Online communities serve an important role for fans of genre fiction. It’s not always easy to find like-minded souls in our daily lives, willing to spend hours debating the best and worst of science fiction novel cover art, or the latest Game of Thrones theories. Forums and other discussion groups on platforms like Facebook bridge the gap, bringing together readers and writers from all over the world.
There are many discussion spaces all over the internet, and often people try several before finding one they feel more at home in. I got lucky on my first try: I found the UK-based SFF Chronicles while looking for book recommendations, and once I realized the forum had an active and friendly writer’s corner I was smitten.
With over 30,000 registered members, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles, known affectionately by its members as the Chrons, has been going strong for fifteen years. The brainchild of fantasy writer Brian Turner, it has everything from book to gaming discussions, with a busy TV and movie section, too. The writing boards are extremely popular, offering space for questions on plot structure, grammar doubts, and even critiques. And the monthly 75-word and quarterly 300-word writing challenges are a lot of fun, and a good learning process too!
I’ve invited Brian to share a little of what it takes to set up and run a forum the size of the Chrons. Also on the witness stand is long-time member, site moderator, and science fiction and fantasy writer Damaris Browne. Check out her website, www.damarisbrowne.com, for more on her work, book reviews, and her thoughts on writing.
Juliana: Welcome Brian and Damaris. Now, I know Damaris is a long-time member of the forum, and Brian of course has been there since its inception. Could you tell us a bit about the journey from start to current format and size?
Damaris: I’d better leave this one to Brian, as the Chrons was up and running long before I joined in 2008. I’m interested in hearing what the full story is, though, since I know there are members whose dates of joining are a year or two before Brian’s – something which confused me a good deal before I became a mod and picked up bits and pieces of the site’s history.
Brian: Originally I had a website for my writing, with a forum to support it. I was convinced I’d be published soon — only to realise I’d simply completed a first draft, and would need years to learn how to write to commercial standard. As it already covered other SFF books, TV series, and films, it made sense to detach the forums and develop them as a general SFF community. I then did everything I could to grow it — marketing strategies, technical tricks, mentions in the BBC and other media, a stall at Worldcon, etc.
Now it’s the largest dedicated SFF forum out there. Better still, it’s retained the same sense of friendship and community it began with.
FWIW, I posted a longer history here: https://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/549309/
Juliana: Forums, by nature, are always in flux, with established members fading away and new members joining. Have you felt the Chrons has changed in ‘personality’ over the years?
Brian: Forums are a social media platform, so they are only ever as good as the members that make them up. Luckily, the people who are into SFF tend to be wonderful chilled people. Even better is that we have a moderating team to ensure everything remains civil, and that flame wars, trolling, and spamming are quickly dealt with. That allows for a safe environment for the community to grow.
Damaris: It’s always a shame when established members stop visiting for one reason or another, but it’s inevitable when real life intervenes, and a fresh infusion of new blood is important, bringing with it new ideas and energy. I don’t know about a change in personality, but my perception is there has been a change in emphasis since I joined. There was an Aspiring Writers section then, but it seemed to take second place to the discussion of books. Now I’d say the places have been reversed and the writing side is a greater driver of the site. There was also a chat room when I first joined, which vanished some time ago, and I think that was missed by some of the older members.
Juliana: There are several other SFF sites where forums exist side-by-side with a homepage that showcases articles and reviews. A while back, Brian opted to focus solely on the forum aspect. Why this decision? What are the positives and negatives of this choice?
Damaris: Again one which I’d best leave to Brian. I have to confess that I rarely visited the homepage, so I’ve not been affected by the change, save that as a winner of the 300 Word Writing Challenges it was a great ego-boost to see my name and a link to my story there. So that’s one disadvantage of its loss as far as I’m concerned!
Brian: I had grand dreams of setting up a SFF magazine on the front end, supported by the forums. But the big problem is that no good front end software will integrate with any good forum software. The result is that you end up with two websites running in parallel, and little interaction between the two. Which kind of defeats the purpose of having both features, if most people only use one or the other.
To me, the community aspect was always the most important – so I focused on that. Anything that would have ordinarily been posted to a front is now posted to the forums. IMO that makes for a stronger community overall.
Juliana: The SFF Chronicles, like most forums, depends heavily on volunteer moderators. What does a moderator actually do? And how much work does it take to keep a forum friendly and ‘clean’?
Brian: In their simplest form, moderators are simply long-term members who have been entrusted with an extra set of tools to help protect the community environment. But moderators are also site ambassadors, and service relations. Ultimately, their role is essential – and usually thankless – when it comes to making sure the community runs properly and safely.
Damaris: Most work is general housekeeping, such as opening and closing regular monthly threads like “What are you reading?” and moving threads which have appeared in the wrong sub-forum by mistake (new members asking for recommendations often wrongly post in Book Search, for instance).
The Challenges have their own little section in the Staff Room where we deal with matters arising. As there are strict word limits, we’re called on to decide whether entries have gone over the limit and therefore have to be removed, whether proposed combination word forms are one or two words, whether choices of theme and genre are appropriate for the 75 Worders and, most difficult of all, what images we should use for the 300 Worders. All those decisions are arrived at by consensus. But a job which is solely mine, and by far the best one, is contacting the winner of the 300 Challenge and confirming the prize (Brian generously provides a book worth £10 GBP from an online shop) then helping get his/her choice of book organised and sent out – as it was to you, Juliana!
