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Writer uses web to weave his tale

Online readers vote on book's direction, get crack at creating a character

I have seen the future of books, and it is Victoria's Michael Milligan.

Well ... maybe.

Milligan is the author of an online detective novel, Fission Chips, in which the public not only helps create the plot, but draws in new readers through Twitter, Facebook and the like.

You can link to Fission Chips at: http://books The protagonist is fledgling private eye Gare Marx, who is wanted by the mob and suspected of murder. And, oh yeah, his secretary happens to be "an amoral jiu-jitsu-loving psychopath."

Fission Chips tips its battered fedora to hard-boiled detective novels à la Raymond Chandler and Dashiell "Sam Spade" Hammett. For instance, Chapter Two begins: "Jimmy Scaz has a limo so long you need to go through customs to reach the other end."

Online novels are nothing new. However, Milligan's interactive approach offers interesting wrinkles. Readers vote on the narrative direction of his book -- created with help from pal Tim Sevenhuysen -- as it gets written chapter by chapter.

As well, they can sign up to receive one of Gare Marx's virtual business cards. Readers are encouraged to distribute these cards electronically to the public via social networking sites, e-mail and so forth.

The person drawing the most hits to Fission Chips via his or her card receives a prize. He or she is allowed to be (or make up) a character for the novel's grand finale, which -- naturally -- concerns a devious business-card distribution scheme. This character will "probably end up drunk or beaten," writes Milligan on his site. "But never mind that for now."

It's oodles of fun, and the card-distribution gambit is a terribly clever ploy for attracting new readers. And by golly, it's working -- Milligan said each chapter pulls in "tens of thousands" of readers. Pretty impressive, especially when you consider print sales of 5,000 are considered a Canadian best-seller.

Milligan, 32, is a former web developer who moved here from his native Ottawa 4 1/2 years ago. The college dropout (religious studies at Mount Allison University) is an interesting guy. Under his pseudonym MCM, Milligan created an animated TV series for the children's network YTV. Rollbots premiered in February.

It's a success. Come September, a second season will be broadcast internationally -- including in the U.S., Australia and South Africa.

Rollbots is about robots who curl into balls and zoom down roller-coaster tracks. Milligan got the idea while visiting Japan a few years ago. He visited a toy store and was entranced by toy robots and a track with rolling marbles encircling the shop's interior.

So far, Milligan hasn't gotten rich from Rollbots. He spent four years working on it prior to the 13-episode season's airing. All in all, the per-hour payoff would equal "someone working at Starbucks, probably," he said.

Of course, if it becomes an international hit, it's different story. Significantly, Mattel Inc. has already purchased the rights to produce Rollbots action figures.

For Milligan, who grew up playing with Transformers figures, seeing Spin -- the hero of Rollbots -- captured in miniature plastic form would be a dream come true.

"If [the series] becomes as popular as Pokémon, I'll make a lot of cash," he said, laughing.

Speaking of moolah, Fission Chips isn't exactly raking it in. Readers aren't charged a fee to read, however, they can make a donation. And surprisingly, they are. So far Fission Chips has pulled in a " few thousand" dollars, Milligan said.

Another of his online book projects made even more money. TorrentBoy, about a kid with a talking watch that transforms him into a superhero, is aimed at a six- to 11-year-old audience. TorrentBoy readers have so far donated $7,000.

It's an intriguing model for making money from online writing. "If I'd done it in print and tried to sell it, they've wouldn't have bought it," Milligan said.

Milligan -- who's the father of two young girls and is married to an amateur cellist/pianist -- has pursued web-based creative projects full-time for six years. He's now contemplating a "more serious" online book, due out next month. Slated for 50 chapters, it'll be an a sci-fi thriller.

"I do whatever I want to do," Milligan said, "and see if it works."