A Format For Online Fiction

When you go to a bookstore to buy a book you expect a number of things that the publisher – and the author – readily provide you with. You expect quality content – a good story or a good idea argued well, perhaps – but you also expect a number of things so rudimentary nobody actually thinks about them anymore. Consider the following:

  • you expect a cover
  • you expect soft pages you can flip
  • you expect binding of some sort
  • you expect book-smell (and this is a personal favourite of mine – I really really like the smell of new books) –
  • in short, you expect a standardised reading experience.

Compare this experience with that of online fiction. Granted, one of the main draws of the medium right now is that it is new, experimental, and that it doesn’t come with a set of preconceptions or constraints that may bind you if you so choose to write a dead-tree novel. But if you think about similar mediums that have matured, over the past few years, you’d realize that there exists a very particular growth pattern to which all these mediums follow before they became mainstream, one that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Clay Shirky best summed it up in his June 2009 TED talk:

What matters here isn’t technical capital. It’s social capital. These tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn’t when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society. It’s when everybody is able to take them for granted.

And this is the truth. Nobody really paid attention to blogging until WordPress and Blogger came along and made the technology – or, more importantly, the concept – boring. But it’s interesting to note that while blogging is staple to us now, in 1997 it was chaotic, and less of a movement than a collection of fringe geeks. Early blogs were literally ‘web-logs’ – records of links found on a person’s travels throughout the world wide web (and, yes, I am aware of how old-fashioned that sentence just sounded) and there really was no defined idea of what – and how – a blog should look like.

This has, of course, changed, in so far that even fringe communities like ours now write our fiction in the blog format. We know what blogs look like. We know how they work, and we know how to read them. Somewhere in between 1997 and 2001 the blog morphed from a collection of links to a reverse-chronological order of posts, with comments, trackbacks, RSS feeds and what have you … and this change enabled the mass adoption and acceptance of blogs and blogging. The blog became standardized. When you go to a blog now, you expect a number of things that all blogs provide you with – things that are by now so rudimentary that nobody thinks about them anymore. And in this way blogs resemble books: they deliver content in exactly the way you expect them to.

The same cannot be said for the blook. Or blog fiction. Think about it: when we publish fiction on WordPress/Blogger/Drupal, we are taking a system that was designed for something else entirely, and adapting that for the delivery of fiction. There is a difference between text and prose, and I believe that WordPress, and Blogger, and Drupal fail to make this distinction. How the author displays the work is up to him or her. Sometimes this works. Most of the time it doesn’t.

And you don’t have to look very far for evidence of this! Take two random works, any of the 300+ you can find on Web Fiction Guide, and compare their presentation styles. Some will have their chapter listings on the right, some will have it in the footer. Some display a splash page, some just hit you with a reverse-chronological order of posts; still others give you a link to the first episode in the sidebar. Whenever you read web fiction you are literally taking a dive into the dark – you don’t know what you’ll find, and you don’t know the context you’ll find it presented in. Imagine going to a bookstore to see books of all possible formats – some read right to left, some packaged in scrolls, others propped up and sold in ring files. This is terrible. It is already a huge challenge to find good content within the confines of the book as we know it. Likewise for online fiction – the diversity of presentation styles is is a huge mental block, particularly for the reader, and it’s one that I think we should do away with.

So Who Should Do It?

Let’s go back to the story of the blog. I told you that somewhere along the way – around 1997 to 2001 – the blog was transformed from a ‘web-log’ to the written format we accept and know today. Now I believe that this change did not happen via collective community movement. Nobody decided anything together. And so I’m not going to suggest some cliched ‘let’s decide now, together, what we’re going to change about this’ as a solution to this problem. If we look at blogging, we see that the change happened not because of the old-timers, it happened in spite of them. A bunch of newcomers – programmers – came together and wrote b2, cafelog, and then later on Movable Type and WordPress. This changed the nature of the blog. WordPress and Movable Type were easy-to-install platforms that lowered the bar to entry for many. More importantly, however, it put blogging on the map. The more bloggers started using WordPress/Movable Type (and it didn’t matter which, for the format was essentially the same) the more people read them; the more people read them, the more they started clicking these interesting little ‘powered by blogging engine‘ links; the more they knew blogging, the more they were inclined to blog; the more bloggers there were using that particular blogging format … and on the cycle went.

