Reinventing the Novel

This guest post is written by Pamela Redmond Satran, New York Times bestselling author, ninja web developer, and one-time magazine editor. Here she talks about her jump to writing digital fiction, and how she’s found it so far.

Ho SpringTwo things inspired me to write my new novel, Ho Springs, online, day by day, instead of writing it for a conventional publisher the way I did my first five novels.  Well, two things that are easy to explain.

The first was my husband, after watching the DVD of American Gangster, telling me he found the movie good enough but ultimately unsatisfying.   “It was a movie,” he explained, “so you knew from the beginning that everything really interesting was going to happen to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and that it was going to build to this big climax at the end.”

That was the problem with conventional novels too, I thought.  They were predictable, limited and finite in form and scope.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to write – and read – a novel that unfolded in a way that was both more leisurely and more compelling, the way TV shows like Mad Men and The Wire did?

The second influence was creating my blog How Not To Act Old after no one wanted to buy it as a magazine article, turning it into a book and making that book a New York Times bestseller.  That experience taught me that not only was it more fun and exciting to write without an editor between me and my readers, but my own creative instincts were often better than those of the traditional publishing world.

My experience writing five “real” novels and developing two big websites – I’m also a partner in the site nameberry.com, based on the ten baby name books I coauthored with Linda Rosenkrantz – put me in a unique position to create a piece of digital fiction that would combine the best of both worlds.  Rather than writing episodic pieces, I wanted to create a novel that included such conventional elements as a character-driven story, causally-related scenes, and an extended plot that would unspool in unexpected ways, but in a form that could exist only online.

My blueprint was a television series I’d created (but hadn’t sold) a few years ago, set in a fictionalized version of Hot Springs, Arkansas.   A place-based story was perfect for an online novel, I thought, offering a wide range of characters and settings and the potential for stories to expand in an unlimited number of directions.

The big problem was the name, Hot Springs.  The url hotsprings.com was obviously taken.  And then, driving one day, I had a eureka moment: hosprings.com, or Ho Springs.  I was so excited I did a u-turn and drove right back home to track down and reserve the name.

From that moment on, I knew the idea was right.  I wanted to create the site in wordpress, so it would be free and I’d have total creative control, but I couldn’t find a theme that included all the elements – videos, graphic windows that opened to places in the town and story, room for a big block of text.

I needed a designer – or, as it turned out, three designers.  I had a vision for a logo that would look like all the letters were in realistic flames, with the T up in smoke, which called for a photoshop expert.  My budget was zero, or as close to that as I could get.  I was lucky to find Katie Mancine who built me an amazing logo.

The only problem was, Katie said, she couldn’t design a good-looking site to go with that logo.  Rather, she sold me on the concept “Vintage Tourist Guide,” which was great, but in the end that didn’t work out either.  Katie finally ended up with the design you see now on the site, and my friend Dennis Tobenski, who’s really a composer, made the whole thing dance.  Combined cost: under $1500, and several hundred gray hairs.

Weeks and then months were passing, during which I found a musician, Matt Michael, to write and record two original songs for the site, and also drafted several writer friends to create independent blogs from the characters’ viewpoints.  But the only writing I was doing during this time was putting together the static content describing the characters and the settings.

A novelist creating a work for the web is not, then, just a writer, but a designer, a logician, a manager, a tech guy, a producer.

And then, once you do start writing – or at least, once I did – the process is different too.  I suppose you could write one long story and parcel it out day by day, but the whole point for me was to create it as I went along, publish it immediately, to swing by the crook of my knees with no net below.

That’s the only way to feel the wind on your face, which is something you rarely feel when you’re writing a conventional novel, one that won’t be published for two years or maybe five, that no other person may even see for all that time, or maybe ever.  Writing all my other novels, I’m a big planner, outlining the big story and even each individual scene, revising and reimagining, working on the same piece until I lose sight of where I started and when it will ever end.

