In this episode Don and Rob are joined by the awesome Ramon Meija of the litRPG podcast to talk about the biggest new genre you’ve probably never heard of- litRPGs. The three discuss the origins of this fascinating genre, what makes a litRPG, what books your should be reading, and how the litRPG genre reflects the world we live in today. All that, and how to write litRPGs in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!
After posting a link to my recent post about Chinese Xianxia webnovels, I became engaged in a discussion on the Wuxiaworld Forums about the different webnovel genres in China and their proper names. As a result, I discovered that technically I was wrong in referring to the genre I described previously as Xianxia Fiction- it should actually have been called Xuanhuan Fiction.
Xuanhuan (rhymes with Duan Juan) fiction could literally be translated as “Unreal Fiction”, and as you might guess, is an umbrella genre which includes subgenres like Xianxia (Immortal Fiction) within it. However, unlike Qihuan (“Magical Fiction”) which uses Western (Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, D&D) type magical settings, Xuanhuan stories take place in high magic versions of Chinese/Asian environments. What I did was roughly the equivalent of referring to “Science Fiction” as “Space Opera”, which is a subgenre of Science Fiction, but not all Sci-Fi is Space Opera.
Fantasy (玄幻奇幻 – Xuánhuàn Qíhuàn)
Eastern Fantasy (东方玄幻 – Dōngfāng Xuánhuàn): Fictional stories centered primarily on Oriental myths, legends and fairy tails or ones that use such elements as their basis.
Foreign Continent (异界大陆 – Yì Jiè Dàlù): Fictional stories set in a different world, in a different land, with clear supernatural elements.
Foreign World Power Struggle (异世争霸 – Yì Shì Zhēngbà): Fictional stories set in a different world, in a different land, with clear supernatural elements, and that are centered around a military power struggle.
Remarkable Power (异术超能 – Yì Shù Chāonéng): Fictional stories surrounding ordinary people where the protagonist has an extraordinary supernatural ability that is used to drive the plot.
Western Fantasy (西方奇幻 – Xīfāng Qíhuàn): Traditional Western fantasy stories.
Feudal Lord (领主贵族 – Lǐngzhǔ Guìzú): Fictional stories where the protagonist is a lord in a feudal society and the plot is centered around the development of power and influence.
Magic Campus (魔法校园 – Mófǎ Xiàoyuán): Fictional stories with a campus as the main backdrop.
Epic Hero (仙侠武侠 – Xiānxiá Wǔxiá)
Classic Immortal Hero (古典仙侠 – Gǔdiǎn Xiānxiá): Traditional stories about immortal heroes.
Modern-day Sage Cultivation (现代修真 – Xiàndài Xiūzhēn): Stories about immortal heroes set in a modern-day city.
Ancient Investiture of Gods (洪荒封神 – Hónghuāng Fēngshén): Stories about immortal heroes set in the early days of the universe where the storyline is based off of “Investiture of the Gods” or myths and fairy tales like it.
Fantasy Sage Cultivation (奇幻修真 – Qíhuàn Xiūzhēn): Stories regarding sage cultivation that involve somewhat combined eastern and western soul refinement methods.
Traditional Martial Hero (传统武侠 – Chuántǒng Wǔxiá): Stories containing traditional martial hero elements, the works by Liang-Jin-Gu (Liang Yusheng, Jin Yong and Gu Long) being representative of the genre.
Modern-day Remarkable Hero (现代异侠 – Xiàndài Yì Xiá): Fictional stories set in modern times where the main protagonist has the characteristics of a martial hero, replete with martial techniques and/or other, similar abilities.
Historical Martial Hero (历史武侠 – Lìshǐ Wǔxiá): Stories mainly about martial heroes that also incorporate history to a greater extent, or stories about history that are written straightforwardly in the martial hero style.
Chinese & Ancient Martial Arts (国术古武 – Guóshù Gǔwǔ): Stories set in a modern or future city where the world of martial practitioners is hidden within it and the refinement of martial artistry (Wushu, aka. Kungfu) has been developed into the common soul refinement methods known as “Chinese Martial Arts” (Guoshu) and “Ancient Martial Arts” (Guwu) respectively.
This is just a small part of the list of the different genres being written and read on 17K, and I’d highly recommend you go to Epithetic’s site and read the full list. The list itself is fascinating because it really gives a rare look into a whole other literary world and the stories they are telling each other. There are genres and subgenres there which don’t exist in English, and it shows how cultural values really shape what people consume in their entertainment.
