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The internet and the writing biz - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The internet and the writing biz
I was just reading the introductory essay to Stephen King's short story collection, Everything's Eventual, in which he talks about lost writing forms. The blank verse play, though still popular when people do Shakespeare in the park, can't find an audience with new material. The radio play (a la War of the Worlds) feels flat and unreal, because people have forgotten how to "see with our ears" (King's phrase). And the short story, he says, is wheezing and gasping, the markets drying up more and more each year.

All of this was also tied up with a discussion of his web publishing experiment (Riding the Bullet and its less-successful follow-up, The Plant) and his experiment with the serial novel form (The Green Mile). He doesn't really tie the two themes, except in a notion that he writes short stories and experiments with forms both to challenge himself, but I got to thinking about the issue of serial novels, the dwindling short story market, and the advent of the internet, and I think they're more closely related.

Every now and then, some luminary will write another essay about how the e-book is going to replace the traditional novel. At first, I was disturbed by these predictions because I do adore my books. Like Giles in Buffy, I find things learned from screens to be transient and not connected to enough of my senses to really sink in. But since they keep predicting it and it keeps just not catching on, I'm less nervous about it and more interested in what changes really are happening. Maybe that's because I've never been attached to short fiction as a form, and so don't properly lament its slow passing from the traditional format, but I'm not too bothered by the fact that short fiction is living more and more in the electronic world.

I think King--like a lot of observers from the pro world--has a skewed perception on the life and death of various unusual fictional forms, because the place where these forms flourish is in the online fan community. Forms which are dead or ailing in the paper world are vibrantly alive online, and gaining strength. For example:
  • The one-shot. Traditionally called a short story, this is a form that you can just sit down and read without having to take time off from it. There are arguments about how many words it is in the publishing sense, but in fandom, there's no such argument, because it's not a technical question. If it's published in a piece and you can read it in a sitting, it's a one-shot. Because it's a single, unified experience, there's no need to have the kind of total recall I talked about above--it's true that you don't have the weight of the book in your hands and the smell of the paper, or the idea of the configuration of words on the page when you stop, but in a short, you don't need it. You're not weaving a dozen complex plot-lines and dropping tiny hints that will pay off six hundred pages later. You can hold it all in one sensory input device. So the one-shot is a common and even sought-out electronic form.
  • The drabble. Where on Earth is there to sell a one hundred word piece? Oh, I know, there are little filler spaces in magazines and possibly some little literary journals, but on the whole, this is an obscure and bizarre form in the real world. But in the fan world, where you have an assumed background, these tight, highly formal exercises absolutely thrive. They're as self-policing as the most stodgily formal poetry, but the free-wheeling fan community is quite strict. After all, what's the fun of a form if you don't actually do the form? This is something that simply couldn't get a foothold in paper publishing, even if the fan elements were totally removed. Could it get a hold in professional e-publishing? I don't think so. More later.
  • The Work-In-Progress. Having done more than a few of these, the fan term really isn't the most accurate. The WIP is a work in progress, true, and most WIP-writers are happy to listen to feedback for the future. But what it is more often is nothing more or less than a serial novel. King made a buzz when he produced The Green Mile in a series of six little paperbacks, but in the fan world, it's simply the way things are done. The WIP recalls the serial novels published by Dickens--little installments in the newspapers that ultimately come to a whole, often quite a long one. Unlike a one-shot, the reader does need to remember things across a long stretch of text, but unlike a novel, there is "thinking time" between the installments, during which reader speculation may replace the non-visual sensory input involved in reading a long paper text. Obviously, this hasn't been tested and I'm spitballing, but I'm doing so from the point of view of experience. Posting a big, long story in a lump often gets very little response, but posting it serially seems to involve readers, pique interest, and keep the mind engaged with the text. This is not the same experience as curling up with a thick book and devouring it. The latter is a highly individual, private thing. WIPs and serial novels are, in fact, social reading and social storytelling, and they have, appropriately, revived as an art form in the social world of the internet.

So how does all of this effect traditional publishing?

