A Format For Online Fiction, Part 2

It’s been some time since I last wrote on a format for online fiction. In that time, however, several members of the web fiction community have already started work on their respective visions for this format.  Some of them have chosen to develop an alternative system, coded from scratch; others have started work from the outside-in, choosing instead to build on a solid WordPress theme system. Diverse as these approaches are, all of the work being done at the moment are possible routes to a standard web fiction format, and for that I am thankful. This post is intended to be a follow-up to my original article on the format. I intend to discuss how such a format may look like, and then possibly convince you to adopt some of these elements into your own work today.

A Recap

Novelr’s been around for some time now, and in that time we’ve learnt quite a few things together. Let’s start off with a couple of things that we do know about presenting online fiction. Peel off that scalp and think back: what have we learnt together, exactly?

One of the first things we’ve got to remember is that reading online is crucially divided into two distinct stages. These stages exist in the offline, paper-book world as well, but they’re not as critical for the writer as they are on the Internet. The first stage is called the browsing stage. During this stage a potential reader skims content to determine if the work is worth reading or no. It isn’t just the opening text that the reader takes into account – in the browsing stage, it is everything from the subject matter to the included pictures to the size of the font to the weight of the book in the hands that goes into a reader’s evaluation. If the reader thinks the text is promising, he or she then moves into the second stage, the reading stage. You and I should know this – if you are a book lover, like I am, then you will recognize this stage as the one where you forget about the sun and the ocean and so get sunburnt with a shadow-image of a book burnt into your chest. The reading stage calls for complete attention on the text. Everything else – links, ads, sidebar text – are superfluous to the reading experience, and they fall to the periphery of a reader’s vision.

The second thing on presenting online fiction that we must remember is what I call the Picture Book Effect: credibility and perception of online content is shaped by the design/format in which that content is presented. In simpler terms: your readers judge your work by the visual cues you have on your site. There are deliberate differences between the New York Times and a celebrity gossip blog. Both appeal to different demographics, and so both have different visual cues. One is designed to be credible, the other is designed to be kinky. One is black and white, the other shocking pink. How readers view your site depends as much on the design of said site as it does on the text you have provided them with.

The third thing that we must recall are the basic principles of readable design. Large fonts, good contrast, clear colours. An intuitive site structure. What exactly these elements are and how you apply them is beyond the scope of this article – go read some of the previous Novelr posts on the topic, or pay a visit to the pros.

So what have we learnt? We have learnt that an ideal fiction format is designed around a browsing stage and a reading stage. We have learnt that the site must have a coherent visual identity, one that should – ideally, at least – complement the fiction. And thirdly, lastly, we have learnt that the site must be readable.

The Online Fiction Format

So what should an online fiction format look like? What elements should we include with it? In this we are faced with a complex task, and so it would be helpful to begin first by talking about what we wouldn’t need to include with the online fiction format.

The first thing we have no need to include is forcefully-readable text. This is simply pragmatic: it makes no sense to limit authors to one font over another, or to ban them from using font sizes below a certain cutoff-point. Neither can we stop writers from using electric pink or neon green in their prose. Most of us already know how to display our fiction in a readable manner. The ones who don’t will quickly learn from the lack of happy readers.

We don’t have to create distinct visual identities for each work. We also don’t have to adjust for all possible forms of presentation. Some writers will want innovative, highly experimental forms in which to present their fiction; this format does not serve them. It simple cannot: no format will attract or hold the interest of such mavericks for very long. This particular format will be for the majority of authors out there: the ones who want to write and who do not wish to worry too much about the underlying mechanics of code and presentation.

And so what should this format be like? At its most basic level, it should have two things:

  • It should be built to accommodate the two states: browsing and reading
  • It should be easy to customize, both visually and practically

We shall deal with these two elements in order.

The Reader Conversion

We have learnt earlier that there are two states for the online reader: the browsing stage and the reading stage. How can a presentation style be built around these two reading patterns? The answer is simple, but consists of two parts: we would need, first of all, to build two distinct screens for the prospective reader, that is consistent throughout the entire work/format. Secondly, those two screens would need to fulfill all that the reader would want in both stages of the reading process. I’m not going to say that this is dead easy (the second part, in particular, isn’t), but the base idea isn’t particularly complicated: at the browsing stage, give the reader a splash page. At the reading stage, give the reader text. Got that? Good. Now a little more detail:

The Browsing Stage

At the browsing stage, give the reader enough scannable information to make the decision to leave or to read. This sounds simple, but it isn’t: what you’re really trying to do is to convince the reader to choose the latter and not the former. There is a limit to this, of course – if your fiction is about vampire rabbits, and I am not interested in vampire rabbits, then there is very little you can do to make me choose to read your work. The trick is to get the readers that are open to vampire rabbit stories to make the conversion from browse to read.

I have no time to analyse the elements of a good, compelling splash page here in this article. I suspect that it would involve a fair deal of experimentation on my part, and a fair bit of patience on yours. But my case is that an online fiction format should provide writers with the tools to make a splashpage (and not just an about page) and that the splashpage should allow easy placement of a blurb, some links (latest chapter/first chapter etc), and some choice words from a selection of positive-ish reviews. For your perusal, some of the best I have seen so far:

Winter Rain, by Chris Poirier (yes, that same god behind Web Fiction Guide)

Winter Rain by Chris Poirier

A Timely Raven by Amber Simmons

A Timely Raven by Amber Simmons

Beasts of New York by Jon Evans

Beasts of New York, by Jon Evans

Getting Real by 37signals

Getting Real by 37signals

… and Speak Human by Eric Karjaluoto.

