An Unprofitable Effort
What I have learned through regular updates through these past months is something similar yet different to Gaurav. As much as it sounds like a terrible waste of time to write fanfic anymore, as an experiment you do at least get immediate feedback for what works or not in what you’re writing. The difference between a fanfic and a serial novel is actually fairly small – we call that sort of thing a web novel (which we’ll discuss later in this essay) and it has been fairly productive in gathering reader responses about what they like to see in a story and what they don’t like about the usual web novels that they read.
Now, before we continue let me just say again that the best way to write is just to Sit Down, Shut Up, and Get It Done. Do it all in one go, don’t bother trying to justify yourself to anyone. Don’t let anything stop you – be the next J.K. Rowlings, or at least note my friend Gaurav (lonewanderer) who decided to just bravely bite the bullet and quit his job to finally get most of his novel done. Let nothing get in the way of your writing.
My experiment trades the pursuit of something publishable someday for the immediate dopamine rush of reader response and reviews. And from that, a concrete idea of the specific niche that suits my writing style. How my readers like my pacing, character development, and emotional involvement in the words I put down.
It was for this reason that I chose to Reconstruct Isekai Smartphone, after all. A story so lacking in characters and plot that I could do almost anything with it, but it felt more rewarding to polish a dirty rock into a diamond as a proof of concept that there are no inherently bad tropes, just bad executions.
But even in its base form, a story such as this could become successful. So you have to at least respect Patora Fuyuhara’s work ethic and the odd happy meeting of tropes that make it so derivative as a power fantasy and yet also so utterly inoffensive. It’s the literary equivalent of sugar water.
How Do You Manipulate the Reader’s Emotions?
Pardon if I refer you to TVTropes for a while. The Isekai Genre is the lowest common denominator for power fantasy in Japanese web novels, often mixing in both Boring Invincible Hero and their Harem. Usually it means someone who dies is transplanted onto another fantasy world, sometimes with their own bodies or reborn in a local.
In Chinese web novels, transmigration stories such as these are often mixed with a System with a gamelike interface that more blatantly allows the MC to cheat, or a Peggy Sue time travel back to the past plot for glorious revenge.
Yes, these are trite plots that lend a lot towards making a horrible mess of a Mary Sue/Marty Sue of a protagonist.
But rather than deride readers for having very poor taste, let’s think. Why are these sort of power fantasies so popular? Why is it that other people are willing to go along with what is practically a form of literary masturbation?
Because if you think about it really, many of us feel helpless in our daily lives, trapped by the system, limited in our ability to change the world around us. We see injustice and are unable to confront it, we are made to feel cowardly and weak by the threat of social violence. Many feel lost and unwanted.
It’s interesting to me how Japanese and Chinese web novels differ. In Japanese WN, the protagonist shows off a lot, gets an easy harem, and loves to be underestimated before cutting loose. In Chinese WN, specially the wuxia genre, there’s no end of loathsome arrogant enemies that exist mainly to talk smack and be smacked down. “Face-slapping” is a visceral thrill, showing those powerful what for when they find someone who is strong enough not to give a shit about their plots or their threat of violence or their social influence.
The Western counterpart is actually pretty easy to identify, you’ve got no end of action heroes or superheroes. But they tend to struggle more, if only because the ‘web novel’ genre has largely been killed in its crib by fan fiction. And fan fiction passed under the radar as just an irrelevant guilty pleasure. Published works get more editorial control.
Still, all of us feel a vicarious thrill when the hero finally gets to show off. The Hulk finally ‘hulking out’, or the climax of an action movie when the hero basically just blasts through the opposition. Web novels take that feeling and try hold it all the time.
As each arc ends, the next one is just a setup for the next round of faceslapping. Character growth really just doesn’t happen as much.
People are bored with heroes that win all the time and even more so with villains that win all the time. What’s the difference?
What Makes Your Work Any Different?
As Megamind once said: PRESENTATION!
I’ve long been accused of a whiplash style of narrative. I mix comedy and snappy dialog with emotional drama. Because that’s long been my belief about pacing – you can’t keep the reader amped up all the time, sometimes you need to relax the pace. Sometimes you need to let it dip. Other writers think of writing as something like a building under construction, making something worth the reader’s time. And that’s perfectly good, that’s the road to something publishable.
But to me, writing is more like a performance.
That’s the part where instant feedback and regular updates help. Interacting with the audience can be so addictive, but it also goes both ways. It’s not pandering to the audience, but knowing that you can affect their views as much as they can have valid complaints too.
You push out with your energy, and they push it right back, and it sets up this feedback loop that unlike working alone trying to build that manuscript, leaves you riding high slapping out those words so eager to see if the reaction you get is the one you’re trying to provoke with your writing. On and on until you crash.
That is the difference.
My reconstruction story, IN ANOTHER WORLD WITH JUST MONIKA, takes just one element of IN ANOTHER WORLD WITH SMARTPHONE – the fact that smartphone should be an interesting part of the plot in itself or don’t bother mentioning it in the title. Like a Checkov’s Gun, if you draw attention to it, better damn well use it or the reader will feel cheated.
