March 24, 2012 — 1,288 words
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."
"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
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.
March 23, 2012 — 299 words
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."
"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."
March 22, 2012 — 1,019 words
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
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."
March 21, 2012 — 274 words
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.
"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..."
March 20, 2012 — 1,875 words
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...
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.
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.
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.
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....
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.
March 20, 2012 — 287 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
The Galactic Pelican hummed low over the icy terrain, its engines kicking up clouds of loose snow in its wake. Tic watched the instruments for any sign of pursuit, leaving the actual flying to Pelly. She hugged Haddock's surface, winding through the low mountains and staying beneath the conveniently thick cloud cover of a brewing storm to avoid being spotted by satellites.
Some snow was falling, partially obscuring Tic's vision, but between gusts and flurries he caught glimpses of the mountainsides below, covered in barren glaciers, deep snow drifts, and evenly rounded structures strung with electric lights... Wait, what were those?
"Pelly," said Tic, "what am I seeing down there?"
"Igloos, dear," said Pelly. "I'd be happy to get you a closer look if I wasn't so busy with all these evasive maneuvers."
"It's fine," said Tic. "Just simple curiosity. Keep evading."
"We're nearing the edge of our cloud cover," Pelly informed him. "Should I stay hidden, or find open sky and head for orbit?"
"Circle back under the clouds," said Tic. "I don't know if our wounded passengers can handle the ascent yet."
Milly stumbled into the cockpit, using handholds to avoid losing her footing from Pelly's frequent and erratic dives and swoops.
"How are they doing back there?" asked Tic.
"Not great," said Milly. "Dr. Fester is fading fast, and Haglyn's awake now, but she must have some pretty bad internal damage, because she's been coughing up blood."
"Pelly, even out the flight path a little," said Tic, "and prep the Revita Tube."
Pelly levelled out. "I am only stocked with enough medical supplies for a single use of the Tube."
Tic said, "I guess that leaves us with a choice..."
March 17, 2012 — 1,283 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
When I was first approached to work on the series that would become Losing Freight, I had very little idea what the project was going to look like. I knew the format—one page every weekday, with a reader interaction poll at the end of each page—and I quickly came up with the story concept—a money-hungry space freighter pilot loses a valuable piece of cargo and has to go on the run—but the actual writing process and the nature of the reader interaction were so unique, so different from anything I'd ever done before, that I quickly discovered that my "normal approach" simply wasn't going to work.
In this blog post, I want to describe some of the ways that Losing Freight, and my approach to writing it, has evolved since I started working on it two months ago. There are two main things that have changed: the types of poll questions I'm asking are different from when I started, and my writing process has evolved, too.
At the beginning of Losing Freight, I was asking readers to mostly fill in worldbuilding details, or to choose among various interchangeable pieces within the story. For example, I asked for the name of Tic Bolter's spaceship (the readers chose "The Galactic Pelican"); I asked what the currency was called in Tic's galaxy (they measure their money in "Litres," apparently); and I asked what valuable collectible Tic had managed to misplace (it was an action figure).
Any of these details could have turned out otherwise—Tic's ship could be the Farting Walrus, his money could be quadriloons, and he could have lost a space whale's cosmic hairball—and none of it would have significantly changed the direction of the story. It just would have filled in some of the blanks differently.
As we moved through the first three or four weeks of the story, I realized that readers would soon get bored of these types of questions. I think it was obvious that a lot of the polls had more-or-less completely interchangeable answers, and while those polls can still be fun—and I'm still using them now and then—the real uniqueness of Losing Freight's interactivity comes from the ability of readers to have a direct impact on the shape of the story from one day to the next. I realized that I had to start asking more questions that allowed readers to have that kind of impact.
During Week 4, I asked readers to help choose the setting of the next several pages: they chose a pawn shop on an ice planet. Even that was somewhat interchangeable: it didn't change the plot, only the details and descriptions. But it was heading in the right direction.
During Week 5, I let the readers choose the strategy that one of the characters would use to try to infiltrate the villain's headquarters. Here's where things started to go right, I think: I knew what the next page had to result in, and where it was going to "end up," but I didn't know how the character was going to get there. I had to wait on the results of the poll to write most of the next page.
That continued on in Weeks 6 and 7. I asked which of two characters should go undercover disguised as one of their enemies, what kind of character they would run into on the next page, and whether they would take that character along with them when they escaped. The answers to those questions are definitely not interchangeable. The various poll options drive the story in very different directions, lead the characters down different paths, and affect character development. These types of questions have drastic effects not only on the next few pages, but also on the overall plot of the story.
