Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Golden Notebook (And Group Reading)

gn_homepage_title.gifIt appears that in the time I’ve been offline I have missed out on several big developments in the online fiction sphere. The Golden Notebook project is one of them.

Notebook isn’t really a blook – it is a novel by Nobel Lit-Prize winner Doris Lessing, and many consider it to be her most ambitious, and probably her greatest, work. The Notebook project is an ingenious one: it places the entire book online and it asks 7 readers, all women, to read the novel in real time and give their comments in the margins of the webpages that make up the novel. 

Part of me is awestruck: whoever came up with that idea must’ve been a friggin genius. But the other part of me – the writer part – is combing this project for ideas, is reading the book for the first time, and has come to the conclusion that whatever I have previously thought possible of this medium is but a pale caricature of what’s coming, of what can come.

Notebook as a novel is most famous for its structure: the work is divided into the four ‘notebooks’ of the writer Anna Wulf, each categorized by colour and each containing different aspects of her life. The story is concerned with Anna’s efforts to fuse all these disparate books together into one final, golden notebook, and the novel is set up in such a way that the four notebooks are referred to in non-chronological, overlapping manner, all excepts from the novel Anna is currently working on. The structure comments on the story, and the story comments on the structure, and it is precisely this that makes Notebook the kind of novel that takes weeks to read, and weeks more to figure out (another that springs to mind is Infinite Jest, which is structured in a circle, and where the beginning is the ending is the beginning is the ending).

What strikes me the most about the entire Notebook project is that it takes reading – an experience strictly individual – and it combines it with the living web: something inherently social and conversational, something that you really don’t expect reading to be. Now anybody going through The Golden Notebook can do so with the benefit of a host of people who are arguing, talking and who are above all, like you, trying to make sense of said and unsaid things within the novel. You no longer have to spend weeks of your life immersed in an epic, structurally intricate work of art, only to emerge from that experience going … huh. Or perhaps – and this is more likely – you no longer have to worry about leaving stones unturned while you’re reading the novel, as is often the case with such post-modernist works. 

Merry Christmas, Publishers

I wasn’t going to blog on Novelr until the redesign was complete, but recent unhappy events in the publishing industry turned out to be too big for even this non-conventional litblog to ignore.

The outpouring of negativity and anger, of grief and beard-pulling the past two weeks, and over ‘Black Wednesday’, have been pretty depressing to read at best. Bookstore chains suffered: Borders, for instance, posted losses of $175.4 million, or $2.90 per share, compared with $161.1 million, or $2.74 per share in the same quarter of last year. There have been too many reports of the various layoffs and troubles plaguing agencies and publishers; one article has a byline that reads, almost gleefully, “The economic news couldn’t be worse for the book industry. Now insiders are asking how literature will survive.”

I’m not going to comment on ‘Black Wednesday’ itself, because writers greater than me have blogged and dissected and given us their collective takes on what this means for culture, for writers, and for the reading public in general (in a nutshell: culture will survive, writers will write, and the reading public will be able to find whatever book they want in bookstores because nothing has been sold out). I prefer to talk about the changes the publishing industry are taking to deal with their problems. The good news? They’re turning to the Internet.

There seems to be growing evidence that publishers are moving, and moving with focused intent, onto the web. There are no guarantees, and there certainly aren’t any solid business models for them to latch onto, but God they’re trying. Let me toss you a personal example: sometime in the middle of this year Tor launched a supersite. I was studying for exams at the moment, and I had a short break. So I checked it out.

I absolutely loved it. I spent about 3 hours on the site, reading all the fantastic short stories and checking out the related ‘how we wrote and produced the original art that went along with that’ blog articles and the forum posts and the author-reader interaction. You see, Tor got a whole bunch of heavyweight writers in their stable and somehow got them active in the community section of the site, along with the short stories and the original art. My favourite is Steven Gould’s Shade, a short story set in the Jumper universe he created.

There are many more examples: Harper Collins recently announced that they’d be putting ebooks into the Nintendo DS; Penguin USA have released Penguin 2.0 (which are a collection of book-related apps to computers and (get this) mobile phones), plus Macmillian (click that link, it leads to Macmillian’s digital lit branch; totally cool) are pushing for their Stanza reader for the iPhone. And on an off-note: an independent designer has packaged The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the (copyright-free) short story behind the upcoming movie, as an iPhone app, for $0.99.

I’m pretty certain that all this movement is good news for the Blooking community. There might be overcrowding, and jostling, where before we had the whole net to ourselves, but I suppose that comes with the turf. A rising tide raises all ships, independent producers included. And while the recession may suck for the time being, I’d like to point out, with cautious optimism, that sometimes the worst of times provide the most unbelievable of opportunities.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Bookmarked! 9th December

As usual, stuff to check out:

  • Ryan contatcted me while I was on hiatus last month to inform me that his publisher Gryphonwood Press is now accepting web fiction subs. Worth a look, and he’s recently announced that they’re taking in submissions for a new anthology. 
  • This is probably one of the saddest articles I’ve seen in awhile: Aida Edemariam on sifting through the publishing industry’s slush pile. She writes that the Internet is causing a decrease in the number of unsolicited manuscripts to publishers, though people still submit them, praying that one’ll eventually be picked up and put to press.

