The State of The Web Fiction Community

Note: this is an edited version of the original post. Removed a number of paragraphs for tone, focus and clarity.

When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. So create.

Here’s a plan, and I’d love for you to hear me out: I want to get web fiction mentioned in the New York Times, in the space of a year.

No, scratch that. I will get web fiction mentioned in the New York Times, in the space of a year.

Maybe it’ll be on an NYT blog. Maybe not. I’ll leave this deliberately ambiguous because the goal in itself is big enough, and audacious enough to try to attempt – and when it’s done, I’ll write about it on Novelr. The results? We get publicity, we get attention, and – most importantly, we’d have proven to everyone in the Web Fiction community who wants to continue this effort – that anything, marketing wise – is possible, and that you should try. You should do it, you should talk to people, you should change things.

Right now.

What This Has To Do With The Web Fiction Community

I want to talk about a disease that has settled amongst us, as a community of writers. I don’t mean this as a bad thing. When I say that this is bad, I mean it in the same sort of way someone would say that being laid-back and relaxed (and maybe lazy) is okay, but being active is so, so much better.

And that disease begin with a question: what have we done in the past couple of months, in the past two years? What have we done that has fundamentally changed the way web fiction is read, the way it is written?

The answer: very little. And we have all had a part to play in this.

I believe that we have lost our culture of communal creation. We have stopped building things that make web fiction better for ourselves.

Things weren’t always this way. In the not-too-distant past we had some culture of creation. Quite a bit of it happened here at Novelr. And I know what you’re thinking – you’re probably saying that I’m biased this way, because I created Novelr. But I’m not. I’m not kidding when I say that the community – once clustered around this blog – got things done; I had to learn this the hard way.

The Nature of Getting Things Done

Ideas are a dime a dozen on Novelr. They always have been, and they always will be. There have been a crazy number of ideas that have graced the front page of this site for years now – many of them made as observations: ideas for publishing-related startups, ideas for community sites, ideas that writers can adopt in their writing, immediately. They come naturally from Novelr’s job of observing patterns in the digital publishing sphere, and then simplifying that for the use of any writer who so wishes to write and publish web fiction.

And yet – despite this free giving-away of ideas, much like a painter giving away his canvases on the street, screaming, ‘Paint! Paint!’ – nothing ever got done. Nothing sparked. I didn’t realize this, of course. I was too busy chattering away.

One day, I announced that I was going to build a ‘filter for online fiction’. I wrote this without realizing what this meant. Support poured into the comments section of the post. A few months after, we released the Web Fiction Guide. Chris Poirier did most of the work, a bunch of writers and designers and editors hopped on board to help, and we’re still plugging away at it. The point I’m trying to make here is that things only started moving when I announced my plans to do something.

Today, I’m going to do something similar. I want to get web fiction into the New York Times, in a year, by gum. And I’ll do it because getting mainstream press coverage will benefit everyone in this community, whether they had a hand in it or not.

Attitude

But … do you see what I just did? I announced that I was going to do something. I took ownership of a cause. And ownership is important if you want to get things done.

There are three things that I want to examine about community, today. The first is an attitude of ownership. This attitude of ‘I’m going to do this, it would be nice if you’d help me, but I’m going to do it anyway’ – this is a powerful idea, one that has been missing from ours for far too long.

Take a look at this WebLit.us thread, for instance. The central idea is great: get writers to pool their resources together, and then use those resources to market a central gateway for web fiction. It could’ve been great. It could’ve also been a flop. But we won’t know until we’ve tried, right? We can’t know until we’ve tried.

But then – people argued against Becka, the original poster. The debate went on for 22 posts and then … nothing happens. What went wrong?

What went wrong was that nobody took ownership of the idea. Nobody said: “I’m in charge of this, I’m going to do this now – because I think it’s going to help everyone. And if you want to help me, that’s cool. And if you don’t, well never mind then. I’m going to do it, let’s see if it works.”

People were waiting for permission. Things don’t get done when you wait for permission. Things get done when people step in and (to quote a wise man) ‘be the change they want to see in the world’. I know this, because I’ve started it before, by accident. And the result was the collective creation of the Web Fiction Guide.

In the past, Novelr has provided the impetus to do things, to build things. But the problem with a community blog is that if the blogger fails to update (like I so often do) then the momentum is lost, and the will to do things disintegrates. And so it has happened with Novelr. For a long time, I haven’t helped with communal momentum.

