Welcome to the story of Scriptopus.
Unlike other stories you may stumble across on this site, this one isn’t fiction. Instead it’s the true tale of the life – and possibly death – of a fiction-generating internet app I dreamed up almost five years ago.
At the time I was stuck in the same morass that snares many would-be writers: What do I write about? I don’t have the time! It all seems so daunting. I knew the standard advice for people in that position: Write every day, for at least 15 minutes a day, longer if possible. Doesn’t matter what it is, just get into the habit. You don’t have to come up with a complete idea. It doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle and end. Just write something. Anything.
Easy to say, but how do you do that? How do you stop your mind from remaining as blank as the piece of paper you’re staring at?
And then I did come up with something – the idea for Scriptopus. And it changed everything.
Basically, my concept was to create an online writing platform (the developers I later hooked up with quickly indoctrinated me into thinking of it as a game) that would make that daily 15 minute commitment easier by removing the pressure of having to think of an idea; or a jumping-off point from which to start writing it; or a sense of obligation to complete it. The plan was that users would be able to click through a random collection of short passages of original fiction (1000 characters or less) until they found one they fancied. Once they made a selection they’d have 15 minutes (and another 1000 character maximum) within which to continue it. Once they submitted what they’d written it would become the only part of that thread the next person could see. After 10 entries the thread would close and all the contributors would get an email with a link to the completed ‘story’ – which, since no one had ever been able to see more than the previous entry while writing, would make absolutely no sense. But making sense really wasn’t the point (and as it turned out, the surreal nonsensicality of the ‘stories’ was a huge part of their charm). The point was to motivate wannabe writers – including myself – to stop faffing about and get on with it.
As far as that part went, it worked like a charm.
In early 2010 I did the rounds of London’s Silicon Roundabout and hired a small development company. While they started designing and planning I started writing – I’d worked out that there would need to be a wide range of ‘starter scripts’ to form the initial content. I recruited friends and family to help, but the majority of the text that Scriptopus launched with was mine. The desire to get my crazy idea off the ground made me do the very thing the crazy idea was intended for – I was writing random bits of micro-fiction, and I was writing every day. By the time the site went live near the end of March there were almost too many.
The developers had come up with some cool gimmicks to publicise the launch, and afterwards I carried on promoting the site on social media (as best I could – I am not a natural publicist, and at the time I had a demanding job that had nothing to do with, and left little time for, writing or books). But I didn’t quite know where to go with it in the months and years that followed. It was obvious that it would need to be (and I wanted it to be) free to the casual user, so it wasn’t clear whether or how it could ever generate any income. The creation of some kind of ‘premium’ level of functionality was bandied about, but it made no sense to me to pursue that unless the site developed a critical mass of regular users, and attracted additional investors. So far I’d done this entirely on my own, with my own money. I was able to put enough into development for the first year or so to add some additional interactive functionality; the ability to sign in with and post to Facebook, circulate links to friends and invite them to join in, get an email notification when someone added to a story thread you were already part of. It had a small but reasonably steady user base, and every now and then I’d get a feedback email from someone who really enjoyed using it and appreciated it for all the reasons I’d hoped it would be appreciated.
And that was Scriptopus, ticking along, with – if I am brutally honest, and I intend to be – less and less of my attention. Because, just over a year after I launched it, I had developed another focus.
In the latter part of 2010 I’d been made redundant – part of the contraction that was sweeping the City as a result of the economic crisis. The timing couldn’t have suited me better. I sold my house in London, moved to Devon, and became a freelance consultant. For the first few months I had loads of work; but in April of 2011, in what I thought would be just a gap between projects (it turned out to be a long gap), I started writing a novel that I’d been thinking about on and off for several years. Its working title was ®Evolution.
I finished it that October, and sent it out to a group of readers. Armed with their feedback I edited and polished, and submitted it to agents at the beginning of January. By early February one of those agents had signed me up. It took him a month to secure a publishing deal – for three books. A year later, in March 2013, that novel – now retitled Gemsigns, with ®Evolution as the series title – was published in the UK and Commonwealth.