I think it's an conspirator in the death of some of these forms on paper, along with series television. Television got people used to the idea that some kinds of stories are free--mostly short ones and ongoing ones. They may stick in advertisements and that's fine, but there's no money required. And internet writing has established its own forms as being free of charge--I don't have any statistics, but I kind of suspect that people get frustrated at "pro" internet sites that charge to finish up content which has been advertised. There's some understanding of subscription sites, like LFL's Hyperspace, where you get some nifty neat stuff by joining the club, but simply selling access to an electronic story? As Stephen King found out with his second effort, people are more likely than not to blow it off and resent it as nothing but authorial greed. Imagine turning on the television and hearing, "Coming up next, Law and Order... McCoy tackles the case of a woman claiming multiple personalities! To watch, please click PayPal and send us three dollars." One can imagine that as a fair way to do things (and a way to avoid commercials), but I personally can't imagine people going for it. There are special pay-per-view channels, but those aren't treated like normal television. And cable requires subscription--and subscription channels require extra money--but once you have them, you can watch or not watch as you like, for as long as you'd like. That's the created expectation. The created expectation on the internet is that things offered will be either free or included in a subscription.

It's also created the "social reading" expectation, which feeds into publishing in a kind of backward way. I think it has a lot to do with the growing length of popular books and the popularity of series. When people talk, they need material. The games of social reading are enhanced by complexity and puzzles in the source material, and by opportunities for speculation between segments (just as WIPs are in a smaller sense). J.K. Rowling plays these games well with her website, though she's not as adept at it as some fans and occasionally missteps (as with having the trivia mixed with riddles and not expecting that people would try to mix the two together). More authors should try this.

People now expect what they spend money on, story-wise, to provide a base for other things that they can expand on, so rich, created worlds where there is much room for speculation about how things work and what the history is are going to be increasingly represented in major publishing.

Hmm. I don't really have a tie-off statement. This was just meandering thoughts.

I feel a bit...: cheerful cheerful
Soundtrack: kids playing trumpet and violin to bribe us for 'net time ;)

18 comments or Leave a comment
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: December 23rd, 2004 12:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've recently been tempted by getting some kind of e-book reader (an old palm that can show htm/rtf/pdf) because I have some long manuscripts online that I'd like to read without being tied down to the computer and I don't want the expense (or size) of printing them out...
sreya From: sreya Date: December 23rd, 2004 01:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the reason e-books haven't caught on yet is more due to lack of portability than that it's on a screen. Yes, PDAs are starting to become more popular, but mostly among business people than the average person, and the e-book programs available are still unweildy and expensive. I have a PDA, but I still don't have an actual e-book program loaded on it because it's expensive, so instead I have a text program for reading fanfiction on there. But it's still unweildy because the bookmark function doesn't work in the text documents, and the battery charge doesn't last all the way through a novel-length reading session -- I have to recharge after only 3 hours.

I know, a lot of people claim it's the screen problem, but I really do think that if PDAs and ebook readers ever get to a point where they're cheap and easy and work well, the ebooks will gain more speed.

As for your commentary on various writing forms -- 100% agreement.
jesspallas From: jesspallas Date: December 23rd, 2004 01:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have to say this is a very perceptive assessment of the way things stand with fics and books and I agree with you on pretty much all the points. :) I must admit I'm not a huge fan of reading from the screens either though; I love my books and I often print fics to read them rather than looking on screen. I don't think e-publishing is going to replace the book any time soon.

persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: December 23rd, 2004 02:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
If I may join in the meandering, I just stopped by a Neopets writing forum (yes, really) earlier today and dropped into a thread asking people what they've learned in the course of writing. (Technically the question was about the course of writing for the Neopian Times, but I'm still a newcomer to that and therefore took a somewhat more general tack.) My main observation was that I would never have realized that writing could be a social activity if I hadn't, well, started talking to writers online. I have the feeling it should have occurred to me, given the whole idea of storytelling, but it probably wouldn't. I liked to curl up and read alone; I liked people to look at my occasional story efforts when I was a kid, but it never went all that far; I loathed literary analysis and discussion in school. (I think I was the only student in my entire middle school English class whose favorite part of the course was the grammar.) I was too shy to send feedback at first when I started reading fanfiction. It's probably fortunate that I wound up slipping into a comic-book-fanfic IRC channel and talking to the people I did, learning that feedback was a lovely and desirable thing, long before I got into HP fandom and started encountering all the people who get vicious about annoying reviewers. (There was some complaining where I started out, but I met nice people first, and I remember the main argument winding up with the notion that if you were going to go into a lot of criticism, it was polite to send the feedback privately instead of posting it on the mailing list.)

