Reader Interaction

What kinds of unique strategies or mechanisms have you used for incorporating reader input and interaction into your in-progress stories?


Any advice about what works and what doesn't?


Currently I haven't attempted anything like this - although the idea appeals to me. I do regularly ask for feedback, comments and suggestions to gauge opinion, however... I have almost never had any. A bit disheartening, but the stats say people are still reading, so I suppose it could be worse.


I'm with Chris in this: I've thought about it but I've never actually tried doing it even though I think it's a great idea. I've gotten very little feedback as well outside of friends, so although I know I have some readers (only a handful) I would say at this point, there would be no point for me to do this just yet.


But if you do try this, I wish you the best of luck with carrying it out.


Every once in awhile I hold a poll when I want to know my readers' opinions beyond just the comments they make. Sometimes their votes actually determine the part of the story that comes next -- like which character's perspective will be narrating. However, I don't let them change my plot (because I plan that well in advance).


I ran a poll toward the mid-point in Book One of Awakenings to decide the gender of the first child the survivors would have. My evil readers decided it had to be twins.


I have a tendency to comment on every one of my updates and ask questions in those comments. Sometimes, readers speak up. Other times they don't. I try to take what's said into account as I keep on writing.


The less backlog you've got, the easier it is, surprisingly.


Erin's right. There's something of a balance as far as having a backlog while being able to accommodate your readers. If you've got your entire story written previous to starting to upload it, it's not really going to happen. If you've got zero backlog, by contrast, you're going to be miserable, miss updates and make more mistakes.


As far as incorporating feedback, I find this fairly easy as I tend to write off the cuff, with very little in place as far as where I feel I -have- to go next. I try to answer recurring reader questions, I've responded by showcasing characters more after readers express interest in them, and I occasionally poll readers as to what they want to see featured in the way of interludes (stories between arcs of the main plot, featuring side characters and events).


That's very much how i've been writing Shadow, so if people actually gave me comments and suggestions, I'd happily take them into account. I sometimes wonder if Blogger isn't helping, as I know that some IE users can't post comments on my blog (myself included until I switched to Chrome), and though I have made it possible to comment through any number of other means - how many people could be bothered to comment outside of the post itself? I don't know.


Sounds like your problem is more to do with drawing in readers (or not, as the case may be), Chris, than how you respond to their feedback.


Sorta relevant to this discussion (please excuse the ramble that follows) is my interpretation that any writing is a dialogue, not a monologue. When you're writing, even if nobody is there, you're writing with your audience in mind. Everything, not just about the writing itself, but how you go about it, conveys a message, gives a cue. Style, frequency, formality, correctness, consistency. Writing isn't a solitary pursuit, even if you're sitting alone in your room or on your couch, typing an entry for a web serial that gets 5 hits a day and 0 comments, because even then you've got an imaginary audience that you're writing -for-. We imagine the criticisms we'll get, the praise, the "omfg this scene so cool" responses, and this shapes what we produce. What I've discovered is that as you get actual readers and commentary, this really comes to life. You get real feedback you wouldn't have imagined otherwise ("I hate this character", "this scene doesn't sell me") and it changes things. You incorporate that new information into the subconscious, internal dialogue of the writing process, you imagine that added voice. On a good day, this strengthens your writing, improves the process. On a bad day, the added criticism can totally eliminates your drive to write, even killing the story as a whole. This is especially true early on, as you're getting a story off the ground. One statement at a point in time when you're getting one comment every 2-4 chapters can have a hundred times the impact than the most praiseworthy or critical comment when you're getting 12-30 comments each update.


And it's a two-way street. Your readers can become subconsciously aware of this conversation/dialogue dynamic, they can remember what the 'conversation' was about days ago, remember what they & others said, see how it maybe influences the writing, see the responses from other readers. Taking all this in, in addition to their imagined audience, they reply to the author. For the reader, this business can be invigorating, validating and empowering. Which brings people back, promotes that ongoing dialogue. More comments, more feedback. Built up sufficiently, you get a community, a fandom.


