Category Archives: News

To Diana

Dear Diana,

I’ve always struggled to put the (often dark) joy of reading your books into words. You aren’t as easy to describe as some of the other authors: “Do you read Diana Wynn Jones?” I’d ask my friends, in my childhood, and they’d shake their heads. “Well go read her. Go read the Chrestomanci series.” But they wouldn’t.

Your books, I realize, aren’t the teenage wildfires that the Hunger Games or the Twilight books are. They’re … different. Darker. Witty. More realistic, I feel. More difficult, too. had a call for letters late last year, when the editors found out that you stopped chemo. I considered sending a letter. I never did, and I regret that now.

I realize – in the wake of your passing – that I loved your books more fiercely than I did any other writer; if Stephanie Mayer or Rowling died I wouldn’t have felt as terrible as when Gaiman reported your death.

I found my first Chrestomanci book when I was 11; in the children’s section of the Sarawak Club library. It was on a bottom shelf by the large picture-windows facing the hallway, all of them HarperCollins reprints of your catalog. I didn’t borrow any other writer for quite a bit after my discovery. My sister and I fought over the only copy of Howl’s Moving Castle.

When the Sarawak Club burned down my mind leapt, almost immediately, to their collection of your books.

In my first semester in NUS, shortly after finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I took a chance and searched for your name in the NUS library’s cataloging system. There were only three books of yours in the catalog that I’d not read. I finished all three in three days, during the reading week, procrastinating when I should’ve been studying for my theatre exam.

I gave my youngest sister a copy of Wilkin’s Tooth as a 12th birthday present. It’s lost now, and I feel a little bad about that.

I don’t really know how to talk about your writing. I suppose I should, but I can’t. Too many layers. Cruel protagonists and unbelieving parents. Sulky dragons and self-absorbed enchanters. Broken marriages and young, vain lovers. I feel a bit better knowing that bits of you live on in writers like Neil Gaiman (whom you dedicated Hexwood to, how dare he!), John Scalzi, and Rowling (though she has not admitted it!).

I miss you already.

Rest in peace, Diana Wynn Jones. I promise you – when I have kids, your books will be amongst the first they read. Thank you for such a wonderful childhood.

Diana Wynn Jones, 19 August 1934 – 26 March 2011

PS: More tributes here, here and here. In particular, I loved this bit by Emma Bull:

She was passionate about what children want and deserve from their literature. Adults would approach her at signings, wanting to know why she wrote such difficult books. In one case, when a woman protested, the woman’s young son spoke up and assured Diana, “Don’t worry. I understood it.”

She had such faith in us.

Saturday, 29 January, 2011

An Update on Pandamian

I received an email from a Novelr reader recently, asking what’s happened to the site. No updates for over a month, slightly more than half a year to my self-imposed New York Times deadline, and a couple other worrying things besides (like – for instance – what’s happened to the Web Fiction Writer’s Guild? Probably one thing or another … though all – regrettably – understandable.)

Speaking for myself, my ‘one thing or another’ has been splitting my time between school work and programming for Pandamian. A funny thing I’ve found out about programming: when I write code, I can’t write English. And vice versa. And I’m rather amazed at all the programmer-writers out there. How do they context-switch so easily? I’ll have to wait some more to figure that out.

Thoughts on Pandamian

We’ve been at it for close to 6 months now, and I want to be honest about what we’re currently doing. And the truth is that we’re in pretty bad shape. We were adding features and removing bugs all the way right up to December, and then Christmas happened and we all stopped working. Not a good idea – it’s the new year now, and a new semester, and everyone’s work-loads are off the charts.

But here’s the tricky thing about building a consumer-facing product: build too little features and you risk fizzling out on launch-day; build too many features and you risk wasting time and energy on the wrong things. I sometimes wish I can tell where that thin line is, so we could stop programming and just launch.

As it stands, Pandamian has only got a small core of features worth talking about. We’ve got ebook conversion, though it’s about 80% done, and with the odd bug here and there. And we’ve got simple chapter posting, editing, deleting, comments, a built-for-readability front-end design, and some basic comment moderation.

That doesn’t sound exciting now, does it?

It doesn’t, and here’s another thing I’ve discovered about software development: each and every one of those features is a little Pandora’s box of Alice’s rabbit holes in and of itself (description courtesy of Jason Kottke). It is easy to do a basic version of editing, posting, deleting and comments, but if you don’t want things to break for an average user, then you’ve got to think about a whole bunch of other problems.

