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March 27, 2012 — 1,205 words

The Whites of the Eyes:
why webfiction and live events are flourishing together by doing precisely the same thing

By Guest Author

I was asked to speak last Tuesday to the Society of Young Publishers in Oxford. As an evangelical self-publisher that was irresistible to start with, but the subject was one so important I couldn’t do anything but pounce on the opportunity – how do ebooks impact on independent bookstores? It’s a microcosm of a massive topic, but one that’s rarely addressed – the way digital fiction, far from distancing us from “reality”, is bringing readers and writers in the physical world closer than ever before in a way that print was never able to do.

I know my stance is coloured by my experience, but it strikes me that maybe that experience is illustrative of something important that we are discovering through the rise of webfiction and self epublishing. Something about the relation between art and community.

OK, rewind to the start of 2009 when I did two things, having made the decision that I wrote the kind of fiction that would make it nuts for me to do anything but self-publish. First, I started a collective of writers who did the same thing, Year Zero Writers. And second, I wrote my next novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, as an interactive serial webfiction on Facebook. What surprised me most about both was the way they became hubs for communities of like-minded writers. The Year Zero website went strong from mid 2009 to mid 2011 with its mix of original daily prose, poetry, and thought-provoking articles, attracting hundreds of active online participants to its various events and acting as the breeding grounds for discussions and relationships that have flourished and continue to produce not just great literature but great ideas and collaborations. And The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes got noticed by mashable and various other websites and introduced me to a whole new group of people doing exciting things with digital literary fiction.

In other words, I learned that the most exciting, and valuable – and very easily possible – thing about writing online is the way communities form.

To go off at a tangent and set myself down in late 2009, I had self-published the book Songs from the Other Side of the Wall and thought I should have a launch for it. I was also spending a lot of time reading discussions about how literature wasn’t like music because authors couldn’t do gigs, and that struck me as inherently absurd, so having arranged a launch for the novel through my amazing local store, The Albion Beatnik in Oxford, I decided Year Zero should have a tour. Our first show was at the legendary music venue Rough Trade, in London’s Brick Lane. Two years later, and 18 months after I set up eight cuts gallery, the tour is still going. Our show, The New Libertines, has played to full houses in Manchester, Oxford, Birmingham, and London, and our format of 10-20 fabulous writers performing poetry, prose, and everything in between, goes down fabulously with writers and public alike. But more than that, venues love it. We get involved with local writing groups, local arts groups and projects – yes, to come back to the refrain – live performance thrives because at its heart is an ever-expanding community.

And as both communities grow, they start to intersect. I’m working with more and more people doing amazing things that I first met online – Claire Trévien and James Purcell Webster from the review site Sabotage have become invaluable parts of our performance troupe; for the event Lilith Burning I got to make art and words in Oxford with the amazing New York based writer, photographer, artists and model Katelan Foisy. And I’m sharing online the work of people I meet at gigs. Like Sian Rathore and Paul Askew. And the more I do separately with both communities, the more they both grow and merge and the creative tentacles feed each other.

All of which should be enough of an injunction to get out and *do*. But if it isn’t, here’s a brief reflection on why live performing and self-published webfiction go together so well. Both are intrinsically active. They are creative outpourings of the imaginative will. At no stage in either process do you do what you are told or have to fit a pre-ordained format. There is no house style, there are no bookshelves your product must physically fit on.

But most of all, both are fundamentally about communication. And that is the alpha and omega of what storytelling is. Print publishing has allowed that to become obscured in writers’ minds. People think they can sit in a cold attic and type into the void and that is “being a writer”. Well, being a writer it is maybe, but being a storyteller it is not. The internet and 100 people with their eyes and ears fixed on you in a room serve the single same function – they bring everything you do right back to the purest essence of what it is – communicating stories to other human beings. Taking them somewhere with you and making them want to come back and go on more journeys in your company. It’s no wonder both digital fiction and the spoken word are thriving, and it is no surprise that they are growing at the same time – however universal one seems and however local the other seems, they are doing precisely the same thing.

You can get involved with what we do either online or in person at Not the Oxford Literary Festival, and particularly with Paint Oxford With Poetry on March 30th, in which people from all over the world can send poems that will be left in Oxford’s public space overnight.

About Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway writes poetry and prose but is happiest behind a microphone, winning Literary Death Match in 2010 and the March 2012 Oxford Hammer and Tongue Poetry Slam. He runs the online and real life literary project eight cuts gallery, which stages live shows and online exhibitions as well as publishing unusual fiction. He is the author of the novels Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes, and The Company of Fellows, which was voted "favourite Oxford novel" by readers at Blackwell's in 2011. This week he is hosting Not the Oxford Literary Festival.

March 27, 2012 — 294 words

Chapter 10p1 – Where Did You Send Us?

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Milly emerged from the passenger cabin and saw Tic stumping into the Galactic Pelican's hold, carrying a toolkit. "Have you figured out where we are yet?" she called after him. "All the viewscreens are dead, and Pelly isn't responding. That jump didn't go very smoothly, did it?"

Tic ignored her, approached a panel on the wall of the hold, and started sifting through his tools. He grabbed a wrench and tried it on one of the panel's screws. It didn't quite fit. He grunted his annoyance and kept searching.

"Well, it was unconventional, but at least we're all alive, right?" said Milly. "That was quick thinking back there. Using the vacuum generators like that... You're smarter than I thought you were."

Tic glared at her.

"Er, I mean that in the best way possible," said Milly.

"Hmmph," said Tic, and tried another wrench. This one worked. He got the panel open and a shower of sparks burst out. "Urgh," said Tic.

"Can you fix it?" asked Milly.

"Maybe," grunted Tic, "if you'll shut up and let me think." He flipped a switch down, disconnected some wires, yanked out a complicated fuse, and replaced it from his toolkit. He flipped the switch back up.

There was a hum and a buzz in the walls. The lights flickered. A warbling voice moaned, "Uuuuuurghh..."

