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SundayI don't want to know...25 comments · 283 views
SundayFifty shades of marketing24 comments · 224 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?
7 comments · 211 views
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.
37 comments · 265 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!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is bookplayer's fault. See this blog post by DH and this comment by bookplayer. Also see bookplayer's How to do a Sonic Rainboom, which has nothing to do with this story but is really good. NOT NOW! After you read this story. I'm not allowed to use the OC tag because device heretic and bookplayer invented the character, so there.
Churning dark clouds hurried overhead past Ponyville, blown on a chill, foreshadowing wind. The red glow on their undersides faded as the sun's last rays died and night descended on the town.
The gaunt, old grey unicorn pulled his tattered and dusty cloak tighter about him as he made his slow and deliberate way down the town's empty streets. The traveler paid no mind to the street signs, but stopped now and then to sniff the air, and cock an ear to the sky, before grunting to himself and continuing. Eventually he found himself on the doorstep of a nice Ponyville townhouse, one of those new tri-levels going up on the south end. He eyed the row of peonies in a window flowerbox dubiously before rapping heavily and ominously on the door.
Inside, the red-and-black alicorn Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade stood in a room by himself, silently regarding a tan chaise lounge situated between two oak end tables, one with a brass lamp with fringes on its shade, the other with a vase of red flowers. His massive muscles rippled with every movement of his battle-scarred body as he turned his head, first to one end table, then to the other. On hearing the hollow, foreboding knock, he turned and looked over his shoulder.
"Honey, could you get that?" he called.
An earth pony stallion with a maple-sugar coat and mane trotted down the hallway, past the room where Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade stood pondering the furniture arrangement, and into the entrance foyer. He opened the door to find the stranger waiting there. They both twitched their noses and blinked, looking equally surprised. Then the stranger spoke, in the deep, unwavering voice of one who has seen unspeakable sights and knows terrible and glorious secrets.
"I have followed the scent of destiny to your doorstep, young stallion. I have grave words to speak, and grim – but there is yet cause for hope."
The earth pony turned his head over his shoulder and shouted, "I think it's one of those Jehoovah's Witnesses."
"Just flame at him and he'll run away," Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade called back.
"I don't flame," the earth pony said.
"I have come from a distant land, drawn here by emanations of vast magical power, and by prophecy."
"Oh, come on, just roll your eyes at him and call him 'darling'! It'd be so cute."
"Not gonna happen, Nighty."
"The fate of all Equestria hangs in the balance!" the unicorn intoned.
The earth pony nodded. "Yeah, yeah. Look. Come in for a second, I can get you some water, okay? But then you hafta leave." He took one step towards the kitchen.
"SILENCE!" the old unicorn thundered, and when he stamped one hoof for emphasis, a lightning bolt split the sky behind him and left an echoing crack and a ringing in all their ears.
"My bad," the earth pony called over his shoulder. "He's an adventurer."
"Oh, Celestia!" Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade called back. "They're even worse!"
The unicorn cleared his throat. "I am Dan-galf Shadowhax, the grey pony, the midnight crow, counsellor of kings..."
"Come on, Nighty, you know he's here for you."
"... summoner of tides, wayfarer of wastes..."
"I'm not here! Can he hear me?"
"... keeper of the crimson croissant, and I must speak to the prophesied one – to Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade!" He glared at the earth pony with the visage of one used to commanding armies and giving stern warnings to kings and queens.
The earth pony stared right back. "Yeah. Well, he's a little busy. So whattya need?"
The unicorn scrutinized the brown earth pony doubtfully. "And who might you be?"
"Phil," the earth pony answered.
The traveler frowned. He did not look like a pony used to being denied an audience, or to explaining himself to ponies named Phil.
"Look," Phil said, "let me guess. You got an evil sorcerer needs killing, a relic of great power to get or destroy, a dangerous rift that might open a portal to another dimension, or some kinda Discord-related issue."
The traveler said angrily, "Do not speak to me as though I were a colt! I have climbed the heights of Mt. Varanus, I have ridden the wind on the backs of dragons, and I—"
The old unicorn turned his face away. "The third," he muttered.
"Yeah. And it's in the Everfree Forest, right?"
Dan-galf raised both eyebrows.
"I thought so. It's rift season. Just hold on here a moment." He disappeared into the back briefly, then re-emerged holding a battered black steel toolbox in his mouth, which he set on the floor. "Nighty," he called, "I'm gonna go help this guy with his rift, okay?"
"But we were going to go through that new catalog from Neighman-Marecus together tonight!"
"I'll be back quick, I promise."
Phil groaned. "Pinky-promise." He turned back to the old unicorn. "Now let's you and me go take a look at this rift, then we can come back here and you can talk to Nighty if you still want."
