If you’ve followed my blog for while, you’ll know that I’ve been fairly interested in the history of web serials. Recently, I got the chance to talk to someone who’s been writing since the very early days of web fiction. Eric Burns-White has been posting stories on the internet since the 1980’s. Here are some of his thoughts on the early days of web serials.
T4nky: Hi! I’ve been planning on doing an article on the Usenet days of web serials and were told you were the guy to talk to. Is it ok if I ask you a few questions?
Eric Burns-White: Sure! Depending on your definition of web serials, of course. 🙂
T4nky: My definition, for all intents and purposes would be the @webfictionguide def. However, my first question is about Usnet. I know that Usenet was basically the internet pre-internet. How did it work? Did you access it via dial-up?
EBW: Well, it wasn’t the internet pre-internet — it ran on the internet. The internet dates back decades. It’s closer to say it was the web before the web, but even that’s a bit off. Generally, one accessed it via a college account (or rarely work or private) via dialup or in-lab. Well, it wasn’t the internet pre-internet — it ran on the internet. The internet dates back decades. That was then supplanted by NICBBS, which used the same technology, and that was supplanted by Listservs.
T4nky: How was it divided up? Were there various “web sites?” When you finally started posting your stories, where did you put them on Usenet?
EBW: As for “sites” — there weren’t so much sites as there were lists that various people maintained. Honestly, wherever people communicate with each other in any fashion, someone uses it to tell stories. I made two of my biggest moves (to Upstate, NY and to Seattle) to move in with Superguy writers but I posted my last novella-length Superguy piece in 2009.
People could then use e-mail based commands to request archives and lists of the archives on these services. Those lists would give instructions on subscribing or finding the archives for stories and the like. In effect, everything was word of mouth. Search technology was far less ubiquitous or user-friendly. Usenet, on the other hand, was based on a protocol called NNTP. Posts distributed to local repositories.
Now, I’ve done a lot of things online, but in the period you’re talking about I wrote for two lists. (This would have been 1986-87ish through the 90’s, for the record.) One was called SFStory, and it was officially a round-robin collaborative story. One person would write a post, the next person would pick the story up, and so on. I say “officially” because in practice we ended up adopting characters and plots & keeping clear of others. We would respond to *events* in other peoples’ stories in our own, giving a sense of unity.
The other list was called Superguy — a superhero universe — which followed a more traditional shared universe setup.We had our own stories under our own titles, but loosely coordinated and borrowed. Superguy’s better explained at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superguy.(Coincidentially, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was also an early Superguy writer.) Over time, of course, we adapted to different methods.
For a while the stories were available via Gopher. A good number of Superguy writers later on reposted their stories to (here it is) Usenet. Usenet *did* have their own story groups of course (most notably the Legion of Net.Heroes and its ilk). One other note — it’s easy to make all this sound like ancient history
T4nky: I’ve noticed you made the transition to the world wide web at some point. When did you do this and why?
EBW:It’s nothing so formal. As new technologies emerged, writers went with them. It’s still happening now.
T4nky: Could I have a link to this list?
EBW: The wikipedia article I linked has links to Superguy. I’ll also mention — though I wasn’t involved with it — Dargon: http://dargonzine.org/
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?
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’.
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 Wormwhere 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.
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.
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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Chris Poirier is the man behind Web Fiction Guide (WFG) and Top Web Fiction guide (TWF.) Like most web serial authors, I owe him a huge debt. Of the sites that refer people to my serial, WFG, TWF and the WFG forums have been the sites that have come in first, second, and fifth. That translates into something along the lines of seven hundred and thirty seven people referred by sites he maintains. By the time you read this, that number will have increased.
t4nky: In your own words, why should a person thinking of writing a web serial writing a web serial get involved in Web Fiction Guide.
Chris Poirier: The best reason is the self-serving one: we offer free publicity. That is hard to come by–particularly if you don’t have an existing fan base to spread the word. That’s the reason to list, and why we have a steady queue of new submissions waiting.
What I think a lot of authors don’t understand is just getting listed isn’t enough. The site is set up to ensure *readers* have the biggest say in what new visitors get to see. Authors who list and leave usually get back as much as the effort they put in, which is to say very little. It’s the ones who participate–who link back to us, who ask their readers to review, who establish relationships with other authors, who write a few reviews themselves–those are the ones who see the most benefits.
As with most human endeavours, we are stronger together than alone. Serializing fiction is no different.
t4nky: When did you first become involved in the world of web serials? Did you decide to write your own and discover other writers or did you find several web serials that got you hooked?
