Ninety-two people, By Menachem counted. Ninety-two people had come to her panel, out of all the panels at one of the largest media conventions in America, just to see her.
She almost couldn’t believe it.
As By waited in the back of the room for the announcer to call her up to the table, she whipped out her phone, wanting to do some math. Neatocon 2023 was estimated to have approximately 59,000 unique attendees throughout the four day February weekend, with at least one-third of them there for the Saturday her panel was taking place. Out of that 20k, ninety-two — nope, ninety-four, she saw another pair of cosplayers waltz in — had specifically decided to take time out of their busy con-going schedules to come to her first ever panel. That was… 0.47%. Almost half a percent. She got chills staring at that number. Her long brown hair tickled her shoulders as she thought about it, light green eyes staring blankly ahead in near-total disbelief.
Had all of those people read Ionia of Illumination? Had half of them? Had even a single one? Technically speaking, it was possible that no one in the room knew who she was, wasn’t it? She’d been to a few comic conventions before, and she remembered once or twice walking into a full random room without knowing who or what would be awaiting her on the inside. Surely that was what was happening there, right? It was the only panel that she’d ever done, and she knew that a lot of her fans had made comments saying they’d be dropping by, but that was just talk on the Internet. That didn’t mean anything.
Another three people walked in.
It wasn’t possible — there was almost no way that it was possible. As far as she’d been led to believe, that many people did not read web serials. Nobody read web serials. Yeah, they’d gotten much, much more popular in the last several years, but not 0.47% popular. And if the people were reading web serials, god, they didn’t read hers. They couldn’t have been reading hers.
Sure, she’d seen the positive comments on her site. She’d seen the stats of her views, for the most part a slow constant uptick, rocketing up all the times random Internet celebrities had suddenly decided to tweet on her behalf and recommend that people check out what’d she written. She’d seen the fanart, the pictures of cosplayers dressed up like Ionia and Ax and Cloy, the homemade t-shirts. She’d seen the seemingly endless inbox of emails and PMs and DMs that she somehow managed, she’d seen the healthy recurring fan donations that were keeping her alive and comfortably housed, and she’d seen the nice computer she’d bought because of them.
And of course, she’d seen the picture of the tattoo. Lord, the Cloy tattoo. Someone had branded themselves, probably forever, because of what she made. And they were happy about it. They thanked her for the inspiration, they celebrated the fact that they’d done it, and then they sent her twenty dollars. Every month. For three years.
She still got butterflies in her stomach just thinking about it. Another person walked in. It didn’t help.
But all that stuff, at the end of the day — it all was explained away so easily. Maybe someone in her life just wanted to make her happy, make her proud of herself, just so they could take it away later. There wasn’t any particular reason to think that, but it was possible, wasn’t it? Fanart and cosplays could be commissioned. Online sockpuppet accounts were probably easier to come across than actual socks. Tattoos, well — tattoos could be photoshopped.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. It was a con official; it was a minute to the top of the hour, so they were about to call her up. He joked about how she shouldn’t have requested the smallest type of room they had, and she smiled and gave an awkward nod, somehow not dying inside. Thanking him, she walked up from behind the mini-curtain she’d been hiding behind, ready to go.
But those were people out there. Real, breathing, smiling people. People talking about the things and characters that she’d made up. People that liked her. People that looked up to her — and for once, not in the literal sense. Sure, the demon could’ve hired all those people… but even that seemed like too much for By to accept.
No. This was all real, almost definitely. She needed to stop doubting herself. They were there for her. They were there for Ionia. They were there, more than anything, for stepladdertruther2000.
“Okay, everyone! The panel has officially started, so we’re going to bring her out.”
The crowd roared. Some people were standing or sitting on the floor, although everybody was smiling anyway.
There weren’t enough seats.
“Trying to write a long-term web serial centered around episodic murder mysteries is, if you can believe it, an objectively terrible idea. You can trust me on that. I’ve done it twice.”
The crowd laughed. By didn’t understand why they were laughing, but they were. They’d laughed at every joke, smiled at every smile, and cheered at every statement she’d said in the hopes that they would. For some reason, they kept responding to the things she was doing, and positively.
She couldn’t stop staring at the crowd as she talked. They were not working for the demon. A few cosplayers didn’t quite fit in: there was a cute couple dressed up like Ed and Winry near the back, a few girls playing various obscure anime characters, Spock, and some type of purple Mecha robot thing that she didn’t quite recognize, but everyone else in costume oozed out appropriateness.
