Tad Williams is the world-renowned author of such epic fantasies as the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, Tailchaser's Song, the Otherland series, etc. He's about to take his writing to a new place -- onto the Internet! His new project is called Shadowmarch -- an episodic serial story, presented on the web. He's here today to tell us more about this exciting project.
Mary Anne Mohanraj (MM): Tad, why don't we start with you just telling us about this story. What will it look like? What do you hope it will become?
Tad Williams (TW): What it will look like in the beginning is a nice text-based site with illustrations available (although not incorporated into the text, which would slow downloading for those who want to read offline). The story, after all, is what it's about. We'll also have a message board, announcements, behind-the-scenes stuff about both the project itself and the world in which the story takes place. It's all new -- I'm creating the world and characters now.
What we aim to have over the long run is a very versatile site with lots of stuff available -- tons of art by lots of different people (including fans, I hope), some animation, music, perhaps some 3-D renderings of the locations (so you could actually tour the castle that is at the heart of the story) and anything else we can think of that seems cool and works in the online format. We plan to plow a regular proportion of any profits back into upgrading the site.
What I hope it becomes overall is a living, thriving story that grows in regular, frequent installments. Since I don't know what's going to happen myself, I hope to bring that excitement to the project. I hope readers will be wondering about what happens next, what the characters should or shouldn't do, what's really going on with this or that plot, and that they'll be talking about it on the message board, sending me angry or happy emails, etc.
I suppose that what I also hope for (and part of the reason I want to do something episodic) is that it will achieve something like the cultural connection of good TV, where the audience is sharing an ongoing story. The only problem with novel-writing, my first love, is that by the time people are discussing something, they're usually done with it. (Perhaps this is why I started writing multi-volume books.)
And if it makes enough money that I can keep doing it for a while, that will be okay too! . . .
MM: That sounds fascinating -- I really like the idea of creating a cultural connection with your readers. I've experienced a lot of that with my own site, and the novel I'm currently working on was primarily motivated by how much readers loved the particular story that became the seed of it. If I'd published it only as part of a print collection, I doubt I'd ever have known how people felt about that story. Do you anticipate any problems with this? What if readers want you to focus on a character you're not as interested in developing, for example? Is there a chance that your artistic decisions will be coerced by the whims of the public?
TW: Oh, yeah, I not only think I'll be coerced, I look forward to it. I plan to be much more reader-influenced with Shadowmarch than I have ever been with my paper fiction, in part because even at the beginning of a multi-volume novel I've planned much of the story, including a good working idea of the ending. (It's even more necessary with multi-volume novels, since by the time you're finishing the story your earlier bits are already in print, and hence difficult to edit. . . .)
In fact, one of the things I hope will be fun about Shadowmarch will be the message board on the site, and people expressing opinions. If the readers overwhelmingly want to have more of a particular character (or less) it will very possibly influence what I do. That doesn't mean I'm going to let anyone else write the story for me -- I'm too much of a control freak for that, and I have too many ideas I want to work with. But I'll definitely be paying attention to what the readers particularly enjoy or loathe.
MM: Hmm . . . you mentioned including fan illustrations on site (as many comic book artists do in the backs of their books). Would you also be open to fan-written fiction? If this takes off and becomes tremendously popular, it's possible that some of your readers may want to write stories set in your world, using your characters. Is that something you would encourage? Condone? Publicize? Denounce?
TW: I think that fan art and fan fiction would both be great -- fan-created impressions of my characters and worlds already exist, mostly for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (my epic fantasy) and I always get a kick out of how other people imagine things I've written, or make them personal.
The only thing that would have to be different is that anything posted on Shadowmarch would have to belong to Shadowmarch, otherwise it turns into a legal nightmare. I hate having to do that kind of stuff, but for every thousand wonderful, sensible readers, there's one who winds up suing you (meaning me) claiming "I created your story and you stole it from me" or something like that.
I really dislike having to talk about negatives, so let's go back to the positive stuff: yes, it would be nifty if people want to contribute things for other fans to enjoy, and I aim to make it easy to do. I'll enjoy seeing them myself.
MM: That sounds reasonable to me, and I'm guessing your fans will be fine with that -- I imagine they'll be much more interested in sharing their work than in trying to make money off your project. And speaking of money -- how do you plan to make money? The pre-site isn't explicit about this yet. Are you charging readers per segment? A subscription fee for access? Something else?
TW: We haven't finalized the payment system yet, which is one reason we haven't responded to any of the email addresses interested readers have left on what we call the "pre-site" -- it's at shadowmarch.com, but it's not the final version by any means. Our plan is to offer at least two different ways of buying the story, either per episode or by a season subscription. People who subscribe for the season will have access to everything already done that (six-month) season, and everything still to come in that season.
