Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Writing The Online Novel - intro post

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.


chihuahuazero said...

You're right. Online readers have different attention span. Even though I read many of my books in short bursts of the time, due to how my dad is set up, it's harder to focus on something online. It either catches your attention, sends you scanning through the entire thing, or clicking out of the page.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, CZ.

Yeah, it isn't a black and white difference: we do sometimes read books in short bursts, or get immersed in a web post, but even when we do, our approach to the medium is different.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I guess it depends on the person. If i love something, I will take as much time as it takes to read it. It's really good to see the topic explored which gets everyone thinking.

Good luck with your writing journey. May it be a fulfilling adventure for you.

Cate (ROW80)

The Daring Novelist said...

Cate: Not saying that people won't read something longer online.

As a matter of fact, for something they are interested in the same way as a book, many people will set aside "quiet time" for those 10,000 word posts and websites the same way they do a regular book.

What I'm saying is that web fiction breaks out of that restriction. And that people approach the WEB differently than they do a book.

For the writer of online fiction, we are free to stay old school and think of readers the same old way, and if our stuff is good enough, the readers will adapt.

However, writers and readers are carrying a lot of legacy baggage. Some will want to stick with it, but there is no need for it. It's time to step back and look at our assumptions.

The Daring Novelist said...


Cate, I didn't realize you missed my major point here.

You said "IF I LOVE SOMETHING, I will take as much time as it takes."

And that's the point. That right there is the difference between traditional reading and web reading. With traditional reading, you bother to figure out whether you love something and THEN you set aside the time to read it.

With the internet you might do that too... but you also freely read things you don't actually love. You just don't commit to them. You browse them, you check them out. You find things you love among them, and THEN you commit to spending that additional time.

Do you see the difference?