Three Ionias. Seven Cloys. The coolest Ax she’d ever seen, and he might as well have been stripped right out of By’s imagination as she had been writing, because he practically was Ax. Only thirty minutes in, she’d stopped mid-sentence at least three times to gawk and say how much she loved their costumes. And she really did. She wanted them to go by her table later so she could snap a picture with them. (Honestly, it wasn’t fair at all. They were supposed to be the ones gushing over her!)
“No, seriously. Don’t do it. It’s awful.”
Another big laugh. The polite girl who asked her the question laughed too, although she pressed By a little more afterwards, asking for further clarification with a small stutter.
Why was it that By, both in person and through her occasional blog posts, had been so discouraging of people who wanted to write web serials? Moreover, why did she say that she’d meant that doubly when it came to ones that fell inside her chosen genre? By wasn’t sure if she was imagining it, but she sensed a subtle accusation buried beneath the girl’s question. Are you trying to keep out the competition?
“So, I’ve actually gone into this a fair bit before online; when I say stuff like that, I mean it more in reference to the general type of attitude it takes to become successful as a serial writer. I hope people don’t actually find it discouraging, though. I’m really not trying to be a dirtbag or a dream killer. If you want to write, please do. It’s good for you, and it’s fun. More people should write, and more people who write should put their stuff out there for others to see. Even if you don’t care about having a bunch of readers, serials are a fantastic way to express yourself. But, that being said…”
She briefly moved away from the mic stand, taking a small sip of water. A few crowd members giggled. For a girl who’d never done a panel before, her timing was surprisingly on point.
“Well, look at it like this. You guys know Jews, right?”
“Horrendous phrasing, I’m sorry. You know Judaism, right? The religion?”
There was another short pause, although not nearly as deafening.
“Well, interesting little tidbit about Judaism; Jews don’t handle conversions in the same way that most religious people do. Christians, Muslims, most monotheistic varieties, see — they tend to want to boost conversion numbers as much as possible. They’re meant, at least by the opinion of most followers, to be universal — for everybody. If you walk up to a priest and tell him that you want to be a Christian, he’ll invite you inside his home with a smile. Same for an Imam. Same for most monks, I think. And I’m not declaring any opinions on that, by the way. That’s just factually how it is.”
By stopped to take another sip. She was bringing this somewhere, she hoped.
“But… do you know what happens if you go a Rabbi and tell him the same thing? Like, you’ve read the Torah front to back, you understand and agree with it, you learned Hebrew, and then you ask him — you beg him — to let you convert. Do you know what he’ll say to you?”
“He’ll tell you to go away.”
For the first time since she started going off on her insane sidepath, more laughter. Good. She thought she’d lost them.
“No, really! And he’s supposed to, too. It’s what most Jews believe.”
Somebody shouted from the back. It was Winry.
“That’s not true! My cousin converted to Judaism.”
“No, I didn’t say that Jews won’t let people convert at all — that’s not how it works. People become Jews all the time; however, when you first go to the Rabbi and ask them if they’ll let you do it, they’re supposed to discourage you. Traditionally, this means going at least three times before they’ll even agree to let you try, and then you have to study the religion more on your own and sometimes even get approved by a small council. It’s quite the ritual.”
And another pause, and another sip.
“But the Rabbis obviously aren’t doing that because they don’t think Judaism is a good thing or because they want to keep all the infinite gloriousness of God’s way to themselves; there’s decent logic behind it. See, to Jews, especially Orthodox ones, Judaism is meant to be a challenge, and not one that everyone needs to take. They think it’s rewarding, but tough. A Jewish soul, supposedly, is fundamentally different than a non-Jewish soul, and only someone who already has one can really understand just how difficult that type of lifestyle is. Everyone else is just idealizing it, only seeing the nice parts they want to focus on most, without all the hard work. So by discouraging them, they root out everyone who won’t have the constitution to handle it once they finish their conversion and can actually appreciate what it’s like. If you can’t handle someone telling you that something will be hard, then you definitely won’t be able to handle facing the actual thing yourself.”
The girl leaned into the mic again.
“So you’re the Rabbi in this scenario?”
“Yeah, kinda. I think web serials are amazing, and I’ve been obsessed with a specific brand of finger-pointy style murder mysteries for basically my entire life, and I’d love to see a popular cross-section of the two not written by me. However, I think that looking from the outside in, many people underestimate how difficult it is to write this type of stuff at the frequency that I do. Not that I’m saying that I don’t love my job or that I’m not astoundingly lucky to get to do this, but…”
“Can you elaborate on that?”
