Do novelists lie?

“Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. To a psychoanalyst it is not so important whether you tell the truth or a lie because lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth.” — Italo Calvino

The author as entrepreneur

“I’m concerned about the slow and subtle shift in attitude that constant marketing may effect in writers. Once you are in charge of your own promotion and sales, you cannot but help think of your audience as a market, and a market must be pleased. Art is not just a product like any other.” — Russell Smith

Finish What You Start

“No-one’s going to buy a half-written novel. No-one’s going to read a blog post that stops short after two paragraphs. So whether your writing aspirations involve hitting the New York Times bestseller list or living from the passive income from your ebooks, you need to finish what you start.” — Ali Luke

Fluid Imaginalphabet: H is for Hypertext Fiction

I am not an electronic artist. I can’t construct a poem that both comments on and is presented through the tyranny of the computer screen, as Justin Katko does with “Up Against the Screen Mother Fuckers,” nor can I build a Google Map to tell the story of gentrifaction, as J.R. Carpenter does with “In Absentia,” nor construct an immersive document that investigates the risks of reading, as Stuart Moulthrop does in “Deep Surface.”

What I can do is say that I have yet to be moved by any of my experiences with hypertext literature (or more generally, electronic literature).

But I want to be. I desperately want to be.

We live in amazing times. As a man in his mid-thirties, I’ve lived through the birth and development of the digital revolution. And as a creative writer, I’ve yearned to explore the openings created by that revolution.

But my art form, my skill set, is the manipulation of the English language — not Flash, not JavaScript, but English.

A vast, but limited, tool chest indeed.

My experience with creating electronic fiction does not go beyond the shallow waters of the hyperlink, and I struggle with the desire to create something more engaging than a glorified choose-your-own-adventure story.

The difficulty of hypertext fiction is similar to the difficulty of narrative storytelling in video games (and to be sure, hypertext fiction can be considered a form of the video game). In his recent book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissel explains the root of that difficulty:

Games with any kind of narrative structure usually employ two kinds of storytelling. One is the framed narrative of the game itself, set in the fictional “present” and traditionally doled out in what are called cut scenes or cinematics, which in most cases take control away from the gamer, who is forced to watch the scene unfold. The other, which some game designers and theoreticians refer to as the “ludonarrative,” is unscripted and gamer-determined — the “fun” portions of the “played” game — and usually amounts to some frenetic conception of getting from point A to point B. The differences between the framed narrative and ludonarrative are what make story in games so unmanageable: One is fixed, the other is fluid, and yet they are intended, however notionally, to work together.

To some extent, what Bissel is talking about here is authorial control. The game designers maintain authorial control over the framed narrative, but they give up much of that control during the ludonarrative. Quoting Clint Hocking, a famous game designer, Bissel writes:

The very nature of drama, as we understand it, is authored. Period. The problem is, once you give up control of that to a player, authorial control gets broken. Things like pacing and flow and rhythm — all these things that are important to maintaining the emotional impact of narrative — go all will-nilly.

As in video games, hypertext fiction gives the readers control over what words they’ll read next, what information they’ll find next, what scenes they’ll enjoy next (of course, writers can always reduce their use of the hyperlink to glorified footnotes or page turns, but that’s not exactly hypertext fiction; that’s just fiction being printed in hypertext).

The trick to maintaining the necessary narrative momentum, as in video games, is constraining the possibilities of reader control without the reader feeling as if she’s being constrained.

That’s a trick I haven’t mastered yet. But if you’re going to be a creative writer in the twenty-first century, it’s a trick worth learning.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: G is for Genre

Genre is, to my mind, the delineation of a boundary between and around literary works determined by the intellect’s instinct for perceiving integritas and consonantia, which I would do well to let James Joyce explain:

— In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is the bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended…selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

— Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure… You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the results of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

A genre is bounded, contained, and separated from the genres that are, indeed, not it; at the same time, a genre contains within it a harmony of multivariate works. The concept of genre is spatial, measured in terms of within or without, and it defines an existing dimension of any literary work.

The problem with the spatial definition of genre is that it is static; it neglects the genre’s dynamism. If the consonantia is harmony of multivariate works, dynamism is the way in which a new work figures into that song. With dynamism, the boundaries of a genre become expressions of the conceptual forces that emanate from individual works, and they are always subject to flux.

But how does one reshape the boundary lines? How does one write the work that moves the border of an existing genre? In short, how does a writer work within a genre at the same time as one goes beyond it?

Because it is only through the answer to this question that a writer will make her mark.

Read your work aloud

“Don’t just sit there and stare at your words, allowing them to whizz silently through your head. Read them aloud, loud(!), so that you can hear what your writing sounds like. You will get a much better feel for how your writing comes across to a reader.” — Christopher Jackson