Sunday, 13 March 2011

Alan Bigelow & Alan Bigelow: An Interview With Myself

Why did you become a digital writer?

In 1999,  I was standing at the end of a paper trail. Behind me lay twenty-plus years of traditional text writing with some successes in publications and a limited notoriety; at my feet were an unfinished novel, some story ideas, and the sterile dust of a publishing industry with little or no interest in nomads like myself.

And up ahead? Just trees and brush, but I was a Connecticut boy, and used to breaking trails, so I went ahead, and the path led me to the Web.

I was already on the web, of course, but that was earlier on the trail. Now, further on, I was bored with simply words. Words can make a powerful spell, but they are not enough for the web. The web is multimedia. It abhors a visual vacuum. It wants to please the eye and the ear.  And with that kind of platform, words are not good enough.

So I embarked on, my first multimedia story, and after that "Wander Wire." Then I wrote (can you say "wrote" anymore?) my first web novel, and one of the first multimedia novels for the web, Sixteen stories and poems later, and I'm still creating digital work on

Do you own a Kindle?

Yes, I am glad you asked! I love it. I am waiting for it to have a touch screen...

Do you have a particular process that you use to create a digital story or poem?

I get this question a lot, and the answer is different every time....

The creation of a new piece usually begins with a concept or an idea. Then I lay down some text. Even for a practiced writer like myself, this part is challenging and often, well, frightening. What if the words don't come? What if  I've lost my touch with writing? What if I over-write when I need a conservation of language?

The questions go on and on, but if I force my way past them, there are usually some words waiting on the other side.

Then I fiddle around with the visual template. I fiddle and fidget. I fix and fumble. I form and reform.  Sometimes,  I go back to the text and fiddle with that so it will fit within the frame of the visual template; other times I change the visual template so it can hold the text.

Next I put the two together, and the fun begins. I play with the piece. I torture it or tickle it. I kick or kiss it. Anything to make it sing.  This might go on for days, even weeks, until the text and visuals are synthesized into a unified whole.

The last step is the audio. I layer the audio in until it, too, is synthesized with the rest.

Three or four months have passed. When I am done, my hair is always a bit grayer and a bit more scarce on my head. I am exhausted and elated. And sometimes I am sad. I am sad the work is over and there is nothing for me to do.

Do you own an iPhone?

Yes, I am so glad you asked! What a wonderful device. I love it, but because it is not Flash-enabled, the iPhone will not play any of my webyarns....

Do you create everything in your work, or do you hire people to help?

My wife once told me you should never try to do something that someone else can do much better than you, and in less time. In other words (I hear her say), follow the talent.

I do most of the work myself, but I have help. I will not think twice about using a royalty-free image from, or an audio file from If I am looking for video of a certain type (old black and white training films or documentaries), I go to It's all legal and ethical, and I always credit my sources (as long as I can remember them. Sometimes, I'll pick up some trifle from a random web surf. Not knowing I am going to use it later on, I forget to note the source).

It takes a lot of work to create multimedia stories for the web. To build every element from scratch would seriously impede an artist's ability to produce work.

Do you own a car?

This is a strange question, and I am not sure why you are asking it....

Do you ever internet date? 

Again, I wonder why you ask. This is a private matter.

Can you share your telephone number with us, please? 

NOTE: The interview was terminated at this point. The author has not responded to follow-up emails, and his telephone is disconnected.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Fractured Fiction

I remember when I first thought about producing a work of written fiction that didn't have any potential for being printed. Ironically, I was working for a publishing company at the time and regularly designing book covers and thinking of ways to promote 'traditional' authors online through (mostly naff-looking) literature websites. The thought of a non-physical short story -  a story that you couldn't read at all (wouldn't even know existed) unless you connected to the internet - appealed to me both as a concept in itself and as a rebellious statement against most author's obsessions with getting their work published in books. Spend months writing - then have no physical end result whatsoever to show for it. Not even a scrap of paper. Nothing. You're computer-savvy, why not do something a little bit different?  

I experimented in spare time, starting out in Word, but then wondering what the hell I was using that program for. Word generally existed to create a document for print, and I didn't want anything like that, so I shifted into Flash, which is what I was intending to make the interface for this 'unknown' work with in the first place. Flash was considered leading-edge, boundary-stretching, rather exciting. Flash itself as a piece of software to write into felt better,  although rather odd and distracting. No spell-checker! I wanted to write - immediately, and preferably angrily - but where? Where did I actually put the words? Did I just click on the text tool and stick them somewhere on the stage or what? Should I put them into an XML file or something?

I remember having a number of false starts and thinking this was bollocks - that it wasn't going to work and I needed to produce a Flash movie in the style of a cartoon animation or annoying banner advertisement like everyone else seemed to be doing. 

But what happened after a while was this: I started to write in a fragmented, broken-up sort of a way, clicking on graphics I'd brought into Flash and writing 'onto' them as-it-were. My whole creative flow became interspersed with shifting around a graphical on-screen environment; fictional ideas started to get triggered by the 'objects' I was bringing into the software. Eventually my writing was even being influenced by the wording of the programming syntax.

