Hailing

I had to drive from Bonny Doon to San Francisco. I’ve taken to driving up the coast road, Highway 1, because it’s prettier, and the loveliness of seeing the ocean on the one hand and the fields and woods on the other makes the drive seem shorter.

As I left the house, I paused to send my husband and my mother a Glympse, a way of tracking my progress so that they would know how long I would be.

I was just coming through Half Moon Bay, halfway between Bonny Doon and San Francisco, when I realized that my phone had stopped sending a GPS signal. I turned it back on, and was on the outskirts of town where one of those temporary highway signs sitting next to the road declared in foot-high letters “All Hail Mother Russia.”

A minute later, the Pirate called and without saying “hello,” launched directly into telling me that the Lantos Tunnel on Highway 1 was closed, and that I needed to turn back and go another way.

“How did you know?” I asked him.

“There was a sign on 280 saying that it was closed.”

“Huh. Why wasn’t there a sign on Highway 1? Oh. Wait. There was a sign. Except it didn’t say that Highway 1 was closed. It said ‘All Hail Mother Russia.'”

I turned around and went back through Half Moon Bay, thinking that unhelpful “Mother Russia” was more like a boozy stepmother who flatters herself that people think she’s 20 years younger than she is. Who wears too much makeup and too-tight dresses, who drinks too much and flirts with her daughter’s boyfriends and her son’s friends, and who wouldn’t remember to tell you useful things, like the fact that the tunnel is closed.

Beauty

My darling, when did your eyes take on that otherworldly cast? When did your face become so beautiful? Could you have looked this way all along, and I did not have the wit to notice? If that is true, how could I continue to live with myself? My darling, if you had looked this way when you were alive, why did I never see it? And if this is the way that you look in death, would you not agree that I was justified?

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.

The Flavor of Anti-Vaxx

I got this email at 4:30pm yesterday from the mother of the boy we drive to school in the mornings:

Hi Monkey,
So yeah, Carpooligan has been tested positive for whooping cough. Just thought you should know. Even the vaccine isn’t protecting kids at Gryffindor, so if the Goddess gets a mild cold and cough, I’d think about getting her tested.
Carpooligan was partially vaccinated, by the way, but did not have the booster. I chose not to get it because I didn’t think it was effective against the strain that goes around…
He’ll be back at functions Saturday and school on Monday, so no carpool buddy the next few days.
Hope you’re all well!

 

The tone of this email infuriates me. “This isn’t a big deal! He was ‘sort of’ vaccinated, so it’s not my fault. Even the vaccine isn’t 100% effective.”

 

I want to break this down just to figure out why it makes me want to sue this woman for everything she’s got, then burn it all, and her along with it.

 

  1. “Carpooligan has been tested positive for whooping cough.” Two weeks ago, she could have sent me an email that said “Carpooligan has been exposed to whooping cough and he’s not vaccinated.” A week ago, she could have said “I think that cough Carpooligan has might be whooping cough.” But she waited until after he tested positive to say anything to anyone. The lack of concern for anyone else is staggering.
  2. “Even the vaccine isn’t protecting kids at Gryffindor…” As I said, there is a small population of parents who opted out of the vaccine, but no vaccine is 100% effective. The pertussis vaccine is more effective in children than in adults, but is still not at 100%.  So, of the ~150 children at my kid’s school, roughly 5% aren’t vaccinated at all (so, about 8 kids), and another 3-6 will get it even if they were vaccinated. That’s 11-14 out of about 150. But that’s just the kids. Every one of those kids has parents, and many of them have siblings. Those people have jobs and friends and come into contact with thousands of people, so it’s not just about my kid having to miss school if she gets sick. It’s about spreading the disease along vectors you never thought about.
  3. “Carpooligan was partially vaccinated, by the way, but did not have the booster.” If he didn’t get the booster, he’s not protected. I don’t know what comfort she’s trying to offer with “partially vaccinated,” but maybe she’s just trying to tell me that she’s not a crazy antivaxxer. But if she’s not opting out on the grounds that vaccines are dangerous or against God’s will, why aren’t her kids vaccinated?
  4. “I chose not to get it because I didn’t think it was effective against the strain that goes around…” Aaaah! With her housewife medical degree, she decided two years ago (when her kid was in seventh grade and legally required to either have his vaccinations updated or provide an opt-out form) that the vaccine against pertussis, which has been shown to protect 98% of children who receive all their boosters, wasn’t the right one for the strain of pertussis that is currently being passed around. So, not only a medical hobbyist, but also a prognosticator. How about this: you chose not to get it because you have four children with four different schedules and signing an opt-out form is WAY easier than making an appointment and taking your kid to the doctor to get his shots updated? Because, having known this woman for 6 years now, I’d bet good money that her logic went “Taking my kid to the doctor is expensive and inconvenient, but signing a form is easy. I’ll do that!” It makes me wonder just how many of these opt-outs are really parents who can’t be bothered to just take their kid to the doctor. It makes me feel that schools should require more than just an easy signature on a form. They should require parents who choose to opt out to either provide a doctor’s note signed within the last week stating that their child has a medical condition that precludes vaccinations, or pay $10 and attend an hour-long lecture about vaccines and why they’re important. Something that would take about as long and cost about as much as just going to the doctor for the shot.
  5. “Hope you’re all well!” Fuck you. We’ve got whooping cough.

