Interview with Wildbow

Yes, ChromaCurves, Wildbow is magic.
Yes, ChromaCurves, Wildbow is magic.

In 2011, JC “Wildbow”  McCrae launched the first chapter of Worm. Within two years, it was finished with 1.75 million words. In 2014, near the end of my Junior year in college, I discovered the story through TV Tropes and fell in love immediately. Seriously, go read it. It is freaking amazing. After that, he would go on to write Pact (now finished at 950,000 words) and Twig, which is currently ongoing. In the meantime, Worm has generated active fan communities on DeviantArt, TV Tropes (seriously, look how many times its been mentioned on other pages,) and Reddit.

t4nky: Before we begin, did I miss anything about you in my introduction that you want to add?

Wildbow: I should clarify that Worm took 2.4 years to finish.  I don’t want to claim more productivity than I’m due.  It should also be noted that Worm was my first time writing for the public.

t4nky: Now I know you’re probably not going to answer this ever, but for my fellow Worm fans I must ask this: What exactly does the Sleeper do? What are his powers?

Wildbow: Sleeper was written in as a response to a fan saying that I shouldn’t go into detail and explain every character.  He featured in a snippet I wrote back in the day (I spent ten years writing bits and pieces of superhero stuff before settling on the story I wanted to write) and seemed like a good one to drop in.  He does have a power, but I think it’s best left unsaid, perhaps until the sequel.

t4nky: Ok, on to the real questions. On the Web Fiction Guide forums where all us web serial authors hang out, you’re kind of famous for your ability to turn out more work in shorter periods of time and of greater quality than the rest of us. How are you able to do this?

Penny Arcade somehow managing to capture WFG's thoughts on Wildbow.
Penny Arcade somehow managing to capture WFG’s thoughts on Wildbow.

Wildbow: Honestly, it’s about putting hours in front of the keyboard, committing to an update schedule, and giving myself no other choice than to get the writing done. Six months in, I set minimum wordcounts, and about a year and a half into the writing I raised that minimum wordcount.  Always testing and taxing myself.  This probably isn’t news to members of the community or anyone that’s stalked me on reddit, but in 2011 I was in University and doing the writing (though I had the benefit of a backlog during that period), and in 2012 I was working intermittently, putting in maybe an average of 20-30 hours of regular work and 35-50 hours of sitting down and writing at the keyboard.

In my day today, I would wake up, and the first thought in my head would be the writing.  When’s the next chapter due?  What am I doing today?  Where can I fit in the writing?  Get up out of bed, go eat, shower, check some things or directions if I was working (mostly doing painting and landscaping and minor handyman assistant stuff), walk the dog, thinking all the while, what are the challenges, what haven’t I figured out for the next chapter?  Thinking, musing, everything I’m dealing with is cross-checked against the challenges/snarl/thing I’m trying to overcome.  I’d wait for & then hop on the bus to head to the location, and I’d have a notebook out, or my beat up itouch in notepad mode, tucked under one arm as I paid my fare and found my seat.  I’d start writing the chapter, trying not to scribble on the page too much when the bus went over bumps, or I’d be making notes and blocking things out in rough form, this chapter this happens, then this, then that, point form.

I’d get to wherever I was working and get everything together, make sure I knew what I was doing, then knuckle down and get to doing something brainless, music playing, painting walls or putting up drywall, and all the while, I’d be playing through conversations in myhead, and I’d mentally store all the best quips and lines and observations.  I’d think about characters and their perspectives and what led them to be what they are.

I’d finish the day’s work, get home, write down anything I was afraid I wouldn’t remember if I waited, then I’d read, watch something, or game for an hour or two, check comments and reviews, then spend a bit writing.

On days I didn’t work, the process would be the same, except that I’d sit down to start writing at about 10am, I’d ideally finish at 11pm, edit until midnight, let the chapter upload, then spend a few hours awake, looking for typo notifications and feedback.  Crash, sleep, wake up, then either work or have a ‘lazy day’ where I’d do errands and try to recuperate.  But even on a lazy day, there wouldn’t be ten minutes that went by without me thinking about the writing, and what I was doing with it.

It consumed me, but I found my way to that state by being dedicated to the update scedule and giving myself no other choice.  I couldn’t and can’t conceive of a reality where I work a desk job or trade or whichever, writing feels like the only option that suits me as an individual, and I knew that being successful at writing is a 1 in 100 shot.  I wasn’t even thinking about that in terms of making a living (that’s 1 in 100 out of the people who are successful) or making it big (that’s 1 out of 100 of those people), just about writing something good that got attention. The only variable I could control was the amount of work that I put into it.  There was no way I was willing to do what I was doing, make the sacrifices, devote myself wholesale to it, and then look back and think ‘I should have worked harder’.
All-in.

