Worm's Anniversary Experiment/Event; Thoughts & Things Learned

So. Forgive me if this is a little rambling. I did a little experiment/event to commemorate the one year anniversary of Worm (a touch belated, but that's fine). The idea was simple - a more or less full size side story (each tying into one member of a newly introduced villain group) released each day for eight straight days. Readers love content, they tend to respond well to interludes, so it seemed a nice present to them to thank them for reading & supporting the story over the past year.


Before I even get into my hopes & whatnot for the event, I have to admit I was nervous. A part of me gets a little anxious each time something major happens with the story/site, as I debate whether the readers will like what they're reading, whether I'll wind up with a half dozen readers picking something apart or insisting something's totally jarring or nonsensical (or worse, that they'll be right about it). There were also some fears of the readers feeling the event was too much content to wade through, lower quality due to my lack of time to proofread or a net negative response to the one or two chapters that would stand out less and even be a little boring.

What else? I was a bit concerned that I'd lose readers in the end due to what G.S. Williams would (in the middle of the series) call the hangover effect, with people feeling the story was moving too slowly all of a sudden.

But I did harbor hopes for some increased views, and I was interested to see how that played out. For this reason I didn't really announce it (beyond one little-noticed mention that I was working on something in Tuesday's post, 4 days prior). I wanted to see how it played out on its own, with people noticing what was going on on their own.

I did manage to convince myself to give it a try, that it was unrealistic to think I'd sink my own ship with the event, and that honestly, it was likely more people would like it than hate it.

But above all else, it was an exercise for me as a writer. I'm a big believer in changing the context for my writing to change my writing habits - it's why I started a web serial in the first place: to get myself into a situation where I felt obligated to finish something I'd started (as opposed to getting 20 pages in & dropping it for something different). For too long, I've been writing without a backlog (on & off since January) and it's not a comfortable position to be in. I hate the idea of missing updates above all else, and this wound up being my motivation, both in the grand scheme (I want to get better at writing more so I can build a backlog) and in the process of the event (I don't want to disappoint my readers & not have an update there at a time I said there would be one).

Getting 'er done

I started the actual act of writing these chapters roughly a week before they started going up (they went up Saturday the 16th to Saturday the 23rd). The week prior to that week was spent more or less hammering out what I wanted to do and when. I am not a planner by nature -I write by the seat of my pants (which is maybe why I find it kind of tempting to write without a backlog, as dangerous as it is)- but this mandated some special attention. I wanted to pace things so that the chapters I expected to be stronger were in the right places (both on the update days and ensuring there weren't too many of the less stellar chapters in a row), and I wanted to work out the characters in more detail so that I didn't have any with too much overlap in their personality or characters that were too similar appearing in a row.

This does tie into the expectations section above, but I did say I would ramble some. I figured:

  • Saturday - Siberian, the feral, unfettered-by-society type. Expect a good day.

  • Sunday - J. Slash, leader of the group, picking on a kid. Expect an ok day.

  • Monday - Burnscar, who's a killer because her power makes her one. Semi-sympathetic. Expect an ok day.

  • Tuesday - Mannequin, creepy serial killer who doesn't talk for the entire update. Expect a good day.

  • Wednesday - Shatterbird, who has an exceedingly powerful & versatile ability. Couldn't figure out a little twist or rub to make this update particularly interesting. Expect a bad day, dip in readership?

  • Thursday - Crawler, a monster who isn't actually seen in the course of the update. Expect a good day.

  • Friday - Cherish, an overconfident young manipulator, rookie of the group. Expect a bad-ish day.

  • Saturday #2 - Bonesaw, a twelve year old who is arguably the scariest and more powerful in the group. Expect a great day.

There were also the people they interacted with, which played a big part in my estimation of what chapters would be good or bad, but if I got into that, this post would be way too long.

The actual act of writing wound up being slow at first. This wasn't a huge surprise, but it left me worrying about my ability to finish. By the time I was putting the first of the updates up, I had three of them written. It normally takes me a day, day and a half to hammer out an update, barring procrastination. So I wasn't too worried. I figured I had to proofread what I had and I had the rest of the week to finish & proofread the remaining 4 updates (since it was a week and 3+4 = 7, right?)