"Couldn't have said it better myself," said Tic.

"Suumthuung uusn't quut ruught..." warbled Pelly. She sounded like a dying frog.

"Whoops," said Tic. He reconnected the wires.

"Ah, thank you, dear," said Pelly.

"Don't mention it. Now, where are we? Please say anywhere but Cr—"

"We're at Crux, of course!" said Pelly. "Oh, and when you have a minute, I think my Origami Engine died."

"Urgh."

[poll id="48"]

March 26, 2012 — 3,783 words

Introducing the EpiCast!

By Guest Author

by Kira Lerner

The EpiGuide community for webseries and webfiction produces the EpiCast—a monthly podcast that launched in November 2011. Hosted by Kira Lerner, the co-founder and current administrator of the EpiGuide, and Michael, who’s both a longtime community member and the author of the webserial Footprints, these EpiCasts are monthly guides to the latest in the world of original online entertainment.

When 1889 kindly asked us for a guest post about these podcasts, we decided that the best way to introduce the EpiCasts to you all was to create a mini-version of a typical episode—basically, just a conversation between two webfiction creators and community members chatting away and hopefully imparting some enjoyment and info at the same time.

Here’s a transcript of our session, which was recorded just prior to recording our most recent EpiCast episode (#005, already posted by the time this blog entry is published).

* * * * *

Kira: Hi everyone. Well, I guess we should start talking about how the EpiCasts began, and why.

Michael: Makes sense. What made you decide to produce these podcasts?

Kira: Honestly, until August 2011 I’d never have considering doing a podcast as a participant, much less creating and producing one for the EpiGuide. Which, I should say, is an online community devoted to webfiction and webserials of all sorts. Anyway, as I said, podcasting seemed anathema to me, since I'm fairly… what’s the right word? Reticent? Reluctant?

Michael: Shy, probably.

Kira: Right, okay. So yeah, I’m pretty shy, and I know people over at the Eppy may laugh because I usually seem more self-assured in my online persona, but yeah, I’m totally not that person in real life. But then the good folks at the Webfiction World podcast invited me to talk about writing marathons generally and WeSeWriMo—

Michael: By which she means Web Series Writing Month.

Kira:—Yes, thanks. See, this is why we work well together as co-hosts. We can read each other’s minds and step in when the other host (usually me) is suddenly inarticulate, helping to provide le mot juste.

Michael: Yeah, it works well even though we don’t have exactly the same style. Like I don’t think I’d’ve gone with le mot juste.

Kira: Hey don’t ask me why I can’t think of words like ‘shy’ but le mot juste pops up! Anyway, so the Webfiction World podcast—which I’m sure everyone reading this will know is now hosted by A.M. Harte and Greg X. Graves and produced by the Webcast Beacon Network—last August they invited me to talk about the WeSeWriMo project and doing the interview was surprisingly fun and engaging. At least after the first ten minutes or so, I wasn’t as nervous as I’d thought I’d be, which I guess is thanks in large part to the hosts. Couple months later I got to thinking about ideas to liven up the Eppy community and came to the idea of creating a more specific podcast, by which I mean specific to our corner of the web, which is a bit different from the Webfiction World’s focus. I guess for me, I realized that a) I didn’t hate the process, and b) I wanted to spotlight the EpiGuide as a hub, to find a way to bring us... to create something for the community to think about from month to month. And c) I wanted to talk about serials with someone interesting, which is why I thought of you, Michael.

Michael: Thank you!

Kira: Also because we’ve been around the community the longest, at least of the people who are still active. But what led you to say yes?

Michael: I think it appealed to me because it seemed like a necessary breath of fresh air for the EpiGuide. Because we’d really stopped publishing regular content, and it seemed like a very current way to produce original content that would get people talking. And on a personal level I liked the idea of being “forced” to pay attention and engaging with the entire community. ‘Cause it’s easy to work on my series (Footprints) and get feedback on that, and read the few series that I’m interested in, and that my friends produce, or whatever. So it was appealing in that it both opened up my perspective and created a new venue for stimulating discussion and making the EpiGuide more of a destination. Instead of just purely for serial promotion, which I think it’s always in danger of becoming just by the nature of what it provides.

Kira: You’re absolutely right, and I think that’s especially true for me since I haven't been actively producing my own serial (About Schuyler Falls) for the last year.

Michael: Yes you are!

Kira: Well, okay, yes, now I am, in a behind-the-scenes sorta way, but I’ve been very off-and-on with my writing, and it’s very easy for me to detach due to my personality and various issues; very easy to pay less attention to the community even though I sort of run it, when I’m not actively producing my own serial. So even though I’m... I don’t have any episodes coming out currently, the podcast is re-acclimating me to the current scene—doing the recaps, focusing on the new serials coming out, and so on. Actually—well, this is kind of belated, but we should explain what our podcasts’ contents tend to be.

Michael: (laughs) Probably a good idea! We should've done that right from the start.

Kira: Yeah, my bad on that one. Okay, so first, after the intro, we recap installments of a bunch of different webserials—both ones whose writers submitted the recaps to us, which we always encourage, or serials we’ve made a point to find and recap on our own. Actually I think the latter’s been the case most of the time, isn’t it?

Michael: You mean having to search for new serials to recap? Yeah. I think that is true. I’d have to go back and look at our archives to see but my impression is that we’ve sought out serials specifically to find a wider selection, rather than just relying on the three or four people who submit materials each month.

Kira: Right, and this is probably to be expected since we've only just begun, really. In addition, we try not to recap the same series two EpiCasts in a row. We don’t want the listeners to be bored instead of getting introduced to a variety of serials. I mean, some people (very generously) send recaps each month but since time is limited—

Michael: We try to keep recaps to under twenty minutes or so, not always successfully.