I suppose what we do need is a gathering point with this positive ethos, one where writers can get together, and have fun, and create things for the community. I want to build such a site, and I’ll launch it in a couple of months. I may succeed, and I may not, but it doesn’t matter – I think it’s for the good of all involved, and the only way to know for sure is to try.

Selflessness

Here we come to the second bit about community. You see, there’s a cool trick about communal creation that makes things easier on all of us. Say, for instance, some of our writers feel that I shouldn’t be going to the New York Times with the term ‘web fiction’. And that’s perfectly fair. But the cool thing is – things aren’t bad at all if these writers take things into their own hands and beat me to the Times with the term ‘weblit’.

Because then we’ve solved our problem, haven’t we? And therein lies a trick to communal creation: when you want to do something that’s good for everyone, and if you show that you own the execution, people would chip in to help.

And they may help in completely unexpected ways. When I announced that I would build a filter for online fiction, I gathered a group of people – writers, editors, programmers – to begin talking about the project. Chris Poirier reacted. He disagreed with some of the core ideas in the Shelves project (rightly, as it turned out), and so decided to build his own. He asked for help from the Shelves team. And here’s the cool bit: we piled in to help. This switch happened behind closed doors, and was how work began on what was to become Web Fiction Guide.

So an announcement that someones makes, who says that he’s changing something that he doesn’t like for the benefit of all involved would change things for the better, regardless of the way that happens. And that’s pretty cool, so long as people are selfless. My only concern, after all, is that these things do happen, because they make web fiction better for everyone. And I’ll support whoever it is who solves the problems I sat out to solve, because – hey! – everybody’s going to benefit, and that’s the core idea.

Being selfish, and thinking ‘how is this going to affect my lot in web fiction’ has no place in the communal model. It simply gets in the way.

Creation Is Inclusive

There is one last point I want to raise about the state of the current web fiction community. The quote at the beginning of this post is from a guy called _Why (yes, that’s his name, don’t ask me … why). In his time he created more than twenty software projects, released for free to the world to use.

I just so happen to believe that he’s right. Creating things bring out the best in people. They chip in to help, they lend skills, contacts, and information, and they get things done.

My assertion is that we’ve been missing out on this, in our community. Not all of it – there are glimmers of it, here and there. Ergofiction, for instance, has been one of the greatest things to have happened to web fiction in recent times – its creators, Jan and Anna, spend large amounts of their time creating a friendly, fun place to find and read good web fiction.

And then there’s MCM, who has never really stopped experimenting with the medium. And I find it funny that people criticize Ergofiction for being too MCM-centric – how can they not, when MCM is himself expanding the space of possibilities in web fiction?

I can think of a few others. Isa is currently building an upgrade to fluffy-seme software (I must admit that I’m looking forward to it). I’m launching Pandamian, which attempts to remove as many technical barriers as possible to writing web fiction. And Chris Poirier has continued to tweak the algorithm powering WFG – and has gotten it to a place where, if you type ‘fiction on the web’ in google, you get WFG amongst the top 5 spots.

My point is that creation is inclusive. Everybody can help out. And people who do tend to have loads of fun in the process.

Takeaways

I hope you’ll understand that this isn’t just another complaint. I’ve spent a good part of the last three months building software to make web fiction easier for writers. And when you think about this problem space for that long a time, when you program these little usable bits for web fiction writers, you’ll begin to home in on certain conclusions. This post is not a complaint; it is a call to action. A call to build things, to talk to people; a call to change the way we read.

I promise to do two things:

  1. I will get web fiction into the New York Times within a year, for better or worse.
  2. I will build a better communal gathering point, focused on fun, creation, and writerly love in the coming months.

There are other projects, by other writers, of course – some of which I cannot yet mention in this blog. But if you want to do something, start it now. Ask for feedback, perhaps (I welcome guest posts from any writer who wishes to do something for the community) but don’t ask for permission. And if there’s any help you need – contacts, for instance – email me and I’ll see what I can do to help.

We’re in the middle of an exciting digital shift, folks. I intend to give us a part in it. And I hope – well I really hope – that you’ll lend a hand, too.

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Category: News · Web Fiction Writers · Writing Web Fiction