I haven't entirely gotten over it yet, though. *ruefully* I'm still bizarrely nervous about responding to your fic posts, even though I'll answer some of the discussion ones. I'm not entirely sure why, considering that as far as I remember you've been unfailingly pleasant in your responses.
tabaqui From: tabaqui Date: December 24th, 2004 12:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I love the idea that online writing is, in some ways, thriving and resurrecting things that print writing has killed.
I, too, was dismayed by the first doom-sayers who predicted the end of the 'real' book, and i don't read novels online, but i read tons of fanfiction and i love how it's DIFFERENT from print - how the themes can be bolder, more 'tabbo', more 'thinky', and not going straight for the money shot, as it were...

Nice thoughts! I like them.
Followed you here from su_herald
From: isabela113 Date: December 24th, 2004 02:12 am (UTC) (Link)
I am a big fan of the short-story, so I do think that it is unfortunate that it is disappearing from mainstream literature. To me, the format forces and ecomony of language and clarity of narrative that can get lost in longer pieces.But I realize that I am part of a small consumer group so I don't mind putting out the effort to find the literary magazines and story collections that I want. The prevalence of the one-shot format in fandom is, I think, one of the reasons I enjoy reading fan fiction so much. I read very few works-in-progress, and would even say that I generally look for short stories by an author before I will commit to reading something longer by them, because it will give me fundamental information about their style.
lady_songsmith From: lady_songsmith Date: December 24th, 2004 06:13 am (UTC) (Link)
I have never been a particular fan of the short story, but if I examine the authors I like best, they all write with a very short-story style -- the economy of language you mentioned. That's one of my biggest peeves with many popular authors; I often find myself thinking that they could have either saved a bunch of trees or answered a few more questions about their world if they'd reined in their prose. Perhaps -- and this is a random thought, I have no evidence to support it -- the dying of the short story is affecting the writing styles of authors?
From: isabela113 Date: December 24th, 2004 10:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that there is some validity to your idea. It used to be that aspiring authors published short stories in literary magazines or quarterly reviews, as a way to begin their careers. Nowadays, they can just write a novel and try to get agents or publishers to pick it up. It is definitely possible that because they never have had to rein in their prose and create compact, interesting pieces to market, some authors never quite learn to tighten up their language.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: December 24th, 2004 03:30 am (UTC) (Link)
I've never been a fan of the short story, but I do like one-shots, and I think you're reasoning about them is sound. A one-shot is easy to read on screen, and it's also easy to print out and take on the train. This is also true of WIP installments.

I completely agree with your view of the WIP as a serial novel. It was reading fanfiction that made me appreciate for the first time what the serial novel must have been like for the readers of Dickens and Dumas. Neighbors who were waiting for the next installment would have talked about it, so there'd be a social connection there, as today people will make small talk about favorite TV shows.

A novel in serial form can be very long, but because the installments are a managable size, it's not overwhelming, and if done right it's not hard to follow multiple storylines. I find aerynalexander's story A Little Knowledge to be like this. In addition, they're structured to drive the reader on, with cliff-hangers and unresolved questions. A lot of modern novelists don't bother with those things, and I don't understand why. It's just good storytelling.

Lovely essay, fern.
trinity_clare From: trinity_clare Date: December 24th, 2004 03:47 am (UTC) (Link)
On drabbles: the free-wheeling fan community is quite strict.

Wow. You missed the drabble debate, didn't you? copperbadge posted some drabbles (all between 100 and 500 words) as fundraiser prizes and actually started a flame war about the proscribed length of a drabble. Sheesh.