“…Oy. Yeah, sure. So, I’ve already talked about why serials are so tough to write a bunch of times. If you want to get anything close to a smidgen of popularity while doing it, you have to write decently, you have to write a lot, and most importantly, you have to write consistently. Trying to compete with entirety of the Internet solely via text is damn near impossible, and you aren’t going to have any chance of doing it successfully if your potential audience can’t be assured that you are going to finish it. The work that it takes to do that is easily equivalent to a full-time job, and both me and everyone I’ve spoken to near the top of the chart has had to treat it like one to get and stay there. Heck, there’s that half-deaf Canadian bastard who’s been hogging the top spot of the serial rankings for over a decade. You should see how hard he works. Man’s a machine.”
Half the crowd cheered at her description, the person mentioned audibly of great importance to them. By used the opportunity to take another sip. Talking to an audience was surprisingly thirsty work.
“And mysteries, especially murder mysteries; I totally get why few people have really pulled them off yet. It’s hard, and planning-wise you really have to have your shit together. You can screw stuff up so easily. You word something a little too obviously one time, thinking you’re being super clever with some foreshadowing, boom. Somebody just figured it out in the comment section, and they’ve went and told everyone. Suspense gone. Arc ruined. Serial failed. Ionia of Illumination was my second serial, and it needed to be; I basically had to write the 600,000 words of trash that was Space Attorney: Star Witness before I had anything close to a handle on what I was doing.”
Somebody giggled as she said the name of the cursed work, the one she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t think about. She had to remind herself that nobody cared about how awful it was anymore; it was over. Now she wrote Ionia of Illumination, which people liked, and gave her money and attention for, and got tattoos because of. Nobody cared about the sci-fi space opera legal drama she’d once written. Most people who read the name probably brushed it off as shitty fanfiction.
Which was, well, fair enough. It was a poor choice of title, but she’d thought the pun was clever at the time, and it was an appropriate title considering the serial’s many similarities to its namesake. She hadn’t had more than a tiny fraction of the popularity or positive criticism at the time, and the quality of her work reflected that. Hell, it was so unoriginal for most of its run that it almost was fanfiction, at least until the story neared its conclusion. The characters were almost copy-pasted right out of the stories she’d taken inspiration from, the only real differences superficial and surface-level to the point of meaninglessness.
And just when she’d started to get good, just when people were finally starting to enjoy it, as she got near the end… she screwed it all up. Somebody figured out who the secret main villain was right at the start of the last arc, and they of course had needed to make a lengthy forum post about it, which was painfully well sourced and brimming with textual evidence. Everyone accepted it as fact, which made sense. It had been correct.
She’d been too deep into things to change the course of her story without things going off the rails, but she still wanted to surprise her readers, even if that meant veering off from her original plans. She needed it, that last, big surprise…
So she wrote a very bad thing.
A twist so horrendous, so terrible, so heartbreakingly awful that she still couldn’t even bear to think about it. Oh, it was original. No one could’ve said that it wasn’t. It was probably the case that nobody had ever done what she’d done… but there was an excellent reason for that. Many, in fact.
Her mysterious enemy, the one who’d figured it all out and forced her into that position in the first place, had ultimately remained anonymous. They’d only posted the one message, and left no email. All she had to refer to them as was the two letter name they’d gone by.
In the nights she spent reeling afterwards, even after she’d started Ionia of Illumination and confirmed over and over and over that D wasn’t DM, which D wasn’t, she’d sometimes stare up at the ceiling and wonder what it was that DM stood for. A name? A unit of measurement? A certain company she’d had a history with? A profession, perhaps? Who was DM? What was DM?
It bugged her, it did, because the original final villain for her story was perhaps the one thing that she’d written and still felt proud about. It was legitimately — unlike essentially all else that constituted Space Attorney — a clever and well thought out idea. And her execution of it… hell, that wouldn’t have that been bad either. Conceptually, she liked it almost as much as the best twists she’d so far pulled off in Ionia of Illumination, and that was saying something, considering the critical reception it’d received. To think she’d been forced to replace it with that vindictive garbage that she’d thought up…
Well, that wasn’t true. DM didn’t force her to do anything. The responsible thing to do would have been to ignore the comment and move on, like a normal person, continuing forward with her original plans. After all, there were any number of readers — both then and in the future — who wouldn’t look at the comments, and who still wouldn’t be spoiled by it because of that. Some might’ve cared more about character interactions or other things; not everybody cared that much about plot twists.
In addition, many readers weren’t like her; they were perfectly fine experiencing something even if they knew what lay ahead. There was nothing wrong with continuing to read a story even if one already knew what the ending was.
