And you thought it was just a book.
If you’ve been watching the if:book web site, you’ll have noticed we started counting down again. Sigh. It seems like only yesterday, I was counting down the minutes to the 24-Hour Book and writing in WQ about freight trains and so on. Willow Patterns is the subject of this year’s count down, a project that will provide a glimpse into how the 24-Hour Book was made and, more broadly, a sense of how much creative and editorial work goes into the creation of any book.
Featuring work from Nick Earls, Steven Amsterdam, and Krissy Kneen and others, the 24-Hour Book proved a great success, but the project generated much more than just 142 pages of finished text. Every edit, annotation and interaction with the online audience was time-stamped, captured and stored in an online database.
This is where Willow Patterns comes in. This project opens the book’s complete database, creating a web site that will let you browse through every version of every story. It’s fascinating stuff. Already I’ve spent hours trawling through page after page, scrolling through the numbers, inferring what happened when, watching word counts rise and, sometimes, fall. The data tells its own stories about how our writers worked, about their style, about the choices the editors made and the consequences of those choices.
This is Willow Patterns.
My recent visit to Scarfolk has not only left me with a vague sense of unease, it has also provided me with a great demonstration of an almost pure form of fictional world building. As the web site for the Scarfolk Council, a creation of screenwriter Richard Littler, explains:
Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. “Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay.” For more information please reread.
Hauntology is a critical theory, but also a kind of artistic genre that takes elements of the past (sounds, texts, visuals), strips out their original context and meaning, and recycles them into a new contemporary work. It’s a decidedly highbrow concept, though its application—in electronic music especially—is accessible, if a little creepy in its aesthetic (haunting is definitely the right word for it).
The blog for the Scarfolk Council applies these ideas to fiction. The site provides updates from a town increasingly infiltrated by the bizarre and sinister, all wrapped up in a jarring 1970s visual style.
What’s especially interesting about the Scarfolk Council, though, is that it is a work of fiction without story and without characters (at least without continuous characterisation) in a format that would have been near impossible before the web. Individual posts are not arranged chronologically (dates are cherry picked from all over the decade) and primarily feature public awareness campaign posters (‘If you suspect your mummy and daddy have been replaced by almost identical imposters call NOW’), sound recordings (‘In the playground with the music room window open, 1975’), television (the BBC’s 6-hour programme ‘We Watch You Watching Us’), and books (Spontaneous! Human Combustion).
The effect is weirdly compelling and the site is a hit with writing luminaries including Ian Rankin and Warren Ellis (the British writerly one, not the Australian musical one).
I’m often asked if writers should turn their fictional work into blogs. My stock response is that, regardless of how good it is, nobody wants to read your novel as a blog. I stand by that statement, but Scarfolk proves that a blog can be used as a vehicle for fiction when the writer respects the form and conventions. Sure, there’s no story, but Scarfolk doesn’t really need one. As the Council says: “Visit Scarfolk Today. You may never leave. So mote it be.”
* Okay, it’s a completely obscure title, but there is a link. It’s this shortwave radio broadcast from a numbers station. Best listened to late at night, completely alone.
The recent official launch for The City We Build, the amplified ebook made between if:book and the Queensland Poetry Festival, has highlighted some of the challenges faced by authors, publishers, and readers when designing digital books that take advantage of their capabilities.
Regardless of how well designed or how beautiful its content, The City We Build is unlikely to ever reach some readers. This is because it has been designed for one digital platform alone.
Writers and publishers alike want their content accessible and available to as many readers as possible, but in the digital world this means taking into account a wide variety of devices. While it’s entirely appropriate there should be no one-size-fits-all reading device, for writers, this incredible diversity of devices presents a challenge of first principle.
What kind of book are you making?
A couple of years ago, I figured it was time to clear out the decks. I had a novel; it had done okay, published in excerpted form in a few places, shortlisted for an award. It was as successful as a novel gets without actually being…you know…published, at least as a complete work in its own right. Like many a worthy story before it, the novel had fallen at the final hurdle and landed with a thud in the proverbial bottom drawer. A few years passed before it came to this, but I eventually decided it deserved publication, even if in a small way.
Plus I wanted to figure out how out print-on-demand services worked.
And after going through the entire publication process more or less on my own, I released the final book Here Today to the world. It was nice. It moved from the bottom drawer to a shelf and I’m glad it’s there.
But here’s the weird part: when it came out, people congratulated me. My immediate response was, “What for?” The whole idea of congratulations seemed a little jarring. Despite the book’s demonstrated success as a manuscript, it was only now a book because I said it was a book. For a long time, I gave away the electronic editions. But this unexpected reaction was a good demonstration of the changing pathways to publication.
Even this blog post has been drafted on the Underwood 310, as though I’m trying to prove some arcane point. Wait, is that what I’m doing?
As promised in this month’s WQ, here are the drafts for my typewriter column. The text has been digitised using a scanner with optical character recognition (or OCR). Because retyping it for screens would feel like cheating.
That’s what I meant to say. The raw OCR output saw it a little differently:
Ev:en@th:iia1`h£log post has been dmafc-acl om, the Underwood 310, as though I’1n
trying ‘b€o prove some arcane poinnt. -Wa.ii’lf’, :Es iifléfbf what I’-rn &oiix-rg?