CP: I started writing my serial, _Winter Rain_, back in 2008, on the encouragement of Sarah Suleski (author of Alisiyad, Dreamers, and Queen of Seven). We knew each other from an online writers’ group, and she thought it would help me get over my long-standing writer’s block. When I started, I didn’t even have a story idea. I think maybe I was going to do a collection of flash fiction. I just wanted to write something tense, as I’d had a lot of trouble with that in the past. Well, the first post went up, Sarah liked it and so did I, and over the next 24 hours, with the help of an old Irish faerie tale I liked, I came up with a story and ran with it.
Winter Rain ran for 18 months. Sadly, I wasn’t able to finish it. That lack of planning at the start (compounded perhaps by a lack of imagination on my part), doomed the story. I wrote myself into a corner I couldn’t find my way out of, and after nearly 80 instalments, I had to apologize to my readers and walk away.
All in, I’m glad I attempted it. Next time, though, I’ll do things rather differently.
t4nky: What are some of your favorite web serials? What is your all-time favorite? What are a few you are currently reading?
CP: I’m actually not reading a lot, right now. I’ve been very busy with work and personal projects, so pretty much all of my online reading time now goes to processing the WFG submission queue. I get to see everything we list, but don’t get to spend a lot of time with any given story.
Looking through my past reviews, I loved The God Eaters, by Jesse Hajicek. And Kip Manley has recently announced that City of Roses will be starting up again soon, which I’m looking forward to. And I’m currently reading Rackham & Crane, which we just listed. It’s got this understated creepiness to it that I quite like.
t4nky: How often do you look over Top Web Fiction or recent submissions to find new things to read?
CP: I process stories from the submission queue as often as I have time, but that often ends up being only once or twice a week. I usually try to approve at most three new stories a day, in order to give them some time on the home page, but if the backlog is particularly long, I sometimes have to go as high as six in one session.
As for TWF, I honestly don’t look at it at all except for administration purposes. But that’s fine–I’m not the target audience for that site, so I feel no guilt about it. 🙂
t4nky: So how long have you been managing Web Fiction Guide? I assume it was some time after you became involved in the community. What made you believe it was needed?
CP: As I mentioned earlier, I was friends with Sarah Suleski, back when she was working on Alisiyad. I had set up her site for Alisiyad in late 2007, so I had some basic understanding of the ecosystem from her. I started writing Winter Rain in early June of 2008, and I think WFG went live the first week of July, 2008. It was pretty quick, once we decided to do it. I built the necessary WordPress plugins and theme over the course of a week, while Sarah put together the original editorial team, picked from authors and reviewers she knew from her time on Pages Unbound, a listing site Alexandra Erin used to run.
At the time, Pages Unbound was really the only game in town, but it had a lot of technical and systemic problems. That’s why we decided to start WFG. We thought we could do a better job.
To be honest, we were a bit naive. One of our initial goals was to give every listed story an editorial review. We wanted to make sure the good stuff got some attention, even if it didn’t have a large cheering section. Ultimately, that proved unsustainable. Writing a quality review takes a lot of time, and the volume of things to read is just prohibitive. And, every once in a while, an author would go ballistic over a negative review from an editor–which can be very stressful.
These days, I understand Alexandra Erin’s situation with Pages Unbound much more clearly. One of my personal motivations for starting WFG was I wanted to do a faster turnaround on the submission queue. At that time, getting a listing on Pages Unbound was taking between two and four weeks, which I thought was unacceptable. As it’s turned out, I can’t often do any better myself. 😦
t4nky: How hard was Top Web Fiction to design and implement? Is it hard to maintain?
CP: I think I put TWF together in a couple of hours one afternoon. It draws from the same tables and uses the same infrastructure as WFG, so there is very little to it.
To be honest, other than uploading banners for listings (which I still do by hand, as I haven’t been able to justify the time it would take to automate it), the largest amount of time TWF has ever required was several months ago, when it became obvious that a few authors were doing some things to inflate their vote counts. I was sorely tempted to remove those listings from TWF. In the end, I spent several days developing countermeasures instead. I’m hoping I won’t have to do it again.
t4nky: On a similar note, do you have to add in every entry yourself? If so, how much work is it?
CP: TWF and WFG draw from the same database, so there is only one submission queue for both.
Processing a submission takes anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on numerous factors (including my mood). The existing submission form has proven well-below-optimal in terms of getting quality data for the system, so I still have to check everything by hand, and usually correct stuff. I also look over each story, to ensure that it meets our requirements, that it seems consistent with the submitted information, and to decide if I should promote it for the community (those “Editor’s First Impression” things that sometimes show up in the review section). All in, it’s a lot of work.
t4nky: If you could add one new feature to TWF and WFG, what would it be?
