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2022-03-09 09:09:25

Since she quit her publishing house job to become an editor at a web fiction firm, Xia Xiaolin has three necessities other than her laptop: eyedrops, a lumbar support cushion, and cigarettes.

It’s easy to see why. In the new job at a “writing collective,” whose name cannot be disclosed under confidentiality obligations, her monthly word count has surged from 50,000 to 200,000, as has the intensity of her back pain from long work hours.

In May 2021, four hours into a train journey to her hometown for the Labor Day holidays, her eyes rarely left the screen for more than three seconds. That day, just after bashing out the last 4,000 words of her April quota, Xia got a message from Luna, a writer who had joined her team three days earlier: “This is a manuscript I wrote. Please review it.”

Xia, in her early 20s, opened the document titled What a Cool and Pretty Wife: Introduction and, with knitted brows, read the first three lines.

In the story, the male protagonist smiled “with evil charm,” while the female lead was described as “delicate and attractive” three times in a row. The author’s incorrect use of punctuation only made it worse.

Xia bit the bullet and read it to the end just before receiving another message, this time from the head editor asking: “What do you think of Luna?” She simply replied: “No good.”

I'm not ready to leave just yet.

Welcome to the world of wuxianwen, or mobile web fiction — long-form, serialized novels, optimized for smartphones or tablets.

In contrast to more grandiose amateur literature, such as works adapted into high-budget TV shows and films in recent years, mobile web fiction is meant to be light-paced, uncomplicated, and heavily formulaic.

They often feature concepts such as rich romance, coming back from the dead, living in a video game-like world, all anchored to archetypal protagonists.

On the train, an automated announcement droned that it would arrive at Xia’s hometown, Shenyang, capital of the northeastern Liaoning province. She closed her laptop and gathered her belongings.

This is her fourth year in Beijing. She studied law in Dalian before moving to Beijing with a classmate to work in screenwriting. She’s changed jobs three times, moved twice, and made a few close friends.

But she doesn’t know if this is the life she once aspired to, just like she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay in Beijing, or how long she’ll keep this job.

All she knows is that she’s not ready to leave just yet.

sabelskaya/VectorStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone

sabelskaya/VectorStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone

Unending quest

In Xia’s company, an editor’s performance is inseparable from the writers under their wing.

Every staff member is mandated to write at least 200,000 words a month. They must also attend meetings to outline new stories, which are then delegated to the writers they supervise. Once writers are finished, the editors must then review them. The more passable manuscripts they produce, the better their performance evaluation.

Luna’s “schoolgirl compositions” didn’t come close to attaining the standards set by their high-intensity writing cooperative.

Were it merely a matter of inadequate writing skills, they may have kept her on in the hope that she’d improve. But Xia felt that Luna’s attitude didn’t fit the job either: she didn’t have a proper understanding of the genre and was unwilling to do the research.

High standards mean high attrition. In the six months that Xia has worked for this company, four writers have already come and gone.

She says anyone can try their hand at this job, from young women born in the 2000s to writers like Luna, a postgraduate in her 30s just back from abroad. There is no shortage of applicants.

Like many people from outside the industry, Xia felt that Luna held certain prejudices about the genre: clichéd stories about young women falling for rich and handsome CEOs, or that she could just churn out some “50 Shades”-style nonsense about an aloof badass with a “devilish smirk” and call it a day.

Such preconceptions are far from the truth.

The genre gained traction in 1998, when Cai Zhiheng (writing under the pseudonym Pizi Cai) published “The First Intimate Contact” online. This romance novel is widely thought of as a pioneering work of online literature in China. Twenty years later, the online literature market is at its zenith, and romance novels are among its most popular genres.

Over the last decade, online romance novels have spawned several sub-genres, the most popular being tales of domineering business magnates. These stories have such a vast readership that many fans believe it is the epitome of the entire romance genre. Some believe that the sub-genre was initially inspired by classic novels like “Jane Eyre.”

Xia, however, asserts that if writers become overly dependent on cliché, not only will their stories be received poorly by readers, but they will also struggle to meet the increasingly stringent standards that publication platforms set, particularly regarding plagiarism.

“Writing mobile web fiction is no longer a matter of simply throwing a few tried-and-true ingredients into a blender,” she says.