I should note that I’m told most of what 17K is publishing is what we in English might refer to as Young Adult Fiction, Light Novels or Pulp Fiction. These are stories which are meant to be fun, light reads and which don’t focus so much on the details or intense character development that more literary fiction might. In a lot of ways, they seem to hold a position culturally similar to the old Pulp Fiction Magazines or Comic Books. (I would observe they seem to very much have the same place in China that Manga do in Japan, which isn’t surprising since China doesn’t have much of a comics market.)
An amusing note to finish on- according to this Reddit thread, the Chinese refer to this type of fiction as YY Fiction, with YY being the shorter form of the pinyin Yiyin. What does YiYin mean? It would literally translate to “Mental Masterbation”. :-)))
Perhaps that’s all you need to know.
A little over a year ago, I noticed a Chinese name, Douluo Daolu, on the “top 20 manga” of the site Mangafox.com, which I thought was unusual to say the least on a site dedicated to Japanese manga. The site does have Korean and Chinese comics, but to see a translated Chinese one reach a serious English readership (which required tens of thousands of reads a month) made me quite curious. So naturally, I did what I always do when I’m curious- I checked it out! As it turned out, Doulu Daolu was my first step into the world of Chinese fantasy web fiction, but I didn’t know it at the time.
As anyone who knows me, or is familiar with my work, knows I’m a longtime fan of Chinese Wuxia stories and movies. Wuxia, familiar to most English readers through movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is essentially the Chinese pulp historical action genre that holds the same place in the Chinese culture as Westerns do in the United States and Samurai films do in Japan. It flourished during the first half of the twentieth century in newspaper serials, and then eventually moved to the big and small screens in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Even today, elements of it pervade Chinese culture, and even “normal” historical Dramas have a habit of making use of stylized Wuxia-eqsue swordfighting once the action kicks in.
Now, despite Wuxia’s tendency toward “flying swordsmen”, you might be surprised to learn it is often a fairly “grounded” genre. “Standard” Wuxia stories will contain a bit of a jumping around, and maybe a few funky martial arts qi-based abilities, but tend to be light on what Westerners would call “magic” because they were still mostly focussed on the characters and their relationships with their martial arts sects and clans. Yes, there are often lost secret martial arts techniques, but these mostly just make people stronger and faster fighters, and rarely (in the literature) are about tossing around fireballs and summoning monsters.
I always found this groundedness somewhat appealing, that underneath their hyper-stylzed combat techniques, we were still watching skilled humans deal with inherently human problems for the most part. Likely, it also worked for me because this was the power level George Lucas used when he “borrowed” Wuxia tropes and made a little film series called Star Wars. I grew up dreaming of Jedi, so when I was shown Wuxia fighters who could do basically the same things Jedi are shown doing in the movies it didn’t really bother me.
This is also why, when I came across examples of what Chinese would call “Immortal” stories, which are stories about “gods” like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, I didn’t care for them. “Immortal” stories are basically super high-powered Wuxia stories about people who have transcended the mortal realm (or were never human to begin with) and their conflicts with the other “gods”. They spring mostly from Chinese mythology and of course the classic Journey to the West (aka The Monkey King) which in itself is basically an Immortal story about a couple gods hanging around with a priest on Earth and battling other gods and evil spirits.
I like my Wuxia “basic” level, and that’s it. If you want a good example of a Wuxia type of story, I can only humbly recommend my own novel The Crocodile Princess. A swashbuckling story of intrigue set in the martial arts underworld of Old China…
Or so I thought!
Because it seems the Chinese actually came up with a new genre that sits between the two- Xianxia, which is sometimes referred to as “Cultivation” novels. This currently super-popular genre is one of the pillars of Chinese Webnovel fiction (online serialized fiction on Chinese web portals) and while largely unknown in the English speaking world , has taken the Chinese one by storm. I posted previously about the top webnovel writers in China in 2015, and without an exception, all of them are Xianxia writers.
So, what is this mysterious Xianxia Genre?
For most of my English speaking readers, I can explain it in one hyphenated word- “leveling-up”. Taking its roots from Taoism and Buddhism, the characters in Xianxia novels (often generically referred to as Cultivators) are trying to “evolve” their souls into higher and purer forms and work their ways up to becoming immortals. However, while that might sound boring and make you think of a bunch of monks sitting around chanting and hoping to spiritually transcend this mortal coil (which is the reality version), in a Xianxia novel this has turned into an excuse to give the main characters magical superpowers they use to fight other Cultivators.
I often describe Xianxia novels as Wuxia meets World of Warcraft, which is essentially what they are. They’re stories where a generic nobody hero levels up by fighting, finding magic items, going on quests, and making friends and allies. And while that might sound dull, in the right hands, it is anything but! Since they’re written as Light Novel serials targeted at a Young Adult market, they tend to be action-driven stories filled with adventure, romance, humor, and more twists than a barrel of eels! They harken back to the days of Horatio Alger Jr. stories of a youth becoming a man, but with a uniquely Chinese spin on them.