That's both inspiring and terrifying, to be honest. It's inspiring because I'm adding new wrinkles into the story all the time, forcing myself to write a story that doesn't go straight from A to B; it has lots of different twists along the way, whether I anticipate them from week to week or not. But it's terrifying because I can't really write ahead. Which brings me to the second big change that's been taking place with Losing Freight.
I began Losing Freight with an outline. It was a pretty good outline, if you ask me, because unlike Greg X. Graves I actually really like outlining. It covered about 12 weeks of the story, with basic guidelines for what would happen during each week, what direction each character would be developing in, a nice rise and fall to the intensity of the action, well-paced "reveals" and plot development...
I prewrote the first two weeks' worth of the story, and kept about a two-week buffer going for the first month or so, taking one day per week to write a full week at a time. I left the appropriate portions of each page blank so that each day all I had to do was slot in the appropriate poll results and hit "Publish."
It was easy. It was comfortable. Then I started changing my polls.
When my poll questions began to change, my comfortable rhythm quickly went out the window. How could I write a page a week or two in advance when I didn't know what was going to happen on it until I'd received the previous day's poll result? I was forced to abandon my precious prewriting, my nice little buffer.
Instead of sitting down once a week to write a week's worth of pages at a time, I now find myself taking that time to outline only the roughest frameworks of the next week's pages—which page is an action scene, a conversation scene, a stage-setting scene?—and to plan out a basic idea of where the characters are going to end up at the week's end.
The path from Monday to Friday is becoming too wide open to plot it out more than a few days ahead of time. And if things keep going this way, the same thing might happen to the path between Monday and Tuesday! Crazy stuff.
My "12-week plan" is in shambles. I have been reduced to annotating each upcoming week with only the barest elements of pacing: this is a rising action week; this is a falling action week; this week is a character development week; this week holds a big revelation; this week contains the climax of "Act One."
It's scary for me to be writing in an unknown direction, with very little idea of where my story might go from one week to the next, but that's the beauty of this project: if I had all the details worked out beforehand, the readers wouldn't be having much input, would they?
I'm still learning a lot every week about how to best make use of the daily polls, what kinds of questions readers have the most fun answering, and how to make every day's page exciting and interesting to read. I hope I learn as much over the next two months as I have over the previous two.
Maybe by the end of the story I'll have this thing mastered! Then again, maybe the whole point of this format is that it's unmasterable. And that's part of the adventure.
Losing Freight, by Tim Sevenhuysen, is 1889 Labs' first reader input-driven "Flashback" series.
March 17, 2012 — 303 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
"Which button?" mouthed Milly silently.
Tic whispered in Dr. Fester's ear: "Any 'predictions'?"
Dr. Fester started scribbling madly on the floor with his chalk, but seemed not to like the results. He frowned and shook his head.
Tic shrugged, then ran his finger across all three buttons. Four things happened in rapid succession. First, the clamps on the Galactic Pelican's landing gear released and sunk into the floor. Second, the domed ceiling began to recede. Third, Dunter's goons spun around in surprise and raised their blasters. Fourth, a siren clamoured to life as sprinkler heads popped out from the walls and began dousing the entire hangar in fire-retardant foam.
The goons charged towards the ship, but the foam was too slippery and they went sliding out of control. They raised their blasters.
"Pelly, open up!" called Tic.
At the sound of Tic's voice, Pelly hummed to life. Her cargo ramp descended. Then the lasers began to fly, illuminating the falling foam in shifting patterns of light.
"Go, go!" yelled Tic. He lifted Haglyn in a fireman's carry and charged towards the ship, dragging Dr. Fester behind him. Milly returned fire, spraying lasers at random into the foam.
A stray burst raked across Haglyn's Liberati-tuxedoed butt, inches from Tic's face. He threw Haglyn bodily into the ship and reached back for Dr. Fester just as another laser pierced the foam and burned a hole into the little old man's side. Fester fell with a pitiful yelp. Tic grabbed him and dove up Pelly's ramp. Milly leapt in just behind.
"Shields up and get out of here!" screamed Tic.
"Yes, dear!" said Pelly. Her engines fired, her cargo ramp lifted, and they shot out into the snowy evening sky, trailing foam and lasers behind them.
Dr. Fester gurgled, "Didn't... predict... that."