Writing mobile web fiction is no longer a matter of simply throwing a few tried-and-true ingredients into a blender.

Take Xia Xiaolin’s team. It starts with a meeting to determine the rough skeleton of a story. These meetings usually take around three to four hours.

Next, three editors brainstorm the draft until every plot point of each chapter is clear. Then, they delegate this story plan to three or four writers. Each day, editors and writers alike write around 10,000 words each. Editors also shoulder the burden of reviewing manuscripts. If the quality of the writing is not up to scratch, they send it back for revision.

Only after it has been meticulously polished is the manuscript finally published on reading platforms.

Xia is currently working on three different rich romances. Though she has two writers working under her, she’s still under a lot of pressure to meet her performance quota.

Her company evaluates its employees’ output in three different areas: writing manuscripts, writing plot outlines, and editing manuscripts. Though employees are asked to maintain a minimum output of 600,000 words a month, the “weight” of their words differs from one area to another.

For instance, while writing manuscripts, one word is actually counted as three. Meanwhile, while writing plot outlines or editing, one word is counted as 1.2.

Therefore, the writers, who only work on manuscripts, must meet their performance criteria by writing 200,000 words a month. Editors, however, can meet their quotas through a combination of the three.

For example, if a writer produces a 200,000-word manuscript and sends it to the editor, the editor will have achieved an output of 240,000 words once they’re done reviewing it.

An editor supervising two writers can easily reach 480,000 words. The remaining 120,000 words of the quota can, through story writing, be divided by three — editors only need to contribute 40,000 words to stories each month to meet the bar.

Every editor working for Xia’s company started off as a writer. Only by churning out 10,000 words a day can writers gradually grasp the pace. To become an editor, being able to write coherent and gripping plots is not enough — one must also grasp current hot topics.

MicroOne/Vectorstock/VCG

MicroOne/Vectorstock/VCG

Behind the scenes

On most days, Xia watches the sun set from a conference room on the 10th floor of an office building in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. It’s where her editing team often meets to discuss the outlines of new stories.

On an evening in June 2021, the sky was afire in dazzling hues of orange and pink, much like the cover of the newly published novel that Xia had just worked on.

Every time they pitch a new novel, all editors on the team must band together to develop the outline. This general outline ensures that the team is able to produce a well-written manuscript at a decent pace, which subsequently means good performance ratings and higher pay.

It’s among the reasons why everyone present at the meeting is often more willing to share ideas.

That day, the meeting began with Xia giving the head editor the summary of the new story. By the time she was halfway through, the head editor was already nodding her head. This novel will probably be greenlit.

The inspiration for the new novel came to Xia in a flash when she was daydreaming on the bus one morning. Looking out the window, she spotted a stray dog by the road; and while getting off, she saw an advertisement outside a convenience store featuring Peppa Pig.

Together, they suddenly gave her the idea for an 800-chapter rich romance about a “dog” falling in love with a “pig” (two of the sub-genre’s character archetypes representing the male and female lead, respectively).

After the head editor approved the idea, her team spent two hours fine-tuning the plot outline. Once done, the introduction, build-up, main conflicts, and the climax had been decided.

The day’s target met, the meeting was close to wrapping up.

“Who’d like to work on the finer details of this novel with me?” asked Xia, as usual. Beyond the general outline, the details of the plot still needed to be elaborated with a few other editors. Only then could she break up the writing tasks into different blocks and delegate them to her two writers.

Two editors who frequently collaborated with her agreed, as did a third, who rarely teamed up with her, which Xia happily welcomed.

Having formed a team, everyone then sat to decide the pen name to be used for this novel based on its sub-genre.

At Xia’s company, authors don’t write under the same name for every project they work on — their collaborative pen names change from one project to the next, depending on the genre of the book in question.

These pen names and their connected authors’ rights belong to the company. While the authors of a novel called “Bad-Boy CEO Fails in Trying to Get His Wife Back After Coming Back From the Dead” may be credited on the cover as Shenjing Xiaobei, a few days later the same authors may write another story under the name Boguang Linlin.

Writers are usually just in touch with their supervising editor and don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. As merely one link in the production chain for a mobile web novel, they don’t need to spend time coming up with characters or plotlines — just pore over the plans their editor gives them and transform them into logical, well-paced prose.

It’s the editor, however, who gives each story its soul.

