To Holmes, she is always the mare. In his eyes she eclipses the whole of her sex, and fills him with admiration and loathing. Whether she in fact stole the Starry Night was ultimately beside the point. What mattered to Holmes was that he had been matched at his own game, by a mare; that it had not been altogether unpleasant; and that she had caused him, however briefly, to turn his keen and unflinching gaze upon himself.
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SundayI don't want to know...26 comments · 302 views
SundayFifty shades of marketing27 comments · 243 views
My question about "story views" reminded me...
"Fifty Shades of Grey" was a spectacularly popular Twilight fan-fiction; it had over two million downloads online. The publishing giant Vintage Press saw that number and realized they had a hit on their hands. They filed off the Twilight serial numbers, put it in print, marketed it like hell, and now it's sold 60 million copies, satisfying a huge but previously unrealized market for bad BDSM chick-lit-porn.
Part of that is true.
Though the Twilight fandom was very large, it was still too small, I thought, for one story to have two million reads. A little searching and I found the original quote was "over two million hits". It was reported by Anne Jamison, author of "fic: Why Fan-Fiction is Taking Over the World". I emailed her and asked where that number came from. She replied,
The "millions" numbers I had were not public; I had them from screenshots from various writers. The counts were from fanfiction.net which, for the Twilight fandom, remained the biggest hub--most if not all stories that were also posted at Twilighted.net and TWCS were also posted on ff.net. Ff.net tallies reads but doesn't--unlike Wattpad or AO3--make them public.
But for all the sites, read or hit counts are for every time someone clicks on the story--so if they click through the front page to get to chapter 37, that's 2 reads.
Fan-fiction is published one chapter at a time. "Fifty Shades of Grey" has 26 chapters, but when it was originally published on fanfiction.net as "Master of the Universe", it had over 100 chapters. More digging by gwern showed that the story had over 40,000 reviews when it was on chapter 70. It had 37,000 reviews when it reached 2 million hits. So let's say it had 65 chapters when it reached 2 million hits on fanfiction.net.
fanfiction.net adds 1 hit every time any page of the story is reloaded. If you go to chapter 1 and read all the way through to chapter 120 in one sitting, that's 120 hits. If you log in, see it updated, go to chapter 1, and then go from there to the new chapter, that's at least 239 hits to read the book. If you refresh the page, that's another hit. (I verified this myself by refreshing one chapter of one story of mine 3 times on fanfiction.net, checking the stats before and after.) If you read half of one chapter one day, and log in again and finish it the next, that's at least 2 hits. If you leave it in an open tab on your computer, that's 1 hit every time you open your browser. If you reread the story, the hits double. If you click on the story each day to see if it's updated, hits go way up.
Two million hits on a 65-chapter story means a theoretical maximum of 2,000,000 / 65 = 30,769 readers had read it on fanfiction.net when that "two million" figure was reported. More likely, given re-readings, users who always go in through chapter 1, users who quit halfway through, browser refreshes, etc., perhaps 10,000 readers finished it on fanfiction.net, and let's say another 10,000 on other sites. That's about as many readers as finished My Roommate is a Vampire.
What actually happened was that a fanfiction that had been read by at most a few tens of thousands of people was reported on in a way that misled publishers into thinking that it had millions of readers, when really, it just had a lot of chapters. So they put a major marketing campaign behind it, and sold tens of millions of copies.
But was Fifty Shades of Grey really what people wanted? Or would the same thing have happened with almost any book they'd marketed as heavily?
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The site upgrade is pretty awesome; I'm still discovering big changes. But I'm confused by the new meaning of "story views". I saw my stats page says I have 242,137 story views, and I thought, Awesome! A little while ago I had only 100,000!
Then I realized that was impossible.
Exhibit A: Terein. 1 story. 1 chapter. 188 views of that chapter. Yet his/her stats page says 381 story views.
I had never heard of Terein until just now, when I went looking for someone with just 1 story with just 1 chapter, and as I was typing out his/her username just now, I got a pop-up notification saying "Terein posted a new thread in The Writer's Group."
Exhibit B: Web of Hope. Might be reading this. 3 stories, 6 chapters between them, 1242 views across those 6 chapters. Stats pages says 2059 story views.
Story views--what do they MEAN?
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A good Doctor Who plot has two plots. One is the Doctor saving the world. Another is helping somebody (possibly the Doctor) deal with some personal problem. Ideally, these two plots should connect.