Having read a few of them, here are a few common “tropes” or standards that seem to pop up over and over in the majority of Xianxia stories I’ve checked out:
- It takes place in a pseudo-historical Fantasy world often based on old China.
- The main character (MC) is (almost) always a weak young man of low birth.
- Despite being of low birth, the MC has some weird advantage over others in becoming a Cultivator which kicks in around the time the story starts. (Common ones are they are reincarnated from another time and place, they have been transported to a fantasy world from our world, they have some unique skills from a strange background, or they have some magic item that activates around the time the story starts.)
- There is a system of rankings which all Cultivated beings in the setting will follow. (This usually involves a combination of Numbers and something else. So the character might be a “Bronze Rank 3 Fighter” or be working up from “Level One White Mage” to “Level 99 Black Mage”, with the colors designating approximate level of spiritual development.)
- All cultivated beings have some pool of Qi Points (Magic Points) which they use to enhance their physical abilities and cast magical spells. (Often this is called a “Soul Realm” or “Spiritual Energy”.)
- Magic and magic items are plentiful in the setting, but are pretty much only used for fighting, healing and levelling up. (Other uses of magic aren’t even on the radar- it’s all battle, all the time.)
- The setting will be filled with wandering monsters of varying rank (which corresponds to the Ranks of character development as well) and these monsters will produce gemstones when killed that can be used in various ways. (Commonly, to be absorbed by the MC to help further their Leveling.)
- Often the MC will get one of these monsters as a pet early in the story, which will be his companion and level up with him.
- The main character usually has a mentor, but the mentor will be pretty unreliable and tend to disappear for long periods of time. (Only showed up to help the MC get over critical challenges and occasionally as a Deux ex Machina.)
- There are clans/sects/guilds that the character will have to become involved with to get the things they need to level up, but by allying with one group, you gain the enmity of their enemies. (Thus perpetual conflict.)
- Each of the above groups has their own power levels in their society, and there are always top ones which dislike the main character for some reason. (Thus being the high-powered opposition that the MC will need to face toward the end of the story and often they hunt the MC at some point.)
- There are a handful of “Immortals” who have reached top rank in the setting, and the world tends to revolve around them. Some are friendly toward our hero, some will want him dead. The baddest of these will be the “final boss” the hero will need to face to finish his quest.
- There was once a great lost civilization in the setting who littered the setting with lost tombs and hidden places filled with cool magical items and books.
- There will be some variant of a Magic Satchel (usually a bag or ring) which is easy to carry but which allows the MC to store massive amounts of stuff they find with almost no weight.
- There will be “healing pills” which restore health, and “power-up pills” which help in the character’s levelling. (Sometimes the latter are the gems that monsters leave behind when killed.)
- The character will gain some bizarre magical superpowers during their journey that seem weak at first, but level up into something massive over time.
- There is a main female love interest character, but something always keeps them apart. (Usually she is the daughter of one of the clan/sect/guild heads, and will be described as “a fairy” or as the most beautiful woman in the world.)
- In the meantime, the MC will be pursued by a host of other young hotties who will tempt him and keep the drama flowing and try to seduce him at various points in the story.
- The female lead will have some ability that enhances or is complimentary to the male lead.
- Every young man wants to be a warrior/fighter- it’s their dream to fight for their clans.
- Many Xiaxia stories have a “survival of the fittest/strongest” theme to them.
There are other standards, but these tend to be the big ones and the most common ones. Reading that list, you can see what I mean about the similarities between Xianxia stories and MMO’s like WoW. The only thing that makes them different from typical Tolkien-esque settings are the Wuxia twists that tend to be injected into them, and elements of Chinese culture. Also, each author will put his own spin on a number of these elements, and sometimes do some interesting twists on them. (Which will then result in others copying that twist, and innovating it in other directions, keeping the genre evolving.)
Let’s look at a few examples that I’ve enjoyed or checked out:
(Note, many of the more popular ones started as serial Webnovels and have also had comic adaptations, and I will provide links to both when possible.)