For example: your user has lost a password. You’ll have to regenerate a key and store it someplace so the user can get it once he’s verified. And you have to send an email to verify aforementioned user. And when you send out an email, you have to worry about being marked as spam. Which means that you have to set up Reverse PTR records for your server, and then you have to configure DomainKeys Identified Mail in your DNS, and then you have to verify it by sending test email to either a dummy GMail account, or to a Port25 email verifier. Every single step of which may take hours, each.

And remember: all this is to make sure your users don’t ever lose their passwords, something they probably never even think about. I’m not making this up, I tell you.

Thoughts on open source

Of course, we’re not over-engineering every feature right now. Just the ones that are most important. Some things we’re leaving for later, which is supposed to be the case when you’re building a web product today – the relevant mantra being ‘build fast, launch fast, fail fast. Rinse and repeat’.

But one thing that’s come up more often than not is this idea of going open source. Why not? people say, You’ll get a whole bunch of other developers ready to contribute to your project.

And they’re right, of course. I’m a big believer in open source, not the least because there are significant advantages to the model (plus it’s very often win-win-win). So when people first began asking me about it, I was taken off-guard. I hadn’t considered the possibility. No-one in Pandamian had. And now I’m wondering if it makes sense.

The problem with releasing Pandamian as open source is that it’s all written in Python. And that means you can’t just run the software on any old host. We chose Python because Yipeng, my co-founder, wanted to learn the language. And also because it’s beautiful. (Why or how a programming language can be beautiful … let’s not go there in this post, okay?)

I’d never considered this before, but I think that if you want a successful, widely-used installable web app, it has to be written in PHP. WordPress is written in PHP, as is Drupal, and bbPress. And this makes sense, because most hosts run PHP with a MySQL backend out of the box, and it isn’t too difficult for a non-technical person to install and use a PHP app.

But I don’t like PHP. Even when I’m hacking up a WordPress theme I write all these variable names with a dollar sign in front of them and $I $feel $like $curling $up $in $a $corner $to $cry.

The one good thing Python would give us, should we go open source, is that we’d probably get more interest from fellow programmers. But ask a normal user to install and run our software and he’d probably give up. Which isn’t what we intended, of course. The whole idea of building Pandamian in the first place was to allow writers the ability to do this digital publishing thing with as minimal fuss as possible. Ideally, without having to look at a single line of code.

Would we release an open source version of Pandamian in the future? Maybe. Would we recommend that someone else do so? Oh yes, indeed. I talked to Hugh McGuire of BookOven over the Christmas holidays, and am happy to report that he and his team are currently building an open source version of what we’re doing. That makes him a competitor, but it also makes him a enabler in this field. And God knows we need as many enablers in publishing right now.

On the Upcoming Launch

We’ve decided that we’re going to launch in February, whether we like or not. And that means polishing up every interface screen in our software, perfecting that ebook conversion feature, and squashing all our bugs. I’m not sure if what we’re building is the right thing, but I hope that releasing this early, first-iteration version of Pandamian would give us some idea of what to build next. As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, 13 September, 2010

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.

Tuesday, 6 April, 2010

A Fear of Punditry

Novelr is four years old this year. Four years can be a long time indeed.

In the past six months a couple of things have changed at this site. Some of you – the older readers, I’m sure – may have noticed these changes. Novelr has begun to move away from helping writers write for the web, and has lately been posting links to, well, new-sy stuff. Things like the recent iPad launch, for instance, or articles on Margaret Atwood’s Twitter account.

This isn’t a good thing. I suspect one reason for this change has to do with the fact that there isn’t much left to explore about online writing. Novelr has done a fairly good job of connecting one good idea to another: there was information out there on how best to write for the web, how best to design for readability, and so it didn’t take much for me to constantly keep a lookout for the best ideas and to link those to the particular challenges of online writing.

Writers now know, more or less, how to write their fiction for the web. And if they don’t – well, they’ve got a decent chance at figuring it out. I daresay that Novelr has done a good job of teaching people these things. Writers ask each other for advice now, something that started here, and spread later on to other places. And many of the ideas that are in circulation in the community today were originally developed on this very site.

But Novelr is no longer needed today.

Or – if it is, it isn’t needed in its current form.

