Monthly Archives: August 2010

Simple Rules for Writing Fulfilling Web Fiction

Looking back on the history of ideas covered at Novelr, I’ve come to realize that there’re only a few simple principles that you need to know to be able to write fulfilling web fiction. The trick is to distill through the majority of these ideas, so that you’re left with a small, useful core. Here are the most important ones.

Why Web Fiction?

There are two good reasons to write web fiction. The first is for the writing. You’re a writer, and it’s likely that you’re already scribbling in little notebooks on the side. Putting that on the web provides for you an external force to keep you writing.

The second reason is more visceral: write web fiction to find and talk to readers. The best online writing gets comments within the first few hours of a new chapter going live. It’s an amazing thing to have readers debating over characters – your characters – not too long after you’ve finished writing.

These are the two most important reasons to write web fiction. All the others will fade in comparison as time goes by. Getting noticed through web fiction is an untested model. Making money works for some people (who have to be just as good as building great web-reading experiences as they are at writing) and may not work for all.

These extras are nice bonuses to have, but will certainly not be true for everyone.

Writing Web Fiction

Stick to a regular posting schedule. Find a comfortable chapter length and use that. This isn’t too hard to do – you’ll figure this out, naturally, as you go along.

Some people recommend keeping a buffer of chapters so you have time to think ahead. This is fine, but there’s a better alternative: keep a loose plot skeleton in a separate document, and write once a week with the pressure of a waiting audience to keep you going. Things will be more fun that way.

Talking to Readers

Web fiction is only truly fulfilling when you have an audience to keep you going. Creating that audience is important if you truly want to enjoy all the medium has to offer.

The single most important principle to remember if you want to create a community around your work is to: respond to each and every single comment. I want to repeat that, because it’s so important: respond to each and every single comment.

The majority of your readers will never comment on your work. If and when they do, why not do the one thing that would keep them commenting? A quick response tells them that they’re valued. It keeps them coming back. Given enough time, they’ll begin debating with each other, and that’s the best metric possible for the quality of your community.

Keep a personal writing blog. Talk to readers on Twitter. Point to both on your web fiction site. The blog helps you talk to readers even when you’re not posting fiction. And blogs are much less work than a well curated forum, for the same benefits.

Don’t worry too much about finding readers (at least – not at the beginning). Keep writing good stories and the readers will find you.

Presenting web fiction

Good presentation in web fiction isn’t as important as the first three ideas. A beautifully designed site with bad writing habits and no audience is worth nothing to a web fiction author. And if you have unmanaged expectations for your online writing, you aren’t likely to have as much fun.

That said, if you’ve got the first three ideas down, you may find the general principles listed here useful.

Design matters. Designing for web fiction is simple: keep things readable. Stay away from electric-pink text.

Design affects how readers view your work. Colours set the mood and tone for your stories. It doesn’t hurt to hire a designer to do an identity for your site. But if you can’t afford to do that, read these Novelr articles here, here, and here.

I think this pretty much covers the core of what we’ve found out about web fiction, at Novelr. Probably these ideas work as a framework on which you may hang all the other ideas that you’ll find at this site. And that’s all there is to it – it’s that simple. Good luck.

  •    The Wall Street Journal looks at the Reading Habits of E-Reader Owners. Short version: ebooks aren’t replacing old book habits, but are adding to them. #
  •    David Pogue reviews the new Kindle:
    This week, Amazon unveiled what everyone (except Amazon) is calling the Kindle 3. You might call it Amazon’s iPad response. The Kindle 3 is ingeniously designed to be everything the iPad will never be: small, light and inexpensive.
    Pogue argues that the Kindle isn’t really competing with the iPad – for one, Amazon’s book catalog is many times larger than that of Apple’s, and the Kindle’s biggest threat are other ebook readers with E Ink technology. The Kindle appears to have a lifeline. #
  •    You Are Not Seth Godin:
    So, can every brand be Seth Godin? The answer is “maybe.” We tend to see this one act: “Seth leaves major book publishing behind.” What we forget is the track record (twelve best-selling business books, as many speaking events per year as he would like to do, his own seminars, thousands of Blogs posts, free eBooks and more goodwill thank you can shake a stick at). This amounts to decades of doing tons of things (let’s not forget about Squidoo) that all had him in direct connection with the people who will buy his books from him, talk about it to their peers and evangelize his always-brilliant thinking.
    Godin considers this the best article about his move. #
  •    This is hilarious: medieval writers included curses in their books as a form of copy protection. #

A Novelr Primer: All We Know About Web Fiction

I think it’s about time I made a summary of everything we’ve learnt about web fiction, at Novelr, for the past four years or so. This post contains all of Novelr’s work. Much of it is directed to the web fiction newbie, intended to bring new writers up-to-speed with all we know about writing and publishing in the form.

Some of these articles are four years old, and sometimes you’ll see a badly articulated idea refined through multiple posts. Looking back on it, I find some of my attempts rather pathetic, and also kind of cool – we’ve certainly come a long way since those early days of experimenting around the blog format.

I hope you find these posts to be of some use.

Why Write Web Fiction?

Web Fiction – The Format

This section contains ideas and observations on the web fiction form.

Designing for Web Fiction

Designing your web fiction site is probably going to be one of the most important things you do, second to the actual writing. Conclusions: the back button is your enemy. Do everything to convert the browser to a reader. Set a tone through design.

Writing Web Fiction

Some thoughts not included below: 1) some people recommend keeping a buffer of one or two chapters while publishing. 2) Talk to your readers while writing. 3) Find a posting schedule and chapter length that is best for your story.

“A Small Industry Sitting Atop a Huge Hobby”

Here’s a heretical thought: suppose we never find a way for making money from online fiction?

