20 Tips for Writing Successful Webnovels

There are a number of survival strategies that Webnovel authors use to try to keep on top of their relentless workload while keeping their audience happy. These are strategies that any serial writer can learn from, although some of them are fairly specific to this meat grinder approach to writing.

Keep the story simple – Webnovels have extremely simple long term goal-driven plots. That goal might be “become a god” or “win the love of a good man,” but they’re always built around simple and direct Spines of Action which naturally give the author a lot of room to expand and play with.

Keep it primal – The motivations of Webnovel characters (like any good fictional characters) are primal ones that any audience member will understand because they’re things that all humans feel. A desire for revenge, to protect their family, to uphold a personal reputation, to save someone, to gain love, to regain something which was lost, to make money, to build something greater- these are all primal motivations which let the reader and lead character connect.

Be your lead – wYour lead character is a power fantasy alternate world version of yourself- own it. They’re you, simplified, slightly generic, and given a few positive traits for the audience to connect with. Don’t spend time agonizing over the perfect lead, just get in there and write your fantasy- because others have the same fantasies and will relate to you. Not only that, it’s what will make your character feel unique and different from the other leads- you are the secret sauce!

Make sure your lead is active – Your lead character is the driving engine of your story- they need to want something, and want it bad. They can’t be passive or unsure- they WANT it, and everything they do is in service to achieving that goal. Your story is about how the lead character achieves their goal- everything else is secondary.

Hit the ground running – You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so the saying goes. Good advice for writers too, as audiences have little patience for a story to warm up, especially in Webfiction. The central plot, motivation, character, goal and other essentials must be delivered in the first few chapters or the audience is going to be looking to get their entertainment fix somewhere else.

Stay audience focussed – The goal of a Webnovel writer, first and foremost, is to entertain their audience, and give them that hit of dopamine they crave. Plot, character, fine prose and witty dialog are all secondary and just there to keep the audience happy, and no trick, no matter how cliche or crude is off the table if it keeps the audience coming back for more. Chapters must always end on dramatic questions, and no plot twist is too wild if the audience enjoys it. This isn’t writing War and Peace, this is producing fast junk food entertainment.

Power fantasies sell – The audience is there to have their emotions stroked, and the simplest way to do this is to have the main characters act out the fantasies of the audience. (See Power Fantasies)

Keep it PG – The sad truth is that general audience stories make more money exactly because they’re targeted at the widest possible audience. The more people you turn-off/offend, the less people are going to be reading your story. Swearing, sex, torture, graphic violence and other dark content are just going to turn people away, especially teens who are the target audience of most of these stories. A little dash of these can add spice to a story, but too much will have readers heading for the doors.

Revenge plots sell – The strong bully the weak, the hero steps in and gets revenge on the bully, the audience eats it up and cheers. Rinse and repeat. (See the Righteous Avenger Plot for a more detailed version of this.)

Sexual fantasies sell – Cater to the sexual and emotional desires of your audience if you want to keep them coming back. The love interests must always have some sexualized selling points (large breasts, gorgeous eyes, beautiful shape, etc) and other traits which stimulate the audience on a personal level. Don’t be afraid to dip into sexual fetishes, but not too deeply. The temptation of sex sells much better than the act itself. (Unless you’re specifically writing for an audience that expects sex.)

Harems work – A main character who finds their love and commits is boring, but one who must choose between many different wonderful options keeps the reader interested in who they’ll end up with. Not only that, it lets the writer crowd the story with a whole array of walking sexual fantasies for the character and audience to lust after. (See Harems for more detail.) Everywhere the main character goes, they should be encountering beautiful potential love interests.

Everybody loves a winner – The man character is a power fantasy stand-in for the reader, and the reader hates to lose. If your main character starts to lose, the audience won’t be into it and will wander off to read about some other winner. Characters can suffer setbacks in their goals and shouldn’t always get what they want, but in the long run their path should only go in one direction- up!

Luck over effort – In many Webfiction genres, the main character is on a long and hard road, one which is normally overcome by blood, sweat, and determination. The problem is that involves a lot of boring time doing actual work, which is not really a lot of fun for the audience or that dramatic. So instead, while the main character should look like they’re working hard, they should actually be getting a non-stop stream of lucky breaks that let them skip ahead to the good stuff. Audiences love this, because it makes them feel like they’re one lucky break away from success in their own lives, and that hard work is overrated. But, you still need to pay lip service to doing work, so the main character should still do something to earn each of their lucky breaks, just things which are dramatic and interesting. (Like rescuing people, exploring ruins, winning duels, and other things which allow them to seem to earn their next power-up.)

