Aug 19, 2009

Software for Collaborative Fiction Writing

For the past four years I've been exploring ways to use wiki software for collaborative fiction writing. During that time I have seen many non-wiki websites that are devoted to collaborative writing. Examples: Pan Historia, Orion's Arm and We Book.

I never bothered to participate at any of those non-wiki websites. Why not? Orion's Arm was probably the first one that I paid much attention to. I was put off by the restrictive rules for that collaboration. I like hard science fiction and it does not have to restrict itself to the rules used at the Orion's Arm project. Pan Historia seems rooted in role paying, which is something I've never been interested in. Any site like We Book, where science fiction is grouped with fantasy, is automatically starting off on the wrong foot with me. Not surprisingly, when I look at the We Book listings for science fiction and I see nothing that appeals to me. Also, some of the "terms of use" agreements for sites like We Book make my head spin. Bottom line: it has always been easy for me to just click through all those websites. I like the freedom of the wiki format.

However, there is nothing magic about wiki software. Knol is an example of an online platform that supports collaboration with a non-wiki use interface. I think many authors like the idea of being able to control who they will collaborate with, so using a Knol-like platform for writing appeals to some folks. I recently registered at the Book Oven, a new and developing non-wiki website that allows for collaborative writing. It will be interesting to see if that little community can get off the ground.

Similar website: Fast Pencil.

Image credits. I made this image for The Search for Kalid.

Aug 12, 2009

Overly Melodramatic

I use 'abysses of pain' as shorthand for overly melodramatic description of a character's emotional state. "His eyes were deep, dark wells of agony," and so on. A lot of bad fantasy does this and I used to be prone to it.

The above is a comment about my previous blog post. I've been trying to embrace melodrama while working on The Search for Kalid, a science fiction novel that has elements of Space Opera.

I agree that there are times when making a story overly melodramatic will only earn the label: FAIL. However, part of the magic of art is that it is possible to take an idea so far beyond the point of failure that it emerges from the "dark side" and becomes something wonderful. The are some formulas that "work" so well that they can tell us something fundamental about human nature. Artistic forms can go out of style, but there seems to be a large momentum associated with successful formulas. Art critics might lament the plebeian tastes of an audience, but that will not stop people from spending hard-earned money on the forms of art and entertainment that they truly like. There always seems to be an audience for melodramatic forms, even if going down that path might earn you an automatic failing grade from a publisher.

In the case of The Search for Kalid there is a scene in which the young Sybil is worrying and worrying (and worrying some more) about her future. All the worrying is just too much and the reader might wish that Sybil would just shut up. Hopefully the reader does not give up in disgust because while Sybil's worrying is close to pathological, it is in the story for a reason. Spoiler warning: plot details follow. Sybil has telepathic powers and is able to receive information from the future. She's getting "bad vibes" from the future, but she does not know that.

I think there is a theorem: when writing, anything can be done right or wrong...write with adequate awareness of a goal and a purpose and you can get away with anything. The corollary is that writing anything reflexively and for no good reason will earn you scorn.

Image: source.

The Pits

Avoid deep dark wells and/or abysses of pain. In characters, I mean. Well, in real life too, but that kind of goes without saying.
That advice is from a blog post by Heather McF.

One of the reasons for writing fiction is to explore the highs and lows of life. Quoting myself: "writing can be a pleasurable exploration of a wonderful landscape".

Our human brains allow us to experience the heights of elation and the depths of despair. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology we can ask if even our lowest moods have a function. It is possible that mild depression is adaptive and has been selected evolutionarily as a brain mechanism that can shift our behavior out of maladaptive ruts. When we experience anxiety, helplessness or frustration our brains perform a cost-benefit analysis of the situation. Our brains are designed to become obsessed with important problems and either solve them or show us that we are wasting our time on a problem we cannot solve.

Our brain mechanisms for dealing with problems that we cannot solve do sometimes go "off the rails". It is a tragedy for an individual if they cannot move out of a "pit of depression". It is a tragedy for readers if an author mercilessly leads us into a "pit" and never shows us a way out. In contrast, a successful author will have descended into the depths, done battle with demons and returned to the surface hand-in-hand with their Muse, ready to describe some glorious revelation that allowed escape from the "pit".

