Hyper, Non-Linear, and Plain

I’ve been experimenting in hypertext, and I’m reveling in what it can do, as well as discovering its limits.

I’ve been using Twine to create a hypertext story. It’s part choose-your-own-adventure and part an exercise in figuring out what constitutes a pixel in text (a pixel is the smallest controllable part of a picture on a computer). What’s the smallest meaningful part of a story? It’s not the individual word, because words only take on meaning in relation to one another. I can say the word “bark,” but with no other context, you don’t know whether it’s a noun or a verb. Even as a noun, it could refer to a sound made by an animal, or the covering of a tree, or a type of boat.

One can make a case for the pixel of fiction being the independent clause (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb). The number of microfiction posts on Twitter make a compelling case for sentence as pixel. I believe that fiction on that level functions much like poetry. Writers who work under those circumstances need a strong command of language and have to have a clear vision of the work from the outset. I’ve heard longer-form authors say “I was writing and I the character took me by surprise.” Poets and microfiction authors have to exercise tight control over every word. A word out of place weakens the structure.

But hypertext is different from microfiction. Each piece has to further the story, carry meaning, lead the reader to the next piece. Which means that, although a single sentence can be a node or pixel or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t have to be.

And, like writing with Lithomobilus, to write decent hypertext fiction, you have to work in multiple threads, possibly in multiple storylines simultaneously. As I’ve been working, I’ve been going back and re-writing parts of it so that they make sense with parts that come after. Making sure the verb tenses all work. There’s only one character, which is fine for now.

And all this is in aid of a much larger project that I might want collaboration on: stories based on tarot cards, but stories that work when the tarot cards are laid out in a pattern. This means writing multiple nodes of text for each card – tens of thousands of pieces of text. It’ll take a while.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to share.

Thoughts From AWP: Beyond “Media”

Several panels had the word “transmedia” in their titles, but there was little agreement on the definition of “transmedia.”

We all understand “media” to mean the manner by which the message is transmitted, but after that,  neither authors nor publishers nor academics could agree how adding “multi,” “trans” or “hyper” exactly change the noun. If those of us meant to be experts in the field can’t agree on these definitions, it’s no wonder the reading public is confused and therefore hesitant to adopt.

Here are some of the common terms used:

  • Multi-media: a piece that orchestrates text, audio, and video elements in the narrative. Any one element may stand alone and therefore be primary, but the secondary elements don’t necessarily stand alone. A poem read to music over a movie of waves lapping the shore would be multimedia.
  • Transmedia: a piece made up of two or more elements that can stand alone (even if they don’t constitute a separate narrative).  Transmedia can include elements like websites, social media feeds and email to augment a narrative. A transmedia experience may have a movie that tells one story, a book that tells another, and an album whose songs tell another, all of which work together in one complete, over-arching narrative.
  • Augmented e-book: a text that looks like a regular e-book (a faithful electronic reproduction of a physical book) but with added video or audio elements that create a more entertaining experience without necessarily adding any additional meaning to the text. Depending on the age of the intended audience, either the text or the pictures will be the primary element. Most augmented e-books are directed at younger audiences.
  • Hypertext: an online method of creating text that allows for user-interactive, non-linear narratives. Because most hypertext creation engines are strictly online, they can link out to any other kind of online content, or contain audio or video clips.
  • Apps: a self-contained program designed to fulfill a particular purpose –  normally, in narrative cases, to allow a user to interact with a text in specific ways designed by the author of the app. Depending on the app, users might be able to navigate the story in particular ways, add material to the text, or create elements that go along with the text.

The good news is that whatever an author can think up can likely be done with today’s technology. For authors who operate in more than one element – text, music, video, programming, etc. – this allows for an easily-distributed version of that vision.

The bad news is that for those people who are trying to teach technology to younger generations, there’s no good way to create a textbook that addresses the realities of the space. Both hardware and software are evolving so quickly that a curriculum created in August would be out of date by December. What needs to be taught instead are the modes of thought that go into looking at what exists and imagining what might be. Teach children the basics of storytelling, and then allow them to look out at the world and think about how to distill its essence and create something new and wonderful.