Once each manuscript is completed, it is automatically uploaded to the reading platforms the company has signed with. For instance, when this latest novel is completed, priority will most likely be given to its publication on the mobile application iReader.

Screenshots show the top 10 novels for female readers by review score on the mobile application iReader, March 8, 2022.

Screenshots show the top 10 novels for female readers by review score on the mobile application iReader, March 8, 2022.

Xia’s company has developed close collaborative ties with iReader, upon whom their revenue is also the most dependent. The application has a relatively wide user base running into millions. Over the last few years, they have forged a niche in the online literature market, developing a mature model of operations and stable consumer demand.

That said, though her company has consistently collaborated with iReader over the last two years, Xia has, however, sensed the beginnings of a rift, particularly after observing changes in the revenue earned from recent projects.

Last April, Xia looked over the itemized payslip for a novel she’d worked on, which iReader had classified “S Level” — the platform’s highest accolade. But she discovered that she’d earned far less from them for this book than she had for an equally highly acclaimed novel two to three years prior.

Xia’s family and friends worry her source of income isn’t stable. When she started this job, she, too, had her doubts. But having climbed the ladder in this industry for the last six months, she feels more confident. This job can, at the very least, afford her a happy life in Beijing.

A little more than a decade ago, when online literature was still getting off the ground, the vast majority of China’s readers read pirated novels. Once the industry had achieved a certain scale and developed a sophisticated business model, paid readership became its main profit model.

But in the last three or four years, the market has oversaturated. In response, some new media platforms are now seeking out new profit strategies, which has led to the return of “free” reading.

Of course, no online services are truly free — but instead of buying tokens to access the titles they want, users must instead pay with their time.

For an old-school paid reading platform like Jinjiang Literature City, revenue largely comes from reader subscriptions and donations, as well as copyright royalties. But for emerging “free platforms,” the bulk of revenue comes from advertising.

When reading a title on these platforms, users may see a pop-up ad as frequently as once every seven or eight lines. It means that, now, how much writing collectives like Xia’s earn is largely determined by the exposure and bounce rates of the ads embedded throughout their novels on the platforms that publish them.

Aside from advertising, another determining factor in the revenue that collectives receive from platforms is their novels’ market exposure and online views.

To this end, iReader offers a number of competitive mechanisms. New books are initially presented together on the same page before undergoing a series of eliminations to select the cream of the crop.

Those that make it to the final round gain higher rankings, more views, and therefore more revenue. For instance, novels on the women’s channel are presented to users according to seven tiers.

Only after passing through several rounds of elimination can a novel squeeze its way into the homepage’s “Top Seven” (which are randomly displayed six at a time to ensure a fresh experience).

In addition, Xia’s company also has its own website where users can access their novels. But the revenue this produces is virtually negligible.

Back at her office, the team of young women working together on Xia’s latest project gathered in the conference room to discuss the details of the plotline. By the time they were done, it was night. Having essentially reached an agreement, everyone set off to work toward their objectives for the day.

Xia made herself a cup of coffee in anticipation of another evening of staring at a screen. She had only typed a few words before her boss called her into the office.

IReader had contacted them about the booming popularity of a TV series depicting a romance between a police officer and a doctor. IReader believed it had created demand among its user base for similar content.

They hoped that their collaborative partners would produce new stories catering to this new demand. Xia’s boss picked her to produce a short draft.

Xia hesitated for just a few seconds before accepting. Completing two books at once would be exhausting, but as a seasoned editor, she felt she was up to the task. She likes being busy — the main reason why she left her last job was precisely that she didn’t have enough to do.

Returning to her desk, Xia picked up her still-warm cup of coffee and downed half of it in a few short gulps, the steam clouding her glasses. She looked up at the time on her computer and smiled: she only needed to hold on for a short while before her day at work would finally be done.

sorbetto/iStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone

sorbetto/iStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone

Escape to reality

Xia usually orders food, which is timed to be delivered when she gets home. When she’s particularly exhausted, she doesn’t like waiting.

As she watched an episode of “Empresses in the Palace,” a phenomenally successful period series from a decade ago, she spoke to a new writer over the phone.

“The reason we said your manuscript wasn’t up to par is that it’s too slow-paced: the reader loses interest before the story’s even begun. We want to draw them in... The four main elements of a story are: structure, characters, plot, and story arc. The rough outline already sets up the structure and story arc for you,” she told the writer.