The experience was a good one - it felt new and exciting - but I started to want to end my sentences without finishing them. Bits of code I'd intended to use as part of the interface for the work became intertwined with the text itself - maths routines for spinning objects got wired into parts of my sentences almost on a whim - and seemed to take me much deeper into my central character's increasingly worrying sense of paranoia than I expected. It was all going a bit crazy - like someone had told me to grab a hammer and smash my written fiction into pieces before hanging it all out to dry on a washing line. Intentionally or not, there was indeed certainly no potential for printing this stuff out.

It was 1999 and nobody in the publishing office even had broadband yet. Monitors were fatter than the first Microwave Ovens and the fastest Pentium processors struggled to run two programs at the same time. What I'd done in Flash with my writing took so bloody long to download, I decided the only way to make it speed up a bit was to strip all the colour out of it. So I gave the saturation option in Photoshop a run for its money and the entire work went from colour to black-and-white. File-sizes shrunk considerably.

The project also started out with no backbone navigation method - I had a bunch of text, audio, animation and video file hybrids and nothing to give them any sort of coherent selection method. So I decided to parody the 'book' concept and make a pretend journal. There were no fancy page-turning effect plug-ins available for Flash at the time.

But did this on-screen 'book-like' journal-shape now make the work printable? Or was it just a nice way of making anyone who came to the site feel at-home immediately - seeing this pickled-looking pretend 'book interface', complete with inserted doodles, train tickets and bits of other diary-like crap stuffed into it? Regardless, it was definitely a digital written work: it didn't have a life outside of the screen. Book-shaped interface or not, it wasn't a real, physical book, and everything that you could click on to experience further into the work was very far removed from having been written with the concept of a book in mind.

So the work went live and nobody much came to look at it. Readers wondered what the hell it was. Writers wondered what the hell it was. Even web designers wondered what the hell it was. And what had I gained from the process? Nothing - which, I suppose, is exactly what I'd expected to gain.

Except... I had developed a kind of addiction. A strange feeling that Word was a bit rubbish now compared to this sort of thing and that one day - possibly - maybe - when internet pipelines got a bit fatter and writers got more computer-savvy - others might begin to think about producing work along similar lines.

In the meantime though, it was back to producing book covers. And investigating the potential of garish literature websites that - with one or two exceptions - simply photocopied book extracts directly from page to  screen. Weirdly enough, there was to be a lot of that around for the next decade or so: writing transmitted from old media to new with little or no idea what mad creative potential had been skipped.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Progression or Obscurity?

Imagine starting to write fiction without having any concept of your work being printed on paper, published in a book (or ebook), posted to a blog like this one, or even having any sort of edges or boundaries. Imagine thinking about words as non-static objects, with more power than just the images they can conjour up alone in a readers' mind - words with amazing new visual and interactive attributes; words that can slide seamlessly in and out of (or exist alongside) other media such as video and audio, creating entirely new hybrid fiction reading experiences that bypass the whole concept of dragging 'books' and their paper-based histories into the digital world altogether.
Text moves alongside video in Nightingale's Playground
Welcome to new media writing. Or digital fiction. Or electronic literature. A world of writing where books have been largely ejected out of the window and new forms of fiction are being carved into digital spaces that have no boundaries, limitations or publishers. Fiction emailed to you in fragmented episodes. Fiction written into 3D environments. Fiction that curves and bends and changes and transforms in the same way our experiences and memories and personal histories shift and transform over time. Fiction that really does lie on the fringes of what's possible with literature, thousands of miles away from the Apple iBook store.
Exploring a dark industrial past in Underbelly by Christine Wilks
News and blog posts about ereaders and Apps becoming more realistically 'book-like' are generating endlessly cyclic love/hate comments about what the point of it all is, and how the fundamental 'pure' reading experience that a printed novel offers by default is being slowly drowned out by pointless extras and bells and whistles. Of course books can - and should - exist in print. Books also have the right to exist digitally and are working better and better in this medium as technology improves and ebook formats become more solid. eBooks can have extras too, if that's what readers want. And why not? Author video/audio interviews, additional chapters, etc - after all, films and music enjoy this 'added extras' factor in their packaging so why shouldn't books?

But books as a concept are one thing; reading experiences designed natively for the screen are quite another.

In many instances, new media writing did not evolve with the long-established, 'safe' framework of the book in mind. As such, it appears to be of no interest to publishers, who still seem to see the world through the book's rectangular paper-based window and consider the blending of media dangerous to the clarity of pure text and typography. Not to mention the fact that there are no "big names" in new media writing. What could possibly be of interest to publishers here?

Screenshot from Pamela Small by Alan Bigelow
Yet to the surprisingly wide range of authors who produce this kind of work, there seems to be no going back, and the lack of publishers or financial backing seems to make no difference to their regular creative output. Is it a natural inclination - a natural progression of what it is to be a writer - to work digitally and to mix media like this? Will all writers soon become writers in new media and take advantage of the new attributes that text itself has gained? Or is it simply that a small portion of disillusioned writers who happened to be alive at the beginning of the digital revolution have "gone wrong" and can now shortly look forward to fading into obscurity?

Your thoughts are welcomed.