Douluo Daolu (aka Battle Continent), which is the story of a martial arts genius from a Wuxia version of our Tang Dynasty named Tang San who commits suicide and finds himself reborn as a young boy in a high-fantasy Xianxia setting. He uses his Wuxia knowledge to give him an edge when he goes to a magic school (ala Hogwarts), where he forms a team of students and helps them all to level up. This one tends to be somewhat lighthearted and a bit silly at times (he goes to the “Shrek Academy”, which is run by “Principal Flanders”) but the core story is interesting. Most Xianxia stories are very individualistic, but this one is a little more team based. It was the first one I read (in comic form), and is actually one of the most popular Xianxia novels. (Comic adaptation here)
Doupo Cangqiong (aka Battle Through the Heavens) is the story of Xiao Yan the young martial arts genius of the Xiao clan. However, shortly after his mother’s death Xiao Yan’s spiritual energy all disappeared and he came the laughing stock of his clan. At the start of the story he discovers that it was because the ring his mother gave him on her deathbed contains the trapped spirit of an ancient immortal ranked alchemist with no name. The alchemist’s spirit was sucking away Xiao Yan’s energy to reform himself as a ghost, and once he has reformed, Xiao Yan regains the use of his spiritual energy. Xiao Yan and the alchemist make a deal- the alchemist will become Xiao Yan’s mentor and teach him, and in trade when Xie Ni gets strong enough he will help the alchemist reform a new body in the physical world. This is good, because Xiao Yan just made a pact with his ex-Fiancée that he will fight a duel to the death with her in three years for his clan’s honor. Again, I read this one in comic form, but I have to say it’s one of my favorites, and I still read each new chapter as soon as I can each week. The alchemy angle adds a surprising amount to the story, and the author never ceases to crank the tension or have interesting twists- so highly recommended! The comic also has nice art, and while more serious than Battle Continent, it still has a good blend of seriousness and humour. (Comic here. Note- the comic translation is way ahead of the novel translation, although both are ongoing.)
I Shall Seal the Heavens is one of the most popular Xianxia serials by the master Xianxia author Er Gen (aka I Eat Tomatoes), and is the story of Meng Hao. A failed young scholar, he gets kidnapped by an Immortal (7th Rank Chi Cultivator Sister Xu) and taken to a mountain retreat to become a servant in the Reliance Sect. Through hard work, he goes from servant to an actual member of the sect (Level 0 to Level 1) and becomes one of the hundreds of students who all strive to improve their rank and get martial arts superpowers. However, once he becomes a student he discovers that the sect functions in a dog-eat-dog sort of system, where the strong prey on the weak, and the weak all too often end up dead. As you might guess, this one is much darker than the previous two, and I’m still deciding if I actually like it. (My tastes are for more swashbuckling material.) Try to give it until Chapter 6 before you make a real decision about it, if for no other reason than to find out what the MC’s magic item can actually do. (It has, perhaps, one of the most unique powers in all of fantasy- which will have you laughing like crazy, or staring at the screen in horror, or perhaps both.)
Coiling Dragon (aka Panlong) was one of the first Xianxia stories translated into English by the webmaster of Wuxiaworld, Ren Wo Xing. It is also special in that it takes place in what is a basically western fantasy setting instead of a Chinese one. Linley Baruch, one of the last members of the once-mighty Baruch clan, discovers that he is the inheritor of a great legacy- he has “dragon blood” running through his veins, but it only gives him potential, he has a long journey to make it reality. If you’re looking for an intro to Xianxia novels, and aren’t sure if you can handle all those Chinese names, then this is probably the one for you. It starts a little slow, but is well written, and picks up as it goes. When people go on the Wuxiaworld.com forums and ask where to start among the many series, this is a name that pops up almost every time (along with I Shall Seal the Heavens) and it has the other advantage of being 100% finished in both English and Chinese.
Tales of Demons and Gods is a series that I both highly recommend reading, and suggest you do not read as your first Xianxia story. Go read something else, maybe two or three something else’s first, and then come to this one. The reason is say this is because this story turns many of the standard Xianxia tropes on their heads, and a lot of the humor of the story comes from the fact the author is both deconstructing the genre and yet writing a perfect example of it at the same time. That said, I love this story, despite all its weirdness and faults, because it never fails to thrill and entertain. The core story is also a bit of genius- Nie Li is a man who watched his city destroyed by a demon army and everyone he ever loved die, he then went on to become one of the greatest warriors of humanity and lived for hundreds of years until he lost a battle with the Dark Sage and was killed. However, after his death, he wakes up during class in the body of his 13 year old self three years before the demon army comes to destroy the city. He has his knowledge from his previous existence, but is stuck in the helpless body of his young self, and now he has three years to save his city. Of course, every change he makes to the timeline makes the new timeline different than the old one, and spawns even new dangers that he didn’t know existed the first time around. (Last time he was a typical teenage commoner from a minor family with no connection to the political or warrior side of the city.) Nie Li is the smartest and most manipulative older-self-in-kid-body bastard since Edogawa Conan, and I can’t wait to read each new chapter. Another plus is that the comic version and text version are in sync with each other on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so you can read the comic first if you want, and then flip over to the text version (which is about 150 chapters ahead) with no issues at all. (Comic here.)