This is the point where I point out that I'm horribly bad with numbers, to the point that I wonder sometimes if I have an undiagnosed learning disability: I can't even count straight to fifty if I'm the least bit tired. It took me until Monday to realize that my schedule wasn't going to work because I had 8 updates to write for an event spanning Saturday to Saturday, not 7. Even with the sheets of notes detailing what came when. Yeah, I don't know. So I got into a state where I realized I wasn't writing as much as I probably needed to, and where I was suddenly shifting gears from feeling kind of confident to pressure mode.

In the end, I managed it, with two close calls (Wednesday & the second Saturday), where I wrapped up the writing aspect of things close to 6pm and proofread in the 6 hours they were due to go up (in between the tasks/errands of my day). I think Wednesday suffered for it, and I had to go back to Saturday's to touch up the ending because an online buddy & proofreader commented the ending felt a bit sudden & I was forced to agree.

But I finished it. 42,000 words over roughly two weeks. I was pleased with my ability to get it done, and I think it forced me into a more serious mindset where I could push procrastination and distractions aside and make the time to write. Now if I can apply that to the everyday updates, I could hopefully build up a backlog.

So what was the response?


Well, for one thing, the anxiety I had going in was largely unfounded. That happens just often enough that I should expect it, but not often enough that I can rely on the fact that it's going to happen. The response was pretty overwhelmingly good, with some people raving.

What surprised me was the numbers.

I'd expected some zig-zagging back and forth, with some peaks for the good days and lows for the bad. I fully admit that some chapters were less stellar than others, especially when time constraints came into play (Wednesday & Friday standing out in my mind).

I didn't get what I expected.

So, here's the point where I strip myself metaphorically naked. I sense that most people don't talk about their stats here in the same way that we don't talk about the money we make in polite conversation. I don't know what people will think of my stats, because I'm fairly popular but at the same time, I don't advertise at all and my viewership increases pretty strictly through word of mouth & people finding it through sites like Webfictionguide. I grow steadily but slowly, with many weeks showing a 1-4% net improvement over the last (with each month being better than the last since I started). My best day ever was 1,050 views in one day.

An average set of views for me over the past month or two, spanning Monday to Sunday, marking update days with asterisks:

605, 726*, 468, 341, 427, 821*, 423

540, 783*, 483, 428, 578, 711*, 325

509, 930*, 635, 609, 631, 710*, 576

Then the week leading up into the event, with the last two updates as update days:

624, 945*, 522, 442, 488, 789*, 811*

And the update week:

822*, 1105*, 878*, 1082*, 1007*, 1331*, 903

To be sure, some of this may have to do with the fact that middle/high school got out in the States and there's more kids on the internet during the day, so there may be some artificial inflation there. But I'm interested in the upward climb. Even though Wednesday (878) was less than stellar as updates went, the viewership was better than some regular update days in the weeks prior. The updates I expected to be received well did stand out (breaking my old record: 1105, 1082, 1331), but I'm particularly interested in the gradual rise over the course of the week. Ignoring the exceptions, it went something like 789, 811, 822, 878, 1007...

To me, this clarifies thoughts I had on consistency, frequency and how they play a part in growing one's readership. Cue tangent.

I believe I've mentioned elsewhere that I studied discourse and applied languages in University, with secondary focuses on English and Linguistics. Applied languages & discourse studies is essentially study of the who, what, where, when & why of our language use, with a focus on textual genres. What blueprint do we naturally follow when we write, say, an email, a sign, a web serial or forum post? What conventions do we follow & why? How are we reaching out to our potential audience, forming a dialogue (explicitly, implicitly and outside of the text itself), providing the information they need, and how can we use this self awareness of these facts. Can we manipulate any of these things to get what we want, or for mutual benefit? I've applied this kind of self-awareness of my own work to the writing of Worm and the dialogue that is opened between author and reader, using the medium as a vessel.

Case in point: What signals does an author give their audience that aren't explicitly communicated (ie. replying to a comment/email) or implicitly communicated using the text itself (ie. something in your latest chapter)? One set of signals come in the frequency and reliability of updates. The web serial author & their audience have a kind of transaction going. 'If you visit my site (and possibly earn me money with ads/donations/future book sales), I'll reward you with entertainment.'

But how is that transaction affected when the author misses an update? It gets amended to: 'If you visit my site I'll reward you with entertainment... most of the time.' Miss many updates and it becomes, 'some of the time' or even 'once in a while.'

