all, and that is no small feat.

Personal feelings aside I would like now to point out a few important implications this move would have on the blooking community at large. The first and most obvious is the sudden vacuum created by its loss. At the moment many blooks derive their traffic from PU, and we have to remember that there is an ecosystem of readers and writers clustered around it. People come in from other blooks, check out what PU has to offer, and then jump off to another one. Rinse, lather and repeat. PU’s loss means this ecosystem will have to shift to another site, and it will take time to do so.

The good news is that we do have another site – and a good one at that. Chris Poirier and Sarah Suleski have together created a brilliant filter at Web Fiction Guide, a site that will certainly serve as another platform to promote good fiction in PU’s wake. The bad news is that WFG works on a different model from PU, and that presents several challenges to the community as a whole.

WFG is editor-powered. I have talked about editorial based filters vs wisdom-of-the-crowd filters before, and we know that both have different but complimentary sets of strengths and weaknesses. I have also pointed out some of PU’s teething problems in the past, problems that any crowd-powered filter would face.

So here’s the thing: PU’s loss means that we’ll lose a major crowd-based filter, and we’ll have to rely solely on an editorial based one. This is not good for a few reasons: a major limitation of the editorial model is the amount of digital fiction it can process. There will come a time when there would be too much good fiction and too little editors to review and rank them. Volume is the one major advantage that sites like PU have – it is democratic and it’s been proven to work in a vast majority of Internet scenarios (think Google search and Digg). We’ll need one sooner or later, regardless of how successful WFG is. Both types of site complements each other; it’s not WFG or PU, it’s WFG and PU.

So why not keep PU going? I suggest we take over the management of the site, if Lexy agrees. I know she’s pointed out that she doesn’t think that it’s worth it, but I don’t think so. Even though PU runs on off-the-shelf components, I believe it’ll be a lot easier to capitalize on both the site’s credibility, community and brand at a later stage, if we want to do a revamp (and we probably will want to recode major parts of it). At any rate, it would make no sense to restart a PU clone later on from scratch – why reinvent the wheel when the wheel’s already running? And there is of course the teething problems that we’ve learnt from in PU’s implementation – something that all new wisdom-of-the-crowd sites would face sooner or later.

I propose keeping PU. I’m having exams at the moment, so I won’t be much help in the sense that I can’t do anything remotely server related. I am however willing to underwrite the costs of moving PU. I’ve already got a bunch of people on NovLounge and elsewhere in favour of this idea, and they’re willing to contribute their time and energy to the continued effort of running PU. I’d like now to ask the majority of blookers, readers and writers out there: what do you think of this? Please tell me your comments.

Update: I’m mistaken in thinking WFG to be completely editor powered. There is a significant crowd aspect to it which has not been utilized because it is a relatively new site. That being said, here’s a-for and-against analysis for keeping Pages Unbound.

For

There are a lot of reviews and a pretty strong community around Pages Unbound. It also has a relatively high profile within our community, meaning new people discover it and benefit from the information there despite slow progress from the owner. Deleting PU off the bat would mean losing a whole bunch of reader recommendations, reviews, forum discussions and also the appearance of dead links on the various blogs and blooks linking to it. Not particularly appealing.

Against

Much of PU’s success has been because of Alexandra Erin’s status in the blooking community. Keeping PU without her personality on board would be a loss to the filter. On top of that Erin is right in pointing out that modifications to the site will be difficult – Joomla is not known as one of the simplest CMSes around. If code modifications are hard then it will be difficult to correct the problems that PU faces – gaming of the system, spite rankings, etc. It would be far better to destroy everything anyway and custom code a solution.

Open Mike

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Should we take over PU from Alexandra, or should we close down and redirect to WFG? I am in favour of keeping PU in stasis for a period of time while we determine the feasibility of a) continuing b) moving over to Web Fiction Guide. That way the reviews will at least be preserved for a longer period, and there would some form of community transfer through this pause. Either way the community would benefit more than an instant shutdown of the site. Which side do you stand on?

Disclaimer: I am an editor on WFG’s board. Also, I have emailed Lexy and I’m currently waiting for a reply. As founder her opinion is paramount in this undertaking – if she refuses we must respect her decision.

Announcement: An Anthology Of Online Fiction

Scott Mackenzie is the author of online works Rebirth and The Rising. He’s currently looking for online writers to contribute short works of fiction to an anthology of blooks. I’ll let him speak in his own words:

Calling all online fiction writers

I am looking for contributors for the *.fiction anthology volume 1. The anthology will provide a printed showcase for the emerging community of online fiction writers who publish their work on the internet for free. The plan is for the anthology to contain samples from 10-15 writers to allow them to promote their work in an accessible and cost-effective format.

All online fiction writers are invited to submit their work for inclusion in the first volume of the *.fiction anthology. This will be a community-focused publication and should be considered as a starting point in building awareness of online fiction. It will be made available for purchase at cost price and all contributors are encouraged to promote this work along with their own.

If there are more submissions than the number required for the first volume, additional work will be carried over to subsequent volumes. Please contact me at s.a.mckenzie@gmail.com for more information and submission guidelines.

The closing date for submissions for volume 1 is September 30th 2008.

Scott McKenzie

www.stardotfiction.com

On a personal note I think this is a brilliant idea. Scott’s doing this for the community – I repeat: cost price – and the publicity in a dead-tree book will in turn drive attention to both blooks and their Lulu merchandise. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the commenting section of this post. I’ll update this announcement with new details as I get them – I have exams on at the moment so forgive me if updates come slow.