Open Source Fiction?

Frank Gilroy, a guy I used to work with at Motorola, has written a post called My Thoughts on Open Source Story Telling about why he’s putting his fiction up on the web. I had a few thoughts on the topic that I would have shared in a comment, except that he’s got comments turned off. So, instead here’s the long version.

To begin with, fiction was always “open source” in the sense that you can’t keep the text secret from the reader. In this way it is unlike software (where you can keep the source code secret from the people running the program). Because of this, in software “open source” was an important (and somewhat transgressive) notion. In fiction, though, it’s just the way things have always been.

Since fiction has always been open source, stories have always been pieces of a greater conversation. Some explicitly respond to other stories, but even the ones that don’t are informed by what the author has read. At least as important, the readers’ reactions are informed by what they’ve read, whether or not the writer has read the same things.

It’s rare in fiction for writers to do what’s common in open source software—use their access to the source to improve it (fix bugs, add functionality, improve standards compliance, and so on). But the reason has nothing to do with a lack of access to the text.

Putting that issue aside, the remaining issues seem to be money (how does the writer get paid) and access (how does the reader find the work).

Money

In software, the open source model offers a revenue stream for providing support. Is there an equivalent for open source fiction? Perhaps one could say that some professors of English and literature do, in a sense, get paid to support the readers of open-source literature. But I don’t see a business model forming around the idea that a writer would publish his stories free on the web and then charge a fee to explain them.

Why do people ever pay for fiction? They pay to be entertained, to be edified, to be amused, and so on, but I think the root value that they’re paying for is novelty. People will pay for access to new fiction (that they’re confident that they’ll enjoy) and there are revenue streams built around the fact that people will perceive access to new fiction (that they expect to enjoy) as being of value. (Advertising being the most obvious.)

Putting a story up on the web can only hurt its novelty value. It may be worth doing for other reasons (in particular, if you’re getting paid for it), but a piece of fiction is only new to a reader once.

Writers are as happy as anyone else to get paid, but they’re also motivated by other things. In particular, they want their work to be read: They want to be part of the great conversation that is literature—or at least part of some tiny piece of that conversation. This, I think, is the reason that so many writers are tempted to post their fiction: it means that the whole world has access.

Access

It might seem like putting your fiction up on the web would maximum the chance that it would be read, but that’s very much not true.

Fiction is different from nonfiction, where a brief glance can give the reader an pretty good sense as to whether or not a piece is worth reading. Fiction needs to be read from the beginning. Good fiction often produces temporary feelings of frustration or confusion and then resolves those feelings in a satisfying way. But there’s plenty of bad fiction that produces frustration or confusion and then fails utterly to produce a satisfying resolution.

Every reader has been repeatedly unsatisfied by bad fiction. Most of them have responded by choosing not to read random pieces of fiction. Instead, they only read fiction by writers that they trust to make it worth their while, or after someone they trust vouches for it as being worth the effort.

These pieces—fiction by writers they trust, or selected by editors they trust—they’re willing to pay money for. But fiction that lacks such credentials is not only not worth money, it generally doesn’t even get read. Just offering it for free does not make it worth investing the time to read it—in fact, just the opposite. Being available on the web for free doesn’t prove that it’s not worth reading, but in the absence of a recognized by-line or an endorsement by an editor, being offered for free is a negative.

Because of that, posting a story on the internet usually means that almost no one will read it except the writer’s friends and relations. In this way it’s very different from software, and from other things that have flourished on the internet, such as music.

[In the interest of full disclosure, let me mention that my story “An Education of Scars” is currently available to read for free on the internet at Futurismic, which paid me for the right to offer it.]

My Workspace

My Workspace, originally uploaded by bradipo.

I haven’t actually been writing at my desktop for the past couple of weeks. While Steve and Daniel were visiting, we were taking our laptops to the library and using one of their “study rooms” as an office.

I’m fixin’ to get back to working here, though.

What’s here:

  • HP laser printer
  • Yamaha speakers
  • Dancing Ganesh
  • iMac
  • Iomega 1T backup drive
  • My and Jackie’s iPods
  • Picture of Jackie taken in India
  • My Clarion mug

Creative Commons License
My Workspace by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Thinking about Clarion

It’s hot today. Writing when it’s hot always reminds me of Clarion—of the many sweaty hours sitting at my desk in Owen Hall, writing fiction. And I was already thinking of Clarion. In 2001, Clarion started on June 3rd, so I spent much of May getting ready to go. Since then I’ve found my thoughts turn to Clarion every May.

Thinking about Clarion reminds me how I’d been wrong about which activities would teach me the most. I’d imagined that the benefits would flow from writing a lot and getting critques on my stories. Those activities were beneficial, but what taught me the most was doing a critique of a classmate’s story and then hearing another 20 critiques on the same story. Especially when one of my fellows had a different take on the story from my own, I learned something. Some of those insights were pearls of great value that I secreted away and have used many, many times since then. Even when I disagreed, just the notion that the story could be viewed that way changed the way I thought about stories.