On another note, this was a good insight into the different types of written work. And I agree that the WIP is really a serial novel, except that sometimes the authors aren't quite sure where they're going, which can be frightfully dangerous.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 24th, 2004 05:27 am (UTC) (Link)

Grammar NitPick

Hi Fern,

First, I have to say that I've been reading your stuff for quite a while now--I discovered you on Vader's Mask, and went from there, and I am quite impressed with the quality of your writing. Which leads me to my grammar nitpick...

"So how does all of this EFFECT traditional publishing?"

It doesn't, it has absolutely nothing to do with bringing about traditional publishing. However it does AFFECT traditional publishing.

Sorry, but this just happens to be one of the biggest pet-peeves I have about grammar.

Thanks for listening to me rant...

Sean Hennessey (SeanWH @ fanfiction.net)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 24th, 2004 05:47 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Grammar NitPick

Your peeve, my bugaboo. I always pick the wrong one, no matter which one I've chosen. I always think of "affect" as having to do with emotions (like a schizophrenic displaying inappropriate affect, or someone being affectionate) while "effect" has to do with actions and results (eg, special effects). I don't know why that one messes with my brain, especially since it's been explained to me more than once. Just a mental block.
lady_songsmith From: lady_songsmith Date: December 24th, 2004 06:18 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Grammar NitPick

In HS, my English teacher told us that "affect" was a verb and "effect" was a noun. I don't even want to think about how many of my classmates are now out there trying to "affect change", but it does make a fairly handy rule-of-thumb, as the use of effect as a verb is far less common in normal speech than the use of affect.
julia_fractal From: julia_fractal Date: December 24th, 2004 08:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Very interesting insights, thanks for sharing them! (Sorry I don't have more to say, but it's 3:30 am and I'm still scrambling to finish an overdue fic)

*Friends you because I've enjoyed reading your essays for months*

Happy holidays!
rubynye From: rubynye Date: December 24th, 2004 01:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is a very interesting entry. Thank you for it.
From: bramblerose_pf Date: December 24th, 2004 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
(*Grrr* I typed up this marvelous response just to have lj eat it.)

Here via the DailySnitch.

I've never read anything but fanfiction, but I was tempted recently to download an e-book from Amazon.com because I was too impatient to order it or find it in the local bookstore. But I didn't, because you just can't cuddle up with a laptop to read. I've tried! I don't have a PDA so maybe that's easier, although I'd wonder about eye-strain.

It came to be while working on my WIP that I was really writing a serial. Next time I'll be more cognizant of that fact and have a cliffhanger at the end of every episode.

I've read some wonderful shorts in sci-fi magazines, but for the general public it is a dying form. It could easily be revived online (in places other than fanfiction) by authors who post their shorts, free to read, while promoting their novels. I know if I fall in love with an author's writings, I devour everything they've done.

Thanks for waking up my brain this morning!
From: bramblerose_pf Date: December 24th, 2004 03:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's supposed to be: "I've never read anything but fanfiction online..."

Maybe I'm not really awake yet!
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: March 10th, 2005 10:47 am (UTC) (Link)

I seem to be the only one...

I've got a Palm, I read books on it, and I absolutely love it to death. Currently reading Anne's House of Dreams, having already read Green Gables, Avonlea, and Island on its tiny screen. Last night I mentioned to a friend that Salazar and Godric were great friends, and when this was met with skepticism, I whipped out my Palm and read the Sorting Hat's New Song aloud. (Yes, I have e-texts of all the HP books. I have the hard copies at home, but I find also having an electronic version extremely convenient.) I can grab several chapters of fanfic just before leaving for class, and it autoscrolls, so I can read while I'm on the stairmaster and not have to take my hands off the heart rate monitor. If I'm in the car, and it's raining, and we're spotting somebody a lift to Union Station, and I think, wow, I should read So Long and Thanks For All the Fish right now, it totally fits, then I can.

Huh. Lack of tie-off statement seems to be contagious.
18 comments or Leave a comment