Tag Archives: media

Stealth fiction

man sneaking up graffiti'd stairwayOK, thought experiment – imagine a world where the printed word is prohibitively expensive, and where people don’t have time set aside for the pleasures of reading fiction.

Where are fiction writers going to get published, if they want to get noticed, to get their work read?

Stealth fiction

Some might say we’re nearly in that world already, but that’s a different argument. What’s been bugging me as a concept for a few days is the idea of stealth fiction – fiction that doesn’t advertise itself as being such.

When we say ‘fiction’, we mean stories – a form of entertainment where we form a contract with the text, ignoring the fact we know it to be untrue for the sake of the thrill of immersion.

But there are a great many fictions in our media that aren’t what we think of as ‘fiction’ in that way. Adverts are a form of fiction, for example.

Wizard’s First Rule*

And in our wired-for-memes world, adverts are not only ubiquitous, but an accepted part of the furniture, and increasingly indistinguishable from official corporate announcements and ‘free’ information. Even so, people are very trusting, and it’s easy enough to pull the wool over their eyes if you know the sort of story they want to hear.

Point in case – the fake website that claimed to be announcing the release date and title of the new Weezer album. This spoof was taken hook line and sinker, not only by Weezer fans but by members of the music press (who should have known better, or at least dug a little deeper).

That website was a work of fiction.

Classified flash – fiction on Craigslist

Scalzi pointed out the growing trend of fictional pieces appearing in Craigslist.** As he observes, this isn’t going to be an effective route to fame and fortune (and I expect that the quality is probably very poor), but those people have realised something important – fiction doesn’t have to be in a book, magazine, or PDF. It can be in any or all of those places, or anywhere else – but it’s easier to get it in front of Joe Average by not slapping a big sticker saying “hey, work of fiction, right here!”

Interstitial experiments

I can see other people working towards a realisation (conscious or unconscious) of something similar – which doesn’t surprise me at all, as they’re at least equally as smart as I am, if not more so (and almost certainly less prone to meandering thought-trains such as this one).

Some of these experiments are knowingly post-modern about the whole thing, like Jeremiah Tolbert’s Dr Julius Roundbottom site – the format is new, but the implicit disbelief-suspension contract with the reader still remains.

But this strikes me as the true definition of interstitial fiction – not fiction that doesn’t fit into accepted genres (though that may be a part of it), but fiction that doesn’t fit into the standard containers we expect to find fiction in.

I’m sure we all know what happened when Orson Welles broadcast War Of The Worlds as a radio drama, don’t we?

Memetic fiction

Fellow Friday Flash Fictioneer Gareth D Jones tried an experiment last week that illuminated the other side of the problem – how to raise the chance of Joe Average stumbling across your piece of stealth fiction?

What Gareth did was to seed his story with popular search terms for the day, the theory being that they’d raise the chance of the piece appearing in search returns.

Results were inconclusive, but it was the idea that really made me think – it’s like SEO for fiction! If you know what people are looking for, why not deliver it, and slip your fictional medicine in with the sugar coating? If it goes viral, your story is everywhere – you just found yourself an audience!

Fictioneer or marketeer?

OK, I can hear you saying “Well, that’s a bit crass, isn’t it? A bit sneaky and underhanded?” And yes, it is. Certainly from our point of view, right here right now.

But give it five, ten years – and I’m not so sure. After all, any aspiring writer with savvy has a website these days – that’s a form of self-marketing, albeit a less deceitful one. So marketing your own work isn’t inherently morally repulsive (at least, not to most authors).

So it must be the deceit element, the stealth of the fiction, that we find objectionable. But once it’s happened more often, and people are more aware that these deceits and spoofs occur on the wild uncharted waves of the internet, will they not develop a certain expectation? An implicit contract with everything they read, an admission that any and all media may be trying to trick them?

Everybody loves ninjas, right?