Kira: Definitely not always successfully! So for that reason, we’ll usually give precedence to webseries or webserials—you know, we do both text and video series, by the way—that haven’t been in the spotlight yet. But if there’s room we’ll definitely try to include anyone who’s submitted material.

Michael: Yeah they should get rewarded for participating. Oh, we also should mention that even when we go looking for series to recap, we try mostly to find series whose writers have participated in the EpiGuide in some way. I mean, not just the series that get the most exposure...

Kira: By which, you're talking about the series that have their message boards hosted with us, those are probably the most prominent at the Eppy.

Michael: Right, right. But though we do include those—

Kira: Actually as of this latest podcast (#005), we’ll have officially recapped all the series with EpiGuide-hosted forums.

Michael: No kidding, really? That’s a fun piece of trivia.

Kira: I should say, just the active series, obviously. The series on extended hiatuses are S.O.L., heh.

Michael: (laughs) So getting back to how we find series to recap, though we do include the more prominently placed serials, we also pay attention to the EpiGuide’s Site News area and the Web Buzz forum.

Kira: True. We want to encourage any writers or producers listening in to participate at the EpiGuide in some way. A serial has a better chance of being recapped or mentioned if you’re at least somewhat visible in our home turf.

Michael: But it’s not a necessity.

Kira: No, absolutely not. I know I've done news about MZP-TV shows, for example, and there's also your recap of the webseries Husbands in the most recent episode. Which is definitely not promoting itself on the EpiGuide. Anyway, speaking of the different segments we do, it’d be interesting to see which ones are most or least popular. Probably the recaps aren’t hugely exciting, although maybe the fact that we add our commentaries to them adds some value.

Michael: I definitely think that keeps them from being just plain info that only appeals to the recapped series’ writers themselves. That’s why I like to keep them quick and add our commentary. We almost never read a submitted recap verbatim.

Kira: True, we’ll use those as guidelines, mostly, but—

Michael: —But we’ll always go back and read or watch the installments so we can come from a place of knowledge and add some relatively informed, um, commentary.

Kira: And also on the latest EpiCast that we just recorded, I did more of a review of one of the series along with recapping its recent storylines.

Michael: So getting back to our segments…

Kira: Okay, okay. Yet another reason Michael’s such a great co-host is that he sticks to the topic rather than letting me branch out into digressions too much.

Michael: In other words I never shut up and let you speak.

Kira: No, no, it’s a pleasure that you’re so energetic, and the words seem to come so easily for you. I feel like I’m constantly searching for things to say even when I know what I want to say. Anyway, back to the segments. In addition to “The Story So Far…” which is our recaps section, we usually have a news section focusing on new, returning or ending series announcements, interesting articles we’ve read, topics of interest we’ve come across, and so on.

Michael: And then we finish up with a discussion.

Kira: Right. So far we’ve found it very easy to yammer on about a specific topic, for example, awards, or our favorite/least favorite serial endings, or … what else am I forgetting?

Michael: We did a talk about platforms… you know, the HTML versus WordPress or blogging software discussion. What works for us as readers/audience members, and what works for us as writers, and so on.

Kira: Oh yeah, gosh I forgot about that already and that was just like an episode ago. Scary.

Michael: Speaking of what works for writers, getting back to what you were talking about earlier, the fact that you’re more invested in the writing world since doing these ‘casts… do you find that doing these ‘casts, having the responsibility of being involved, motivates you to work on your series?

Kira: Yes, definitely. Because sometimes I do think “Gee it’d be nice to be mentioned on one of these damn things!”

Michael: (laughs)

Kira: Even though we’d be sure to treat it like Footprints—not highlighted more than any other serial, just every few months. But it’d be great to at least have the opportunity, and the EpiCast definitely feels like a kind of golden prize. Which is either a big compliment to the EpiCasts or proof that I’m kind of pathetic. By the way, before you got involved with the EpiCast, did you, or do you, listen to any other podcasts?

Michael: I really don’t. I think it’s because I listen to music or audiobooks, so I haven’t discovered stuff and the podcast thing is sort of a new world for me.

Kira: There are just so freakin’ many!

Michael: Yeah, exactly, I think—similar to webseries in a way—there’s so many things to look at and so many are of… um… poor or sort of unpolished quality, that I get a little overwhelmed. I know I’ve listened to soap-related ones, but while they’re fine, I feel like I’ve spent time on something that wasn’t illuminating anything for me. So I don’t really have a ton of experience with podcasts, and I didn’t have much experience getting into this.

Kira: Of course I assume you listened to the episode of Webfiction World where I was on, right? Right?

Michael: Yes, I definitely did.

Kira: Now those podcasts are really well done.

Michael: They do a nice job of them. They’re structured, they’re clear…

Kira: That’s what I aspire to, whereas our own show kind of feels like an amateur hour compared to them. I think it helps that they have a separate producer. Doing everything from planning to recording to editing and adding music cues… that’s quite a major process. The Webfiction World podcast sounds impeccable compared to the EpiCast, I think. Though maybe there’s some, I don’t know, charm? –in how casual and, um, nonprofessional our ‘casts seem. At least that’s what I tell myself. Technically speaking, I know from when I was on the WeSeWriMo show, they had a lot of breaks, and I think they record things on different days. For example, in the middle of our episode—they always have a reading of someone’s serial—

Michael: Oh wow.

Kira: I know! But anyway in our episode there was a break where they’d insert the reading, which obviously wasn’t recorded at the same time as my interview. And by the way, that’s something I’d like to do, finding a good excerpt of a serial to read out loud. The segments we have now that we’ve mentioned—the recaps, news, then discussion—they’re great but we want to add more. Such as a reading.

Michael: Yes, or to spotlight a single serial in-depth.

Kira: Precisely, that’s one of the things we’d talked about for the future as we start to get more into the groove of things here. We’re still feeling our way around a bit.

Michael: Ideally it would be great to combine interviews and readings. To have someone on as a guest, and then have them do a reading from their work—or we would do it—and then use that as a sort of jumping-off point of discussion. So instead of just reading something without it having any context, or any connection to what we’re discussing, the reading would maybe be specifically chosen to fit in with what we want to talk about.

