Three Principles of On-line Serialized Fiction
Here's an essay I wrote a few years back, when Fiddle and Burn: The Daily Prose Comic Strip was a going concern. It originally appeared on a site called Blogfic, dedicated to on-line fiction. Unfortunately, that site is now defunct. So, I figured I'd present these pearls of wisdom here:
Those of us who write serialized fiction and present it on-line should never forget what we’re up against. People have short attention spans these days, and they have lots and lots of options when choosing ways to amuse themselves. So if we want any hope of seizing a portion of a potential audiences’ limited leisure time, we should keep a few principles in mind, which I’ve boiled down to three rules: Brevity, frequency, and navigability.
I’ve tried to follow these rules in my own effort, Fiddle and Burn (www.fiddleandburn.com/blog) and I thought I’d talk about them a little here.
1 – Brevity
It seems to me most installments of most blog-fics are too long. Chapters often read for page upon page, just as they do in print novels. But computer screens don’t lend themselves to the sustained focus that kind of story telling requires. Maybe someday we’ll have comfortable, high resolution, hand held screens made to curl up on a couch with. But for now, we’re stuck with bulky monitors and hard chairs. Even laptops are awkward at best. To expect our readers to plow through works of any length under such conditions is just unrealistic, no matter what the quality of the writing. So the most important rule of all is Keep It Short.
That doesn’t mean take a multi page scene and randomly chop it into pieces. The material should be written for the form. Write one or two screen long scenes and make sure to end each one on a punch line or a moment of emotional resolution. I almost never allow an episode to stretch beyond one double spaced printed page in MS Word. I generally write a first draft however I like and then trim it down. This takes discipline, I have to cut without mercy, but I find it invariably makes the work punchier and more interesting. I’m always amazed (and appalled) at how much fat my initial efforts have. The formal limitations leave me no choice but to eliminate anything that’s not absolutely essential.
Keeping it short makes it easier for my audience to read my material. To get them to come back, whenever possible, I like to end with a cliff hanger. Which leads me to rule number two.
2 – Frequency
The best blog-fics come out often and they come out regularly. I post every weekday. This would be impossible were it not for rule one. But because each episode is so short I’m (just barely) able to keep up. It’s still not easy, but if you want to relax, hey, go watch TV. Just don’t expect any sort of audience to give you their sustained attention.
Every work doesn’t have to come out daily, but I do think that weekly is basically the minimum. Any less often and it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to remember who you are or what’s going on in your story.
Keeping to a reliable schedule is also crucial. If you tell your readers that you’re going to post every Wednesday, you damn well better post every Wednesday. It’s hard enough to get anyone to follow your work without disappointing them once you’ve gotten them hooked.
Sometimes life interferes and the work just won’t be ready. For that reason it’s a very good idea to work ahead. The easiest thing is to build as much of a backlog as is practical before you begin posting.
3 – Navigability
Blogs are wonderful and they’ve made it very easy for anyone to become a publisher. They’re a fantastic way for writers to present their material to the public without any intermediaries. But they were designed for diaries and public discourse, not for sustained works of fiction. That becomes immediately apparent to readers when they try to join in the middle of stories. How many times have you entered the home page of a blog-fic and gotten completely lost trying to orient yourself?
Most writers understand this and take pains to provide links to initial episodes. But many forget to provide full tables of contents. And the chapters themselves often lack adequate tools to proceed backward and forward through the story.
The problem is, the archive functions of most blog tools are oriented around calendars not story structure.
I struggled with this a long time when I was designing Fiddle and Burn. Because I planned to follow rules one and two, I knew I’d quickly have many, many episodes. I was very concerned that my readers would become lost if they attempted to follow any of the stories I wanted to tell.
In the end, the only solution I could come up with was to abandon the off-the-shelf tools and do it the hard way. I still present my new episodes in blog form, which gives me all the advantages of ease of publishing and automatically generated RSS feeds. But I created an archive the old fashioned way, with self-coded HTML. You can see the results here: http://www.fiddleandburn.com/archive.htm . I present what is, essentially, a customized table of contents for my work. I treat each week as a chapter with five episodes. The weeks are named. Each week and each episode provides links both forward and backward. It takes a lot of work for me to maintain this. It helps that I’m more-or-less technologically adept. (I use Macromedia Dreamweaver to do the coding, which makes it easier.) I realize this sort of customization might not be possible for everyone. But I do think something like it is necessary to make our work more accessible for casual readers.
I apologize if this comes off as all-knowing or arrogant. I don’t mean to pontificate as if I have all the answers. It’s certainly true that my work hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. But I do think if more writers followed these rules the audience for on-line serialized fiction could only grow.
Fiddle and Burn: A Daily Comic Strip in Prose