Online forums of various sorts, and particularly online journals, have provided a fertile ground for community-building in the speculative fiction world. Here at Strange Horizons, we're big proponents of community-building, so we're pleased to see this process at work. Several of our editors and quite a few of our authors keep online journals (a.k.a. blogs; we'll use those terms interchangeably here) of various forms. It seemed in keeping with the idea of online interaction to write this editorial as a conversation between two of our editors, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Jed Hartman.
Mary Anne: It's tricky making sweeping statements about the net, given how strange and diverse it actually is, but I'm going to go ahead and start with just such a statement -- it seems to me that as soon as most people log onto the net for the first time, they almost immediately start looking for and then attaching themselves to various online communities. Whether the communities are based on region, or hobbies, or family ties, or sexual practices, or religion, or careers -- most people very quickly find communities that interest them online.
What we'd like to talk about here is how journalling -- the activity of individuals posting regular updates to a web page (either singly or jointly-run) -- has historically acted and is currently acting to foster community. Especially among writers in particular, and the speculative fiction world in general.
In a journal, one or more individuals provide regularly updated base content, to which others are sometimes offered the option of replying (either in a public forum or in private e-mail). Sometimes those individuals are doing topic-based journals (my writing career, my thoughts about sex and culture, my recipes, my political musings, my commentary on interesting tech-related links I've found online), or sometimes the only topic is that the journal is focused on that individual's life.
Jed: Before we proceed, let's talk a little about our own experiences with online communities; then we can move on to talking about what effect they have on the speculative fiction world.
I've been online since 1984 or so, when I began dialing up to local electronic Bulletin Board Systems in the San Francisco Bay Area. BBSs weren't web pages, but they were very much like modern web-based forums in many ways. In 1986, I discovered Usenet (again not web-based, but I think newsgroups also are much like web forums), and was a regular reader and occasional poster in half a dozen newsgroups for the next several years. I quit Usenet cold-turkey sometime around 1992 when I realized what a time sink it had become for me. I've had my own website since '95 or so, but it's only in the past year and a half that I've had my own online journal (where I talk about speculative fiction, politics, wordplay, and the magazine, and I post general life updates and cool links) and started regularly reading other people's journals.
Mary Anne: I started with e-mail and Usenet in 1992, I think, and put up my own web page in 1994. It was very much a writer's site -- at the beginning, it was just a convenient place to gather together all the stories and poems that I had been posting in various forums online, so that readers could find them easily. Over time, I added stuff -- jokes I thought were funny, good quotes, a little biography -- it wasn't long before it became very much the sort of web page everyone was putting up back then: a random assortment of stuff that interested me.
Sometime in 1995, I started reading some online journals, notably "Coffee Shakes," by a woman named Sage. I enjoyed the clarity and beauty of her language. Other early journals were notable for their honesty (some, described as train-wreck journals, were fascinating for the brutal details of the failed romances that they chronicled), their humor, their glimpses into lives very different from my own. I quickly grew to find them addictive, and started feeling like I knew these people whose journals I was reading. I had never met the authors, but I started to care about their lives.
In December of 1995, I started my own online journal on my web page. I've been updating it more and more frequently ever since. At the beginning, it was probably only a few entries a month; now it's gotten to the point of several a day. And just last month, I added a comments system (kindly created by Jed), so that the community of readers who have grown up around my journal can talk directly to each other, instead of just sending e-mail to me.
Jed: And though I was slow to get on the bandwagon, I've come to see comments systems as an important part of community-building. Writers with journals could always post comments to each other in their own journals, but a journal with a comments system built in allows for brief, informal, and frequent comments. It also links a community together: you don't have to go searching for other journals of like-minded people, you can just follow links to the home pages and journals of people who comment on your journal, and the links grow.
Mary Anne: I think the addition of comments systems marks an important shift in the function of a journal, actually. I know when I first started journalling, I wasn't particularly looking for interactivity with my readers.
Jed: Yeah. I wrote a wordplay column on the web for four years, and though I was happy to get email in response to it, I was very wary of providing a way for people to just post comments. I figured it would get out of hand, that people would post inappropriate comments or whatever; as with traditional letters-to-the-editor, I wanted control over what comments appeared.
Mary Anne: Yes -- the control aspect was important to me, though I didn't realize that at first. I had no idea in the beginning how important the journal would become, or how much time I'd end up spending with it. The journal was originally just a convenient way to save time -- to cut back on the amount of personal e-mail I was reading and answering. It was a way for me, as an author, to talk to many of my readers at once, something of an ongoing, open letter. Quite a few authors seem to keep similar-style journals; they answer questions that they're receiving frequently in e-mail, or anticipate questions that readers are going to ask soon. It's efficient!
