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.

I’m Ahead of Myself, the Curve, My Time

I just completed my third of five grad school residencies. This one was different in that this time, it was more like getting together with friends that I don’t see often and having the chance to catch up on the brilliant things they’re thinking and doing. In my fantasies, I regularly attend conferences made up exclusively of people I know who are doing fascinating things, and everyone has a turn at talking about the amazing things they’re doing. I should look into hooking that up.

Anyway, in between residencies at grad school we have project periods, and each project period is characterized by a different large objective. In my first project period I had to complete a field study, in my second I wrote a short research paper and completed a 10-week translation class, and this time I’ll be tackling a 25-page research paper. In my final residency I’ll be preparing my final manuscript and putting together the presentation I’ll be giving in my final residency next December.

This means that what I should be thinking about is my 25-page paper, right? I have chosen as my subject “The Future of Narrative,” where I plan to take the reader from our beginnings in oral tradition (think “The Iliad”) and end with a shameless plug for my own new project, Lithomobilus, which will change the way you read books.

Except that all I could think about the entire way home from Los Angeles was how I’m going to do my graduate presentation. My thinking involves a whole lot of technology – basically, me on three screens giving my presentation in an order determined by the audience. When I first came up with the idea, I was out of my mind psyched about it, but the more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to doubt myself. This won’t play well in a big room, I’ll need three laptops (not really a gating factor, but it’ll require a certain amount of infrastructure from the venue), I’m not 100% sure that it’s allowed as a “lecture.”

This kills me every time. I have a great idea, and then I second-guess myself and bargain with myself until I’ve squashed my idea into something mediocre. I need to cut that shit out, seriously.

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.

 

Dwelling in the Past and the Future

My mother is moving out to San Francisco in mid-February. She’s lived in her townhouse in downtown Phoenix for the last 18 years or so, and has, in the course of that residence, compiled an amazing array of shit. My mother, like everyone else in my family, has a hard time throwing anything away. On a scale of Dalai Lama to Hoarder, we’re all firmly in Pack Rat territory. In all the crap she’s sifting through, though, she came across a year’s worth OMNI magazine.

Remember OMNI? I liked the articles, but what I devoured was the fiction. OMNI gave me my first tastes of Orson Scott Card, Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison, Spider Robinson, George R. R. Martin and Stephen King. It showed me all kinds of things that people were thinking about, trying, doing. People who weren’t about to wait around for the future to come to them. People who were making the future happen.

Now that I’m working on re-inventing literature – putting together not just the words for a new kind of novel, but formulating the means by which people will interact with it – I feel like I’m taking my place among those people I’ve always admired. I feel like I’m helping shape the future. Maybe one day, I’ll be cool enough that someone will write about me in an amazing magazine, and that article will get some other kid thinking, and that kid will go on to create something else amazing…

I can’t wait to hold them in my hands again.

A GUI Problem

While I’m trying to solve the problems of creating the text for the hypertext thing I’m working on, the Pirate is trying to solve the problems of the workspace to create it and the interface that people will use to read it.

I tried using Storyspace, but although I suspect it’ll do the thing I want, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I think I’m going to have to call customer service and have a real live human being  walk me through how I would go about creating what I want. It doesn’t help that the documentation is awful. I’m trying to figure out how to connect two nodes together, but it’s all about how those things relate to each other in the first place, and each time they refer to a link or a piece of text or a window, they call it something different.

The problem is, I suspect that I’m devoting all this time to solving the data representation problems solely to get out of doing the writing. I know me. This is exactly the sort of thing I would do.

This is the basic problem of perfectionism: I get myself so freaked out about getting every single detail right that I am immobilized, afraid to even start lest I get started going in entirely the wrong direction. My father has exactly the opposite problem. He takes things on for which he has no qualifications and even less of an idea of how to proceed and just starts doing stuff. It might be the wrong stuff, it might be okay stuff, it might be brilliant stuff, but he adjusts as he goes along, and things turn out however they turn out. Whenever I get into this place where I’m so freaked out about starting off in the wrong direction, I think “What would my dad do?” And then, I normally do something else, because I often disagree with my father just on principle. But at least I’ve committed to a course of action.

My course of action on this particular problem is to leave the programmatic challenges for later and just start writing the text. How will I keep things organized? Remember, I’ve got 6 point of view characters in 3 different locations, each one of whom is operating independently. These three locations are very far apart, so there’s a large time difference, meaning that some characters might be asleep while others are doing things. To make things a little more complicated, any two of these characters might swap places at any time. After two days of talks with the Pirate about things that are both down the road and in the weeds (the future is apparently a kind of shoddy neighborhood), I decided that here and now I’m just going to put the timeline on the x axis of a spreadsheet, the character names on the y axis, color the cells with a color representing any one of the three locations, and then each cell will link out to a text document containing the written text for that scene, thereby capturing POV, location and time in one cell.

Organizational problem solved. As for the rest of it, later. I’ll sort it out later.

What Are You Doing?

I’m glad you asked that. I really am.

The thing that I’ve chosen to pursue is called hypertext fiction. In a nutshell, it’s a form of fiction that uses the utilities of electronic delivery to allow the reader to customize the story. Examples of it have been around for 20 years, but newer e-reader technologies and packaging now allow for better, more interesting presentations and the possibility that you don’t need to have access to the web to read the text (she says, although she has not solved certain problems just yet).

The story as I have imagined it has 6 characters whose points of view will be shown. It has what I’ve come to think of as 3 theaters of action, each one in a different part of the world. Action is happening in their stories at all times as the characters seek to deal with their situations and remedy their problems.

What I’m envisioning is not just being able to “package” the story from a single character’s point of view, but to be able to switch between several points of view (seeing the same scene from an 8-year-old girl, versus a 40-year-old man), or being able to package all stories told in a particular location. It means that I will be writing the same novel 6 times, and each of them must be entirely distinct, and each one must work with all the others.

There are two difficulties I foresee: the first comes in the writing itself. It’s going to be hard to write each node, or scene, as an independent thing such that you can go smoothly from one point of view to another and have the narrative make sense. For instance, if one character leaves the room after an argument, the other will stay behind and ruminate about the argument, or tear up the furniture, or whatever. The one who left might go and cry, or go and inject poison into the other’s toothpaste tube. Where does the scene end? Can you switch smoothly from the end of the poisoner’s scene to the beginning of the next scene starring the room-tosser? Will it flow, or will there be a backtracking? Not sure how I’m going to solve it. I’m also terribly prone to point of view shifts when I write. It’s easy to start talking about how he thinks she’s dependent and clingy and wishes she would just leave him and then put in a line about how she will never leave him because she’s punishing him for being such a wimp by making him take the first step away. If I did it better, it would be omniscient, but since I don’t, it’s just bad third person.

The other difficulty is in the user interface. How do you represent what the reader is seeing? How do you have them switch from one POV to another? From one scene in time to another? What happens if you push a “next” button? What happens if you choose a different character – do you get the same scene retold, or the next scene from a different POV? There are decisions to be made in the telling that will inform how this thing is programmed, and the Pirate and I have been talking about it nonstop.

While the idea of hypertext fiction is not new, the things I want to do with it are new, and are going to require what I anticipate will be years of work. But I’ve got time. I’ve got nothing but time.