There’s always someone bigger – The writer should establish right from the start that there’s a hierarchy, and the main characters place in it. (Usually near the bottom.) This gives the character a distant goal to work towards, and helps the audience understand the challenge that the main character is facing, making it seem more difficult. (Which in turn makes the audience more interested in seeing how the main character manages to overcome that massive disadvantage.)

Start the main character with a handicap – The main character should never start average- they should start below average. Whether it’s because of a curse, poor health, being orphaned, born to the lowest caste, or whatever- they should always start in the worst possible place. This creates instant audience sympathy because we love underdogs and feel connected to them. It also makes the thrill of their success all the more sweet.

Style is overrated – The point is to keep cranking out interesting stories as fast as you can, not tell them in some great and flashy style. Find a tight, concise storytelling style that lets you write fast and use that for writing your Webnovel, don’t worry about wowing the audience with your prose. Just tell the damn story, and if that means telling and not showing, then so be it. As long as it’s interesting, the audience doesn’t care about your style. (But they do care about grammar and spelling, so make sure those are still solid.)

Know your genre tropes – Genre tropes are tropes because people love them, and they work. No matter how many lists of cliches are made, or TV Tropes debates happen, the truth is that those tropes are there for a reason, so don’t avoid them- embrace them. Know what they are, and be ready to use them to keep your audience happy, no matter how much the critics may moan.

Write ahead – You will always get sick, or have writers block, or a family issue, or whatever else life decides to throw at you. This isn’t a possibility- this is factual reality like death, taxes, and people bothering you when you’re trying to write the best parts of your story. There is only one solution for this- write several chapters ahead of what you release, with a minimum of three chapters in the bank. For serials, where you’re responding to reader feedback, too many chapters ahead can cause trouble in case something doesn’t work the way you planned, but not writing ahead at all is asking for skipped release dates. And, as any serial content producer can tell you, the road to hell is paved in missed deadlines.

Listen to your audience – For most fiction writing, the best advice is to mostly ignore your audience and just write what you want. For Webnovels, the point is to write what the audience wants to read, and the only way to do that is to pay attention to whatever feedback you’re getting from them. Learn what your audience likes and doesn’t like, and then give them more of the good stuff. However, do remember that sometimes not giving them what they want until the last possible second produces better results than just giving it to them right away. (Also, don’t lose sight of your central story goal.)

Do some loose planning – While you need to be nimble and ready to change the story to suit your audience tastes, it’s not a bad idea to plan the story out very loosely from start to rough finish. A two or three page synopsis is fine, and it can make the world of difference when writer’s block comes down the line. Also remember that long stories are like eating elephants- they’re done in stages, one bite at a time. Plan a series of steps, not a whole big block. That lets you slip in other steps or re-arrange things as you go.

The Task Story – A “New” Genre that’s

One of the more fascinating things about the internet is its ability to highlight so many different facets of human nature. The internet has brought out the best of humanity in things like charity drives and campaigns for positive change around the world, and it’s brought out the worst of humanity as well, in numerous sites filled with anger, hate, deception and depravity where you can find out worst sides on display.

It would be too far to say the internet has made us more human, but it has definitely shown us the true nature of what it is to be human in many ways.

One of those ways is how it’s changing fiction.

While in the past, genre fiction (action, crime, romance, erotica, horror, etc) was something that people considered a guilty pleasure and tended to read in the privacy of their own homes where nobody would judge them for not reading “real” books, now in the Kindle ebook age, genre fiction has exploded beyond anyone’s expectations. In fact, when it comes to ebooks, genre fiction tends to be closer to the rule than the exception, far outselling what it did in print, and leaving “literature” in the dusty bookshelves.

Nowhere is this more true than in the romance genre, which was already the world’s best selling genre of fiction, but thanks to ebooks women have been consuming romance in such large quantities that they have been destroying discount ebook and audiobook sites. Sites like Scribd which have tried to become Netflix for eBooks have found that romance readers have overwhelmed their budgets and killed many one flat fee schemes for digital media.

There’s something about romance fiction that women can’t seem to get enough of, just ask any bookseller who was around when Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were at their peak, something which appeals to the most basic parts of the female brain.

Not that this is a surprise to anyone who has looked at neuroscience research, or psychology, or sociology, or…dare I say it…biology. Test after test, study after study come back with one simple truth, the truth we all know but often aren’t supposed to say in our hyper-egalitarian age…

Men and women are different.

Not better, or worse, just different.

And, one of the ways that your average man, and your average woman (notice, I’m not saying all men or all women, just the average one) are different is that while women are oriented towards people, men are oriented towards things. Or, to be more specific for what we’re talking about here- woman are relationship-oriented while men are goal-oriented. This is why women’s communication centres are larger than men’s, and men’s centers for motor and spacial skills are more developed than women’s. Men’s brains are literally optimized for dealing with tasks, while women’s brains are optimized for dealing with other people.

