Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Never Ending Story ("Aaaa-ah, aaa-ah, aa-ah...")

Nothing upsets a reader as much as a book that doesn't end on the last page.

Nothing upsets a viewer as much as a motion-picture that is abruptly cut off before the story ends properly.

If an episode of COLUMBO stopped before Lt. Columbo had solved the case, I would be upset.

But... have you ever wondered? Why do we expect a story to neatly fit into the limits of
A) the 200-500 pages of a single book
B) the 50-60 minute duration of a single TV-show episode
C) a 90-120 minute movie?
D) a stageplay lasting 1-4 hours?

(No offense to Lt. Columbo, but how does he ALWAYS manage to solve a case in 3-5 days? Many murder cases take months, years, even decades to crack.)

Real life won't fit into a 90-minute movie.

The practical explanation is that most media - such as print, movies on film rolls and television - impose strict boundaries on the story's length. The full complexity of life is simplified and abridged for the sake of the medium. (Again with the McLuhan reference!)

You won't find single 10,000-page novels in the bookshop, because the publishing industry can't physically print, edit and distribute a book that's 1 meter thick and weighs 10 kilos. If you wanted to tell a story which required that length, you'd have to break it up into several volumes - and even that wouldn't be without its problems.

Also, the reader's patience and stamina impose limits to story length. If you've ever sat through a "Director's Cut" movie, and had to go to the bathroom during the middle of the film, you know what I mean.

And of course, the author's patience with a single story isn't limitless either.

In practical terms for the individual writer, you may have run into the Limit Problem when you try to cram too much plot into a 100,000-word novel. (I have!) Consider breaking up your plot into individual novels. You don't like doing so? Well, what can you do? Even J.R.R. Tolkien had to see his first U.S. printing of THE LORD OF THE RINGS broken up into three books.


Digital technology now makes it possible to make stories - novels, motion pictures, comic-strips (see Scott McCloud's "Carl") of greatly extended length and complexity.

You could - if you were ambitious or mad enough - post an incomplete book online, and just keep adding to its length for the rest of your life... until, with your very last breath, you completed it with the ending.

("Behold: The World's Longest Novel! Bigger than The Bible! Longer than War And Peace! Lengthier than *GAAGHH*....")

Or, if you were utterly insane, you could digitally cut-and-paste together every single episode of the TV soap DALLAS into a single, gigantic movie ("DALLAS - THE COMPLETE SAGA") and post it online. Behold, the world's longest film!

Then again... most writers barely muster a single 100,000-word novel. So why should they worry about the Limit Problem?

One worry is Posterity. Many of the ancient classics of literature are probably surviving fragments of even bigger epics. THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY seem to end abruptly, but we can't say for sure the Greeks ended the story of Odysseys when he returned to Ithaca.

Perhaps the Internet will give birth to Never Ending Stories... movies and books that get extended endlessly, over entire generations.

And here this blogpost runs into a Limit Problem of its own... so I should stop here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

On "Unspoken Assumptions" In Writing

The late great Alice Sheldon (a.k.a. "James Tiptree Jr.") wrote this observation about how male writers tend to describe reality with themselves as point-of-reference: "Impenetrable Swamps, Loyal Dogs, Short Women". Read the whole text!

"Consider how odd it would be if all we knew about elephants had been written by elephants. Would we recognise one? What elephant author would describe — or perhaps even perceive — the features which are common to all elephants?

"We would find ourselves detecting these from indirect clues; for instance, elephant-naturalists would surely tell us that all other animals suffer from noselessness, which obliges them to use their paws in an unnatural way."

Think about it when you write, whatever your gender may be. Are you putting unspoken assumptions into your prose?
Are forests always supposed to be "penetrated"?
Are dogs always supposed to be "loyal"(i.e. obedient)? "Loyalty" implies the dog is loyal to someone. Who?
What constitutes a "short" woman? (Relative to what?)

OK, if the narrator is a 7-foot Ethiopian native and casually thinks the visiting Japanese tourist is short, that makes perfect sense within the context of the story.
But the writer shouldn't automatically assume that his/her reference point always makes sense in the context of the narrative.

