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.

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.

Thoughts From AWP: The Return of Letterpress

One of the most pleasing themes of this year’s AWP was a return to handcrafted books. Some will argue that handcrafted books never left, but the popularity of hand-binding, typesetting and letterpress has only come to the fore in the past couple of years.

According to many panelists, hand-bound books, broadsheets and chapbooks are physical artifacts that will never be replaced by the impersonality of e-books. While e-readers are convenient and often cost much less than their physical counterparts, the physicality of each book is a distinct experience: its thickness, its typography, the way the pages wear as it is read. Every book experienced on an e-reader may have distinct cover art, but the physicality of the device is always the same. That artifact, the book, can commemorate a specific time and place. Especially if you’re a fan of a particular author and get a copy of your favorite book signed, or if you take a book on vacation with you, it’s easy to associate it with the experiences you had while you held it in your hand – the page you tore stuffing it into your bag before boarding a flight, the drip of fruit juice where it spilled as you sat on the beach while reading.

For those interested in the creation of printed books, the physicality of creating an artifact is in itself a means of expression. Choosing a typeface, papers, designing covers and title pages gives the bookbinder total artistic control over every aspect of the book’s design. Many hand-binders create runs of fewer than a hundred copies of a given book, making each copy more like a limited edition artwork, and less like a mass-market printed book. Nowadays, when even authors who print their own books use some kind of word processing software to write their works, and the process of hand-binding a book can provide a welcome antidote to hours spent sitting in front of a computer. As more aspects of our life – our jobs, our entertainment, our communication – involve sitting in front of a screen, many people are looking for ways to get away from their computers and into handling real objects in the real world. But although most aspects of book binding are strictly physical processes, there are certainly ways that the computer age has impacted letterpress printing. Computer-printable plastics used in the creation of letterpress plates, typesetting for aspects of a work that would be difficult with physical type, digital means of image creation can all contribute to a hand-bound book without destroying its satisfying physicality.

But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of book bindery is its potential to build community. Maybe you love setting type but hate the smell of glue – find a friend who’s not thrilled with the fiddliness of typesetting but loves binding. Teams make the work of things like daily-produced broadsheets or larger runs of hand-bound books easier, and the finished book becomes an artifact of creating not just of beautiful work of literary art, but a community of like-minded souls.

The Post-Graduate

It has now been a solid month since I graduated from Antioch University LA’s MFA program. I’ll be honest – in the two months just before the residency (so, all of October and November), I was convinced that I wouldn’t graduate because I would succumb to a fatal heart attack from the combined stress of finishing my final manuscript, trying to get out the fourth issue of Lunch Ticket with a staff that wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, and the amount of paperwork and meetings involved in starting a new company.

At the time, I was self-deprecating in my complaints: “It was stupid of me to be starting a company right now, I know. I should have waited until after graduation.” But self-deprecation was a mask for the unending frustration I felt at the fact that every single thing I did took time away from other things I had to do. And let’s not even talk about the things I never got around to doing. My mother has a long list that I’m sure she’d be happy to send you.

Now that the MFA is behind me, though, how have things changed?

First and most obviously, I’m now on a more regular schedule. Because I have my own company and therefore no boss, I get to dictate when I get into the office and what constitutes an acceptable work day. For me, that looks like getting up at 6:30, getting myself and the kid ready for our day, packing up the car and driving her to school, going to the gym, then heading into the office. A more regular schedule also means that at the end of the day, I’m not hiding in my home office trying to wring another couple of productive hours out of the day instead of hanging out with my family.

Sadly, though, that thing that I went to two years of punishing grad school to learn? Not using that so much. It’s not that I’m not writing at all. In fact, another one of my stories was picked up for publication last week, and I’ve done a few more submissions. But the novel that I’ve been working on is in a holding pattern because I recognize what needs to be done on it: research, rethink, rewrite. Yup, for the third time, I’ll be gutting it and doing some pretty fundamental revisions. That’s not a bad thing, but it does delay my novel’s completion substantially.

The nice thing, though, is that I’ve gotten myself to a place where I recognize that publication is not going to change my life (or anyone else’s) in any substantial way. I’ve come back to a place where writing, hard as it can be, is its own reward. This doesn’t mean that I won’t be pursuing publication. It just means that I’m no longer in a place where that’s the most important goal on my horizon.

I can live with that.

Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”