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of clockwork men

Writing backwards, and upside-down

A novel is not a novel when it’s published online, for free and in bits. I’m not being pejorative here, but it isn’t. It’s a new thing. It might behave like a novel, and even be conceived as one, but there are some grammars of writing that, in my experience (see, I have experience now), are difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in a digital form. The form changes the writing process. The form is the thing you’re writing toward – the container (sorry Tim) that the work will be viewed within. In my case, naming the SD card Codex was a deliberate (and not-so-subtle) hint. A codex – a holder for the contents of a book – was what I nudged readers toward with regard to how they assembled the book themselves. There’s another post (in draft) about rules and how that might not have worked completely to my intention, although the Q&A at the Wellcome did suggest that there was an implicit, and realised, link between the folders on the card and the folders represented by the websites. Whether I handled that in a satisfactory manner is another question altogether though, and one that I’m thinking hard about.

Putting together a piece like this though, was a leap of faith. I had the central arc of the story in my head (boy meets girl, boy jumps off bridge, boy comes back and deals with rather big mistake, 15 years pass, etc etc), but spent a good six months trying to work out the marriage between form and content.  To throw in an academic, long-view perspective, experimental literary media can be addressed as being ‘materially specific’; an extension of the material metaphor present in traditional books (in that their physical structure defines our relationship with their content). Digital material specificity isn’t a parlour trick, rather it comes about by understanding the relationship between the form and content of a narrative object.

I wasn’t trying to solve the material specificity of digital literature – rather to work through a specific example of a media specific text. My text.

The story is fragmentary because Daniel (who is, despite what I may say elsewhere, our primary narrator) spends a large part of it figuring out who and what he is. In an immersive platform, it didn’t seem right to explain all that in an expository fashion. The reader had to experience Daniel’s confusion, and unrootedness with regard to the shift between a causal, sequential life and the existence he was now placed in. He experiences things more than once and at different times. Some of those instances act as ‘anchors’, a placeholder (form-ally speaking) for the reader to stick a drawing pin in and tag content as. The jetty, and what happens there, a sequence of events which occurs for the first time in a dream, is the focus of the second section and echoes out into the third. It made no sense to write those pieces as a omniscient, third-person narrator. Daniel has no idea why he keeps returning to the jetty, nor why the wood is important, nor the lake, so why should the reader? The story is a jigsaw puzzle (see day two of these entries), and the reader has no more idea of the whole picture than the central characters do. They find out together.

(I might add, that even though I wrote that sentence without any planning, that’s as good a definition of first-person interactive perspective as I can think of)

From a media-specific perspective then, what I was working through was the interconnectedness of the textual elements. A digital novel that knows its form is distributed across a (small) network should be written that way. To do otherwise is to remediate an existing form (serial publishing, for example) – there’s nothing wrong with that, and it might work, but it’s not native, neoteric digital writing.

And since you’ve been patient, and read through that, here’s a photo of the post-it board. It’s not an order, rather it’s the only one I allowed myself while I wrote.

Discussion

One comment for “Writing backwards, and upside-down”

  1. “A novel is not a novel when it’s published online, for free and in bits. I’m not being pejorative here, but it isn’t. It’s a new thing. It might behave like a novel, and even be conceived as one, but there are some grammars of writing that, in my experience (see, I have experience now), are difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in a digital form.”

    Actually, I rather disagree here. The analogy I’d use here is that a movie is still a movie even if it is broadcast on TV or downloaded as a torrent. If your definition of a novel is a structural one (I’m partial to Bakhtin’s definition of it as interwoven linguistic images/textual styles) then there’s nothing about being digital that compromises that.

    “The form changes the writing process. The form is the thing you’re writing toward – the container (sorry Tim) that the work will be viewed within.”

    Digital offers a freedom in defining your own containers. One of the foundation structures in digital space are container abstractions: Apps & various kinds of files. Defining a new kind of container with specific structure is as simple as defining a new file type or creating a new app. This is a completely natural activity in the digital space, and it’s what people have done with both ebooks and digital comics (e.g. the various comics apps on the iPad).

    So, I disagree. The form you write towards is either a form you choose or one you define. That’s what everybody else does in computing, whether they’re programmers, systems developers, web designers or anything else.

    You chose your specific structure, but there’s nothing more ‘digital’ about the structure you chose than any other. It’s just one that is unique to digital, as it can’t really be replicated in analog. There’s a distinction between those two.

    In short: An ebook is just as natural to the digital form as your work, but your work is more unique to the digital form. This is pedantry, I know, but, as I recall, academia thrives on that.

    I can’t use the term specific here, as medium specificity implies that the digital form has specific stylistic properties, but I’d argue that digital is too fluid for that. Digital space is a way of defining containers with specific stylistic properties, it doesn’t have much on its own.

    Also, I think you underestimate how nonlinearly most modern linear texts are written.

    This is all to support your point that the project needs an assembly container: a custom designed app that provides a framework, guidance and methodology for how the story is to be collected, read and explored. I just think it needs it for different reasons that you do.

    “native, neoteric digital writing”

    One question: Wouldn’t a networked, interconnected, distributed native digital writing have hyperlinks? There’s an argument to be made that a nonlinear online text without hyperlinks is no more digital than a stack of index cards that has been scattered over the floor. Especially since you’re using the web for distribution.

    Posted by Baldur Bjarnason | May 23, 2011, 11:37 am

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