At the start of the episode, Amy is engaged to marry Rory, but still finds herself attracted to the Doctor. Then a mysterious “Dream Lord” springs a trap for the Doctor, forcing Amy, Rory, and the Doctor to move back and forth between two realities. In one, the Doctor is visiting Amy and Rory, who have been married a long time and are having a baby; they are all chased by murderous old people. In the other, Amy and Rory are travelling with the Doctor, but they’re all trapped in a TARDIS drained of power and are slowly freezing to death. Each time they wake up in one reality, they feel convinced that it is the real world, and the other is a dream. But time passes in the other reality while they aren’t in it, and they don’t have enough time to escape the threats in both realities. The Dream Lord tells them that they must choose which reality is real, and kill themselves in the one that is a dream. For reasons I no longer remember, Amy must be the one who chooses which of these worlds is real.
Of course the worlds also symbolize the two men she feels she needs to choose between. And her choice ends up depending not on reasoning out which world is real, but realizing which man she wants to be with (Rory). (There’s a crossed circuit in the symbolism, because she has to choose the Doctor's world rather than Rory's world in order to be with Rory, who was killed in Rory's world. He should have been killed in the Doctor's world if they wanted to keep that symbolism straight. Though they way they did it still worked.)
After she chooses, and they kill themselves in Rory’s world, the Doctor kills them all in the Doctor’s world--and they wake up back on the TARDIS. The Doctor explains how he figured out that …
… wait for it…
… both of the worlds Amy thought she had to choose between were just dreams.
Whoa. See how that fits with the symbolism?
In Rory-world, the danger was old people. In Doctor-world, the danger was freezing to death. Almost as if she were afraid of growing old and boring with Rory, and afraid of a cold life with the Doctor, who did not love her.
So Amy has now resolved to marry Rory, but has also learned that both of the futures she imagined she was choosing between--as well as her greatest fears about those futures--were all just dreams, which may or may not happen regardless of her choice.
Thus, this episode has one adventure plot-line and one love-life plot-line, and they are unified completely by the end. But which came first: The adventure plot, or the love plot?
In this case, we know: The love plot came first, according to Wikipedia.. And that doesn’t surprise me. Everything came back to Amy’s love quandary. It would have been amazingly good luck if a random adventure story had all that fall out of it in the second draft. It can happen, but not reliably.
(Bonus: There’s a third plot line in this episode: Who is the Dream Lord? The answer to that tells you a lot about the Doctor.)
NOTE: I'm linking to this post from the Story & Episode Annotations & Analysis group, which everybody seems to have forgotten about.
39 comments · 271 views
What’s a story?
"Story" is a very broad category, even when counting only fiction. It includes:
- nonsense stories that are supposed to be stupid and make no sense:
One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
Came and killed the two dead boys.
- meta-fiction (stories about stories), like Borges' stories that are literary analyses of imaginary stories ("Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote" is my favorite)
- ancient Greek rape comedies [h]
- Goodnight, Moon
- Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra
- Waiting for Godot, a story about nothing happening
- this story from the infancy gospel of Thomas:
After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course. And immediately the child fell down and died. ... And the parents of him that was dead came unto Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Thou that hast such a child canst not dwell with us in the village: or do thou teach him to bless and not to curse: for he slayeth our children. And Joseph called the young child apart and admonished him, saying: Wherefore doest thou such things, that these suffer and hate us and persecute us? But Jesus said: I know that these thy words are not thine: nevertheless for thy sake I will hold my peace: but they shall bear their punishment. And straightway they that accused him were smitten with blindness.
I don’t believe there are rules about what kinds of fictional narratives can be set down as text and appreciated. Anything goes. So what am I talking about when I talk about rules of fiction?
A general evolutionary theory of fiction
I think people have evolved cognitive dog-treat-recognizers, things in their brains that give them little jolts of pleasure for doing things that tend to get their genes propagated. When we read fiction, we get these doggy treats even for things we didn’t do ourselves. 
The evolutionary explanation for erotica is obvious: People enjoy sex. (I don't know why there isn't food porn, too.) Bashing your opponent on the head gives you a different kind of jolt of pleasure. Action stories are efficient structures that give you jolts of pleasure at bashing other people on the head without suffering the (culturally-specific) jolts of guilt that prevent people from bashing each other on the head all the time.
“Dramatic” stories play on the reader’s emotional bonds to the characters. This requires a complicated story structure to build up these bonds, then yank on them so you react as if these things were happening to your friends.
Dramatic stories are like roller-coasters. Roller coaster design has rules. Some are engineering: The track has to go up before it can go down. Some have to do with what patterns of tension and release feel dramatic: You need to cluster small, fast curves and loops together; you need to have moments of respite between these clusters.