Of course, these are just a few of the Xianxia webnovels being translated right now by sites like the ones listed below, and are just my own entry points. You should probably check those sites out for more information and find something that works best for you. Wuxiaworld also has very active forums, which can answer any questions you have.
[EDIT: Since this article was written, I’ve discovered that my terminology wasn’t quite right, and that I mixed more than one category of Chinese fantasy fiction together when I wrote this article. While some of these stories are Xianxia, and I did get a lot of the common elements correct, there is some debate over what is “real” Xianxia and what is really just high magic Wuxia, or another (sub) genre altogether. For more on this topic, refer to this other post about Chinese Webnovel Genres.]
Yesterday I had a long and fascinating chat with a recently arrived Korean international student about Korean webnovels. Webnovels (books written specifically for the web) are extremely popular in Japan, China, and of course South Korea, and have become a gateway for new and rising authors in those countries. Recently, I’ve found myself reading some (fan translated) Chinese Webnovels (more on this in another post) and so I was curious as to what Korea’s market was like.
The student told me a few interesting things:
- Her primary reading site of choice is NAVER, which is a popular Korean webportal similar to YAHOO, but which offers Webtoons (comics) and Webnovels as part of its lineup. In 2014 alone, Korean NAVER Webnovels had 3.6 Billion views (that’s BILLION, and remember there are only 50 Million people in Korea!).
- The comics are more popular than the novels, but the Novels still have a large audience which she said is mostly female.
- Anyone can write a novel on NAVER, but it sounds like there are three tiers- the stuff that anyone can post, the “Challenge League” and the “Best League”. The latter two being high quality amateurs and professionals who get promotion and profit-sharing with NAVER. (More info here.)
- Works in the Leagues come out in serialized (chapter by chapter) format, with between 1 and 3 chapters released a week.
- For the first four days of release, you have to pay for the chapter (using NAVER Coins) but after four days it becomes free for fans to read. (To me, this is brilliant, because human nature says most fans will pay to read early, as apparently the student does all the time. However, the old chapters are still there to help readers catch up and interest people.)
- Advance chapters cost more or less depending on how popular that story is. So if a story isn’t popular an advance chapter might just be 1 or 2 cents, whereas a super-popular book’s chapter might be upwards of 20 cents.
- Once a book is finished, after a certain time it is archived, which means the first couple chapters will still be free and access to the rest can be rented (for 1 day/1 week/1 month periods) at a cheaper price than reading chapter by chapter.
- The Webnovels themselves are mostly written in the Young Adult oriented Light Novel format, which means they’re mostly dialogue driven with lots of spacing and simpler language.
- The Best League novels not only have covers, but each week there is a piece of art that goes with them showing some scene from that chapter in a slightly iconic style.
- The Best League novels also have an odd quirk I’ve rarely seen before, when major characters have lines of dialogue without any added exposition they just put a tiny portrait picture of the character. So instead of:
- Sun-yi said, “I don’t know who I love, Byung-Gin.”
- it will be…
- [Tiny picture of Sun-yi] “I don’t know who I love, Byung-Gin.”
- Which I imagine increases the reading speed a bit, and gets rid of some dialogue tags.
- Sun-yi said, “I don’t know who I love, Byung-Gin.”
- They’ve solved the Micropayments hurdles by using NAVER Coins, which is real money converted into NAVER credits. Sometimes it’s a 1:1 ratio, but at certain times of year NAVER will offer better ratios to get people to buy more credits. Users can also win credits through contests, loyalty rewards, and other activities that they can then use for buying digital content on the site.
That was pretty much it, but I thought it was quite interesting. As I said, I especially love the part about offering content early for people willing to chip in a few cents, since most people will do exactly that if they want to read the next chapter badly enough. The student says she spends about (the equivalent of) a $1 a week on buying Webnovel chapters, which doesn’t sound like much, but can add up pretty quickly.
It’s sad that nobody in the English speaking world has made the effort to produce such a scheme, because I think it could be a great platform for authors. Right now your options for getting English Ebooks out is pretty much either give it away for free in some form on a site like Wattpad or sell it as a complete volume on Amazon or Apple iBooks. In theory, you could use Patreon to get readers to support you, and let the Patreon subscribers have chapters a week earlier, but the problem is that Patreon doesn’t work in cents, but in dollars, and it’s pretty clumsy.
What’s needed is a system like this- where vetted authors can make money in a profit-sharing system with the website and not-yet-vetted authors can practice their craft in a place where they get a wide potential audience. (Possibly also having the option of making some money as they write as well, depending on how it was set up.)
In any case, I thought it was an interesting system, and worth sharing. If you’re interested in reading some Korean novel translations, you can find some links here in an older Reddit thread. (There aren’t a lot of them out there, but a few.)