“You need to mold the characters through dialogue and keep a firm grasp over each plot point... If you have some spare time, watch a bit of ‘Empresses in the Palace.’ There’s a reason why it is so popular. Once you’ve understood how they advance the plot in each episode, you’ll get an idea of how to write a good story.”

This new writer had consistently failed to grasp the distinctive style of mobile web fiction. Every draft she’d sent so far had been clunky, thus frustrating Xia.

Xia ended the conversation with some advice. “Mobile web fiction is no longer a genre for people who just want to switch off their brains. If they were truly that easy to write, we’d pick people at random to bash on their keyboards and make a fortune. Web fiction isn’t easy to write — after all, it’s called ‘online literature.’ Anything related to literature requires at least some skill. Don’t you agree?”

She hung up, piled up the dishes from her dinner, took out a packet of cigarettes from a storage basket, and lit one up.

Xia began reading online literature at age 12. Since then, the genre has continually migrated and expanded, from bulletin boards and forums to reading applications. Though only in her early 20s, she has been part of the industry’s entire history.

“To this day, many people are still prejudiced about online literature. But because more and more people now read it, they’re taking it more seriously. After all, there’s money to be made. Unfortunately, most still believe it is just a way to kill time,” she rues.

“However, there’s no reason online literature should be treated with contempt. Nowadays, plenty of young people, despite being in their mid-20s, have still never been in a romantic relationship. And among the most fervent readers of mobile web fiction are many middle-aged people in second and third-tier cities who fantasize about life in cosmopolitan hubs, but have no way of making their dreams a reality.”

Xia underscored that mobile web fiction has immense value, just like any form of literature. “It offers people a fabulous opportunity for escapism — a space where they can vicariously live out these fantasies,” says Xia, with a smile.

It offers people a fabulous opportunity for escapism — a space where they can vicariously live out these fantasies.

Despite the profits, online literature continues to be compared with traditional literature, often with derision. When it comes to the general public’s negative opinions of the genre, Xia has heard it all.

“Some people say that online literature is all about love and feelings. But isn’t ‘love and feelings’ what we all hope for, deep down? As they say, we want what we don’t have. There is an objective demand for online literature that justifies its existence and reflects its value. Therefore, no one can truly pretend to be above it,” she says.

Online literature has been beneficial not only to readers but writers as well.

The average age of Xia’s colleagues is under 30, though these teams of young women may not have experienced the melodramatic events in the million-word sagas they churn out. If they were writing just from personal experience, their works might not hold much appeal at all.

However, what they lack in experience, they more than make up for with imagination. Those whose overactive imaginations were overlooked or even fettered when they were children — often labeled fanciful daydreamers — now have an avenue to share their ideas with the world and make a living in the process.

Some people have attacked such team writers, accusing them of tainting the written word with the stench of money. To them, Xia simply says: “Those who write novels want to make a living from their writing, while those who read them want to experience things they can’t find in the real world. It’s an equal transaction that both parties benefit from.”

Xia’s mother has constantly hounded her to continue her career back in their hometown of Shenyang and has even looked for jobs related to her law major, but Xia has refused every time.

Once, her mother tried to argue that “there was no future in online literature,” but now that Xia has a stable job, that argument doesn’t quite hold up.

Xia believes the online literature industry will maintain a stable course of development in the years to come. “After all, in today’s society, people find that their inner worlds are more barren than ever, and their ability to concentrate is increasingly limited,” she says.

Reading online novels is a good way to pass the time and blow off steam. Xia, too, still likes to read them in her free time.

“Everybody should try reading novels. They’re truly beautiful things. Online novels offer comfortable worlds that are perfectly tailored to the fantasies of people living in modern society. The lifestyles, destinies, and romances they describe can’t be found in real life,” she says.

As the ember at the end of her cigarette glowed orange in the dark, Xia looked out at the night through her window. She muttered to herself, again: “Can’t be found in real life.”

Xia Xiaolin and Luna are pseudonyms.

A version of this article originally appeared in La Jeunesse Nonfiction Writing Bazaar advised by Zhang Huiyu of Peking University. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.

(Header image: Milhrandt Yuliia/Getty Creative via VCG)