…we're keeping our name but expanding our offerings!
Susan interviews Ais and Santino, co-authors of the epic online series
“In the Company of Shadows”
SUSAN: Thanks for participating in Freefic Week here at BioB. There are SO many incredible books and series out there offered for free online. How’d you guys get started writing ICoS and what made you decide to make it FREE?
SANTINO: We’re really happy to be here talking about it. :) It’s awesome! Thank you so much for picking In the Company of Shadows as your favorite free online read. We were really excited about the chance to talk about it with you and also to do a joint interview together.
As for how we got started, I think the very first time we really started brainstorming and figuring out the ICoS world and characters was in the fall of 2005. Hsin and Boyd were from two writing RP (role-playing) games that we had participated in a few years earlier. One was a steampunk RPG on Yahoo Groups that we participated in circa 2003 with people from our old fandom (Sin was a psychotic serial killer), and the other was a contemporary gay soap opera type thing based in a fictional town called Neulan (Boyd was an emo high school kid). We decided to write about characters we loved, but that we never never got the chance to develop fully, and we went from there.
Originally, the main character of ICoS was a civilian who was dying from the lung disease, and the focus was Janus. Boyd and Sin were just the assassins sent after them. We did a few practice stories with them, and they just had awesome chemistry.
AIS: And then at that point, we stopped and thought, “Well, wait. Should we explore them instead?” I think it surprised both of us how well Boyd and Sin connected. They were thrown together on a whim but it also felt like they were drawn to each other. We didn’t go into any of it planning for it to be M/M; we just figured we’d let the story and characters take their course.
As for keeping it free: I think a lot of it is probably our backgrounds. We were both pretty poor and coming from a culture of fandom and free online fic when we started ICoS. It wasn’t really meant to go anywhere in the beginning. We started out sharing it on AFFN and then over time we made our own site and so forth until we’re at the point now where there are ebook versions for people so it’s easier for them to read. (Incidentally, the entire series can be downloaded for free at www.inthecompanyofshadows.com or, if you’d like to see our website with the fan page, side stories, and/or read it online, visit www.aisylum.com/sonnyais. Major thanks to Lenore and anyone else who helped us make and format the ebook versions!)
We keep it free because it feels natural to us, and we get thank you’s from readers who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access it. If we do ever charge money, we want to make sure it’s high enough quality or we won’t feel comfortable. We both feel like the series, which has always essentially been a living draft, needs professional editing before it could reach that level.
SANTINO: And even if we do charge someday, we will keep a free version like Manna Francis does with The Administration series
SUSAN: ICoS is…well…it’s LONG…HELLA LONG! (<-that’s what SHE said…har, har!) Had you guys planned from the get go how massive this project would be? What kind of planning does something like this take?
AIS: hahaha, NOPE. This whole thing started because Sonny was bored one night and wanted to write something and I happened to be talking to him on AIM. It was just a way to pass the time. At first we made up scenes whenever we happened to be online, but it was difficult for me because I knew Boyd would grow just by being around Sin, which meant I couldn’t jump around in his headspace. So we decided to start over, this time making it chronological.
SANTINO: We initially planned 3 books, then it became 4, and at one point it was supposed to be 5 but we scaled back. The story just grew and grew and grew until it was MASSIVE. We knew it was long, but editing for yourself is basically the worst possible plan. And trying to ask someone to beta thousands and thousands of words never worked out. People would generally do a quick once-over for glaring errors but not touch content. Also, it was hard for people to touch content when it was a WIP for YEARS. We had the series mapped out from the first year with a few changes based on how the characters evolved. For example, we knew since 2007 how the series was going to end.
AIS: I think the best plan is to be open to change. You can map out every chapter, and that can be good to have an outline of where to go, but in our experience you also have to be willing to adjust or even drop plot points if they’re no longer relevant. When you try to force the characters to stick to the plan, that’s when the story suffers. The characters might start feeling OOC, or something just feels off. I’ve done that now and then and I’ve always regretted it, while never regretting when I let the characters do what they want.
SANTINO: As far as organization, we went through a shit ton of research and planning to get organized and try to make it the best possible story. We have folders of research for different plot points, locations, maps, images from Google Earth, dug up obscure blogs and creepy forums to find out legit information about red light districts and other topics. We’ve found translators who are native speakers to help us with foreign languages… Even though it’s free there was a tremendous amount of effort built into this project for nearly the past decade.
