4 min read

The joy of reader interaction

Karen Wehrstein rounds out our discussion of serial fiction. She's been writing Chevenga, a science fiction serial fiction, since 2009. She's also the author of three web serials and an all around amazing woman. She joins us today to discuss one of the main benefits of writing a web serial - reading interaction


The joy of reader interaction

Writing online erases the distance between writer and reader

Guest post by Karen Wehrstein

When you’re a traditionally-published writer, it goes like this. You turn in the manuscript. A year or so later, when your head is totally into your next project, the book comes out. In the following months, you get fan mail. When they talk about you finished writing a year and a half ago, it’s like, do I remember that? Or do I care? (Of course you do—but not the same way as you do about what you are writing right now.)

Or—worse—they point out a huge screeching error. “Thanks,” you answer lamely, knowing that this blazing neon pimple of a mistake is in every single one of however many thousand copies, and the last time you could have done anything about it is a year and a half ago.

To me, the reader feedback that tells me 90% of what I want to know is the immediate reaction. Do they gasp? Do they laugh? Do they cry? Do they yawn? Forget about learning that, in traditional publishing. The fan letters and the reviews are refined and distilled reactions, not immediate. You throw your words into the distance between writer and reader, a mostly silent void.

Fast forward to web serials, or what in my neck of the Internet woods we call weblit. Feedback on your work can come within minutes, or even seconds, of you posting it (which, if you work like I do, is also within minutes of you writing it). And it is so easy for the readers that you get more of it.

They yell at you in caps. They yell at your characters. They do emoticons that show their immediate reactions. They catch your errors, which you can then immediately fix. (I quote weblit maven Alexandra Erin: “The world is my editor.”) They suggest things. They demand things. They tell you what they want, and you can adjust ongoingly. (I use polls, too; I always have one running.) They go off on ridiculous tangents (e.g. weird things their cats eat). They teach you all kinds of things. They sometimes come up with better ideas than yours. The distance between writer and reader is, if not erased, vastly lessened.

I was warned that I might have to adjust to this. I reveled in it. Immediate reader reaction is like nirvana to me. Once I gained confidence and enough commenting readers, I began playing with it.

My hero the general is facing a thorny military challenge and I’m not sure how he’s going to solve it; it’s 7:30 p.m. and to remain faithful to my daily schedule I must post before midnight. I call to my readers for ideas, giving them a 10 p.m. deadline to allow me time to write before 12. They come up with a lengthy debate on the melting point of gold, in which I learn the word “adiabatic,” but also many ideas, one of which I use, putting my own spin on it, in that and the following posts. (See this here.) When I first published traditionally, which was twenty years ago, you couldn’t even dream of something like this.

Sometimes it happens unplanned: my hero is facing a thorny legal challenge. One reader writes such a long and intelligent comment on how he can effectively respond that I feel I must use it… but how? I invent a lawyer character to whom my hero runs, and get the reader to role-play him textually, the two of us working on Google Docs. I post the results. It’s just the start of a beautiful relationship; every now and then, that reader and I do it again and the results land in the book. A reader has become a collaborator. (The reader is V, aka Vercin, and I nominated him for a Rose and Bay Award for Best Patron, which he handily won. Here is a sample of our collaborative work.) And he’s not even the only one. We’ve even done group Google Doc role-plays.

Utilities available on the Internet make it possible to interact with readers in even more ways. Now and then, for instance, I make myself available in the guise of my characters for character chats—letting my readers talk directly to my characters. There is also livewriting, though it seems to take a very dedicated, almost obsessive reader, to be really into that: basically they’re watching you write in real time, and throwing in suggestions, or answering questions that direct the story. (I haven’t really tried the latter approach, i.e. really letting them determine the plot, as of yet… one of these days.)

In this context of robust interactivity, readers stop being just readers. They become friends, confidantes, co-creators. They even, sometimes, become lovers. (Yes, I’ve had that happen.) They bond with each other as well, becoming a community of like-minded people. You find out who they are, which tells you something about your own writing, and who you are. (I am proud to say that none of my readers, as far as I know, are axe-murderers.) From a business standpoint, they tell you about how to market it—sometimes directly. I asked my readers, for instance, what web-comics I should advertise on, and they answered with a heap of suggestions.

My plan, once I have The Philosopher in Arms complete, is to split it into several sections and publish them as e-books. From my experience and observation, that’s where the money is in fiction these days. But I never want to quit doing the actual writing on the Internet, serially. Book me into a support group—I am hooked on weblit-style reader interaction.


Karen Wehrstein is the author of The Philosopher in Arms, a post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy web serial running since March 2009. She has published three traditionally-published novels (Lion’s Heart and Lion’s Soul, solos, with Baen Books in 1991, and Shadow’s Son, with Shirley Meier and S.M. Stirling, with Baen Books in 1992) along with several short stories and innumerable news stories and feature articles. She posts 1,000-1,500 words per weekday on average.