Jorangeart's rendering of the demon Barbatorem from Pact.
Jorangeart’s rendering of the demon Barbatorem from Pact.

t4nky: So, one of the things I learned reading your blog is that Worm wasn’t originally Worm. There were several other stories before Worm was Worm where you wrote that focused on different aspects of the universe. Did Pact and Twig go through a similar process?

Wildbow: When I spent the ages of 15 to 25 meandering through writing, struggling to write something more than a few pages long before burning out on it, it was a fifty-thirty-twenty balance of superhero, modern supernatural and other stuff, respectively.  Pact, like Worm, was built on the graveyard of failed writings in the same genre (and a few tidbits from other genres).  Pact’s writing mostly featured Maggie Holt as the protagonist, but I decided fairly late (as in, shortly before I wrote the first pact snippet, a few weeks before Pact started) that I would probably end up making her too much like Taylor of Worm.  You can’t put so much of yourself in the story and so much of the story in yourself for 2.4 years without something bleeding over.  Blake had existed in snippets before, and I tweaked him to make him as different from Taylor as possible, while still being comfortable to write.  I think I needed to, to avoid constraining myself as a writer.

Twig, by contrast, did have some snippets and drafts done, but far less than you would think.  A half dozen at most, compared to the number I did for Worm (a hundred or more snippets) or Pact (slightly less).  I do think it shows in little ways, the language and the conceit of the setting isn’t so well established from the outset, but it’s not so lacking that people have complained or fled in droves.

t4nky: Speaking of those other stories, was it hard to show any of those stories to the public? Are there any you want to revisit?

Wildbow: Worm is the first story I showed to the public.  When Worm ended, I gave people a peek at the snippets and drafts I wrote prior to settling on Worm as a story.  They were rough, but I think the writing of Worm revealed more of me and showed off more in the way of my writerly vulnerabilities than the snippets did.  The snippets were casual, more a thought exercise than anything, and Worm itself was something that took a lot out of me.  I had a lot of hopes and stuff resting on Worm, and I cared and care more about how Worm is received than any rough sketches I wrote years ago.

t4nky: You plan on doing a sequel to Worm. How do you top it? Once you put the entire world at risk, you can’t really top it, especially the way you did it.

Wildbow: People have frequently said that Worm is an exercise in ‘just when I thought it couldn’t be topped, Wildbow raised the bar’.  I don’t think it’s impossible to take things a step further.

That said, my instinct is that I don’t necessarily want to make the same journey.  In writing Twig, I’m experimenting more with different degree and pacing of conflict, and I’m hoping to take lessons learned from this and carry them forward.  I know people generally enjoy the street-level stuff, and having more of it with some plots and quandaries would be nice.

t4nky: One of the recurring themes in your work is that powers don’t really make the person, its the person who makes the power. A lot of your more dangerous characters seem underpowered at first glance, then they use their power in some unexpected way. How do you keep coming up with new ways to use powers?

Wildbow: I write myself into corners.  A character has a certain set of skills, they have strengths and weaknesses.  Take that character, and thrust them into a scene where their weaknesses are highlighted and they can’t draw on their full strengths.  How do they cope?  I force myself to look through the character’s eyes, look at what they have available to them, and look for alternate angles.  Some of the best cliffhangers and tricks in Worm or Pact (and perhaps Twig too, though it’s early days still) came from scenes where I had no idea how the characters would survive the encounter before I started the chapter.  Of course, it’s important that a writer not twist events to make things easier on the character, and if I can’t think of a solution, then the character shouldn’t be able to either – and the character suffers accordingly.

I think this is what makes some scenes so intense for the reader.  The character is struggling to survive and the desperate gambits we see are echoed by my writerly desperation to figure out a way to keep things going.

t4nky: So, what are some of your inspirations for your stories? I have my own guesses, but I kind of want to hear from you. [My guesses: Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Especially Moore. You can’t tell me Watchmen had no effect on Worm.]

Wildbow:Oh boy.  My answer may seem contentious here, but I don’t know that inspiration exists like people expect it to, and when this question comes up, I’m always a little suspicious of the person asking, and even the person answering.
Mark Twain wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”  – pay attention to the part where he says ‘a lot of’ and ‘kaleidoscope’.  I think to truly create anything original with its own merit, you have to consume vast amounts of media.  People say you need to read, but I believe in watching television, watching movies, reading comics, reading manga, listening to music, meeting people, and going through hardships.