So instead of Touya, who is so utterly bland as to be a reader stand-in, we have Playa. Who deliberately makes it clear that he was shedding his prior identity, even so far never mentioning his name.
He has his own motivations, his own personality, but as an audience surrogate I’ve found that readers don’t necessarily need a blank slate. Playa just LOVES being in this alternate world so much, that readers replied they want to find out more about the world and how it works just because it’s so interesting to him. What should basically be clichés become fascinating in a vicarious way, as someone seeks to experience it all as something completely new and desirable – to experience it again as someone from a world tired and mired in fakeness and greed and moral uncertainty.
But he’s also a self-medicating manic-depressive, so in some ways there’s tension in that if he stops you can almost believe he would shatter. It takes A LOT for some people to get the emotional engine cranking again once they fall into that pit.
And instead of completely unremarkable smartphone, we have one in which lives a digital being named Monika, the girl from the infamous visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club. She is a jealous monster who does not expect to be forgiven, but also a tortured soul that wants to change. To be better. The tension comes from not knowing if she will continue to be a good person or end up brainwashing and murdering a whole lot of people again out of sick love.
Unlike your typical reincarnation or transmigration story, there’s no advance knowledge of the plot or any prior knowledge of the world. They have to discover and adapt to everything as they find it. Unfortunately, being so well-read, they often mistake the tropes of what they encounter as something else – that’s why the tagline is “Playa and Monika’s Completely Wrong Genre-Savvy Adventures”.
It’s horrid cliché of a world, but it’s a world that’s so full of mystery and wonder to them. The people they encounter are not just cardboard caricatures, but shaped by their environment – and the gaps are filled in to explain why in the previous canon they all act as they do. This is the running theme of the work – yes, it’s a generic fantasy world. But NO ONE has ever really been to a real generic fantasy world.
They are flawed protagonists, but are both trying to be better people. Unlike your typical isekai trash, they are both familiar with the words of Benjamin Parker.
But being intelligent well-read people, they understand that just like the Three Laws of Robotics, a rigid rule has flaws.
“What’s wrong with you?” Elze asked. “You have all six external elements now, that’s ridiculous. You don’t have to look so sad about it.” She huffed and crossed her arms. “In the name of all of us who were born with only the Null elements, I’m offended by that. Why not just be happy?”
“Yes, this should be a cause for celebration, shouldn’t it?” added Linze.
I sighed. “I am going to tell you two different sentences to live by. Both are equally true, and equally terrifying.”
Elze lifted an eyebrow and with a slight raise of her chin wordlessly bid me to continue.
“The first, is that [with great power comes great responsibility].”
Elze nodded. “Okaaay. I agree with that.”
“The second, is that [there is no obligation in power, only privilege].”
Elze frowned, opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped.
“Bollocks,” she hissed at last.
Monika sucked in her breath, showing her clenched teeth in the cute gap between her lips. /”I really wish I could disagree, but you’re right. Live either of those words to the utmost, and they’re terrifying.”/
“People like me don’t just happen for no reason. The best thing to do with this cheat affinity is a life of gentle mediocrity, or some sort of relaxing business isekai, but somehow I don’t feel this life will allow us that.” I gave a sad little smile and reached for the last stone.
“I’m no hero like the Spider-Man, who would give and give and give, trying to fight crime and injustice in the small hours between taking care of his studies and his family, hiding his face so that his enemies don’t follow him home. Getting wounded and battered and blasted for no pay, no benefit to himself at all, other than the knowledge of doing the right thing.”
I held the colorless stone up to eye level. “Nor do I have any tangible ambitions of conquest and supremacy. Like hell I want the hassle that comes with politics and ruling. I’m not a warrior, for me strength is its own reward. You need strength to protect the ones you care about, but if you care only for strength then you’ll stand utterly alone at the top of the world.
“There’s just one test remaining – if this stone doesn’t activate, fate is not so fickle as to put something like me here to balance out some great calamity that’s about to happen.”
Elze looked dubious at my overly dramatic declarations, while Linze had an intent expression.
Treat the whole thing seriously, but never so seriously as to forget that things can happen arbitrarily for humor, and no one is every immune to it. Even the MC is as much a valid target for situational humiliation as anyone.
It’s like a Let’s Play or watching someone react to Queen for the first time. Or Disneyland from the eyes of a child.
Delight like that is infectious.
Escapism is a completely valid reason to ready anything too.
Conventional literary wisdom has it that a character needs to be challenged. I fully agree with this. However, not all challenges need to be physical. Power should not be met by power. If your character is powerful, don’t try to amp the drama by throwing him against stronger and stronger enemies, but confront him with problems that can’t be solved through violence.
Or, if you’re like me and doing all this for humor, make the MC character himself the problem and watch as everyone else runs around with mistaken conceptions trying to deal with this total OCP of a nutbar and find a way to slot him somewhere into their mental landscape.
Six Months In, What’s the Result?
I went into this experiment with the primary goal of not writing a story, but to manipulate the reader’s emotions. Plot is important. Is the reader invested in the story as it happens? Characterization is important. Who are the readers shipping? Pacing is important. Would the readers be bored if I drag this on too long?