Thoughts From AWP: The Rise of Art Books

I talked in an earlier post about the rise of letterpress, but there’s another interesting small-publishing phenomenon on the rise: art books. I’m not talking about coffee table books full of photographs of works of art. Today, art books are text, paper arts and programming, exploring the outskirts of the literary landscape.

Art books are exploring that area where authors justify why a given story should be published as a paper book or an e-book. Some of the most innovative new art books exist in both worlds, where innovations in the physical book, like special inks or folded or cutout papers are complemented by innovations in the e-book, like an app that interacts with the text or pictures in the print book, or adds audio or animation elements.

The art books I’ve seen, both at AWP and at other conferences I’ve attended in recent months have fallen into a few groups:

1. The “mainly paper” book

These books, like J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., are paper first and foremost, and their main value is in their physicality – they have elements that cannot easily be replicated in an electronic medium. However, in what looks like either an attempt to wring as much cash out of a big project or a nod to the fact that everyone’s doing e-books, the publisher puts out an e-book that is in no way an equivalent experience to the paper artifact.

2. The multimedia book

Some authors have been so inspired by a place or event, some outside thing, that they use the capability of electronic media to incorporate music, video, snippets of spoken word, etc., into their book. Katherine McNamara has done some lovely work in creating multimedia experiences to bring work that she has authored and/or published to a new level. The result is a rich, immersive experience for the reader.

3. The “art for art’s sake” books

The possibilities of programming, where code is its own language that can be clumsy, workmanlike or elegant, offer the literary author both challenges and opportunities. Text can be displayed, remixed and interacted with in endless ways, and the most innovative e-books challenge our notions of the “book” means, or how we “read.”

4. Furthering the conversation with the reader

Some art books take advantage of the fact that a tablet can accept input, and allow for user interactivity within the text. There are still choose-your-own-adventure type hypertexts, but there are also books that allow the reader to add to the text itself, inserting a little of themselves into the work, and expanding the author/programmer collaboration.

Part of the value of art books isn’t just the cachet of creating something unique. For most art books that involve digital production, programming and literary authorship, learning to work as part of a team where no one piece – the words, the images or the construction of the paper book or the programmed app – has primacy can be an important experience.

What’s important about the most innovative, challenging art books is that they are the proving ground for the future of text. The adoption of new technology is a bell curve – the first few pioneers, the trickle of early adopters, the bulk of people who wait either until all the bugs are worked out or it comes down in price, and then the long tail of Luddites and procrastinators. Lots of innovations never make it out of that pioneer phase, but those that do will filter down to the more conventional authoring masses in the form of improved, easier-to-use software and devices that store more data and present it in a greater variety of ways.  Paying attention to what’s happening on the leading edge of the curve can offer writers new ways to tell the stories they’re already crafting.

Tech Raising pt 3

I handed off my documents Friday night – about a dozen nodes of text, a spreadsheet showing how they all interrelated, a text description of the expected functionality, a PowerPoint presentation showing all the functionality I wanted to have in the reader.

I felt like I lucked out in the group of folks who worked on my app. First, I had written all of my nodes with the programming interface in mind, writing them all as text files and tagging each one with the relevant character names and locations. I had used a spreadsheet with linked documents to organize my writing, so the programmers knew exactly how everything fit together. The logic was there, it just needed to be programmed into an interface. After the talks we had and the questions they had asked, I felt like they knew exactly what direction I was headed.

Saturday, I hung out at the Cruzio co-working space and answered questions and nibbled on snacks. I hovered around the guys working on my project, but every once in a while, I heard other people in other places mention the name of my project. It’s like being at a party and hearing your name from across the room being mentioned by people you don’t know – that thrill of curiosity, that hope that the mention is something good.

There was plenty of talk Saturday about what folks were working on and how the work was going. I met with a guy who would do the UI design, I talked with the engineers, it was exciting. I had to cut out early to make it to the opening night of Faust, and that was nice too.

The Big Day

Sunday was a little more involved. I got there early-ish and fielded questions from the team. Both Saturday and Sunday were a process of whittling down the number of expected features for the demo. It was important that we have a complete feature set for the demo, but that everyone involved have a good time. While I waited, Douglas Crets from Microsoft BizSpark interviewed me for his blog. Finally, my team handed me a demo already loaded with my text and, as an amazing bonus, the text of Hamlet so that we could demonstrate the ability to import existing text and manually index it for education purposes.