I was walking back from campus the other day with Yipeng (who’s the technical lead for Pandamian, by the way, and is generally sharp about such things) and he asked me: “Is there any way to make money from … this web fiction thing?”

I paused for a bit, thinking about where to begin. “Well, yes and no.” I said, “There are some ideas floating around. One of them is to release the book for free, in web form, and sell the ebook and dead-tree versions.” – a pause as I think – “And perhaps another one is to sell merchandise around the book. Or sell signings and book tours.” – another pause – “The truth is that we don’t know.”

And we still don’t. Digital content is a chaotic, uncomfortable business to be in. Most working business models in this space have yet to be discovered, and the ones that do work are these odd, vertical stacks that few companies may tap into (e.g.: the iTunes store, and now maybe the Kindle/iBookstore – both with their own devices). Newspapers are feeling the worse of it, but books and music aren’t that far behind.

But I wonder now: suppose the majority of digital, for-entertainment writing is impossible to monetize? Or that – if it were monetizable, the money would go to a small circle of skilled/lucky authors, sitting atop a food chain of other less-profitable, digital writers?

I’m kidding myself, of course – such a future is likely to be inevitable. In all areas of human effort there will be a small number of successful/lucky people, a small number of very unlucky people, and a vast majority of what I shall call – for want of a better term – middleness. Digital publishing seems unlikely to escape the bell-curve that governs everything else.

What interests me is this idea that the bell-curve in publishing, so far, has existed because of the shape of the traditional publishing industry. In other words, the authors that get promoted to the top depend on which authors the publishing houses like the best. This is not true for all cases, and there are market forces to think about, but it is certainly true for many. In digital publishing there are fewer barriers-to-entry for the prospective author. In this version of a bookfuture – what factors determine the kinds of authors that get to the top?

I can hazard only a few guesses. The most successful authors are likely to be the ones who can best create and manage large communities. How they’ll do that is unclear to me, but it’s likely that the author will have some way of gathering his or her audience. It’s also likely that this way would be tied to or enabled by a publishing company.

I’ll also take a stab at it and say that the publishing houses of the future would endorse certain digital writers over others. The good news is that it’s easier to pick the winners in a flat market like the Internet. The bad news is that publisher-support would probably remain the defining factor for whether an author makes it to the big-time. And without such leverage, the rest of the writers would still be left without any way to make significant money from their work.

This isn’t a bad thing, really. Writer V. J. Chambers left a comment in an earlier Novelr post that struck me as true:

… I want to scream at people, “Getting paid for making art is not a right. It is a privilege.”

I’m beginning to think that this is the right way of looking at things. If you’re a writer, and you publish good stuff online, and you get paid huge sums of money for it, you’re a lucky (nay, privileged) person indeed. And if you’re not – so what? You’re still doing what you love. Maybe the money’s just enough to cover your server costs. Maybe it’s enough to buy you an occasional t-shirt. It shouldn’t matter, because that isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Richard Nash argued that publishing is a ‘small industry sitting atop a huge hobby’. If we take that hobby to be writing, then what you have in the Internet is a tool that enables you to find people who love your writing, and who would love to talk about it with you. Never before in the history of publishing has this level of interaction been so attainable. And as a writer, I find this idea to be incredibly fulfilling.

If not being able to make money means I can talk to more readers … well maybe that’s not such a bad trade-off after all.

  •    Mandy Brown on publishing with an audience:
    Over the past few months, I’ve responded to readers who were frustrated that the book didn’t arrive fast enough, or annoyed at having received a damaged book; I’ve also read many heartwarming notes from people whose understanding of the web changed because of this one little book, or whose initial disappointment at its slimness turned to delight once they started reading. I’ve watched as the orders came in from Florida to Fiji, from libraries to military bases. One man sent us a photo of himself reading the book on his fishing boat; another sent a photo of his toddler flipping through the pages—he called it “the future.”
    She can’t believe she “spent the past decade in publishing without this connection”. What the Internet can do for publishing today is truly, truly amazing. #

Codename Parsec

We’ve been working on Pandamian for three months now.

Screen shot 2010-08-17 at 3.19.39 PM.png

I’d like to talk to you about what we’re doing, but I can’t. Not yet. That introductory post is still somewhere ahead in the future. Maybe next week. Or the week after.

Screen shot 2010-08-17 at 3.38.18 PM.png

The funny thing is that it’s actually rather easy to build a CMS from scratch. What’s not so easy is to build it in such a way as to have any writer – and by that we mean any writer – use it, right off the bat. We don’t think writers doing web fiction should have to worry about icky things like code and servers and hacked-together blog engines. And that makes our work difficult.

Screen shot 2010-08-17 at 3.44.14 PM.png

Parsec is the internal codename for our software. (We’re not sure what to call it, at the moment). It is coming soon.

  •    There’s a fascinating piece on the NYTimes about teenagers creating fictional personas on Facebook:
    One predominant fictional argot of Facebook for teenagers would be breathlessness or emphatic speech. Their pages are peppered with “Okkkkayyyyy” and” HAHAHAHA. “ and “OMG!!!!!” You can find polite little girls cursing like sailors on Facebook. Everything is louder, more ardent, capitalized. This is a way of dramatizing or raising the stakes on even the most inane or banal exchange: You don’t just look cute. You look soooooooooooooo cute!!!!!!! For every piece of idle communication it is as if you are stranded on a desert island, waving your arms and jumping up and down to get the attention of a passing plane.
    Related thought: I’ve seen a marked correlation between the death of blogging amongst my friends and the uptick of Facebook-y personal expression. They’re more likely to post a status update than they are to blog. I like blogs. I’m not sure if this change is a good thing. #