5-STAR Fantasy / Sci-Fi

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An Indie Author's Experiment with an Interactive Online Novel

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.)

Interactive Reader
'Interactive Reader'
The Odd Life of Brachman's Underworld

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...

Dreams abound!

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 on Indie Author News
About the Author
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.

Please, leave some comments or questions for the Author at the end of this post!

Links to the Author

Link to Vlad Vaslyn's Website

Connect with Vlad Vaslyn on Twitter: @VladVaslyn


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this opportunity, folks! -Vlad Vaslyn

Dianne Greenlay said...

Vlad,I love your analysis - it's as entertaining as any book out there! ( I can surely identify with Streak, the vodka, beer, and click finger blisters...) Re your points #3 and #5, I struggled with that in my second novel until I came across a simple instruction on another blog which said (and I'm paraphrasing here)"Don't write a BOSH story thereby forgetting your characters' goals in your rush to make the story exciting." [BOSH - bunch of "stuff" happens]. When I went back and cleared out much of the BOSH and kept the actions all directed towards my characters' goals, the storyline became cleaner, much more readable and still fast-moving. I think your analysis really explained this in greater detail.
I'll be watching for Brachman's Underworld in July!

Scott Gordon said...

I've been thinking of doing this myself. Now you've given me more motivation. Thanks for sharing!

Vlad Vaslyn said...

Thank you for your support, Dianne! It was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. Love the term BOSH...I'm filing that one away!

I'll quote Stephen King in regards to #5: I'm a "putter-inner, not a leaver-outer." Perhaps not the most graceful quote, but I think it displays the challenge a lot of writers face in balancing what content should and should not be edited out over a series of revisions. I've learned to start with more streamlined material from the get-go, but I am still guilty of being a bit of a "putter-inner." The trick is to strike the right balance.

You're absolutely right when it comes to keeping action goal-oriented. Through many meetings with my soft-spoken and savage editor, I learned that character interactions/dynamics are just as important, if not more so, than action (BOSH). The "meat" is in psychological and emotional interactions, and action is secondary. When my editor helped me realize this, Brachman's Underworld really began to evolve.

-Vlad Vaslyn

Vlad Vaslyn said...

S.E. Gordon,

I'm glad I could help! Feel free to hit me up with any questions you have about doing something like this. I'd be happy to help, and for the record, I've often thought that this sort of project would be more effective if geared toward a younger audience because the stories are generally simpler.

-Vlad Vaslyn

Scott Gordon said...

The three major reasons why most projects fail: Organization, Discipline, Hard Work.

The three major reasons why most projects succeed: Organization, Discipline, Hard Work.

Scott Gordon said...

I'm guilty of all three of them! ;)

Alex P said...

King can get pretty verbose, I don't know if he's the best example to follow :-)

Nick said...

Very interesting post. I've always wondered whether there's potential for an interactive novel that makes use of the internet and online media to enhance the reading experience, maybe not in a "choose your own adventure" way but in terms of providing embedded video, using hyperlinks creatively etc, whereby the reader can explore the story and characters in as little or as much depth as he/she likes, depending on how deep down the interactive rabbit hole he/she feels like diving.

Francene Carroll said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I've wondered if this is the way of the future, but you make some very valid points about why it is so hard to make something like this work. I believe you'd probably have to have a strong established following to get enough people to vote to make it worthwhile...Maybe if you did it with a series it might work better because you would not be under pressure to come up with new chapters every week and the readers would be more invested in the story after reading the first book.

Kendra L. Saunders said...

I really enjoyed this post and will share on twitter! It's frustrating when you have such a cool, unique idea and it doesn't work out how you planned. However, hopefully this article will bring you some much deserved (even if belated) hits! Good luck in your writing adventures from here!

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I've seen tools for this at writing.com but it seemed so wishy washy and hacky. I suppose you could read the same book over and over hundreds of times and get a different story, but it sounds more like Skyrim than literature.

Ramona Morrissette said...

I appreciate your post, and the commentary. It is all educational for me.

Kira said...

Very interesting article and an honest look at a writer's own acceptance of his limitations and flaws, which is key to learning how to do a better job next time. Thank you, Vlad! One note though: actually people have been writing interactive serials since 1995's "The Spot," where readers would even have discussions with the characters and suggest plans for them (many even believed them real at one point). Online novels, or ongoing serials, have existed for nearly twenty years, some of which use branching stories that readers can choose (some call this format hyperfiction) or let the readers delve more deeply into the storyline, characters and setting using maps, character bios within the scenes, family trees, extra audio or video clips, and so on. Another early experiment into this sort of nonlinear tale was The Company Therapist, which is still online. It just fascinates me that so many of today's writers are unaware of the history of online writing and think the world of webfiction began with the invention of Wordpress! :)

The Daring Novelist said...