With Ho Springs, I get up in the morning, having a vague sense of what I’m going to write about, from which character’s viewpoint, but letting myself be swayed by whatever I encounter between brushing my teeth and opening my computer.  A David Sedaris story in an old New Yorker got one of my characters beaten one morning; an email from a writer friend inspired me to make a video of myself talking about what had influenced me that day.

It wasn’t until after I launched the site that I looked at what anyone else was doing in this arena.  The only site I’ve found that’s similar is All’s Fair in Love and War, Texas, by the brilliant Amber Simmons, which makes me believe God saved me from that Vintage Tourist Guide idea.  Penguin’s We Tell Stories is brilliant, but much more expensively and expertly produced than I could hope for, and more limited in writerly ambition.  Visually-based web fictions that blow me away include Unknown Territories and The Flat on Dreaming Methods.  But they’re movies, really, not novels.

Where is this project going?  My ideal vision is that someone like HBO or a publisher with a production arm will buy it and produce it as a multimedia property, with a television and a web and a book element working together.  I believe that this is how fiction will be written and published in the future, that this will become the new standard long after anyone remembers that Ho Springs ever existed.

Or I may take it down tomorrow and build something else.  The excitement is in creating something.  Holding it in your hands, or staring at it on a screen, holds so much less satisfaction.

Pamela’s personal site may be found here; with Ho Springs just around the corner.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Writing
  • http://secretloft.ca Derek

    This exactly the kind of thing I had envisioned when we were dreaming up our site. http://secretloft.ca Glad to know others (particularly ones with credentials to back them up) share in our delusion. I fully agree that this kind of fiction is about to become way more popular! Thanks for indirectly confirming our belief that were on the right track! Can’t wait to get caught up on the hosprings.com story!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    What I find most curious is this line:

    A novelist creating a work for the web is not, then, just a writer, but a designer, a logician, a manager, a tech guy, a producer.

    Could it be that so little good works exist on the web not because of writing ability as a limiting factor, but because there’s a lack of technical ability?

  • http://hosprings.com Pamela Satran

    I think you’re right, Eli. Writing novels is difficult and time-consuming, and most people who can do it expertly want to be paid for it — or at least try — and don’t have the time or energy or desire left over to learn the technical side. It’s likewise unusual to find a web designer or a software engineer who’s a serious and talented writer. The engineer who built nameberry, Hugh Hunter, has a math degree from Yale and an MFA in screenwriting from USC, but that kind of dual talent is one-in-a-million.

    I only know the technical side because I was dragged into it. My name book partner and I by accident own all the digital rights to our ten books and finally built our site because it was too foolish not to.

    Corporations, not individuals, will take the lead in creating great web novels, I think, because it’s so complicated and expensive, but will they be able to make money? Perhaps the iPad will make the sale of really great online novels possible, but I’m guessing those will be produced by HarperStudio or Dreamworks, not individual writers.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Pam: I believe there’s a way around that. I’m a technical person, and I’ve been throwing some ideas around, behind the scenes, with a couple of friends. We think it’s possible to abstract away all the technical bits for writers. And it’s probably also necessary, especially since writers aren’t particularly interested in learning HTML/CSS/PHP.

    Current publishers have digital arms, but they’re doing the equivalent of dipping their toes into a hot tub – commendable, but not at all efficient. And they’re not interested in enabling writers.

    Let’s see if we can get somewhere with this …

  • http://houseeros.com/ Eros

    @Eli
    It is quite possible. It is just a question of building a CMS that is web-lit oriented. I’m probably going to never get anywhere with it in a reasonable time period, unfortunately. I’m just not a skilled enough writer to make that particular project a priority. I’ll build something into SMF for my site when I finally get to putting up my weblit but that’s as far as I’ll go. ;)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Hrmm. The idea keeps coming back to haunt me. I’m beginning to seriously consider going out to do this, just for the heck of it.

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