Today I asked: Wildbow

By Nico H.

The web fiction world is a small yet active one. The internet tends to birth communities like that. There’s a wealth of quality stories worth sinking your time – and perhaps your life – into, and if you’re familiar with web fiction and web serials, you’ve probably heard of perhaps the richest writer out there. J.C. McCrae, better known as Wildbow, better known as the writer of Worm, Pact, and the currently on-going Twig. Good stuff, to put it lightly.

But, if the web fiction world is an alien one to you, you can’t go wrong starting off with Worm. Yeah, there’s roughly 1.7 million words, but the payoff justifies the length. It’s a worthy investment.

On Feb. 16, with two webs serials under his belt, and with his third coming along quite nicely, I decided to reach out to Wildbow himself to ask him a few things I was personally curious about, from his different web serials to upcoming projects. There’s some Worm 2 talk in here.

Below is a short and quick Q&A with the man himself. Enjoy, everybody.

BD: First off, could I have you introduce yourself, in the rare case there’s anyone out there who might not be familiar with you?

Wildbow: I’m John McCrae, though I prefer to go by J.C. McCrae when I’m wearing my author hat, to avoid being confused with the Canadian poet of the same name.  My fans know me better by my online handle ‘Wildbow’.  I’m presently making a living as an author by writing ‘web serials’ – chapter-by-chapter releases of original fiction online, on a set schedule.

My first series, Worm, was started in mid-2011 and finished in late 2013, to a very positive reception.  I’ve since written one more serials, Pact, and am 90% of the way through my third, Twig.

BD: How’s the editing of Worm coming along? Do you have a rough estimate as to when we can (legally) hold Worm in our hands?

Wildbow: I have an estimate, but I’d rather not share it until I’m positive I can see it through.  The bad PR from announcing a release date and missing it is just too critical.  It’s a slow and painful process, as I’m editing one series while producing others.

BD: I know you’ve had some offers of a potential TV adaptation of Worm (and some interest in Twig) could you provide an update on that?

Wildbow: I wish I could, but nondisclosure agreements keep me from sharing any pertinent details.

I can say that this past fall, no less than ten companies or individuals reached out to me.  Some producers, some scriptwriters, some animators and short film makers, and among that flurry of attention, two offers were good enough to keep discussing through the fall, winter, and present day.

Past experience with other offers has suggested that these things are a great deal of hype and excitement up until they abruptly fall through.  It’s an exciting thing to get this attention and nothing’s ruled out, but it is less of a long shot and more a series of long shots before any of this really happens.

BD: How would you say your writing style has evolved over the years?

Wildbow: Each story has been a lesson of sorts.  I know that the early chapter releases of Worm online were very amateurish, but in all fairness, I was an amateur.

Leading into the writing of Worm, well before I even started writing web serials, I was very focused on the product, on the text, getting it right, refining it, and I got burned out a lot.

Actually writing Worm was, in reality, more of me learning the process of writing.  How to sit down and tackle stuff.  At first it was very stiff and I think that translated to the writing itself.  but as I got going I was able to teach myself more about the act of putting words on the page.  While I was doing that, I also happened to pick some stuff up by just keeping my thumb on the pulse of the readership… but I don’t want to overstate that end of things.  The readership took a while to build up.

I’ve oft expressed my frustrations with Pact, my second story, and I think those frustrations stem from a general sentiment that, well, I don’t feel like I really grew as a writer while I wrote it.  About all I can say is that I taught myself I could write stories that weren’t Worm – that weren’t this hit story that struck on a number of the right notes.  

The reality is that with Pact, real life got in the way.  I had too much on my plate with some family stuff going on, and while I maintained course and kept up my schedule, so I mostly autopiloted my way through.  Given where I was at when I finished Worm and started Pact, the nature of my autopilot was ‘intensity and escalation’ – which wound up exhausting readers.

In Twig, while a smaller number of people have really found their way to it, the reception is strong, and I personally feel like I’m growing as an author again, focusing on characterization, pacing, and on handling the contextual, social, background stuff in real life that leaves sufficient room for writing to happen.

BD: Across the three web serials you’ve written, what do you think is the one chapter that makes you go back and say ‘wow, I’m actually really good at this writing thing’?

Wildbow: A few things stand out to me.

