The blank page is the great adversary of many working writers. Turn on your computer, open a Word document, begin. With what? What are you supposed to write? Michael Siedlecki’s collaborative writing tool, Neovella, offers an answer. This online application lets you work with friends to collaboratively compose a novella. One writer begins the story, one adds a plot twist, one turns that plot upside down; gradually the paragraphs accumulate, building toward a full-length piece.
In the tradition of James Joyce’s The Dead and Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, the novella is part short story, part novel, the perfect length for tablet reading. Indeed, the best novellas composed on the site will be published through Amazon’s Kindle Singles program, and writers will share the profits.
As of this writing, friends must receive an invite from the story-starter to join in. In the future, Neovella will make it possible for writers unknown to each other to jump into and out of stories they like. Readers will be able to vote for their favorite section of a piece, and writers may choose to opt-in to a ranking system that lets readers rate their favorite writers.
Intrigued by this new platform, Open Loop Press invited founder Michael Siedlecki to do an email interview with us about Neovella’s origins, how it works, and his plans for the future.
— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor
Carlin M. Wragg: What is Neovella?
Michael Siedlecki: Neovella is a collaborative, turn-by-turn platform that lets you instantly co-author stories with your friends (or strangers).
CMW: How does it work?
MS: When a Neovella is started, the primary author receives an invite URL that can posted on Facebook, Twitter, a web community, or just good ol’ instant messenger. Upon visiting this story-specific URL, anyone can get a chance to accept the invitation and begin co-writing. Once inside, they have a chat room where they can plan out the plot, or just chat it up before and while writing. Every co-author has a turn (either limited by one, two, three, four, or five minutes, or unlimited) during which they are allowed to write and submit their section of the story. Once they submit, the turn switches to the next writer down the list, who then builds upon the previous entry until their turn is over, and this pattern repeats until a complete story is written.
CMW: Where did the idea for Neovella come from?
MS: The idea for Neovella goes back to my years at UCLA (’10) as a double major in Economics and [social] Geography. Coming in with a tech-oriented skill set, I sought to round myself out with the humanities. It wasn’t until my senior year that everything just snapped together, and I began to see social dynamics from social geography splayed across economics-inspired graphs, complete with minimum points, maximum points, and everywhere in-between. As a final application of this marriage of my two contrasting majors, I took a course with professor Jared Diamond in my final quarter before graduating. The focus was on societal structure across different regimes: nomads, tribes, chiefdoms, and what we fall under as states. As someone who grew up on web communities and watches the web grow and evolve every day, I couldn’t help but to compare societal organizations of material man with the still-primitive organizations of peoples on the Internet.
The lone web user, relative to all others, is much like the nomad: placeless, not tied down, but also devoid of valuable e-property unless engaged and tied socially in a community. Once in such a community, user characteristics resemble tribes and chiefdoms, depending on moderation and rule enforcement — for example, 4chan with its limited rule-set gives users very limited incentive to self-censor and all too much incentive to cannibalize (troll) each other in defense of self, while communities such as the SomethingAwful forums (where a $10 registration fee is required) provide all the incentive necessary to self-censor and produce valuable content while respecting the property/posts of others, to some extent.
And then we have Facebook, which almost certainly most resembles a state or advanced chiefdom taken as a whole, allowing everyone the ability to moderate their own chiefdom (social network) as chiefs. The biggest consistency I have seen with all of these relationships between web communities and their likeness to social evolutionary structures is the degree to which they moderate content, either by blatant censorship which is more primitive or by providing and enforcing rules to what content can enter them to begin with. The game is in the rule system and the strength of its enforcement. The quality of outcomes flows almost directly it.
Neovella contains an inherent attempt to optimize both angles without complicating anything on the user-experience side. There is already an application called Etherpad, where users can invite others to join in and collaboratively write together — it contains a live text area which updates in real time, and a chat room. After using this for a short while, I noticed how easy it would be to just delete the content of somebody else and stir controversy without tangible repercussions. It has the same destructive potential as some of the worst places on the Internet today, in terms of content production. Neovella takes a step back. The technology for real-time collaborative writing is cool and all, but when you have multiple people working together with total freedom individually over each other, you’re playing with interpersonal power dynamics that can’t easily sustain productive activity for very long. I say this out of my observations and experience on the web, and from interacting with the more common Internet folk.
