Inkitt has cracked the algorithm for writing success

Lauren Harsma, co-founder, Inkitt, posing with my pet snail, Igor
Lauren Harsma, co-founder, Inkitt, posing with my pet snail, Igor

After cutting her teeth at NaNoWriMo, Lauren Harsma has become a co-founder of Inkitt, a new breed of writing platform that dusts off the old format and drags it – kicking and screaming if their new horror competition is to be believed – into the present. Inkitt’s unique approach is the next step in publishing, giving new writers a chance to shine in a competitive market.

Being a very patient friend, Lauren submitted to my interrogation after I promised to buy her cheap beer and cheaper men. She answered my questions in Westberlin in Kreuzberg, near to her flat and Inkitt’s headquarters. “Good cafes close to my flat are important to me, because I like being able to brag about how close to my flat they are,” said Lauren, who had not showered in three days (due to her flat’s heater problem) and thought to disguise it with a hat. She assured me that everyone else around her was wearing a hat, no doubt for the same reason. Berlin, we can all assume, is a very smelly place.

What book are you currently reading?
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I always pack obnoxiously large books in my carry-on luggage, because it’s worth the strain of shlepping them around to feel like I’ve gotten away with something. Incidentally, this book has turned out to be totally worth the spinal torment: it’s got your quintessentially English narrator, sardonic and sagacious and a little bit brutal.

What’s the best part about being in Berlin?
Besides getting to tell people I’m a jelly doughnut, the walk to work in the morning is nice. When there’s a frost, a layer of ice on the Spree corrals the swans into circles of water where they’ve warmed it away. When I take the train, I see more people reading than staring at their phones, which I find so charming. I think I’ve fallen in love with about a dozen people on train platforms and in train carriages.

What ‘foreign’ foods have you eaten so far?
When I told my co-founders Ali and Martin that I’d been eating cold cheese sandwiches for dinner every night, they immediately took me for the best falafel I’ve had in my life. (I tend not to splurge on food when cooking for myself, so it’s all on them to feed me grown-up food and not the toddler things I tend towards when left to my own devices.) I want to get more into quark and weißwurst, which should be the name of a skeezy dance club, but is really just tartish yogurt and white sausage. Beer is cheap enough to coddle bad habits – so far, Tegernsee Spezial and Augustiner are my favorites.

What is your role at Inkitt and what will you be doing?
I’m Head of Authors Community, which currently entails getting writers and readers on board the site, spearheading contests, sending hundreds of emails, and staring helplessly at my elderly laptop as it whinges and creaks trying to run GoogleDocs. Eventually I will have a gold-plated robot with the voice of Pierce Brosnan to take care of that last part so I can concentrate on churning out ideas, shmoozing with brilliant people, and watering the office plants, Judy Blume and Beatrix Potter.

What is Inkitt’s aim and how do your own creative writing passions feed into it?
Writers are very familiar with closed doors. From the start I was intrigued by Inkitt because it offers writers another option for getting their writing out into the world: manholes and skylights and portals through the backs of wardrobes. Inkitt wants to help them find a different path by which they can reach the same goals. I want to get the stories that have been pinned under rocks or caught in coffee cans out into the light and the air; get them blinking and flapping their wings. There are so many stories out there that deserve exposure and can’t get it by going the traditional route.

What are you most excited about in the coming months?
Being able to raise an idea from something squalling and squirming to a bright, self-aware thing. At Inkitt, I love that I can create something in my head and then watch it broil up like a storm cloud, all downpour and lightning. It’s great having such an open-minded, savvy team to bat ideas around with, and I know we’re creating something extraordinary here every day.

How do both original-fiction and fan-fiction writers use Inkitt to find success?
Writers can post their working chapters and get feedback from readers. (I like to think of them as modern Dickenses and Doyles, publishing pieces serially and witnessing readers’ reactions as the story grows.) They can use this feedback as a story compass to guide their plot in a direction their readers would like to see it go, which is, to me, a really intriguing method of storytelling. With the added element of as-you-go editing, there’s so much potential for creating an entirely new way of writing a book.

What makes Inkitt different to other writing platforms?
Inkitt uses algorithms to track the success of stories, meaning we can predict which ones could potentially be bestsellers based on our users’ reading habits. From there we’ll offer publishing contracts to top writers, thereby helping them avoid the coal-walk that is publishing traditionally, and the teeming ocean of self-publishing.