Then we have the more onerous – not to say upsetting – duties, effectively policing the site. We don’t get as many spammers as we used to (*touch wood*), but they are a nuisance and their posts have to be removed and the spammers banned. Something that has grown over the years since I’ve been a mod is the number of people joining for the purposes of using us as a free billboard for their self-published novel or their kickstarter campaign. We’re always delighted to hear about members’ projects, but newbies aren’t allowed to self-promote. So those posts are also removed, though the members themselves are rarely banned nowadays, but rather are encouraged to join in and become true members of the community, which is guaranteed to bring more interest in their work anyway, so it’s win-win.
And very occasionally we have to intervene when members argue or become abusive. We don’t allow trolling or flame wars on the site, and we stamp down hard on anything approaching such unpleasantness. Incidentally, as you noted in your introduction, one of the things which makes Chrons so popular is that the boards are always friendly, civil and tolerant of difference. That is wholly down to Brian and the example he sets and encourages us to maintain.
Juliana: The writing challenges are a popular pastime for many members. And Damaris is our resident statistician, keeping track of entries and votes over the years. How did the idea of the challenges emerge? How have they evolved over time?
Brian: The Writing Challenges is an area I support, but almost never have anything to do with. It’s a great example of the community asking for, and then organising, what has become a major activity.
Damaris: Ah-ha! I can answer this one easily, since I was, by chance, one of the original movers of the Challenges. Back in early 2010 one of our members put up a piece in Critiques to commemorate his 1,000th post. (The start of another Chrons tradition!) I came along not long after and followed suit, but as I had nothing in my draft WiPs suitable, I quickly wrote a silly piece of 250 words. In the discussions which followed, I half-jokingly suggested we should have a “story in 50 words” thread, so we could practice brevity as the soul of good story-telling. Teresa Edgerton, another long-standing member (and brilliant author), confirmed she’d been part of a writing group that had an exercise to modernise a fairy tale in 75 words, and she was the only one able to complete it. She suggested we try the same exercise in our Workshop section of Aspiring Writers, changing theme or genre monthly. I was very taken with the idea, as were several others, so the Challenges started a few days later, on 5 April 2010.
We thought we might get a handful of people taking part, and like other exercises, it might last a few months before fizzling out. We’ve now just completed our sixth year of the 75 Worder, and in that time we’ve had a total of 448 entrants writing 3,571 stories!
The 75 Worder has stayed much as it started, though the original open genres or plain Science Fiction or Fantasy are rare now, and the genres (which are chosen by the previous month’s winner) can be rather esoteric, not to say wilful – Tudorpunk and In the Style of Rudyard Kipling being notorious. But in 2011 we started the 300 Worders, which have an image, often a photograph, as an inspiration for speculative fiction, and in 2014 a not-quite official 100 Worder was begun, where the entries are posted anonymously and part of the fun is to try and guess which member wrote which story.
Juliana: Which are your favorite corners of the Chrons?
Damaris: Aspiring Writers, by a long way, and that’s where I spend most of my time. But I have a soft spot for Book Search, which is where members can put up pleas for help in trying to find the title and author for SFF novels they read many years ago and which are now tantalising memories. I was like a dog with two tails when I was able to pinpoint a book for one person a few years back – my one and only acknowledged success.
Brian: I love it every time someone starts a discussion, especially about a book or an author. It’s also great when a TV show or film franchise develops enough of a following to receive its own board.
Additionally, I enjoy seeing the various writing projects, and successes, our writers are involved with.
Juliana: I happen to know that besides being talented writers you are both avid readers. What’s on your to-read pile at the moment?
Brian: I’ve got quite a reading list (https://www.sffchronicles.com/xfa-blog-entry/2700/) already for this year, but I’ve had a few books already added to that. A heady mix of fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, historical fiction, plus general non-fiction research material.
Damaris: My TBR pile overflows from two large baskets, and there isn’t enough room to list everything they contain! I’m a catholic reader (with a particular weakness for medieval murder mysteries), so I’ve books of all kinds waiting, but just looking at a few of the SFFs: Raymond E Feist, King of Foxes; Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne; Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns; Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes. And just this weekend I picked up Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Jack Campbell’s JAG in Space, and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. In the non-SFF sphere, the one I’m going to start next is Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo as I’ve recently finished The Last of the Wine which was marvelous, and after that Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue – I was very impressed with her The Lady and the Unicorn, though perhaps less so by Girl with a Pearl Earring. And lastly, as early research for a possible novel I’ve got A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson which is just begging to be opened.
Juliana: Thank you Brian and Damaris for sharing an insider’s view of the SFF Chronicles. It’s always fascinating to peek behind the curtains! Hmm, that gives me an idea for a new thread topic… 😉
Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out March’s Spotlight on Writing Horror with Gwendolyne Kiste and Scarlett R. Algee. Next up in May: Spotlight on Writing YA.