It started with an ad on Craiglist.com: "We are seeking writers to create new and exciting short stories....To push ourselves within the realm of fiction."
A year later, those who answered the ad—an insurance agent, a therapist, an improv comic, an aspiring novelist and a high-school teacher—read aloud from their newly-written short stories in a classroom at Northeast Portland's Concordia University. "Kirsty recently lost one of her fingers on the way to acquiring an empire," reads Doug Dean, a pensive blond man with a room-shaking laugh. "It was plucked from her unscarred hand during a recent duel." The writers offer each other feedback. Four days later they'll send their revised stories to Dean. In one week, they'll all meet again with new stories to edit.
Unlike at local writer-training ground the Attic, these writers don't pay to participate. When the stories are done, there'll be no public reading or anthology published. But each author's work will be accessible to anyone, anywhere.
They call themselves the Portland Fiction Project—their slogan is "Keep Fiction Weird"—and through their ever-changing website, portlandfiction.net, the project's members are adding to a growing trend in Internet publishing: creating online-only short stories with no paper counterpart in the real world. Although websites like 2River in University City, Mo. publish online literary mags a few times a year, PFP is one of the first in Portland to post new fiction on a regular (weekly) basis.
Dean, 27, got the idea for a website last year, after saving up enough money from his job in computer programming to quit working and try writing fiction full time. But when he broke up with his girlfriend five months into his new venture, he felt like he needed a community to motivate him. He hoped to create an online weekly literary magazine much like author Dave Eggers' McSweeneys. It would include short fiction submitted by local writers who, like Dean, were just starting out.
He admits it was initially tough inspiring people to write a new story every week for no money, so he started prompting them with an "idea word"—a trick he learned from performing with improv comedy troupe the Next Best Thing. Each month he chooses a theme, like presidents, and then each week provides the writers with theme words, like "Lincoln" or "Kennedy."
The process seems to spark something in the would-be writers: The week Dean suggested the word "deli," he remembers that "all the stories were, like, ultraviolent." "I hate to shoot a kid but I will if he pushes me," wrote Karina Sanchez, the insurance agent, in her story Killing Time. "Lucky for him...He brings me my sandwich without trying anything."
The disadvantage is that PFP's method doesn't translate into print. Dean thinks he might someday publish quarterly anthologies of PFP stories (he's even trying to get advertisers for the website to raise funds), but his writers know that the immediacy of his site is why it succeeds.
"I like how the time is so short between creation and publication," says writer Jim McCollum, 26, who works as a case manager and mental-health therapist. "Also, it's nice that [it's] just a few people...It means more control for us."
Another local website—Common Ties, run by Portland-based freelance journalist (and occasional WW contributor) Elizabeth Armstrong Moore—has a focus similar to PFP, with personal essays from both first-time writers and award-winning journalists on subjects like prom night and depression. However, unlike PFP—which looks more like a homemade blog and is financed solely by Dean—Common Ties is a slick and streamlined site with high-resolution images and what Moore calls "private angel funders."
Also unlike on PFP, it can take a month for submissions to post to commonties.com. And a few months ago, Moore switched the essays from a written "story blog" to audio recordings. Now, when a writer—who gets paid between $100 and $200 per story—submits an essay, they have the option to voice-record parts of their story and have it posted online.
But can writers who publish online ever be as successful—or as satisfied with their work—as those in print? One member of PFP, Tim Josephs, wanted more than what Dean's website could offer, so he collected his PFP short stories into A Camouflaged Fragrance of Decency, a book to be published through local outfit Inkwater Press.
Moore knows some writers risk bigger paychecks and greater notoriety by selling Common Ties a story before going to a print publication, citing the example of one writer who "sold us a story two days before she got an offer from the Washington Post." Since the Post won't re-publish stories, the writer lost the extra paycheck. Even Dean wants to see his own work published in a print literary mag, saying, "I don't think most [writers] think of the Internet as 'being published.'"
Peter Rock, a local writer (2006's The Unsettling) and associate professor of creative writing at Reed College, sees merit in online publishing but wonders if it will ever reach the popularity of a magazine or hardbound book. "Everyone in the publishing industry is trying to find out how virtual content works, if books are going to be around much longer," he says. "But I don't know many people—maybe that's because I'm old—that spend that much time reading fiction online." Rock may be right: While virtual content has its advantages—websites can print whatever they want without the restrictions of an editor or publisher while remaining free for readers—it's difficult to imagine a world without books or magazines.
Then again, those could be famous last words.
The Portland Fiction Project debuts four new writers and a new theme, Journey to the New World, in one week. Theme words include "epiphany" and "Columbus." Visit portlandfiction.net for more info. Also check out commonties.com.