Back in the days when I was young (many moons ago), and when video games looked like this…
…The closest thing we had to single-player role playing games came in the form of game/books with titles like Fighting Fantasy, TSR’s Endless Quest books, and of course the most famous line of them all- Choose Your Own Adventure. These text-based Gamebooks (with varying amount of accompanying illustrations) had winding story paths that allowed readers to explore stories as they wished and experience what it was like to go on adventures of all kinds. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Post Apocalypse, Superhero- any genre that involved adventure was one they covered in these very popular book series.
Of course, eventually, Computer RPGs and Console RPGs came along, and this type of adventure Gamebook faded from view. That is, until now. Now, some companies have chosen to revive this style of game as Apps for mobile gaming, and Choice of Games is at the forefront of this new take on an old idea.
From their About Us page:
Choice of Games LLC is a California limited-liability company dedicated to producing high-quality, text-based, multiple-choice games. We produce games in house, beginning with Choice of the Dragon and Choice of Broadsides. We have also developed a simple scripting language for writing text-based games, ChoiceScript, which we make available to others for use in their projects, and we host games produced by other designers using ChoiceScript on our website. Some of our games are available for free on the web. We also produce mobile versions of our games that can be played on iPhones, Android phones, and other mobile devices.
We believe that text-based games are an underutilized format within modern computer games. Just as motion pictures, radio dramas, and television supplement books without rendering them obsolete, similarly modern graphic-based games cover only part of the computer gaming landscape. By using text, we can interact with the imagination in different ways from a graphics-based game. We can also allow game designers to quickly and inexpensively produce games in comparison with graphics-based games.
Of course, now these text-adventures can include things like music and other interactive aspects, not just the occasional picture. Bring the experience even more to life, and letting players get immersed in a unique reading experience. They too have quite a variety of genres, and since the games are free to play online (they charge for the mobile app versions) do you…
1) Head over and check Choice of Games out. (click here)
2) Read a little about the history of Gamebooks. (click here)
3) Rediscover the Fighting Fantasy Gamebook line (click here)
Although he was not entirely serious at the time, Cyril Northcote Parkinson once declared one of life’s truisms- “The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.”
What does this mean?
Well, let me give two examples:
1) If you only have $10 for food that week, you will find a way to make do with $10 worth of food, but if you have $100 you will spend $100 on food that week even if you could have made do with $10.
2) If you say you have one day to get a project done, it will get done in one day. If you say the same project will take a week, it will take you a week to get it done.
Because of many factors, be it laziness, practicality, or procrastination, it’s just human nature to make maximum use of resources like money or time for our own convenience, even if using them more wisely might bring us long-term benefits. Maybe it’s a side-effect of short-term thinking, or our selfish natures, but this is a problem that keeps popping up again and again, and often we let this side of ourselves keep us from doing what we want to do. This is what’s known as Parkinson’s Law.
I’ll give you an example (the one which got me thinking about this topic)- National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is a month where would-be writers are encouraged to pump out a 50,000 word novel (or 50,000 words of a novel) in an effort to force themselves to write. It creates a time limit, sets a clear goal, and forces writers (who are horrible procrastinators) to actually commit to using that month to produce the book they’ve always wanted to write. The idea is that 1,667 words a day (50,000 roughly divided by 31) is an easily achievable goal for almost any writer, even one with a day job, and if they just reach that goal consistently for 31 days they’ve got their book finished!
It’s a great idea, and for many people it works. It gets butts in seats and words on the screen, and overcomes many of the hurdles that writers tend to find themselves facing in an effort to make their dreams into reality. But, what really made me think was what writer Matt Ahlschlager did- he finished NaNoWriMo in 1 day! In fact, he did it in less than a day, while bogging about it as he went, and this November he did it 3 times!
So why does it take other writers 31 days? Yes, Matt is a fast typer, but couldn’t most people carve out a weekend (2 whole days) and produce a book, especially if they wrote “Chinese Style”?
Isn’t this just an example of Parkinson’s Law in effect? Writers give themselves 31 days, so it takes 31 days, but it doesn’t HAVE to. Writer Michael Moorcock wrote an essay called “How to Write a Book in 3 Days“, and it outlines exactly how to write a book in one weekend. Even most professional writers (the prolific ones) often talk about writing a novel in 2-3 weeks at most, and author Rachel Aaron discusses how to do it in one week by writing 10,000 words a day. It can be done.
Think about it- if you had 2 days to write a 50,000 word novel or pay a $100,000 penalty, could you do it? I bet you could. I bet most people with at least some writing talent could, especially if given a bit of preparation.
So why don’t you?
