Passing the Hat: Soliciting Donations in Web Fiction

Cecilia Tan is the editor of Circlet Press, and a couple of other things besides (psst – I’ll let her introduce herself, in a bit!) Today, she’s going to share with you several things she’s learnt about making a donation model work in web fiction.

Hello, everyone. I’m Cecilia Tan, writer and editor. For those who don’t know me, I’ve been publishing fiction professionally for almost 20 years. Short stories, novels, magazine serials, microfictions, you name it. Last year I started my own web fiction serial, Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, and I’m here today to tell you how my donation model has evolved over time from a passive “tip jar” approach to actively “passing the hat.”

The street musician analogy is an apt one, as the novel is about a rock musician coming out in the 1980s. Daron’s Guitar Chronicles turns one year old next week, but the novel that is its source was written when I was in grad school 16 years ago.

What I didn’t know then, in my MFA writing classes, was that I had no clue how to write a novel. I dove into writing DGC without realizing that the writing workshop format of five pages per week would push me unconsciously to create a story told not in traditional-length chapters but in 1000-1250 word episodes. I also had no idea how to wrestle a plot to the ground and simple kept writing until I had tripled the length of a typical commercial novel and forced myself to stop at 300,000 words.

In the meanwhile I had made a name for myself as a short story writer. HarperCollins published my first collection of short stories. The “novel” made the rounds of literary editors, pop culture editors (the book has a rock and roll theme), as well as the gay publishing houses (the protagonist is gay). All said the same thing: we love it, but we can’t publish something that huge.

A few said they might be able to “take a chance” on it if I were willing to take a $2,000 (or lower!) advance.

I had a strong feeling that for $2,000 I could do better than a place that would “take a chance.” I put the novel in a drawer and waited.

What I was waiting for was the perfect medium to present the work. As it turns out, a web serial is just about perfect! What were too short to be “chapters” are now “posts.” The pop culture aspect of the work is easily added through embeddable Youtube videos. And, serendipitously, the first person style of narration turned out to lend itself perfectly to reader engagement. Readers, it turned out, more often left comments addressed to my protagonist than to me. So I created him an account and let him answer them. This has only made regular commenters on the site even more invested in his character development and the details of his life, which after all is what the book is about.

The next step for me, though, was how to turn that reader engagement into dollars. When I launched the site in November 2009, I put up a “tip jar” and a Paypal “donate” button and wondered what would happen. I couldn’t run Project Wonderful ads until the site had been up for three months, so there was no income there. And my first “over the transom” donation didn’t come until the end of January 2010, and it was for $20. If my goal was to top the $2,000 that a publisher would have given me to orphan my book in literary first novel obscurity… well, at that rate it would take me 25 years.

I changed my strategy then, following a tactic that I had seen on many webcomics sites. Instead of posting three episodes a week, I cut back to two, promising a third episode any week when donations reached the threshold of $25. After that, I saw a tiny uptick in donations that was probably less about the “incentive” and more that readership was increasing, and donations were increasing proportionally. I could see through my Google analytics that every week I had more readers than the previous, on a fairly slow but steady increase. The uptick was to the tune of about $25 per month.

In other words, to get to my $2,000 goal, it was now going to take… 80 months, or 6+ years. I didn’t have 6 years worth of content, and if I slowed my burn rate any more, I feared I’d lose readers’ interest. Even accounting for a steady but slow increase in readership and donations, the rate of increase was still quite low. The “bonus post for money” incentive never really caught fire.

Then a miracle happened.

Wednesday, 27 October, 2010

Leaving The Book Behind

A trend that took me by surprise at Books in Browsers was how indebted to the book most browser-based eReaders are. Prime example: all the ebook readers that were demoed at the conference had artifacts like pages, page flipping, and book covers. The books that were displayed within these readers were literally embedded in the browser – each reader was this little self-contained bit of javascript, CSS and HTML5, and that was to be inserted into a webpage or a rendering engine the same way one would embed a Youtube video, or a Slideshare presentation.

I’m not convinced that this is necessary, or even advisable. I will admit, however, that I came to BiB with the notion that books would literally be in the browser – that the form of the book is the webpage, and the controls for reading the book were the browser’s controls; not some arbitrary chrome that you had to include for it to work.

Is the browser a good reader?

I think browsers as a reading interface work just fine, and that people today are used to reading things in a web browser. Much of surfing is text, after all. And I think that you can and should leverage this behaviour when designing for a browser-based book reading experience.

