Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The joys of twitter fiction

It's an exciting year for David Mitchell fans. Not only has he got a new book out, but the usually retiring author has recently ventured into social media and organised a series of author talks in the Autumn. (Hubby and I besides ourselves with the prospect of seeing him in Oxford and I just hope I don't disgrace myself the way I did when I met Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson).  To cap all that, last week, he decided to use his twitter account to tell a short story - "The Right Sort." Twice a day, throughout the week, he posted a section of the story tweet by tweet. And what an absorbing reader experience it was. On the first day, I was around at the right time, and sat with bated breath, waiting for the next tweet to appear on my timeline. For the next couple, I kept missing it, so had to go to his timeline, go back to where I left, and then read backwards up the page. This was fine, but it did mean that I saw some of the more recent tweets first, or overshot and went back too far which made for a dizzying read. Then I noticed his publishers had cleverly organised the tweets in the right order and were posting the story at the stage it had just finished, which made it a little easier and gave me the chance to read from the beginning again. And in the last couple of days I did all three: reading a tweet at a time, reading backwards and forwards and reading all the way through.  All of which added to my enjoyment of the tale of gothic horror that unfolded, whilst enabling me to enjoy the frequent cliffhangers too. Not surprisingly, since this was David Mitchell writing, the story was a fine example of twitter fiction at it's best. The prose was beautiful, and full of rich imagery.  Each tweet was carefully constructed (impressive for someone who does not use twitter regularly), each section well paced, and built up to the next instalment effectively, and the story raced inexorably to its horrifying conclusion. It includes usual wry observations such "Theo Jukes told me, ‘Know what, Nathan – I think we’re going to be mates.’ Right. Know what, Theo – I don’t" and "Another boy around changes stuff. Who’s cooler? Who’s harder? Who’s cleverer? Who’s swottier? I’ll have to work it all out." There's Mitchell's  fabulous wordplay such as his clever use of "The Fox and Hounds" and a very chilling understanding at the end of what the right sort actually means. Throw in a malevolent dog,  a weird mother and son, a creepy house, odd happenings, a hallucinatory atmosphere, a brooding sense of danger and you have a terrific story, that only improves on re-reading. It was an excellent example of twitter fiction and I do hope it won't be Mitchell's last.

But of course, David Mitchell didn't invent the form. Lots of writers have been playing about with twitter fiction for some time. Joanne Harris has been posting her #storytime for ages, and they are always great fun. Here you can read the cautionary tale of the Lacewing King who really should have been careful what he wished for, and which comes with a great last minute twist. Apparently Harris sometimes loses followers during #storytime which I find bizarre - her stories are so entertaining  I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to stay to the end. (Besides what  did  her followers think would happen when they followed a writer of fiction who enjoys playing with ways to tell stories?) But twitter fiction doesn't have to be  a long story -The Guardian has a regular feature of asking famous authors to write a story in a single tweet. You can find some brilliant examples of their concise storytelling here. In fact twitter fiction is so popular it even has its own online festival, twenty four hours of tales told tweet by tweet.

I made my first foray into twitter fiction in 2010 with this early Friday Flash. Like many writers I'm very interested with the impact that the internet has on our lives. This story started from the thought that while social media can connect us, we can never really know what is going on for the people we interact with. I envisaged a character continuing to tweet trivia even during a personal tragedy. I wanted readers to wonder why was she doing this. Was it because she was cold, shallow, or so overwhelmed that she couldn't really function except through talking to people she didn't really know?  I wrote the story backwards, as if the tweets had appeared on a real twitter page, and for simplicity only showed the protagonist's answers to her fictional twitter friends, so the reader had to work out what the other person's original tweet had been. It was my hope that readers would read back to the start, and then read from the bottom of the page up, and by doing so, they would read  between the lines and start asking questions about who this woman was and why she acted the way she did. It was only partially successful,  as whilst most readers applauded the effort, most were confused (as you can see from the comments section!). I worked hard on dealing with the criticism, re-writing the story as "Following Miss Piggy's Timeline", which was subsequently accepted in a pamphlet to accompany this wonderful exhibition (check me at 4:56 looking at the room made of books, I'm the one with the glasses). Unfortunately space was tight so the edited version was equally baffling to lots of my friends but the lovely people at Blank Media got what I was trying to do, so that's OK.

After that, I was possessed by the idea that it would be fun to do something live and interactive on twitter. And so I came up with "Some Days in the Life". I fixed on a celebrity obsessed Mum,  Ally - twitter handle - The Derby Diva, whose relationship with her son was fractious, due to her over-protectiveness, his selfishness and the girlfriend he loved but she hated.  I fixed on the weekend of her son's 18th birthday as an opportunity to tell a story in real time, and I invited people over twitter to join in, by either developing a character I'd created or making one of their own. I pitched the idea to the Twitter Fiction Festival 2012,and though it was rejected, I had by that time got enough participants to go ahead and so we ran it that weekend (November 29th - December 1st 2012).

