Fiction, News, Columns and Reviews from Rampant Loon Press

STORYBLITZ: an after-action report

After taking a week to think about it: okay, STORYBLITZ was, for the most part, a success. Publishing twenty stories in seven days took a prodigious effort, but we pulled it off. Publishing twelve stories in twelve hours was a stretch goal that bordered on ludicrous, but we did get eight stories up on the site in that span of time, so it was a solid effort.

In the process, we learned some useful things. For one, we’ve now figured out most of the kinks and quirks of this publishing engine, so we have better (but still not perfect) control of how text renders at the point of delivery. For another, it’s now clear that the “sweet spot” for fiction in the webzine medium is between 1K to 2.5K words. I was nervous about splitting Julie Frost’s novelette, “Habeas Felis”, into three parts, but it’s now clear that that was the right decision. As a single contiguous story, it would have been unwieldy. Presented as three roughly 3K-word installments, it worked quite well. This suggests some interesting possibilities. Perhaps someday we might serialize even longer works? Well, it worked for Dickens…

What do you think?

Another thing I must admit worked well were the illustrations. For the longest time, I’ve resisted using interior illos in Stupefying Stories. But then, we ran this photo of this adorable fluffy little bugger:

thiscat

Okay, it seems I need to revisit my decision re interior illos. Boy, we could sure use an Art Director. Too bad our last one got too successful to continue working for us.

One surprising behind-the-scenes discovery was that with our new system, it’s much easier for us to send actual checks to contributors than send payment via PayPal. We just generate the check data from the contracts, load the check forms into the printer, fire off a batch print job, and Voila! Stuff the envelopes, slap on a stamp, drop ‘em in the mail, and we’re done with all the week’s payables in a matter of minutes.

Why it then takes the USPS ten days to transport an envelope from Minnesota to Texas remains a mystery.

[En passant: by now, everyone whose story was published during STORYBLITZ should have received payment. If you haven’t, let me know, and we’ll figure out what happened and get it fixed.]

So, which do you prefer: paper or plastic? Er, check or PayPal?

¤

One unpleasant discovery was that with the increase in site traffic, we were discovered, to the tune of about 250 new spam comments daily. To some extent I admire the social engineering involved: some of these spam comments contain text content that *appears* to be related to the story being commented upon, so they must be generated by some pretty sophisticated ‘bots. But then, when you look just a little closer, you discover that a careless click on one of these comments will whisk the unwary reader off to some dodgy offshore website that purports to be selling athletic shoes or designer handbags at unbelievably low prices, but in fact is delivering malware, rootkits, and drive-by MITM attacks.

Ergo, I’ve had to torque-down the comment filters to extremely tight tolerances and begin flushing the spam filters on a daily basis, and there simply is not enough time in the day to moderate the individual comments in the holding tank before hitting flush. My apologies if you’ve tried to enter a legit comment and it’s been trapped by the filters, but this level of security is sadly necessary—as well as further support for my thesis that right now, we are living in the Halcyon Days of the Information Age, and the ultimate fate of the Internet is that it will choke to death on its own excrement.

¤

Along with the good and the bad, we also discovered two fairly ugly things during Storyblitz Week. The first was that there is still quite a lot of chaos in our contract files. Stories that were tagged as being accepted and under contract weren’t. Other stories were tagged correctly, but their contracts dated back to the days when we used paper contracts, and finding the original copies in our files proved to be a challenge. As a rule, we found it faster and easier to issue a new, updated contract, than to find an original contract that pre-dated our use of Adobe EchoSign. (Fortunately, we’ve increased our payment rates since those days, so very few authors thus far have objected to signing a new contract for more money.)

Still, this is an area where we continue to need to make major improvements in our operations.

The second ugly thing we discovered was that, while pre-planning posts (that is, uploading a story and setting it to go live at a specific time) worked quite well, we hadn’t done enough pre-planning. There wasn’t enough depth in the queue. There were stories we planned to run but yanked at the last minute because the copy-edit didn’t get finished in time, or the story was ready but we didn’t have an author’s bio, or the story and bio were ready but we didn’t have a good illo, or any of a half-dozen other reasons. Then, when OTOGU began demanding fresh sacrifices—

Well, the pre-planned posts queue petered out pretty quickly.

Fortunately, the solution is obvious. We need to build up the queue again and start pre-planning SHOWCASE stories at least a month out. We need to start copy-editing stories and getting author’s bios squared-away up front, when we put the story under contract, and not at the tail end, when we’re trying to get the story ready to publish. We need to plan far enough in advance that we can give authors a firm date for when their stories will go live on the site, and we need to tell authors what the permanent link to their story will be before their story goes live. (We have the technical capacity to do this. We just haven’t done a very good job at it.)

We need to start publishing one new story daily, at a predictable time. (Hmm. Where have I heard this idea before?)

We know what we need to do. Now it’s just a matter of doing it. I figure it will take us through the end of December to get the new SHOWCASE process fully up and running consistently. Thanks for your patience while we work through this.

Boy, we could really use a new Art Director.

Kindest regards,
~brb


BruceBethkeBruce Bethke is best known for either his genre-naming 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his Philip K. Dick Award-winning 1995 novel, Headcrash, or lately, as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few readers have known about him until recently is that he actually started out in the music industry, as a member of the design team that developed the MIDI standard and the Finale music notation engine (among other things), but now works in the supercomputer industry, doing stuff that is absolutely fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain to anyone not already well-grounded in massively parallel processor architectures, Fourier transformations, and computational fluid dynamics.

In his copious spare time he runs Rampant Loon Press, just for the sheer fun of it.

Tags:

2 Responses to STORYBLITZ: an after-action report

  1. I’m really happy with how my story looks, Bruce, and the illustration is excellent. Please give everyone concerned a pat on the back. I think the site will be very popular when the content is updated on a regular basis. Daily is an ambitius target, but at least weekly would be a good way to attract regular readers. And speaking of reading, I’m off to catch up on the rest of the Storyblitz tales.

    Many thanks,

    Richard J. Dowling

  2. ~brb says:

    Richard, thanks for the kind words. Admittedly, a new story daily is a challenge, but I think it’s more doable than weekly. If you take a look at the SHOWCASE back issues from 2013 —

    (Hope this link works: http://stupefyingstoriesshowcase.com/?cat=9)

    — you can see that the weekly webzine rapidly grew to consume an enormous amount of time, and then it went erratic, as it came into conflict with the other stuff that was going on in my life.

    With this new publishing engine, we have the ability to schedule posts up to *years* in advance, so I expect we’ll settle into a routine like that of a syndicated cartoonist: we’ll upload a week’s worth of content at a time, but with each story scheduled to go live at a predictable time on a given day.

    We’ll see how it works out, and adjust and adapt as we learn new things. Always experimenting, we are.

    Cheers,
    – Bruce