personal, writing

In defense of Wattpad

Does that sound like good enough title? Maybe even “savage”? Is it suggesting some spicy discourse I’m gonna have in this post? A passionate declaration? I hope so! Because none of that is true!

But let’s jump into it, it is a meaty subject.

The general consensus

Getting real for a minute, this is all going to be about my experience on the site, and I have to write about it, because it’s been an important journey for me. Wattpad is a vast place with like a million people plus ten-million stories of varying quality. I’m not even going to pretend I can give a general summary or any kind of ultimate opinion. I’ve heard and seen so many tales of entirely different adventures and ordeals that others had gone through that it would be useless and insincere to try.

I’ve had a vague idea about Wattpad ever since I started ruminating on going online with my stories. You know the drill: Youtuber reactors making fun of all the bad quality One Direction fanfictions, werewolf-, and mafia-romances (that’s okay, I watch those videos too, they’re often pretty funny), discussing how awful some of the Wattpad-published famous books are, and laughing about/mourning the bad apples (or rotten orchards) of the community. This type of quick judgement is all over the internet, and Wattpad just seems like the butt of the joke most of the time. This is known, I think, to many of us who only hear about the site in passing.

There’s also the other side of the coin, of course, which only becomes tangible after you make a profile, excitedly start uploading your writing, and spend some time trying to catch readers. You see all these shining and (seemingly) unreachable Wattpad Stars and Ambassadors with thirty-five released books per year, twelve-million views and votes, elaborate networks of writers and fans, and book deals for days, and you wish you could get there already. You wish you could be them. But the reality is that only a small fraction of writers do, and they need both skill and a huge amount of luck for it.

My story

My online writing journey started on Wattpad, but when I first registered (in preparation for NaNoWriMo 2018 during which I posted then promptly deleted a very early version of Remains Within) my profile was really quiet for a long time. I didn’t know what to do or where to go to advertise my stories and I haven’t yet found the (now deactivated) forums. So when some months later I decided to translate and make Skylark public, I only did what I’d previously planned to do: I uploaded my chapters one after the other and I tried to find some nice books to read in the meantime. I quickly started to strike up conversations with the writers of the books I especially liked (or at least with the ones that seemed active and open to it) and I suppose this is where I must have gotten a bit lucky, because I immediately connected with some of these people and in time, they also came to read my stuff in a sort of unspoken exchange. A few of them had disappeared throughout the months, but I still talk to and keep in contact with several of these “early birds”, which is awesome.

Not long after this I found the forums and that helped me connect with more really cool individuals: the ones who were willing to beta read, critique, or comment on my book if I did the same for them. Naturally, some of these read-for-reads or critique-for-critiques went nowhere and were less than helpful (except to increase the number of reads on Skylark which is always appreciated because I’m a slave to numbers and pretty stats) but a few of those writers even stuck around until I reached the end of my novel, and they provided useful insights into characterization and plot problems, or gave very detailed, thoughtful comments on grammar and style. I really learned and continue to learn a lot through these, and I hope I could also provide some useful criticism myself. I found many awesome stories and my reading list is full of books I still want to read. I’m not saying my profile had become a buzzing, active community, especially with the forums now inactive and the community features being gradually whittled away, but there’s maybe a dozen or so people I can write to when I have a Thought, or who might be interested when I start uploading a seriously messy first draft for a new story idea.

And it’s easy enough for me to avoid the cliché and pandering stories — I just don’t read them. It’s also not hard to not communicate with people who advertise aggressively or are weird and shouty and rude, or who do not want to get involved in a two-sided exchange apart from just trying to hype their own stories up. Admittedly, I could be doing more, reading more and joining groups and book clubs and whatnot, and then the number of my negative incidents would certainly multiply, but when have I ever said I was a social butterfly, eh?

Success and failure

I’ve read horrible recounts of harassing and bullying from writers whose stories quickly got famous, and although, fortunately, I haven’t experienced anything like this myself, I completely understand the devastating effect this can have on a new writer’s mental state (it gets very difficult to mute dozens and dozens of people every day who shout at you for not writing their ship or taking the story in a direction they don’t like). On the forums, the disinterest and unresponsiveness of readers/fellow writers was also a frequent topic; how discouraged people feel when no one interacts with them and no one reads their freshly uploaded stories. How much it sucks when you agree on a critique-for-critique with someone and they only pretend to read and give you generic ‘cool story’, ‘wow!!’ and ‘omg’ comments. So many of these enthusiastic beginner writers were feeling awful about themselves and were disillusioned to the degree that they wanted to stop creating stories altogether, and it was very hard to see.

