There’s nothing more obnoxious than that writing teacher who loves to talk about their own work in class. It smacks of something desperate, but in the creative writing for new media course I teach at the University of Iowa I confess I do share some of my work with my students, shamelessly. Yes: I’m that guy. My intention is never to show off the bells and whistles of my new media thesis (though I confess I do derive some joy from showing them the possibilities of the form. Look, kids, music! Text effects! Interaction!) but rather to investigate intimately, critically, and honestly, the still-nascent craft issues that one runs into when diving into the deep end of new media writing for the first time, an experience I attest can quickly become overwhelming.
It’s useful to approach the production of my first online project, IN SEARCH OF: A SANDBOX NOVEL together with my students first – speaking as a traditional writer with no coding skills and very little new media know-how – in order to give them a crash course in the problems that may arise in their own work very soon. I’m able to articulate precisely the kind of things that most traditional writers need never concern themselves with, for with new media not only are you dealing with the traditional trappings of storytelling (dialogue, setting, scene, point of view, etc.), there is an entirely new galaxy of problems: visual, kinetic, and aural components to consider.
So, consider this your crash course. If you’d like to play along, visit www.insearchofthenovel.com. Click on the ‘first time reading’ link at the top. Take some time to explore, or don’t. When you’re done, come back here. All the myriad problems on the checklist will soon make sense, and in the end either you’ll be won over by the potential of new media lit, supremely frustrated, or just plain unimpressed. In any case, here are some problems you may or may not encounter when it comes to new media writing. (Here are the problems I definitely encountered while writing IN SEARCH OF.)
- NEW MEDIA LIT AS OBLIGED TO JUSTIFY ITS EXISTENCE AS NEW MEDIA LIT
Every story is always obligated to justify its form, but this obligation is considerably magnified when placed in the digital realm. Many traditional readers are already biased, seeing new media as nothing more than a genre of gimmicks, flash, and flourish. Be prepared for most readers to be merciless and vigilant in judging your work. This is the albatross of new media. There’s no way around it. Make damn sure there is sufficient internal logic, whether emotionally or thematically or musically or linguistically, for the form the work ultimately takes. Form should mirror content, and not all stories are meant to live in new media land.
- NEW MEDIA LIT’S INSISTENCE ON A PRIMER
All stories are obliged to instruct the reader how to read the story from the get-go, but more so when it comes to new media lit. We all know how to read a book: Up to down, left to right. Flip page. First to last. Shut book. This is the default. But this isn’t necessarily the case with new media, which can move in all kinds of strange directions. Readers unaccustomed to nonlinear modes of reading will undoubtedly require an instruction manual. For example, like Julio Cortázar’s counter-novel Hopscotch which features an author’s note on how best to read it, IN SEARCH OF too (which I’ll refer to as ISO from now on) features a whole page of instructions on how to read it. (‘First time reading’.) I have to take the time to explain the difference between yellow links and red links. I have to explain there are secret links you can click that aren’t so easy to find. I have to explain there are optional soundtracks. At a time when 20% of viewers will abandon watching a video within 10 seconds and 60% won’t make it to the end if it’s more than 2 minutes, that’s a lot to ask of modern readers. There is simply too much stimuli out there to compete with. I have to be prepared to lose a majority of readers before they even click the first key.
- THE QUITE POSSIBLE IMPERMANENCE OF NEW MEDIA LIT
At the staggering rate that technology develops (especially if you subscribe to Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns), you have to be prepared that your work may be obsolete in a few years’ time. Even if it is not literally lost as websites go down, New Media Lit is especially vulnerable to tidal waves of progress that are likely to leave your site looking antiquated and visually dated. Take ISO, for example. My decision to utilize links to YouTube has come back to bite me several times already as users casually delete their videos, leaving readers clicking on URLs to nowhere.
- NEW MEDIA LIT AS WEAPON OF MASS DISTRACTION (AND DISRUPTION OF THE CONTINIOUS DREAM)
Speaking of competing with alternate avenues of stimuli, new media lit’s convenient location online presents a problem: it’s online. This means readers will probably have three to five tabs open while reading ISO, simultaneously checking their emails, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, IMDB, not to mention their cellphones, doorbells, and blaring televisions in the background with which to contend. If you subscribe to the notion that the experience of reading a book should be like getting lost in and remaining locked inside a continuous dream, then new media lit is automatically at a disadvantage. It’s simply too easy to get distracted online. My answer to this was to openly invite this behavior of the reader by utilizing external links within the novel, thereby making it a commentary on the nature of intercommunication, but even with modern readers’ enhanced ability for multimodal processing there is such a thing as stimulation overload.
