Monday, December 14, 2009

Profiles in Web Fiction: MCM

Today we interview MCM, author of the novels The Vector, Fission Chips, and countless others. Actually, the word prolific doesn't even begin to describe this author - in 2009, MCM achieved his personal goal of publishing 12 books in 12 months, making something like NaNoWriMo look like a walk in the park.

His most recent work, The New Real, is an example of livewriting - he wrote the entire story over the course of 48 hours, posting a new chapter every hour. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this was the way that he involved the audience directly in the creative process, allowing them to provide real-time feedback via Twitter or a special website he built specifically for the purpose. He's also built his own online reader, which you can see in the image to the right.

MCM is certainly one to watch. He's constantly pushing the boundaries of web fiction, and experimenting with new techniques for the form. His technical background combined with his zany wit and writing prowess allows him to craft a compelling story and integrate it with the web to create a form of storytelling that is completely new. It's exciting to watch the future of web fiction develop, and MCM is one of the people that's going to create it for us.

He was kind enough to reply to my questions via email. I found his answers to be interesting and insightful, and I think you will too.

How and when did you start publishing online?

I honestly don't remember when I first started, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll say around the middle of 2006, when I released my first book, The Pig and the Box. That was just a PDF... I hadn't really looked at the options for books online, so it was a learning experience the whole way along. At the start of 2009, I moved to a new system that allowed me to post books straight to web pages, and started filling in content from there. I've done 11 books this year so far, and I've been evolving my methods constantly... my first serialized web fiction (Fission Chips) started in May, and my first livewriting book (Typhoon) was in October. Each one of those would be a "start" for me, because they're all so different than what came before.

Why did you decide to publish your work as serial fiction on the web?

The purest answer is that I really wanted the immediate feedback. My first such project, Fission Chips, wasn't a straight serial, because the audience got to suggest and vote on "what happens next" every week, and I had to create it on the fly. That kind of interaction can't work anywhere else. I didn't have much interest in going to traditional publishers (for a variety of reasons), but even so, the interactivity of the web makes it so much more interesting to write here. Writing is a dialogue, and the fewer delay mechanisms we have between the author and the audience, the better.

What are the benefits of publishing online? What are the drawbacks?

The benefit, for me, is the unpredictability. For my livewriting projects (Typhoon and The New Real, written in real-time over 3 and 2 days respectively), I got to tap into the collective insanity of the internet to help craft my story. The atmosphere during those events was just electric... you write a chapter and see the reaction immediately, and it gives you the push you need to do more. You can't do that anywhere else. It's just not possible.

The other major benefit is that you can reach more people online than you can anywhere else. True, holding on to them is harder, but there are no restrictions. Offline, you might be buried in the back of a bookstore, or you might not even be IN the bookstore, and you have no way to change that fact. Online, you can drop a link to your work anywhere, and you never know who'll see it, find you, and stick around for more.

The drawbacks, of course, are that very few people take you seriously. Being self-published in print gets you an eye roll, but publishing online makes people back away slowly. It's the "nephew art" curse that affects web designers... "Oh, what you do is nothing special. My nephew makes websites all the time!" Anyone can publish to the web, and anyone can write a story, so what sets you apart? In the end, there's nothing you can do about those people. If you do great work, and catch an audience, it doesn't matter what the world thinks of you. You're not doing it for universal recognition, you're doing it for the ones who call themselves your fans.

Do you monetize your work? Why or why not? If so, how?

I do, in various ways. For The Vector, I released under a Serial+ system, where a new chapter was posted Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with a note at the end that said "it will take X more weeks to finish... if you want to read the rest now, you can upgrade for $5". I had pretty good conversion that way, I think because it gave everyone a chance to reach their personal tipping point. They held out until they couldn't hold out any more!

All my books also have donate options in them, with a few options listed for convenience. I've found that if you leave it too open-ended, people won't donate. If you say "here are the choices," you get a lot more conversions.

On occasion, I convert some of my works to print books (for those that say "I really want to read it, but I can't stand computer screens!"), but I'm definitely moving more and more to the online-only approach.

What do you think web serials will look like in five years?

I think they'll look less like something, and more like anything. I think there's something to be said for hybrid books... part prose, part comic, part movie (if done well). I personally want to explore the livewriting concept some more... doing
"...the interactivity of the web makes it so much more interesting to write here. Writing is a dialogue, and the fewer delay mechanisms we have between the author and the audience, the better."
something living and dynamic, rather than just pre-planned chapters on a schedule. I know some people are experimenting with "choose your own adventure"-type architectures, adding programming tricks to do cool new things. I think that sometime soon, the technology and the momentum will let people put their writing into the format that makes the most sense, rather than writing something in a certain way because that's what's expected.