None of the examples I listed at the start of this post are dramatic, except for the rape comedies. So drama isn’t found in all fiction. But it’s in a hell of a lot of fiction. Drama is the backbone behind most good stories. It’s what you feel when something is at stake and you care what happens. When people say stories must have conflict, or that there must be two false climaxes followed by a climax and resolution, or that a play or movie must have a three-act structure, they’re talking about dramatic stories. If you read Syd Field, Jack Bickham, or Writer’s Digest, you’re going to get theories of dramatic structure. Most of what is written about how to write novels and movie scripts, is written as if conflict-based dramatic stories were the only kind of story. So they’re a pretty important class of stories! 
BUT. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of sets of “rules” about dramatic stories, or “basic plots” of dramatic stories. They’re… helpful, maybe. But most of them just address the plot: What sequence of events happen in a story? They’re stuff like this:
1. Once upon a time there was …
2. Every day …
3. One day …
4. Because of that …
5. Because of that …
6. Until finally …
What’s the point of that? You’d have to really work at it to write a story that didn’t fit that structure. I want to understand what my brain is looking for when deciding whether to give me a mental doggy treat. Knowing a hundred slightly different plot sequences that trigger it is a good start, but we can do better.
“Literature” is, I’m gonna say for the moment, stories that make you think about things outside of the story. In my mind, Song of Ice and Fire is fantasy, while Lord of the Rings is fantasy and literature. Twelfth Night is (bad) romance. Romeo and Juliet is (bad) romance, and literature. 2001 is science fiction. Brave New World is science fiction and literature. If you read Aristotle or Dramatica theory, you’re going to be reading about how stories make you think.
Literary stories, I think, reward you for learning. They're simulations that teach you what might happen if you do one thing in some set of circumstances. The dog-treat mechanism in your head drives you to seek literary lessons that tackle the questions currently important to you. This may account for the strange fact that there are specific story types, like alicorn OC stories, that many people love and many other people think are stupid. Maybe they’re beneficial to children, or to people struggling with self-confidence.
So stories don’t serve any single function. There are as many broad, top-level story types as there are evolved patterns of experience that trigger mental doggy treats, and a good story will trigger lots of them. But a few top-level story types are very general and very important, and I want to understand them better. If our more-specific theories about how stories work mate well with the top-level evolutionary justification, it’s a sign that we may be onto something.
A general evolutionary theory of popular bad fiction
The brain doesn’t expect your experiences to be fictional. So it gives you a reward even when you’re just imagining someone else having these experiences. An ape gets a big jolt of relief or exhilaration for outwitting a predator or enemy, and that’s fine, because that doesn’t happen much in the wild. But your brain wasn’t informed that you can sit down at B. Dalton’s and read trashy novels and make it give you that jolt every ten minutes, for things that don’t benefit your genes at all.
Some “popular but bad” story types might be ones that fool your brain into thinking it’s succeeding or learning when it isn’t. Nonsense stories, for example, are bad baby literature. Babies learn fastest by looking at things they haven't seen before. They get cognitive dog treats for looking at anything surprising, even if it's surprising just because it's really stupid. Nonsense stories don’t help anybody learn anything, but because they’re full of things that don’t make sense, they keep triggering your brain’s reward for paying attention to things that you don’t understand yet.
Even stories that benefit you some way can be “junk stories” if you indulge in them too much. In a world where we can seek out exactly the kind of food we want, we end up eating too much fat, salt, and sugar. In a world where we can seek out exactly the kind of story experience we want, we end up reading “too much” (from the perspective of our genes) of certain kinds of stories.
So I expect successful stories to include “good good stories” that reward you for confronting things in fiction that help you or your genes in real life, “junk food stories” that we over-indulge in because they give us big rewards for things that don’t happen very often in real life, and “good bad stories” that reward you for mentally jacking off [α].
TO BE CONTINUED...
h. A Greek rape comedy is a once-popular story type in which a young man prepares to marry a young women who, unknown to him, was recently raped. When he realizes she's pregnant, he must cast her off as a shamed woman. But then it turns out that he was the man who raped her, so it's okay. Everybody has a good laugh and they get married and live happily ever after. (This summary is a little unfair to the Greeks, since they didn't have a concept of, or at least a word for, rape. On the other hand, that in itself is another indictment of them.)
1. Transhumans will of course evolve brains smart enough to distinguish real experiences from fictional ones, and to reward them only for real ones. They will therefore no longer enjoy fiction.
2. It’s hard (maybe impossible) to distinguish between drama and tension. Dramatic structure, whether it’s 3-act theory or scene and sequel structure, can be used to create drama, but it can also be used in action movies where we arguably don’t care much about the characters, like Crank.
α. Not that jacking off is bad. Or using birth control. You don't always gotta do what your genes want you to. Usually, your genes are looking out for you. But plenty of stories are designed to teach you altruistic lessons that are good for your genes, or your society, to your detriment!