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.

Thoughts From AWP: The Truth About Self-Publishing

There’s no getting around it – self-publishing is a fact, and more writers are not only taking advantage of it, they’re experiencing levels of success only previously possible with the resources of a big publisher. But self publishing is muddying the waters of the publishing industry, making roles and procedures that had seemed clear only a few years ago more uncertain.

Who’s publishing their own stuff? The Kindle Store is full of the traditional “not up to publishing standards” kind of fiction. The sort that isn’t well-written or well-edited, that shouldn’t have seen the light of day. But two new streams are blowing that group out of the water. The first is already-published authors whose back catalogue works are enjoying new life as e-books. Hugh Howey quoted one of his early mentors (whose name I, alas, did not catch) as saying “take care of your back list and your back list will take care of you,” and that’s exactly what these authors are doing – allowing their back lists to take care of them by finding a new audience. But Hugh Howey himself represents the second stream: self-published authors who have looked at the publishing industry and replicated it for themselves. They’ve perfected their craft and spent the time editing their work to a professional standard. They’ve used professional layout tools to make their books look as good as anything coming out of a Big Five publishing house. But 100% of the money is coming straight into their own pockets. Howey has written many articles about how self-publishing can be a more lucrative income stream for authors than working with a large publishing house.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for the traditional publishing house. Howey himself has recently made a deal with Simon & Schuster for his Wool series in paper books.  Amazon, home of Kindle Direct Publishing, has an entire division that does nothing but look at the books that self-published authors are putting out and find the ones that are picking up speed. They are uniquely positioned to use their traditional imprints, Thomas & Mercer, Amazon Crossing, 47North, Montlake Romance, Grand Harbor Press, etc., to snap up those self-published works that look like they’re catching on, and put the resources of Amazon behind them, while taking a cut of the profits.

Howey was able to put out a professional product because there are so many excellent self-publishing tools available for little or no cost. Authors thinking of going this route will need to understand clearly what needs to be done, and be prepared to either do it themselves or to pay a professional: editing, typography and layout, illustrators, publicity and distribution. The cost of putting out a less-than-professional product isn’t just a lack of sales. It’s a loss of credibility with the reading public when you put your next book out.

The people who are experiencing great success have one thing in common. I call it “the Netflix effect.” I don’t have cable, so I tend to find television shows on Netflix. When I find one I like, I’ll watch the whole thing, one episode after another. I don’t even think about getting cable anymore, because the thought of watching a show I like and then having to wait a whole week before I can see the next episode is just too much. Howey has put out twelve books in the last few years, and those people who come to his books and enjoy them can consume them like potato chips. He said that his goal was to ignore his sales numbers and focus entirely on writing for the first ten years.  As a result, with very little publicity, Howey has managed to sell millions of copies of his titles.

So, perhaps that’s the takeaway – if you’re an author looking to get your book to market, think about what you’re solving for. Authors with many books under their belts have different needs than first-time novelists, who have different needs again from mid-listers on their second or third novel. With the publishing world still morphing, authors can make many of their own opportunities.