I hear Inkitt is getting ‘dark’ for its first competition?
Basically Ali (Inkitt’s CEO) decided that creating a start-up wasn’t scary enough and that we needed to read a thousand terrifying stories too (in retrospect this was probably a ploy to keep us from sleeping at night, thereby freeing up more time for work). I was tasked with coming up with the theme, which was like being a kid and getting to name your family’s new puppy. I decided on “You are in the darkest place in the world” because it’s broad enough to invite many different interpretations and variations, but mysterious enough that it was still a temptation and a challenge.

The contest opens February 2nd and closes February 28th. We’re accepting everything fiction, from flash to 10,000 words, and winners will be determined first by upvotes, and then by the Inkitt staff from the top 10% of entries. Prizes include Amazon gift cards, custom Inkitt mugs and notebooks, and a cover design by Inkitt’s designer, Linda Gavin. More details can be found here!


Walking with smugglers, ghosts and Viking warlords

Whenever I find it hard to write, I walk. I fix whatever problem I’m facing while I’m wading through mud or battling with stiles, in wellingtons or walking books, come rain or shine. In Japan, forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) is a visit to a wooded area, intended to relax and rejuvenate. Research has shown that fresh air is good for you and has numerous benefits, including boosting the immune system and increasing happiness. For a writer, the outdoors is also an invaluable source of inspiration. Below are four walks, ones that have helped me fill my mind with stories or clear it altogether. There is no better escape than rambling through the wilderness, surrounded by myths, legends and forgotten history.

Killigerran Head

A walk along the coastal paths at Killigerran Head.
A walk along the coastal paths at Killigerran Head.

There’s a footpath that shifts from sand to hard, compacted soil, coiling around the rugged, Cornish coastline of Killigerran Head, on the Roseland Peninsula. It’s a place for smugglers and pirates, for crooks and a Cornish welcome. In the 1770s, when Britain was on the edge of bankruptcy due to war and taxes were high, smuggling took root. Goods smuggled into Cornwall included tea, brandy, gin, rum and tobacco. The path leads round to Fraggle Rock Lighthouse, revealing a bay glancing over to St Mawes. The route passes an old war bunker established in the Napoleonic era and built upon during WWII. Nearby is where a customs officer, realising that Porthscatho smugglers were watching the hills over the harbour (to ensure a quick get-away if a revenue boat approached) mounted a surprise attack. St Mawes itself was where Robert Long, a 17th century smuggler, was executed and his body hung in chains along the roadside, to deter any others who would follow in his footsteps. For a real taste of the region, stop at a nearby pub for a pint of Cornish Knocker, a beautiful golden-ale with fruity hops and a malty undertone.

Glastonbury Tor

Climb to the top of Glastonbury Tor and you’ll be flying. The wind pulls at hair and worms into sleeves, as though it would drag a hiker off over the views of the Somerset Levels that stretch on for miles. Legends of King Arthur and the Isle of Avalon (Ynys yr Afalon) surround this breathtaking location. There is even talk that the sacred spot is where the Holy Grail was hidden. You can almost feel its power underneath your boots with each step. A perfect walk for a writer to let their imagination get the better of them. Though your legs may ache when you reach the summit, there is no better reward than the sight that greets you.

Castle Combe

The woods at Castle Combe, flooded with wild garlic in the spring.
The woods at Castle Combe, flooded with wild garlic in the spring.

A chocolate-box Cotswold village, Castle Combe has been used as a backdrop for many films, including War Horse and Stardust. Above the butterscotch-cottages is a woods that cradles the valley. Wild garlic, bluebells, violets and tall, distinguished trees line the paths – a peaceful contrast to the battle that once raged upon those hills. Ghostly sounds – metal clanging against metal, shouts and guttural cries in an old language – have been heard by walkers. In 877, the mighty Viking Guthram marched his army against King Alfred of Wessex during a Christmas feast and in retaliation, a later ambush took place – legend has it, upon the hills at Castle Combe.

Corfe Castle

A rugged ruin on a hilltop surrounded by yellow gorse and placid sheep, the National Trust site was once the setting for a wretched betrayal. In the 1640s, a civil war gripped England. Corfe Castle was in the hands of the Royalist Bankes family who found themselves in a precarious position when Dorset fell under control of Parliament. In 1643, Lady Mary Bankes and a garrison of 80 soldiers saw off a six-week siege and her reputation was firmly set as a courageous, brave woman. However, a later feud led to enemy troops, disguised as reinforcements, to take Corfe Castle from within. All her efforts had failed.

Do visit the Model Village Courtyard Cafe, as they have the best apple cake you will ever taste. I still have daydreams about sitting under a garden umbrella, with rain pattering down, a sleepy dog across my feet, while I tucked into a sweet cake slice the size of a doorstop.

If you have a favourite walk, historical location or setting that inspires you, share it below: I am always after new places to explore. For more photographs and walks, visit my Instagram.