AIS: I started a blog that shows some of those pieces, if you’re ever interested: https://aisness.wordpress.com/
SUSAN: If you could do it all again (and I guess you guys ARE kinda doing it again as you currently re-edit the series), would you have reconsidered and offered this as a pay-for read?
AIS: I don’t think we would, to be honest. We realized maybe a year or two into writing ICoS that some people did pay-for-read but it was never anything that interested us. If anything, I think we both had an aversion to the idea. Maybe because we both came from fandom, we’ve always been pretty committed to the idea of providing free fic whenever possible.
SANTINO: Right. We saw these ads on AFFN for people who charged a sub for people to read their free fic on their website and were never tempted. Now, I see why people do it and I understand which is why I’m making the shift to starting to publish (because, honestly, for as much work as we put into writing for all of these years it was basically like a second job), but I’m glad we started out free and that we’re keeping it free. I don’t regret not going the “traditional” route because that’s not what the series was intended to be. ICoS is basically a living document of our evolution as writers and all of our flaws and growing pains are out there, in millions of words, for the world to see. Some of our readers have been with us from the very beginning and I don’t know if that would have been the case if we had tried to charge for it.
SUSAN: You guys have a pretty…committed (keeping it clean here)…fanbase. Do you think fans of online fic are different than fans who read regular published/paid-for books? And if so, what do you think makes them different & why? (y’all didn’t know I’d require you to dig into your inner psychologist did ya?)
SANTINO: For a long time we didn’t realize that ICoS had any type of fanbase, and we were really flattered that in some circles it was kind of like a cult favorite. We also didn’t realize there was a whole indie publishing scene with a M/M Romance genre out there until Google Analytics led me to Goodreads a couple of years back. That’s when I noticed the new sets of readers. The livejournal online free fic community and the Goodreads M/M community.
I don’t think there is a difference in the type of reader who preferred to discuss free fic on Livejournal communities versus the type of reader who is active in the M/M genre and Goodreads because there is crossover between the two. For example, there are a lot of M/M readers who read fanfic. There might be more of a difference in how forgiving long-time ICoS fans are about things like editing and some of the content (which may not be attractive to some traditional romance readers because there are really dark themes, a lot of violence, a slow progression to romance, and relationships that don’t always work), but even then there are readers who love the series and still read it with a critical eye.
SUSAN: This is less about freefic…but more just a curiosity. When you were writing and posting online, you had a “community” of fans/followers. Obviously, the concept of the reader community has changed a LOT since Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter…all social media. How has this affected the two of you? What are the benefits? The pitfalls?
SANTINO: I personally really dig social media in some ways. Twitter is hilarious and I’m on there every day. Facebook is good for updates and more official things, and Goodreads will always be the place where I learned about M/M and discovered that ICoS had this totally other reader-base that I’d never seen or noticed before. Also, there are different groups of people on different places and it’s cool to be accessible in different ways.
As far as the reader community, I think places like Goodreads or Booklikes are brilliant because readers can react to a text and deconstruct it, and really have an honest conversation. Our website wasn’t as utilized by most readers outside of that core group who had been with us from the start. The website was more personal and we could be totally honest and open with readers there so that was great, but finding a place where readers could have these amazing discussions about our books and characters was kind of fantastic. I remember my mind being blown when I stumbled on a few threads where readers were really digging deep to the heart of the story and analyzing the characters. I was so happy that our words could inspire people to debate, argue, or just want to vent frustrations or express their excitement.
AIS: I think the difference was that on our forum, people were too cognizant that we might be reading every thread. So we did get some awesome threads going, like people giving theories about what they thought was coming and other fun conversations, but a place that’s completely disconnected gives people more of a feeling of freedom to unleash their feels in all their intense glory. Personally, I’m not as big of a fan of social media as Sonny is, but that’s because I like getting into in-depth conversations with people and some of the sites out there make it difficult to do so (like Twitter). But they all have their place for different reasons.
SANTINO: One pitfall with social media is that there is sometimes this disconnect where some readers think I wrote the series alone because Goodreads only lists the first author when someone is reading it (and when we tried to alternate, a librarian changed it back). So that kind of spirals to other parts of social media until it seems like the series wasn’t co-written. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s important for people to know that this monster of a series was a team effort 100%. It couldn’t exist without both of us. We have a plan to solve that with the new covers for the new editions of the novels.
