Experiments in On-Line Writing

In early 2015 I spent some time constructing a story on social media.  This post records a couple of lessons I have learnt along the way.                                    

Self portrait, National Library Australia, Canberra, 2015 Enlighten Festival

1. Text

The proposal to write this novel was spontaneous and unplanned. 

2. Writing by Installment 
The story was originally published as a series of installments. The text in each installment was pretty rough - equivalent to an early draft.  In addition to the main story line, there were a series of "micro-stories" included in the text or as interludes to break the momentum of the story. Finally, to aid the process of visualization, I have been publishing photo-essays and separate descriptions of locations, technology and characters. This is an experimental process - I am doing it because I can.

This type of novel is the equivalent of a proto-ballad or yarn. Ann Pollack called this a braided yarn. I see it as a "story told around the equivalent of a fire" within a specific set of world rules and a set of attractor/consequence structures. While the beginning and end states preexist, the story-journey takes form with audience reaction.

These parameters have the unwelcome tendency to produce a hectic story. To counter this I tried to layer the story, having different characters see the scene through different eyes.

A full description of the installment process and micro stories is at the end of this post.

3. Images
During the story, i posted photographs i took of areas associated with the text, constructed imaginary images and paid commissions of line drawings. The nicest contribution here was a line drawing of Storm and Waylander (the Canberra artist Indya, commission)

Storm and Waylander, c Indya 2015

4. Readership
During the telling of the story, posts associated with Dragons Eye were served over 780,000 times over 28 days as at 16:00 16/3/15. A month and a half later, on 30/4/15, this number had grown to 1,100,000  when i stopped trying to count (note that the two numbers cannot be directly compared, as by this stage consolidations of the story had been published and indirect verification ceased to be available). Numbers can be misleading:
(1) This figure does not include serves outside the G+ or Blogger platforms (eg, reshares on Facebook or other social media sites). 
(2) The number of serves is not an indication of story readership - nor of a deliberate navigation to the story (automatic serves may account for 5-10% of the number). Other factors influence daily fluctuations in serves - the number of unrelated posts, the quality of the accompanying photograph and day/time factors.
(3) The counting process is complex, verified indirectly by a service called CircleRank. It reported shares as at 15/3/15 at 3,081,141 and at 16/3/15 at 3,995,101. 

I have been posting a lot of original photography for about a year and the occasional story. Sometimes I post them together. A little while back I noticed something I could not explain.  I was getting a lot more post activity when I posted a paired picture and story. I expected this - what I did not expect was the increase in the level of activity by pairing. This aspect is not obvious - it does not result in large numbers of +1s or reshares.

While writing this story in G+, I have kept very careful note of the numbers. For the record, I am disinterested in the number of serves save insofar as it is a relative measure of success or failure of parts of the work. 

My ratio is 1 (text only) : 5 (picture only) : 60 (paired picture and story). I had expected it would be additive - 1:5:6. Instead it is different by an order of magnitude - 1:5:60. The final story in the series was different by two orders of magnitude - 1:5:500.

The ratio cannot be generalized - there are too many other variables (eg, the activity level within your circles, the interest your posts generate, the time/day of the post, competition by other posts within the stream, whether the posts is entertainment or technical etc).

Bottom line - when I post stories by themselves, I get very small numbers of serves. This reflects a common concern across social media platforms - by technical authors, poets and writers. When I pair, interest goes way higher.

5. Social Media as a Platform and Platform Stability
In the short term, social media is pretty stable. It can be an awesome place to tell stories, and there are some amazing and helpful people out there. 

The decision to tell the story I am working on was spontaneous, unplanned and had all the all makings of a disaster. At the time, Google Plus was resilient and helped rather than hindered in telling the story.

Like any platform, you must watch a couple of issues. I have monitored posts carefully. There were three occasions when the server appeared to accept a post, but did not place it into the stream (ie, I could see the post on my home page, but searching for the post resulted in no finds, and there was no activity on the post). There have been a further three occasions when it has placed a post into the stream but visibility within the stream has been minimal (this is evident by asking people following your post to navigate to your home page and report whether they can see the post - in this case a small number reported being able to see it, while others could see earlier and later posts but not the one under examination).

Post continuity is problematic. Even on your “posts page”, posts will be out of order particularly when one post is expanded.Social media is a stream. Elements in the stream have limited visibility after about 24 hours. Readers will not stumble across your older posts. A solution to  both these issues is presented below.