If it works properly, readers will be able to read on-site, download (in different formats) or both. I hope we'll be able to solve the problem Stephen King had with The Plant where people couldn't download something a second time if they lost the first version or wanted to have it on a different computer. It's hard to make sweeping promises because there are a lot of technical issues to deal with and our producers are already overworked and underpaid, but we aim to make this as easy and fun as possible.
MM: Have you decided what formats you'll be offering this in yet?
TW: We've done most of the research, but we haven't sat down and examined how much money and time it will cost us to implement the various formats. As I've said elsewhere, my main goal is to make it as easy to use as possible, and to learn from the pioneering work other people have done and are doing, but of course since we're using our own money, there's an upper limit on how much we can spend, especially at first.
MM: Fair enough -- we're thinking of offering Strange Horizons in downloadable format, and I'm still lost in all of the different possibilities. Hopefully soon some clearly preferable (and affordable) formats will emerge. I'd like to come back to come back to King's The Plant -- that book is generally talked about as a spectacular failure. I'm not sure I agree with that assessment -- what do you think of it?
TW: It's kind of an odd thing to talk about because it's so sui generis. King is one of a kind: he can get permission to do anything, will automatically get publicity, and has a tremendous reader base worldwide. So I'm not sure I can decide whether it was a success or not. He made a lot of money, but he made less than he'd make with a normal book. People got irritated by the format, but people always get irritated with new formats, and there's a lot to learn in this field.
MM: It's true that he made less than he would have with a print book -- but then, he stopped before the ending; I think it's very hard to tell what would have happened as it picked up momentum. My experience with the internet is that longevity counts tremendously; far more than it does in print publishing. King chose to stop short, as was his prerogative, but it does make it very difficult to fairly judge the experiment.
Shadowmarch is inevitably going to be compared to The Plant -- what did King do right, or wrong? What are you specifically trying to do differently?
TW: Because of what's been going on in my working life (and home life, which contains two small children and thus is a bit distracting) I've only read bits of The Plant, but never tried the actual downloading process. Thus, any comments of mine will be secondhand.
I think the main conceptual difference is that I want the shadowmarch.com site itself to be a destination, a place where someone will go to read or download the new installment, but also to check in, share things, have discussions and arguments, take me to task, whatever. (One of my models is the early days of Marvel Comics back in the 1960s, when young readers like me felt for the first time that they were actually getting to know something about the people who produced the comics.) I'm hoping that in this way it's a more complete use of the medium, and that the general Shadowmarch discussion, both on and off the Shadowmarch website, won't revolve solely around how well the download works or how much it costs.
I guess my final position is that I'm glad someone with Steve's stature is trying to get the ball rolling (see, I've never even met him and I call him "Steve" -- he's that well-known.) A lot of other people are trying to do the same thing, but they haven't received the same attention. That's just how it works. And I think that online fiction is only an early step in a much more complicated process leading to what I would call "telemorphic entertainment" -- a form of entertainment that will combine fiction and film and role-playing and VR -- that will be amazingly cool, so I'm in a hurry to see it get going. Thus, anything that speeds the process (including my own attempts) should be a good thing.
MM: To connect this to your other work -- do you feel there are any long-running philosophical themes or artistic techniques throughout your work as a novelist? If so, have any of these contributed to your decision to work in this new medium?
TW: To write really long, multivolume novels with lots of plotlines and focal characters, I've learned to juggle storylines with a great deal of twists and cliffhangers -- you can't expect people to follow twenty or so main characters for four thousand pages if you don't push the action along pretty well -- which I think suits me for the episodic format.
And Shadowmarch will almost certainly, as in my other work, be a kind of ongoing contest between me and the readers in which they try to outthink me (because they've read so much genre fiction and feel with some justification that they're experts) and I try to fool them. . .again and again and again.
It's really fun, to be honest with you.
And of course, I'll be doing another thing that I enjoy, which is to take a generic fantasy or science fiction set-up and try to make it so crushingly realistic that the reader can believe it would really happen that way -- or perhaps even that in some other universe, it is really happening that way.
That's fun too.
MM: I'm glad to hear that you're expecting this to be such a fun project for you as well as for the readers.
I think that answers all my questions for the moment. As a long-time fan of your work, and as a long-time denizen of the net, I'm really looking forward to what you do with Shadowmarch -- I think this project has the potential to be fun, interesting, and exciting. I'll be eagerly awaiting the launch -- best of luck, and thanks for taking the time to talk to Strange Horizons!
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-In-Chief of Strange Horizons.
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