I also think that in five years, the Kindle and iPhone will have made the idea of e-fiction more palatable to the broader world, and traditional print publishers will still be resisting the change. That means the innovators and superstars of web serials will have a chance make their mark... if you have this device meant for reading, but there's very little to read (because publishers are waiting until the hardcovers have been out 6 months), you'll go looking for something else. Web serial writers need to be that "something else." We've got a year, maybe two to get there. So we've got to get cracking.

What technical advances (current or near-future) are you most excited about experimenting with or applying to web fiction?

I'm really interested in integrating AJAX goodness into the writing, but I'm still not 100% sure how it'll be done. Mike Cane and Piers Hollott have these notions of rich reading experiences with deep metadata, and I'm really interested in the "branch" effect of writing: select a word or a sentence and comment on that, or expand on it, or made a side-story... as much as possible, I want web fiction to be a starting point, not a final product. There's already so much discussion that goes on around web fiction, but it's highly fragmented. If we can at least create smarter windows into those conversations, it will probably mean a whole new world in terms of what is created.

I can't wait for the new things we'll be able to do with HTML5. My next-gen site (currently in development) is already pushing boundaries... I'm trying to examine different interaction methodologies, see what I can get away with... but when we can embed video, or do offline storage easily (so essential for web fiction! imagine having a web interface that full downloads the text so you can read any time and not need a connection!) and audio or... well, it'll really change how the game operates. I come from a video background (in addition to web) and the one thing that kills me is that it's still too difficult to properly integrate subtle animation into page design on the web. I want to crack open After Effects, do some motion design, and really enrich the experience. Maybe in a few more years... hopefully...

Who do you consider innovative in the web fiction space today? Who else is pushing technology in new directions to enhance the storytelling process?

Right now, I'm very excited by an upcoming project by A.M. Harte. Her technique is very subtle (to the point of invisibility), but if it works, it will be a great new sub-genre for authors to explore. I can't say more, because I'm sworn to secrecy :) Also, Brian Spaeth really pushes the limits in a lot of ways at once... one of his new concepts will really be a multimedia tour de force, and when you couple it with his insane "alternate reality that may not be alternate" vibe... I'm certain it will blow your mind.

What tips would you share with others interested in publishing serialized fiction on the web?

Don't be constrained by architecture. There are different tools out there to do different things, and some will fit better than others. Think beyond the page. Think of new units, new transitions, new schedules and interactions and presentations and all that. Don't make "a printed book on the screen." So many people (myself included) are chained to that notion, and it's hard to change once you've started. If you're just starting out, find a boundary to push, and push it. Hard. The internet has endless possibilities, and we're only using a fraction.

The trick to this game is patience. You'll start off with two readers, and they'll both be your offline friends. Four months later, you'll have one reader, and you won't even be sure they're really reading. But four months after that, you'll have ten readers, and then twenty, and then forty... Word of mouth takes time, and you have to remember the number one way to kill it is to release something sub-standard. You're only as good as your last chapter... but if that chapter is amazing, you'll be okay.

I'd like to thank MCM for taking the time to discuss his work with me. The stuff he's doing is truly inspiring, and he's definitely got me thinking about the future of storytelling on the web.

Be sure to check out The Vector, and all his other work at his website: 1889 books. To read more about the future of web fiction, check out 1889 Labs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Profiles in Web Fiction: Theron Gibbons of Dark Matters

Today we sit down with web author Theron Gibbons. Theron is the author of Dark Matters, a web novel that he has been serializing since early 2008. Since then, he's added three other works to the mix: Bit at Large, Orchid Bizaar, and Shadow and Mist.

This is the second installment of the Profiles in Web Fiction series. Click here for the other interviews in the series.

In Dark Matters, ChoCho and Jynx are two young lovers facing down a world almost completely devoid of human life after an undefinable event destroys nearly every city on the planet. With the work, Gibbons is undertaking an interesting writing experiment, writing in third-person, present tense in a style he calls "intimate literature."

Theron was kind enough to respond to my interview questions via email.

How and when did you start publishing online?

How did I start online? Primarily I did a lot of research into publishing, and realized that the era of the book publisher, at least in its traditional sense, may well be at an end. I really wanted to have my work seen. So I decided to have a go of it online, and do my best to make my efforts self-sustaining. I started publishing online in January 2008, with Dark Matters, and then expanded out to include three other works, Bit at Large, Orchid Bizaar, and Shadow and Mist.

Why did you decide to publish your work as serial fiction on the web?

