J.T. Robertson was in plenty of suspense last summer when he submitted his work “The Memory Thieves” for a writing competition. He had no idea if he would master the novella — a form he had never attempted before — 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 in serial form, with Robertson posting one chapter at a time online and soliciting feedback.
Sometimes readers’ comments appeared on the site itself; other times, people tracked him down via email or social media. As the writing process continued over the summer months, Robertson found himself wondering — as much as his readers did — about the next installment.
“I literally made it all up as I went,” the St. Louis resident said. “I wrote the first two chapters and tried to outline the rest, but it took on a life of its own.”
The Summer Writing Project, launched last year by Orange-based Black Hill Press and the serial-fiction website JukePop, aims to make writing a living, organic process. The annual event kicks off June 1, when authors are invited to submit first installments of novellas to be posted online.
Over the coming three months, as further installments go up on JukePop, organizers will take note of which authors’ works garner the most readership. At the end of August, the 12 leading contenders will go before a panel of judges, who ultimately will select three novellas to be published as paperbacks by Black Hill.
The Summer Writing Project may have winners, but Kevin Staniec, the 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 public interest in new literature — and to inspire new authors to enter the fray.
“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. “And I think the same thing happens online. All of these people are commenting and talking about somebody who just uploaded a new chapter, and everyone starts to go there.
“And then, when some of those readers are also writers and they read it, they think, ‘Well, maybe I should just submit my chapter.’”
At least it worked for Charles Dickens.
Staniec cites the 19th century English author as one of his prime influences in founding the Summer Writing Project. Dickens routinely serialized his novels in journals before they appeared in book form, and the author’s trademark plot twists — secret identities, surprise parentage — left readers in suspense for the next issue.
The Summer Writing Project’s website vows to resuscitate “the lost art of the serial, pioneered at the dawn of publishing, when authors such as Charles Dickens received critical acclaim and feedback from mass audiences by serializing novels one chapter at a time.”
According to Robert Newsom, a professor emeritus of English at UC Irvine and author of several works on Dickens, the “Oliver Twist” author sometimes altered his novels in response to public reaction — for example, sending the hero of “Martin Chuzzlewit” on a voyage to America when he sensed interest flagging. Parceling out a novel one chapter at a time provided a hook for readers, but there was an economic factor to the serial form as well.
“It was not uncommon in the 18th century, before Dickens,” Newsom said. “It chiefly was attractive to people because books were very expensive, so if you read them in serial, you could afford them more easily. A book that was published as a book would come out basically for a pound, which was a lot of money in the 18th century. If you spread it out over 20 months, it only cost a shilling.”
In the online age, even that shilling won’t be necessary. Last summer, Staniec said, nearly 120,000 participated in the Summer Writing Project either as readers or writers, and he imagined that the short increments worked well for those who had a few minutes to glance down at an iPhone during the day.
To determine the 12 semifinalists, JukePop not only measures the number of online clicks but also the retention rate — how many readers come back to read a novella’s next chapter — as well as the length of page views, which suggest whether visitors read all the way through.
JukePop founder Jerry Fan said he sometimes polls audiences at speaking engagements about whether they finish books they check out from the library, and the answer often comes back negative.
If nothing else, 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 emails began coming, sometimes as often as five a day, and he found himself speeding up new installments to meet demand.
“I broke my story up into 10 sections, and I was going to do one per week,” said Alumbaugh, a Davis resident. “But what I found is that people wanted them sooner.”
City (Lights) of Orange
The Summer Writing Project may center on the power of online readership, but Staniec plans to bring it off-line this summer as well. From June through August, he’ll organize a series of in-person workshops and panels, with topics ranging from the art of the novella to writing for comics and video games.
Nearly all of the events will take place around Orange’s historic Old Town district — an area that Staniec hopes to define soon as a literary haven. He’s titled the initiative 1888, after the year of Orange’s incorporation, and is seeking a permanent venue to house its events in the future.
For 1888’s model, Staniec has set his sights well beyond Orange County — specifically, to an iconic bookstore in the Bay Area.
“When we were sitting around the table with some of our Black Hill Press family members and some of our authors and partners that we work with, the idea came, ‘Well, what if we could be the City Lights of Southern California, or City Lights of Orange County?’” he said. “It’s not easy for someone in Costa Mesa to just drive up to San Francisco and be a part of that rich history.”
Whether he gets a brick-and-mortar location or not, Staniec — who is seeking nonprofit status for 1888 — is keen to stress the notion of a publishing house. He refers to Black Hill, which launched in 2013, as a “family” with 60 or so members who range from authors to designers to editors. For each year of the Summer Writing Project, he enlists a visual artist to create the covers; Mariya Suzuki of Japan, whose work Staniec discovered online, got the call this year.
For authors like Alumbaugh, a winning entry in the Summer Writing Project may fulfill a longtime dream of publication, but what kind of audience exists for novellas? Defining the medium can be slippery — the Merriam-Webster dictionary calls it “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel” — and the Summer Writing Project website itself lists a slew of articles, including entries on Wikipedia and the Huffington Post, to provide general guidelines.
Brent Cunningham, the operations director for the Berkeley-based Small Press Distribution, which counts Black Hill among its clients, said his company distributes only two publishers, as far as he knows, that specialize in novellas. Still, that’s two more than Cunningham had on the roster a few years ago, and he noted that other presses have thrived recently with shorter fiction titles.
“I certainly feel like there’s been a strong increase of them,” Cunningham said.
At least the Summer Writing Project finalists from last year have one encouraging sign in terms of publication — all three of their novellas have five-star averages on Amazon. Online origins or not, Robertson was relieved to hold an actual bound book in his hands.
“I was over the moon,” he said. “This is my first published book, so that was exciting. When I went into this thing, it was entirely on a whim.”