The easy topics have been written to death. For the past couple of months I’ve begun to feel increasingly uncomfortable as I’ve updated Novelr – I thought, rather, that I was starting to sound like a pundit. I don’t like pundits. I’m terrified of becoming one. Pundits tend to be more interested in complaining about things than in doing anything useful for the community. And for the large part – this is true. You don’t have to be a special someone to write about the state of the publishing industry today – indeed there are many people who’re already doing this, on their publisher blogs and the like.

I don’t want to sound derisive, but there are only so many articles on the future of publishing before you feel like tossing your laptop out the window.

What I want to do now, however, is to work on doing. On making things better for writers. Novelr’s had four years worth of good ideas all stored up in its archives – and it’s about time someone put them to good, coherent use. I want to do just that. We still have problems, after all:  problems that I believe – with experimentation – we should be able to overcome.

In the coming months I’ll be working on a startup called Pandamian. The site’s not up yet (it’s just a fancy splash page, at the moment), but we’ve started work on several interesting ideas, behind the scenes. Most of these ideas were taken from Novelr’s archives. Some of them will be released in the next two to three months. Others would take longer. The core philosophy, however, is that Pandamian will do everything in its power to make writers – particularly online writers – as awesome as they possibly can be.

But What About Novelr?

I’m far-sighted enough to know that Novelr will no longer be as central to the web fiction community as it has been, in the past. This may be a good thing, particularly so for web fiction. When it was first created, Novelr’s sole purpose was to figure out how best to present fiction on the web. I’m happy to say that we have figured it out, more or less, rendering Novelr’s original purpose – well, moot.

So two things will happen at Novelr. The first thing I plan to do is to compile everything we’ve learnt – and that means everything, or four years worth of ideas – into an ebook. In true Novelr fashion, the ebook will be available on the web, as well as as a pdf file. And the best thing about that is that I plan to make it free (unless, of course you read it and you feel like donating) – but I’ll be happy so long as you point new writers to the Novelr book, and tell them to ask good questions about the information presented within.

The second thing I hope to do is to write about what we’ve learnt, doing Pandamian. I’ll be honest here – I’m not sure how that would play out. Pandamian’s problems are large problems – problems like promotion and reader acquisition (ooh yes, I did just say reader acquisition) and big, thorny things like elitists filtering and community building and the like. I want to document the process – I’m not sure if it’d be helpful to the individual writer – but I think it’ll be an interesting topic nevertheless.

I’ve got a lot of work to do, soon. Till then, drop me a comment, or subscribe to Novelr for Pandamian updates. More stuff (on various other things) coming soon.

Note: this post has been edited after publication, for sentence structure and clarity.

Saturday, 30 January, 2010

What The iPad Means For Digital Fiction

So you’ve probably heard about the iPad, and Apple’s latest plans for world domination. For the first time, however, we – we the small, rather obscure digital writer community(!) – are directly affected by the actions of what is probably the most influential tech company of the age. This is big. This is something worth thinking about. What does the iPad mean to the digital book world, and why should we care?

I think there are two things that we need to talk about. First, the Kindle is screwed. There has been some debate on Twitter as to why and how Apple compares with Ye Olde Amazon, and the biggest argument against the iPad is that it has a backlit screen, and backlit screens suck for reading.

Now this is true. Backlit screens do suck for reading, and I know this because I own a aluminium Macbook, and the screen is terrible when I’m doing work under sunlight. But I don’t think it matters. Isa asks: Why would anyone want to read on an iPad? and that is, I think, a rather valid question.

It is also the wrong kind of question to ask. The correct question people should be asking isn’t “why would anyone want to read on an iPad?” but rather “why wouldn’t they?” Isa’s question assumes that the majority of buyers would be logical book-nerds – comparing e-readers on metrics such as heft, size, and screen quality, but that’s the wrong way of looking at things.

The right way of framing the question is to begin asking: who’s likely to buy the Kindle? Who’s likely to buy the iPad? What kind of people are they, and how are they different?

The Kindle is for readers – book nerds, but of a particular, non-technophobic kind. People like you and I. The iPad, on the other hand, appeals to just about anyone: rich geeks, early-adopters, technophobic aunts, families who’d like a secondary computer, kids who want a gaming device, your uncle Harry who loves reading in the toilet … the list goes on and on.

The iPad is a computer. The Kindle is an ebook reader. In this aspect, at least, the Kindle is outclassed. There are more people interested in buying the iPad than there are people interested in buying a Kindle.

