This essay may also be found in the back of Nameless, my first published novel.
Talking With Twenty Five Hundred
You have to want to write, I say, not to want to be a writer.
– Alex Haley
“Incunabula” is the term for, among other things, a book printed in the infancy of the printing press. It is perhaps most well known to readers of the late great Dorothy Sayers, whose hero Lord Peter was a collector of incunabulae. The word is fascinating to me: it implies a birth, an incubation, a step from the restriction of knowledge in enclosed communities to its expansion into the wider world. Books are power, and incunabulae symbolize a transfer of power to the masses.
In the summer of 2008 I was playing with the concept of the “next incunabulae,” the free dissemination of information on the internet. I was writing a story in which several characters are dropped into The Library, a super-library in the fifty-first century, courtesy of Doctor Who. One of the characters was about to go exploring and, being a lover of books, he wanted to look at new turning-points for literature:
“Fine,” Nicholas says. “If you need me I’ll be in Extribula.”
“Exwhat?” Donna asks.
“Look it up!” Nicholas calls over his shoulder, wondering actually how many volumes the OED now runs to. Extribulum – ex, out from; tribulum, a machine. The opposite of the incunabula. Works that exist in electrical form, at the cusp of the rise of the e-published book.
At the time I was just messing around, not to mention using some truly degenerate dog-Latin, but it did seem useful. It became a handy term and acquired a definition, as these things do. Extribulum, plural extribula, are books published first on the internet – not books merely created on a computer, but books whose first printing was entirely digital and which were only afterwards printed in hardcopy (“dead tree”) format.
About eight months after the term extribulum was coined, I dusted off an old manuscript I’d written years before, gave it a brush-up, and decided to post it for critique with the intent to eventually self-publish. I have some unique advantages over the average online talking-head, in that
I have a wide readership: according to my stats, about 2500 people read my online journal regularly, which means I am capable of asking for the thoughts of a diverse public without the fetters placed on a published writer. A professional, especially an established one, usually trusts an editor or a very small group of readers, and only gets to hear criticism from a wide and self-selecting readership after the book has been printed. Which must be very frustrating, really.
Giving literature away for free and then expecting and embracing reader-criticism is not a tradition of any kind. It is not something that is done in the literary world. Why should it be? Most people who sell literature for a living can’t afford to give it away for free. And, to be honest, it’s not like I planned what happened when I began posting Nameless. I just I wanted to share a story and see what everyone thought of it, and instead I opened a dialogue about structure and interpretation and the author-reader relationship, about how to rewrite a book based on the thoughts and feelings of readers. Throughout the process, people said to me, Isn’t this weird? Have you ever seen anything like this? and I haven’t.
What we did when Nameless first went up wouldn’t even have been possible in the days before an easily-accessible internet, or if it was possible would have been heinously expensive. I don’t know that a published writer has ever tried putting a “finished” work in front of the public and saying, “Tell me what’s wrong.” Very few writers have ever even attempted to overhaul a published work because of public criticism. Stephen King released an extended-cut of The Stand, and Marion Zimmer Bradley rewrote a book she published twenty years before, but those are rare exceptions and at any rate not quite the same. George Lucas may have revamped Star Wars, but I’m pretty sure he did it over the protest of his fans, not in response to them.
With Nameless, I said from the start that this was a book I intended to publish, a completed book that I wanted feedback on. This gave people a mindset with which to approach it: they treated it as a “real” book they wanted to discuss as if they were reading it at a book club. They pulled no punches, and this is a better book because of it. I’m a measurably better writer than I was at the start.
Chapter by chapter, people told me what was wrong – sometimes a typo, sometimes a major structural issue. I learned what I was doing right, which is a heady sensation, but more importantly I learned where my weak points were. My dialogue to action ratio was off, my characterization sometimes suffered from a lack of depth, and my cryptic arcs weren’t always sharp enough to draw a reader in from the start. The importance of the first chapter in a book has never been lost on me, but now I understand how to build something immediate. Not everyone is going to trust a writer long enough to get to the good stuff. A relationship with the reader has to be forged early.
An author can’t accept all criticism wholesale, of course. You have to pick and choose, but your readers tend to know which way the wind is blowing. If a dozen people notice a single flaw, then it’s not a single flaw. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed. There was some give and take, some debate, but overwhelmingly the advice was good advice because it was readers giving it. Readers know what throws them out of a book, or why they don’t trust a character or theme.
It requires a great deal of self-possession to undergo this process and come out sane. Even if the majority of your readers like your book, you are never going to please all of the people all of the time. If you try, you’ll end up with a very bad book. Still, you still need to appreciate all viewpoints. You might not act on to what someone says, but you need to take it into account, process it, and thank them for it. They are offering you their honest opinion, which is a precious thing to a writer.
All of this requires control on the part of the writer: controlling a knee-jerk “but you don’t get it!” reaction, controlling impulses brought on by reader-response, learning how to direct and manipulate a readership that is responding in real-time. I don’t mean manipulation in a negative sense at all, but rather in the sense of guiding your readers along the path you’ve chosen, accounting for their unexpected reactions as you go. Every night I read over the notes I’d been given that day and prepped the next day’s chapter of Nameless for “publication.” Most nights I found myself rewriting portions of the new chapter or adding portions that had not been there before, because the story needed them. The readers needed them in order to follow where I was leading.
I have come to believe that control is the most basic tool in a writer’s skill set, but not just control of the prose. It seems to me that, as the gap between writer and reader widens, sensible self-control becomes increasingly uncommon. Some writers have become infamous for refusing to accept critique from their readers. Others have rejected the internet, as a whole, because it is so uncontrolled. I theorize that they don’t have the patience or understanding to accept that the burden of responsibility for reader reaction is on them now. I theorize that they fear losing the illusion of control they have had because they were insulated from the wild, organic humanity of the digital community.
But really, who knows? What I know is that I have accomplished more by exerting control over my shallower impulses, both towards my readers and towards my writing, than I ever accomplished under the assumption that because I was a Writer I knew everything.
Ironically, it’s hard to articulate how I feel about what happened with Nameless. People worried sometimes that I was hurt, that the criticism was crushing, but I didn’t feel that way at all. I was too overwhelmed by what was happening, by what a unique experience it was for me. I felt like I was watching an extribulum come to life. Nameless was a book published online, destined for print but open to examination and feedback prior to its final incarnation. I was looking at another inching step into the future of publishing, where a real dialogue could go on between a writer and a reader and that dialogue, rather than a writer’s monologue, could be what went into the final print.
We beta-tested my book. How weird and wonderful is that?
Regardless of the quality of the narrative, regardless of whether you like me or like this book, Nameless is an extribulum. Twenty-five years ago there was no possibility for it to exist. It is a symbol of a new thing, the incunabula of the internet age. This book was written and typeset by the author and mass-produced by an online self-publishing website, but the text is the result of people from all over the world reading and responding and communicating, with their author and with each other.
I highly doubt Nameless will set the world on fire, but it is one small part of the future: someday an extribulum will change our entire human experience purely because it will be available on a scale “dead-tree” publishers only dream of. I’m not afraid; I hope I’m there to see it happen.
Nameless is what you get when one person talks and twenty-five hundred people listen…and then talk back.
I could not be more proud.