Writing a Novel "live" on the Internet

When I talk to friends about the idea of writing a novel "live" on the Internet, their response ranges from "A-mazing!" to an adamant, "I’ll never read a book on a computer."

I live surrounded by books. I still welcome my daily Boston Globe. I watch the rising tide of red ink threatening to engulf the presses and look back to a time when I was a young reporter in a hectic city newsroom: never could I have imagined a day when the very existence of newspapers would be moot, not the yellow rags but the great gray ladies of the world.

In less than two decades, the Digital Revolution spurred by the Internet has radically altered the way we communicate in private and in public. Twenty years ago, social networks like My Space, Facebook and Gather where millions of people interact daily did not exist. The idea of a single article generating 10,000 "letters to the editor"was inconceivable, yet we saw this in the last election with comments racked up on some Huffington Post headliners.

Startling as these changes are, Robert Coover suggests we’re in the "silent movie" era of the Digital Age – the early stages of a transition as fundamental as going from writing on parchment scrolls with reed pens to inking text-blocks. An advance that spanned a century and a half, during which medieval copyists existed alongside printers of "good cheap" books.

It’s this idea of transition – lightning fast, by comparison, given the exponential growth of the Web’s reach and application – that underscores my interest in picking up the new web writing tools.

The innovative communities at if:book, Grand Text Auto, MIT Communications Forum and other sites I visit regularly represent the vanguard of change. (See links opposite: "Inspiring Inquiring Intuitive") I’m intrigued by such digital works as Gamer Theory, In Search of Lost Tim, 253, and the squawk of networked fiction on the lines of A Million Penguins.

I love these edgy explorations of digital literacy but I see my friends rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. Baby boomers mostly, they’re the same folks who stood in line for the newest Michener saga with multilayered facets of entertainment and education.

This is where I see potential for transitional works like A Novel of America. I’ve intentionally kept the portal simple with a linear framework highlighting techniques Michener and I employed as seen in my web archives for Covenant and Brazil.

A key difference lies in the wealth of interactive material: blogged working notes, research links, maps, images, books I’m reading. As the work takes shape, I will share plot lines and draft manuscript, all open to comments which I will moderate.

A Novel of America is not a networked book but a writer’s invitation to explore a world as new to me as most of the readers I hope to reach.

Robert Coover’s History of the Future of Narrative

Novelist Robert Coover, a founder of the Electronic Literature Foundation, traces the marvelous story of narrative from the invention of writing in the Bronze Age to the dawn of our own Digital Age – from clay tablet to papyrus and parchment scrolls, and from movable type and printing presses to global hypertext.

In this keynote address at the Electronic Literature in Europe seminar last September, Dr. Coover looks at the Digital Revolution and its impact on those who create books and those who read them. The talk is a short version of a chapter in the forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel. [The editors at Cambridge University Press have graciously granted Coover permission to allow the recording to circulate freely on the Internet on a free, open-access basis.]

A History of the Future of Narrative: Robert Coover from Scott Rettberg on Vimeo.

Timing is Everything...

When James Michener and I finished our two-year stint together on The Covenant he said to me:

You unquestionably have the talent to write almost anything you direct your attention to. You are a great researcher and know how to put words together most skillfully as your work on the manuscript proved. You have also, from what I gleaned in our conversations on the long walks, an acute sense of timeliness in subject matter."

Long before this when outlining a proposed Boston novel, it didn't escape me that while I focused on Boston, my story goes far beyond one city as a glance at the Outline and Working Notes shows: Puritans, Sons of Liberty, China Trade, Sons of Union, Convoy, Boston Common

As I worked I had the idea that I should be looking beyond Boston -- to a story of America.

Michener had been thinking casually about a book on South Africa for years. When the idea became a reality and we hunkered down at his Maryland home, he saw...

"an immense amount of work to be done over the next two working years. The good feeling is that many persons who hear of the project say that they wish it were completed now. This augers well for the timeliness and the gravity; it would be most appropriate if it were in print right now, but I suspect it will be just as timely when and if it finally does appear."

Today, I have the same sense of timeliness about a book on "America."

I see my work on Boston as a good starting point with much of the 17th to mid-18th century well structured. I need extensions to early Virginia/slavery/maybe a Florida/New Orleans angle; and expanded 1776 material. But the Boston location is excellently placed for the core story leading to the early 1800s.

Then I begin moving my families out West. Without having plotted a line, I find Kansas City and some locale in Texas beckoning: Boston Irish-ranchers; the Mexican War; the California Gold Rush, for a start.

The Boston families, Steeles, Tranes, Lynches and Flys will carry the story to the South and West. So, for example, Farrell Lynch’s Irish background and story remains the same except that after landing in Boston he moves on west.

Adam Trane’s line provides the adventurers, the explorers. The Lynch line – Farrell + Malachy, the Water Rat – become the western movers and shakers. The Steeles of Boston remain in the East and via Captain Ben of Houqua fame continue to look outward and non-isolationist.