About two thirds of the way through Worm, the main character sits down with a psychologist.  It’s one of my favorite chapters as the author, just because I feel like I nailed it, the character voices came through, the psychologist felt competent yet had a voice of her own, and it made for good reading that’s been quoted again and again.

Worm and Pact have had their big reveals.  I think there’s something to be said for getting to that point, with thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers going over the work leading up to the reveal, and just being able to pull the curtain back, show how it works, and have people say that it made sense and it was a good reveal.  It’s a balancing act to have the clues there but not to make it so obvious, and I’m always proud when that unfolds.

I also, I feel, have something of a talent for xenofiction.  While not all of it has hit the mark, my readers have liked chapters that came from nonhuman sources.  Robots and gods and monsters and whatever else.  I’m always proud when I’m able to find that voice that has little in common with our own.

BD: You’ve had a lot to say about Pact, referring to it as ‘successful-enough’ on Twig’s About page, and your personal distractions that marred its development. Pact definitely has its fans! Why don’t you say something nice about Pact? (Please)

Wildbow: Pact, for those who don’t know, is a modern supernatural story – set in our world but dwelling on the magic users, monsters, and powers that be that are operating outside of the public eye.  In it, the main character inherits his grandmother’s house, her collection of diabolic tomes, and her many, many enemies.

I think I’m proudest of Pact’s underlying magic.  Moving on from a setting like Worm, where powers were codified and had hard limits and set executions, it would have been really easy to turn my attention to Pact and to do the same.  But in Pact, magic feels like magic.  It’s symbolic, there’s an uneasiness about it, an uncertainty that results are going to be exactly what one desires, and the fundamental principle that every act of magic has its corresponding price plays into a world where myths and legends and many of the things we’re familiar with or think of when we think of magic are possible and doable.  

Pact has a good backbone, a good core.  My issues with it are narrative and ‘meta’.  There were a number of characters that were strong, fun, and interesting, and the story had a strong core to it.

BD: Also, I want to say I love your arc names. How do you go about choosing them? Are there certain words or phrases that you know you want to use later down the line? Or is it a gut feeling? (Sorry)

Wildbow: There’s usually a running theme.  For Worm it was bug-related words that had double meaning.  The arc with the mad bomber was ‘Shell’ – as in bombshell, but the main character is also an introvert coming out of her shell, and, of course, there’s the reference to the outer shell of an insect casing.

For Pact, it was legal terms, again with some double meaning or some form of sinister connotation, though I didn’t push the sinister side of things too much.  Void (and later Null, to link back to it), Bonds, Execution, Signature, and so on.

For Twig, it’s been idioms, often with some reference to flesh or living things.  Taking Root, again with double meaning (the start of the story, the theft of youngsters, the ‘taken roots’, so to speak), A Stitch in Time, Head over Heels, and Gut Feeling.

BD: The web fiction world was certainly a different landscape before Worm came around. How you say the community has changed since the debut of Worm to now?

Wildbow: I think serials are just a bit more in the public consciousness than they were, but they haven’t really broken through.

I’ve drawn parallels to the indie game scene; the market of independent game makers who aren’t big studios, who nonetheless found a great deal of traction between 2009 and 2011.  It took a series of really successful works & labors of love before things really took off and it found a foothold in the public consciousness.

I think to really change, serials need to do something similar.  I won’t act cocky and say I have a place in that – I think it would come from a newer generation that release high quality works in a narrow span of time.

I do think the scene has changed in another way, and I’m not sure it’s positive.  Personal bias may come into play here, but I’ve seen several Serial communities get inundated with people & works from the Light Novel communities.  The light novel from Asia tends to have a very particular flavor, tone, and style, and I worry that as much as the sites and communities might be bleeding together, they maintain very different readerships – enough that regular readers might be turned off by light novel writers and vice versa.  I’ve seen some frustrations expressed in general about it, and worry it holds us back.

BD: Do you have any personal pet peeves about the web serial format? As a web serial writer myself, mine is having to make sure I don’t use the same word over and over again. Do you have anything similar?

Wildbow: I find that if you’re just starting out, it’s hard to get enough feedback, or the feedback you get is such a small sample size that it’s skewed.  But once you get underway, the feedback becomes a tide, you can’t take it all in, and the subset of it that is very negative can really get to you.