- THE TRANSITION TROUBLE WITH NEW MEDIA LIT
As difficult as it can be to pull off a seamless transition in a traditional story it can be three times as problematic in a new media work. In a way, if your work is employing hyperlinks, some of the hardest work of writing can be seemingly alleviated, since you can simply jump inside someone else’s consciousness with one swift, efficiently placed hyperlink. The problem with this is that readers aren’t used to this type of transition, and it takes some intuition and occasionally some detective work to figure out whose consciousness you’ve suddenly entered. It sometimes involves going back to the last page and taking note of exactly which word or phrases are hyperlinked. In ISO, readers in my workshop reported considerable confusion figuring out whose point of view they were inhabiting from one entry to the next. Part of this confusion was intentional, but a lot of it wasn’t and just resulted in frustration and unwelcome tension for the reader (there is good tension and bad tension in fiction – the inability to figure out whose point of view you’re in definitely counts as bad tension). In short, a jarring transition in traditional fiction can be a breakneck-whiplash transition in new media fiction.
- NEW MEDIA LIT AS INCIDENTAL OUROBOROS
For some new media projects, like ISO, the decision to make it a sandbox novel in order to encourage a kind of exploration and playfulness means relinquishing a profound degree of authorial control unto the reader. Traditional stories are constructed painstakingly as to manage pace and tension – like a rope slackened or pulled taut at will from one page to the next. This degree of control is forfeited with something like ISO, since readers choose in which order they experience the events of the novel. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even consider how problematic this construction was when it came to ending it. I remember the night I submitted the project to my workshop peers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Throughout the evening I began to receive one email after the next with the same question: How will I know when it ends? My reply: when you feel you’ve exhausted every avenue. (This was before I built an index for the novel, which helps considerably I think.) In the end, I decided to embrace the limitations of the story’s construction. The absence of an ending would come to serve as an additional commentary on the modern readers’ addiction to the internet but more importantly as a symbol of Maximilian’s inability to escape his shame – the emotional cul-de-sacs of memory we are sometimes unable to move past and put behind us.
- THE MARGINALIZATION OF MARGINS IN NEW MEDIA LIT
As much as I enjoy new media lit, there is still something about holding a tactile book in my hands and being able to jot notes in the margins and underline phrases. This is the sacred right of any reader, and though it’s possible to jot notes in a word doc for new media works I agree it’s not as pure as putting pen to the page and making a book one’s own with secret ramblings and meaningful trails of ink stains.
- NEW MEDIA LIT AND THE MYTH OF COMMERCIAL VIABILITY
The fact is there is a print industry primed to publish and manufacture books and to date there isn’t one in place to offer writers the incentive to produce new media projects. I will never make money off of ISO, and this I accept. It was a story I wanted to tell and my ability to utilize certain resources meant making it a not-for-profit work. Every year we are moving more toward a new media-friendly society, with stories in the form of cell phone apps and whatnot. As the nature of reading and stories change through the generations so will the skills required of its storytellers.
- NEW MEDIA LIT AS STILL FAIRLY UNPUBLISHABLE
Last but not least, to date I haven’t been able to find a proper home for ISO in any online literary journal, though not for lack of trying. Though it’s generated some interest from a few editors, in the end they all apologized and let me down softly, claiming they can’t do much with it since technically it’s already published as an external site. And with no way to conceivably publish it, it’s been pretty much impossible to market. You, dear readers, may be the only one ever to see it.
These are just a few of the things to consider when tackling a new media project, or perhaps problems to be solved. Though it’s been out there for a while, lurking, waiting for its champions, new media writing is still very much an emerging genre that may never emerge. In the future, who knows whether or not writers will be equal parts wordsmith and equal parts multimedia wizard. It’s still too early to tell, but one thing is for sure: there is a certain thrill to working in new media that justifies the pursuit in spite of its undeniable frustrations.