Not getting their fair share of the transaction, the reader consciously or unconsciously stops fulfilling their end of the bargain. They stop reading.

But of course, things are more complicated than that. These transactions have a whole mess of unspoken side-deals and tangents, touching on comments, presentation, the readers spreading the word if they enjoy the story consistently, and so on. If you actually wrote up a contract detailing what goes into the unspoken contract between author and reader, you'd get something dozens of pages in length, filled with clauses and addenda.

And somewhere in the body of that contract, you'd touch on frequency. And this is where that steady ramp-up of numbers over the course of the event really piqued my interest. It's worth noting that the transaction/contract isn't entirely conscious, and even beyond the subconscious, there's context. People forget. Real life gets in the way. People delete browser histories & have to remember what the address for the cool webstory was. More frequent updates mean the reader has less time to forget the story, and it becomes more habitual to check in, to think about the story and to consider what comes next.

Even poorly-written works that update frequently & consistently tend to attract a ton of traffic. Ctrl-Alt-Del comes to mind.

I think the ramp-up in views that I observed suggests a very similar thing. It's easier to get excited about things when they're fresh in one's memory. I know that I've had spells where I was enraptured with one webcomic or website and I visited several times in one day, forgetting the previous visits, hoping there was something new.

Overall, it leaves me suspicious that there are stories that are perhaps not as well reviewed as mine that get more hits by virtue of the fact that they update more frequently. It also leaves me able to say that you... yeah, you: Writer who isn't confident in his or her abilities, dejected at the lack of an audience? Keep at it. So long as you're updating with regularity, you'll build something over time. If you're updating often and you're trying hard, you'll make headway, build an audience.

Or so I think.

In the end, the event was a success, and I think my viewership is actually up in the days that have followed it.

It's easily possible, I admit, that it was simply the boom of young people that are out of school & heading straight to their computers, and I'm reading into the numbers like a seer reads the entrails of birds.

Anyways, hoping this doesn't come across as bragging - it's the sort of thing I looked at in school and it interests me, so hopefully it interests someone out there.

That was quite a grueling accomplishment. 42,000 words in two weeks is no small feat--puts NaNoWriMoers to shame.

I think it's probably fair to state that consistency of updates (and shorter update times) contribute to reader retention. I've noticed it in the opposite direction, since The Points Between technically updates once a week and more realistically updates once every two or three weeks--and readership has suffered somewhat for it.

What you write bears out my own suspicions and experience--frequent and consistent updates are the best way to go.

Personally, I've got time to write about 2000 words a week. There's no way I'm ever going to write 42,000 without either going full time as a writer (and getting paid for it), or ignoring my wife, kids, and other interests (like becoming a less crappy bass guitarist).

Still, I'd love to put out more updates in a week.

I sometimes wonder if short, irregular blog updates (about my life and interests) might also keep people engaged.

I don't know if Wildbow needs to be worried about a hangover effect (that people, spoiled by daily updates, will lose interest with 2 a week because the party isn't as loud). The story quality is excellent, and the fan base seems strong -- it might just generate more interest in the rest of the story.

I brought it up because I used to have nearly daily updates, and "slow" periods were three a week -- and once life got in the way (we had twins and a change in work and sleep schedules) I saw my readers practically disappear. Without comments I feel very little motivation to write, whereas frequent comments spur me on to try harder. I have to work harder to finish a chapter when I don't think anyone cares if it exists.

Now, hopefully that problem is self-correcting with effort -- gut out a few chapters, build up momentum and see if the audience notices -- but it's easier to keep it moving to begin with than start over.

Readership seems pretty good post-event. Sunday & monday, despite having no updates, got good views, and today's another record day. So hey. Good stuff. Dunno how much of it is luck, how much was the experiment, but it seems like a success overall.

One of my readers has the same problem with their web serial, Titan City. (I link to it on Worm's front page as it's a reader & they talk to me on Google IM, though they're not confident enough to submit themselves to webfictionguide yet). They ran into problems & stopped updating for a while and now they're working to rebuild their lost fanbase.

As far as your situation goes, Gavin, that sounds tough. If it helps at all, I can tell you I started reading NMAI, and I hope to do a review when I'm done. :)

@Jim - I can see where some would find the blog interesting. But if you don't have time to write, would you have time to blog?