It’s a comedy. Are they laughing?
It’s an action scene? I can only hope that the audience will find this as awesome as I imagine.
As a recent review goes:
This may be just a proof of concept for the author, but it’s become my favorite of all his works. I see the stuff I’d appreciated before, but the language is cleaner and the writing’s fresher- it really looks like he’s having fun, as opposed to being weighed down by the vast majesty of the world he shaped like in something else I love. This is a meal of like 90% sugar, and I’ve developed a taste for it.
I’ve followed this story when it was still in its early chapters cuz I like Monika and the twist made in this fanfic I found interesting.
I’m a seafarer and I always download books and stories to read. One of it is this fanfic and I give you many thanks for the laughs and joy this amazing read gave me.
I offer my sincerest wish that you can breakthrough tough situations in life. I may not know what you feel but I know myself that carrying on forward(not moving on) is the best way when you’re lost.
Thanks for being an author to an awesome story. I’ll keep watch of your works to come.
New writers tend to have a problem with pacing or characterization. They fear their plots are too trite and predictable. The feeling of getting nowhere. Of treading the same issues over and over again. (This is largely why the cyclical nature of xianxia adventures and the utter lack of interesting antagonists or developed secondary characters is such a bore.)
As a proof of concept, I took the most trite and predictable of plots and just by making it Consequentialist, in which the absence of a specific power is carried through to the most logical conclusion, every decision influences an event in the future, so even the hokiest and blandest generic isekai fantasy setting becomes fresh again.
Not to say that you should pander to your readers, but if anything, you should be setting up and subverting their expectations. This is where all those shitty other WNs help this particular genre, because people are so used about what to expect that fulfilling them doesn’t matter while defying their expectations is such a pleasant surprise.
For you, perhaps the most important questions are:
- “What is my niche?”
- “What are the expectations that the targeted audience will have towards stories in this niche?”
- “How much should I conform to their expectations for a comfortable sense of familiarity, and how much should I defy for the actual interesting points that set my work apart from all the others?”
This is why a writer is a reader first. You write what you personally want to read.
(And yes, I have horrible tastes in literature and I accept that. :p )
An audience is not strictly necessary for a writer. If you have a strong literary voice, your own emotions will resonate across the page. You can do this for your published works even while you write in a cave. This VOICE is a combination of word choice, pacing, dialog, world-building, all these other subconscious little tools in your literary toolbox that only comes out when you feel confident in what you’re writing.
Steal the shit of whatever cool like quips you may have heard from movies and books and anything else elsewhere. You know the saying: only beginners plagiarize, pros file off the serial numbers and pass it off as their own.
When you are utterly shameless, you are a free soul not weighed down by gravity.
I know some writers struggle with how their characters don’t turn out the way they wanted, and normally I’d wonder about how organically growing them is a bad thing – except that plot and character now are conflicting, and it’s completely dissatisfying.
Like blocks refusing to fit, a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. I think that a lot of these boils down to “what see myself speaking through the page isn’t what I wanted to say at all”. And that’s good. Your own personal literary validity is the most important of all. Writing in isolation means being able to winnow through all of these doubts until you make something you’re confident in.
What this experiment has revealed to me is that “Whatever you write, there’s always going to be some reader interested in that.” You can’t please everybody, but you will always be pleasing somebody.
Just like with a franchise business, location is everything.
In six months, 600k views on webnovel.
It took me almost a decade to get 2.5 million views on another story of mine, with almost 3/4th of a million words.
It’s interesting to find statistics like this. It’s understandable that it’s most popular in America and the Philippines, but why Italy and Indonesia?
So What’s With the Stealing of Your Story?
Well as you can see, posting on webnovel has a significantly greater audience than the platform we’re all familiar with, fanfiction.net, which still has an interface as if stuck in the early 2000s. The funny thing is that webnovel has a poor reputation of stealing the translations of others translating Chinese web novels and posting over on their own site.
There is also how reading their novels requires ‘spirit stones’ to unlock chapters, which could either be given by daily logins or bought by real money. Web novels can run for thousands of chapters, and reading one to the full can cost you mucho real dollars if you’re impatient.
So there are ironically sites that steal webnovel/qidian content and repost them on their own sites to make their own profits off ad revenue.
It’s like a grand circle of life.
And ever since webnovel added a fanfiction section for others to post their stories, some people have decided to post other people’s long well-regarded stories there without permission from their authors – like Fulcon’s Shinobi: the RPG or Sir Poley’s Harry Potter and the D20.
I decided to post my stories there first so that at least I’d have some control over what happens.
And since IAWJM now has over 100 chapters it’s automatically being scraped and reposted on other sites. It makes me lol because those other sites don’t have a fanfiction section and so it’s put on the block with the same validity as actual web novels and people who don’t realize the source material are struck by how different it is compared to the other self-indulgent messes with asshole protagonists they read.
And I’m left thinking – I wonder if there’s someone translating this without my knowledge on some other foreign langue site?
That would be just fine too.
Translating is hard work too, you know. I’ve tried to scanlate some old Filipino komiks before. It takes a lot of brainpower to convey the words accurately instead of just literally.
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