If something is so centric to a work that an author can say, “I was inspired by [movie] or [book]”, then my gut feeling is that they haven’t broken down things into small enough pieces.  I could list a thousand works that inspired tidbits or facets of Worm, but I feel like it would be dishonest to point to something in abstract and give it a measure of credit.  I’m forced to give a really crummy answer and maybe sound pretentious and simply say, “Too many things to count,” or, “Everything.”

That said, when I started out, my goal was to figure out how to write more than a few pages at a time.  I was in University, I was studying applied language, and the topic of the writing process came up.  I’d been so focused on the product, the words on the page, the lack of pages, and the lack of quality, that I’d failed to look at the process.  I decided to change my process, change how I wrote, and I don’t know that I would have decided to write a web serial if I hadn’t read Jim Zoeteway’s Legion of Nothing and Alexandra Erin’s Tales of MU.  Inspiration is the wrong word, because I feel like it would be misrepresenting what I wrote and what they wrote by drawing a parallel that doesn’t entirely exist, but in a way, they did give me permission, and I feel like I owe them a great deal.

t4nky: You said that you weren’t going to do physical editions of Pact. Why? It would be a shame if you don’t because it fell victim to how distracted I get when I try to read something online and I want to give it a second chance. Print form would be a good way to do that.

Wildbow: Pact suffered because I had real life things going on at the time of the writing.  My mother was in and out of the hospital, I was having trouble with my living situation, was trying to find (and later move to) a new place out of town where rent would be cheaper and there would be less day to day hassle, and a big chunk of the year was dominated by my brother’s wedding, which was so out of the way that three cars didn’t survive the trip, with an excess of ten thousand dollars in repair costs.

I was distracted, and in the midst of that distraction, I defaulted to more escalation, more tension, and skipped things that would have given the story more depth.  A recurring complaint about Pact is that it doesn’t stop.  It doesn’t provide respite.  There are things people like about it, and it does have its good points, but the problems in terms of how it’s all put together are such that it would almost require a wholesale rewrite to produce something I’d be really happy publishing.

Worm is twice as long as Pact (and took twice as long to write), but I feel like editing Pact to bring it up to par would take two to four times as long as it would with Worm.

Even if I did put in the time and energy, I suspect Pact wouldn’t pay off the way I hope Worm might.

It’s simply not worth it, in terms of the effort for the payoff.

My favorite rendering of Skitter. Created by liujuin.
My favorite rendering of Skitter. Created by liujuin.

t4nky: When did you realize that Worm was taking off? What was your first thought when it hit you?

Wildbow: Earlier, I talked about different measures.  The one in a hundred chance that I might produce something people generally consider ‘excellent’.  I think Gavin William’s review was the point where I thought, “Worm could be something” and “People really like this.” – that was when I realized that I could be that one in a hundred.  My expectation at the time was that I could have a primary job and I would spend my spare time writing.  There would be sacrifices, but such would be my mark on the world.

The point where I realized that making it as a writer might be within my grasp was in early 2013, when I received my first one thousand dollar donation.  I received another almost a month later.  I was thrilled, I could barely contain myself, and I was daunted because the donation meant I had to write five bonus chapters in coming weeks (swiftly escalating to thirteen after the second donation).  I was able to stop working the odd jobs (barring one every month or every couple of weeks) and coast on the funds and savings.  My entire life changed, but it remained something dreamlike, like I was dazed, and I couldn’t quite believe that things were going the way they were.

At the point where Worm was finishing, Eliezer Yudkowsky, author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, made a recommendation for Worm, a lot of people were picking up the story, and people were excited.  My readership doubled in the last few months, I had donations in the thousands of dollars.  That was when I knew that there was a very real possibility that Worm could make it big.  I told myself not to get my hopes up, but some serials out there had garnered less attention and been approached by major publishers, and that perhaps something would come of it.

Nothing on that scale has come up, though I have been approached by countless entrepreneurs and startups, by small publishers and editors, and I’ve been contacted by record keepers who ask about rights and contact information for television and movie studios, with no indication of who it was that they were asking on behalf of (and no responses from those individuals since).

It’s still a little hard to believe, looking at it all in abstract.  When I started Worm I had zero self esteem, I was struggling through University, struggling to write, and I had no vision for my future.  Now I’m in a nice affordable apartment in a small town with fanart on my wall and I’m paying my bills, and I’m doing it with writing as my sole source of income.  A part of me still expects to wake up or for reality to catch up with me.

t4nky: On a related note, did you make the TV Tropes page and the Subreddit or did fans make them? If you did create one, what were the reasons?