But I’ve seen great success stories too with people going “Wattpad famous”, getting book deals or going the self-publishing way and being really content with either. Many of such adventures were quiet, where the writers were just honestly happy to have their story online for free and receive as many readers as they did — a loyal, small following. I’ve also seen the previously mentioned, popular, but harassed writers announcing they’re leaving behind everything due to these negative events, or moving to another place (there aren’t many of those, sadly, at least big ones and not only for fanfiction). There were also silent tragedies: people disappearing from one bright day without any warning, their amazing books forever evaporating from my reading list. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all, but even with my medium-level involvement in all things social and networking-based, I encountered a few variations. It boggles the mind, how many vastly different attitudes and experiences there are about writing on that site.

All that being said, it’s also good to remember how useful a fundamentally free site like this is for marginalized writers creating stories with characters or themes (featuring LGBTQ+ people, POC, cultural minorities, disabled persons, etc.) that have a more difficult job finding their audience than other, more popular genres and topics. I’ve only gotten small glances into those communities so I can’t comment on how actively Wattpad is helping to give voice to these authors, but at least the opportunity to create these fanbases is worth to mention.

Conclusion

Like I said, Wattpad is a huge community (using community in the loose sense here, I suppose) and with the opportunity to “show off your stuff” to such a large audience, the expectations one can have might get… unreasonable. For 95% of the people who try to gather an audience there, it is going to be a slow and weird process and they’re going to see a lot of bad quality books get to ten million reads before they achieve a hundred. Wattpad has its favourite genres and topics, and I believe the readers (the silent majority, the ones who are maybe not even writing seriously, and only go there to read) are mostly young and often just in search for a quick, fun novel to spend their time on while they’re waiting for the bus. It is not meant to be a place to necessarily expect valuable criticism or beta reading done on your novel, or a book in a more niche topic to become instantly famous with millions of views. But I think if you’re persistent enough, you can find subsets of it where you may get what you wish for.

There’s no big conclusion for me. I truly think I just got a little bit lucky and with 5.7k reads on Skylark, some people wouldn’t even think I’m anywhere near being successful there. But I met a few cool friends, had fun conversations, read many entertaining books, and learned a lot, and that’s sort of enough for now. Even if after 1.5 years (see? I’m not a veteran at all. my opinion is irrelevant, I just like to talk) I still catch myself hoping that my reads will blow up one day and I somehow become one of the Big Ones. Even if I still refresh my profile a hundred times a day looking for new notifications or wanting the read count to go up at least with a single digit, please? Please? I had a teensy bit of hope for a slight chance to win the 2020 Wattys too (Wattpad’s own award show) and when I didn’t, I was honestly sad (but as I like to say both as a way to calm myself down and to explain to myself that I’m not that pathetic, at least it was a good incentive to finish my editing run on Skylark in a reasonable time frame).

Closing thoughts

Wattpad is “the place of opportunities”, so a lot of people will inevitably be disappointed if their journey doesn’t turn out well. It’s incredible how deeply one can believe that they’re going to be the exception and will unexpectedly rise to fame because their writing is just That Good — even I had these thoughts, although when I started off, I didn’t have a good sense of what level my craft was on. I think I’ll always be grateful that there was a site like this where I could start my journey. It was certainly less lonely and more exciting than just writing to my own computer. Ultimately, I think, without Wattpad, Skylark would still be unfinished. I truly believe that. I might have been able to wrap it up it at some point, but certainly not this year.

And although it’s getting real quiet there now (RIP forums and RIP Newsfeed), I still want to stay on Wattpad. For the occasional vote that says ‘hey, I’m reading, cool stuff!’. For those persistent bastards that are still willing to beta read for me. For the opportunity to post something new and weird and someone going ‘oh I read a thing from this person and I liked it so I might like this too’ in their head and then subsequently going and reading the new and weird stuff. There’s something magical about that. Or I might just still be too green and too anxious to strive for more.

It’s all a balancing act between expectations, knowing what you’re good at, knowing what you want to achieve, and knowing how you want to get there. And it’s obviously harder when you’re only starting and don’t know all this, and just figuring things out. Because then what remains is mostly just your expectations, and those can be very, very misleading. For me, being there has been a good experience, even though all my dreams had not been realised.

But maybe it’s better, to be honest. I really don’t want to be mocked by Youtube reactors.

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