In order to make the whole thing a bit more believable, I invited people to set up their twitter accounts early and start interacting before the proper story started. This allowed a bit of back story to build up, but also  helped people get comfortable with their characters. If I'd been very brave, I would have not let on that this was fiction. However, I decided it was fairer to make it clear what was happening by announcing each time we were about to run the story, via my own timeline, and to ensure the twitter profiles made it clear our characters were fictional.  Even so, I managed to get a tweet back from a radio show, from a comment my character made, and they clearly thought Ally was real, so it shows how easy fiction and  life can merge.

And so to the weekend itself. I sketched out a rough plot before we started, shared some information with some people and some with others. I wanted people to react to events in real time  and the surprise factor was on occasion really important. I split the weekend into chapter blocks that ran for about an hour, and then we kicked off.

We started with Ally's son Jack, known to her as Lazy Boy (beautifully written by my sister Julia Williams) receiving birthday presents as both of them posted about it. Ally was totally unaware that Jack was following her and making snide comments, though all the others knew this secret. As the morning progressed, the other characters began to comment. Fitness Dee, Ally's best friend, was full of joy and great health advice. Rosie Collyer and Beverley Sharpe, created alter-egos on their real timelines, to create new personas of Ally's loud and lairy pub friends, winding Jack up with their fake cougar tendencies. (They were incredibly convincing and very funny, so goodness knows what their real twitter followers made of it). Miriam Morell came in as Gabrielle the girl Ally wished her son would choose, whilst Daine Salmon gave Jack back up as a twitter friend from the  States. And my friend Anne Booth appeared every so often as herself, trying to encourage everyone to take a deep breath and calm down.

Over the course of the weekend there were drunken fights, jealousy, a dangerous ex of Jack's girlfriend stalking around, a hilarious subplot involving the cougars, and Fitness Dee's husband,  as Ally and Jack were variously at odds and making up with each other. As things became more and more strained, Ally turned her phone off and retreated to the TV to tweet about I'm a Celebrity and The X Factor, and thereby missed her son ending up in hospital on the Saturday night, while he pleaded with his mother to get in touch.  The fall out from that led to a fraught birthday party on Sunday, much enhanced by the surprising addition of Granny May, an invention of my sister Julia, who suddenly arrived and took over. By Sunday tea time, things had deteriorated so badly that Jack and Ally were left wondering would they ever speak to each other again, paving the way for a make or break final chapter on Sunday evening.

I have no idea if anyone other than us actually followed what was happening, but it was a lot of fun to do. And it was surprising how tense I found myself becoming at various points of the story. I was also shocked at how outraged I was when Granny May started taking Jack's side against Ally, almost screeching at the screen you don't know what it's been like here. Caroline admitted she was equally upset when Ally, cold-shouldered Dee on the Sunday morning for not letting on Jack was on twitter, whilst Julia was pretty cross with me that I wouldn't allow Courtney, Jack's girlfriend any mercy.  All of which goes to show that it probably isn't a good idea to mix one's real and fictional lives too often.

It did get a bit messy at times, with people tweeting over each other, and at the Sunday party tweeting so fast at each other, that several contradictory things kept happening. It was also quite hard sometimes to remember that we were all supposed to be socialising,  so it was a bit strange that we were tweeting to people in the same room, rather than always commenting on the action. But a coherent narrative did emerge, and though it's nowhere near as elegant as Joanne Harris or David Mitchell (who I suspect spent a long time honing those phrases), I think it stands as a fascinating experiment. I hope it says something about families, and modern life, and how social media can sometimes expose far more of our lives than we might imagine. (And as a side note, I found myself obsessively following I'm a Celeb and X Factor tweets, so Ally could comment. Without watching either programme, I correctly predicted the winners, which says something, I think!) After it was done, I tidied it up and if you are interested you can see the results here. (Don't be fooled by the high level of visitor numbers though, I think Scribd gets spammed a lot!)

I sometimes read articles bemoaning the damage the internet, on-line shopping and e-books have done to fiction, and they always make me smile a bit. Because, whilst it's true physical books and novels have a lot of competition these days, sometimes that competition allows writers to play with new forms, and new ways of interacting with readers, and that's got to be a good thing for readers and writers alike. And whilst my preferred medium is always the book, and my preferred form of fiction, the novel,  twitter fiction has enhanced my experience as a reader and a writer. For, that reason alone, I am glad it is here to stay.

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