A Simple Explanation

Imagine this: you’re a web fiction writer, and you’re approaching a publisher, or an editor, or a reader – a person who does not understand this thing that you do. You want to explain web fiction to him. You do not want to be associated with fan fiction (admittedly the bastard-child of the publishing world) but you know that there is this risk of association, especially so when you’re publishing to the web. What do you do? How do you explain this, simply and quickly?

Today I’ve gone and done up a simple definition site for web fiction. My hope is this: if you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to explain your work – repeatedly, say – fear not the ignorant man. Point him to the site, instead. I hope that this would save you the bit of time needed to explain your work; the same way it should prevent publishers from rejecting you as ‘fan-fiction’ material.

What Is Web Fiction?

Two more things.

First, I’ve asked a number of people about the definition, and most of them think that it’s fair. If it isn’t, or if there’s something that you think it lacks – feel free to start a discussion in the comments below. (Note: you may want to read Jan Oda’s excellent primer on web fiction definitions before you do so). My position, however, is simple. I believe that if a work is published to the web, it should be considered web fiction. There are two additional clauses in the definition:

  1. The work must be original. This clause was added to differentiate the field from fan-fiction, something that I think most of us would agree with. Web fiction is not derivative; it should be always original (in the copyright sense of the term, that is).
  2. The work must be written for the web. A tad puzzling, but we must remember that not all fiction found online may be considered ‘web fiction’. Take Google Books, for example. Google will soon upload a large number of books – some of them novels – formerly published under copyright law. These books cannot be properly considered web fiction, simply because they were not meant for the web. However, if an author takes a previously published work and takes pain to put it online, make it presentable for long periods of on-screen reading, etc; then the work may be considered web fiction (though, I have to admit – this is a loose interpretation of the above clause). I realize that I’m quickly approaching a thin grey line here – when is web fiction … web fiction? When is it an everyday novel? I do not know; and I do not presume to know at all times. I’m not sure if this definition will ever be all-comprehensive. I do know, however, that I recognize web fiction when I see it, and I expect that with enough time a reasonably bright reader would, too.

The second thing I would like to mention is how odd it may seem, to a reader several years down the road, that someone had actually taken the time to create this site. I certainly hope that this would soon be true: that in the near future, people won’t need a definition site like this one – that they’d know what web fiction is the same way you and I know what a movie is, or an EP, or a picture book.

Till then, pass this link to people who don’t yet know what Web Fiction’s all about. I hope this helps, and – lest I forget – Merry Christmas, everyone! Consider this Novelr’s gift to the community. Now off you go, and have yourself a very happy new year.

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  • http://loveandwartx.com amber

    As I mentioned in Twitter, I wholeheartedly disagree that web fiction, as a genre, includes only original fiction. Web fiction is any fiction, original or otherwise, written specifically for publication on the web. I don’t care if that’s a highly original piece of interactive fiction or fan fiction based on a mashup of Sookie Stackhouse, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings. If it’s fiction and its primary medium is the web, it’s web fiction.

    I understand the desire to distinguish one’s work from fan fiction, but manhandling a perfectly descriptive phrase to suit one’s own agenda is disingenuous at best.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Uh-oh, I sense another semantic, quasi-religious war coming along. (Readies boots and winter gear)

    To be honest, though – I get where you’re coming from. All this while I’ve been treating ‘web fiction’ as both label and medium. If we are to treat this like a graph, then your definition would look like this:

    Web fiction -> fan fiction

    On the other hand, I see it as:

    Digital fiction -> web fiction and Digital fiction -> fan fiction

    Practically speaking, though, if we accept your argument as correct (and I suspect, semantically, it is the better argument) then what have we? Most of us are already using web fiction to describe what we do. Search engine’s pointing to us when you google that term; nobody uses it to find fan fiction. And, even if that were not so – would you rather use weblit? If you would, would you rather defend weblit as not literature? Remember that not many people are searching for weblit in the first place; it exists primarily as a Twitter hashtag.

    There are no realistic alternatives. Hence, the definition.

  • http://loveandwartx.com amber

    This isn’t a semantic argument. It’s a logic argument.

    Fan fiction is a subset of fiction. So when you talk about web fiction, you’re talking about fiction written for the web– *all* the fiction, not just the original stuff, not just the stuff we like or the stuff we want to be associated with. It covers mashups, original work, serials, interactives, blogfic, CYOA and much more.

    So you can’t arbitrarily shun one aspect of the genre just because it’s inconvenient to some writers who, for whatever reasons, don’t want to be associated with fan fiction. If you want to talk about original web fiction, just say original web fiction. But don’t pretend all “web fiction” is something that it’s not. Because that just makes us sound pretentious and, frankly, full of crap.

