Open-source fiction?

An online writers workshop aims to expose the guts of works in progress to the Internet's hive mind.

Published September 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The open-source movement isn't just for hackers. Hacks are having a go at it too, says Andrew Burt, a writer of both code and prose who has contributed to the BSD kernel, Perl and Linux and who founded the online writing workshop Critters. He encourages writers to expose the guts of their stories, just as Linus Torvalds does his code, and invite critique and contribution.

The premise is simple: You submit a story or novel, via Web browser or e-mail, to a password-protected area of the Critters site. When your story comes up for review, you receive around 20 critiques. In exchange, you are obligated to evaluate the stories of other group members at least three times a month. It's a lot like many a writers' group, except that it harnesses the Internet's hive mind rather than a small group of geographically related people.

Burt, a former professor of computer science at the University of Denver and current president of custom software developer Tech-Soft, says he created Critters along different lines from commercial writers workshops. Workshops on America Online and CompuServe, for instance, require participants to subscribe to the online services. And those run by publishers, like Random House's Del Rey workshop or Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope All Story workshop entice writers with the promise of potential publication.

Critters, on the other hand, is interested in developing better writers and writing, without commercial motives. "Critters is dedicated to the concept that there aren't enough good writers, and that the way to create more is to nurture more beginners," says Burt, who first approached leaders of traditional writers workshops to get feedback on his science fiction, but found them less than eager to work with beginners. In 1996 he started Critters, which has about a thousand members and has generated some 40,000 critiques. "This is in contrast to the attitude of former Horror Writers Association president Lawrence Watt-Evans, who ... believes ... there are too many bad ones and that it would be better to discourage as many of these wannabes as possible to leave larger slices of the pie for those who somehow make it," Burt explains. "This is similar to the Linux vs. Microsoft conflict -- the Critters/Linux method is inclusive; the Lawrence Watt-Evans/Microsoft method is exclusive."

There is a crucial difference between Critters and Linux, however. Whereas Critters readers offer critiques and suggestions, they're not encouraged to grab someone else's story and simply go to town on it, adding new passages and maybe new characters, the way Linux hackers conceive of and write new code. In fact, most writers, far from considering their oeuvre a community-built product, would probably consider such behavior akin to stealing or plagiarism.

And that's not a trivial concern. The Zoetrope workshop's terms of use agreement requires participants to acknowledge that story ideas are public domain and to indemnify the publication against potential copyright infringement arising from involvement with the workshop. But Critters takes a wholly different approach, argues Burt.

"I don't think writing is ever about an idea," says Burt, who has arranged to donate profits from his first novel, Noontide Night: A Y2K Novel -- itself a product of Critters -- to the American Red Cross. "That may be the seed that starts something, but as with programming, you're not going to make any money unless you can actually manage the implementation. I think Critters works the same way. It's about the free exchange of ideas. That's one of the underpinnings of the open-source movement as well as open workshops."

Of course, most of the participants of writing workshops dream of publishing deals and dust-jacket pictures. Given our hermetic notion of authorship, it's hard to see how open-source ideals can be sustained by professional authors. A good public algorithm may show up in numerous commercial software packages, but borrowed prose ruins reputations and ends careers. Ultimately, no matter how closely workshops hew to the open-source model, writers cannot, or perhaps will not, give their peers everything that goes into their writing. Ideas may be exchanged, but something is always withheld.

Whether the principles of the open-source movement end up having as profound an impact on writing as they've had on programming remains to be seen. The academic tradition of peer review has long been opposed by our mystical reverence for the creative process. But there is the possibility that fiction workshops foretell the twilight of the private muse and the dawn of an open-source reformation.

By Thomas Claburn

Thomas Claburn is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, and novelist.

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