What writers do

Somewhere along the way, someone has to make something that shows everyone what the digital 'book' could look like.

We're just shy of a month in, and it feels like a a week. It probably feels like a week because there's still loads to decide and to figure out, but hey, this is R&D and that unknown territory feels like the right place to be.

So far, we've had a day with Nick Harkaway and spent a lot of time planning to build chickens and eggs. I can't think of a better way to describe the process than that - we had no fixed idea how long These Pages Fall Like Ash would run for when we started. Whether we decided on a day, three days or a month, each of those formal decisions would affect the story and while in an ideal world, the story would dictate everything, what actually happens is that in order to maintain a beginning and a middle and an end, we had to make a choice and model it from there. We made the decision after the day with Nick though, so I'm happier that form is following content in that regard.

During the first REACT workshop in January, Jon Dovey brought up a familiar issue - database narratives usually suffer from the absence of an ending. Duncan's alluded to this in his post about flicking and finales - there's something very essential about seeing a book fall open and knowing where you, as a reader, are in the process of story. It's one of the things I like most about the Silent History - the interface (whether or not you've read a single word of the content) signals how the arc of the story is going to work.

someone else's project, but its very cool

Look at those little circles, and read the text inside them - 2028-2033, 2033-2039, 2040, 2040-2043 - and then look at this:

freytags triangle, it's brilliant, you'll never watch films the same way again

What those two things tell me is that 2040 is the middle of the story. It's the moment of reversal, of whatever's been built up becoming clear, of what Aristotle called the peripeteia. The turning point of the narrative (that's Freytag's triangle, incidentally; you can google it)

We needed to understand what that point was withinour story before we could decide how the narrative played out temporally. At what point does the reader (as Duncan suggests, calling them readers solves so many problems, but we're still not calling this a book) recognise that they're inside a story, how do we make that happen without breaking the fourth wall of engagement (I've previously written a lot about 2nd person narratives and computer games, and also about first person narratives without a first person narrator - see Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy and the last chapter of Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire (although Alan cheats)) and what do readers do with that knowledge within a story.

That brings us to the writer's role within this project. I was very sensitive to the perception that Nick and Neil would be writing this - they're not - and wanted to make clear that this would feel like a piece of experiential story that's influenced by several days planning and discussion with messrs Harkaway and Gaiman. What's most challenging about working with Nick (first) though is that he's a writer who understands digital technology and audiences and platforms, but his understanding isn't always in line with ours.

I spoke a lot at the end of last year about the challenges I think conventional publishers face when confronted by digital platforms, which summarise jointly as 'it's a platform, not a market' and 'what's the role of the editor in a natively digital story', and its attempting to address those two issues that interests me as an academic on this project. With regard to the latter - the editorial role - as I see it, editors are curators. They see an idea in a manuscript that might work as a book, and then have to cajole, encourage and shape that idea as the author develops it - but their responsibility is to the publisher and the reader and to the book. That's an oversimplification, but you see what I mean. When we're addressing digital story platforms though, while a great many of those skills can be brought to bear, the publisher and reader don't know, or don't understand what the 'book' looks like, and that's inevitable. Unfortunate, but inevitable.

Somewhere along the way, someone has to make something that shows everyone what the digital 'book' could look like. It's likely to borrow game mechanics, to build on grammars of reading familiar to readers of conventional books, it will merge properties from a number of platforms and story techniques. My money says whatever the digital 'book' looks like, it won't be transmedia, it won't be enhanced eBooks, but it will be read. 

this is a plot, honestly

So - what does a writer do? So far, they talk, they take a lot of notes and remind us how opening chapters work, how dialogue makes characters real, they ask awkward questions and think in structural terms.They remind us that story has a point and that everything is borrowed from somewhere, they make jokes, talk about the importance of gravity and provide a moment of poetry when we're about to implode. 

At least that's what Nick does. What Neil does, we'll find out soon.