Image. The image shown of a modified version of this copyleft image by Carsten Nebel.

Aug 10, 2009

Free fiction war?

This blog post was the result of me seeing "Hot, Hot In The Summertime And Hot Under The Collar!", a blog post by Rob Shelsky. I'll start by saying that I am sympathetic to the plight of professional writers. I'd be more sympathetic if a larger fraction of the money I have spent on books actually ended up in the pockets of the writers. I think we all have to ask if the print publishing industry is worth saving.

Let's face it. Printing books is technology from a past era. It was a great idea 500 years ago, but all things change. News flash: we are now in the computer age. Information was once expensive and text was once tedious to work with. However, computers increasingly make information cheap and text easy to sling...and copy. Get used to it.

Rob wrote: "...those people who write 'just for the fun of it,' all the time, and who say they don't care about any monetary proceeds and just give it away consistently, in my opinion are not helping the author community as a whole."

Okay, that comment is targeted at me, so here is my reply....

Imagine this comment from 1850: "...those people who try to make machines for picking cotton are not helping the institution of slavery." I'm sure that people who made a living from selling slaves were "hot under the collar" when the Southern Slave Economy collapsed, but should anyone have shed a tear for them? Now, in this analogy, Rob is more like a slave than a slave master. His plight reminds me of former slaves who were made uncomfortable by the need to become self-autonomous when the Civil War ended and they were no longer a slave.

I think what we need is a unified internet-based system for making fiction accessible to readers. Some fiction content inside that system will be free and some will be available for a fee at download. Some writers will likely only make teasers available electronically and will continue to force readers to purchase "hard copy". I'd like to see a system where authors get the vast majority of what readers pay for fictional works. Editors and publicists should work for authors and come to authors looking for work...."I'd be thrilled to edit your next novel for a small fee".

We need to explore new ways to channel money to authors. I'd like to see a culture "tax" that allows people to check a box on their Form 1040 and donate to a fund for creators of free culture. We need to get busy creating an electronic system that will allow the creators of free cultural works to be compensated according to the value of their contributions to society. Note: free culture does not have to mean "free as in beer" culture is mainly about the freedom to share and use intellectual property...there are still ways to profit within an information economy that rewards sharing. I think such a system for rewarding intellectual creativity would require that each person in the information economy have a unique personal electronic identifier. If I download and read a work of fiction, my unique personal signature would be credited towards the author of that work. The author would be paid a share of society's free culture fund.

Rob wrote: "...we may end up with so many rank amateurs who want to give away their poor quality work free, that the discerning reader simply can't find what's good anymore, can't wade through the dross to find the gem, because it is buried in an ever-growing mass of what's bad". Yes, a fundamental problem of the information age is finding "the good stuff". This is nothing new. I've suffered my entire life with the problem of sorting through the ocean of "what's bad" and published. Within Science Fiction Publishing there is a pattern: ignore all authors until they start to sell. Then publish everything that author ever writes, including all the crap they ever write.

I think the internet has the potential to host great oceans of "what's bad", but it also has the potential to provide us with tools for searching and finding "what I like", which for me seldom matches what the publishing industry likes to publish. So I say, rather than bitch about all the crap on the internet, let's all pitch in an make the tools that are needed to sort what we like from what we want to ignore. Let the internet flower, let the fiction flow...the more the merrier. Let's find new ways to help creative people receive monetary compensation for their work. Let's not mourn for the fact that the old print publishers have new competition.

Related blog post at Book Oven.

Will authors of the future need publishers? by Nathan Bransford

Future of self-publishing by thinkfeel

Image. Source. GFDL.

VirileMail audio script

I previously described the creation of a script for the VirileMail science fiction novel. Wiki user ShakespeareFan00 was the instigator of this audio project and he showed up at Fiction Wikia to polish the script.

In order to create the audio version, I cut the novel down to about 25% of its original size. Initially I was saddened that I had to write Dr. Redes out of the script, but the more I think about the sequel for VirileMail the more I wonder if it might be for the best if it is Briana who is joined to Janek. However, I still cannot bring myself to edit the novel so as to make that change.