So what can one take away from this? Well, for one thing, the frequency of posts matters, because the fresher previous posts & comments are in the mind of the reader, the easier it is to continue that ongoing dialogue/conversation, which makes it far easier to sit down and type something else. By contrast, typing out a reply in a void, a story without any other comments, is akin to talking to an answering machine. For a lot of people, it's performing an activity (talking to an answering machine, posting a comment to a story without comments) where we're used to having cues and that immediate feedback and responses, all shaping what we say later in that same exchange/utterance... but that stuff is absent. So we say a few things, flounder, wrap it up, feel awkward. This answering machine analogy applies to writing and commenting because we, as people (especially the post-baby-boomer generation), are very much used to that dialogue and feedback in our writing, these days. We're used to having someone actively reading and/or ready to respond within minutes, used to being able to anticipate that response, whether it's an IM, text, twitter or facebook post. So having posts spaced out as a once a week or once-every-two-weeks thing? It's going to affect the feedback you get, even if you're producing more overall content in the long run.


What else? Being consistent is huge. Imagine a party where the conversation is interrupted by a minute long silence every five to ten minutes. Picture the awkwardness, the difficulty of getting conversation going again each time, when you know that there might be another interruption coming up. The 'conversation' is a flow, and if it's interrupted, it stagnates. Missing updates is that sort of interruption. A conversation blackout. Any existing topics of conversation stretch thin, you feel like you've exhausted the subject, so you don't bring it up again in the future.


And this ties into my third point. Remember that readers need something to talk about. One needs to leave room for interpretation and discussion, plot hooks and stuff to discuss and debate. If one topic has been exhausted and nothing new comes up to replace it, a reader probably won't comment. This can be avoided by reaching a certain critical mass (Alexandra Erin's Tales of MU did this, I think, where there were hundreds of comments per update at one point, though a glance shows this may no longer be the case) where your readers can sustain the conversation by replying to other off-topic comments, while still maintaining interest in the work. In the end though, there needs to be something to get people talking.


So, all this said... Shadow. I preface my following notes by stating that I haven't -read- Shadow, and that my conclusions are derived from a skimming of the posts and the comments. You say the readers can't comment reliably, but that you provided other avenues; If you're separating people into different 'rooms', the 'conversation' is likely going to suffer. If people can't comment reliably, because your choice of which blog to use doesn't work with one of the more common browser choices (IE is not fantastic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the default and a majority of people don't know better), it's hardly surprising you'll get less comments. I think the dialogue may well -suffer- because of your author commentary at the end of each post. As an author has an deceptively powerful voice in the context of the ongoing conversation, it's very easy to drown out the readers. While statements about the nature of the work and why you did what you did may be interesting from an analytical perspective, it also serves to strangle conversation, because there's less room for that interpretation and individual voice on the part of the reader. It also sets up an awkward dilemma for those doing an archive binge (jumping in, say, now, and reading through the entire thing in one sitting)... because it comes down to having to choose verisimilitude (do I ignore the comments and keep my head in the story, feeling/picturing the world) versus reading the author comments because I'm afraid I'll miss something. It disrupts the flow. I understand the appeal of this, why you might try it to provoke discussion, but we get back to that notion of the 'void'. In the face of so many chapters with no responses, it's that much harder to comment and get a discussion going. Add the pressure of the author dictating what he wants in terms of conversation (and I know you're just raising points, but think what it feels like to the reader), and it's easier, perhaps, to not reply. Finally, touching on one of the core points above, there's the fact that it updates only once a week, and it's that much harder - sometimes people need to accumulate a certain amount of interest and excitement to be pushed to sit down and post, and a weekly posting schedule, unfortunately means that residual interest and excitement from a previous week may have waned/dissipated entirely.


I'm not intending for this to come across as harsh, or that I'm overly critical of certain web serial styles (ie. the weekly posting schedule) - I'm sure that a weekly schedule is fine and great for many. Rather, all I'm saying is that I'm suspicious it doesn't engender the same kind of commentary and ongoing dialogue that a more frequent schedule might.


Hope my ramblings and wall o' text aren't too offensive.


Not at all - that was very interesting, well thought and out and, in turn, thought-provoking. It's given me some things to ponder, certainly. Whilst I very much doubt I'll speed up my posting schedule (because that will certainly lead to missed updates, whereas at the moment I've missed those only caused by the most complained about ISP in the UK...) I'll need to think about some of those other points.