And so the question isn’t – who wants to read on an iPad? – because that’s the wrong question to ask. The question you should be asking is rather – what, exactly, is going to prevent all these people from buying books and reading them? What’s going to prevent Johnny, say, whose parents buy him an iPad for Christmas to play games and surf the web on – and one day the new Harry Potter equivalent comes out – what’s going to prevent him from thinking: hey, the book’s cheaper on the iBook store, and I don’t have to go all the way downtown to buy it from a shop. What’s going to prevent Johnny from buying the book – literally flicking his thumb over a sheet of glass – and reading it on his iPad?

The answer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the truth of the matter is that Johnny’s probably going to buy other books for his iPad, and spend ridiculous amounts of time arranging them on his virtual bookshelf, simply because it’s a) cheaper, b) quicker, and c) it’s all just a thumb flick away.

And so now here’s a related question: given the audience of these two devices, who do you think the content producers – the publishers – are more interested in going to? The Kindle? Or the platform that is the iPad? The answer to that, of course, lies in the number of potential readers, which is related to the number of current users, and I’m willing to bet that there are far more potential readers on the iPad than the Kindle ever would have, given a year or so.

It isn’t clear, however, how Amazon would react to this news. John Gruber predicts that Amazon would jettison its Kindle arm to sell content through the iPad, because Amazon is a content company first and a product company second (and Apple the reverse). I’m not sure if this would happen, because I can imagine Amazon’s fears of being locked into a single store, but regardless of how you look at it, the Kindle’s days are numbered.

There is one last thing we should know, and this affects us more directly than any of the above predictions. It is this: the iPad uses the ePub format. The ebook format wars are effectively over. We’ve got a winner, folks, and that winner is ePub. Plan for that, because things might get pretty heated, pretty fast.

Monday, 5 October, 2009

I’ll Be Liveblogging The 3D1D Event (Updated)

[Update]: Day 1 and Day 2 are over, and I’ve neglected Novelr quite a bit, but expect things to pick up once Day 3 is wrapped up. In the mean time, you can see the summaries for Day 1 and Day 2 here and here.

[Update2]: Day 3, the final day, is finally over. So I’m now back to blogging at Novelr. Will be posting a summary of the whole even on The Dispatch later.

MCM's WorkspaceJust a shoutout to everyone who’s into online fiction: this Tuesday (the 6th of October) fellow writer and webfiction-lover MCM will be attempting to write an entire novel in 3 days, in front of a live, online audience. Some of you may already know this, and are looking forward to watching him work his magic. For those of you who don’t, I’ll be working a Novelr special throughout that 3 day event – a one-time only liveblogging gig, over at The Dispatch. Hop over for behind-the-scenes commentary, novel-as-its-being-written analysis, and Twitter summaries throughout the 72 hours of live writing. This is a really cool way to be writing a book, made possible only by the Internet, and I can’t wait to get started.

(Edit: the image above is, by the way, MCM’s laptop, which will be his writing workspace for the next three days. He uses Pages, and then uploads his materials online.)

Sunday, 28 December, 2008

The Golden Notebook (And Group Reading)

gn_homepage_title.gifIt appears that in the time I’ve been offline I have missed out on several big developments in the online fiction sphere. The Golden Notebook project is one of them.

Notebook isn’t really a blook – it is a novel by Nobel Lit-Prize winner Doris Lessing, and many consider it to be her most ambitious, and probably her greatest, work. The Notebook project is an ingenious one: it places the entire book online and it asks 7 readers, all women, to read the novel in real time and give their comments in the margins of the webpages that make up the novel. 

Part of me is awestruck: whoever came up with that idea must’ve been a friggin genius. But the other part of me – the writer part – is combing this project for ideas, is reading the book for the first time, and has come to the conclusion that whatever I have previously thought possible of this medium is but a pale caricature of what’s coming, of what can come.

Notebook as a novel is most famous for its structure: the work is divided into the four ‘notebooks’ of the writer Anna Wulf, each categorized by colour and each containing different aspects of her life. The story is concerned with Anna’s efforts to fuse all these disparate books together into one final, golden notebook, and the novel is set up in such a way that the four notebooks are referred to in non-chronological, overlapping manner, all excepts from the novel Anna is currently working on. The structure comments on the story, and the story comments on the structure, and it is precisely this that makes Notebook the kind of novel that takes weeks to read, and weeks more to figure out (another that springs to mind is Infinite Jest, which is structured in a circle, and where the beginning is the ending is the beginning is the ending).