Kira: I’d love that. The context thing is especially important because I think readings by themselves might not offer enough of a... a sense of what the serial’s about, or what the author is thinking, and so on. Your idea would let listeners really get a good feel for the series itself. Also, just having a third voice to listen to would probably be a relief after hearing both of us chatting in their ear for an hour!

Michael: Yup. So eventually we want to mix things up so each show’s not too predictable, with the same segments over and over. Fortunately we haven’t run out of topics, but we should put in a plug to ask people what they’d like to hear us talk about?

Kira: Great idea. If anyone reading this has an idea for a topic, let us know! Same thing with questions. Actually that’s another segment we’ve added, listener questions. For example, one of our listeners asked us about awards, and so that’s how we came up with discussing that particular topic.

Michael: Also on another episode we were asked about our most-missed serials, which led into that discussion about serials from years ago.

Kira: Holy crap, I forgot about that one too. Old age is a terrible thing. So yes, we get a lot of ideas from our listeners. I’d definitely like more precipitation—

Michael: Precipitation?

Kira: (laughs) Participation. I mean yeah, it’d be great to have some rain in here, maybe some snow… No but seriously, another one of our ideas is to have an entire a call-in episode. Though we’d need to learn how to handle that, technically speaking.

Michael: There’d be a learning curve for sure. Speaking of which, what do you think we’ve learned along the way? What’s the difference from the first EpiCast to the fifth one?

Kira: Well first of all we’ve gotten smoother as a team, I’m almost certain of that. I think we’ve found a good rhythm.

Michael: Yes. We’ve meshed with each other and feel way more comfortable than in that first episode.

Kira: Totally. I mean, it’s weird because we’ve known each other for like..

Michael: Fifteen years!

Kira: Oh my God. And yet we’d only spoken once or twice before, when…

Michael: …when we briefly worked for a lunatic. Long story.

Kira: Ha! So in addition to the improved interactions between us, and probably getting through segments more quickly, another thing we’ve learned is how to add some constructive criticism. Not that we’ve done a huge amount, other than little bits of snark that we add to the recaps of the more ridiculous plots—now I’m saying that with affection, everyone—in many of the serials. That said, advice and critiques aren’t a huge part of the podcast but we’re trying to integrate them a little more, from the vantage point of readers or audience members as well as writers. I mean, as we said, between the two of us we have thirty years of experience—

Michael: Oh God, that is literally longer than I’ve been alive!

Kira: Oy. I wish I could say the same thing. So we will get more into critiques and tutorials and advice, that sort of stuff. As long as we don’t sound like we’re sitting on some mountaintop making proclamations from on high…

Michael: I think the best way to come at that, particularly about critiques, is exactly what you said—that we’re speaking about this from the perspective of a reader or audience member. This’d be a respectful way of offering feedback without sounding too superior. Just sort of, “you’re putting out something that has an impediment to my enjoying your serial, here’s a possible solution.”

Kira: That’s very very true. We want to avoid sounding snobby but we do have a lot of experience following online entertainment, so why not share our thoughts that might help someone, right?

Michael: Yeah, I think we’ll be getting into that soon.

Kira: Another thing I've learned, personally, is the technical side of putting these 'casts together. Using the various software programs, picking music that's podcast-safe (easy enough to do since I'm going exclusively with Jonathan Coulton, whose music is all Creative Commons), dealing with levels, updating the various feeds and so on. But ... okay, so what else have we learned?

Michael: We’ve learned how to end instead of going on and on.

Kira: (laughs) And speaking of which, let's wrap up. In summary, we hope everyone reading will listen in and give us a try. There's something for everyone whether you're a reader, viewer, writer or producer. Also since we want to be representative of the whole world of webfiction and webseries and so on, it’d be great to have a more interactive feel. People should feel free to submit stuff to us, either questions or topics or even your feedback about a recent installment of a serial you’re reading or watching.

Michael: The best part of that is, the more you guys submit, the less work we have to do.

Kira: Always our Machiavellian goal. Anyway, thanks very much to 1889 Labs for providing us the opportunity to spread the word about the EpiCast! Hope you’ll all check us out.

About the EpiCast

The EpiCast is broadcast each month and can be found by following our feed, visiting http://epiguide.podbean.com or http://epiguide.tumblr.com , subscribing to us on iTunes, or right on the EpiGuide.

Kira's About Schuyler Falls and Michael's Footprints are two of the longest-running serials on the web.

March 24, 2012 — 1,288 words

Get A Heavy Hammer

By M Jones

It is four o'clock in the afternoon, and the author sits before a laptop, coffee in hand, a sneaky drab of whiskey put into it for good measure. The day is bright and sunny, and the author toys with the idea of wandering outside, getting a good dose of vitamin D and perhaps a pint or two at her favourite watering hole--with laptop in tow, of course. The trouble is, certain... people... refuse to leave her alone, and their needy, grabby, whining is really getting on her last nerve. No matter how heavy the hammer she throws at them, they always come back, broken and bloodied and demanding she do something about something.

Whiners. The lot of them.

Take this one fellow wandering in now. He's got nothing to do with this particular article the author is trying to write, but he keeps peeking in at her from the periphery, anxious eyes watching every keystroke as she types.

"You have to finish my outline," he reminded her for the four thousandth time.

"Not now, I have an article to write."

"But you left me battered and bruised and half dead, and there's a whole flashback scene you have to get to. I really need you right now."

"I told you. I'll get to you when this is done."

"You said that before. Then you went and worked on a short story. You don't care about me anymore. You don't love me."

"Of course I do. I hit you with a hammer, didn't I? Now get out of my office space and get back in that file until I'm ready for you."