Think about it: when you have embeddable content like the Monocle reader, you’re constrained by the fact that you must read in a container within a container. It isn’t a website, which means that there’s a layer of abstraction that the reader must get used to.

Why not have that content live as a webpage? The user doesn’t have to relearn anything. The controls are intuitive: one link forward for the next chapter, and one link backwards for the chapter before. The user behaviour for using browsers, for clicking links to advance (and scrolling to read) have existed for more than a decade now. There’s no need to reference the model of the book when reading behaviour already exists for the webpage.

The exception to this, of course, is the mobile experience. The majority of mobile phones have terrible web interfaces. And so it may make sense to serve something like the Monocle reader when you’re in a mobile device like the iPad, or the iPhone.

I’m biased, of course – web fiction exists primarily in web page form, and experience has shown us that this is highly readable in the context of a computer browser. But a strong mobile reading experience for the form may still be lacking. And that’s where these new readers come in handy.

For the rest – I’d argue that webpages work just fine.

Sunday, 24 October, 2010

Pandamian: A Publishing Support Layer

This is the full text of a speech I gave at Books in Browsers, a technical meeting for people currently changing the future of books. The meeting was between the 21st and the 22nd of October, and was organized and held at the Internet Archive.

Hi, my name is Eli and I’m here to talk to you about what we’re doing at Pandamian. More importantly, I want to give you an idea – or some intuition, perhaps, about the problem space in which Pandamian exists.

But before that, two things:

First, there was quite a bit of talk at BiB yesterday about how young people don’t care about their privacy. Well, I am a young person – possibly the youngest person in this room – and I care so much about my privacy that I’m speaking to you under a pseudonym. So … make of that what you will!

Second, I promised my folks back home that I’d thank the people who made it possible for me to be here. I am a second year Computer Science student at the National University of Singapore, and that means that I am on a student budget. The only reason I can be here is because of the kindness of a couple of people. So I’d like to thank Brewster Kahle, who kindly subsidized part of my flight. And my school, the School of Computing. And last, but not least, the awesome, awesome people over at the Singaporean Hackerspace, who donated to my trip – you can see their logo behind me – I promised that I’d wear their shirt and do this before my talk.

Anyway, back to what I want to speak to you about. I don’t have much time to do this, so I’m going to split my talk into three bits. First, I want to talk about the problem space to which Pandamian is a solution. Then I’ll spend 2-3 minutes on Pandamian – just a little while; I promise you that it won’t be a plug. Last, I want to talk about why I think it’s important to do what Pandamian is currently doing. And why I think more people should do it.

Web Fiction

So here’s the context: I’m coming from this place called web fiction. What web fiction is is that it’s this simple idea – not a particularly new idea, because I know a group of writers who’ve been doing this since 1997. Also not a particularly original idea. But it is a simple idea, and that idea is that you take some fiction – a novel, for instance, and you put that online. You post one chapter a week, there are reader comments, and all this happens on a blog-like website, or a blog-powered website, or – if the writer is not a particularly good programmer or designer, which is very often – sometimes on an actual blog. Which can be bad.

Where I come from in this space is that I wrote a web fiction thing 5 years ago. And at the end of that year I realized that I really didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody knew what they were doing. There were no ‘best practices’.

And there are several interesting problems there. For instance: what’s the best way to design fiction in the browser, when the browser is an inherently distractive container? Also: where do you find readers? How should you talk to readers? How long should your chapters be? How many times a week should you update your story? These are all interesting questions, and nobody knew how to answer them.

So what I did was I started this blog called Novelr, and what Novelr does is that it collates and kind of collects the best ideas as solutions to these problems. And we’ve got four years worth of experience now on how to do this – we know, more or less, what works or doesn’t work when you’re presenting fiction on a webpage, in this interactive web format.

And it’s not just me. I sometimes do experiments myself, but these ideas aren’t just from me. Sometime over the last four years of Novelr’s existence a community of writers condensed around the blog. So now I approach these writers whenever they discover a new technique, or hack, or trick to write better web fiction, and I ask them to share it with the rest of the community. Or they come to me and say: ‘I’ve discovered this, I want to share it with everyone, may I do a guest post?’ Which is cool.

But now we come to an interesting question we must ask, don’t we? Why do these people do web fiction?