What strikes me the most about the entire Notebook project is that it takes reading – an experience strictly individual – and it combines it with the living web: something inherently social and conversational, something that you really don’t expect reading to be. Now anybody going through The Golden Notebook can do so with the benefit of a host of people who are arguing, talking and who are above all, like you, trying to make sense of said and unsaid things within the novel. You no longer have to spend weeks of your life immersed in an epic, structurally intricate work of art, only to emerge from that experience going … huh. Or perhaps – and this is more likely – you no longer have to worry about leaving stones unturned while you’re reading the novel, as is often the case with such post-modernist works. 

Friday, 26 December, 2008

Merry Christmas, Publishers

I wasn’t going to blog on Novelr until the redesign was complete, but recent unhappy events in the publishing industry turned out to be too big for even this non-conventional litblog to ignore.

The outpouring of negativity and anger, of grief and beard-pulling the past two weeks, and over ‘Black Wednesday’, have been pretty depressing to read at best. Bookstore chains suffered: Borders, for instance, posted losses of $175.4 million, or $2.90 per share, compared with $161.1 million, or $2.74 per share in the same quarter of last year. There have been too many reports of the various layoffs and troubles plaguing agencies and publishers; one article has a byline that reads, almost gleefully, “The economic news couldn’t be worse for the book industry. Now insiders are asking how literature will survive.”

I’m not going to comment on ‘Black Wednesday’ itself, because writers greater than me have blogged and dissected and given us their collective takes on what this means for culture, for writers, and for the reading public in general (in a nutshell: culture will survive, writers will write, and the reading public will be able to find whatever book they want in bookstores because nothing has been sold out). I prefer to talk about the changes the publishing industry are taking to deal with their problems. The good news? They’re turning to the Internet.

There seems to be growing evidence that publishers are moving, and moving with focused intent, onto the web. There are no guarantees, and there certainly aren’t any solid business models for them to latch onto, but God they’re trying. Let me toss you a personal example: sometime in the middle of this year Tor launched a supersite. I was studying for exams at the moment, and I had a short break. So I checked it out.

I absolutely loved it. I spent about 3 hours on the site, reading all the fantastic short stories and checking out the related ‘how we wrote and produced the original art that went along with that’ blog articles and the forum posts and the author-reader interaction. You see, Tor got a whole bunch of heavyweight writers in their stable and somehow got them active in the community section of the site, along with the short stories and the original art. My favourite is Steven Gould’s Shade, a short story set in the Jumper universe he created.

There are many more examples: Harper Collins recently announced that they’d be putting ebooks into the Nintendo DS; Penguin USA have released Penguin 2.0 (which are a collection of book-related apps to computers and (get this) mobile phones), plus Macmillian (click that link, it leads to Macmillian’s digital lit branch; totally cool) are pushing for their Stanza reader for the iPhone. And on an off-note: an independent designer has packaged The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the (copyright-free) short story behind the upcoming movie, as an iPhone app, for $0.99.

I’m pretty certain that all this movement is good news for the Blooking community. There might be overcrowding, and jostling, where before we had the whole net to ourselves, but I suppose that comes with the turf. A rising tide raises all ships, independent producers included. And while the recession may suck for the time being, I’d like to point out, with cautious optimism, that sometimes the worst of times provide the most unbelievable of opportunities.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Saturday, 6 September, 2008

The Story Behind Web Fiction Guide

This guest post is written by Chris Poirier, the founder of Web Fiction Guide. Here he talks about the origins of the site, the story so far, and his plans for the future.Web Fiction Guide

Back when we opened, Eli asked me to write an article for Novelr on the Web Fiction Guide. To be honest with you, when he asked, I wanted to run screaming for the hills. I just couldn’t imagine what I’d write about. And yet, the calmer, more business-like part of me knew it was a good idea—for publicity for the site, if nothing else.

So, last night, I figured something out: I’ll just tell you a story. That’s something I know how to do.

Where it all began

A few months ago, I started writing a serialized novel, called Winter Rain. I didn’t set out to write it. In fact, I set out to write a vignette—a one scene “moment in time”—for a net friend. But I’d had an idea bouncing around in my head for a story, for a while, and once the vignette was written, it just felt like I could go somewhere with it. So I did. And it’s been a lot of fun, so far.

