- Start Reading
- Under the Influence
- Take Part
Well, I have my first review, and it’s harsh, but interesting. I’ve responded in the professional way, which is, I believe, to have a cup of tea and a biscuit, write down all the replies I would like to make, sleep on it, delete half of them, think on it some more, put one or two of them back in, then never, ever post it. The only point, after all, that really requires a response is the one I can’t argue with, which is that the beginning of Bad Influences is very slow.
I’m not sure how much of the problem with this is due to expectations of the disaster genre, and perhaps also of web serials, to be fast-paced action-adventure. Bad Influences isn’t a thriller, it’s more a kind of character-play. While it does start more slowly than I planned, it was never intended to be rip-roaring, seat-of-the-pants stuff, and I don’t think it needs to be. There is suspense, and there’s danger, there’s action, there’s tension, and I can assure Kurt Vonnegut and anybody else who’s concerned, the characters will suffer enough to show what they’re made of. There are even a few gun-fights and chases, though anybody expecting set-piece showdowns from them will be disappointed. Bad Influences is about four ordinary people with particular voices and perspectives, dealing with terrifying situations while trying to keep it together on a daily basis, and blogging about it. The conclusions won’t come from beating the virus or the bad guys, but from the growth and development of the characters, their relationships and their realisations about themselves and the world they’re blogging in. While important events will happen and will be narrated, a lot of what the characters write will be introspective or speculative. Whether the flu is happening nearby or far away or in the next room, the characters write about what’s happening to them. That’s what blog fiction’s good at.
All that said, the beginning is too slow. As I noted when I was discussing it with Wildbow here, I misjudged just how much impact the real-time scheduling would have on the pace of the early entries. In the editing process, I tried to speed up the pace in the traditional way, by cutting word-count. I should, instead, have speeded up the spread of the virus, and there’s very little I can do to change that now without messing up a schedule that makes reference to a lot of date and season-specific events. I don’t think I have too much extraneous material, or any entries not pulling their weight, but the posts should have started later and been more frequent, covering a shorter space of real time. The events I’m currently posting should have happened in around the third week of the story, rather than the fifth/sixth. Mei’s failed journey home could have been in the first week, and the more light-hearted expository banter about how they all met might have been better as an extra post on Ash’s or Jack’s blog. I could add in all kinds of caveats about how I want to show the differences in the characters’ responses to distant, imminent and actual crisis, or why the impact of these on their everyday work and family lives before they’re directly affected hardly constitutes “existing in a vacuum”, but that would be making excuses. Parts of what Wildbow says may be matters of personal taste, or mistaken assumptions about the story’s development, but none of that changes the fact that I completely misjudged how the narrative time of blog fiction really works. That’s an important discovery, it’s just a shame it was too late to save the beginning of the story.
Does that mean I have to speed things up now? Well, I have been re-scheduling to try and at least not let the pace drop further, but I’m wary of over-compensating. As an overall narrative, BI still needs to be measured rather than frenetic. The slow spread of the pandemic is the point. Just because they’re not all out shooting zombies on the first page, doesn’t mean the characters are doing nothing. We need to see that disaster is happening somewhere else while they’re getting on with their everyday lives, and we need to hear about the disaster in the ways it impacts upon them – a worry about their friend who’s closer to it, wanting to help, being unable to help, worrying about how it’ll affect their job or business, their family, their community. The overwhelming response is to focus on all the little things while avoiding the big ones, because the little things are solvable on an individual basis, the big ones require societal change. I’ve already written an analysis of contemporary disaster fiction, putting BI in an emerging tradition in which isolated individuals seek connection and common experience. In this type of disaster, the focus is character-based, and the nature of the disaster itself is almost irrelevant except as context for the character’s personal journey. The characters need to not only experience what’s coming, but have time to reflect on it and change, and respond to the changes in the other characters. I’m not talking about lingering over irrelevant detail or filling up the time with pointless waffle, but the characters shouldn’t be bouncing between events without pause for thought. Only time will tell if I can get the balance right from here.
This kind of story does very much rely on the reader being drawn to the characters in some way, identifying with them, finding their voices compelling, wanting to know what happens to them, and I was disappointed to find that this wasn’t happening for my first reviewer. Why the characters’ discussions of their motivations, ambitions and external lives should have failed to impact to the point that these things seemed missing entirely, when they are in fact the bulk of what makes up the story so far, is one of those things that I could speculate on until I trust nobody’s judgement, including my own, and never want to turn on the computer again. Instead, I’ll jump off that train of thought before it carries me into a dark tunnel with no end, and try to land carefully and keep going.
As for the pacing of the posts, I’ll be rescheduling as I go, partly in response to feedback but mostly by my own sense of how time is passing, and possibly adding extra entries if it feels to me that the gaps between posts have been too long or the characters’ lives not fully fleshed out.
 I’ve added a tag-line to the story to try and emphasise that a functioning internet throughout the disaster is a central conceit. I was going to use an extra behind-the-scenes blog, called “BLink”, to simulate an information-sharing tool the characters use and give extra technical information on background aspects of the story like the workings of the W4, but I decided it was a bit clunky. The background of the world should come out through the story rather than requiring meta-textual explanations, and I think all the information you actually need about the W4 and Socnets is in there if you look. There is existing technology that could feasibly be developed into a self-sustaining, global broadband satellite communications network in the near future, and there are plenty of ways to keep the Socnet servers on the ground running – especially if there’s capacity in Iceland, which is already developing server farms to run on its abundant geothermal power. Still, it’s not important that all readers understand all the technical details of how the internet keeps going, only that they accept the scenario as plausible.