Tuesday, 28 September, 2010

Nina Lassam on Wattpad: the Youtube of eBooks

Nina Lassam works at Wattpad, the ‘the world’s most popular eBook community’. Today I’ve asked her to share on the platform – what it is, how it works, and how you may benefit from it.
Wattpad Logo
The way I often explain Wattpad to people who are not familiar with who we are or how we fit into web fiction, is that Wattpad is “YouTube for eBooks + Facebook/Twitter for Authors”. The content on Wattpad is user generated by writers who range from teenaged hobbyists to self-published authors to established writers looking to promote and market their work to a targeted reading community.

Over 10 millions readers and writers visit Wattpad every month, spending half an hour each visit with an average of two visits a day. Like the viral videos that dominate the YouTube homepage, many writers can claim outstanding success with millions of reads and thousands of comments from fans who use Wattpad to find new works to read.

Where Wattpad has shown to be very different from YouTube is in the community-minded nature of the site. A reader comments on a story once every seven seconds on Wattpad, and writers and readers engage in discussions, provide feedback and recommend other works on the site.

There’s an App for That

One of the most common ways people find Wattpad is through their mobile phones. Wattpad is consistently among the top eReader apps in the Apple Store and BlackBerry App World. For authors who want their fiction to reach a mobile audience, Wattpad is available on over 1,000 different mobile devices and eReaders and provides a direct connection with reader.

Mobile is a large area of focus for Wattpad: we see thousands of our apps downloaded everyday and we are continuing to add more and more of the social features that are native to the website. Wattpad is not just a way to read and discover or a spot to upload fiction and poetry, but a platform that bridges both and enables authors to connect with readers in online space.

Who Uses Wattpad

The demography of Wattpad users has changed so much in the past twelve months. From a core group of young adults, we now see mature and experienced authors joining the site. The majority of members are from English speaking countries; the United States, UK, Canada and Australia and English remains the dominant language found on the site. Wattpad also sees a sizable number of readers from Asia and South America and we receive emails everyday from readers who say that Wattpad has helped their ESL skills tremendously.

Since partnering with self-publishing companies; Lulu, Smashwords, and Bubok, our presence in this community of authors has grown considerably. During the summer, we launched a program specifically for self-published writers and have opened a writing contest with literary magazine Shelf Unbound to provide self-published authors on Wattpad an opportunity for additional exposure. There is so much great fiction being self-published, but the struggle is to find readers to enjoy it. Wattpad has been able to fill an important role this way.

Monday, 27 September, 2010

The First Age of Print

There’s a remarkable article over at the Boston Globe titled Cover Story, that documents the first couple of decades following the invention of the printing press:

Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.

Go read the article in its entirety – it’s well worth it, because there are strong parallels to the current, digital age of print.

I’d like to point out several interesting bits from the piece: Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at St. Andrews, found that the earliest printers made more money selling almanacs, and calendars, and municipal announcements than they did selling books. The very idea of buying a book off a shelf was alien to a public used to thinking of books as these expensive, made-to-order goods! And that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And even cooler: it took the first generation of publishers 10 years to figure out how to make money off this new technology. No wonder it’s taking time to figure out how to sell digital things, today.

(Digression: it’s hard to imagine people being confused by the book; perhaps they wondered at the invention of ‘turning the page’? And I can’t help but grin at that – it reminds me of this crazy skit.)

This is all exciting, of course. But what really strikes me is how chaotic it all seemed. Nobody knew what to do with the book, and so the current model of publishing – as a solution to the distribution of ideas and stories and such – wasn’t the result of deliberate creation at all. It was a gradual evolution of a reading public, and a bunch of publishers that sort-of, well, accidentally created that group. And that seems obvious now, with Pettegree’s research complete, but the degree of randomness is still very surprising to me.

I suppose I should stop turning up my nose at multimedian books, even if most current attempts really do suck. If what we have today arose out of total chaos, then it doesn’t seem too far off to suggest that the chaos today is a good thing. A sign of a working industry in the horizon, perhaps.

Anyway, I’m acting all confused and rambly now, so I’ll just leave you with this awesome concept video from IDEO:

Sunday, 19 September, 2010

Matt Blackwood on MyStory

Matt Blackwood is the creator and project lead for MyStory – a location-based fiction project funded and hosted in Melbourne. Here he talks about MyStory’s origins – how they got started with it, and why he’s doing the project:

They say it’s all about the details; the minutiae, the flecks of paint, the beads of sweat, the congealed Chupa Chups sticks, the smiles, the snarls and the occasional gleam – and you know what – ‘they’ were right.

The small things have always intrigued me. That’s not to say I don’t dig Space Odyssey 2001 or The Vidiot from UHF, but everyday humanity is something I’ve always cherished. It might have something to do with my background: not having much money, I spent more time staring at Lego catalogues than piecing together choke-sized blocks for spaceships.