CP: WFG’s software is six years old. It needs a complete rewrite. The ranking algorithm needs adjusting, and the user experience is too static and text-heavy. Also, a large part of the design was built on a social contract that did not survive reality (ie. an active editorial presence).
Redesigning and rewriting the site is something I really want to get finished this year. So far, finding the time has proven a large problem.
t4nky: The first time I went on the Web Fiction Guide Patreon page, there were several more goals, reaching all the way up to $75. Now, you only have a $10 goal. What were the missing goals and why did you decide to get rid of them?
CP: At the time, the RSS feed situation was becoming a bone of contention in the community. Every listing can include an RSS feed, which the site software uses to provide a summary of recent updates on the listing page. It also provides the data for the home page “Featured Updates” section.
Now, WFG runs on shared hosting, which means I’m very careful about server resource use. I don’t want to be asked to leave for exceeding the limits of the shared account. So, as a result, I was only processing the RSS feeds for stories that had an editorial review at or above 3.5 stars, and processing frequency was tied to rating as well (higher rated stories got their RSS feed checked more often). But, with the paucity of editorial reviews, lots of stories were being excluded. Authors were justifiably annoyed.
At the time, without really thinking it through, I thought the easy solution would be to move the site to cloud hosting, where we’d have tons of resources, but that was going to incur a significant increase in costs. So I asked for help. The community responded, and I went to do the work. Of course, at that point, I actually did the math to determine just how much hardware I needed, and it turned out I had seriously overestimated the cost of loading the RSS feeds. So much so that we can load every feed every day and still not piss off our shared host. So, I dropped the goals, advised the community, and that’s where things stand now.
There might at some point be new goals. People are currently asking that we get a logo for links and such. I’ll probably set up a goal to fund basic marketing stuff like that.
t4nky: How many people on average visit WFG and Top Web Fiction every day? How many are then referred to a web serial?
CP: Stats–particularly web stats–are usually over-inflated. There’s a lot of bots on the web, IP addresses of mobile devices change constantly… even with sophisticated measures, it’s really hard to get legitimate stats. WFG’s tracking software thinks it sees somewhere between 400 and 600 unique visitors a day. I haven’t checked TWF’s stats in a while (and I’d have to do some work to do it now, so I’m not going to), but we get a couple of thousand *votes* a week, so presumably the number of actual visitors is somewhat higher than that.
t4nky: Earlier on, I mentioned how many people are referred to my serial by your sites. What sites refer the most people to you?
CP: I haven’t looked at a breakdown in years. Last time I did, well more than half our traffic to WFG was direct (ie. people using a bookmark). Nearly all of TWF’s traffic was via a vote link from a listed site.
t4nky: How many serials are listed on WFG? How many would you say are still active?
CP: A quick look in the database says we have just over 1000 listings. I’d say maybe 400 of them are still online. Actively updating is a subset of that.
t4nky: You’ve been around the scene for a while and have seen some stuff. What are some important events in web serial history?
CP: To be honest, I have a memory like a sieve, and history has never been my strong subject. You’d best ask this question of someone else. 🙂
CP: I don’t think there are any tricks. They are all good writers who produce consistently, and who engage with their readership. It may well be that simple.
t4nky: Some genres (cough, superheros, cough) seem over-represented, while some like realistic fiction are barely represented at all. Do you think there’s a reason for this?
CP: It’s not really a new phenomenon. When we started, every other story had a vampire or a magic school. Next it was zombies. Now it’s superheroes. Next year, who knows?
Perhaps more so than with other media, web serialists write what they like to read. Of late, a lot of people who read _Worm_ decided to write their own superhero stories. Before that, _Adrian’s Undead Diary_ (and more generally, things like _The Walking Dead_ and _Left4Dead_) inspired a lot of zombie stories. Before that, it was _Twilight_ and _Harry Potter_. What’s next? If you know, there’s probably a high-paying job waiting for you at a publisher somewhere. 😉
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T4nky: For people who have never heard of the story, The Other Kind of Roommate, could you give a brief description? If someone wants to read it, where can they find it?
Tartra:The Other Kind of Roommate (TOKoR) is a lighthearted, urban fantasy that follows Alex, a superpowered recluse hiding for his life; Xander, the temperamental voice in Alex’s head; and Beth, the chatty artist living under both of them, as the three go on the run from a power-harvesting organization known only as the Agency.
T4nky: What is the process behind writing an update? Do you plan it out ahead of time? How long do they normally take to write?
