Interview with Worm Author John McCrae
A couple years back, I had the opportunity to do an interview with John McCrae, the author of the popular web serial Worm. Here is a transcript of that interview. Note that some minor segments have been edited or rearranged for clarity. This interview originally happened in August of 2013, so some of the figures (such as the total word count) are no longer entirely accurate.
Rob: The experience of Worm sounds incredibly interesting. For those unfamiliar with the story, would you care to give a quick summary?
John: A summary of the story…. Taylor is a teenager with unconventional superpowers, who has been dreaming of becoming a superhero as a way of escaping an unhappy life at school. Her first attempts at taking down a supervillain get her mistaken for one, and things snowball from there, plunging her into the midst of superhero politics, fights with no holds barred, and moral calls that are definitely not black and white.
It is a serial released online one chapter at a time, in much the same way that authors such as Mark Twain would release their works one chapter at a time in the days before full-fledged novels.
Rob: You’ve certainly done a fair deal of trail-blazing for this new potential form. I know your work gets a lot of attention, but could you elaborate on just how much of a readership you’ve established? And how long did it take for you to gain loyal readers?
John: That question is hard to answer. How do you define loyal readers? I’ll give you hard visuals instead, if that’s alright, then elaborate on what you see…
It took about six months before I got any real traction. I credit a fantastic review by Gavin Williams coupled with the first major story event coinciding in short succession. People started to read Worm and think ‘this might be something decent.’
Rob: So would you say it a slow and steady build? Were there spikes? Or did you experience a tipping point?
John: I believe in consistency, and haven’t missed a scheduled update yet. Two hundred and sixty-seven updates in two years and a little bit. I believe consistency is key because it keeps people coming back. So long as people keep coming back and keep spreading the word (which they’ll do so long as the quality is up there), there’s a steady growth. Consistency, frequency.
Spikes in viewership do exist. Get a mention on a site, get a surge of visitors, and some stick around.
And, to round it out, I did have a tipping point. In March-April of 2013, I got a huge upsurge in readers. To that, I credit an extensive campaign to fix up and expand Worm’s TV tropes page, allowing people to wiki-walk their way to the story. That was spearheaded by one fan, without any urging from me. (That fan, Packbat, got a nod in the story, and is probably going to get a signed edition of the book if and when I do get it published.)
Having people able to come by way of TV Tropes means I get 40-60 visitors a day from that site alone. Some stay and go on to spread the word. Things have snowballed since then, and growth has been much steeper than it was before.
Rob: It sounds like your fans have done a great deal to spread the work. How did you get the word out before there were fans, though? How did you initially get exposure for the work?
John: I should start off by saying that I never had great expectations for my work. Worm started off as a way for me to break a bad habit in my writing. I’d spent ten years writing recreationally and never finishing anything I wrote. I’d try to polish and edit the early parts of the work and lose all momentum. I’d burn out, get frustrated with the text and disinterested in the concept, and I’d abandon that particular story or story idea.
Worm, then, was an experiment. I was starting to read other web serials at a period in time I was taking classes in applied language and discourse, and the idea struck me as a combination of the two things. The classes inspired me to look at the context around the writing, and the web serials offered a solution. I wanted to break my bad habit by writing in a format that forced me to keep moving forward.
Getting around to your question – my expectations were rather low. I didn’t think I’d make it big, I hadn’t succeeded in writing anything beyond a few pages for years and I knew from anecdotes that web serials don’t tend to build significant audiences. I told myself I’d be content with a handful of readers and a dozen views a day.
Rob: It definitely sounds like that changed, though. Your statistics show your readership is in the six-digit range. Did you have any special resources at your disposal that helped you get your work launched?
John: I didn’t advertise or do anything special. When my serial was three weeks in, I listed it on Webfictionguide. I got my first reviews a bit later, and then interest started to swell.
I really owe Webfictionguide for helping me get that intial seed of an audience. If I can mention the guy who runs it—Chris Poirier. He has done a lot of selfless work running that site and providing it as a resource.
