Life as a Web Fiction Guide Editor

My exams ended on the 4th of December, and I was suddenly left alone with my newfound freedom. I surfed the Internet a bit, clicking about in random directions, in much the same way a criminal may run in circles after being released from prison. His freedom renders him purposeless after years of confinement, the same way I was rendered purposeless after 3 months of crazy studying. I think it’s quite possible for one to equal the other.

I’m back, and I’m sorry for not updating Novelr earlier. My exams have left me frazzled and a little woozy, and it’ll be some time before I can get back into gear here. It doesn’t help that I’ve got quite a few other things to do – I have been spending the last couple of days reading up on PHP, because it’s about time Novelr got a redesign. And there’s design work to be done on Web Fiction Guide (WFG) as well. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

This post is a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a WFG editor. The editors, if you don’t already know, are the people in charge of reviewing and rating the 144 or so blooks listed on the site. I’ve not been a very good editor: WFG was started months ago, but I’ve almost never reviewed anything there. Put it down to my academic schedule, I guess, and bang me on the head with a wooden spoon.

Behind The Scenes: The Art (or torture) of Reviewing

What, you think we randomly choose what we review?

A review assignment usually begins as such: we hop into the Editors’ private forums and skim through the latest discussions. The topics here run the gamut from serious to nonsensical: one might be about a delisting request (the editors decided it was against WFG policy), while another might be about how we’ve been called semi-professional (go check them out!) by a StumbleUpon user. Very often, however, our personal lives slip through and colour our discussions: Gavin Williams had a baby a few months back, and we paused our discussions to congratulated him and the missus.

The chief reason we log into the discussions area is because of a spreadsheet Chris Poirier updates. It contains all the new listings and it tells us who’s reading, or reviewing what. The unreviewed listings are marked in bold, and the editors place R, W or X under their names to mark the various stages they’re going through, with regards to that particular work. An R is for Reading, W means ‘Writing a review’ and X marks a completed assignment. R sometimes last two weeks, if the blook in question is boring as hell.[1]

Review Systems: Should You Read Everything?

There’s been some discussion in the WFG member forums as to what system to use while reviewing a blook. A rule of thumb that many use is to read and write a review based on the first five chapters. The reasoning goes as such: after five chapters, “the story’s had its chance to draw you in, and if it hasn’t it might simply not be your cup of tea – in which case you might as well jump around at random and see if things change.”

I’ve had some time to mull over that system, and I have to conclude that whatever system we use is often created out of necessity rather than personal preference. WFG posts up to 3 new listings a day, many of them novel length, and to keep up with all these listings is nigh on impossible if we’re to read through everything. Part of our problem is that most of these works don’t even deserve a review in traditional critical establishments – they get filtered and are left in the slush piles of publishers. There’s actually an agency that provides professional assessments of unsolicited manuscripts, but there’s a catch: you have to pay good money for that service (and they will read everything, and pass it on to a publisher if they think it’s worth a shot). WFG editors aren’t paid anything, and so we have to make do with what we have.

My view on reviewing systems (and we all have different ones) is that I will read as much as is needed for me to write a fair review. Some works, the good ones, I’ll read through from first to last. The lousier ones, however, I’ll pass after 1 or 3 or 5 chapters. My job is to tell you if it’s worth your time, and the best way to do that is if I’m honest. Forcing the editors to read through everything, particularly if that story is bad, does nothing for either reader or editor: you’re not likely to appreciate a work for its themes or ending if you can’t get past the first few chapters.

It’s a fine line that the editors walk. We have self-imposed deadlines, so the backlog won’t get out of hand; but at the same time we realize that the people we write the reviews for aren’t the authors, but the readers. This balance between speed and fairness has been highlighted once or twice in the editor forums, and I will say as much: as dedicated to the community as we are, we won’t be able to cover everything in the near future. If we take what’s happening now (3 new listings a day occasional lulls in between) and scale it with what we know of the increasing importance of the Internet, then it doesn’t take a genius to realize there will come a time where listings will outstrip the editors who can review them.

The solution? We have no idea. We’ll work on it, though (because we’re semi-professional). Till then, however, we’ll read, we’ll review, and then we’ll read some more.

1.The RWX term usage is also a geek joke only Chris, Jim and the Unix programmers of the world would understand.

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Category: Meta · Reviews