Tartra: Two parts panic, four parts coffee, six parts swearing at my computer screen. The planning process takes anywhere from three weeks to four months, during which I’ll come up with snippets of what should be in an update but are only fleshed out when I get close to that part of the story. Sitting down and actually writing – thanks to the magic of deadlines – takes roughly four days, with the bulk of the work being in those last two. The vast majority of my effort is spent just coming up with things to write, and as of right now, I have the ‘snippets’ ready for the next five posts, plus a bunch of eventual milestones.
T4nky: One of the characters you introduce, Bethany Keeler, is a starving artist. Almost literally. Is this a position you or a friend has been in?
Tartra: I’ve been fortunate to never have to be a starving anything, and most of the artists I’ve met were university students in run-down residences. I modelled Beth’s living situation a little after them, minus being a student, and figured the few but notable sales she’s made were enough motivation to keep her in that environment and waiting for her big break. So no, she’s not drawn from any personal or friends’ experiences, but she’s been inspired by real-life observations.
T4nky: Do you have a day job and/or go to school? If so, is it hard to keep a consistent schedule?
Tartra: This is where the four-parts-coffee comes in. I work 9-5, in addition to my two hours of commuting, in addition to the hour I need to get up in the morning. It’s a draining chunk of my day gone, and it most certainly impacts my schedule. The hardest part of committing to TOKoR was realizing I can’t add it to my schedule; I have to swap out other things I love just as much. It’s reined in my social life, for starters, but after months of working around my story instead of trying to work in, I (hopefully!) found a nice balance.
T4nky: How hard is it to get fan feedback? Do you get a lot of comments on your site or other places you post?
Tartra: Fan feedback isn’t hard to get. Fans are hard to get. I do get a lot of comments on my website and on other forums I head to. I’ve worked hard to seem as open to feedback as I sincerely am: I’ve directly welcomed it, I’m happy to chat back, I am slowly building extras for others to get into, and I haven’t failed to reply to an email. Surprisingly, I get more emails than comments!
T4nky: Is there a fan-favorite character in your serial? Do you have a favorite character? Are they the same?
Tartra: Everybody loves Xander. I think it’s awesome, and I’m thrilled he’s someone readers can laugh with at somebody else (mostly Alex) while fully understanding he’s an unrepentant jerk. But he’s very open about that jerkiness and all his other flaws, which I think adds to how easy he is to accept. If I’d tried to play it down, it might have come off as dishonest or slimy. Instead, Xander just is, acting out of impulse rather than malice.
My personal favourite is Benoit. He’s new to the story, but was highly involved throughout the first draft. With the direction TOKoR’s taking, he’ll be as involved as before, and more than anyone, I have big plans for he handles Xander down the road.
T4nky: How long do you plan on having the serial go for? Do you have an end planned?
Tartra: Weeeeeell… yes and no, as far as having an ending planned goes. I expect this to be a long, long, long-running serial, with new arcs and plots added for as long as there’s still an idea explore. I have broken it into three major ‘books’, and while I know where the first two books would end, it’s too early for me to have figured out the third. And as far as where we are now, this is a drop in the bucket. I’ll be counting my final post with four digits, if I’m lucky.
T4nky: Is there a bit of you in any of the characters?
Tartra: Absolutely, but only a bit, just enough to get inside the head of everyone and give them one trait that I know at least one person on the planet (read: me) has, cranked up to eleven. For example, Alex has my serenity in the face of the unknown, while Beth has my sense of perspective, and Xander, my optimism. I will now stop talking, leaving everyone to imagine the wonderful person I am.
However, despite this mystery seemingly being solved, I still had questions. Not about the picture, but about the person who had answered my previous questions. The best source to answer them? Well, he was right there and already seemed willing to talk. (Note: If you want a more annoying version of the interview, here is the link to the Twitter conversation.)
T4nky: Just wondering, how often do you do stuff like track down photoshopped MLP pictures?The reason I ask is because I’m planning on starting a blog, and doing an interview with you seems like an interesting way to kick it off .
TheSeeker: It wouldn’t be an interesting interview. 98% of the time it’s just “paste into Google Image Search and find Deviantart link”
Usually whenever I’m actually paying attention to Twitter and see an unattributed picture on my feed. It’s an OCD thing.
T4nky:Just a few questions, and if you still think its boring, I’ll leave you alone. First off, how long does it usually take you to find an origin for one of these images? How deep do you have to go to find an origin, usually?
The Seeker: Maybe 30 seconds. Usually really good art gets posted, and good artists usually have deviantart accounts crawled by Google.
T4nky: Are there any other people who do this on a regular basis?