That was it, really. I haven’t advertised, I don’t have any other resources or even people to contact to get promotion. I’ve spread by word of mouth alone, by and large. I get mentioned on a forum and I get anywhere from five to seventy readers checking in for a few days, and then it levels off as a number of them decide to stay. Now and again, I ask readers to vote for me on Topwebfiction, a Webfictionguide-derived ranking site that lists web serials, but I don’t get a lot of new readers from there. My goals in staying on top of the list are primarily visibility on other levels.
Rob: Earlier, you mentioned having a loyal readership who almost never said anything. About how many unique views to comments did you see?
John: This is hard to pin down because I don’t have hard stats, and have to extrapolate. Further, it’s complicated because the number of comments I get/got dropped steeply when the chatroom went up, allowing people to comment there rather than on the site.
To illustrate, I’d point to chapter 20.5 – 785 comments. My readership was about half then what it is now, but my more recent chapters only get half that number of comments. Make of that what you will.
All in all, I’d say that for every ten or twenty readers I have, one might post a comment.
Rob: Your site has definitely developed a strong social element, with chat, comments, and other social features being integrated. Are there other ways you kept in touch with your readers that you want to mention? An RSS feed? Newsletter? Social sites?
John: I don’t really go out of my way to use social media, and the rationale is similar to why I don’t advertise—I prefer to devote the time and attention to writing rather than anything else. If the writing is good (and if you’re lucky and you get off to a decent start), I feel it’ll get attention.
My readers do use an RSS feed, there’s an IRC chatroom that’s going pretty much 24/7, and many more have formed discussion threads on various forums, including sites like RPG.net, Darklordpotter, Spacebattles, Stardestroyer, and Giant in the Playground.
Rob: If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently? And what would you do the same?
John: Overall, I’m pretty content with how things have gone. My mistakes and such are a part of the work, because there’s no going back and making comprehensive changes—doing that would invalidate my reasons for starting it.
Are there things I want to change? Yes. I was a novice when I began and the ending isn’t strong. A few arcs, due to real-life circumstance, wound up a bit rushed or not quite as strong as I might like.
If I had advice for anyone doing a serial, beyond the idea of consistency and frequency, it’s about backlogs. Writing a serial and taking the time every week isn’t easy. I put in about fifty hours a week just writing, and that’s not always easy. Real life interferes.
If you build up a backlog -a series of chapters you have done in advance—then it gives you elbow room to screw up.
At least, it does in the beginning. As you get further on, you’ll find your stride, but you’ll probably see that backlog gradually disappear. I started off with eight chapters done in advance and that backlog had dwindled to nothing by Christmas of that year (six months in). Since then I’ve been writing each chapter within forty-eight hours of it going live, which isn’t always fun.
Rob: 50 hours is an incredible amount each week. Did you maintain a different full-time job or other schedule? Were you able to make enough from donations or other monetization that you could make this your professional work?
John: I don’t quite make enough to make this my sole source of income. That’s my end-goal, and it may be achievable once I start selling books.
Rob: You previously mentioned the prolific scale of this project. What is your total word count right now?
John: On the topic of scale, the total word count (as of August 8th) is 1,410,000 words. [Total work count has now reached 1.75 million.]
Chapters started out at 1.5 to 3k words, I set a 4k word minimum at the seven or eight month mark, and I’ve slowly climbed to chapters that range from 6.5k to 11k words. I liken it to exercise, where you just steadily increase the level of the workout to match your ability, so it’s always just a little difficult.
Rob: Are you able to do substantial revisions on your work before posting or does your schedule require that you move forward with early drafts?
John: My day to day involves clearing my schedule for the day and writing from nine or ten in the morning until midnight, then doing two hours of typo fixes. On a day where I have minimal distractions and am in good spirits, I can finish at ten or eleven at night and devote the remaining time to proofreading and continuity. Lately, that’s been a little harder, which may indicate that my aforementioned workout may be going a touch too far. I may scale it down a touch.
Rob: Well, thank you so much for your time. It’s been great picking your brain. Good luck with the remainder of your project!
Those interested in checking out John’s project can visit Worm‘s official website.