So here it is then.
There are essentially two stories of the Curveball serial: how the idea for the story came about, and how the idea for how the serial would be managed came about. The idea for the structure came second, but in terms of how I create it it's actually the more important story, so I'm going to focus on that one.
So to start out: I'd already decided I was going to take some stuff I'd written about a punk rock superhero named Curveball and turn it into a web serial. The next step was to figure out how to do it, and I was already wrestling with a few difficult and thorny issues as far as webserials were involved.
But I didn't want to stop post fiction online.
So what if that was my conceit? What if I published Curveball like a comic book? Publish it for free on my site, because it is web fiction after all, and then sell each installment (issue) as mini-ebooks for 99 cents? It would allow me to bridge the gap between web fiction and self publishing pretty handily, as long as I could figure out how to make it work.
So I set about trying to figure out how to make it work.
The basic idea behind Curveball was that it was going to be a hybrid of web fiction and self-published fiction. I wanted to find a way to do a web serial that lent itself to fitting in the ebook world. Pay Me, Bug! worked because it was already a novel, but I know Jim has run into issues with getting Legion of Nothing into ebook form because when he was writing as serial he wasn't necessarily thinking of length and structure of story arcs, so getting everything to fit into book forms was a challenge. Wildbow has an even crazier situation on his hands with Worm because it is so, so, so very freaking long. He easily has a 15-20 book series there, if he wants to distribute it in the traditional 85-115K book length for each volume.
The covers, in my opinion, have worked out extremely well. I'm happy with all of them. The cover for Year Three makes me positively giddy.
DESIGN ISSUES, OR THE LAST MILE PROBLEM
By "design issues" I don't mean the physical design of the cover, or the layout of the site, or anything like that. THose are important and they may actually negatively impact the user experience, I'm talking about how I actually set up, structure, and write each issue. Because of the rules I have for each issue (8-10k words, each issue must move the plot forward) I find do a lot more planning for each issue than I ever have with anything else I write.
On top of that, I also plan the plot arcs for each year: Year One was introduce the main players, AND do the big magic reveal at the end. Year Two was show how magic fits into the world, AND give the reader a good idea on what Project Recall actually is at the end. Because of that, I usually have a rough idea of what I need to have happen come the last issue of the year relatively early in the story arc, so halfway through the year, I find myself trying to figure out how to position all the pieces on the board so that when the last issue rolls around, addressing the points is a simple matter.
Unfortunately, I've discovered both years that by the time I reach the penultimate issue I have a "last mile problem." (The "last mile problem," for those of you who don't catch the reference, was a phrase used by telecommunications companies to describe how difficult it is to connect a customer to an internet infrastructure on a wide basis. Apparently it's easy to set up 99% of the infrastructure, but when you get to the last piece--the point where the customer finally gets hooked in--it becomes exponentially more difficult).
So the specific issue I had was that even when all the characters are in roughly the right position, there's a lot of ground to cover to get to where I want the reader to be. Some of this is pacing: it's not enough to just drop everything in the reader's lap at the end, you want them to travel through it, enjoy discovering it, and be excited by the revelations. And in order to do that you have to do more than have the characters be in the right place at the right time, firing all the checkov's guns--you have to do it at a speed that makes sense.
For Year One it was clear I needed extra setup between Issue 11 and Issue 12, and so I thought "hey, comic books do extra-long issues all the time, I can just call Issue 12 a double-sized issue and then I'll have the room I need to get everything done. Plus it'll be an extra treat for the reader, and because it's the 12th issue, which is a big deal because One Year, it fits really well.
Of course the flip side was that I actually had to write a double-sized issue, and this proved to be very difficult, especially with all the moving and sudden emergency job loss issues that occurred at the time. And at the end of it, I thought "Nope, not going to do this again."