Sadly, I don’t have an active local critique group, so I’m not in a position to recreate that aspect—the most valuable aspect—of the Clarion experience this summer. But that’s okay. I can still write a lot. I can still read a lot. I can still think critically about the stories I read. And on hot days like today it will almost feel like I’m back there again.

Heinlein’s Rule Two: Finish What You Start?

I’ve never had a problem with Henlein’s rule one for writers (you must write). I enjoy the writing. I enjoy other stuff too, and want to be sure to get in my reading and exercise and Esperanto and playing of StarCraft, but of all the stages in writing a story, the step I most enjoy is putting the words down. So, I do write, and with enthusiasm.

On the topic of rule two, however, I go back and forth.

I certainly see that you can’t make a career (or even a sale) out of unfinished stories. But I’ve gradually come to see that many of my unfinished stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just a cool character or a cool situation or a cool idea.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “finish” these non-stories. Years of experience shows that I can fool myself for a long time that these particular cool characters, situations, and ideas add up to a story. But the result is days or weeks spent generating prose that never adds up to a story.

I think a much better version of rule two for me is “Finish the stories you start, but ruthless abandon any project as soon as you realize it isn’t a story.”

I could finish two or three stories in the time it takes me to “finish” a non-story.

Deciding what to skip

One weak point in my writing is that I sometimes forget to write in scenes. I’m prone to write continuous action, which leads to pages of people just going places and arranging things. Very dull. Very easy to avoid, though, as long as I remember to do so. Just add a scene break and begin a new scene with, “When they arrived at…”

The problem is, an excessive amount of that is just as bad. It’s not as often, but I sometimes find myself summarizing—writing the whole story as a series of brief descriptions of what happened.

I think that’s where I went awry most recently. As often happens when I’ve made a mistake, I found it very hard to write the next bit, leading to several zero word count days this week. So, today I backed up and replaced some of that summary with scenes.

I think that was the right choice. After all, this is a place where they’re going to be spending some time. So, some full-blown scenes of arriving and meeting people seem appropriate. Plus, I enjoyed writing them, which is usually a good sign.

So, that’s 800 words today. With three zeros, though, my moving average is just 216 words. Hopefully I’m over this rough patch and can start making headway again.

Five hundred words of calling for help

I’ve known right along that I didn’t really know where the novel was going.  On novel-length efforts I haven’t had much success writing to an outline, so I thought I’d try just writing.  (Another thing I’ve been doing differently this time is giving the chapters to Jackie as I go along, figuring that would give me a little extra push to make each one kind of exciting.)

I’ve been putting in little hints of underlying complexity, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what they mean.  I figure some of them will turn into something.  The others I can leave in if they work as texture or remove if they detract.

For some reason, though, the past couple of days it started bugging me that I didn’t know where I was going.  I was at an inflection point in the story and I thought had an idea for what I wanted to do next, but without an idea of where I was going, it just turned into nothing.  The result was two days with zero word counts.

That was bad, but today I figured out I could write another chunk.  I’d made the not-unusual decision to cut the hero off from most sources of help, but I realized today that I could let him call for help without him actually getting help anytime soon.  Plus, this gives me the chance to insert some exposition if necessary–the response to the call for help can fill in whatever background is needed to put his adventures in the context of the greater story.  (I haven’t written it yet, but I’ll write something, and if it isn’t right I can change it later.)

So, even though I still don’t know what the greater story is, I was able to write 500 words today of calling for help.

Although it daunted me for a couple of days, I think I’m past this cycle of worrying about what the greater story is.  The worst that can happen is that I never do, and I’ll have spent a couple of months writing sixty thousand words that never turns into a novel.  But the couple of months would have gone by whether I’d written sixty thousand words or not.

Word churn

My false starts last week left me with a bunch of words that probably belonged in the novel but not where I’d tried to put them.  The past three days I’ve been working on integrating some of them into the next chapter and moving the rest out of the manuscript.  The result is that I’ve made some forward progress, but without much in the way of net new words.  So, with word counts of 200, 300, and 600, my moving average has slipped under 500.  Still, I’m making forward progress.  In fact, I hit 15,000 words, which is one-quarter of my estimated final length, and I hit it with a neat transition in the story–after having been on the move so far, the characters have finally reached a place they’re going to be for a while.

Perfecting Taiji forms

I studied Aikido briefly when I was living in Salt Lake City. My teacher was a gruff Asian man whose English was just adequate and whose teaching style was not unlike what you see in martial arts movies—he would mock or berate students who got things wrong. I don’t know if he thought that was the best way to get people to learn, or if it was just how his teachers had taught him.  Maybe he just didn’t want to waste his time teaching anyone who could be deterred by a little mocking or berating.