But, of course, there’s no point writing something for an online audience if that audience never shows up to read it. And, frankly, I’m a bit of an attention hound. So, after the first week, I decided it was time to publicize the story.

And that’s where the trouble began.

Starting from nothing

I’d been hosting Sarah Suleski’s website since she started publishing Alisiyad online, and she and I have been friends for a long time, so I’d heard from her about wonderful publicity tools like Pages Unbound and Project Wonderful. So, that first week, I went and submitted a listing to Pages Unbound, and bought advertising space through Project Wonderful on a number of popular web fiction sites. And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Here are the things I found out:

  1. Most of the people who click through on banner ads leave again right away. 80+% of them, in fact.
  2. Even on busy sites that are appropriately chosen, most readers don’t click on banner ads.
  3. Pages Unbound is only a useful source of traffic if you have a ton of good user reviews, or if you buy a banner ad on it (and not really even then).

The truth of the matter is that most of my readers did not come from banner ads placed on other sites. Even fewer of them came from Pages Unbound. The majority of my readers found my serial (perhaps not surprisingly) from personal recommendations made by other web authors, in the form of links from their sites.

Sunday, 3 August, 2008

Pages Unbound Is Closing

Closed DoorAlexandra Erin recently announced the closing of her filter site Pages Unbound. It must have been a very difficult decision for her to make, and I respect her move to do so – she’s got 4 other serials to maintain, after all, and that is no small feat.

Personal feelings aside I would like now to point out a few important implications this move would have on the blooking community at large. The first and most obvious is the sudden vacuum created by its loss. At the moment many blooks derive their traffic from PU, and we have to remember that there is an ecosystem of readers and writers clustered around it. People come in from other blooks, check out what PU has to offer, and then jump off to another one. Rinse, lather and repeat. PU’s loss means this ecosystem will have to shift to another site, and it will take time to do so.

The good news is that we do have another site – and a good one at that. Chris Poirier and Sarah Suleski have together created a brilliant filter at Web Fiction Guide, a site that will certainly serve as another platform to promote good fiction in PU’s wake. The bad news is that WFG works on a different model from PU, and that presents several challenges to the community as a whole.

WFG is editor-powered. I have talked about editorial based filters vs wisdom-of-the-crowd filters before, and we know that both have different but complimentary sets of strengths and weaknesses. I have also pointed out some of PU’s teething problems in the past, problems that any crowd-powered filter would face.

So here’s the thing: PU’s loss means that we’ll lose a major crowd-based filter, and we’ll have to rely solely on an editorial based one. This is not good for a few reasons: a major limitation of the editorial model is the amount of digital fiction it can process. There will come a time when there would be too much good fiction and too little editors to review and rank them. Volume is the one major advantage that sites like PU have – it is democratic and it’s been proven to work in a vast majority of Internet scenarios (think Google search and Digg). We’ll need one sooner or later, regardless of how successful WFG is. Both types of site complements each other; it’s not WFG or PU, it’s WFG and PU.

So why not keep PU going? I suggest we take over the management of the site, if Lexy agrees. I know she’s pointed out that she doesn’t think that it’s worth it, but I don’t think so. Even though PU runs on off-the-shelf components, I believe it’ll be a lot easier to capitalize on both the site’s credibility, community and brand at a later stage, if we want to do a revamp (and we probably will want to recode major parts of it). At any rate, it would make no sense to restart a PU clone later on from scratch – why reinvent the wheel when the wheel’s already running? And there is of course the teething problems that we’ve learnt from in PU’s implementation – something that all new wisdom-of-the-crowd sites would face sooner or later.

I propose keeping PU. I’m having exams at the moment, so I won’t be much help in the sense that I can’t do anything remotely server related. I am however willing to underwrite the costs of moving PU. I’ve already got a bunch of people on NovLounge and elsewhere in favour of this idea, and they’re willing to contribute their time and energy to the continued effort of running PU. I’d like now to ask the majority of blookers, readers and writers out there: what do you think of this? Please tell me your comments.

Update: I’m mistaken in thinking WFG to be completely editor powered. There is a significant crowd aspect to it which has not been utilized because it is a relatively new site. That being said, here’s a-for and-against analysis for keeping Pages Unbound.