Most readers recognized that an author wouldn’t decide to do something as ridiculous as having the main character die in the middle of a story; it wasn’t as if they literally rolled dice to decide the fates of their characters, after all. Despite that fact, readers still felt tension when a character they cared about got into a hairy spot, because a good author could make even episodic situations feel suspenseful. Obviously, By knew that already.
At the time, however, By hadn’t been a good author. Competent, maybe, but not good. She was close, and when she released Ionia of Illumination some time later as her second serial, one which involved a well-worded and especially clever young girl attending a magical school despite having no magical powers and the mystery-solving game she was forced into, she soon figured out how it was that good storytelling happened. She learned to plan correctly, to be original, to use dialogue and prose and characterization and everything else in the right way, and soon she’d found that she’d done it.
She could write.
And as payment for her valiant efforts writing Space Attorney and all unmentionable shorter works she’d written before it, she thought as she looked out in the crowd, she’d been rewarded with everything she’d ever wanted. She had a fantastic job, an adoring if not challenging fanbase, and for all the trouble it might have given her, the chance to sit down and write almost whatever she wanted, with full knowledge that at least someone out there would always find it entertaining.
Almost, she reminded herself. Almost. There were limits. Lines not to be crossed.
“But that’s more just a general quirk of the genre, isn’t it?”
“Sure, but that’s part of what makes mysteries so hard to write, especially if you try to focus on things outside the purview of what the genre typically tends to hone in on. I mean, I think I’ve been doing a good job with Ionia of Illumination, but a lot of that’s in spite of me following the traditional aspects of the mystery formula, not because of it.”
“Well, for example, think about it in terms of characters. If you write a mystery and aren’t either a super crappy writer or trying to do some weird exercise in postmodernism — or both, god forbid — a well written mystery demands that you introduce all the characters and potential suspects right at the beginning of a story. That’s the first Knox Commandment, if I remember correctly, and it makes sense in the context it’s intended for — to create a fair and captivating mystery. But in terms of characterization and storytelling, that rule is awful, and it creates super inorganic plot scenarios. In real life, you don’t meet everybody involved in an event right at the start and stay with them all until the end; in fact, it’s just the opposite. People come and go as the situation demands. It’s not that bad most of the time, but if you have a lot of suspects to juggle, it becomes very noticeable. Imagine starting a story with like, forty pages worth of character introductions. Bleh.”
“…But isn’t that just kind of how death game and mystery type plots work?”
“Yeah, I guess. But that’s my point. I love death games, I love murder mysteries, and they’re my bread and butter; but as great as they are, they’re unnatural. You will always lose natural storytelling progression, you will always lose — at least to an extent — the element of surprise, and you will be constrained to a very repetitive formula for the entirety of the story, lest you decide to go off in some crazy new direction.”
“And that’s bad?”
“No. That all just means it won’t appeal to everyone. There are always some folks out there willing to accept unorthodox story structures if it allows an author to ramp up drama and create unique scenarios with interesting characters. I hope so, anyway. I’d be out of a job otherwise.”
By paused again, taking a look at the crowd. Even among a group of diehard fans, she saw a few eyes glazing over. She’d gotten slightly off topic.
“Anyway, I know I like talking about this, and you’re super cool, but I feel like we had a rule about not having any follow-up questions. And you just had, like, five. That’s totally my fault, but I think we should probably move on.”
The girl blushed before apologizing and thanking her, quickly moving back to the side of the room. By assured her it was alright as the next woman in line queued up, looking far too pleased with herself. By took a deep breath.
“Have you read any erotic fanfiction in regards to your own material? There’s a surprisingly vast library, especially if you’re as much of a Ioniax fan as I am, and…”
“How was it, honey?”
With it well past midnight, By sat on a bench outside the convention center, watching a slow trickle of attendees slowly dribble out the doors. She was dead tired, but more satisfied than she could have possibly anticipated herself being, a large plastic bag of swag sitting next to her. It contained a metric buttload of art she’d both had commissioned and freely given to her throughout the day, along with several stuffed animals she’d bought for a friend, including an especially cute chibi reindeer with an odd hat. Hopefully it would do.
As she sat and let her body not pound with adrenaline for the first time since early that same morning, she spoke softly to her dad on the phone. It was a little difficult to talk, and her voice was hoarse, a full day of chatting having more than worn her throat out. She didn’t think she’d ever spoken so much in one day before, and it wasn’t as if she was much of an introvert, so that was saying something. Thankfully, the connection was too spotty for her dad to pick up on how different she sounded, which meant that he couldn’t bug her worrying about it.