I gave my demo, and was told several things by the panel of judges:

  1. My hair is fascinating.
  2. I have good shoes, too.
  3. The idea of non-linear literature is brilliant.
  4. Because this is a new invention, I should be patient if people are slow to get it. People are always slow to recognize a fundamental shift in thinking.

On my way back to my seat, people high-fived and fist-bumped me. Chris Neklason, Cruzio founder who gave a lovely little talk before the presentations Sunday, told me I had nailed it.

Looking back on the whole experience, the value I got out of it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought that the value would be in having my idea turned into a reality and getting to show it off to people. That was certainly nice, and the first step in what will be a long process of turning this idea into a full-scale usable product, but it wasn’t the very most valuable thing. The very most valuable thing was what I did the very first night: getting up in front of everyone and asking them to confirm that this idea I had was worth something. The very best part was not just having people nod and say “Yes, I think that’s a swell idea,” but having people like it enough to spend time working to make it a reality, wanting to hang around and talk about its applications and possibilities, thinking about how to make it a reality and what all the buttons and knobs should look like.

As I go through the process of finishing what I started, I feel that the experience of having this group of smart, talented people telling me that they thought my idea was great will help carry me through the hard work ahead.

 

Tech Raising pt 2

The Runup

When I conceived the idea for the novel, I knew exactly how I wanted it to work. There would be a single story told from the point of view of six characters. It would take place in three countries equally spaced around a fictional world. As in the world we know, it would have a night and day, people would sleep and eat and all the things they do in real life, which meant that there would be several characters active at any given moment, but others who would be sleeping.

I started writing the content, but quickly realized that I had to figure out an organizational means of keeping everything straight. I settled on a fairly low-tech solution – a spreadsheet and a series of linked documents. The writing itself was fun. The less-fun part was constantly trying to explain to people what I was writing and how it was all going to eventually work.

The Pirate encouraged me to pitch my idea at TechRaising. I signed up and had sort of mentally prepared myself for explaining my vision to a bunch of people, but I have to be honest – at no point did the real difficulty ever enter my mind. The real difficulty was less about explaining my passion and vision to others, and more about standing up in front of strangers and laying bare my hopes and dreams. I was asking a roomful of people who don’t love me to validate my dreams. I can’t remember ever being quite this nervous.

TechRaising

The Pirate had prepared me for the process, letting me know that I needed to keep it short, high-level and to the point. I gave my pitch, frightened that I might literally vomit on the people in the front row. But the funny thing was that the minute I got up in front of everyone, all I thought about was non-linear literature, the possibilities for storytelling and writing, the number of people who would become re-engaged with literature through this new medium.

I got through my pitch and was received with applause and cheers, although my brain tends to blank that bit out. But the pitch turned out to be easier than the next bit. Once everyone had pitched, we were all supposed to mingle and talk. Engineers with an interest in a project were to get together with the person who pitched the project to form a team. The problem is, I don’t do well in crowds. At parties, I tend to stick to the one or two people I know, only branching out if someone I already know introduces me to someone new. Here, there was no one to help me. I knew no one except Margaret Rosas, one of the three organizers of the project. A couple of people came up to me to express admiration for my idea, but none of them was an engineer, so it wouldn’t do me any good. I finally hid in the back, and Margaret told me that if, by the end of the evening, I still hadn’t hooked up with a team, she would see what she could hook up.

But in no time, a couple of engineers approached me with questions about my idea. They were excited by the possibilities, and wanted to be on the team. They were both back-end guys, but we needed front-end guys as well. I had ideas for the logic required and for the interface, but no idea how to code any of it. The great thing about a small community, though, is that everyone knows everyone else, and these guys knew other guys at the event who were willing to help. Late Friday night I sent them everything I had, including the documents I had describing the project and a PowerPoint showing my expectation of its functionality.

Raising Tech pt 1

Now that TechRaising is over, I’ve been asked about four million times just what happened and what I was doing. It seems like every time I try to explain exactly what happened this weekend, I end up telling a slightly different version of the story. The weekend was so full of action and emotion that it would be hard to tell the whole thing, and I’m always focusing on different parts of it and re-thinking them.