Wildbow:I created the TV tropes page, and as I must do every time I bring this up, I should stress that this is allowed, based on what I’ve read, but being the sole contributor of the page is discouraged and may suggest you’re not noteworthy.  I did it because fans bugged me and kept talking about doing it but never actually made it happen.  Once it was created with five or ten entries in it, I let it be, and fans expanded it.  TV tropes has been my primary or secondary source of new readers, all in all, with people wiki-walking their way to my writing in the same way you probably did.

t4nky: You’ve got a lot of people who’ve made fan art for Worm. Have you considered commissioning cover art from one of them? Also, do you have any particular favorites?

Wildbow:I’m fond of Aerryi’s work, and have a big print of her ‘Green Eyes’ on the wall of my office, with plans to print more and put up above my desk when I’m home for a more extended period of time.

The artwork in question. Find it on DeviantArt
The artwork in question. Find it on DeviantArt here.

There’s also an image of Tattletale that was commissioned, which is flat out beautiful, even if she’s sitting on a tightrope for no apparent reason.  I plan to contact the artist and get his permission to print out the artwork, as I did with Aerryi.

In terms of cover art, I don’t want to commit to anything, and I think a number of the fan-artists I might contract are adamantly against doing work for pay.  I have commissioned art from fans (the banner for Pact on TWF and the header image for Twig, as well), and I’m happy to involve fans and give back to the community that’s given me so much.

t4nky: I forget the exact threads, but at several points on Reddit, you mention how you’re pretty much deaf without hearing aids. Is there any reason you haven’t had a deaf character into your story? The way you describe it, it seems like it would make a good story.

Wildbow:I was born eleven weeks early, I got a bad blood transfusion with cytomegalovirus, which led to hyperbilirubenemia (blood broke down, I turned orange, system failure), had multiple cardiac arrests, yadda yadda yadda.  Out of the seven causes of deafness in newborns, I had six, dodging only the meningitis bullet.  I’m severely to profoundly deaf (a good eight or nine out of ten on the ‘can’t hear’ scale, depending on whether it’s high or low pitched sound), got hearing aids (and later a cochlear implant) and went to a regular school.

I’ve drawn on my experiences, with Taylor and Blake both paralleling my experiences in different ways and phases of my life, but I I think that telling a story with a character that can’t effectively communicate is difficult, and would require a different sort of circumstance or story to effectively share.

t4nky: After you finish Twig and Worm 2, what’s next? Are you going to continue to find your niche? Revisit some other old stuff? Or are you going to try something completely different?

Wildbow: Worm 2 may well be long, depending on the shape it takes in the end, and I figure I’ll have some time to explore and figure out where to go next.  At this stage, I would rather explore than try to find and wedge myself into a niche, and I would hope to tell a variety of stories, occasionally revisiting old favorites.

My experiences with writing have told me that it’s hard to predict what comes further down the line.  A part of me hopes that something might end up happening with people wanting to pick up my work or adapt it or something else, and I’d rather leave possibilities open rather than commit to something at this stage.  It may well be that I end up working with a TV studio to produce a Worm show, or switching tacks to pursue a secondary project.  I would like to keep writing, no matter what I do, so that readers have things to come back to, though, and with this in mind, I’m always thinking about what I might write next, much in the same way I’m always thinking ‘what am I doing for the next chapter?  The next arc?’.

A part of me wonders about maybe just shaking things up, practicing beginnings and endings, and simply spending a year writing a self contained story every month or two.  See about writing six to ten novels in a year, how good I can make them, and whether I can switch tacks.

But, as in all things, what happens after Worm 2 depends.

t4nky: When you aren’t writing, managing, and promoting your web serials, what do you do for fun? Do you watch movies, TV shows, listen to music, play games, read books? Anything you’d recommend?

Wildbow: I go for walks, I write up game concepts, work on Weaver Dice (the work-in-progress Worm pen and paper game), watch movies, watch TV, read comics, read manga, and play games.  I tend to enjoy things that break new ground or try new things, and dislike rehashed stuff.  I’ve liked movies with an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I really disliked, say, John Wick, which my fans were raving about in the chatroom, because it was ultimately something I’ve seen before in various incarnations.

My game playing tends toward PC games, with indie games favored over the triple-A titles.  I’ve got a ridiculous number of hours in Binding of Isaac (mostly Rebirth), and I periodically play League of Legends, though I’m not that good, and end up coaching newbies rather than playing ranked games or anything in that vein.  I find competitive games tend to make me viscerally unhappy if I play them too much, so it’s something I mostly play with friends a couple of times a week than anything.

In movies, I tend to like dark, psychological films, or family films, but what I don’t watch is a smaller category than what I do – I lean away from goofy/stupid comedies or romances, though I have enjoyed them when made to sit down and watch.  In television shows, I find I look for the stuff I can binge watch.