Thus, women are drawn to romance and dramas like bees to pollen, because these stories stimulate their natural desires and inclinations. Similarly, men avoid romance and dramas like the plague, but give them a good goal-oriented quest story or one built around plot and action, and they’re ready to line up just like the ladies.

In both cases, these stories stimulate the subconscious desires that come with being a member of each sex, and appeal to those same needs. Stories give us information we need to survive and navigate in our respective domains, and so men are drawn to stories about physical conflict and challenges, and women are drawn to stories about social conflict and challenges. Our brains are trying to learn more about the world from these stories, and we’re drawn to stories that seem to give us the things we need.

Thus, as a consequence of all this, women are drawn to romance because it appeals to their subconscious need to further understand human interaction and find the optimal partner and father for their children.

But, what of men?

As noted above, men are thing and goal oriented. They are designed to find, seek, hunt, build, fight and create- all things which are connected to the world around them. The most popular male genres like Action, Fantasy, and Westerns are, and always have been built around those broad actions- about a man who reaches out and tames the world around him.

Consequently, many have equated the Action genre (in its many forms dating back to Beowulf, to the pulp fiction of the 20th century, superhero comics, action movies, etc) as being the male version of the romance novel. However, with the rise of ebooks, we’re now seeing a new genre emerge, one which might more literally be called the male equivalent of the romance novel because it goes to the same parts of the male brain the romance novel does in the female brain-

The Task Story.

Simply put, the Task Story is a story which is there to stimulate the unconscious male desire to achieve goals and tasks. It’s targeting the same parts of the male psyche that are the reason why most men have “hobbies” or “projects” that they feel compelled to do or drawn to. They are no-nonsense stories built very simply around the structure of a character with a very clear task to perform, and watching the character attempt to the best of their ability to perform that task. (In the past I have called these Creative Procedurals, but I’m starting to think simply calling them Task Stories might be a better choice.)

A Task Story almost everyone reading this is already familiar with that came out recently a book and movie is The Martian. In that story, an astronaut is stranded on Mars, left behind after an accident, and must figure out how to use the tools and knowledge of science to survive until help can come in the distant future. The structure of the story is very very simple, a man and a task, and that forms the whole backbone of the story, with no need for drama or other interactions except as it relates to the task he’s trying to perform. (Of course, this is just an updated version of Robinson Crusoe, another Task Story of the same line.)

Want more examples?

The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell- a man wakes up from suspended animation and through a series of circumstances ends up in command of a fleet deep in enemy space trying to get home. It’s eleven books or riveting sci-fi action, 90% of which are set on three rooms in the same battlecruiser, and most of that with him in the command seat of the ship. What drama there is basically just padding for the sake of drama (and at times nails-on-a-chalkboard bad), but the heart of the book is just a man trying to complete the “simple” but extremely hard task of getting the ships home.

A final Sci-fi example which has blown up recently is the incredible We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor, which is about a man named Bob Johansen from present day whose memories are used as the template for a future space probe going out into the stars. The probe can build copies of itself with the materials it finds in other star systems, which results in legion of “Bobs” traveling, exploring and fighting to save humanity from extinction. However, through it all, it’s just about the Bobs trying to accomplish the very hard tasks of saving humanity, one step at a time.

Not that Task Stories have to be science fiction, the entire modern-set Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is nothing but Reacher going from one task to the next, each of them with him applying his massive skill set to dealing with the situation involved. This too has spawned countless clones, because there’s something about this simple, solid narrative structure of “a man with a problem to solve” that appeals to the male brain and makes for compelling fiction when done right.

Another place to find this on display which the internet has really highlighted is Webfiction, where you need look no farther than the newest exploding subgenre litRPGs to find a whole genre almost entirely written around Task Stories. In the vast majority of these stories, a character with a greater goal is dumped into a virtual video game world and then proceeds to work their way up the system to achieve that goal. The progenitor of these is Legendary Moonlight Sculptor from South Korea, but most people are more familiar with names like Ready Player One and Sword Art Online.

Not that it’s just litRPGs, Asian webfiction for men is currently dominated by a variety of Task Stories. From the Chinese Xianxia “Cultivator” stories where a young man goes from being a nobody to (literally) a god, to the Japanese Isekai stories where a young man (or occasionally woman, but they’re still mostly written and read by men) gets dumped in a fantasy world and must complete a quest of some kind.

Sites hosting English fan translations of these stories, like Wuxiaworld and Gravity Tales are getting tens of millions of hits by readers…a day. And, these English language numbers are tiny compared to the readerships they have in their native lands.