I'm not sure whether the lack of commentary will help, since that will result in a complete vacuum of comments initially, but I might give it a try for a while.


Of course, comments are not the be-all and end-all of the project, but it would be nice to get more and (the point of the topic, I guess) to be able to use them to improve the experience for readers.


Thank you for taking the time to give a considered response.


This post at David Gaughran's blog may interest you as it's about one experiment in community -driven narratives (http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/transparent-publishing-community-driven-narratives-guest-post-by-brett-henley/) .


I don't incorporate feedback directly into the story, but I do look at the comments to see what seems to interest people and in particular what gets people excited enough to actually bother posting.


I've noticed some fic writers seem to just post their update on the front page. This doesn't actually open up much dialogue to me. I've always enjoyed the way webcomickers handle it. You see a page and a blog accompanying it where they might tell you something about that particular update or just spout about something random. This sets up a conversational relationship between creator and the reader as well as gives me some idea of the personality of the author. I never try to blog for the sake of blogging though -- I've seen some webcomickers blather and I would rather they not unless it's to show me some art or something related to the story I'm following.


I think what also works is showing people you answer questions. I"m more inclined to leave comments where either the dialogue between readers is pretty fun and interesting or where the author answers. (Where the author ignores comments, though, I generally stop. I'm not going to waste time on someone who isn't polite enough to occasionally acknowledge their readers.)


As a writer, I've been very conscientious about responding to each of the comments I receive. I know others read them, for I find newer commentors often giving me information I might have asked about or said "hey, thanks for telling me that" on posts far back in the archive. (They're really internalizing what they see in comments, which I find very fascinating.)


I think if you see the trend is "yes, the author will answer you and yes, the author won't bite your head off if you want to make suggestions or corrections," then most people will feel slightly safer in "delurking" and leaving a comment. (And sometimes I admit in my blog posts that folks comments motivate me to keep going. I generally think that at times female readers feel obligated to just say "I'm here" because the general impression from my responses is that I see comments as motivation to keep going with the story.)


Short of asking for or encouraging comments, sometimes it comes down to whether the update itself invites that to happen whether it be by throwing something of a mystery at the reader, a surprise, or something really outrageous in contrast to your previous updates. People are more likely to comment when things are different from the normal update than not. Not to say that you should be aiming for shock every week, but it pays to throw them for a loop every once in a while.


If you're talking 'how do I get more commentary on my work', that's a different matter from 'how do I make them part of the narrative.'


I've done this a few ways: I've done an entire serial where people who tipped could vote on the outcome of the story at the end of every entry; that was a little like GMing a tabletop RPG.


I've done a couple of serials where the comments inspired me to adjust the story, or correct it.


My current serial allows readers to talk directly with the characters, and this one is so new to me that I'm not sure -how- I'm going to put together the finished print book. o_O But the audience really enjoys it, and tips for the pleasure of the chats.


Really, the only limitation is your imagination, and how much you want to collaborate. :)


Well, I don't let them affect the outcome of a story, but I might use their commentary to figure out something they'd like to see and give them a little fan service. For instance, I've added unplanned chapters because it was clear there was something in particular they want to be privy to. I didn't change the story, just added some detail I was not originally planning on giving them.


I do accept fanfiction, which I have posted on the site under the heading of "Guest writers." And also fan art. So they do get to put some of their own work on my site, if they are so inclined. Which rocks.


I am very, very bad with numbers and frequently misnumber my chapters, so I had a contest to let the readers supply the missing Chapter Eleven for me, with awesome results. The winning entry was so well written and seamless I'm tempted to just consider it canon. And I let the readers vote on the them to decide which one was the winner. Prizes came from the Cafe Press merchandise I have set up.


On very rare occasions, I will answer in the comments section as if I were one of the characters and sign off as such. I wrote a recap of the first hundred posts as if it were being narrated by one of the main characters, and when anyone commented on it, I answered in character and signed of as if it were him handling that week's post and comments. I don't do that often, but it's fun.


And I include polls every so often. I initially started a "favorite character" poll, and now, as I'm nearing the end of the story arc and over a hundred posts later, I'm doing it again to see if anything has changed. Not only is it fun and interactive for them, but that gives me very valuable feedback on what kind of characters and interactions they like.