Jed: I think that's particularly true for the journals of established and well-known authors like Neil Gaiman and William Gibson; they have huge numbers of fans, and the journals are (among other things) a nice way for them to keep in touch with their fans en masse.
Mary Anne: Exactly. That was a sufficient reason to start a journal, but I quickly found that it took on other roles for me. I found myself using it to vent about my writing stresses, my financial worries, even my love life stress (although mine never got nearly as explicit as some journals). And the more I opened up about my personal life in my journal, the more my readers became engaged with it. They wrote back, they sent me advice. Often good advice. And I especially appreciated that they didn't seem to mind that I often didn't have time to answer their letters in any depth -- they were content as long as I kept journalling. They've also been an incredible information resource -- often the fastest way I can get the answer to a research problem is to just ask in my journal -- someone is sure to know the answer, or be able and willing to find it faster than I can on my own.
Jed: I admit that I was kinda weirded out by the idea of keeping a journal online when I first encountered yours, back in '97.
Mary Anne: Heh. It's funny -- I used to spend a lot of time trying to explain to people why I would want to keep an online journal. For years, people thought it was the strangest thing. And now it's become de rigueur for writers, especially, to keep public journals, and journals have become remarkably common among other people too (often in anonymous form).
Jed: For the first few years of reading your journal, I had no desire at all to have one of my own. But reading a few other friends' journals made me more interested. After 9/11, like so many others, I had a lot I wanted to say in a public forum, and the journal format seemed an obvious match. My journal started out as a combination of political commentary and list-of-links, but I've gradually grown more comfortable also talking about the editorial process online; as an aspiring writer myself, I understand how opaque the process is from the outside, and how desperate many writers are for any scrap of useful information. Demystification R Us, though I still don't know much about the inner workings of the print magazines or the print publishing industry.
Mary Anne: I try to educate as well, both with regard to publishing Strange Horizons, and with regard to editing anthologies for Random House (a strange and confusing business). Again, some of the impulse is just trying to be efficient -- if I explain it in the journal, maybe I'll have to answer those questions fewer times in e-mail. (I'm not entirely sure how often that actually works, though.)
One of the things I particularly like about your journal are the little grammar and vocabulary lessons you give on occasion, like the one where you were clarifying the distinction between lightning and lightening. I assume those grow out of errors you commonly see as an editor, and I'm guessing that they're useful to authors compulsively reading your journal. I think quite a few spec fic writers, especially those hoping to sell to us, read your journal and Susan Groppi's, hoping to get some inside tips. I'm curious what you think about the position of being an editor, and keeping a public journal -- do you think that there are professionalism issues that come into play?
Jed: Oh, absolutely. Mostly in that I refrain from saying things that I'd sometimes like to say. I'm sometimes tempted to quote particularly awkward sentences from submissions, for example, but I realize that that would be horribly unprofessional (and embarrassing to the author, even if I didn't attach a name). Likewise I refrain from mentioning the great titles of stories submitted to us. I probably go overboard in some ways; I've been reluctant to even say which of our published stories are my favorites, because I like them all and I don't want to make any authors jealous or insecure.
I hope the grammar/vocabulary (and writing-advice) entries are useful to authors, but I don't really know. I think to some extent the vocabulary ones are really just reminders to authors that they should check their spelling by hand rather than (or in addition to) using a spellchecker; and the writing-advice ones are often as much reminders to myself-as-a-writer as addressed to those writers who read my journal.
Mary Anne: Well, I find those posts interesting, at any rate. Good reminders. And I agree with you on the professionalism issue -- I find myself being very careful when I'm editing an anthology, so as to not say too much. I'd hate to accidentally raise some poor author's hopes, for example, just because I liked a story that I ended up later not being able to accept. And I find that as an editor, if you talk too much about the specifics about a particular editing gig, writers start trying to second-guess you, spending more time on quasi-mystical attempted divination of your needs than they do on actually writing good stories. But even when I'm being careful to be professional, there really is quite a bit I can tell them about the process overall that I think is helpful to anxious writers.
I think we've covered what we get out of posting in our journals -- we get to share information, to seek advice and information, to get support, to express our views. One of the most fascinating developments we've seen with the growth of the web is the proliferation of journals, of people putting their stories out there, making their voices heard, and I think that's just fabulous. Of course, sometimes you get tired of shouting into the void -- it's more satisfying when you know people are listening, when they start talking back to you. That's the main reason I wanted a comments system added to my journal -- how about you?
Jed: People had been asking me to add a comments system to my journal since it started, but I continued to be reluctant for a long time. But a few months ago there was a big spate of activity in various writers' journals, mostly writers connected in some way to SH, and the prospect began to appeal to me more.