I believe that the easiest way to have a standardized online fiction format is for somebody to actually sit down and develop the system himself. And yes, that does sound rather difficult (!) but note that blogs are actually rather simple applications to write – ask any programmer if this is so and he’s likely to go d’oh at you. So while WordPress and Drupal are too bloated for our purposes, the former – being open source – is actually a good starting point on which to built a system on. The crux of the change is this: this app – whatever it is, or how it looks like (and I’ve got quite a few ideas on how it should look like), it should be good enough, and simple enough, and intuitive enough to meet all possible online fiction needs. And if it is all these things, mass adoption should follow, sooner or later, allowing writers to do what they do best in an environment that currently throws so many obstacles in the good writer’s way.

I’d like to close now, but in case this sounds like a lot of charity work, here’s something to think about: there is now a large publishing industry shift across the digital divide, particularly where authors and novels are concerned. Consider how beneficial – and how desirable – designing a system for writers to tell their stories would be … not only for the community, but for whoever so decides to be a developer of just such an app. WordPress, is, after all, making more than enough money to survive.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Design · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://lilyfields.digitalnovelists.com Sharon T. Rose

    Not being a programmer in the slightest, I must confess that I don’t understand a lot of this discussion. :< Being a writer, however, I am very much interested!

  • http://lleelowe.com Lee

    I haven’t been following this discussion much, but two points:

    1. Eli, you wrote: ‘Either unapproachable because the writing belongs to the slush pile, or rubbish because the (good) writing cannot be read.’

    I wouldn’t argue with the first reason (slush pile – though, heh, there’s always something good which turns up in them!), but the second strikes me as missing the mark: the good writing can’t be found easily, in my view. A question of needing some serious reviewers/critics/lit bloggers – and I genuinely mean serious, well-read, cross-genre crtics – who turn their attention to online lit. And yes, I’m an elitist.

    2. The really interesting, experimental stuff will not fit into the sort of e-fiction format you’re considering. It’s going to be far more of a transmedia approach. (One day, in fact, I hope to give it a bash with my filmmaker/sound designer daughter.)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I wouldn’t argue with the first reason (slush pile – though, heh, there’s always something good which turns up in them!), but the second strikes me as missing the mark: the good writing can’t be found easily, in my view. A question of needing some serious reviewers/critics/lit bloggers – and I genuinely mean serious, well-read, cross-genre crtics – who turn their attention to online lit. And yes, I’m an elitist.

    Ahh. Yes. We don’t seem to have made much progress then, even with WFG? =(

  • http://lleelowe.com Lee

    It’s a good start, certainly. There are lit bloggers, for example, who do an excellent job of marrying close analysis to their personal taste and unique critical voice. Offhand I’m thinking of Matthew Cheney (The Mumpsimus blog), who treats S/SF with the respect it deserves, has the necessary critical acumen, reads widely in all sorts of genres and epochs, and has written some terrific short stories.

  • http://poncy-mclean.net duane poncy

    I have been working on some format ideas using WordPress. I am trying to develop something that is easy for authors to set up and is very design-extensible. I think I have hit on an idea that is unique and workable. I still have a lot of coding to do, but if you would like to check it out, it is on my development site: http://fictionworks.net/testsite.

    I have taken MCM’s idea of seperating the content from the interface as a starting point.

    Please let me know what you think.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    Well to be perfectly honest Duane, what’s different between your attempt and basic wordpress?