  • http://loveandwartx.com amber

    Oh, one more thing before I really do go watch this movie :)

    I remember Mei Lin saying she’s been rejected from speaking on a panel because the conference dudes wrongly assumed that her writing web fiction meant she wrote fan fiction. However, this is a problem every new development faces. We in the industry use words and ideas that are familiar to us in the industry without thinking what those words might connote to someone outside of the industry. Budding familiarity with this new genre of entertainment will serve to illuminate the different kinds of web fic out there.

    When we’re presenting what we do to outsiders, the onus is on us to adequately describe what we do in words and language that will make sense to our listener. Redefining phrases won’t help–it’ll just take time and careful explanation to smooth out these wrinkles.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Err, Merry Christmas, Amber!

    /grins

    Seriously though. I know where you’re coming from. I really do. It makes perfect sense. I didn’t see it before, but I know your argument is the one I should’ve adopted years back.

    However, better semantics/logic is not the only factor we have to think about here. It’s just not practical anymore. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    {Warning insert: there will be a point in this conversation – like all semi-religious conversations – where one of us will go ‘but does it matter?’, and the other will say ‘but of course, it is absolutely essential!’ I am going to pretend – for the next few paragraphs, at least – that it is absolutely essential, so forgive me, please.}

    Let’s talk about logic first. Yours makes perfect sense, but – and I hope I am making sense – there may be another way of looking at it.

    I see it as this: web fiction and fan fiction, as labels, are disjoint subsets of a larger set: digital fiction. (Digital fiction includes ebooks and iPhone fiction apps, and ARGs(!) and web fiction, and fan fiction).

    Both are labels, and have little to do with what the name actually means. Somewhat the same way blogs mean weblog, and weblog used to mean – literally – a log of links that a person may keep as they go out to surf the web.

    Now I must admit that I am biased. I use web fiction because that’s what I’ve been using for some time now. I think of web fiction as a label; a brother to fan fiction, but different from it, and very useful in that sense.

    I must also point out that we’ve been using it for some time now. Nobody calls fan fiction, “web fiction”. If you google web fiction, you instead find works that are original – works that you may find in WFG, that are similar-yet-different from fan fiction.

    Quickly the association forms between the term “web fiction”, and the type of works you find via a quick web search.

    So it’s really quite silly to throw all this away. And it’s equally silly to use ‘original web fiction’, when nobody calls fanfiction ‘web fiction’ in the first place, so there’s no risk of a mix-up. Saying ‘original web fiction’ implies that there is ‘unoriginal web fiction’, something that is semantically correct when applied to fan fiction, but is absolutely hopeless if you expect it to be taken up by the fanfic community.

    And of course, it’s better to call a spade a spade. You’re right in that sense. Except when taken in the context of this brand new medium we want to promote – being accurate in everything you say doesn’t make much sense. A lot of it is vague, and in the air. We’re inventing meaning as we go along, associations and feelings we attach to words that may not exist before.

    On your point about language and publishers: Anna Harte said something similar in a discussion on this. I agree with her. She’s been working in a publisher, and she says that they respond better to ‘online serial’. (The why and how she can explain better, let’s just say that serial is familiar to them because it draws on the newspaper serial format, and it prevents you from using ‘self-published’ anywhere in the convo).

    So yes, language that publishers understand – very true. I’d probably use different names and terms myself when I’m approaching them, if I want to get published now, and not later when web fiction/weblit is accepted.

    But if you’re taking a long-term view of things, web fiction makes sense. Traffic exists for web fiction, and the mappings people have for fan fiction can be brought over. You can probably come up with any number of arguments for web fiction over ‘original web fiction’. But the clincher: you win the readers with a term that has the lowest barrier to conversion (in this case, mappings), and the publishers, dictionaries, and logicians will follow.

    English is, after all, a terribly confusing language.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    One more thing: I hope to remind everyone of the purpose of this definition site … if ever you need to explain what it is you do, this ‘web fiction’, my hope is that this little site would help your friend/publisher/reader understand your work. I hope this will save you time, and I hope that you will have less misunderstandings as a result of linking to this.

    Merry Christmas, all! Have a happy new year!

  • http://firebird-fiction.com/ Becky

    Hey, I missed this at the time.

    But I agree with @amber and I’ll explain why. Webfiction as a term was chosen because of its similarity to webcomic. A web comic is a comic published on the web and webfiction is written fiction published on the web.

    I know no one who would try and claim that this http://comics.shipsinker.com//category/dr-who/stalker_of_norfolk/feed/ is not a webcomic.

    I also worry that if we make a lot of fuss about the fanfiction thing people will decide we’re protesting too much.

    The problem we have is that the term within the community is used primarily for original fiction and that’s what we need to explain.

    Fanfiction published on the web is actually fan webfiction (fan fiction predates the internet having once been the realm of print fanzines). Original fiction published on the web is original webfiction. But when people say “web fiction” they generally mean original web fiction. That’s what we need to communicate.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Well said, Becky, thank you.