Not actually answering the question here, but when I listen to music, it’s most often when I’m writing.  I find MrSuicideSheep’s playlists on Youtube to be a good place to go, and when I recommend them to other authors, the response is often positive.  That said, I’m deaf, so it’s hard to confidently recommend music.

t4nky: As an advocate of the web serial form, do you have any hopes for web serials in general? Any advice for newcomers?

Wildbow:As someone who follows indie games, and as someone old enough to have at least casually followed how games progressed from the 90s through the twenty-oughts and twenty-teens, I saw how indie games became a thing unto themselves.  Independent, single-creator or small-studio ventures weren’t a big thing until a series of indie games popped up and made it big, all in quick succession.  Cave Story, La Mulana, Minecraft, World of Goo, Spelunky, and more, they were games that were good and caught attention and found success, and indie games entered the public consciousness.  Some of those games might not get credit nowadays, but they were important, and they helped break new ground.

I think serials need that.  A collection of works in a short span of time that each find their own success and collectively raise up the medium to something more recognizable.  I think it’s doable, I think it’s eventually going to happen, and it’s a question of who and when.  I don’t know if or think that it’s going to be me among them, though I hope Worm or Pact or Twig might help shore things up and clear the way.

To make it as a serialist, and to be in the right place and the right position when the time comes, I think new authors may well have to make sacrifices and make calculated risks.  I see a lot of new authors starting without backlogs, and then floundering early on.  Get those twelve or fifteen or one hundred chapters done in advance, whatever it takes to not miss updates before you find your stride.  If you want to succeed, you have to work for it, and you have to be professional.  It’s not so different from being at a competitive workplace and deciding you can skip a few days of work because life is hard.  If it’s a really cutthroat environment (and writing is deceptively competitive as a field), taking one day off will cost you far more than it gives you in respite.  In much the same vein, I would echo Scott Kurtz (Artist and author of PvP) in saying that when you work online, you don’t get a break.  I see similar statements from major youtubers, from game streamers, from online actors and from artists.  Know what you’re getting into.

That isn’t to say that casually writing web serials is bad.  Just know that you get what you put into it.  If you write casually, then you get a casual audience, and a casual audience doesn’t comment or visit regularly.

Writing is work.  Take time before you launch your serial, write as many chapters as you can before you even start.  Use that time to gauge how fast you write, how hard it is, and whether you think you could keep it up during a typical ‘tough week’ for you.  Adjust accordingly.  Before I started Worm, I planned to write three to five chapters a week (the site url is ‘parahumans’ because I intended it to be a series of interweaving stories), but I did the backlog, decided that two chapters a week was my limit, decided to write only one of the five interweaving stories, and later expanded things the occasional third when enough donations rolled around.

Write something you enjoy, and hope that there’s a share of audience out there that has the same tastes you do.  There are no guarantees, and there’s probably less guarantees with comedy or romance, but if you’re passionate about what you write, then you’ll probably find an audience that’s passionate about it too.

t4nky: One final question, before we wrap things up. You have a tendency to, at the end of every serial, do something called a post-mortem in the game design world where you go back and write to everyone about what you think you got wrong and what you got right. Do you think that helps you? Is it more helpful to post it publicly where everyone can see it? Who does it help most: you, your readers, or aspiring authors?

Wildbow: In University, I studied applied languages.  How does language work, where do we use it, how do we learn it, or teach it?

As part of that, there was some discussion of the triangle, where the author, the text, and the audience are at different points.  There’s a relationship between each, and through every step of the process, every idea, every conceit, there’s interplay between each of the three.  For the most part, however, outside of periodic comments, the author’s relationship with the audience is mostly dictated through the text.  What I want people to feel, what I want to convey, the surprises I want to spring.

It’s intimate, and it’s a long journey.

The afterword serves to allow me to directly communicate to the audience.  The journey is over, I’ve held their hands, I’ve led them this far.  Now I’m letting go, and with the afterword, I can let them know directly that they were heard, appreciated, what happened, where I stand, and where I hope to go.  It’s a rare chance to just address the audience as a collective.  By doing it this way, I can make sure that the audience knows who I am, when the relationship might otherwise be skewed by the implications and the impressions they get through the long and storied relationship as the epic story is told.

I might fling characters blind and crippled into burning buildings surrounded by soldiers, strip away their humanity, kill their loved ones and friends, or deny them hope, I might sentence them to death or destroy their worlds, but really truly, I’m just a very quiet, gentle guy that’s endlessly grateful to his audience.

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