The unicorn stamped one hoof stubbornly. "The prophesied one must come!"
"Look, he's staring at the furniture again, and in another few minutes he's gonna start pushing it around, and that could go on for an hour."
"The prophecy says—"
Phil raised a hoof, cutting him off, and said, "Listen. Do you like musical dance numbers?"
He grimaced. "I despise them."
"Then leave him here. Trust me. So, this rift. Does it go hiss, or a sort of zhurp-zhurp-zhurp?"
The old pony sighed and slumped his shoulders. "It's more of a zhurp zhurp," he said.
"Uh-huh. And would you say it pulses, streams, or just glows steady-like?"
"Pulses. It throbs with an other-worldly—"
"Uh-huh. Gonna need a socket wrench." He opened the toolbox and began rummaging through it, tossing a few tools onto the floor. "Is this rift English or metric? Ah, better take both sets."
Dan-galf gasped at the pile of tools, some of which were forged from metals that were a wicked-looking cold grey, or strangely iridescent, and covered in ancient runes. "Is that – is that the Dagger of Invictus?"
"Yeah," Phil said. "Nighty gave me that. Never needs sharpening. Wish I had a dozen of those babies."
"And the Hammer of Amit?"
"Yeah, we're gonna need that to drive in some shims," Phil said. He threw some of the tools back in the box, left the Dagger of Invictus and a few others lying there on the floor, then strapped on some saddlebags that were hanging in the foyer and put the toolbox inside.
"I still don't understand," the old pony said. "Why is Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade, the great warrior foretold to us in ancient prophecies, obsessed with the placement of furniture?"
Phil leaned in, put one foreleg around Dan-galf and said quietly, "Well, lemme put it this way. Some ponies believe that every guy like me and Nighty is a natural-born genius at matching colors and furniture and all that."
The gray pony wrinkled his brow, perplexed. "Like you and Nighty?"
"Yeah, but it's just a myth."
"And your... friend is one of the few with real talent?"
"Phil!" Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade called from down the hall. "Have you seen my color swatches?"
"They're Rarity's swatches, which you were borrowing, and she came by and picked them up yesterday because you never returned them," Phil called out. He turned back to the old unicorn and leaned in closer. "My 'friend' is one of the ponies who believes the myth. Come on, let's get out of here before there's a montage or something." He pushed Dan-galf the grey pony out the door and shut it behind him.
Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade absent-mindedly stroked his chin with the blood-red pearl of great magical power mounted in his adamantium-clawed battle-hoofring while he contemplated the two end tables. End tables normally went on the two ends of something; but the whole purpose of a chaise lounge was to break up that kind of symmetry. Functionally, both end tables should go at the end where a pony's head would go, one behind and one beside the lounge. But that would push the lounge away from the wall and leave a big unusable empty space behind it, which was bad Feng Shui.
He loved chaise lounges, but the mystery of how to coordinate them with matched end tables still eluded him. Possibly... if you pushed it back into a corner, angled so that the end table behind the lounge just fit into the space between the lounge and the corner...
A little less than an hour later, Phil and Dan-galf returned. "Amazing," Dan-galf was muttering. "We are eternally grateful to you... Phil."
"Remember to check on it every week with the torque wrench, crank it back up to 35 if it goes under 30 pounds, but no more or you'll strip the threads. Whack the shims if they start working their way out. Let me know if reality starts going a little wibbly-wobbly."
"I shall, Phil of Ponyville," Dan-galf said. "This I swear by—"
"Phil!" Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade exclaimed, galloping into the room. "You simply must see what I've done with the sitting room! You're going to love it."
"Can we still sit in it?"
"Come, come, come!" Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade tugged at Phil with a fiery red plasma of immense yet gentle magical power.
"Hail, Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade!" Dan-galf said. "I have heard the bards sing of your—"
Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade jerked his tall, stately head toward Dan-galf. "My designs? You've heard of them?"
Phil shook his head urgently at Dan-galf.
"Er... no. I have heard tell of your deeds of bravery..."
But the handsome alicorn had already lost interest and turned his deep, soulful red eyes on Phil. "You won't believe it. I asked myself, How can I balance a tan lounge with oak end-tables? That's bad color theory right there to begin with. But I found these forest-green throw-pillows..."
Phil mouthed Get out while you can! to Dan-galf and waved him towards the door as he was dragged backwards by the irresistible strength of the equally-irresistible alicorn.
"Er... I take my leave of you, Dark Demon King Ravenblood Nightblade. And of you... Phil." He watched them disappear down the hallway and into the sitting room.
"Nighty!" he heard Phil exclaim. "It's exactly the same as before!"
Then Dan-galf Shadowhax the grey pony, counsellor of kings, shut the door behind him very quietly and ventured back into the cold and windy night.