Fictionaut Reviewed

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.23.32 PM.pngFictionaut is Flickr for writers. Which, really is to say that it’s a social network built around writing – sometimes drafts of novels, sometimes flash fiction – and so you go to Fictionaut to friend people, and leave comments, join groups, and submit stories, and so on so forth.

In the few months since Fictionaut’s release, a number of writers have described the service as a breath of fresh air. Some use it as a stage before publication – throw the drafts of your latest novel on Fictionaut, and you’re guaranteed a discerning audience. Most striking, however, is this love-letter by James Robinson, who says: “Fictionaut provides a round-the-clock, faithfully attentive audience. Bless its founders.” I saw that, thought for a bit, and emailed founder Jürgen Fauth for an invite.

Here are some thoughts, loosely connected, on Fictionaut.

Community

I’m must say that I’m most surprised at the level of community on the site. The majority of writing websites that I know have communities that aren’t particularly … nice. Fictionaut’s, however, not only seem to be consistently nice, but tend to also refrain from commenting on works they do not like. (If the writing is horrible, you keep quiet and go somewhere else). The net effect is that you feel – when you’re writing there – to be part of this welcoming, supportive group. And that’s a rather refreshing thing to have.

From experience, I’m not sure if such ‘supportive writer culture’ can or will last forever. The culture exists naturally, at the moment, bubbling up from the community, but if at any point Fictionaut opens its doors to the general public, the influx of new members may seriously undermine the tone and pitch of the site. And that’s something I pray won’t happen, though I’m not sure how they’re going to do it. Fictionaut will have to be very careful when they expand; my hope is that they’d get the formula just right.

(I suspect that the solutions for maintaining quality discussion would have to be technological at heart, the same way Paul Graham has programmed several clever things into Hacker News, in order to maintain intelligent discourse. But how exactly this applies to writing I’m not particularly sure.)

Readability baked right in

Fictionaut forces its writers to publish stories according to a standardized, highly readable format. I posted a short story on the site and came away impressed with the quality of the user experience. Reader comments are placed in the sidebar, there’s a section for author notes, and the element placement leads me to suspect that everything you see on-site is deliberately designed to be that way.

There are little flourishes, too, like the beautiful popups that appear when you add someone as a friend, or when you’ve had a failed login:

Javascript Popup

I realize I’m a being a bit of a design geek here, but it’s hard to miss: someone has spent a lot of time making sure everything works intuitively on Fictionaut. I applaud his (or her) attention to detail.

Superb writing

Writing is good on Fictionaut. I sometimes spend hours on the site, reading newer, cooler, better stories – and I can say with some confidence that there’s a high standard to which most Fictionaut writers adhere to. At the very least, there’s a base level of competence that you don’t usually find anywhere else.

A large chunk of the site’s stories are flash fiction, followed by poetry, short stories, and a sprinkling of books-in-progress, posted chapter-by-chapter.

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.31.09 PM.png

I should note that this quality didn’t happen by accident. Fictionaut’s founder, Jürgen Fauth, has a PhD in English/Creative Writing from USM’s Centre for Writers. The core community of the site was handpicked, I think – and new memberships are still dependent on invitations. Accordingly, the site currently leans towards literary fiction, and it feels – at times – like a literary magazine.

At the moment you either get in on invitation, or you apply for an invite. The application page leads me to suspect that Fictionaut enforces a filter for writers – you’ll either have to be competent enough, or established enough to get in (or you’ll have to know someone who’s already in, I suppose). This sounds scary and slightly elitist, but it probably explains the quality of the community and writing on the site today.

There’s a paragraph in the Venuszine Fictionaut review that says:

Pia Erhardt, a seasoned writer from New Orleans who recently had the “most favorited” story, “Ambulance,” agrees that it’s sometimes “terrifying” to post her unedited work, mostly because she respects what her fellow members are writing.

Quality begets quality, and so – again – I’m not particularly sure how they’re going to maintain this without the current invitation system.

(My favourite story on Fictionaut so far is Gold, by Ethel Rohan. To be fair, though, all her stories are just as good.)

Closing Thoughts

Fictionaut’s a little like an oasis, at the moment: it’s quite rare to find a such a large community of good writers online – even at its current size – who’re so supportive of each other. Despite my doubts with Fictionaut’s scalability, I must add that writing and reading on the site has been one of the more enjoyable things I’ve done, lately.

And so – while I’m not sure if Fictionaut can keep it up, or even where they’re headed, I really am quite grateful for the site, for what they’re currently doing for writers. I merely hope that Fictionaut ages gracefully, without the worst of teething problems that so often follows a growing – and social – community. I wish Fictionaut well.

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Category: Blog Platforms · Reviews · Writing Tools
  • http://amharte.com A. M. Harte

    Fictionaut’s, however, seem to only comment on works that they like. (If the writing is horrible, you keep quiet and go somewhere else).

