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).


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.


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

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

Clifty Creek

Clifty Creek, originally uploaded by bradipo.

According to some plaque I saw in Shades State Park a while back, the trees in the area that turned into the park cast such deep shade it was called “Shades of Death.” I thought this shot, taken in Pine Hills Nature Preserve, right next to Shade, captured a little something of just how dark the canopy makes the shaded areas, and how abrupt the transition is between light and dark.

It was tough to see Steve, Daniel, and Lucy off yesterday, after two weeks spent visiting, but it was nice to spend a couple hours hiking together at Pine Hills.

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Clifty Creek by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Sale to Redstone!

Just learned that Redstone Science Fiction has accepted my story “Like a Hawk in its Gyre” for publication, probably in early 2011.

I’ve signed the contract and mailed that in already. I still need to write a bio to send along with a headshot. Until I start selling more frequently, I have the luxury of writing a new bio for each sale. (I know some writers find the bio-writing step to be daunting, but I kind of enjoy it.)

Lazy River

My mom, brother, and nephew are visiting, and at my nephew’s enthusiastic request, we all spent the afternoon at the “aquatic center” yesterday.

Getting out of the water was hard. After four or five trips around the lazy river, I’d gotten very used to floating. Putting my feet down and standing up in three-foot water was okay, but each step up the long ramp out of the water meant a little more of my weight that I had to support myself.

Jackie and I usually float together around the lazy river, and we did that this time for a couple of laps in the middle, but Jackie had sprinted off ahead for the first lap, in a hurry to float under the fountains that sprayed over the stretch just before the ramp where we’d entered. She waited there, and once I arrived we floated a couple times around together.

Maybe it’s the nature of lazy rivers; more likely it’s the nature of my family, but it seemed perfectly ordinary that we all ended up at the lazy river: Daniel having been floating in a different part of the river, but turning up near the entrance at the same time Jackie and I floated past and noticed Steve standing near the entrance.

I pointed Steve toward the corral with the tubes. Once he put his hands on one, we headed down the lazy river as a group, in direct contravention of some rule against ganging up more than two of the tubes. It was too much trouble to keep hanging onto one another, so pretty soon we were rule-abiding again.

It was the sun that got me out. Even slathered up with sunblock, an hour of floating is about all the sun I can take.

Except for the transition of the hard trudge up out of the water, the rest of the afternoon was very pleasant, even for someone who’d gotten used to floating: A place to sit in the shade, a large soda from the concession stand, and conversation with Steve and Lucy.

George Turner at V Picasso

We went to eat tapas and hear George Turner play at V Picasso this evening.

George is a great jazz guitarist. He’s been a local performer since coming to town to work on a Masters and now a PhD at the university. We first encountered him playing with his trio at the Iron Post a few years ago, and have made a point of going to hear him whenever we get a chance.

He played mostly jazz standards.  I’d heard most of them many times, but the only ones I recognized were “My Funny Valentine,” “Girl from Ipanima,” and “Moon River.” (I have an odd relationship with jazz standards. I’ve heard all of them, because my dad played them when I was a kid, but a lot of what my dad played were instrumentals, so I often don’t know the names of the songs.)

It was a good show, and good food. A pretty small crowd. He’s playing a couple more times this week and next, so if you like great jazz guitar in an intimate setting, check it out.

The Sinister Leprechaun

The Sinister Leprechaun, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Jackie and I attended the Haiku Earring Party at WisCon this evening.

In case you’re not familiar with it, here’s how it works: Elisem creates pairs of earrings. You pick out a pair you like and bring it to her. She gives the pair a title. You then write a haiku or senryu inspired by the title and the earrings, which you trade for the earrings.

At least, I tended to think of it as a swap—haiku for earrings. Jackie, it turns out, had a slightly different take on it. In her mind I was winning the earrings for her via a display of skill, like winning a stuffed animal by tossing rings at the county fair.

“The Sinister Leprechaun”

Find at rainbow’s end
Not expected pot of gold.
Green stones turning black.

Or, in Esperanto:

“La Minaca Irlanda Koboldo”

Ĉielarka fin’
Ne atendita oruj’
Verdŝton’ negirĝas


WisCon, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Arrived in Madison to attend WisCon.

Ran into Dora, but failed to get a picture.

Went to The Gathering and got a fake tattoo.

Went to the dealer’s room, saw Nnedi’s new book at DreamHaven and snapped up a copy.

Had dinner at the Afghani restaurant Kabul.

Now reviewing the program book and plotting strategy for seeing Dora’s and Nnedi’s panels and readings, and as many other interesting readings as we can fit in.

Sorry there aren’t more of us from the 2001 Clarion.

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

Responsibility for oil spills

I’m as outraged as anyone at the incompetence that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf: both the slipshod regulation by the government and the incompetence and criminality of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton. I wouldn’t mind one bit if all three companies were broken by cleanup costs, restitution to injured parties, and civil and criminal penalties. But I’m a bit sad to see all the blame being laid at their doorstep.

The fact is, spills like this are an entirely predictable result of consuming 85 million barrels of oil per day. If you consume that much, you have to produce that much. And if you produce that much, you will have accidents. Some of the accidents will kill people. Some will contaminate huge swaths of the ocean.

Sure, BP et al deserve much of the blame. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. A good share of it belongs to every one of us who drives a car, heats their home, or buys anything made out of plastic.

What did you think was going to happen?