Speak Human, by Eric Karjaluoto

This last one isn’t actually a splashpage for an existing book, but a promo site for a pre-release non-fiction title. I’m including it to make a point that the online fiction format should be able to have writers adapt their splashpage from site-intro to preview, and that this may work, too, regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction the format needs to handle.

The Reading Stage

And so that covers the browse stage. For the read stage, however, the online fiction format should be crafted so as to limit distractions from the reading experience. This is a complete opposite to the browse stage’s objective of providing as much scannable information as possible. In the read stage, you want to remove as many scannable elements as you can, for this detracts from the readers’ concentration on the prose.  What this means, practically, is a limitation on the number of sidebars possible. No sidebar is good, one sidebar is the maximum allowed. (I’m tempted to make exceptions for thrillers and David Wellington, but then again this is a fiction format and it has to be general and simple all through. Sigh.) MCM’s novels have the read stage screens perfected (image below), and so have 37signals with their book Getting Real (here’s an example of a chapter).

MCM The App Chapter Page

The basic rules for a good read stage screen is this: navigation before the text, stuff after the text, no distractions in-between. Things like exhortations to donate or to buy the book may be included after the end of the chapter, at the bottom of the page, or you may choose to place those pages on a separate screen at the very end of the novel. That’s up to you. A basic fiction format should, at least – I believe, have this underlying structure.

Flexibility And The Fiction Format

Now that we’ve dealt with the browse/read design philosophy, let us turn to the idea that the online fiction format should be easy to customize, both visually and practically.

When I say visually, I mean that the design must be simple enough to allow all kinds of writers to use it and adapt it for their own, distinct, purposes. This is not easy to achieve, for it takes a certain amount of ability as a designer to create themes that are universally applicable. The only example I can think of, at the moment, is the Minima theme of the Blogger platform, originally designed by Douglas Bowman in 2004. It is used by hundreds of blogs worldwide: all similar, yet never the same.

When I say that the format should be easy to customize practically, I mean that whatever format it is should be easy for any writer to turn into their own. Minima’s beauty is that it can be completely changed by just adding an image header and a background image to whatever blog it is that you have. The online fiction format should have this ability, too. I am not yet a good programmer, but I believe that it is possible to integrate this functionality to the backend of the fiction format theme/system: optional fields to upload and modify the header/background image of the site you’re using it on.

Conclusion

If you’ve been following closely, you’ll realize that any and all of these elements can be applied to the existing content platforms of the web. It is true that the suggestions I have offered here can simply be implemented with a theme; in fact, if I felt like it I really could go out right now to whip one up for the Blogger platform. But this is merely one aspect of the online fiction format, and there have been countless other suggestions besides. MCM has already suggested e-commerce integration, Jim Zoetewey suggests built-in ebook conversion ability (such as a one-click conversion of chapters into PDFs or ePub files). There’s no reason all these and more can’t be integrated into the online fiction format; in fact, some of us have already taken the first few steps in these particular directions. These are my suggestions, I’m sure you have many more. Over to you.

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Category: Blog Platforms · Design · Publishing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://1889.ca MCM

    Excellent, excellent post! Not a huge surprise, but still. It needs to be said.

    One of the challenges of this format debate is portability. If we remove interface from the equation (which I would argue it should be), you’re left with a book — a presentation — which people will want to read on varying devices. A common complaint during Typhoon was that it wasn’t readable on mobile platforms. The seamless conversion from one presentation technique to another should be a big part of the process.

    My current theory is this: enhanced ePub files that are fully designed and formatted into whatever the author desires. The reading software can be interchangeable, using whatever UI method you want. Build the “browse” content into the book itself, so the packaging is complete. I’ve made this kind of thing recently, and it works perfectly. Weaker ePub readers just do the text, but the advanced ones give the full effect. And I have a few reader systems for websites that present the files seamlessly.

    I’m hoping to have a draft of this available in the next few weeks, and then everyone can see how it works. I even have a handy WordPress exporter plugin that will create such files for you almost instantly. The software needs to be broken out from the content, but if we keep in mind the “browse” and “read” requirements, I think we’ll be okay.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’m surprised that ePub is that powerful, to be honest. I’d have thought that if you want to build something that spans so many formats and mediums, XML would be a good choice. But I’ll have to think about that – I must admit that I’d completely forgotten about mobile devices and their importance to web fiction publishing.

    Oh and thanks, MCM. For the compliment. =)

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    ePub sucks like nobody’s business, but the fundamental theory is good. XML is good too, but it means you need to write custom interpreters, when we’ve already got a bunch of lightweight rendering engines (WebKit, Gecko and Opera) already deployed on tons of devices. All you need to do is make some simple HTML pages of your content with CSS in an included stylesheet, and you’re good to go. You embed a lot of “invisible” content in the package so it can be pulled if requested, but it’s still fundamentally a standard ePub file. Validates and everything. The cheaper ePub readers ignore the fancy stuff, but anything web-based reads it all in. ePub is already supported widely, so you’re not introducing a new format into the mix. It’s sneaky, but it does the job :)

  • Johny C.

    Very nice post, I found it to be very interesting. I have bookmarked your page as I will show it to my friend.
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