And once people have that implicit contract with the web, wouldn’t that make it quite the ideal place to put your fiction? To sneak it out under people’s radar? Furthermore, wouldn’t this reinstate works of fiction as a way of inoculating people against the more vicious deceits of advertising and politics? Or am I just overtired with a major structural screw loose?

[* Yeah, sorry, Terry Goodkind reference. I was reading from the bookshelves of friends during my wilderness years, and a Goodkind would kill an afternoon in the same way as daytime TV or a bag of grass – eight hours of cliche with a few tiny gems of food for thought. For those that don’t know, the Wizard’s First Rule is something along the lines of “people will believe anything you tell them, provided they wish it to be true, or they fear that it already is”.]

[** This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon either; back in the nineties I encountered a strange emergent subculture of people who were essentially playing role-playing games through the medium of the ‘Miscellaneous’ section of the free classified ads papers, which strikes me as being similar in essence – if not in form – to the Craigslist writers.]

[Image by GypsyRock]

[tags]stealth, fiction, markets, media, future, internet[/tags]

What can writers learn from Radiohead?

The news that UK band Radiohead have chosen to release their new album independently of record label support using an ‘honour box’ pricing scheme has set the internet alight. Is this a phenomenon that writers of fiction should be paying close attention to?

Thom Yorke of Radiohead


The standard first response to this story has been “oh, but Radiohead are big enough (and rich enough) to be able to do this and not lose out financially.” That’s true enough, but the same model will (and indeed already does) still work for smaller artists.

The only overheads Radiohead have on that album is the money it cost to record and master it. No duplication, no distribution, no advertising, and no middlemen raking out the lion’s share of the revenue – which, believe it or not, shows signs of being quite considerable already, despite the fact that the option to get the download for free was available with the band’s blessing.

Now, granted, Radiohead have a strong brand already. None of the local bands in my town are going to make the same amount of news (or money) by releasing an album in the same way, because not enough people know who they are. But all bands make more money from touring (and selling merchandise at the same time) than they do from records, be they big or small.

Nice dream?

What Radiohead (and Prince, and others) have realised is that in a world where it’s impossible to stop people passing your music from person to person, you might as well accept it and use it to your advantage – let your music be a loss-leader advert for your other services, which in the case of musicians is live performances. If you can make some money back on the recordings, all well and good – and if you treat your fans with respect, they’ll be more willing to pay you.

So what does this mean for writers of fiction? Well, the publishing industry is not identical to the music industry, but there are similarities – especially when you look at the “play it safe” approach to developing new talent, leading to bookshops full of more of the same.

The big difference is that the “book experience” isn’t quite so readily reproduced electronically, and it will be some time before it can be, for various reasons. In other words, I’m not suggesting that fiction writers should abandon all desire to be published as novelists. But what I am suggesting is that new writers (and old ones) should be giving away snippets to build up their reputations and create a market for themselves.

No surprises

Publishers, as much as they may be sincerely interested in bringing great writing into the public eye, have a bottom line to look after. I don’t think it’s over cynical of me to suggest that, if given the choice between two debut novels of equal quality, a publisher is going to feel better about taking the gamble on the author whose name turns up more often in blogs, forums and webzines. That author has done part of the publisher’s job for them; he or she has demonstrated not just a competence at writing, but the will and drive to get out there and sell themselves.

Of course, I’m largely preaching to the converted here. But there’s still plenty of misunderstanding about these issues, particularly from the old guard of publishers and authors – witness the SFWA/Scribd spat, which I believe to have been done with the best of intentions, but on the basis of a decades-old understanding of the writer’s place in the modern market.


And, much as I hoped and called for (but am not taking any credit for), the genre scene is adapting to the new economics. Much as in music, it’s the fringe cultures that can afford to try out new models, because their communities are bound by loyalty and a sense of identity, and because the artists are going to keep on creating even if they can’t make much money out of it.

Hence the ongoing short fiction revolution – I was absolutely stoked to catch the news that Fantasy Magazine is giving up dead-tree magazine publishing, and moving instead to a weekly free-to-read online magazine model with occasional printed anthologies … and they’re increasing their per-word price for fiction at the same time!

