I’m Posting This Sh1t Online,
Now Whaddaya Gonna Do?
Webfiction and The Rules
“You must refrain from rewriting,
except to editorial order.”
Robert A Heinlein:
providing petrol for flame wars since 1947
Heinlein had four simple rules for writing:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put your story on the market until it has sold.
In the hands of new writers, Rule #3 is an argument against critique. In the hands of elders it is a slur. But it shouldn’t be a weapon in the great flame war. Phrased differently, like Robert J Sawyer does, it is common sense:
“Don’t tinker with it endlessly.”
One of the primary bias against web fiction stems from the notion that it is bad quality. It is low quality, so the argument goes, because the webfiction writer is an inherently lazy creature and has not taken the time to perfect it. This argument is based upon the assumption that work finished quickly is bad work.
Under this assumption, most journalists are bad writers. Looking at your local newspaper or the corner magazine rack, you may be tempted to admit the point. But then think about the most illuminating, moving, amusing, or fascinating article you’ve ever read on whatever issue you find illuminating, moving, amusing or fascinating (as this is not a blog of political or social commentary I’ll leave it up to you to think of what issues provokes a reaction in you.) Is this bad writing?
The case for journalism–at least as far as it’s ability to produce quality writers goes–needs no argument. There is, of course, nothing inherently bad about journalistic writing, and I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. But one characteristic of most journalists is that they work under a time constraint. Yet the work is not bad simply because it is produced quickly.
Webfiction has more in common with journalism than commercial fiction.
Newspaper and magazines are less about creating great art and more about sharing news. Likewise, webfiction is less about creating a perfect literary specimen and more about sharing stories. Like the blogosphere in which it lives, it is about making connections, communicating and sharing ideas.
And you’re not going to share anything by keeping your baby locked up until you polish the shit out of it and a giant contract falls into your lap.
And yet, I have come across stories online that are beautiful and fascinating and moving and amusing and illuminating. Yes, much of it is unpolished, and I’ve talked about this elsewhere. Much commercial fiction is unpolished. It may not have the same spelling errors or plot holes, but walk into whatever section of the bookstore you feel is the trashiest (no judgement here, I’m not naming genres) and pick up a few books. Many of the books people pay money for are terrible. Many web fictions are terrible. And yet, not all.
Writing a story that illuminates, moves, amuses, or fascinates, and doing it with a deadline–even a self-imposed one–is not laziness. It’s a skill.
The dreaded #3 does not in any rephrasing say: do bad work.
In other words, edit. Polish. Make your work as good as it can possibly be. Good journalists edit. Good bloggers edit. Good webfiction writers edit. But they also balance the need to polish with the need to share. And when done well, that’s a skill to be admired.
Webfiction writers have one advantage over many traditional novelists. They write a lot. They have to. Because, yeah, when you put something online, first rights disappear, and usually nobody’s paying you for it. So you write something else. Then something else. Then something else. And only in writing all those something elses will you acquire the skills you’d never have gotten by tearing apart the first something for years on end. Because of this repetition, the webfiction writers who survive are better at implementing the rules than many trad writers. They write. They post. They write more.
The sentiment of many in the literary community mirrors another stereotype of the writer: the loner working for years and years on a masterpiece, until he or she is finally accepted by the gatekeepers of the industry. In the age of the internet, the loner status is often qualified. Newbies are allowed to mingle in the literary circles. They may ask questions and gingerly express opinions and sometimes share ideas and critiques. But as for actually sharing their material, their permissions are limited. Ironically, one of the rules of the literary community is the same as the online community: LURK MOAR. Fledgling writers are supposed to lurk. Even with the mingling and the asking and the expressing and the occasional sharing, the bulk of their development as writers is supposed to take place in private as they work alone, sculpting then polishing and polishing and polishing their work until someone wants it. They are not supposed to jump into the deep end, not for a long time, and not without supervision.
But sometimes jumping in the deep end is the best way to learn to swim. Lurking at the side of the pool, chatting with the swimmers, and arranging and rearranging your bathing suit will only get you close to the water.
Webfiction writers remember that there is only one real rule:
Also known as Heinlein’s #3
Commercial publication: The ideal all online writers are striving for.
And after that, the final segment of I’m posting this sht online, Now whaddaya gonna do?”:
A generational gap? Kids these days… And who are the elders anyway?