J.T. Robertson was in plenty of suspense last summer when he submitted his novella "The Memory Thieves" for the Summer Writing Project, launched last year by Orange-based Black Hill Press and the serial-fiction website JukePop. He had no idea if he would master the form -- he had never tried it -- or whether readers and judges would warm to his style.
As for how his story would end? Robertson wasn't sure of that either.
"The Memory Thieves," one of the three finalists chosen last year in the Summer Writing Project, began as a serial, with Robertson posting one chapter at a time online and soliciting feedback. As the writing continued, Robertson found himself wondering about the next installment as much as his readers did.
"I literally made it all up as I went," he said. "I wrote the first two chapters and tried to outline the rest, but it took on a life of its own."
The 2015 Summer Writing Project kicks off today, and authors are invited to submit first installments of novellas to be posted online.
Over the next three months, organizers will note which works garner the highest readership. At the end of August, the 12 leading contenders go to a panel of judges, who will select three novellas to be published as paperbacks by Black Hill.
But if this means that the Summer Writing Project has winners, Kevin Staniec, publisher and co-founder of Black Hill, doesn't like to think of it as a competition. Rather, he considers it a way to spark interest in new literature -- and to inspire new authors as well.
"If you are at the mall and you see a group of people gathered, all looking at a book, everyone's going to be, 'What's that? What's that about?'" said Staniec, who works during the day as a program specialist for the city of Irvine. "I think the same thing happens online."
In 2014, Staniec said, nearly 120,000 people participated in the Summer Writing Project, either as readers or writers, and he imagines that the short increments worked well for those who had a few minutes to glance down at an iPhone during the day.
Last summer's three winners passed the retention test. Robertson's "The Memory Thieves" is a science-fiction noir in which human memories become the target of heists, while Shaunn Grulkowski's "Retcontinuum" follows a man who becomes hunted after a time-travel experiment goes awry. Scott Alumbaugh takes a sobering look at the 1992 Los Angeles riots in "Will Kill for Food."
Alumbaugh, who had never published a book before, said he felt nervous when he uploaded his first chapter. Then the reactions started coming, sometimes as often as five a day.
"I broke my story up into 10 sections, and I was going to do one per week," he explained. "But what I found is that people wanted them sooner."
The Summer Writing Project may center on the power of online readership, but Staniec said he plans to bring it offline this summer too. From June through August, he'll organize a series of in-person workshops and panels, most of which will take place around Orange's historic Old Town district -- an area that Staniec hopes to define as a literary haven.
That's gravy for the authors, for whom a winning Summer Writing Project entry fulfills the dream of publication.