And, almost all of these stories are super-simple in structure- the character has a task and they go through the steps needed to complete that task, meeting challenges along the way. Drama and romance are secondary things at best, because that isn’t the point, the point is a character trying to accomplish a goal and watching they work their way through that procedure. Other characters are only there to help the main character in their goal, either by providing resources or motivating them in some way (which is usually the female love interest’s sole purpose in most of these stories, if there’s one at all).

Compare this with the traditional Hollywood three-act-structure we see most narratives based on, and you’ll see the difference. In those stories, the character goes on a journey of personal change, where they try to accomplish some goal, discover flaws within themselves preventing them from achieving that goal, and then accomplishes the goal having overcome those personal flaws. The focus in those stories, which are designed to achieve a balance between male and female interests, are mostly on the character’s personal inner journey and change, linking it with external events.

However, with the Task Story, there doesn’t need to be an inner conflict or journey of any kind. The point of the story isn’t how the character is changing, but how the character changes the world around them. The character is just there to serve as a viewpoint as they go through the task, and we the audience experience the task progression through their eyes.

So, how does the story maintain interest without the interpersonal drama?

Well, going back to my article on The S.P.I.N.E. of Every Good Story, the story simply focuses on other things from the options of Skills, Perception, Information, Novelty and Emotion. Generally, Task Stories tend to focus on Skills, Information and Novelty. Jack Reacher is a perfect example of this, reading a Jack Reacher novel is an exercise in learning about guns, unarmed combat, infiltration techniques, geography, geology, psychology, and a whole pile of other information. The author is constantly filling each chapter with interesting (and always relevant) bits of information about the world around Reacher, and you can learn a lot from any of his adventures while being surprised.

This desire to learn is stronger than most people realize, and can sustain interest in a story as it goes. Just look at the 7.6 million subscribers to the Primitive Technology YouTube channel, a channel which is just about a single man trying to recreate various pieces of technology from the ground up. It’s a literal example of a non-fiction Task Story in action, and it’s wildly popular.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be personal transformation or things like deep introspection in a Task Story, but it isn’t the point, so those things are often left off the table. In many cases, deep questions about philosophy would get in the way, so they’re just ignored in favor of presenting big challenges for the main character to overcome. These are truly external stories, and internal drama would mostly go against the point.

Whether these types of stories will continue to flourish is anyone’s guess, but considering that they’re also some of the oldest kinds of stories (Jason and the Argonauts anyone?), they’re definitely not going away, and their appeal only seems to be rising with the explosion of litRPG stories and Light Novels. They’re also a type of story that favors younger authors, who may not have a strong grasp of drama, but know how to write a simple story about a man (or woman) on a mission. If they can do it well, they can find an audience, and work their way to the top.

Hey, that sounds like a fun Task!

Have fun!

Rob

DNA PODCAST 058 – LIGHT NOVELS WITH JUSTUS R STONE

Sword Art Online LN Cover

In this episode, Don and Rob head East with Justus R. Stone, YouTube Light Novel Reviewer, to discuss the ins and outs of the Japanese and American Light Novel markets. Along the way, Justus takes the pair on a tour of the origins of Light Novels, why they’re growing in popularity in English, and how Light Novels have become linked with web-fiction. All this, and the answer to the question Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, is waiting for you in this episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Write! Shonen Manga!

It’s finally here! Six months ago, I started a “small” project to write a short book on writing Shonen Manga style stories. Now, 310 pages and 90,000 words later it’s finished and available on AmazonKobo, iBooks, and most other retailers. It’s even available in print!

If you’ve ever wanted to know how the Japanese put together their amazing comics like Naruto, One Piece, and others, this book unpacks it all for you, and gives you the techniques you need to write your own manga and manga-like stories. Whether you’re a beginner or master wordsmith, this book will help you understand the power of the IDEA story structure and use it to make your stories shine.

Normally the book is $7.99, but until December 7th, the ebook’s only 99 cents! Get it now, and discover how to unleash your inner manga creator!

DNA Podcast 034 -What are litRPGs?

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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!

Chinese Web Novel Genres

17Kcover

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.

Here are the actual categorizations from the massive Chinese webfiction site 17K, as translated by Epithetic:

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 FictionLight 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.

Rob

Xianxia- The Fantasy Genre that’s Dominating Chinese Web Fiction

Pan Long (Coiling Dragon)

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…

crocodileprincesscover

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.)

battle continent cover

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)

battlecontinentcover3

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.)

issthcover

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 cover

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.

TDG001

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.

Wuxiaworld

Novel Updates (Xianxia Category)

Dreams of Jianghu: Novel Translations

Jade Water Paradise: Romances, Wuxia and Xianxia Fiction

Shiroyukineko Translations

[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.]

Enjoy!

Rob

How Koreans get their Web Novels

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.
  • 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.)

Choose Your Own Adventure 2.0

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)

 

Parkinson’s Law for Writers- Introduction

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!

Rob