I made the decision to publish some of my work in serial, online, primarily for the angst. People think that I mean the reader's angst, but in truth it can be quite stressful at times. Dark Matters specifically is a story written on the fly. Don't get me wrong, I have a basic outline, and through considerable hard effort, have given myself a bit of a buffer, but unlike my other stories, I made no attempt to write Dark Matters in its entirety before making it accessible to my readers. It makes the story more rigid, in some ways, because what has been written already has already been seen, and so the story simply must not derail itself. I also like the idea that readers can comment on the story as it is happening.

On another note, Dark Matters is written in an experimental style I like to call intimate literature. Not only does it shift into and out of the personal experiences of the characters, it sticks mostly to the present tense, third person, with an attempt at shift in intellect and perception based on whom we are observing. This leads to a need for expression that is best suited to a serial publication, because one can work each character in parts, building on their experiences as they work their way through whatever problems arise for them. Given the lack of risks traditional publishers are willing to take, it became obvious to me that if I wanted something like Dark Matters to actually find a reader base, it would have to be through less traditional means.

What are the benefits of publishing online? What are the drawbacks?

The major benefit to publishing online is the freedom to choose my own words, and connect directly with my readers. The only drawback is that the market itself is primarily in its infancy, so the boundaries between the writer and reader are not always so clear. There are a small number of writers publishing online who have also decided that they are literary critics or book/serial reviewers, and they have gone to great trouble to create websites whereby they review other writer's works.
"Given the lack of risks traditional publishers are willing to take, it became obvious to me that if I wanted something like Dark Matters to actually find a reader base, it would have to be through less traditional means."
Criticism from my readers I don't mind, but other fiction writers reviewing my work kind of caught me off guard. I really can't see Stephen King taking a literary punch at Dean R. Koontz by writing a scathing review of Breathless for the New York Times, just as an example. Online publishing, however, seems to have different standards and boundaries entirely, and it will be interesting to see how this sort of one sided, fully public 'peer review' mentality evolves.

Do you monetize your work? Why or why not? If so, how?

I have made some attempts at monetizing my work, mostly the sales of advertising, perks, and subscriptions. The project has to pay for itself. If it doesn't, ultimately it becomes a bit of an expensive hobby, all things considered.

What do you think web serials will look like in five years?

In five years, I think we will l see them evolve into more illustrated works, with greater integration of graphics. Sort of like an online plume edition. I also think RSS feeds are going to become fully integrated with readers, like Kindle is already starting to do, making it easy to pull across serials and read them as they are posted. I also expect publishers to start using the online format to test drive new authors and gauge reader responses, though I rather figure publishers will never have the kind of clout they used to have, if simply because the media online is not theirs to control.

What tips would you share with others interested in publishing serialized fiction on the web?

Take the time to make the words you're writing as perfect as possible before you put them online, and expect readers to point out every little mistake you missed even though you probably read your piece over ten times before it was ever posted. Get uncomfortable with your writing, not with your readers. Stick to your story. Focus on the things you can control. Research everything.

Dark Matters updates once a week. To check it out, visit the site here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Profiles in Web Fiction: Darien Meredith of Phantasia

We're kicking off this series with a profile of Darien Meredith. He has only been publishing his webserial Phantasia since March of 2009, but has been developing the story since 2005, and it's clear that a lot of work has gone into it.

To see the other interviews in the series, visit this page.

Phantasia follows the journey of a faerie named Phantasia Celeste who is struggling to discover herself. She feels out of place in the faerie world, and travels to the human world in an attempt to understand who she is and the power she holds.

Once in the human world, Phantasia enrolls in school and is immediately confronted with the full barrage of angst that is the human teen experience. Can innocent Phantasia cope with the harsh reality of the human world?

Something that sets Phantasia apart from other webserials is the multitude of illustrations, drawn by the author, which lend a nice touch to the story. The website itself is laid out nicely, with clear navigation to all points of interest. The webserial is updated at least once a week.

Darien was kind enough to answer my questions via email. Without further ado, here's the interview.

How and when did you start publishing online?

I first wrote a web serial in 2000 for around a year and a half, but it wasn't very good and I lost interest. I started developing Phantasia in 2005 and began publishing it online March this year after deciding I couldn't keep revising it forever!

Why did you decide to publish your work as serial fiction on the web?

I've grown up with serialised stories and I've always preferred them to standard novels. Writing a novel has just never appealed to me and everything I've ever written has been in a serial format. When I first published one it just felt like it was the best way to get it to people (most of my friends at that point had left for university) and only found out about other web fiction a short while afterwards.

What are the benefits of publishing online? What are the drawbacks?