It's always been possible for journallers to comment on each others' journals in their own journals, and to have conversations that way, but that's not very immediate or direct. And of course journallers and their readers can interact via email.
Mary Anne: Exactly. That's a community, in some sense, centered around any journal, but it's a pretty limited community. The communication is two-way, but it's always between the journal writer and the journal readers -- never directly among the various readers of a given journal. It's a big step, to open up a comments section, to allow the readers to talk to each other. I find it a little scary, to be honest.
You're handing over part of your site to this community, these relative strangers, and you're trusting that they're going to say interesting and worthwhile things to you and to each other. I'm honestly not sure it would have occurred to me to do it if I hadn't seen so many people, and especially, so many spec fic writers from Strange Horizons, keeping journals with open comments sections: Jenn Reese, Mike Jasper, Tim Pratt, Heather Shaw, Greg van Eekhout, Janet Chui, David Moles, Jon Hansen, Derek James, Doug Lain, Nick Mamatas, Alan DeNiro, Wendy Shaffer, etc. and so on. It's been fascinating, watching the conversations, the cross-pollination between writers and readers. For me, it became a temptation impossible to resist, the desire to join in that conversation, and let others join in mine.
My journal is shifting from being entirely a mouthpiece for me and my concerns, to being also a place for like-minded folk to gather. I like the shift; I'd like to see more of a shift along those lines.
Jed: We mentioned the journals of some of the bigger-name authors earlier; I wanted to note that those, too, aren't solely for one-way communication. Neil Gaiman and William Gibson both provide popular message boards; Charlie Stross's blog, like boingboing, allows discussion via QuickTopic; Patrick Nielsen Hayden's electrolite and Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light both provide comments sections where various well-known speculative fiction writers and editors occasionally post comments. For the Nielsen Haydens' journals, the comments sections provide (among other things) ways for an existing community to keep in touch and to grow.
(Aside: A fair number of our authors have quasi-anonymous LiveJournals, without their names attached, so we're not linking to those here. And there are a fair number of writers who are part of the community of journallers but whom we haven't yet bought anything from; you can find their journals easily by following links from the above.)
Mary Anne: All this online chatting is definitely a lot of fun, but the question that then inevitably rises is -- is all of this conversation actually doing any good for the field? And if so, how?
Jed: Well, here are some of the things the journals and comments are used for: I see writers posting in their journals about the progress they're making on stories, about selling stories, about difficulties they run into, about research questions they have. And other members of their communities (sometimes writers, sometimes not) post congratulatory or sympathetic or informative comments in the comments sections, and sometimes go on to post related notes in their own journals, with links.
So it's certainly good for providing a support network. (That's true of some other systems as well, such as the author topics at the Rumor Mill and the personal newsgroups at sff.net.) On the downside, it provides Yet Another Online Timewasting Tool. Is it better for a writer to waste time talking about writing with other writers, or to waste time playing Solitaire? I guess that's one of the Eternal Questions.
Mary Anne: Heh. Yes, it does sometimes waste time that could be better spent writing. But leaving that aside, I do agree that the support network aspect is invaluable, both to help cushion the inevitable rejection blows, and to help motivate you to write more, and better. I know that I rely on my journal readers for support, for critique, for encouraging praise that keeps me motivated, keeps me wanting to write. I can't imagine what it was like in an earlier age, writing in isolation; I'm addicted to the immediate gratification, being able to draft a story and send it out and get back immediate feedback.
Jed: I'm inclined to be more private about my own fiction writing; I'd say that, as with everything, individual preferences may vary. But a fair number of writers do seem to find it very motivating to post each day how many words they've written, and I'm all for anything that motivates writers.
Mary Anne: Heh. It's also motivating seeing how much other writers are writing. Every time I visit Tim Pratt's journal, I feel guilty about how little writing I've been doing in comparison!
I'd also argue that along with all this journalling, and with the earlier-mentioned demystification, there has come a breaking down of some of the barriers between writers and editors. I know that when I first came into the field, I tended to swallow wholesale some of the myths that were floating around -- that editors were evil, and publishers more so, that they were all out to get the writer, and that we had to defend ourselves fiercely against them. One of the big pluses of this increased communication in journalling (with or without a comments system), is that writers get to see that editors are people too, and that they're (usually) not actually out to chortle gleefully as they gut the poor struggling writer.
Jed: Yup. I see a lot of that at the Rumor Mill, too -- and some of the writers have gone on to start their own magazines! Usually online ones. There are a fair number of writer/editors out there these days; I like talking with them about editing as well as about writing. (As various editors have lamented, there's no Clarion for editors; there's a lot of learn-as-you-go.)