And sure, it might not be trendy to be interested in the small and everyday when Sexagenarian in the City and Warepires are ruling the popular mindset, but the way I look at it, it’s now more important than ever to look at the everyday, to assess where we are, where we’ve been and where we are headed.

So these were the thoughts that spun around my head some 12 months ago; thoughts of how being a writer in a City of Literature didn’t automatically make my writing appear in the city. Thoughts wanting more people to read my work, wanting more support as a writer, and wanting to feel more connected with my fellow Melbournians, and so the framework for MyStory began.

In essence I was interested in location based stories.

I started by looking at different ways to combine the surging uptake in smartphones, mobile internet and the human desire to be told stories one-on-one. I wanted people to reconsider spaces they might have already walked down a thousand times before, or take a chance and venture down somewhere new. I wanted to peel back some of the layers, and perhaps even pre-conceptions about some of these spaces, while spinning tales that were true and truish. All this meant creating an interactive database where writing could be easily accessed in a form that made the most of mobile technologies, but also didn’t exclude people without smartphones or laptops. And I wanted to take it a step further, so that people with vision impairments could also access the content.

Then came the realities.

I knew that people weren’t going to stand and experience a story for a huge amount of time, even if they did happen to love the space they were in. The spaces were always going to be dynamic. This dynamism would obviously affect the experience of the literature; if the spaces were too loud or too busy, raining or sunny, busy or quiet, dark or midday bright; it was all going to impact the interpretation of MyStory.

Wednesday, 15 September, 2010

The First Conversation

MCM is likely the most experimental author in the web fiction sphere. He writes (and blogs!) at 1889.ca, does crazy online livewriting events, and has a whole host of books available, for free, at his site. Here he talks about his experience at FanExpo Toronto: in particular, how it’s like talking to web fiction outsiders about the medium for the very first time.

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A few weeks ago, I was at FanExpo in Toronto, pitching 1889 Labs to anyone and everyone that came by my table. It was an enlightening experience, and one that’s given me a lot to think about, particularly as it relates to web fiction. See, when I went there, I didn’t really appreciate how to talk to people about what I do. Turns out, it’s not a pitch, it’s a conversation. But the conversation is more nuanced than you might expect.

There’s a type of reader that most of us know already: they’ll visit your site regularly, they know the Web Fiction Guide inside out, and if your navigation to Chapter Two isn’t up to their standards, they’ll give you holy hell for it. They’re the key to success and happiness, and when you talk to them, you talk to them about the finer details of what you do, about the pros and cons of Disqus or WordPress or Drupal, or about how your update schedule is killing you. They’re not necessarily writers themselves, but they’re deep enough in the web fiction world that they appreciate what it’s like to be a writer, and they’re supportive and fantastic and keep you alive.

These are the people we’re going to ignore today.

The other type of reader is the outsider. They know nothing about web fiction (except maybe peripheral negative impressions). They may not even realize they can access great content for free on the web. They’re coming to you completely blind to what you do, and it could very well be your responsibility present their very first experience with web fiction. No pressure, right? You’ve just bumped into them at a party or a convention, and they want to know more about you… what do you say? How do you start that conversation?

Here’s the thing about these readers: they very likely won’t be excited by the idea of a full free book online. They might even be turned off by it. I mean, they’d love to get it for free, but if you lead your conversation with “hey! My book is free online!” I think you’ll find the average reader is going to wonder what’s wrong with you. You’re worth what you charge, and if you’re giving yourself away for free, you must not be worth much. It may seem heretical, but volunteering the best aspects of web fiction are the worst possible idea. You need to work your way there.

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.

Friday, 10 September, 2010

Kickstarter – a New Model for Indie Publishing

Kickstarter is a website for ‘funding and following creativity’. I’d never actually given the site much attention (even if I knew of one or two projects, by acquaintances, funded through the site) until – well, two days ago I stumbled onto a discussion on Kickstarter’s growing influence in the independent book world, and everyone seemed pretty positive about the service. So I decided to check it out.

Kickstarter’s core idea is simple: you post a creative project to their site, put up a description (and very often: a video), and then you set a series of pledge levels that show to the right of your project page. These levels indicate what backers get in return for specific amounts of money. For instance, this book project promises an autographed copy for $20, an 8×10 print (and book!) for $30, and an acknowledgment (plus doodle and print and book!) for $100.

