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.

Where Were We?

Oh, that’s right. We were talking about where narrative is going. The first thing you have to understand is that “narrative” is not necessarily the same as “writing.” A narrative is just a story – a way of expressing a series of events. The Nutcracker is a narrative told in dance. Peter and the Wolf is a narrative told with music. Guernica is a narrative of the Spanish civil war told in a mural. And there’s the most familiar and accessible form of narrative  – the television.

Since narrative isn’t necessarily literature, let’s pull back and broaden our scope. Some of the most innovative uses for narrative are showing up in games. First-person shooter games like Borderlands (and its sequel Borderlands 2). The great thing about these narratives is that they’re user-driven. The game can control the narrative in some ways, such as not allowing a player access to new chapters until certain criteria have been met, but the player has ultimate control over where they go during the game. As such, the narrative has to be flexible enough to allow the player to understand what they’re doing and how it affects the story, but it also has to be cohesive enough to remain interesting. Granted, people play games in order to overcome challenges and “win,” and that alone is enough to keep a lot of games interesting, but the best games engage the player on a narrative level as well.

Which leads to the next amazing source of new narrative: augmented reality games. The one that’s currently out and available (albeit on a invitation-only basis) is Ingress. These augmented reality games take existing landscape and landmarks and, using a smartphone’s touchscreen and geo-location capabilities, it spins a narrative about things the player can see in their physical environment. Ingress specifically uses pieces of public art, but other games under development use shared experiences like live sporting events and small-town geography to create a narrative that the player can enter at any point and will not follow in any predictable sequence. The challenges of constructing such a narrative, and keeping it compelling and believable sound so exciting to me, I can barely contain myself.

Okay, I’ve caught you up with what actually exists in the way of new narrative. Just wait, though. There’s more. I know the future.

How to Stand Poised on the Brink

Right now, I’m in the middle of a large project, and there are a bunch of folks helping me out with that project. At the same time, there are big things going on in Santa Cruz. Specifically another TechRaising, which will happen this weekend at the Cruzio offices on Cedar.

I’ve been involved in one way or another with the folks who put together TechRaising for something like four years, but it hasn’t been a “we’re technical people, so we should get together and do technical-people things” kind of relationship. It’s been a “how are your husband and kids? we should have lunch soon” kind of relationship where we talk about who’s got chicken pox and who’s kids are struggling in school and where can a girl get a decent haircut in this town? We’re friends. Busy, yes, but friendly.

But, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Outliers, the reason that successful people are successful is not just that they’re smart and driven (although they are that). It’s that they are in places such that, when an opportunity arises, they are able to take advantage of it. I’ve seen people that I know and love pass up wonderful opportunities, saying “I’m too busy,” or “It’s not really my thing.” To me, that’s a limitation of thinking that keeps people from achieving amazing things.

Yesterday, I decided to put together a TED talk to present at the next Santa Cruz TEDx and it turns out that one of the folks I was talking to about something else is a sponsor and wants to help get me in. After that meeting, I went to a coffee shop to pass some time before I met my family for dinner, and while I was there working on a piece of fiction, another friend came by with news about starting a magazine and said “I want you to write an article for it!” I told him about the TED talk, and he was wildly enthusiastic.

On a normal basis, I don’t consider myself any kind of special. But days like yesterday, where all the work I’ve done, all the relationships I’ve built, are paying off in unexpected ways, lead me to believe that there is a “right” way to success. That “right” way is to say yes to everything, all the time. Because even in the very worst case, you will meet wonderful people and do amazing things, and that’s not even a little bit bad.

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.