I’ve seen some content creators online buckle, bend, and break under the strain of that negativity.

BD: Before the launch of Pact, you released test samples of potential serials, before ultimately deciding on Pact itself. My personal favorite was Face. Is there any plans to revisit those stories in the future?

Wildbow: I think it’s very possible.  I’ve thought that after tackling the sequel to Worm, I might do a series of shorter works, and it’s only natural that some of the trial works I did before might show up.

BD: With Twig’s popularity, are there any plans for publishing Twig after it’s completion?

Wildbow: No plans, really.  The editing of Worm has been a task, and I feel like, given the readership, Worm is pretty much guaranteed to turn around a profit.  Twig has a smaller, narrower readership, and I wouldn’t want to commit to the task if I wasn’t so sure on the profit.

Which isn’t to say I’m ruling it out.

BD: The fact that you’ve maintained your schedule for years, seemingly without break, astounds me every time I see a new update. How have you managed to keep up the momentum?

Wildbow: It’s easier to keep doing something if you’re already doing it than it is to get the ball rolling in the first place.  It’s easier to eat healthy if you’re already eating healthy, easier to make money if you already have money, and so on.  The main issue is just getting to that point.

I won’t say that I don’t get burned out, but I find that getting ‘burned out’ is more a consequence of real life getting in the way, wearing me down, or affecting my schedule.

The reality is that I’m a writer.  When I’m procrastinating on writing I’m writing something else.  It’s what I do and it suits me, so there’s really not much of a burden or cost involved, in terms of personal energy or focus.

BD: And if you could, what kind of advice would you give to younger Wildbow, right after he uploads Gestation 1.1?

Wildbow: Honestly, I’m happy with my growth and the way I’ve progressed.  I might urge him not to give too much credence to the initial feedback when the audience was small and the sample size of feedback wasn’t great, and I’d tell him to plan better for the timeskip, but that’s minor overall.

BD: Additionally, I’d like to ask you a few questions about Worm 2, if possible. Worm 2 has been planned for a while now, and it’s been over two years since Worm’s completion. Have your initial plans for the sequel changed since having written Pact and now being in the middle of Twig? Or have your ideas generally stayed the same?

Wildbow: I’m not really a planner.  I don’t go into the writing of a story with much more than just a few ideas as to a few cool scenes I might like to include.  I just write my way to them, sometimes deciding the night before or mid-chapter about how things will go or what turns the story will take.

BD: As I understand it, the original idea of Worm was that it would follow multiple people’s stories (hence the name ‘parahumans’ for the web site.) and have them interweave. Do you plan to revisit that concept for Worm 2?

Wildbow: I contemplated it for a little while, and am still sorta keeping it in mind as a 5% or 10% possibility, but I just worry it would be too chaotic and hard to track.

BD: Now, you probably want to keep things as close to the chest as possible when it comes to Worm 2. But I want to try and ask. For your last two web serials, the protagonists have been guys. Will Worm 2 have a female protagonist?

Wildbow: No comment.

BD: Do you have an expected date or timeframe regarding the release of Worm 2? Also, can we expect it immediately following the conclusion of Twig, or are there other projects you’d like to work on before then?

Wildbow: It should follow seamlessly from the conclusion of Twig.  I might ease into it, depending.  More on that at a later date.

BD: Is Worm 2 going to have it’s own site or will you pick things up from parahumans.wordpress.com?

Wildbow: Own site.

BD: And that’s about all I have, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans in general?

Wildbow: In Worm, I talk about how even when trying to sound sincere, it can ring false.  I worry that if I try to talk about just how much I appreciate my readers and their support, their kind words and the fact that they’re rooting for me, it’ll start sounding hollow, and I really don’t want it to.

I owe my readers everything and I hope that the end of Twig, the start of Worm 2 and everything that follows justifies their support.

bd

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4 thoughts on “Today I asked: Wildbow

    1. Damn the lack of an edit button. I liked 1984, but there was a critical difference: it was short, so the gutpunchery didn’t tire you out. In the first few arcs of Pact, I felt the same, but eventually this kind of escalation became tiring instead of interesting.

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  1. Pact is the unappreciated middle child. It might even be my favourite of his works, though I suspect that’s because I got ro read it all in one go rather than serially. It improves on second reading too.

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