    The internet, of course, means that more and more people publish straight on to the web, either as is, or to get peers to comment on it. Ten years ago Hamish Hamilton was getting 20 manuscripts a week rather than four, and Prosser puts this decrease down not just to active discouragement, but also the ways in which writers are learning to circumvent the traditional machine. “I do think there’s been an opening up,” says Swift. “A lot of writers are taking things into their own hands and publishing online.I think sending things in blind now is about the most stupid thing you can do.”

    Watch out for the article’s ending – it made me sigh.

  • I’d also like to direct you to Amber Simmon’s web fiction project A Timely Raven. I gave it a 4.5 on Web Fiction Guide, and I really recommend you read it. This is non-linear fiction at its best, and Simmons has also leveraged design to present a truly compelling story.

Who Serves The Mobile Web?

In Japan there exists such a thing as keitai bunko, or keitai fiction. Writing for keitai is the practice of writing a mobile phone novel: published, distributed and read on screens no larger than a playing card. It is consumed where all good books are consumed: in Japan’s overcrowded trains, in waiting rooms for doctors and dentists, in toilets and bedrooms and sitting-room couches. Their model is similar to that of blooking – an author (and any author, really, for there are no slush piles) starts a novel and slowly gains an audience as the novel rolls on. And here’s the surprising thing: keitai is closer to mainstream than we are.

The most famous keitai shosetsu (mobile phone novel) is probably Koizora, a semi-autobiographical love story about a girl and a cancer-striken boy. I can say with utmost confidence that it is a big success, because I watched the movie myself on a TV screen in Malaysia. Japan’s cultural exports come in the form of film, music and manga, so I suppose it’s irrelevant that the film started off as digital fiction. But yes, Koizora is a bestseller, and yes, I think it’s sappier than The Notebook.Koizora, or Sky Of Love poster

But Is This Exportable?

The answer? Well I’m not sure. On one hand Japan is famous for its cultural exports, but we have to admit that not everything makes it out of the country. Anime and manga did, but whimsical robot helpers and talking toilet bowls didn’t. Plus we have to remember that Japan has one of the highest mobile phone and broadband penetration rates in the world. Whether or not we can use Japan as an indicator of our digital future remains to be seen.

What I can tell you, and tell you confidently, is that the mobile web is set to explode. Let’s take a look at the numbers: global mobile penetration is at 3.3 billion, or 50% of the world’s population, compared to 21.9% for Internet penetration. I can argue that this number is misleading, because most mobile phones don’t have access to high speed data networks, but then again the point of those numbers is to show you how much more assesible mobile phones are as compared to computers. Taking this down to a personal level: you’re more likely to be with your phone than you are your computer, especially if you’re commuting from one place to another. And if you don’t have 3G access, or your phone doesn’t, then it’s only a matter of time before you buy a new one, or your telco upgrades its infrastructure: the life of a phone is much less than that of a laptop.

Life as a Web Fiction Guide Editor

My exams ended on the 4th of December, and I was suddenly left alone with my newfound freedom. I surfed the Internet a bit, clicking about in random directions, in much the same way a criminal may run in circles after being released from prison. His freedom renders him purposeless after years of confinement, the same way I was rendered purposeless after 3 months of crazy studying. I think it’s quite possible for one to equal the other.

I’m back, and I’m sorry for not updating Novelr earlier. My exams have left me frazzled and a little woozy, and it’ll be some time before I can get back into gear here. It doesn’t help that I’ve got quite a few other things to do – I have been spending the last couple of days reading up on PHP, because it’s about time Novelr got a redesign. And there’s design work to be done on Web Fiction Guide (WFG) as well. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

This post is a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a WFG editor. The editors, if you don’t already know, are the people in charge of reviewing and rating the 144 or so blooks listed on the site. I’ve not been a very good editor: WFG was started months ago, but I’ve almost never reviewed anything there. Put it down to my academic schedule, I guess, and bang me on the head with a wooden spoon.

Behind The Scenes: The Art (or torture) of Reviewing

What, you think we randomly choose what we review?

A review assignment usually begins as such: we hop into the Editors’ private forums and skim through the latest discussions. The topics here run the gamut from serious to nonsensical: one might be about a delisting request (the editors decided it was against WFG policy), while another might be about how we’ve been called semi-professional (go check them out!) by a StumbleUpon user. Very often, however, our personal lives slip through and colour our discussions: Gavin Williams had a baby a few months back, and we paused our discussions to congratulated him and the missus.

The chief reason we log into the discussions area is because of a spreadsheet Chris Poirier updates. It contains all the new listings and it tells us who’s reading, or reviewing what. The unreviewed listings are marked in bold, and the editors place R, W or X under their names to mark the various stages they’re going through, with regards to that particular work. An R is for Reading, W means ‘Writing a review’ and X marks a completed assignment. R sometimes last two weeks, if the blook in question is boring as hell.[1]