He reluctantly did as he was told, but not without muttering a few choice words about how cruel and unreasonable she was being. Really, she was going to have to up his masculinity the next time she went over his outline and definitely before he fleshed out a few scenes. There was no way she was going to put up with a wimpy hero. Miserable and conflicted, yes, but never, ever a wimp!

Which brought her to her next problem. She sighed and hit the buzzer on her desk. "Outstanding Neglected Novel, can you come in here for a moment, please?"

There was some shy shuffling at her office door, and it opened with a tiny creak. Her Neglected Novel slid in and tiptoed across the carpet, to sit in the leather chair across from her creator. "Yes? Have you decided to finish me?"

"No," the author said.

Neglected Novel was stricken. "But...You worked on me for *hours*! For *weeks*! You were so proud of the words that were put together, we were really going places, things were happening!"

"No." The author was firm, unbending. "You were meandering all over the place, and your characters were bland. I've tried every possible way to fix it, but there comes a time when you have to admit there's no hope. The basis of your existence just isn't working. The conflict was incomprehensible, and frankly, you were more than a little boring. There is no hope for a novel that is boring. Controversial, ugly, maddening, yes, these are things that can redeem even the worst writing. But to be boring is worse than a death knell. It's like you shouldn't have been born and yet here you are."

"You can spice things up," Neglected Novel insisted. "I can become an experimental piece. A surreal exploration of the human condition."

The author yawned. "I'm slipping into a coma just talking to you. Maybe I can use some of the research in my other project, but right now, I'm afraid your services are no longer required." She pressed a red button marked 'delete' on her desk and Neglected Novel dissipated into a pile of crumpled papers at the base of her desk. She continued to type at her laptop, heedless of the quiet clean up job of her Editor, who muttered a few curses under her breath over the mess being made.

The door to her office slammed open, and yet another fellow stormed in, his face clammy with sweaty exertion.

"I demand a sex scene!" he shouted.

The author paused, her fingers hovering above the keys of her laptop. "I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me." He was breathless as he pulled up a chair. "I want a filthy, dirty sex scene. One that lasts four chapters."

"That is not going to happen. You're getting a fade to black, then do whatever you want, I don't care."

"But..."

"Protracted sex scenes are tricky to write, and when they aren't part of an erotic novel, they get boring. In a novel where sex isn't the plot or the focus, it gets weirdly clinical and icky. Just take a cue from the Bad Sex In Fiction Award and tell me I'm wrong. Last I looked, you were in a horror novel with a zombie focus, not 'In The Cut', so if you do manage to get a sex scene, it will be one paragraph of oblique feeling at best."

"Make it two and I'll be happy."

"I'm not here to make you happy." She picked up her hammer and swung a warning at him. She hit him on the side of the head and he collapsed onto the carpet, moaning in pain. "Miserable characters are conflicted characters and they drive the plot forward." She gave him a fierce kick in the stomach. "Now leave me be and let me finish this article!"

The afternoon waned on, the beautiful outdoors a passing memory as day slipped into evening. The author sighed and got herself yet another cup of coffee, which gave her a jittery, uneasy mood that rode on the wave of caffeine. She had the strangest, insufferable sensation of someone reading over her shoulder, an unpleasant feeling that refused to abate. She shook the invisible reader off, and it slid down her arm, across her keyboard and finally to the chair in front of her desk. Her nemesis sat prim and proper in front of her, a sickeningly sweet, pride-filled smile beaming at her.

"The last person I need to see right now is you," the author said.

"Everyone knows that all stories and characters are just extensions of their original author" She giggled and coyly bit her bottom lip. "It's all about me."

"Hardly. Great characters are made out of anxiety, misery and torment, and none of those things are part of my own experience. I live a pretty dull, and happy, life. My opinions on the great, untapped sustainable resource of penguin droppings should have no bearing on my character's personalities, and there is no need to make them soapbox it. It is vital that I get out of the way of the characters' development and allow them to breathe on their own."

The author opened her desk drawer, beginning a frantic search through piles of papers, sticky notes, research links, spent coffee grounds and USB sticks. It had to be here somewhere.

"Looking for this?"

Her nemesis, also known as Herself, held a shining silver gun in her hand. Herself laughed at the folly of it, for it was impossible to completely eradicate the creator from the process. Killing the author. How absurd.

"You don't have bullets," the author said, halting Herself's fit of giggling. The author smiled, and this time Herself looked worried, her hands clutching the padded armrests of her leather chair.

"I may not have a loaded gun," the author said, gravely serious, her weapon of choice weighed affectionately in her hand. "But I can always get a heavy hammer...."

March 24, 2012 — 317 words

Chapter 9p5 – Shields Up

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Milly ran into the cockpit. "What's going on, Tic?"

"They found us somehow," snapped Tic.

"I thought we were hiding!"

"Do you have a perfect record in Hide and Go Seek? Because I don't. Shields up, Pelly!"

"Yes, dear," said Pelly. "We're being hailed."

"Land and surrender, Galactic Pelican," said a voice. Three sleek green jets dove through the clouds past them.

"Did you see the size of their missiles!?" said Milly.

Tic said, "They look bigger from up close, I'll bet! Pelly, give me the vacuum generators." A set of controls popped up and a targeting reticule blinked onto the viewscreen.

The jets zoomed over them again from behind and flared their afterburners. Tic swung the targeting reticule up and squeezed every trigger he could reach. The jets peeled off hard as the snow where they had been was sucked explosively into numerous tiny vacuums that collapsed in upon themselves.

The jets hailed them again: "Mr. Dunter only prefers you alive, Pelican. Missiles are locked on. Last chance to surrender."

"Urgh!" said Tic. "Pelly, spool up the Origami Engine!"

"What!?" shouted Milly. "We can't jump from inside a gravity well!"

"We won't be inside a gravity well," said Tic. He squeezed the triggers of the vacuum generators and held them down.

"Missiles are in the air," reported Pelly. "Origami Engine is spooling."

"Spool harder!" said Tic.