For me I don't think there's any other option! If I sent the concept for Phantasia to a publisher, they would reject it. If the story didn't put them off (or its length!) then the diverges into illustrated territory would. Its one thing to have a Generic Fantasy Cover, it's another to have a chapter cut from text to a scene drawn like a comic... The internet, of course, allows me to do whatever I want! No one telling me "this won't be marketable" or "readers won't like this development".

The major drawback is the workload. Having a weekly deadline to meet and knowing there are hundreds of people waiting for you to update can be stressful! Then there's the illustrating, the web design, the bonus content, the advertising and promotion, the interacting with readers... It's not like just writing a manuscript.
"Ultimately it will be like Tolkien's collected works on Middle Earth, only far more navigable"

Interacting with the readers is an advantage, though. It gives you direct feedback (and encouragement!) as the story is progressing. There's always the possibility it could reverse, though, and a reader might get irate at a development they don't approve of. It's a niggling worry, but I'm stubborn (arrogant?!) enough not to write just to pander to and please the readers.

Finally, being on the internet means I can add a load of extra bits and pieces that you wouldn't get in a book (well, you could, but it wouldn't work as well). Currently I'm still working on a extensive database of information that will provide background detail on a lot of things I can't cover in the text (without segueing into awful blocks of exposition anyway!) and I have plans for short and side-stories that deal with minor characters or mentioned events that aren't key to the main story. Ultimately it will be like Tolkien's collected works on Middle Earth, only far more navigable. (no one can say I'm not ambitious!)

There are other advantages/drawbacks, but I'm rambling enough as it is.

Do you monetize your work? Why or why not? If so, how?

Not currently. The little money I make from adverts goes straight back into helping pay for my own advertising costs. I'm still in this little bubble where the idea of making money off my work seems absurd, even though it's rapidly developing into a full-time job and people tell me I should be making money off of it! I'm contemplating doing some kind of donation-incentive system like webcomics use, and developing some kind of tie-in merchandise (again, like webcomics). I'll get around to self-publishing collected volumes sometime in 2010 too.

What do you think web serials will look like in five years?

I'd like to think they'd be in the position webcomics are now, but that will depend on how the tide turns and who's riding the waves. Once e-readers are commonplace, I expect the e-book format to go a similar way to the mp3 (but not as popular, since music is more popular than reading!). I don't see the mainstream grabbing on to serials or web fiction just yet though, as the stigma of "online fiction = not good enough to be published" is going to be difficult to scrap.

What tips would you share with others interested in publishing serialized fiction on the web?

Don't go into it with the mindset of it making you popular or that you might make a living from it: do it because you enjoy it (but hey, that's a tip for any creative venture!). Of course if you do want to take things to the next level, you need to be prepared to do the research and spend money. DON'T just copy what's popular. I'll admit I've avoided - ignored even - the currents of the webserial communities and just followed my own instincts. It's done me fairly well. I expected to have 10 readers after a year, by next March I'll probably be closer to (or over) 1,000 if current trends are any indication. Then again I have no idea what readership figures are like elsewhere - a thousand could be pittance compared to other serials. But yeah, just trying to mimic what makes another serial popular will get you nowhere: work out what your story is, what its strengths are, and work with them. Don't be afraid to experiment or do your own thing, because that's what will make you stand out in the end.

Oh, and remember that a serial is different from a novel. Learn the differences in the way their narrative is structured. Think about the differences between a TV series and a film, for example. Make the most of the advantages the serialised medium gives you, like the wait between chapters and reader debate over what might happen (or what they want to happen). Long-running Japanese comics are a good inspiration for serialisation, but then I've grown up with such things and may be biased.


Thanks to Darien for taking the time to answer my questions.

To check out his work, be sure to visit Phantasia.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Profiles in Web Fiction

Profiles in Web Fiction is a series of interviews with web authors - writers that are publishing their work in serialized form on the web.

I think that web fiction is on the cusp of going mainstream, and these guys and gals are pushing the envelope with this new publishing paradigm.

These interviews provide a look into the state of web fiction today, and a glimpse into the future of storytelling.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Upcoming series: Profiles in Web Fiction

Over the next few weeks, I'll be interviewing several web fiction authors - writers that are publishing their work in serialized form on the web.

Web fiction has yet to go mainstream, having thus far been dominated by works of fan fiction (known as fanfic), but I think this will change in the coming years, as eReaders and netbooks become commonplace and people become more accustomed to reading books, magazines, newspapers, etc. in digital form.

As the saying goes, "writers write," and these guys and gals are pushing the envelope with this new publishing paradigm. I hope to have the first post in the series up by the end of the week, so keep an eye out for it.