The genius here is that these pledges happen before your book’s published, with absolutely no risk for all involved. Your book will be funded by the usual crowd of backers: mostly your readers, some fans and perhaps several Kickstarter community members. And if you can’t raise the minimum, your project closes, the page disappears, and nobody need pay up.

Craig Mod's Art Space Tokyo
There have been a number of striking book projects done through Kickstarter. Craig Mod, for instance, has published a run of handcrafted, silkscreened books with Kickstarter fundraising; Robin Sloan (of Snarkmarket fame), managed to get $13,942 to fund the writing of a novel. From his project page:

I’m writing a book: a detective story set halfway between San Francisco and the internet. And the more people who reserve a copy, the better each one will be!

I’m beginning to think that Kickstarter (and websites like it, that I assume will appear in the future) are going to play a prominent role in independent publishing – maybe in one or two years, but certainly for a long time to come. And how can they not? It makes perfect economic sense for both reader and writer. If a writer has to earn the privilege of getting paid for his work, then this model delights in that exchange, and rewards the avid reader. (Imagine: being able to chip in, for your favourite author! How fulfilling! How incredible!)

But I also find it very cool – the very idea that you can help support your favourite writers as they produce and publish good books – books you already love, because you’re reading them online. This idea is wonderful, I think, and brilliant, and so befitting of the kind of closeness the Internet is able to afford its readers; its writers.

Digression: there’s actually a space right now for a service that enables closer reader-writer relationships – the kind of relationships that encourage a ‘you fund me, I’ll make good books for you’ ethos. Current solutions are good, but things can be, and will be, much better, given the right technical backbone. My bet is that Kickstarter has the seed of this in its model. All that remains is to think about this and tease it out a little.

I’ll be looking for a few Kickstarter authors to come write on Novelr in the future – in particular the ones who have successfully funded the publication (and sometimes even the writing) of their books. In the meantime, I’d recommend that you consider Kickstarter for funding. And maybe not for large, $10,000 runs, but it seems perfectly fair to begin with a small print of carefully-bound books, shipped to a loyal pool of delighted readers.

Oh, and a random thought: perhaps – as more web fiction writers stumble onto the idea of publishing with Kickstarter, we’ll begin to see an increasing number of links on Novelr to their respective project pages. Which I look forward to, and – I suppose – can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 2 September, 2010

Backing Up Your Digital Writing

This isn’t related to web fiction, but I’d thought I’d share a little tip I use to keep my writing secure – regardless of whatever terrible things that may happen to my primary computer. I was on Twitter today, and writer Zoe Whitten posted a couple of tweets on how her machine crashed on her, and with it – two months of writing lost in temporary hell.

There are two things to remember here. The first is that – if you’re reading Novelr, it’s very likely that you already do most of your writing on your computer. The second thing, worth remembering, is the simple truth that computers are fragile creatures and should always be treated with the assumption that something, somewhere, would go catastrophically wrong; that your work is always at risk of vanishing, and if you so forget about your computer or lose it or drop it or have your board fry itself or have your hard disc spin to death – any of these things may happen at any given time, sending your writing straight to a unknowable purgatory.

It pays, of course, to have backups. If you’re on a Mac, get SuperDuper!. But backups aren’t ideal when you’re writing and your computer crashes and you just want to get back to work: they’re a hassle to do, and it takes quite a bit of discipline to backup on a regular basis.

The simplest solution to this is to get Dropbox.
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Dropbox gives you a little folder into which you dump the files you want to save. And when it’s connected to the Internet, Dropbox syncs your files with all the other computers you have with Dropbox installed. (Plus they give you a web interface to download and use those files, should the need ever arise.)

See the value in this? I use Dropbox as the holding space for whatever document I’m currently working on. I keep backups of my whole hard disc, of course, but if my computer fails or if I’m away I get to download and work on my working drafts – either through the web interface, or via the selection of mobile devices currently supported by Dropbox (i.e.: Android, iPhone, iPad and Blackberry).

There are other uses, naturally. Some of my friends drag and drop .pdf ebooks into their Dropboxes, for reading on the train. Others use Dropbox to share pictures with friends. And if you have your writing organized in a different part of your computer, just follow these steps to have Dropbox sync those folders too.

Dropbox is great as a storage trick, for the few documents you want to protect the most. It’s small, it’s simple, it’s easy-to-use, and (best of all!) it’s absolutely free of charge. Get it at dropbox.com, set it up, and then get back to writing today.

Friday, 27 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.

Wednesday, 25 August, 2010

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.