SUSAN: OK…just a couple questions about ICoS…Fans are OBSESSED with the characters…and not just the MC’s, but all of them…love or hate. How attached are YOU to your characters? Do you take it personally when people “take sides” (erm…I have to admit Ais, I wanted to strangle Boyd pretty much ALL the way until maybe…Vermont in Interludes…but mostly because I’m obsessed with Hsin) :)
AIS: haha that’s the way it goes with these sort of stories :) Every character comes into the story from a different angle. Readers might connect with one more than another, or they might connect with all of them equally. Although many of the characters in ICoS have similar themes to their character arcs (finding or accepting themselves, finding friendship or love in others, etc), there are still some pretty distinct variations.
For Boyd in particular, I wanted him to be human (which makes him imperfect), and I didn’t want the story to ACT like he was a main character. If he made a decision based on limited information, and if there could be consequences that he would have avoided with more information, then those consequences would still occur. I didn’t want him to be able to avoid things just because he happened to be the main pov in a fictional plot. It meant he went through a hell of a lot throughout the series, but that’s part of his story too. Some people might resonate with that, and some might not. Ultimately, readers have their reasons for feeling the way they do, and everyone’s opinion is both personal and valid.
SANTINO: I’m extremely attached to my characters, I’m not even gonna front about it. Emilio is constantly inside my head banging and trying to get out and tell his backstory in 180. I’m dying to write that and write Ryan and Kassian’s novella. They still have stories that can and should be told, so I’m anxious to get back to it but also trying to balance that with writing things outside of the ICoS universe.
As for the choosing sides, it doesn’t really bug me. It’s been going on since the very beginning of Evenfall and will probably always happen since our characters are so often having a conflict and having to make tough choices. I think everyone has the right to react to a scene or character and express their feelings in what should be a safe place without worrying about what The Author thinks. If we didn’t have such an honest relationship with each other, it could potentially cause problems between us but it doesn’t.
AIS: This might sound crazy, but even after 1 million+ words, I feel like my characters still have stories to be told. I think they will always be in my mind, and I will probably always find myself looking for new research materials or getting ideas about plots and scenes. I knew from the start that Boyd’s story would be about growing up. Hsin and Boyd are about a decade apart, so part of his story is showing the experience gained from the near-decade difference they had between them. It also means by about Fade ch 9 I was especially having fun writing him because after years of writing him growing bit by bit, I was finally at a point where I got to do all sorts of things I’d been wanting to do for years but had to temper along the way to make sure his growth was believable.
SUSAN: So we have Side & Back Stories, Lexington High, 180 Proof Vega…what else can we EXPECT (demanding!) to see from the two of you and the ICoS world?
AIS: I’m working on a few stories: Domino, which tells Vivienne’s life story, and The Julian Files, which is set in the past and features Cedrick’s friend, Private Investigator Julian Jones. There are Beaulieu and other cameos in it. I might write a story focused on Tayla and Liani as well.
We also potentially have plans for a themed short story in the future which, if we do it, will show excerpts of a few characters’ lives post-Fade.
SANTINO: Aside from 180 Proof Vega, I plan to write a novella that focuses on Ryan and Kassian’s lives post-Fade. We also kicked around the idea of a spin-off novel with new characters but it never really went anywhere
SUSAN: Lastly, any personal favorite online reads you want to recommend to us?
AIS: Most of what I’ve been reading lately has been published so unfortunately I don’t have good recommendations for free online fic. But what might fit the criteria, since the first book is a free ebook, is Foxhole Court by Nora Sakavic.
SANTINO: My favorite online read will always be the first Special Forces book, Soldiers by Aleksandr Voinov.
SUSAN: Thanks so much for stopping by! You guys rock! And thanks for the GIFT that is ICoS…I think everyone who’s read it would agree they would have gladly PAID for it too! (<-kicking yourselves now, huh? ha!)
AIS: Thanks so much for having us! You are awesome. And a special thank you to every single person who has ever read our story. I wish you all the best! <3
SANTINO: Thank you for inviting us!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Santino (or Sonny) is a bisexual writer of LGBT books who is currently working in education, being a single dad, and dedicating every spare moment to reading and planning future novels.
Ais is a gay woman who writes whatever meets her fancy. Many times, this features LGBTQ themes. She’s always been fascinated by pretty much anything that could pose an interesting anthropological study, and despite the alternate reality of ICoS, loves magic/k and sci-fi/fantasy the most in her heart. Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, she really likes to talk. ;)