Great Guest-Post from Indie Author Vlad Vaslyn about his Indie Author experiment with an interactive online novel.
My Experiment with an Interactive Online Novel
...and why it didn't work out (the way I'd hoped.)
Brachman's Underworld in its original form was a "cutting-edge," online interactive book whose innovative approach I hoped would make waves in the indie world. The premise was simple: write a chapter each week, present the audience with a few choices, and then use those votes to shape the flow of the story, thus providing readers with an interactive experience. "Story Tokens" such as the Deus Ex Machina Token (overturn the majority vote) or the Sudden Death Token (kill off a character) would add dimension to the experience. Think American Idol in a digitized form.
"This approach is so unique, and didn’t we all love those Choose Your Own Adventure books when we were kids?" I thought. "It's an evolutionary step forward in interactive entertainment! People are going to flock to my website, elbowing and shouldering their way over the digital bandwidth to see what happens next!"
Ah, Hubris, why couldn’t you take a long walk off a short pier?
"Sometimes a big idea takes on a life of its own..."
Sometimes a big idea takes on a life of its own and keeps you up at night, or distracts you when you ought to be paying attention to something else. I was mesmerized, so I pitched the idea to anyone I could think of, seeking advice. I invariably received impressed looks and confirmations of my imminent success.
I imagined my face on the cover of Writer's Digest and Fortune, and I wondered where I'd headquarter my empire and what I'd do with all that money. Maybe my call center would be in India...
I spent a considerable amount of time on the internet in 2008 publicizing my idea on free sites and a few months sculpting the first three chapters, which formed the basis of the story. I built BrachmansUnderworld.com and launched it on my birthday.
Despite a few last minute glitches, my success was immediate. Within the first day I had something like 200 page views. The next day, about 175. The day after that, 52. The day after that, nearly 100. The next few weeks were a roller coaster of fear and confidence as I watched my page views range from zero to the high thirties. I worked my butt off to write new chapters. I paced endlessly and drove my wife nuts with new ideas and storylines. I checked my page views so often that I developed a nasty blister on my clicking finger. I started talking to Streak, whose brilliant insights really buoyed me throughout the process. Did I mention that Streak is my cat? I was straddling the line between internet obscurity and interactive perfection! This was some heavy shit!
Hubris? Ah, yes, there you are!
One thing was curious from the start: I only received a few votes each week despite a decent number of page views considering that I hadn't spent a dime outside of the snazzy illustration I commissioned from a local illustrator. Some degree of self-medication was necessary and Streak and I scratched our heads quite a bit over this one, between all the beers and the shots of vodka (for our sanity's sake, of course).
"Flaws in my brilliant idea soon surfaced."
Flaws in my brilliant idea soon surfaced. For one, I had to write 20 pages or more every week in order to move the plot along to a point where I could offer a viable voting option. I had been counting on producing only 5-10 pages a week. Ouch! Voting ended on Monday night, so I would begin each new chapter on Tuesday morning, giving myself until Thursday or Friday to complete it, after which time my wife would edit it. New chapters were released on Saturdays and then I had two days to agonize over the story until the process began all over again. Enter beer and vodka.
Editing and revising suffered under this heavy workload in the early stages, so Brachman's Underworld suffered too, even though now, three years later, it’s something that I’m very proud of.
Back in 2008, during the interactive experiment, editing previous chapters while simultaneously writing new ones became routine because no matter how many times I looked over the work, I found flaws, typos, misplaced names, and inconsistent, vague, or tedious descriptions. A high is always followed by a crash and I was depressed by the end of month three since my page views had fallen to maybe a dozen core readers. The upside was that I only knew half of them and the other half were strangers, so I considered that a small victory. Hope springs eternal.
Six reasons why it didn't work out.
When voting died, I began to realize that the idea of an online interactive novel was fundamentally flawed for several reasons:
#1) Passengers and Drivers: When I pick up a book, I'm expecting to go for a ride. I don't want to do the driving, I want to take in the scenery. Voting negated that ability and brought readers in on the process of creation, thereby hindering their experience. People were interested in reading the story, but they weren't interested in shaping it in any real way. It's a novel, not a video game.
#2) Heavy workload: Some writers might be able to churn out 20+ pages each week with minimal flaws, but I'm not one of them. I had drastically overextended myself and overrated my abilities. I still had so much to learn about the process of bringing a novel to full term, and now I realize that this process is essentially infinite; each stage of development presents its own challenges.
#3) Lack of Story Direction: Basically, I had a beginning and an end. The votes would fill in the rest. Oops!
#4) Idea versus Medium: The premise behind Brachman's Underworld is fairly complex and my simple interactive experiment was about as adequate to the project as a bucket with a hole in the bottom. I was writing a full-length novel that should've been introduced in the proper format, namely as a full-length novel. Light dawns on marble head, as my grandmother used to say. A criticism I continually received was that there was so much going on that readers had to keep looking back to previous chapters to ground themselves. Part of this was due to the fact that the story wasn't streamlined and didn’t have a definitive direction, but even more of it was due to #5.
#5) Seeding: I didn't know where the story was going, so I felt that I needed to plant little seeds (names, places, plot devices, situations) that I could use later on. The result was a story continually bogged down by needless information. Try going into your garage or some other place where you store things, then rip everything off of the shelves, overturn all the boxes, and basically spill whatever you can onto the floor until it's a hopeless mess. Then turn the lights off and try to navigate through the clutter.
#6) First Drafts versus Final Drafts: I was writing a first draft every week, but they were just first drafts and never should've been put in front of the public eye. They weren't ready and I now realize that I was doing a disservice to all those people who tried it out because I wasn't putting my best foot forward. It wasn't a professional approach and while a book is many other things, it is also a product. I was trying to interest people in a freebie of shoddy craftsmanship rather than taking the time sculpt it into something I could be proud of, as I now am of the completed novel.
My goal at the start of my online interactive project was to attract 50 core readers, but I ended up with about twelve. I was deeply disappointed and humbled, but after awhile my perspective changed and I began to focus more heavily on developmental editing and revision. In the end, my interactive flop forced me out my comfort zone by exposing me to tough criticism that was ultimately more helpful than hurtful. I asked readers to be honest, savage, and constructive, and they obliged. It was an invaluable, nerve-wracking experience and the ultimate result is a novel that has been through the ringer several times. Brachman's Underworld has become streamlined and focused. It has evolved into what I believe is a solid debut novel. The best part is that my editor thinks so, too. The real editor, the one I hired, not just my wife, although she likes it too.
Where's my beer?
" I must respect my readers by presenting them with the best possible stories..."
I learned a lot from my "cutting-edge" project during those turbulent seven months of online production and in the end it was totally worth it, regardless of what may or may not happen with Brachman's Underworld now. I learned many valuable lessons, but perhaps the most important one is this: I must respect my readers by presenting them with the best possible stories that I'm capable of producing. Period.
- Vlad Vaslyn -
Vlad Vaslyn writes genre fiction from a literary perspective, bringing a unique voice and gritty realism to all of his works. He spends time researching and developing his plots and characters in order to create vivid worlds and themes that resonate with his readers.
His debut novel, Brachman's Underworld, will be released on July 17th, 2012 in paperback and all major digital formats, and the first six chapters are available now for free download at his website.
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