Another year has gone by. I’ve moved back to London. My second novel, Binary, has just been published, and the American edition of Gemsigns will be released in less than a month. I’m already running late with the third novel, Gillung. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been magical. It’s been amazing. And none of it would have happened without Scriptopus; but Scriptopus has suffered as a result.
I’d long since stopped visiting it daily, so I don’t even know exactly when the site went down. One of the original developers from that clever little company (which is itself no longer in existence) had done the odd bit of work for me from time to time, including migrating the site to a different host company a couple of years ago. (I forget why it had to be moved; some technical reason.) It was his account, not mine, but he’s a good guy so I wasn’t worried. (Also, thinking about other things. See above.) It was around three weeks ago, when an interviewer asked me a question about Scriptopus – the publicity for my UK and US book launches was starting to intensify, and it’s mentioned in my bio – that I realised I hadn’t checked it in quite some time. So I did, and … it wasn’t there anymore.
When I contacted him the developer was as mystified as I was – turns out he hadn’t been keeping an eye on the other applications that were hosted there either (because he too now has other, newer interests). But it didn’t take him long to discover that Scriptopus (and everything else being hosted via his account) had been removed, because – and this is the only part of this story that really pisses me off, though not at him – he hadn’t realised that the credit card it was linked to had expired. This company does not, apparently, believe in the about-to-expire warning email, or the your-account-is-in-arrears email, or the this-is-your-last-chance-before-we-trash-your-stuff email. But while they give no priority to keeping you going, they are nothing if not meticulous about kicking you out. The site hadn’t simply been taken down, to be reactivated at some future point upon provision of new payment details. Oh no. It had been deleted.
(I could go into a very long rant here about poor customer service and appalling business practice, not to mention a complete failure to manage reputational risk, but I won’t. That is not the moral of this story.)
My developer friend spent days trying to ascertain whether the site had in fact been archived somewhere and could potentially be restored, before finally confirming that it hadn’t and couldn’t. Okay, we thought. That’s bad, but we have the source code backups, and the original scripts. All the content written by contributors over the years may have been lost (and I am so very sorry about that), but we have what we need to relaunch it as it was when it started life four years ago.
Turns out four years is a geologic age in web server technology, and the Scriptopus app can’t be redeployed without first being updated. My friend’s skill set is out of date (other, newer interests, remember?) so he can’t do it. I’d have to find someone else; and I’d have to be prepared to focus on – and support – the whole thing, all over again.
I’m not sure I want to. And it doesn’t feel like I need to.
I didn’t want it to end like this, but I find I’m not as distressed as I would have expected. I’d like to see it live again, but I’m pretty certain I won’t be devastated if it doesn’t. Having said that, I do think Scriptopus has the potential to do more, and be developed further: for use in schools perhaps, or as a true social media app, or a game that prioritises wordplay rather than swordplay. If and when I wind up with extra money and extra time maybe I’ll make it happen …
Or maybe you will. Because if it’s to live again in any meaningful way I think it needs more than just my input. It needs new minds, some new ideas and perspectives and resources, someone for whom it will be new.
If that’s you, please get in touch.
I’m told that it needs a developer who can update a small Ruby on Rails application from 2.2.2 to 3.x or 4.x. I’m further told that this essentially means rewriting the app, as Rails 2.x is, in tech terms, ‘from times when dinosaurs walked the earth.’ And yes I’m quoting my friend here, because that was the point in his email where, instead of getting upset and depressed, I started to giggle. And then laugh out loud. He’s right. As far as he’s concerned, as far as I’m concerned, everything has changed.
Scriptopus was a great idea. Bringing it to life released a flood of other ideas – and they have transformed my life. It showed me what I could do, and I’m doing it. I don’t need it anymore, so maybe it ends here.
Or maybe not.
Over to you.
I’ll leave the comments thread open for a while. If you want to talk to me about Scriptopus but find them closed, or would prefer not to communicate in public, just use the contact form.