Anyone can play guitar

So, what can writers learn from Radiohead? They can learn that things are changing, and where the big boys lead, they shouldn’t be afraid to follow.

OK, so you’re not Charlie Stross or Cory Doctorow – the Radioheads of sf, if I might mangle the metaphor – but Stross and Doctorow are breaking the trail ahead of you, making it progressively easier to follow in their wake.

Radiohead’s best advert for themselves is their music. As a writer, yours is your writing. So set it free – if people want to pass it around on your behalf, they’re doing you a favour.

An interview with Dalian Hansen, Second Life’s first in-world novelist

Dalian Hansen isn’t real in the way that you or I are real, but he’s at least as real as the person who created him as his Second Life persona chooses him to be. Dalian is about to become the first Second Life avatar to publish a book in which the majority of the plot takes place in Linden Labs’ notorious virtual world.

Dalian Hansen, Second Life author

He’s not the first novelist in SL, nor is the book the first to deal with the concept of the metaverse, nor is it the first book to appear in full in SL – but the combination of the three is a first, as far as I can tell.

As the book inherently has a science fictional theme at its heart, not to mention being written by someone who is a virtual extension of a real person in a way that would have been unimaginable outside of science fiction less than a decade ago, I figured I’d like to chase him down and ask him some questions about the project.


PR: So, tell me a little about yourself – what do you do in SL, and in RL* (if you don’t mind talking about both)?

DH: “Dalian Hansen is an Avatar that exits in Second Life. Among his many virtual projects as a computer generated simulation, Dalian is the Creative Director for Tretiak Media LLC (a SL Development firm which owns the SLQuery.com data engine service), Architect for such in-world clients as IBM and ABN-AMRO, and former Creative Director of the popular monthly Second Life magazine, SLBusiness.

His Anima connects to the virtual world from Manchuria, China. This meat version of Dalian’s digital persona is recognized as an internationally award winning Creative Director and photographer. He is also one of the first foreigners to host a Chinese network news program in China.”

PR: Have you always been a fan of science fiction novels?

DH: “I was always a fan of science fiction stories, but as a kid I didn’t read many books. So TV, movies, and comics were my primary exposure to the genre. As my tastes matured, I found novels and my imagination to be more entertaining.”

PR: Any favourite authors or books?

DH: “I like the classic Science Fiction books from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and Philip K. Dick. These guys understood the science of the fiction, and its social effect. They built a world around the technology and made it believable. I would say that Dean R. Koontz remains a big influence on me. I have read over 40 of his books that go back to the beginning of his career, when he wrote pure science fiction.”

PR: Have you always wanted to be writer?

DH: “My written work has been published for years in some form, I just never made a living from it. As a kid, I had all these visual ideas but lacked the talent to express them with my hands by freehand drawing. So I turned to writing as a way to paint pictures with words. It also meant I was not dependant on anyone to create my vision.

As I got older, the computer was a big liberation for me. It was a tool that allowed me to finally express these ideas in pictures. As a result, I eventually became a Creative Director for major advertising agencies and made TV commercials and such for international clients. I still enjoy writing, but being a visual artist puts food on the table. Plus, writing takes a great deal of time and emotional commitment. It is like a relationship because it consumes the mind and requires a constant focus, at least for me.”

PR: Tell me why you’ve chosen to write directly about Second Life – a personal fascination, or marketing decision?

DH: “I wanted tell a story where Second Life was more than just an environment, it would be like a character. There have been many guide books about Second Life and short stories about virtual avatar adventures. But this is my attempt to bring the idea into mainstream fiction.

I took well documented points in Second Life history and combined them with real people and fictional characters to invent a mythical story and secret world. After all, reading a book is still the ultimate virtual reality for the human imagination, and establishing this lets Second Life exist in your mind and not just the computer. So I wanted to offer a fun story connected to Second Life in the spirit of old dimestore pulp fiction novels.