The ship lurched suddenly downwards with the impact of the missiles. Everything shook, but Pelly held together—barely.

"Shields down," said Pelly. "More missiles incoming. Ready to jump momentarily. Coordinates?"

"I don't care where you take us," said Tic. "Just go!" He released the triggers and a massive vacuum sprang up ahead of them. Pelly flew into the middle of it and engaged the Origami Engine just before it collapsed.

They vanished.

[poll id="47"]

March 23, 2012 — 299 words

Chapter 9p4 – Oh No, Oh No, Oh No

By Tim Sevenhuysen

A panel in the wall of the cockpit flipped open and a plate spooled out, covered in bacon. Tic dunked a slice in his Saucy Wench and dropped it into his mouth. "Aaaahh..." He washed it down with a solid gulp of the drink and cringed at the effects. "Nyurgh. Okay, Pelly. Up to orbit, spool the Origami Engine, and bam, we're outta here."

"You're just going to run away?" said Pelly. "You're going to let Mr. Dunter and Lady Libden follow through on their plot? You're going to abandon that poor girl's parents?"

"That's the plan," said Tic. "Or it would be, if my ship's stubborn AI would just listen for once..."

"You, sir," said Pelly, "are a quitter."

"Hey! I—"

"How did you get yourself into this mess? Laziness, sloth, and lack of determination. I repeat: Mr. Bolter, you are a quitter."

"That's not fair, Pelly," said Tic, "and not true. I'm in this mess because I lost the Adam Astrobot..."

"And how much time did you spend looking for it?"

"Like... at least an hour!"

"I timed you. You looked for three minutes."

"Are you saying it's been here all along, and I just haven't looked hard enough?"

Pelly was silent.

"Are you serious? Pelly, why in the galaxy didn't you tell me!?"

"Have you learned your lesson now, dear?"

"Where is it!?"

"It was in the hold, behind a crate."

"You said 'was.' Why did you say 'was'? Wait... Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no... I jettisoned the hold in orbit over Crux, didn't I? This is not good. This is not good."

A warning symbol sprang up on the cockpit viewscreen. "Hmm," said Pelly. "Neither is this."

[poll id="46"]

March 22, 2012 — 1,019 words

It was a dark and stormy night….

By Letitia Coyne

A little while ago, I was involved in a discussion with a writer who was banging his head over a new story idea. His page was blank so I suggested a first line, something like:

"An ancient hermit, his skin as gritty as a cave floor and his hair like spider’s web, walks into a pub, digs around in his rags for something that he lays onto the bar, squints up at the barman and says, '...."

Not surprisingly he knew exactly how that story went. He knew stories that start in a tavern have a fighter, a thief, a mage, and a healer who have randomly come together under the employ of a strange and mysterious wizard. It's the rules. He also knew it would be a dark and stormy night.

One sentence created an image so familiar in fantasy fiction that it suggested a thousand unspoken words. That is not good, of course, no one wants to write or read that story again; it’s too familiar, there is nothing new to learn from that scenario. ‘Avoid clichés in word and scene’ is one of the 101 rules of quality fiction. But clichés, stereotypes, and memes of all kinds come to be as familiar to readers as this one is when they are used repeatedly and specifically to tap into that pool of instant, common recognition.

There are not enough words in any book to describe every scene, every character, or every nuance.  Entering a world in which we want to immerse ourselves as readers requires the ability to recognize certain details in shorthand. Stereotypes facilitate that abbreviation by providing a common understanding. Try as they might to rid their work of clichés, in truth every author relies on them to a greater or lesser degree. The better the wordsmith, the less obvious the ruse.

Human minds are designed to differentiate. We put things in mental boxes. The first conversations we have with our babies and toddlers are comparative. Big and small, short and tall, loud and quiet, hot and cold, good and bad, light and dark, black and white. Identifying things which are same and different is part of our survival arsenal and we do it automatically. At its best it broadens our appreciation of the world around us. At its worst it is the basis for xenophobia and discrimination. It is so natural for us to compare self to other that we do it subconsciously, and then usually attach a raft of associations with each point of difference. We put people, places, and situations into our mental boxes, and then we decide how we feel about them.

Gender stereotyping is frowned upon in today’s enlightened society, but the differentiation remains: male and female, it can’t be ignored. As soon as they enter a story we will want to identify them as good or bad, hero or villain, knowable or alien [in terms of personality rather than galactic ethnicity] and each time we attach one of those labels, our reaction to that character will change and grow. We react with uncertainty and reserve when we see what we consider negative points of difference, and we embrace and empathize when we attribute positive traits.

Overt racial stereotyping has also gone the way of the dodo in most respectable fiction. It is no secret, however, that race as a point of difference is deeply entrenched in all cultures; is widely understood even when discrimination is not practiced or is discouraged; and remains common when you scratch the surface of modern fiction. [In researching this article I found a brilliant illustration of this exact point at io9.com]

To a lesser degree, but just as importantly, we assess the environment in stories, too. In fact, it is the basis of choosing genre for many readers. If we want to break away from our day to day reality, it is common to seek out worlds that are different to our own in some important way. It might only be in time, a different era; or it might be a transporting difference in climate, desert or snow or deep forest; or it might be a world entirely created by the author whose work we are reading. No matter which environment we choose, we can only enter it by assessing its characteristics against our set of known points of reference. And the author must rely on commonalities in his readership. Stereotypes.

And there are typical experiences. When we read, we call these experiences plots and we know them all. Depending on whose theory you choose to follow there have only ever been seven stories written, or twenty-five, or a hundred. It doesn’t matter how many parts you slice the world of fiction into, the bottom line is plots are reused as they gain or lose popularity, and the fashion for a type of story grows or wanes.

I for one find it fascinating that it is possible to read a word or two and to know that very nearly every other reader around the world who reads those same words will react, and if it is a skilled wordsmith they will react in a similar way, to the characters moving through the story. Housewife, doctor, nerd, temptress, bad boy, hippie, clown, used car salesman – every term produces an image. More than that, the same basic characters can move through our books over and over again, and we will still look for them and enjoy following their adventures.