Every book you write is a potential “lottery ticket” which could actually make you $100,000 (in the long run, if it sells well) and the more stories you write, the better your chances are of writing that winning book. So why are you capable of that kind of productivity only if it’s penalty? Why can’t you do it as a reward? (Yes, I know, one is certain, and one is a gamble, but if you don’t write anything you’re guaranteed to make nothing from it.)
It’s this thinking that got me wondering about how writers could find ways to use Parkinson’s Law to their advantage. If this is a part of human nature, how can we “hack” it to benefit ourselves as writers and make ourselves more productive and profitable in the process?
So let’s explore this “law” and see what it can do for our creativity. When I have time, I’m going to write a series of posts on this topic, and my thoughts on how we can benefit from it.
First up- TIME!
My brand new editing website is now live and I’m accepting clients for story editing, proofreading and general editing services. I’ve decided to take my 17 years as a writer, editor and teacher and put them to good use helping other people make their fiction the best it can be. I love telling stories, and I love helping other people tell stories too, so it’s a great new direction.
If you or someone you know is in need of an editor, please send them my way. My rates are reasonable, my fingers are fast, and my red pen is always sharp!
Being a self-published writer is never an easy thing, it requires you to be half-writer/half-marketer to succeed, and the ever changing self-publishing world is full of all sorts of little tricks and traps. The traps are mostly about people trying to take your money for “services” you may or may not need, and the tricks are all about getting your book seen by the largest number of people. (And thus improving your chances of people buying your books!)
It doesn’t help that Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform is itself a giant labyrinth filled with ever changing rules and channels. One recent change is to their “Refine By” sub-categories, which can make a big difference in how your books are shown and presented.
Normally, when you self-publish a book on KDP you get to pick two categories for that book to be in. Say, “Romance>Historical” and “Romance”, and your book would be cataloged under those two categories and subcategories. The problem is that each category already has a certain number of titles in it, arrayed by their ranking on the site as a whole and other factors Amazon doesn’t reveal. So, for example, Romance>Historical has 24,420 ebooks in it at the moment, and Romance itself has 194,408 ebooks.
Good luck getting anyone to notice your nice new book in those piles!
Now, to make things a bit easier on authors, you also get seven “keywords” (which can actually be more than one word) that you can pick to describe your book. Traditionally more keywords could be added later by readers as well, and Amazon would use your keywords and theirs to add your book to a few extra “Refined by” sub-categories that you could only get to by Amazon employees adding your book to them.
Say, for example- Romance>Military. It’s a sub-category that exists, but they had to manually add you to that list if they thought you belonged and you didn’t have any say about it. Being included in that list could also be huge, because instead of competing with 195,408 ebooks the Romance category, your book might now be one of 3,128 books moving up and down within Romance>Military group. This could really help up your odds of being noticed and your books being sold.
And now, Amazon has changed their system. Instead of them adding you, if you use certain keywords when you register your book they act as passwords that automatically get your books added to these select lists! For example, if I included any of the the words “military, navy, army, soldier” among my keywords when I added my book to the Romance category my book would automatically be added to the Romance>Military “Refined by” sub-category. You can find a complete list of the “passwords” and more details on the KDP Selecting Browse Categories page, which you can then use to more accurately get your books into the sub-categories you think they belong to.
These will get your books into the “Refine by” lists you can see under the main category lists when you’re Browsing on Amazon, and those are definitely places you want to be to reach the most eyeballs. I’ve seen “Refine by” lists that have as few as 1 or 2 books- I kid you not! Can you imagine what getting your book onto a list that small would do for your chances of being noticed?
Of course, this is all about gaming the system, and I feel a little guilty talking about it. But then again, Amazon isn’t really hiding this, so why not take advantage of it while it’s still an advantage?
Amazon has just announced their new “Netflix for Books” called Kindle Unlimited. You pay US$9.95 a month and you can download and read all the content you want to your heart’s content. For readers it sounds like a great deal, but for writers it’s a mixed bag. Either way, it’s doomed to failure or at least in for a lot of hard times.
Well, the first thing you need to understand is that Kindle Unlimited (KU) is part of the Kindle Select program for writers. Kindle Select is a bundle of incentives that Amazon gives writers to publish their eBooks exclusively on Kindle. You promise to only have your book on Amazon for 90 days, and they give you a bunch of extra ways to promote your book and profit from it. One of the biggest parts of this is membership in the Kindle Lending Library, wherein members of Amazon Prime can “borrow” one book each month for “free”.
Actually, the reader doesn’t pay (beyond what they paid for Amazon Prime membership), but Amazon does pay the writer for each borrow. Amazon does this by having a giant monthly pool of money (say $1 million a month) which gets divided among the Kindle Lending Library authors based on the number of borrows they have. So if there was only one book borrowed from the Kindle Lending Library this month, that one author would get $1 million because it was only divided by one. Two authors having books borrowed would get $500,000 each, and so on, with the real numbers being in the hundreds of thousands of borrows and the actually profit per book likely less than $1 per borrow. (I’m pulling most of these numbers out of my butt, however you still get the idea of how it all works.)