Another example (my favorite): In one of Jean M. Auel's Stone Age novels, one of the characters talk about someone being depressed. Depressed? 40,000 years ago? The mere word carries assumptions about modern psychology, models of the human mind and theories which seem a tad out of place in the story's Neolithic, pre-literate context.

It can be difficult to picture yourself as being someone else, to describe someone else's point-of-view. It may even require that you question some (or all) of your assumptions about yourself.
But if you can't, your writing will always be limited to a predictable, repetitive set of ideas and prejudices - invisible to you, but obvious to everyone who reads your prose.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Medium Is... The Massage?

When I first started to post my fiction on a webpage, I had a vague idea that maybe the text could become available also for mobile phones...

Around 2000 I made an early experimental "sampling" of my fiction for mobile phones - with black-and-white screens, before the Internet became available on those devices. It looked awful, so I decided to set mobile phones aside until the technology and software had improved...

...and boy, has it improved.

Today a friend showed me what my homepage looks like on a state-of-the-art Qtek 8310 smartphone, using the Web browser Opera Mini.
He could set the size of the text to whatever suited him.
Wide images were automatically resized to fit the screen.
The screen resolution was crisp and clear.
It amazed me how good the webpage looked on that small 240x320 display.

I looked at the screen and thought: Soon, this will be the standard for all mobile phones. People will be using them instead of PCs to read books.

When I ask people what they think about reading fiction from a screen - any screen - I still encounter a widespread skepticism against it.
Maybe people take a pragmatic "I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it" attitude. Or maybe they have been burned by bad experiences with flickering cathode-ray screens... I don't know and I don't care. I have seen the future.

So: what does the mobile-phone-as-book-reading-device imply for writers?

For starters, any specific medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. (Printed books have many weaknesses, but they've been around for so many hundreds of years that we've become accustomed to the weaknesses.)

The obvious strengths of writing fiction for a mobile phone, of the top off my head, would be:

1. Eliminate the middlemen (editor, bookstore, publisher, printer, distributor, access to PC) - the writer reaches the reader directly and (almost) instantly, even where bookstores are scant or non-available.

2. Instant editing - if you find an error in your text after it's been posted, or think you it needs some on-the-spot editing, you do it right away... and the update reaches the reader immediately.

3. The mobile format is well suited for short fiction - the mobile reader will hardly be able to read through WAR AND PEACE without being interrupted by phonecalls, text-messages and conversations... But if the story is short enough, time won't be an issue.

4. The mobile format is well suited for serials - in the 19th and early 20th century, it was typical of novels to be published as serials (in magazines and newspapers) before they were released as complete print books.
The serial, with its cliffhangers and "To Be Continued"s, could get a renaissance on mobile devices. (Thanks to L. Lee Lowe for the correction.)

Of course, the medium has its weaknesses, but they are not a big problem unless you think of it as just another form of paper books. It is not. When television was new, it took the producers some time to figure out how TV was different from radio. Old TV shows often featured an announcer's voice-over, an old cliché from radio broadcasts.

I think that as people try to figure out how to present fiction on mobile devices, they will go through a phase of repeating clichés from an older medium... and only in retrospect will we see it clearly.
"How silly the first books for phones seem now, what with their digital dust jackets and imaginary page numbers!"

If you have a new phone with a large screen (and a good browser), check out this page...
If you have an older phone model with a small screen, there's a mobile version...
And if you have a phone with a black-and-white screen, buy a new phone.

ADDENDUM: For further study of the logistical and financial problems with distributing fiction magazines in print, read Vic Wertz' fascinating article "Why Amazing Stories and Undefeated died"...
...then tell me again how fantastically superior that system is to electronic distribution.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"The Clockwork Atom Bomb" By Dominic Green

There are plenty of Hugo Award-nominated stories to read for free on the Internet right now, but why not start with this one:

Dominic Green's "The Clockwork Atom Bomb".

I liked it -- though it scared the crap out of me.