So I thought I might have a look at some stereotypes, types, and archetypes in fiction, and see if there is a reason we like to share their lives.

How willing are you to flesh out a character with subconscious assumptions? Do you look for a favorite character in every book you choose? A muscular hero? A savvy warrior chick? A cool professional? A violent psychopath? I know now that I do, but for many years of reading I did not see it.

How easily are you led?

March 22, 2012 — 319 words

Chapter 9p3 – Grab Him a Pen

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Tic helped Dr. Fester out of the Revita Tube. "Grab him a pen, Milly. I'll mix him a Saucy Wench. Cures all of my ills!"

Milly rolled her eyes and found a pen, a pad of paper, and a towel. He wiped his face, dried his hands, and immediately set to scribbling equations.

"Are you trying to predict something?" asked Milly.

Dr. Fester turned to a clean sheet of paper and wrote, "I predict that you're going to ask me about your parents."

"Wait, what?" said Milly. "What do you know about my parents?"

"Told you," wrote Fester, with a gentle cackle that turned into a cough. "Saw them working in Dunter's laboratories. You have your mother's nose."

"What laboratories?" asked Milly.

"Underground, beneath the detention block. Where they're building the Norway Corrosive Vapor Disseminator."

"I knew it!" said Milly.

Dr. Fester returned to his calculations. At last he came to his conclusion, underlining the result with a flourish.

"Er," said Milly, "what's a Dam-Blaster Boat?"

Tic said, "Did you say 'Adam Astrobot'?"

Dr. Fester looked puzzled. He whipped through his calculations and quickly identified an error. He scratched out the phrase he'd written, replaced it with "Adam Astrobot," and nodded eagerly.

"That's the action figure I lost en route from Dunter to Libden. I heard them say it had some secret blueprints hidden on it. But why is that such a big deal? Wouldn't they have other copies?"

Dr. Fester started scribbling again. After a minute, he wrote, "Ignition codes."

"Wait," said Tic, "so they think I have the ignition codes to their crazy machine!? Forget that! We're getting out of here!" He grabbed the Saucy Wench, stormed off to the cockpit, and locked the door.

"Don't worry," said Pelly to Milly. "I'll talk to him."

[poll id="45"]

March 21, 2012 — 274 words

Chapter 9p2 – The Revita Tube

By Tim Sevenhuysen

Tic and Milly made their way to the passenger cabin, where Haglyn and Dr. Fester were lying side by side on the bed, their blood mingling on the sheets.

"It should be Dr. Fester," said Milly.

"But he's just some crazy old man we came across by accident," said Tic. "Haglyn is one of my oldest friends. She saved my life back at the pawn shop, and it wasn't the first time she's done that."

"Fester saved our lives, too, with that yeti call," said Milly. "And Haglyn isn't likely to die on us at any moment. He is."

"Urgh. Fine, it's Fester, then. Open the Revita Tube please, Pelly."

A plastic tube, about six feet long and three feet wide, filled with iridescent blue gel, slid out of the wall at the foot of the bed.

Tic and Milly laid  Dr. Fester gently in the tube and slipped a breathing mask over his mouth and nose. The tube slid back into place. A video screen on the wall began to blink.

"Now we wait," said Tic.

Haglyn moaned.

"Hang in there," said Milly, mopping the woman's gnarled forehead with a damp cloth.

"Can't... Can't feel my legs," murmured Haglyn.

"Shh," said Milly. "Try to sleep."

 ***

Half an hour passed. The Revita Tube dinged and slid open. Dr. Fester was awake, and the hole in his side was covered over with a thick scar. Tic started scanning the Tube's diagnostic screen.

"How do you feel?" asked Milly gently, removing the breathing mask.

Dr. Fester pointed to his throat and coughed out two words: "Drink... Pen..."

[poll id="44"]

March 20, 2012 — 1,875 words

Webcomics and Webfiction: Considering the Audience Gap

By Guest Author

by Christopher B Wright

I was encouraged to write a post that dealt with both webcomics and webfiction, because I do both: I started a web comic in 1996 and began posting web fiction in 2011.

It's an uneven relationship: my comic is old, but it's not particularly successful — Help Desk’s audience is nothing compared to the real success stories (Penny Arcade, PvP, Sinfest, etc) — and I don't make money. I'm not someone to emulate if you’re looking to earn a living.

On the other side, I've only been involved in webfiction for a year: Pay Me, Bug!, my first serial, started in January 2011 and finished in October. The Points Between, my second, started in September and is still updating. Compared to many, I'm painfully new.

Still, I've seen enough of both worlds to notice a few interesting differences, and I'm brash and arrogant enough to foist my opinions on anyone who will listen... or who is forced to listen... or who is grotesquely fascinated by the apparent impending trainwreck of an idea, and doesn't necessarily want to listen, but just... can't... turn... away...

Hi!

When I started publishing webfiction, I put it on a site that was completely separate from my webcomic. Both sites have since been fused together, but while they were separate I had the opportunity to monitor traffic on both. The difference was substantial: my webcomic averaged between 2,500 and 4,000 visitors a day, with roughly 5,000 RSS feed subscribers. (Note: this is extremely low traffic compared to even moderately successful webcomics.) On my webfiction site, my best day during Pay Me, Bug!'s run was about 350 unique views. There were perhaps 200 RSS subscribers. That's quite a gap.

Some of that can be explained by the relative newness of my entry into webfiction: it takes time to build an audience, and the early years can be painful. But I started poking around—looking up sites on Alexa, checking out Project Wonderful statistics—and it seems this phenomenon is more true than not: webcomics attract more visitors. Seeing what appeared to be a trend, I immediately wanted to know why it was a trend.

I have a few hypotheses.