However, Select has been actually less profitable and worthwhile for independent authors the longer it’s gone on, mostly because of the sheer number of people in it. So, Amazon is constantly trying to come up with new ways to incentivize authors to join Select, and one of these things is Kindle Unlimited. Basically, all Select books are now part of Kindle Unlimited, and a book “bought” by a KU user counts towards the Kindle Lending Library Pool of money, so in theory Kindle Select authors now how two great ways to access Amazon’s Monthly Money Pool and get a bigger slice of the pie. Which on the surface seems like a great incentive to join.
However, by linking the two programs to the same money pool, they may have just doomed both the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited.
Let me explain.
With the Kindle Lending Library, each member could only get a limited number of “free” ebooks a month, so they chose carefully which ones they read. However, with Kindle Unlimited, you can read as many books as you want, and each of them counts towards a share of the money pie, and there’s no limit to the number of books an author can sell. This creates a huge problem for Kindle that I don’t think they saw coming.
For example. Let’s say I’ve got a book on the market that has 31 chapters. If I was a smart man, what I would do is take that 31 chapter book and divide it into 31 mini-books, which I would then put up on Kindle Unlimited as a “serial”. Then, I would go over to Fiver and pay a stranger who has a Kindle Unlimited account $5 to “read” and click through each of those 31 chapters. (Which might take them minutes, so totally worth $5.) They make $5, and I get 31 shares of the pie, which is likely more than $5 in value- at say 50 cents a read, that’s $15.50- triple my money! Even with my initial cost out, that’s $10.50 in profit.
Of course, I can take this even further. Say my book has 350 pages! Well, that’s 350 mini-books, and 350 shares of the money pie! Even at each share being worth 2 cents, that’s still a profit! Good times! And that’s just one Fiver person doing it, soon there will be dozens or hundreds of them offering this service, because they get $5 for 10 minutes work, or $30/hour doing this. (Or more!) I don’t even need real readers, or ratings or reviewers to make this scheme work! I can be doing this over and over, and making bigger and bigger profits as I do it.
So, while the people who enroll in Kindle Unlimited with their books are getting 1 share if they honestly enroll their book, I’m getting 31 (or 350) shares of that same pie. Which quickly means that it’s stupid for them not to do the same thing I’m doing, and in fact if they want to profit they have no choice but to start gaming the system and fighting for their slice of the pie just like me!
A few further thoughts:
- It will quickly become impossible to make a profit on it, so nobody will enroll their books there. No content means nobody will use Kindle Unlimited.
- Amazon could make KU invite only to stop this, but if they did so then it would defeat the whole incentive to get people to be part of Select.
- Amazon could set minimum lengths of books, but this is irrelevant since the point isn’t the content, but the number of “reads” a book gets, which is meaningless in this scheme. I can fill books with gibberish and still profit from them using this system.
- Amazon could ban “Fiver Readers”, but how to spot them? And they can just make new accounts and keep doing it again and again, whereas Amazon will quickly find their own resources limited. (Unless they employ armies of checkers, which gets expensive.)
- This will kill the Kindle Lending Library, because it means the share prices there will tumble down to nothingness.
So, as you can see, Kindle Unlimited isn’t just a race to the bottom for Authors, it’s actually a race to the bottom for Amazon. It’s too gameable to work, and by the time they figure out a solution, nobody will care.
One of the hottest names in Science Fiction today is Ken Liu, a Chinese-American programmer, lawyer and writer who seems to jump into everything he does with heart and amazing dedication. He has won the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards more than once for his short fiction, and recently announced he’s going into Epic Fantasy with his debut novel The Grace of Kings due out next year from Simon and Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint Saga Press. He’s a rising star who blends both Asian and Western sensibilities into his work, taking advantage of both to produce unique works.
I first encountered Ken’s work when the sci-fi and fantasy blog Io9 shared one of his stories, The Perfect Match, that was published in Lightspeed in 2012. While not a perfect story, it extrapolated the idea behind Apple’s Siri to its logical and disturbing conclusion with the personal assistant Tilly in a way that really caught my attention. I have since recommended his work to many of my media students to read as a glimpse into the future, because I think he’s captured it all too well.
Today, after hearing about Ken’s new novel, I wandered to his personal website for more information and was delighted to discover that he has placed 14 of his published and award-winning short stories (and more!) up for anyone to read for free on his website. So check them out, and learn why the name Ken Liu is on lips of both many a fan and publisher alike.