    Is that a good thing? I can see why it can be nice, but if my writing’s shit, I’d rather someone tell me.

    Interesting to see your insight though seeing as Fictionaut is pretty close off to the public at the moment. What did you say to get an invite? ;-)

    The design of the site *is* beautiful — got to agree with you there!

  • http://www.ditchwalk.com Mark Barrett

    Thanks for the write-up, Eli. Someone was just telling me about the site yesterday, and here you are to explain it in detail. :-)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Anna: thing is, odds are if you’re on Fictionaut, you’re a capable writer. There’s this odd … spirit that makes you want to be polite on the site. Really quite rare.

    @Mark: You’re welcomed. =)

  • http://www.kevinmyrick.com Kevin Myrick

    As a Fictionaut writer myself, I can say I absolutely agree with this review. It took me about a month before I got my invite, and once I did was a little timid posting my stories on the site with the regularity I post new writing now. But it has taught me a number of things – namely posting unedited work doesn’t have to be a scary process – and my writing has gotten somewhat better.

    @A.M.: I would reply to your comment with this: even if people don’t like your stories, eyeballs are still focusing on your work. I have had mixed results with my work on the site currently (favorable comments on some work while none on others) but I know that members of the community are reading. And commenting on unedited and unpublished works does happen, but mostly in online workshop groups set up on the site.

    @Eli: I think the spirit you’re talking about comes from the fact that most of the writers/poets on the site are used to having intellectual dialogue that doesn’t require what techies would call “sniping” in comments.

  • http://www.blackhatmagick.com Kyt Dotson

    @A.M. “Is that a good thing? I can see why it can be nice, but if my writing’s shit, I’d rather someone tell me.”

    As much as there’s going to be a market for writing salons where critics are harsh and the bright light of scrutiny is always shining on new work there will also be niches like this where a softer touch is present.

    They do have a favorite system coupled with polite commentary. It’s not going to be a place to publicly refine work (although I see small groups that @Kevin describes) but a social diagram of the works the audience likes by following favorites.

    I think I’ll check it out.

    It’ll be interesting to see if the site maintains this attitude after they go from invite-only to open house.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Kevin: thanks for dropping by. I think the attitude’s a combination of factors, really. If you subscribe to the broken window theory of online communities (i.e.: people care more about sites that are well moderated + designed) then it may be one reason why people are so willing to be nice.

    In fact, I strongly suspect the structure of the site has something to do with it. A couple of hours after my first login, two other writers whom I had not heard of or talked with before left comments on my profile page. My bet is that they saw me in the ‘new member’ section, and went out of their way to welcome me.

    Oh, and possible factor number 3: the community’s small enough to be welcoming, but big enough to be self-policing.

    @Kyt: I’m not sure that they’ll go open house anytime soon (or even at all) but – yes, I do agree with you that I’m half-looking forward to, err, seeing what happens if and when they do.

  • http://secretloft.ca Derek

    Thanks for the review! Still waiting on an invite *hint* (anyone?) As a fairly new but active flickr user I have to say that the similarities in the communities are striking. Likely a result of the audience being of a similar creative ilk. It seems that flickr has been able to maintain there generally positive and supportive community while letting anyone use the site.

    As you mentioned with hacker news, I believe that to maintain the community as it is, some serious thought and programming will be required to foster it if the general public is to be let in. This is an attainable goal as has been proven in the past by other sites.

    So great to see a “flickr” for writers, it’s a piece that I felt was missing from the Internet puzzle for too long.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Derek: It’s alright. Just ignore him – this is a troll, and it’s impossible to reason with trolls.

  • dfh

    With all due respect…I was invited to join fictionaut so I checked it out. This is what I would advise someone who wants to be a writer…write for as long as you can stand it, put it in the drawer and read it again in a week, note how lousy it is, then rewrite…do this ten times or more…send it out and eat the rejections. Feel like you want to tear your eyes out of your head. Maybe go back to working in Rite-Aid…then go to the piece and rewrite it. It’s you and your work, not about seeking the approval of those who can’t write either.

  • samantha

    Wow interesting comments your so right @dfh

    I say keep writing till you can’t write anymore!!

    Revise Revise Revise haha and Revise more and get many opinions is what I say too:)

    I really like Fictionaut but I still haven’t received an invite which sucks but its okay because I still visit the site to read, its just I don’t get to comment on what I like and I hope they make an iPad app soon to view the site too and also I hope I get an invite soon from them;)

  • http://salvatorebuttaci.wordpress.com Salvatore Buttaci

    Julie Weinstein, a member of Fictionaut and author of Flashes from the Other World, invited me to join Fictionaut. How do I go about doing that?

    Salvatore Buttaci, author of Flashing My Shorts

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    She should be able to send you an email with a link to sign up for Fictionaut. Perhaps you should check your spam folder, or ask her to resend the invitation?