Excellent analysis. As a reader I never do interactive stories for exactly the reason you mention: If I wanted to make up my own story, what do I need you for?

I also think, though, that this might have worked better if you had a series which already had a lot of investment by the audience. I know a few serials writers who have taken a side story (after doing two or three stories in a series over a couple of years) and let the readers make some decisions.

The other thing those writers have done is not let the readers control the PLOT. Instead they tell the writer what they want to know more about, and ask to see more of a character. They drive the focus, not the story.

As for the rest, yeah, deadline writing is tough and visceral. I've been writing a twice a week serial since spring, and I love it... but I gotta say that even though the episodes are short, it's the toughest writing I've ever done.

Rolando Garcia said...

Interesting, but I think you had expectations that were too high. Interactive fiction can work if you tailor your writing to the number of collaborators you have and build upon their number through promotion. I recently interviewed author Lia London on my website. She has already published a novel that she wrote using interactive (collaborative) fiction and is now writing her second one. The link is below. Either click on it or cut and paste on your browser's window.


Extremely Average said...

I really enjoyed the post. It is a clever idea and maybe, considering all you've learned, still possible. I think the most interesting point was #1 and it would have never occurred to me. Since I write novels, the idea of voting on what happens next, seems fun, but then I think about your point.

If someone wants to read, do they want to decide if the character heads off into the mountains, or stays along the edge of the plains. And what would a reader feel if the choice they voted on, and felt passionately about, wasn't selected?

If nothing else, you are wiser for the experience, and since you shared it, we are too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Vlad. I read it with interest because a friend of mine set up story-time.me earlier this year to which about half a dozen of us contribute our serial novels.

As for #1, Not sure. I think there maybe some drivers out there. I decided not to give the reader too much control, maybe let them hold the wheel with one hand from the passenger seat, just enough to keep them interested (hopefully. I may have failed there, actually!) and not completely derail the story.
#2, Workload is what you make it. I try to keep each chapter at about 2,500 words give or take.
I was acutely aware of your #3 before I started and made a point of identifying the end of the story in the opening paragraphs for this very reason. Nothing worse than not knowing where a story is going. How it gets there is the ride the people want.
#4. Not sure I agree with this one. Probably depends on how much of the story you want to control yourself. If the answer is close to 100% then a serial novel with public voting is probably not the way to go.
#5, seeding. I recently came across the term foreshadowing, not a bad thing apparently. I think this tends to occur anyway but needs to be done carefully and reviewed once the entire story is down.
#6. A major re-edit is a given. Unless you've just written The Green Mile. :)

Having said all that I get enough views on mine to field an AFL football side and maybe half as many votes! Not particularly impressive.
I'm seeing my efforts as a way to get the 1st draft down and then edit the crap out of it.

Anonymous said...

I found this article to be very interesting, I am writing a choose your own adventure style novel and have become absolutely buried in some of the plot lines. every time the reader makes a choice you have to continue and have a stand alone story that engages and satisfies them. So each choice becomes a stand alone book. I thought the stories would end up being 15,000 words a piece but they ended up each going between 30-60 thousand words. I am over 100,000 words and only have about 6 endings, I have another 14 or so branches unfinished.

I appreciate you sharing your experiences and I hope you are at least a little wrong about people not wanting to drive the novel. :)

Antonio Angelo
@antonioangelo21 on twitter

Tony McFadden said...

The only way this would work would be if you had the novel "complete", with limited options at the end of each chapter, before you placed it on the web. The writing would be complete. The chapters you present in your final novel would be at the discretion of the readers.

The end of Chapter one would provide (for example) three options.These three threads would ultimately all resolve to the first plot point at the end of Act 1.

Since you're still in act 1 in Chapter 1, the options would be, essentially, meaningless to the overall story - they'd just reorganise how you presented the setup.

As you moved through the structure of the novel you'd need to have all of the options already planned out. It's doable, but a hell of a lot of work.

Alyce Wilson said...

I admire you for taking the chance of writing a book in such an innovative way. Your analysis of why it didn't work should help other writers who might have similar ideas.

Unknown said...

Very informative article, Vlad. Thanks for sharing.

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