Fast forward to Issue 23. Issue 23 was supposed to be a little different than it turned out, but because it was April and I re-introduced a very silly character, I decided to go with that because it felt right (see, I'm still a pantser at heart). But that meant I didn't do nearly the amount of setup I needed for Issue 24, so I thought "fine, I'll do another double-sized issue, even though I swore I'd never do it again."
And even then I completely misjudged the amount of room I needed.
The problem is that I was trying to take a number of different divergent plot points -- at least five or six -- and "re-verge" them again. So when I hit Part Six I realized there was no way I could end the issue in two parts AND hit all the plot points I'd planned for Year Two, and I really needed to hit those plot points. So kept writing. And writing. And writing. And writing. And the problem is that with each new update I24 I would in fact be closer to the end, but I wouldn't be at the end.
I24 is finished. It consists of fifteen parts and is almost 28,000 words long. That's not a double-sized issue, it's a triple-sized issue, and while that's not a lot of writing for everyone, it's a hell of a lot of writing for me. Even after all that writing, I still didn't explicitly tell the reader what Project Recall is, which is what I wanted to do. It's in there, and I think it's reasonably obvious based on the information I provide, but it's not stated, for the record, with no possibility of misunderstanding. But I'd also reached a point where I simply couldn't add any more to the issue. It was done.
That last mile problem is a real pain in the ass. And I need to fix it for Year Three, because I can't have a repeat of this.
As I've mentioned before, choosing to write in the present tense has been immensely satisfying for me as a writer because it's caused me to grow and consider a lot of choices I wouldn't have otherwise.
One of the biggest advantages I've run across is that my readers are willing to edit my work. This has proved a huge boon for me, because that means that my original manuscript (the web serial) improves in quality over time, and the other formats benefit from this. I'd still probably be better off if I could afford an editor, but I can't, so them's the breaks so far.
All is not a bed of roses in Curveball-land, however. I've had a number of challenges and setbacks, partially due to external forces, partially due to the nature of what I've set up, partially due to reader tastes, partially due to weaknesses I need to improve on.
First: writing in present tense is divisive. Some people hate, hate, hate, hate, hate it and will not read it no matter what. I was one of those people before I started doing it, so I can't really blame other people for being the same way, and it's probably alienated some potential readers.
GROWTH AND MARKETING
Curveball has not grown quickly as far as readership goes. There are a number of factors that might play into this, but I think the primary reason has to do with the scheduling irregularities. Getting regular readers on board with monthly updates is a big problem to begin with, because it's a pretty dramatic break from the normal, expected publication schedule for web serials. The issues, both external and internal, that cause publication dates to slide to the right, to the extent that Year Two had an effective publication schedule of every other month, really doesn't help this.
That said, in the last few months I've noticed a definite increase in activity for reader comments, and I do consider reader engagement a sign of positive growth. But I don't have any way of determining how much growth that represents. It still feels slow.
There are other factors that could play into its slow growth:
1. Present Tense Narrative
Mentioned above, but some people can find reading present tense narratives artificial and alienating. Choices like that automatically cut you out of a certain number of readers.
2. Poor Product Placement
Basically: I'm terrible at this.
3. Ineffective Outreach
4. Hybrid status
Finally, I wonder if the attempt to bridge the gap between web fiction and self-published fiction is, at least for the moment, working against me on both fronts. I don't have any hard data on this, but I also don't have much hard data on whether it's working.
It's annoying to admit three years into a project, but I don't have enough data to determine if this model is viable. I know that I really enjoy it--on top of enjoying writing the story (which is really the important part) I really enjoy the process by which I publish it. That's not nothing. But I don't have enough information to know if the model can successfully work both as webfiction and as a self-published serial, because there are too many things I can't account for. Is the slow growth because the model doesn't work, or because people just don't like the story, or is it because I'm having problems publishing on time? Obviously I need to be able to publish on time in order figure out what other factors are in play.
I still think the hypothesis is sound, and I think it's testable, but I don't have a full suite of tools to test it yet. This year, if I can regain control of my schedule, I may be able to squelch enough variables to collect more useful data.