It's a shame we sorta forgot about the discussion we were having about the nexus site or superhero webfiction hub, whatever we were going to call it. It could be a way to touch on that goal of yours without any serious obligation (and if it's 4-5 authors taking turns, we could have that much more frequency & hopefully get people more engaged).

@Gavin: I think once you start updating regularly, people will start commenting again. Personally, I've put everything I care about into my RSS reader, so that I know about each post when it appears.

Thus, I've been noticing that you're writing again, and should make a point of commenting.

@Wildbow: I haven't forgotten. The way I read it at the time, people were saying that they were interested, but pretty busy at the time (Tim with a new baby, and other people said other stuff). I'm ready to put something up any time that I can get a quorum of people.

As for blogging... I think I can. A typical story update for me is around 1000 words, but a blog post is variable. I could talk about anything on my mind without having to go into detail, and throw it out for comments.

Of course, it must be noted that my personal blog is pretty much defunct at present, so I might be wrong about that...

I imagine that if someone was reading NMAI and leaving comments, it might transfer into making me write the sequel faster, since I can't add new chapters to that story itself.

One of my favourite things in a weird way is that a lot of the commenters on Worm are also on Legion of Nothing, as if seeing those people is a way of seeing "Oh I must like this, because the people who like the other stuff I like are reading it too" -- Hydroargentium and Psycho Gecko being the most obvious examples.

I kind of wish that I hadn't already written a review of Worm since after the 9 showed up there would be even more reasons to vote it 5 stars -- each villain has their own interesting nuances, though Bonesaw, Jack and the Mannequin are head and shoulders more interesting than the rest, with Bonesaw at the top of the list.

If I get some momentum again maybe we could fold the superhero nexus stuff in with the Pulp, eh Jim?

The review you wrote was amazing, GSW. Don't worry on any level about that. It's what I point friends & family to when they're wondering about Worm & what it's about.

When I started writing Worm, I totally told myself, "Hey. Not going to get any comments, this isn't going to get more than a dozen views on a given update day. Set my expectations low.

But now? If I wound up in that situation, and had something like a really bad ear infection (which I've had a few times in the past) or something else that left me incapacitated & unable to write, and lost my following? It'd suck hard, to have to rebuild from scratch. You have my sympathies. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help out.

I'm currently reading stuff to critique for this writer's circle I'm maybe joining, and going back & forth between that & the initial chapters of NMAI. Once I've thoroughly critiqued the stuff for the circle & feel like I won't embarrass myself I'll hopefully be able to sit down with your story & work through the archive, commenting as I go.

Wildbow - can you send me an email address? Mine is in my WFG profile.

To get back on track with the rest of the discussion (things your experiment taught you) I noticed you planned out what days you were revealing each character, and what you thought people's reactionss would be. How much planning do you do for chapters, and how do you guess at reactions? What do you do with the information you get back about your guess?

I don't tend to plan out much at all. Truth be told, I get bored with stuff very quickly (and I experience that same sort of slog you mention when you don't get comments) when I know what happens next. I very much enjoy writing off the cuff, to be surprised myself at those moments (minor or major) that come about when two things just fall into place as I'm actually writing. It could be as small as a little moment, a piece of dialogue, or as major as a turn in the story or a tactic used in a fight.

I do write with ideas of where I'm going, and the general subject of a given arc, but I leave it very open as to how I'm going to get there. I knew, for example, that the Endbringer arc was going to happen. Had to. Even from the beginning, I was planting seeds re: Dinah and Shadow Stalker. But I don't strictly outline what I intend to do in each chapter/arc because I find it strict and confining and dull, and I feel like it results in stories that are confined, orderly and dull.

How do I guess at reactions? I know that some characters are well received, and I try to judge receptions to a given section of the plot by looking at the stats and the comments. They don't always match up:

Do I misjudge? Yes. I find I chronically underestimate how much people like the relationship/social scenes. I was surprised by how strong the reaction was at the end of Arc 11 (before the interludes), for example. I underestimated how much people would like the recent Armsmaster interlude, because they're apparently shipping him with Dragon. I overestimated how much they would like Labyrinth's chapter, because I personally like the character a lot, and somehow thought others would as well.

I try to weight what I see people like and mix the things together so that there's something to talk about in the action scenes, for example. Or characters people like (or ambiguity in motives) in the relationship scenes, to draw them in more.

But really, I do prefer going with my gut, going with my instincts, and enjoying the surprises as much or more than my readers do.