At one point, talking about his philosophy of teaching, he made fun of some locally available Taiji classes that focused on “perfecting” your Taiji forms.  With his somewhat limited English he made it perfectly clear that he thought it was stupid not to learn your Taiji correctly in the first place.

It made sense to me at the time.  I mean, if you’re going to practice something hundreds or thousands of times, surely it makes sense to learn how to do it correctly first, right?  Who’d want to practice doing it badly over and over again?

My current teachers, though, have a completely different attitude.  Unlike any martial arts class I’ve been in, they basically never correct anyone.  This may be partially due to the makeup of the class—mostly old people who might have limited range of motion due to arthritis or some other medical problem.  Also, I think it’s because they’re focusing on the deeper fundamentals—things like shifting your weight and turning your body. Exactly when you turn your hand is simply not as important.

Even more fundamentally, though, it’s because you have to do the practice to learn to feel the difference.  I suppose if you had a private tutor telling you that you were turning your hand too early or were forgetting to straighten your foot, you might spend a little less time practicing the form incorrectly, which would mean that you’d start practicing the form correctly a little sooner.  But I think you’d lose the chance to learn how to feel why one way is wrong and the other way is better.

I have no particular natural ability at things like this—things like martial arts or dance or tennis.  I’ve seen dancers who can pick up choreography in a fraction of a second, copying the lead dancer’s moves so quickly that you can scarcely tell that they’re unrehearsed.  I’m the opposite of that.  It takes me tens or hundreds of tries to get even reasonably close.  However, I’ve been surprised to find that I get a little closer each time, even without an instructor telling me what I’m doing wrong.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the way you learn how to do something is by practicing.  I knew that already.  But it’s been very interesting to see how effective this sort of minimalist instruction is.  The teachers demonstrate the forms, and they answer questions.  There’s no pushing people to do the forms more correctly, and there’s certainly no mocking or berating.  And yet, I’m learning at least as fast as I’ve ever learned anything equivalent in the past.

So, I think my old Aikido teacher was wrong.  It makes perfect sense to start learning Taiji at the most basic level (weight shifting, turning your body), and then to move on to foot work and arm movement, and only then to worry about things like how you move your hands.  It makes perfect sense to have an instructor show you what to do, but then let you learn how to do it through practice.  And, since you can do 90% of the practice entirely on your own, it makes perfect sense to have an advanced course in “perfecting” your Taiji forms, to get whichever small bits don’t come naturally out of your practice.

Onward

About a month ago I got a rewrite request from an editor. This is generally considered a good thing–it means the story is almost good enough to sell.

This is only the second such rewrite request I’ve gotten. The previous one was from a top market so of course I did the rewrite, but the editor still didn’t buy it. That experience stood me in good stead. I did this new rewrite with great hope, but was not nearly as surprised and disappointed this time when the story didn’t sell.

I’m not unhappy about having done the rewrite. The editor had a useful insight into how I could fix one key problem with the story, and the rewritten version is much better. My previous rewritten story did eventually sell, and I have some hope that this one will sell as well.

I suppose I shouldn’t conclude too much from just two datapoints, but it’s hard not to see this as part of a pattern. Still, I expect I’ll do the same with future rewrite requests: If the editor’s suggestion improves the story, I’ll take it and do the rewrite.

I made very good progress on the novel today, writing almost 1200 words. Yesterday’s progress of not quite 400 words was kind of meager, but managed to get me on through the point where I’d gotten stuck. My moving average, which had been declining for most of the week is now turned back up. I’m very pleased with the new stuff–it nicely sets up the next thing I want to write, and I’m especially looking forward to writing the next bit. I don’t know how it goes, but I know it’s going to be wonderful, wonderful fun.

Immune system

Night before last I woke up in the middle of the night feeling feverish and achy. But when I got up the next morning, I felt fine. Dare I hope that in my youth I was exposed to that previous H1N1 flu? Could it be that my immune system was already primed to knock it down, and managed it in just a few hours? Since I can’t get immunized anyway, I figure it’s harmless to be hopeful.

Just 500 words yesterday and not much over 200 words today. I eventually figured out it was hard to make headway because I wasn’t sure how the next bit went. I knew where I wanted the characters to end up, but I couldn’t see a way to get them there quickly–they wouldn’t choose to go there on purpose, and the natural path that would take them there wouldn’t be quick enough to make a good story.

There are a lot of solutions to that sort of problem. You can write the slow path and find a way to make it exciting. You can just skip the intervening time–this can be as easy as “They stayed in the luxury hotel for eleven days, but on the twelfth day….” I tried writing it both ways, but neither worked well in this case.

Then, earlier this evening, I figured out how to push the characters into leaving the cushy spot they’d managed to find for themselves in such a way that they have to move on to the rather less pleasant spot I’ve got in mind for them. It grows out of the existing characters and conflicts already in place. It’s a much better solution than writing a bunch of dull stuff and then trying to make it interesting.