“It was amazing. I didn’t think…”
She paused, trying to swallow away some of the pain in her throat.
“I didn’t think I had that in me.”
“How many people was it? At the question thing.”
“They call it a panel.”
“Fine, the panel. How many?”
“I don’t know. Over one-ten by the end, not counting that one lady who they made leave halfway through.”
“One-hundred and ten.”
There was a brief pause.
“You said it’d be about twenty-five.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“That’s amazing, By. That’s amazing.”
“I don’t think all of them planned to be there in advance. A lot of people at these things just show up to stuff that sounds interesting on the schedule. I’m sure a ton of those people didn’t actually read it.”
“By, be fair to yourself. You said there’s that guy a few spaces in front of you on the serial popularity list, right? The writer you’re always talking about, with the bugs.”
“You said he’s getting his own TV show adaptation, didn’t you? You went to that convention up in Toronto last year to see him, and he had… it was eight-hundred people in a room, you said?”
“And you don’t think you deserve a tenth of that, after everything you’ve done, after all the people who spend their time reading your stuff?”
“It’s not about whether I deserve it or not. I’m just being realistic.”
“No, you’re being pessimistic. There isn’t a downside to this. Sometimes a nice thing just happens, and then everything’s fine, and it’s not because some cosmic deity is trying to play a giant prank on you but because you legitimately earned it. I’m not going to pretend that that’s a common occurrence in life, but it definitely happens.”
“You’re the one who raised me to be a skeptic.”
“Being a skeptic doesn’t mean you have to be critical of everything.”
“…It kinda does, by definition.”
She heard him sigh.
“Dad, that guy is like ten leagues above me in terms of writing quality. He’s going to spend the rest of his life rolling around in a giant pile of Canadian dollars, and he should. My stuff isn’t like that.”
“By, you’re twenty-three! You’re just barely not a baby anymore. And even if you weren’t, not everything you ever put out is going to be god’s gift to literature. But you had a giant audience today who I’m sure loved you and your work. If you want to approach this from a empirical perspective, there’s a lot more evidence to suggest that you’re quite popular, at least as opposed to the alternative. I can think of one-hundred and ten excellent reasons to start, if you want to hear them.”
“I’m not saying that you have to believe it absolutely, By. I’m not telling you to break the rule. But there’s a 99.9999% chance that you’re a successful writer. Accept that much, at least. I’m an English teacher, for god’s sake. Some of the books I force high schoolers to read were written by dead guys who would’ve cried to know that many people were reading what they wrote. And those one-ten cheering for you were just the folks willing to travel in-person to meet you. You’re doing fine.”
By tried to fight it, but she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. Dad was good at that type of stuff.
“Honey, I know I don’t say this enough, but I’m very proud of you.”
“You say that a lot, Dad.”
“I mean it, though. Every time I re-adjust my expectations for you, you manage to knock them out of the park. You’ve come a long way from that lazy little girl who couldn’t be bothered to get up for preschool.”
“I just want you to appreciate how well you’re doing in the way that I do. All that success doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t in the headspace to deal with it correctly.”
“Well, I did have a great time today, objections to my popularity notwithstanding. Met a ton of really cool people.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
By coughed, suddenly realizing she didn’t have the vocal endurance left to go on much longer.
“Dad, could I call you again tomorrow? I’m kinda tired.”
“Sure thing, honey. Are you taking an Uber? Or is D-”
“He’s picking me up. Should be here in another five minutes.”
“In that deathtrap of his?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Just kidding. You know I wouldn’t make fun of him for that.”
“It’s the only thing he can drive.”
“That’s why I said I was kidding!”
By paused to cough again.
“Why didn’t he come with you, by the way?”
“I don’t think he wanted the attention. You know how he is with big crowds.”
“That’s a shame. There are some great costume opportunities there.”
“That’s what I said. But you know him.”
“Fair enough. Have him take you out somewhere for a late night dinner date or something. He’s even better at motivating you than I am.”
“God no. I want to sleep.”
By looked up, the headlights to a car pulling up near her. It was him.
“He just got here. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Sure thing. Goodnight, By. I love you. Tell him I said hi.”
“I will. Love you too, Dad. Night.”
After hanging up, By noticed an odd notification on her phone, her normally spam-free personal account having received an out-of-place email from an unfamiliar address. The subject was “GBG”, although she didn’t look at it any further, not caring about whatever it might have been. She’d read it tomorrow.
Shutting off her phone, By got up and started heading to the car, her bag of stuffed animals jangling merrily against her thigh as she walked. She was excited to get into bed.
Things seemed good.