Mary Anne: Exactly -- and with this increased understanding of the editorial process (and with quite a bit of help from Gavin Grant, a tremendous champion of small presses), I'm seeing quite a few spec fic writers doing what mainstream poets have been doing for ages -- putting together chapbooks, of their own work and others', getting into the whole publishing biz. So many of our writers are also editors, also publishers -- I'm thinking of Chris Barzak and Alan DeNiro and Barth Anderson, Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw, Mike Jasper, and I'm sure many more that I don't know of yet, but will. There's been an explosion in small-press publishing recently, and it's just getting bigger. I can't prove that it's connected to journalling, but it seems to me that there's a natural link.
Jed: I've been thrilled to see various of the journalling writers reading and critiquing each others' work, and contributing to each others' anthologies and chapbooks. There's a danger, in any such endeavor, of a community becoming too insular, too wrapped up in their own ideas, but I haven't seen that happen with this crowd; they seem actively welcoming of new people and new ideas.
One thing that I've been expecting but haven't seen is authors posting interesting ideas and approaches in their journals and other authors riffing on those in stories. I sometimes post cool ideas and approaches that I'd like to see in stories (I suppose some small part of me has always wanted to be John W. Campbell, assigning story ideas to writers), or notes about the kinds of stories we'd love to get but don't see very often; but I don't see authors saying "Oh, cool, I'm gonna go write a story about that." (Except in certain joke contexts.) The interchange and flow, the sparking of interesting thoughts against each other, that happens in face-to-face conversation doesn't seem to me to happen so much in journals.
Mary Anne: Hmm. . . we do actively encourage writers to create stories with more diverse character bases (along racial, ethnic, sexual orientation lines) -- do you think that encouragement has had any noticeable effect?
Jed: I'm not sure yet. I haven't seen a lot of change in that direction, but perhaps some. But yeah, that's one of the kinds of things I'm talking about. I also posted in my journal at one point that we'd like to see more hypertext submissions; a couple of authors were prompted to go write hypertext stories, which pleased me.
Another thing that pleases me is that some of the authors have started collaborating on stories recently. I don't know how everyone first met each other; some met at Clarion, some met at the Online Writing Workshop, and so on. But I think several of them have met because of their stories that we've published at SH, and I think that's great. 'Cause like we said at the start, we're all about building community. I really like it, for example, when we introduce two of our authors at one of the tea parties we hold at conventions, and see them hit it off.
. . . It's not entirely fair for me to refer to them all as "our" authors; many of the authors we've published have also been published in high-profile print venues, among other places. But I do feel a little proprietary about them sometimes; their success is good for us, and ours for them.
Mary Anne: I'm not at all apologetic about calling them "our" authors -- I feel very proprietary about them, and even if they publish elsewhere, there does seem to be a certain Strange Horizons vibe or attitude for the fiction authors who publish here. Even when their stories are very different. I'm thrilled to see them start collaborating with each other, and I'd love to see more discussion of literature in the journals. There's certainly been some of that, especially of the place of literariness in speculative fiction. That's probably more important, long-term, than sending cool techno memes around the writing pool -- after all, you wouldn't want to get twenty subs all on exactly the same hot topic, would you?
Jed: Right, and I didn't really mean I wanted to have everyone write about a given specific topic. More like, I'd love to see authors giving each other suggestions about themes and styles and experiments to try and so on. The themed anthologies and 'zines and chapbooks are something like what I'm talking about; also Alan DeNiro's non-manifestos Petals of the Rat and The Dream of the Unified Field.
Mary Anne: There's undoubtedly plenty more to be said about journalling, about forums, about creating community in spec fic. We haven't even mentioned the Tangent Online newsgroup, for example, one of many excellent forums for spec fic discussion, and a place that I very much enjoy hanging out in. But this editorial is already probably the longest we've run, so perhaps we'd better wrap up.
Those who think all this online conversation sounds like a good idea may be pleased to hear that we're planning on creating a much more structured forum system for Strange Horizons, which will hopefully encourage active conversation from our readers as well as our editors, writers, and artists. Perhaps we can coax a few of our editors to even post regularly, turning it into something like a Strange Horizons online journal. It might be a lot of fun -- and it could help build an interesting, idea-generating, problem-solving, culturally-literate spec fic community, which seems to me like a goal well worth striving for.
Jed: Definitely. More community, more dialogue, more discussion. Good stuff.
Copyright © 2003 Mary Anne Mohanraj and Jed Hartman
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
Jed Hartman is Senior Fiction Editor of Strange Horizons.
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