After the tragic loss of Dr. Redes, the second largest change between the novel and the audio script is the first scene in the fourth half-hour-long segment of the audio version. In the Novel, Joe spends a couple of months on Mars and then returns to Earth, finding that his belongings were placed into storage by his brother. In contrast, the story line in the script is greatly compressed temporally. Joe finds himself in need of a way to get the video tape with the critical evidence out of the Antler Network Services HQ building. For the audio version, Briana agrees to get the video tape for Joe.

When ShakespeareFan00 and I were polishing the script, I noticed the need for this plot change. The need to add in this new scene was good luck. I've also been concerned about the way Joe's romantic interest in Chloe had almost been written out of the audio version. This new scene gave me a chance to emphasize Joe's infatuation with Chloe. This is an important issue because it is Joe's deep concern for Chloe's welfare and safety that motivates him to figure out the odd behavior of the Antler Network Systems staff.

So, I am pleased with the way I patched that hole in the plot, but this experience leaves me wondering if there are other similar problems that were introduced by changing the novel into a much shorter script. I'm tempted to offer a reward for anyone who can spot such a problem.

Image. I made the image of the video tape for VirileMail. This image is available for use under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license.

Aug 7, 2009

Schmidt the Ax

In a stunning reversal of my self-indulgent ways, I recently edited VirileMail to make a version for audio. The goal was to tell the story in four half hour audio segments.

A serious problem for the audio version of VirileMail is that I had a significant amount of fun making illustrations for the VirileMail novel. In addition to the "eggplant" there is the illustration shown here which was my fully geeked-out diagram of how to take control of a human brain if you happen to be a billion year old colony of invading nanobots. I suppose most of those who listen to the audio version will not really need these instructions.

I cut the original 70,000 word novel to about 18,000 words for the audio version. The most painful part of that process was removing entire characters such as Dr. Redes, head of research at Conceptions Organiques. Now, it is not as if just anyone can mind-meld with Janek...after all, that constitutes a life sentence for shared consciousness with a diabolical alien. Dr. Redes was a true "redshirt" (look at the name!) designed as a throw-away character. In contrast, Briana was written as a spunky Space Opera cadet worthy of a far better fate than spending eternity listening to Janek chiding foolish humans for their primitive ways. Poor Briana, will you ever forgive me?

Aug 1, 2009

Collaborative Fiction

I recently looked at the Wikipedia article for collaborative fiction while I was helping to write a Knol about using wiki software as a platform for collaborative fiction. I was amused to see that the introductory paragraph of the Wikipedia article is written from the point of view of professional publishing and says that collaborating authors agree on what "percentages of remuneration are earned by each party". I wonder what percentage of collaborative fiction writing is actually done by professionals in this "age of the internet".

Mention of the Fiction Wikia was added to the Wikipedia article in 2006 and then removed.

The Wikipedia article has a page section on "Wikinovels" which mentions A Million Penguins. That project can be counted as one of the "failed experiments" by which conventional publishers tried to explore wiki technology. A Million Penguins was a case of "too many cooks spoil the brew". I've had the same experience at Fiction Wikia (to a much smaller degree!) with stories such as VirileMail for which I just had to wait for non-constructive editors to go away before the story could be completed. Even with very small collaborations such as Wiki fiction stew, all it takes is one difficult participant to derail a collaborative project. I'm interested in the idea that "forking" of projects might be the solution to this problem. We really need tools that allow collaborators to choose exactly who can participate in a particular story writing effort. If someone is causing trouble, they must be excluded from the collaboration. I developed a wiki approach to such collaborations at the Academic Publishing Wikia.

The Wikipedia article on collaborative fiction mentions Wikinovel, which appears to be a failed project where "there are 27 pages that are probably legitimate content pages". The problem for websites such as Wikinovel is that even the best of ideas on the internet will die off if there is no way for people to find them. A Million Penguins was ruined by too much traffic, Wikinovel appears to have gotten too little. Similarly, at "Wikistory", "there are 15 pages that are probably legitimate content pages".

Fiction Wikia might be the right size, with just enough participants, to slowly develop a viable wiki community that supports collaborative fiction writing.

Image: "Richard D'Oyly Carte, W. S. Gibert, and Arthur Sullivan together again".