As- promiised :En-=‘|:1f1:Is mon“th’s WQ, -lirere are the draits for -my ‘B;ypeje:t’i't’lien, ‘
column. The text has been d:‘§.gi‘bisec1» using a sceannei* with _op+:l:1_ci.1 charaet-er
zfecogni’b”ion_ (cr OCR). Because retgypping it’ for screens wo&1d£ Eeel like cheating
Recently, in the midst of a web site clean out (something I recommend anyone who’s had their own site for more than a couple of years), I reacquainted myself with a writing project I started somewhere in the late nineties. It was a chatterbot, a set of web code that attempts to replicate normal conversation, responding to anything you might care to say to it via a input box on a web page.
I’d had an idea for a short story based on this vision for artificial intelligence (with the emphasis on ‘artificial’)—a story that subsequently became one of my first published pieces titled ‘Hemmingway’—but I wanted to do more. I had a character, a ‘virtual writer’ named Hemmingway 0.5 and enough coding know-how to muddle through building a web-based chat interface that would more or less do what I wanted. The idea was to create a ‘real’ Hemmingway 0.5, a fun diversion and a way to bring potential readers to my site. I estimated I could knock it over in about six months or so.
Four years later, with no end in sight, I determined that Hemmingway was as good as I could ever be arsed to complete, so I set him loose. Any initial momentum I had from publishing the short story was long gone so Hemmingway had become an end in itself, another ‘book’, albeit unpublishable in any form other than as a page on a web site.
Now, I’ll admit this was probably not the wisest career move. In a lot of ways I was simply glad to be done with him (more or less) so I plonked Hemmingway on the site with little fanfare and moved on.
Lately though, I’ve begun to reassess. Hemmingway—like most chatterbots—is in fact a beautifully sophisticated deconstruction of the English language. Hemmingway has a vast store of responses matched to potential inputs. When you say something to him, he looks initially for an exact match to respond to and, if none is found, he gradually backtracks through your sentence until he strikes a hit. He can throw your statements back at you, he can remember a few basic things about you, he can modify his responses depending on the context of your conversation. All of this had to be written in code and—most importantly for a writer—all his responses had to be in character.
The result is a wonderfully wonky exercise in character development. Hemmingway is anything but perfect, but after six years developing him, I feel like he’s the most complete character I’ve ever created, even if he is a little grumpy most of the time.
At last month’s Whispers Reading Salon, I read from a story penned much, much later than my foray into chatterbots. But when an audience member congratulated me on the quality of the story’s dialogue, I wondered whether Hemmingway still lurks between the words on my pages and that my four years with him has had far more influence on my storytelling than I usually acknowledge.
Though he has learned nothing in the last seven years, Hemmingway 0.5 is still just as chatty today as he was in 2005.
How often do you read a book more than once? Do you ever not make it through a book in the first place? What happens to the books that are forgotten, still hanging around your bookshelf or cloud server (depending on your predilection)? Do you pass them on; lend them to people with no expectation of their safe return? Or do you leave them as is, a trophy of words conquered (or at least attempted) to gather dust and take up increasingly precious storage capacity (those megabytes add up) or box space every time you move?
At what point do you finally chuck them out? The delete button is easy enough, but what do you do with those papery things?
The Spanish art collective Luzinterruptus recently blanketed Melbourne’s Federation Square with more than 10,000 unwanted books collected from the Salvation Army. Visitors were encouraged to taken as many books home as they liked at the end of the installation. On a smaller scale, many years ago an older colleague of mine decided to give away her entire library. As she filled a room with browning paperbacks and I was surprised to learn what exquisite taste she had, with a serious bent towards great Australian works. I still have the books I collected that day, though I confess that after more than eight years, I still haven’t read them all. The books simply moved shelves.
When we talk about publishing, we frequently imply its sense of permanence, especially in print. Words published are words that belong to the ages. Increasingly though, this looks more like a delusion of grandeur. According to best available estimates, 2.2 million new books are published each year. Australia contributes more than 8,000 titles to that ocean (though latest local figures date from 2004; want to guess what that number has done since then?). The online space is of course even more crowded. As Google’s Eric Schmidt famously noted in 2010, we now create as much information every two days as we did in the entirety of human history until 2003.
For new authors, that’s a lot of noise to break through, but even when a work finds its best audience, can it resonate and occupy a space in a reader’s memory before being washed away by the next book and the next book and the next? It seems to me, the only insurance against our books falling down a memory hole is great stories well told.
Literature versus Traffic in Melbourne: http://www.luzinterruptus.com/?p=1357
One, two, three, four.
Beat, two, three, four.
That’s how Willow Pattern starts. It’s also the two paragraphs Angela Slatter wrote between midday and 12:04 on Monday 11 June. Over the next eleven hours, Angela made more than 160 revisions to that text before handing it over to editor, Keith Stevenson. She made her final change with just five minutes to spare before the nominal 11:00pm deadline. In between was a roller coaster of paragraphs added and language extracted, modified, subtracted, and refined. Eight words became 4,621 words.