Applying A More Focused Approach

If you went to my RACC fiction subsite, you would have seen that it had a haphazard, half-finished appearance. Though I poked and prodded it several times over its existence, it never really benefited from the attention it wanted. This had a lot to do with the site's lack of focus; it started out as one thing, but as ambition overcame commitment, it became a much bigger job than the work I put into it.

The original idea was to only feature new releases. It specifically focused on the latest fiction chapters (issues) posted to the RACC newsgroup, skipping all the announcements, comments, replies, and discussions happening around them. The main thing this lacked was permanency. Though you could browse the newest issues of your favourite series, there wasn't any point in bookmarking or linking to them as they wouldn't be there in a week's time.

The second idea was promotional, to make a "slick" website featuring original fiction for those incapable or uninterested in reading a newsgroup. This got around the permanency problem, and the change even incorporated much of the extra discussions. However, this made a lot more work for me. I automated as much as I could, but there just wasn't enough consistency in the posts' formatting. I had to constantly review, tweak, and modify incoming messages manually. Plus, all the imagery had to be made by hand. Sorry everyone, but without being compensated for the work, that ended up being a bunch of time I preferred to be writing :)

The third idea was an archive. All my own fiction could exist on the site, complete with handy "next issue" and "previous issue" navigation. But it never could be a complete archive outside my own content as there was literally decades of newsgroup posts. Also, there are other sites doing a way better job of being a straight-forward repository. I wasn't interested in competing, nor was I capable of maintaining so massive a project on my own.

Over the last month, I reviewed the web traffic for the site while trying to decide what I should do. There was enough automation built that it could limp on by itself, but without someone doing some manual cleaning, it was always going to have that half-finished appearance. And even when it was being maintained properly, the exposure never broke beyond the newsgroup's small circle of writers and readers. Based on the traffic, the home page is by far the most popular page, as people read over the latest fiction… but rarely does the rest of the site get much attention.

As such, I'll be transitioning my RACC site back to its original "spinner rack" new releases focus. I want to give that core group of newsgroup writers/readers a nicer reading experience then they get in their email applications. Also, I want to build the site to be more responsive, allowing for better reading on smartphones and tablets. I might support some of the newsgroups' other posts discussions (such as promotions and the annual rewards) but I'm making no guarantees. And I'm still undecided how much of the imagery (the custom covers, specifically) will remain.

To do this, I'll be dropping the cron scripts that are doing the automated updates. It wasn't ever doing a good enough job to make me happy. Since the newsgroup issues are almost entirely posted as hard-wrapped plain-text, I'm going to switch over to a Markdown and Dropbox combination to power the backend. I'm already experimenting with the two technologies to build a light-weight content management system, and the slimmed-down requirements of this new RACC subsite make for an excellent test-case.

As you can see in the struck-out text above, I was originally going to strip this site down to the bare essentials. But as I got working on the change over, three things changed my mind…

First, managing everything through Markdown realistically would have led to the subsite getting completely abandoned. That would have meant doing more work by hand for less results, and inevitably, I would have kept putting updates off until the thing died. That was the problem I was trying to prevent. Or so I thought. I realized the real problem was that I needed to find what I enjoyed about managing and updating the site. Once I found that spark again, the solution would come naturally.

Second, when poking at the automated cron scripts, I finally found what the issue was with some of the major parsing errors. It was a lightbulb moment. Though it isn't a hundred percent full-proof, you'll see today that the incoming posts look much better. They require a lot less hands-on massaging to be presentable.

Thirdly, I found a general design direction that I fell in love with. Often, I think I know what I want a site to look like, but when I start hammering it out, I discover it was only a half-realized idea. It doesn't come together, I get frustrated part-way, and the result is that haphazard look I mentioned above. This time, the idea was clear and, though not fully-formed, gave me the momentum and excitement I was missing.

The end result? As opposed to reducing the scope, the site has gained functionality. Its got a new coat of paint, and as I keep fiddling with details, you'll see more of it solidify. Also, pieces will come and go as I decide how to present them and if they're worth keeping at all. If there's a particular part you want to see return or added, let me know… no promises, but I'll give it a look!

I would like to thank all the creative people at the RACC newsgroup for their contributions, and I look forward to many more years of original fiction!