Neovella requires the turn-by-turn rule, as simple as it is, to enforce a level of respect between its co-authors. As we have learned through writing with the application, the effects of this rare instance of respect on the web are rather unique. It’s no longer every-man-for-himself, but instead a true team-player social experience. Content is internally censored by social forces, and by the same token, socially encouraged.
CMW: Who is Neovella for?
MS: Neovella is for people who are curious about their literary abilities and want to see if writing collaboratively is even possible. At first, I think writers in particular will be most interested in trying Neovella. I can also see the strong educational benefits behind the experience — it’s like taking the fun, addictive aspects out of a console game and putting them into something that can actually promote literacy. Ultimately, we want every man, woman, and child with an Internet connection on Neovella to find out what they’re made of.
CMW: How can writers use Neovella to fuel their creative process?
MS: Writers just have to give it a shot or two. Writer’s block is thrown out of the equation entirely because you always have something fresh and new to work with from the previous co-author. You’re only really writing ten to fifty percent of the entire story with Neovella, so every turn keeps you fearless enough to create and direct events or depictions on the scale of unbelievable. Even in my own personal writing, I have noticed much less fear to ink situations or stories that I previously would never have fathomed or found a completely logical basis for starting from.
CMW: Why does Neovella include a social component?
MS: The social component in Neovella is the special sauce that makes it work. If you look at the great novels of the past centuries, you may notice that their authors were very “conflicted” as individuals, to put it lightly. When you write collaboratively, that conflict no longer has to be completely internalized just to produce great meaning — that conflict is already between individuals by our very nature. Neovella just holds up the mirror to that interpersonal conflict and says “now turn on the lights.” On the moderation side, users can vote for top stories out of five stars and spread these stories around to their friends, as well to be ranked by view-count. What better way is there to test for quality writing than to optimize for social validation in socially constructed stories? The social component promotes quality.
CMW: You promise to publish “top-ranking neovellas” through Amazon Singles. Can you talk about the selection process, why you want to do this, and how it benefits the writers who participate?
MS: Amazon provides a very simple and easy way to publish and sell stories. We just have to collect the top stories, a process we can automate through community-based rankings, and format them for publishing. This is just the most logical initial step for getting value out the site and into the pockets of its content writers. When I spoke of how I came up with the idea, I talked a bit about translating and optimizing the social evolutionary features that would make a web community produce high quality content. This was probably too ahead in the explanation. As I watched the rise of the Internet industry in the past decade, one aspect really stuck a thorn in my paw: every successful web giant makes major money off of ad revenue — they are, in effect, getting paid to help their users pay for outside products. In many ways, given intense targeting, this is a benefit for the consumer. In other ways, I can’t shake the feel that there is some sort of exploitation going on here with ad-blasting and demeaning the quality of web content. I’m not politically passionate, so this isn’t the same exploitation you might hear about from Marxists or hipsters — this is actually something that I feel is very “off” about the way the web operates today.
I believe that if a web company is going to make money, it better be through sharing that profit with the creators of the content enabled by it. Combining the Neovella platform with the publishing plan, we’re enabling Internet consumers to become Internet producers of content they actually can see returns from. With the Amazon publishing, we want to let our users pick out the top quality stories, and choose ten to thirty each month for publication. After we take a ten percent cut, we want to redistribute the remaining royalties back to the co-authors who made the published anthology what it is. Until the writing gets more competitive, authors and our community grows as a result of some new features we’re going to throw out in there in the near future, we don’t plan to publish anything. But everything is still on the shelf for now.
CMW: Can you talk a little about how you developed the platform? Who were your collaborators? What did you first think it would be? What is it now?
CMW: Where do you hope to take Neovella in the future?
MS: In the immediate future, we want to fix the “staging ground” issue. Instead of having to send out invite links to friends or to the void via social networks, we’re going to have an option in the “new neovella” page that lets primary authors allow random co-authors to join in on their books. These random writers would get there through a “write now!” button on the main page. In the longer term, I think there is a lot of value in creating very minimal rule systems for online interactions that maximize for value over quantity, beyond story-writing. But for now, we’re going to get this right.