Webcomics: Less Involvement is Required

If you go to ubersoft.net, you’re immediately redirected to the part of my site that displays the latest comics I’ve posted. After that, all you have to do is scroll down to read 1-6 panels.

Boom. You’re done.

Reading a comic is easy, and the relative ease with which someone can “consume” a comic is a fundamental strength of webcomics. Because comics are easy to read, readers don't feel they'll lose something if they read them. I know people who have special links set up in their browsers so that they can open 30-40 tabs at a time, each pointing to a different comic. Then they read each one in turn: read, close, read, close, read, close, read, close, and so on. In ten minutes they’ve gone through 40 comics that they follow regularly. That’s awesome for webcomics because it means it doesn’t take a lot of effort to get casual readers.

Right now, I have more readers who subscribe to my comics on RSS feeds than I do who visit my site directly. I didn’t realize this until I innocently asked a question about my RSS feeds and was suddenly inundated with responses from readers I never knew I had, then started paying closer attention to different parts of my log files. The more ways you give potential readers to read your comic, the more people will read your comic, because the act of reading a comic isn’t that taxing.

But the most important part of the subtitle is ‘required’, as in “Less involvement is required”. That doesn’t mean that a high level of involvement is forbidden, and in fact, you will find readers who voluntarily increase their involvement. Communities spring up around webcomics. Large, vocal, thriving communities. The community of fans who follow Penny Arcade can decimate unwary servers if Gabe or Tycho link to something they find interesting—the equivalent of a webcomic denial-of-service attack, only not so much “malicious” as “mass quantities of enthusiastically curious”.

So webcomics have the best of both worlds: not only is there a low barrier to entry, but there’s nothing preventing you from becoming a more involved fan, either. Rather, the only meaningful barrier is the cartoonist.

Webfiction: More Involvement is Assumed

So does it work the other way around for webfiction? Does being a casual reader of webfiction require more work on behalf of the reader?

To a certain extent, I think it does—it takes more time to read your average webfiction update than it does to read your average comic update. More importantly, there is a strong perception that reading webfiction is time-consuming, and that perception acts a deterrent for webfiction that webcomics simply doesn’t have to deal with.

Why does webfiction suffer from this? Because while the World Wide Web was originally text-only and hyperlink-driven, culturally the web seems to shy away from the dreaded “wall of text” phenomenon. The more text you see on a page, the more you unfocus. The term TL;DR didn’t spring out of nowhere—at some point, someone decided that there was more work involved in trying to read a big chunk of text than there was a return from doing so, and they just stopped reading.

There are communities in the web that are not text-averse. Political sites are filled with people who do not shy away from essays—but they’re not reading fiction (at least, they’re not reading anything they’ll admit is fiction). Bloggers in general aren’t averse to reading text, but blogging also seems to favor short posts, and they’re being supplanted by sites like Pinterest and Tumblr and Twitter—sites that demand brevity. A lot of people I know like to read review sites, and if the writer is a good enough reviewer, he or she can amass a fairly loyal following (Eric Burns-White of the now-in-limbo Websnark was an excellent example of this when he was actively updating). But political and review websites are a means to an end—a place where you can read opinions about topics that interest you, and join in the discussions yourself. Those kinds of sites promise to deliver a very specific benefit that makes the reader willing to commit the time to sift through the text.

Webfiction is a blank slate. Is the story any good? You won’t know until you make the commitment to start reading. Since each chapter generally doesn’t stand on its own, it means you will also have to start going through the archives to get a grasp of the story—whereas with webcomics you usually glance at the current update and quickly decide whether you like the cartoonist’s sense of humor, or artistic talent, without needing to understand the context of the story.

Webfiction publishers have to fight against inertia in order to increase their audiences. I haven’t been writing webfiction long enough, nor talked with other webfiction publishers often enough, to learn any mitigating strategies.

Community is King

But there is an audience. People are willing to read on the web—communities like Wattpad and Fanfiction.net are proof of that. So how to go from “people read my webfiction” to “hey, a lot of people are reading my webfiction” to “I need to upgrade my server in order to handle all this traffic?”

You develop a community.

At one point in webcomic history, there was a lot of talk about how webcomics needed to get out of their “niche” markets in order to succeed. I scoffed at the idea then and still scoff at it now, because the one defining trait of every single successful webcomic out there is that it has built a loyal, active, thriving, often boisterous community of readers. Readers flock to forums to talk about the latest update, or comment on the update itself. Once they’ve finished talking about that, they talk about other things. Related things. Semi-related things. Off-topic things. Books, movies, music. Even, in some remote enclaves that are spoken of only in hushed tones, religion and politics. The comic becomes a cornerstone of the community, but their interactions branch out into other things.

When people congregate around your site and put down roots, you've developed a community. And that initial common interest that drew them to your site to begin with? That’s your niche.

The definition I'm using for niche is ‘a distinct segment of a market’. A common misconception of the word is that because a niche is specific is must be small. This is not the case. Penny Arcade, PvP, User Friendly, Dumbing of Age, xkcd, Chainsaw Suit, Megatokyo, Schlock Mercenary all have huge communities, but they also project very specific images that communicate what they are, and what you'll get out of them. That very specific image is their niche. None of those communities are as large as, say, fans of professional sports, but even professional sports fans are not one, single, unified community—they tend to follow specific teams, and teams are niche markets that have been exploited so completely, with niche identification so utterly complete, that some markets literally lead to rioting during games (eg, football in England).

This sense of community is not as pronounced in the world of independent webfiction. But it is present—again, look at Wattpad. Look at Fanfiction.net. Look at Goodreads. Readers of fiction congregate and form communities, just like readers of webcomics.

“That's great, smart guy,” I hear you say. “So how do you do it?”

Oh, hey, look at the time....

About Christopher B Wright

 Christopher B Wright is a writer, occasional musician, borderline cartoonist, and recognized authority on his own opinions. His webfiction can be found at https://www.eviscerati.org/fiction.