Monday, December 19, 2011

Confessions of a Would-be Twitter Novelist

“What could be more practical for a man caught between the Scylla of a literary culture and the Charybdis of post-literate technology to make himself a raft of ad copy?” (169 characters) -Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

According to Wikipedia, the Twitter network began is 2006 and as of this writing in 2010 is approaching 200 million users worldwide. (133 characters) By 2009 I realized Twitter was a happening thing and if I didn’t jump on the bandwagon I’d be left behind with my ocarina and tambourine. (137 characters) But how to proceed? I had dabbled in Facebook and MySpace, but this Twitter thing was different. (136 characters) Limited to 140 characters (or less), with no photos, videos or extended links, Twitter conveyed the brief, the inconsequential, the trivial. (140 characters) In other words, the Twitter medium was a perfect vehicle for my literary aspirations. (85 characters)

I conceived a literary experiment: Was it possible to maintain a narrative structure and attract a reading public 140 characters at a time? (139 characters) After 15 months and the more than 800 tweets that make up this Twitter novel, I can say confidently that the answer is “no.” (125 characters)

Why a detective story? McLuhan noted that (41 characters)

I adopted the detective genre as the driver for my story because the brevity enforced by the Twitter medium of necessity requires that much be left out of the narrative. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan said:

"Likewise, in reading the detective story the reader participates as co-author simply because so much has been left out of the narrative."

Twitter as a medium forces the reader to fill in many of the blanks, so the detective genre mirrors the biases of the Twitter medium. Would my hero solve the crime? Would he undergo physical and mental trials? Would he get the girl? Would he spawn a publishing franchish? I soon realized that Twitter forced me to adopt the serial techniques of newspaper comic page story telling. To succeed I needed to learn and adopt the narrative strategies of Al Capp (creator of L'il Abner) or Chester Gould (Creator of Dick Tracy) as well as Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane. How did comic strip authors hold their readers’ attention each day and tell a joke while moving the story forward? How did mystery writers plant clues to direct or misdirect their readers while inexorably leading to the revelatory climax?

Like advertising, I had concerns about reach, frequency and repetition. I didn’t have the advantage of artwork, so I had to duplicate the effect with words alone. I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library reading archives of newspaper daily comic strips. Comic strip artists can’t assume that their readers will see every issue published, so story telling in the funny pages involved a lot of repetition. The last panel of the Friday strip was often the first panel of Monday’s entry so readers who missed last week would see it again this week. Since my Twitter history was readily available to my followers I decided that I wouldn’t do a lot of repeating.

So the Twitter environment forces storytelling considerations similar to advertising, and also similar to daily comic strips. There has been some concern about the negative influence of Twitter on spelling, grammar and punctuation. I suggest that Twitter detractors consider the gold in the Twitter stream, not just the dross.

I created a new Twitter account “RKBs_Twitstery” as a container for my novel and coined a new term for the Twitter mystery genre. (129 characters) Starting on May 6, 2009 I posted a new Executive Severance tweet twice a day every day for 15 months, never missing a deadline. (127 characters) The 140 character limit required intensive wordsmithing, creative editing, the omission of punctuation in some cases and a lot of counting. (139 characters). I cultivated brevity, concision and obsessive-compulsion. Fortunately, once I completed my writing I was able to leave these habits behind. (139 characters) The cumulative result of my Twitter efforts is collected in Executive Severance. (80 characters).

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