In the medium term, you need a more permanent site to maintain your stories, although a local backup is essential and a website is possibly a sensible long term repository. Elsewhere I have published a guide to e-book publication for free using Google tools.

6. Tips and Traps

1. DO engage with your readers. If they are prepared to give you some time with feedback or encouragement, you are lucky. Be prepared to learn and to carry the story into discussions in the comments section with people.

2. DO pair your story post with a picture. This is the single most important factor in giving you visibility within the stream – no visibility, no readers. The picture should resonate with the story. When you pair successfully, you suddenly multiply the number of people accessing your posts. With this story, the multiplying effect was:

- 15 times more than a normal picture post by itself,

- 60 times more than a text post by itself.

3. NEVER simply post a story via a web link to your website. Social media readers are in the stream for a whole lot of reasons – they are smart and adept at resisting the temptation to move out of it. If you are telling a story in the stream, tell it there. Sure, back it up on your web site – some people may end up moving over there, but the numbers will be relatively small.

4. NEVER exceed 9,900 characters of text in any one post in the stream. Your audience will disengage no matter how good a story teller you are.

5. NEVER edit posts once you have published into the stream within the first 24 hours. Review carefully before posting and be prepared to live with typos and minor errors. If you have prematurely posted, and the post has only been in the stream for a couple of seconds, you should delete the post altogether. You may cop some reader backlash if you do this more than once. Editing posts creates delays in serving and post visibility – avoid it by getting it right the first time. If a reader smiles at an error or you spot something embarrassing – confess with a smile and offer thanks. Honest engagement is good and works for everyone.

6. DO ensure continuity. If readers have been following a story over a couple of days, and you fail to point to the next part successfully, you can really annoy serious and casual readers. Keep a consistent style to head your posts, branding them with the story name and giving a part number (chapter names in the first line can just confuse). At the foot of the post, tell people where/when the next post will be posted. When you post the next part of the story, put a short link (see below) into the comments section.

7. DO use short web links. The web is all about navigating fast. Learn how to help readers navigate to your posts within the G+ stream (it takes 60 seconds to learn). If you look at G+ links – they are huge meaningless combinations of characters. Visually, they are a turn off – and, for those who manually retype, they are a disaster. Learn how to turn long addresses into really short one. I used the free Google service (now abandoned as well) – it is fast, simple to use and the resulting links are much more palatable than the original link.  However, do not over-rely on this method. As an aid, it is not welcomed by readers. Very few are aware of the 'bit' or 'goo' methodologies - most see these as another way of transporting them to a web page or somewhere unpleasant.  

8. If your social media site permits, DO create an index post. This acts as a useful touch point for readers, does not take them out of the G+ stream, allows you to brand the story with a specific image, and – most importantly – you can pin the post to you top of your “Posts” page. The link to this page can be placed at the end of each of your story pages, so readers can quickly navigate to the next part or check related posts/progress.  

9. NEVER underestimate the amount of time writing takes. 9900 characters is a solid 2-3 hour block of time for me. I think slowly, type slowly and get distracted easily. Do not rush or over commit. Make things easy for yourself. Try writing posts over a couple of days. Establish a writing template to make things a little easier. The publishing process, by itself, particularly if you are also updating a separate web site can be an additional hour as well.  That is 25% down time.

10. NEVER use another person’s ideas without attribution. G+ is a collaborative space. This is a good place to raise ideas, tilt at windmills and appreciate the work of others. For example, if you ask, I will always let you use my pictures with your posts if you attribute them to me*. If you are a not-for-profit educational or environmental group, I will go out and get additional shots you might need. Most people I see on G+ are like this – this is not about monetizing assets. (* I might have to think twice if you are a newspaperman, a literary critic or a social theorist – there is a special little corner of hell reserved for you for good reason, and I don’t like to get too close – however, even then, unlike you, I am at least prepared to hear an argument).