There are a lot of reviews and a pretty strong community around Pages Unbound. It also has a relatively high profile within our community, meaning new people discover it and benefit from the information there despite slow progress from the owner. Deleting PU off the bat would mean losing a whole bunch of reader recommendations, reviews, forum discussions and also the appearance of dead links on the various blogs and blooks linking to it. Not particularly appealing.


Much of PU’s success has been because of Alexandra Erin’s status in the blooking community. Keeping PU without her personality on board would be a loss to the filter. On top of that Erin is right in pointing out that modifications to the site will be difficult – Joomla is not known as one of the simplest CMSes around. If code modifications are hard then it will be difficult to correct the problems that PU faces – gaming of the system, spite rankings, etc. It would be far better to destroy everything anyway and custom code a solution.

Open Mike

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Should we take over PU from Alexandra, or should we close down and redirect to WFG? I am in favour of keeping PU in stasis for a period of time while we determine the feasibility of a) continuing b) moving over to Web Fiction Guide. That way the reviews will at least be preserved for a longer period, and there would some form of community transfer through this pause. Either way the community would benefit more than an instant shutdown of the site. Which side do you stand on?

Disclaimer: I am an editor on WFG’s board. Also, I have emailed Lexy and I’m currently waiting for a reply. As founder her opinion is paramount in this undertaking – if she refuses we must respect her decision.

Friday, 1 August, 2008

Announcement: An Anthology Of Online Fiction

Scott Mackenzie is the author of online works Rebirth and The Rising. He’s currently looking for online writers to contribute short works of fiction to an anthology of blooks. I’ll let him speak in his own words:

Calling all online fiction writers

I am looking for contributors for the *.fiction anthology volume 1. The anthology will provide a printed showcase for the emerging community of online fiction writers who publish their work on the internet for free. The plan is for the anthology to contain samples from 10-15 writers to allow them to promote their work in an accessible and cost-effective format.

All online fiction writers are invited to submit their work for inclusion in the first volume of the *.fiction anthology. This will be a community-focused publication and should be considered as a starting point in building awareness of online fiction. It will be made available for purchase at cost price and all contributors are encouraged to promote this work along with their own.

If there are more submissions than the number required for the first volume, additional work will be carried over to subsequent volumes. Please contact me at for more information and submission guidelines.

The closing date for submissions for volume 1 is September 30th 2008.

Scott McKenzie

On a personal note I think this is a brilliant idea. Scott’s doing this for the community – I repeat: cost price – and the publicity in a dead-tree book will in turn drive attention to both blooks and their Lulu merchandise. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the commenting section of this post. I’ll update this announcement with new details as I get them – I have exams on at the moment so forgive me if updates come slow.

Wednesday, 9 April, 2008

The Form and Function of We Tell Stories

So far I’ve been very, very impressed with the way Penguin has been doing We Tell Stories. I thought week one was a nifty idea, presenting a narrative on Google Maps, but it wasn’t something mind-blowing because I’d seen it done on a blog before. My lack of faith was exposed two weeks later, with week 2 and week 3’s stories. Both blew me away. Here’s a look at the various forms We Tell Stories has been done in the past few weeks.

Week One’s story is a thriller built around Google Maps. This presentation style allows Charles Cumming the freedom to dispense with lengthy setting description and focus on the action. It works. I found myself impatiently watching the main character moving from point to point on the map, and the snappy, sparse narrative kept me glued to my seat. There’s a plus side to all of this: Google Maps has provided Cumming with a visual element and an easy level of realism not available to normal books. I could see how the main character escapes from the police in a dinghy, I could tell how far away the locations were from each other, I could even follow the character on a (very lengthy) train ride around London. Promising stuff, this. Technology used: Ajax, the Google Maps API, lots and lots of javascript.Slice - Penguin We Tell StoriesWeek Two is done in a medium familiar to Novelr: blogs and twitter. Nothing particularly revolutionary going on here – both the blogs had cookie cutter templates and weren’t very enjoyable to read, and the story wasn’t good. But the interesting thing about these two blogs were the way the characters interacted with the readers. Some twitter posts were made in response to reader questions, and comments were answered in the blogs, in character. Since Lisa (the daughter) went missing in the middle of the story we had a few readers helpfully pointing out her blog and giving suggestions as to where to look for her … which they responded to. Technology used: Twitter, WordPress and Livejournal.