“Anima” is just the beginning of a bigger saga I would like to tell. I really don’t care about fame or profit from this or future books. It was just something I wanted to do. I set my mind to it and the accomplishment is its own reward. I don’t expect or care if the novel is a success. And even if it is an utter failure, I’d rather accept that than the regret of not trying.

After all, not very much in science fiction is completely unique or original. But many stories can evolve a popular theme into something fresh and entertaining. That is all I have tried to do and never intended to deliver a groundbreaking epic.”

PR: Do you see there being a long-term future for the written word as entertainment? And if so, do virtual worlds have a part to play in it?

DH: “Human history has been documented by the stories we tell. Whether by campfire in a cave or on a computer terminal connected by the world wide web. People have told stories long before the written word was invented, which basically turned spoken sounds into pictures. The written word is just a medium. It is our nature to tell stories, and the environment only changes how this is done or what we use to do it.

Printed books created an explosion of information in their day. The Internet has created another such revolution. Technology will always provide different opportunities, but I think the purpose remains the same. Whether a story is written, painted, acted, or virtually simulated, the method is meant to communicate. The written word has been a useful tool, and it stands to reason that it will continue to have a relationship and place even in the virtual age.”

PR: According to the synopsis I read, your novel deals with SL as being a very serious and very real part of the protagonist’s life – can you tell me how you see the penetration of synthetic worlds into meatspace going in the next decade?

DH: “No one could have guessed the effect of the Internet on world cultures. It is easy to draw parallels about the direction of the metaverse, but there are many side effects that cannot be predicted. For example, velcro was invented for the space missions. The internet was invented to protect American military computers from a nuclear attack. I think the bigger effect of the future metaverse is in these side effects. Sure, it will be a simulated world where we can interact. But with the freedom it offers, economic opportunities, and technology it inspires, these other effects will be more far reaching. The influences and habits of the Internet are now far more powerful than the tool itself.”

[* Note for meatspacers – RL is Second Life slang for ‘real life’.]


I think the real take-away for me here is that someone so obviously deeply involved with the metaverse believes there’s a valid future for the written word as entertainment – an interesting contrast to the ironically technophobic Old Guard of the genre.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding with any book is in the reading. But Hansen seems to be able to talk the author talk pretty well, even if he doesn’t seem to bothered about the project being a commercial success, so I’ll be trying to fit it into my reading schedule at some point soon – I’m curious to see what he’s come up with.

A final morsel to chew over – if it’s possible for a virtual avatar to publish and promote a book, how will this affect the gender and cultural biases that currently plague genre fiction? Will initialising and anglicising names go out, in favour of writing under an entire assumed persona – one that isn’t necessarily even human in form, let alone gendered or coloured?

Scalpel Magazine launches, plus more print vs. online debate

Having been out of town on the relevant evening, I’m late to the field in trumpeting the launch of Scalpel Magazine (although I actually mentioned it ages ago, and let the cat somewhat out of the bag in the process). Most of the genre blogosphere appears to have taken the news of a new reviews and criticism outlet fairly positively, notwithstanding Nick Mamatas and friends. There’s some fine content on there, too. I for one hope it will last the course – and not merely because I want another venue to send my own work to, either.

Pat Cadigan’s guest editorial for Scalpel mentions the decline of book reviews in mainstream print media, which is a hot topic at the moment, especially in the US. I’ve found that the Print Is Dead blog has had some wise things to say on the matter. Meanwhile, the UK’s very own Grumpy Old Bookman has added his dime to the jukebox:

“Finally, however, let us remember one simple fact. However erudite the print reviewer may be, and however exquisite his taste and critical judgement, he is handicapped by comparison with the most humble blogger. Our print man cannot link directly to other sources.

This is, I would suggest, a major problem. Twenty years ago, of course, no one could even imagine it. But now it has to be faced.”

That’s about right, I think. I’m not gloating about the declining relevance of print media (in reference to book reviews or anything else), but nor am I willing to shut my eyes on what, to me, is an obvious and irresistable trend. Selah.