11. NEVER post any more than 1 or 2 posts within a 12-24 hour period into the general stream when focusing on your story. People in you circles will simply boot you or put you into a silent circle if you spam them. Sure, I follow a couple of people who post frequently. I trust them to post brilliant stuff they have found - or stuff specific to specialist interests of my (eg, the Chinese economy). In addition - and this is a killer - the stream will ride down your posts. What would you rather - a single high visibility posting of your paired picture/text or a pro-rated sharing between that and some random stuff you hit the share button on?  There is one big exception to the rule - your friends. If they post something important to them - put you own stuff on ice for a bit. Engage with them in their space, break the rules and share stuff if important or others will appreciate.

12. NEVER over-personalize characters.  I want readers to be able to look at some of the characters and see bit of themselves.  However, some of the characters are unpleasant people, or people with strange ideas about relationships or the world.  This creates a unique problem in this type of writing - your audience base may take character development as an adverse reflection on themselves.  In a couple of cases I have written to readers who have associated themselves with a particular character and made it clear that no personal criticism is intended. This has created an interesting dynamic - perhaps not present in other media. 

Finally, on a personal note, If I have not attributed something to you or someone else and you think I should have, please let me know so I can correct the mischief. 

If you think I have said something unkind to or about you (and you are not a newspaperman, a literary critic or a social theorist) get in touch so I can apologize and try it a different way. If you are a newspaperman, a literary critic or a social theorist, get in touch so we can have a talk about the errors of your ways, that special place in hell you are going to and why it is never too late to redeem yourself. 

7. Intellectual Property Issues
A couple of people have asked me why I have done this, feared that I may have damaged the intellectual property I have in the work. This is a sensible concern and is worth considering.

As an old copyright lawyer I am not concerned about my approach here - but you should carefully consider your own position before taking the same approach I have.  There are three discrete aspects to keep in mind:

  1. Theft: The risk of theft is pervasive. But theft is not the principle concern of a writer - it has often been pointed out that obscurity is far worse. I would go further and say that most forms of gentle theft are overlooked by most publishers and authors and, indeed, encouraged by both (despite the posturing and threats of copyright lawyers).  The school teacher who breaks the rules in order to bring a work to his or her students benefits both reader and writer. I am not concerned with this type of promulgation. Rather we should all be concerned about the person who subtly changes the text and claims authorship of the product with relatively little effort and with the prospect of some financial reward. Today, this type of threat is starting to recede. Firstly, the chances of discovery of the mischief are very high.  Secondly, the reputational and financial catastrophe which would be visited on them after discovery should be enough to stay the practice. Thirdly, they are unable to convincingly repeat the original effort. 
  2. Loss or admixture of intellectual property: It is actually quite difficult to loose intellectual property in a work. It requires deliberate action on the part of an author. A greater problem arises when a number of people contribute to the work. Here I have not been particularly concerned about either aspect because the environment has been consensual and collaborative, and because it has never been my intention to sell this version of the work - although I do require attribution of my own authorship, and the involvement of those who contributed to plot and character development.  Rather, the modest outcome - a slim volume of 100 pages - might be seen as the heart lines of a more comprehensive work, 2 or 3 times the size of the present installments, which might be worthy of sale. 
  3. Public release as an impediment on future publication: For the sake of completeness I should mention that some publishing companies will not publish a book that has been placed into the public domain. That is, where the author has thrown away their intellectual property in the work or no right still persists (a complicated mesh of laws - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries%27_copyright_lengths).  In such a case, the work might still be published into the public domain through programs sponsored by Google Books.  In other cases, the publication of a draft, precursor or summary of a work is not an impediment for publication.  However, you should think carefully before uploading a final work prior to seeking publication by a third person.

The structure of Dragon's Eye, as a sequence of posts

Originally, each part was published separately. 

In total, fifteen parts were constructed over 18 days (with two breaks occasioned by travel) based on a couple of rules:
  • each new part must incorporate community comment or reaction on previous parts,
  • as the story develops, members of the community commenting on the posts must be able to see themselves in the characters introduced.
  • the whole must be coherent and logically constructed, building a believable world,
  • each part should be approximately 6 pages long (200+ lines, 2-3,000 words) and bring the story to a point from which readers may deduce a number of possible outcomes
  • it must be partly autobiographical, creating a dialogue around a story (in this case, one once told by my Great Aunt Victoria Edmonstone about dark aelfs and dragons, and incorporate relevant material I have previously authored)
  • each must be accompanied by a picture evocative of the story line.
  • it must be posted each day before 12pm Canberra Time, and
  • most importantly, it must be entertaining.

Peter Quinton
March 2015


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