Because I'm throwing myself into the world of serial fiction for the next year or so, I've decided to start a new feature/topic for my non-fiction posts called Writing the Online Novel.
Online writing is a different beast than what fiction writers are used to. For the most part, it's closer to journalism than to books. Books, and most fiction magazines, are immersive reading. They're designed to be read without distraction, for the reader to submerge his or her consciousness into the story.
Because of this immersion factor, the audience for a book is very conscious about its choices. They aren't just paying for the book, they're making a major time and attention commitment to it. They shop for books deliberately, looking for something special, which they will consume later, when they are ready to dive in and lose the world. The book must be worth that time and energy commitment. This makes them more attuned to genre and category and other boundaries.
The web, on the other hand, is more like a newspaper; lots of
different things on any page, meant to be skimmed, full of everything
from sports scores, to comics to commentary, along with the news and
features, and ads. People approach newspapers and the web with a more "consume it now" mindset. No commitments involved at all. It's just skimming and browsing and killing time.
Which isn't to say that readers don't dip more deeply into some things, but that's not the point of screwing around on the internet. The point, more often then not, is to see what's going on. Right now. You skim through headlines and feeds and aggregators and social media, to see what catches your interest. You don't know what you're going to find.
And it doesn't always matter if you find much. You may feel completely satisfied with your experience just skimming the first paragraphs and summaries, and catching a few cartoons or LOLcats, or a video of an otter doing a back flip, or seeing the weather or sport scores.
So readers on the internet aren't looking for the same kind of exact experience they look for in a book. After all, we've already filtered out the bad stuff by sticking to things we like and trust: we subscribe to feeds, check out certain sites, follow friends and people we find interesting. And because of that, we can leave ourselves open to a wider range of experience than we do when we're shopping for books. We are less conscious of boundaries.
The experience of the online writer is a little different.
We have to make the same commitment to everything we write, whether the reader is just skimming or engaged in full-out commitment. It's the same time-consuming work, and burns up the same high level of brain energy.
So we writers tend to see online fiction the same way we book fiction. It's just delivered differently.
I think we need to start looking at online fiction -- particularly online novels -- is a medium unto itself. It has its own audience, its own requirements, its own modes and problems. And even though serialized fiction, and newspapers and magazines have been around for centuries, this version of the form is new in a whole lot of different ways. There is no beaten path to help us figure out how to do it right or gain an audience ... or make a living.
I'd like to explore some of these issues and report what I've learned, so I'll be posting this Writing the Online Novel series irregularly. The topics will cover everything from genre to cliffhangers to episode length to SEO and making money. Some of these posts will be useful to writers of regular fiction, and most of them well be helpful to blog or web writers of any kind.
I hope they'll also be interesting to readers in this strange new world.
See you in the funny papers.