  • http://poncy-mclean.net duane poncy

    At this point, the main difference is navigation. Because the user interface is fixed, the navigation is always beside the text–instead of scrolling up out of reach with the text. Frankly, I have never seen anything like this in another WordPress installation.

    The text is in a very readable, typographically-styled width, which should translate nicely to mobile devices, and the chapter menus are inverted out of the box.

    I plan to soon add some other features for ebook formats and marketing, but I have only just begun work on it.

    Did you attempt to scroll down the page, and see how it works? It may not be for everyone, but it is certainly different from other WordPress intallations.

  • http://poncy-mclean.net duane poncy

    It just occurred to me that I have no idea how my layout might work with IE or some other PC browser. I work with Safari and Firefox on a Mac.

  • JanOda

    To be fair, I’m using firefox on a Mac and it looks a little yanked too. The navigation stays fixed, but doesn’t seem to fit on the background, it’s too much to the left.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    I use Firefox.

    But my point is, it’s just a block of text and some navigable links. Most people can manage that already. This discussion was trying to go beyond simple chapters and look at getting more out of web fiction.

    I’m not saying that it’s not nice, but navigation is not what this discussion was about. It’s about extension of pre-conceived perception of what a book is, and how it’s different in an electronic environment.

  • http://poncy-mclean.net duane poncy

    Sorry, Merrilee, but that’s not the way I see it. The title of James’ article, in fact, is “A Format for Online Fiction.” I am trying to contribute here. You may not like my contribution, but there is no need to insult me.

    I have been following and contributing to these discussions for a few years now, and I think I have a grasp on what they are about.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    Goodness me, I’m not insulting you. There’s no need to get stroppy.

    But format is not just layout; it’s form. We’re not talking about books here, and a lot of the discussion has centered around the fact that chapters and page breaks are obsolete in an electronic document. So while your navigation links are nice, they don’t really address the issue.

    That’s all I’m saying. I haven’t insulted you. Calm down.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    Mwaha! The picker of nits arrives!

    “the fact that chapters and page breaks are obsolete in an electronic document”

    This is an issue I have with how Smashwords converts works as well… page breaks are obsolete (at least in longform text), but chapters are still important tools for writers to use, regardless of the evolution of the medium. There are so many structural and psychological attributes attached to the concept of chapters that they should be enhanced, not removed altogether.

    (I realize it sounds like I have an agenda here, since I tend to have a very old-school approach to my weblit, but I really AM trying to be cutting edge. Honest!)

    @duane: I must send you something. Can you email me (mcm@1889.ca) and I can explain it better?

  • http://webfictionguide.com/ Chris Poirier

    Indeed — chapters are vital to the construction of most narratives. Getting rid of them would seriously weaken prose as a form — they provide a manageably-sized dramatic curve inside the overall curve of the story, and without them, the narrative would quickly feel lumbering and formless. Pages are a technical artifact. Chapters are not.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    On the other hand, thinking of chapters as chapters is possibly not productive either… there’s a sense that a chapter has to cover a certain amount of space or time, and anything less than that isn’t doing the job right. I find that sometimes I group thematically-diverse episodes together just make it gel with what I think a chapter should be. It would possibly be a better move to get away from that. Then again, maybe not. I’m conflicted.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    “chapters are vital to the construction of most narratives. Getting rid of them would seriously weaken prose as a form”

    Oh really? Did you know that not one of Terry Pratchett’s books have chapters? I wouldn’t call them lumbering.

    The chapter is an artificial form, just as the page is. The scene is the root structure of a narrative.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    @MCM – exactly. They are an arbitrary construct. There are no rules as to what makes a chapter, whereas a scene is a defined unit.

  • http://poncy-mclean.net duane poncy

    I agree that the concept of chapters may not be the ultimate thing for web fiction, but I am not sure the scene is necessarily the best way to approach it, either. I have mixed feelings on this, and I think as a writer I really need to consider the cognitive process and how the reader perceives the thing I am trying to get across. How I construct my work has to do with whether it works or not. Even if it’s entirely for electronic consumption, I still have to mediate the different devices that will be used to read it. I don’t know if I want to write for people who only read in 3 minute bytes.

