The advent of the internet has had many effects, not least of which is giving a voice to pretty much everybody. We’re all sitting at keyboards making noise, like a flock of a billion seagulls fighting over one bag of chips. It’s not a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. The really strong voices lift above the white noise and everyone gravitates towards those voices that interest them. It’s a big world and an infinite internet, so there’s room in this sandbox for everyone. However, another aspect of that easy online voice is a million wannabe writers posting their stuff online and hoping people will read it. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but a potentially damaging one for a writer’s career in the long run.

I’m one of those voices, obviously. I’ve got some of my own fiction posted here for anyone to read. I’ve engaged in the Friday Flash phenomenon. Is this damaging for my career? I don’t think so. I think it’s helping my career, by giving potential readers an insight into some of my stuff. I’ve had some nice comments from people about stories they’ve read here. But I’ve engaged in the practice with careful forethought.

I decided to write about this after reading this post on Benjamin Solah’s blog. You may remember that Benjamin guest posted here about a week ago, talking about his experiment self-publishing an ebook of his fiction. The power of the internet gave him some pretty solid and honest feedback very quickly. It can be summed up quite well in these comments on Ben’s post by Jason Fischer:

My two cents is this: trunk stories belong in your trunk. You either take them apart and make them good enough to sell, or you leave them there. Why would you want anyone to see a piece of your writing that isn’t working? If your career takes off, do you *really* want these out there?…

There’s so much fiction out there for the reading, even more with the new e-book markets. As such, it is remarkably easy to slide into the infamous “90% of everything that is crap” of Sturgeon’s Law. You should be aspiring to be in the other 10%, not taking the path of least resistance and self-publishing your unsellable trunk stuff.

Work on the nuts and bolts of your writing first and foremost. Be brutal with your own writing, edit, and edit some more. If you can’t get it to work, trunk it and try something else, and LEAVE IT IN THE TRUNK. You can promote something till the cows come home, but if it’s no good, no-one will want it…

These comments are culled from a longer conversation and it’s worth reading Ben’s post to see the whole discussion. Jason is someone worth listening to – apart from being a top bloke, his advice comes from great experience. He’s made many quality short fiction sales and is a recent winner of Writers Of The Future, among many other awards and nominations. Check him out here.

I agree with his sentiments. So how is what I’ve done with fiction on my site different to Ben’s experiment? There’s one simple difference – all the fiction I’ve made available to read here is previously published somewhere (with a couple of exceptions that I’ll talk about in a minute). Some of it is older stuff published in non-paying markets, but it’s still stuff I’m proud of. Other stories are published in better markets and the links here are directly to sites where the story can be found. The point is that it made it past an editor, so I’ve got unbiased, third party confirmation that it’s worth a read. For that reason, I’m happy to direct people towards it and say, “Here’s some of my writing for you to check out, I hope you like it.” If I wasn’t able to sell that story to an editor, even “sell” it to a for the love market, then I certainly won’t put it up here with a pouty face and a “well, I think it’s good enough” attitude. Because it’s not. Writers are the worst possible critics of their own work. Of course we love everything we write – we wrote it!

If people do like it, with any luck they’ll seek out some of my other stuff, they might take a punt on my novels. Hopefully then they’ll enjoy my books and recommend them to friends or buy copies to give as gifts. Using the same hypothesis, the first three chapters of both my books are available here (just click on book covers to find them) so that people can try before they buy.

The other exercise in free fiction I engaged in was Ghost Of The Black: A ‘Verse Full Of Scum. In an effort to generate return visits to my site and more interest in my fiction, I wrote a 30,000ish word novella in a series of episodes, which I then posted here every Monday during 2008. This was a conscious decision to write a piece of fiction that I had no intention of trying to sell. Rather, it was a deliberate exercise in giving something away to showcase my writing. It’s still available on the Serial Fiction page and it’s also available as an ebook and print book, that I’ve self-published. On the whole it’s been very well received and garnered a few decent reviews. Whether it’s really done much to enhance my career is hard to say, but I certainly don’t think it’s done any damage. Whether I leave it here indefinitely is also hard to say. For now, I’m happy to leave it for people to enjoy. I may take down the Serial Fiction page one day, and just leave the ebook and print edition available for people to buy. I may take those away too at some point. (Leave a comment if you have a particular opinion about that – I’d be interested to know.)

What I haven’t done is post here those stories that I couldn’t sell. Believe me, my story trunk is a dark and nasty place, full of things I really don’t want anyone else to see.

Another example of free, unpublished fiction here comes from my occasional jaunts into the Friday Flash meme. This is essentially a community of writers that post flash fiction on their websites and promote it with the #FridayFlash hashtag through Twitter and Facebook. A lot of those people don’t care about getting published, they’re just happy to be part of a community of likeminded people. Things that I’ve posted on Friday Flash are stories that I’ve decided are a good idea and an entertaining little yarn, but one that I don’t want to spend time trying to sell or expand into a longer piece. They’re all taster stories, exercises in writing and storytelling.

For me, writing is a very serious business. Friday Flash was a brief hobby. I don’t mean to denigrate the community by this statement at all, it’s just my own personal situation now. I’m not likely to post any more Friday Flash – I agree with the comments on Ben’s post that it’s a time-sink and I intend to spend that time on sellable short stories and novels. I’ve had fun with it, but now I’m moving on.

These days I only approach semi-pro and pro markets with my work. I know I can get stuff published in other places, but I’m improving my craft and expecting better results from myself. If I can’t sell a story to at least a semi-pro market, I won’t sell it at all. Nor will I post it here on my website. As the things on my site here attest, I was happy to get acceptances from much smaller markets before. Every writer starts somewhere. But I won’t stay there. I want to improve as a writer and I want to sell my work to better and better places all the time. I intend to be a pro writer, as in, get paid pro rates for my work, and I’ll keep working towards that. Recent sales are bearing out the worth of this endeavour – I’m making better sales all the time. I’m still yet to crack the big time pro markets, but I will one day.

In the meantime, I’m happy to leave the stuff here that I’ve already posted. I may well decide to take it all away at some point. Who knows?

What do you think? Do you appreciate free fiction as a taste of a writer’s work? Are you a writer for or against the idea? Have you had good or bad experiences posting fiction on your site? Do you think I should leave free fiction here or take it away? Leave your comments – I’m interested in people’s thoughts.