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.

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