The Back Story

Back in December when I did my first grad school residency, I came up with the idea of writing a non-linear novel. In the strictest sense, any literature that involves more than one character is non-linear because every author talks about what this group of characters is doing, and then backs up in time to fill in what other characters were doing at the same time. As readers, we understand how this works and are able to follow along. We live our own lives that way, doing our own thing all day, then getting together with our friends or family and getting filled in on what they were doing when we weren’t around.

When I talked to my husband about it, he offered to figure out the programming necessary to make it happen, but I turned him down. My husband is a genius of a software engineer, but IOS programming (I had my heart set on an iPad app) isn’t his power alley, and it would take him a while to get up to speed. In the meantime, he just started a new job and he’s still working hard at being a competitive bagpiper. Those were some of the reasons I gave him for letting him off the hook, but the real reason is that I’ve been a project manager for a long time, and my way of getting things done is to be demanding and unreasonable (although in the nicest possible way). These are great when you’re cracking the whip over guys who would otherwise spend all day sending each other links to xkcd cartoons, but less great when you’re working with someone that you have to sit across the dinner table from.

 

When Worlds Collide

I’ve spent the past two days at TechRaising in downtown Santa Cruz. The Pirate crystallized the mood here as a lot of really smart people committed to sharing their expertise in the interest of creating a new and exciting future. Folks came here with great ideas, including an application to use a smartphone in order to determine the cost effectiveness of installing solar on your house, a micro-gifting website and a smartphone interface to control a quadcopter with speakers and lasers. There are all kinds of folks here, and the mood is universally can-do, hopeful and upbeat. These folks recognize that they’re making a difference in the world by being creators rather than consumers.

Last night, I went from TechRaising to Opera San Jose – opening night of Gounod’s Faust. The Pirate and I always attend the opening night dinner, an event held at a restaurant within walking distance of the California Theater in San Jose, where the wine flows freely, everyone is rich and white, and the food nearly always sounds better than it tastes.

Before dinner started, the Pirate and I were lurking near our table, surveying the crowd. I had been social all day, which is tiring for me, so I was contenting myself with watching the crowd rather than wading into it. A woman approached us and asked us if we were sitting at her table, and even though we weren’t, we all introduced ourselves and started talking. Everyone starts out the conversation with the same question – How long have you been a fan of opera? From there we talk about other operas we’ve seen, other places we’ve seen opera, etc. This woman asked us where we were from, and then launched into a tirade about how Arizona and southern California were becoming overrun with immigrants, stealing all the jobs.

The woman making this observation wore a silk tunic over silk pants. She wore gold and diamond jewelry, her hair was nicely styled and her shoes were new and expensive. She looked and sounded like a person living a comfortable, upper-middle-class life in America, but she sounded angry and frightened by this brown wave crashing over the border.

I don’t know which jobs she thinks they’re stealing. They’re certainly not stealing the “standing in the median holding ‘will work for food‘ sign” jobs, which I’ve only ever seen from white folks and black folks. Never brown folks. Maybe all those people who’ll work for food are on the median because when they were standing outside Home Depot, people actually expected them to work. She did opine that “they” let the immigrants in because the immigrants vote Democrat. I’m not sure who “they” are, but it’s their fault and she’s not happy.

That this woman is a bigot is beyond question. I can’t count the number of times that people have disparaged Mexicans to me because I am rich, educated and look white, and they therefore believe that I must hate foreigners who are threatening our way of life. My way of life is entirely made possible by foreigners. The products I buy were largely made in China. If I have problems with those products, I call India or Canada for support. My food comes from South America, Europe or Mexico and is made according to recipes from everywhere in the world.

What I heard from this woman wasn’t intolerance so much as it was fear. The world is changing, and she is becoming unsure of her place in it and her value to it. The paradigm she grew up with is changing, and she doesn’t understand those changes. That’s so different than the attitude of the folks here at TechRaising, where there is very much a feeling of competence, confidence and capability. Whatever the future will bring, the people at events like this will be the ones who bring it to you.

Where are you? Are you crouching in the dark, worrying about what the future may hold? Or are you out in front of things, creating innovative ways to solve your problems, connect with other people or make folks happy?