  • http://webfictionguide.com/ Chris Poirier

    Merilee — I’ve written sub-scenes that worked just fine for what I wanted them to do (Winter Rain is written in parts, arranged in chapters — and a scene often spans several parts, written days or weeks apart). You can do anything if you get the reader from one place to another. I guess it all depends on how you organize your work — there are exceptions to every rule. However, for my way of thinking about story, I have no interest in ditching the chapter, and it has nothing to do with the tools I use to either write or publish my work.

  • http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/ Merrilee

    Chris – that’s my point exactly. Work to what the story demands, not some arbitrary delineation. We’re conditioned to think that chapters are necessary, when they’re not.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I burst out laughing when Merrilee said Terry Pratchett. =) I have to agree with that: Doris Lessing’s The Diaries of Jane Sommers – which I love to bits – has no chapters either. But really, guys, is a discussion about chapters vs scenes necessary for a format for online fiction? It’s an interesting debate on form, sure, but as far as the technical is concerned what we do know is that a) the novel has to be split into parts because b) nobody will read a whole novel on one page.

    @Duane: I think it’s a good first step. My article was calling for a complete overhaul of the publishing system – all the way from the installation to the site management to the presentation, but as far as presentation goes, I think you’ve a made a solid first step. It works as a WordPress theme, correct? This means that at the very least, writers using your theme will be able to write around an underlying, working format.

    PS: Jan’s right, the navigation’s a bit off. I suppose it’s the css and my screen size?

  • http://poncy-mclean.net duane poncy

    @Eli: Yes, the css definitely needs to be tweaked for each browser. Eventually, I plan to address the entire publishing / format thing with this test site. I have some ideas about integrating epublishing and author/reader interaction which I want to experiment with — but the user interface is the first step. My hypothesis is that most of the things we have talked about in these discussions can be done on top of a WordPress engine, which is very extensible.

    Re the form conversation: I agree completely with the idea of whatever works… On the other hand, I am a story teller, and I am building on a tradition of story-telling. Stories are not made up of scenes, but narrative threads. I think that the internet –as well as other e-devices– opens up new possibilities for narrative and I want to explore some of them. But the technology for cutting edge experimenting is not available to most authors, unless they also happen to be coders. Even WordPress is a pain in the ass, and takes up too much of my valuable writing time.

    @Merrilee: Blocks of text. Yes. I am not a phd candidate–I am a writer and publisher. As a writer I deal with blocks of text. As a publisher I deal with blocks of text. As a web designer I design with blocks of text. I believe the conversation is about what innovative things we can do with blocks of text, and how to design a workable system for readers, writers, and publishers. I am trying in my humble way to work on a tiny piece of that, and I believe I am in the right conversation here.

  • http://lleelowe.com Lee

    I don’t know, Duane. I think the technology for cutting-edge experimentation with online narrative is readily available with a bit of cooperation (compare film, where teamwork is essential); it’s the creative thinking which is often lacking. Have you seen what Dreaming Methods is doing, for example?


    If I were so inclined – my interests are more traditionally textual – I’d be working together with radical sound, graphic, and web artists/designers, not just playing around with WP.

  • http://poncy-mclean.net duane poncy

    Lee, I agree. Dreaming Methods is pretty amazing, and I think there is a future for this sort of collaborative effort between writers and other sorts of artists.

    But I am foremost a writer, and I am interested in a system that makes it easy to integrate various means of getting my work to the reader. That means making my work extensible to various e-devices and epub formats, in a way which is readable and will draw in readers.

    I believe that MCM is correct that the text needs to be divorced from the UI, and that a way needs to be found for better control over the textual design of the actual work (as opposed to the UI).

    Perhaps not cutting edge in terms of the art, but maybe we can make a dent in the behind the scenes stuff.

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