Nixie Fly's descendants carry the slavery/abolition story – Boston, Kansas, Carolinas – on a bigger canvas than my original Orlando/Boston plotline but walking the same walk.

What I aim for with "America" is a book that will hopefully achieve what one Brazilian, Wilson Martins, saw in my novel, Brazil:

Uys was the first to understand Brazil as an imaginary creation, coherent in its apparent incoherency, organic in its historic development, complimentary in its contradictions and antagonisms, unitary in its differences and obscurely answering to the famous “will of being a nation” that Julien Benda identified as the motivating force in the history of his own country.”

I've decided to leave my Boston working pages on the web and revise them as I go. After all, presenting a draft online involves the same thought that goes on in the attic! -- All the elements that go into the shaping of a novel.

An Attic with a View

Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, is a “new media” visionary. Stein recently distilled thirty years’ work and ideas (and questions) on the if:book blog. Among items that struck a resounding chord:
  • “I haven’t published anything for nearly twelve years because, frankly, I didn’t have a model that made any sense to me. One day when I was walking around London I suddenly realized I did have a model. I joking labeled my little conceptual breakthrough “a unified field theory of publishing.” – In short, the understanding of how a number of different aspects both compliment and contradict each other to make up a dynamic whole in the era of the digital network.

  • The key element running through all these possibilities is the author’s commitment to engage directly with readers. If the print author’s commitment has been to engage with a particular subject matter on behalf of her readers, in the era of the network that shifts to a commitment to engage with readers in the context of a particular subject.

  • This is not to suggest that one size will fit all authors especially during this period of experiment and transition. Some authors will want to lay down a completed text for discussion; others may want to put up drafts in the anticipation of substantial rewriting based on reader input. Other “authors” may be more comfortable setting the terms and boundaries of the subject and allowing others to participate directly in the writing…

  • As networked books evolve, readers will increasingly see themselves as participants in a social process. As with authors, especially in what is likely to be a long transitional period, we will see many levels of (reader) engagement – from the simple acknowledgement of the presence of others to very active engagement with authors and fellow readers.

“One thing I particularly like about this view of the author is that it resolves the professional/amateur contradiction,” adds Stein. “It doesn’t suggest a flat equality between all potential participants; on the contrary it acknowledges that the author brings an accepted expertise in the subject AND the willingness/ability to work with the community that gathers around. Readers will not have to take on direct responsibility for the integrity of the content (as they do in Wikipedia); hopefully they will provide oversight through their comments and participation, but the model can absorb a broad range of reader abilities and commitment.”

I believe in the value of big literary works like Brazil and The Covenant that use good story-telling to entertain and educate. Like Stein, though, I’ve come to question the model.

In two decades following Michener’s breakthrough Hawaii, millions of readers eagerly awaited Jim’s next behemoth. High-brow critics scoffed at a “bricklayer” plastering on facts; Michener’s fans stood in awe of his grasp of the lands and people whose epic he brought home to them.

By the 1990s, the Michener-style novel was rare or presented in such watered-down fashion as to be of no lasting value. The old editors – I think of Albert Erskine and Herman Gollob, who made the long march through Brazil with me – laid down their pencils. Publishers and agents lost interest in the genre. Even less appealing was the idea of funding the fieldwork critical to planning and writing an epic.

Then came the Internet moving with lightning speed to a point where a multi-layered Web-based book project like A Novel of America becomes feasible. It also portends a paradigm shift in the roles of author/reader/editor/publisher, as Bob Stein suggests:

“An old-style formulation might be that publishers serve the packaging and distribution of an author’s ideas. A new formulation might be that publishers and editors contribute to building a community that involves an author and a group of readers who are exploring a subject."

Abandoning the “attic” to write in public is a radical change for me that brings exciting opportunities and real challenges. I see A Novel of America as an exploration of creativity that seeks to bridge the old and the new; taking a page from the past to work on a book of the future.

Why Amazon's Kindle is a Marvel

As an editor and writer who saw his first published story set in hot metal, I marvel at Amazon's Kindle reader and its role in the future of the "printed" word.

No traditional book can offer the interactive platform I've created for the Kindle edition of my novel Brazil or open the door to actively sharing the magic that goes into the making of a monumental novel.

Linked to the e-text is a unique and free online guide with more than 200 images and illustrations, providing an indispensable companion on a fictional journey through five hundred years of Brazilian history.

Captions drawn from the narrative enhance a reader's sense of time and place:

Arací painted Tajira's face with lines of red urucu dye. Then she helped him put on a headdress crowned with the brilliant red and blue feathers of Macaw...
"We ask God to forgive the sins committed against the human rights and dignity of the Indians, the first inhabitants of this land, and the blacks who were brought to this country as slaves..."Pataxo, Xavante, Nambikwara, Yananomi and Indians from all over Brazil listened solemnly by the sands of Coroa Vermelha, as descendants of the discoverers asked forgiveness for the sins and errors of five centuries.
There was no Tupiniquin to hear the apologia.

I've also linked the Kindle Illustrated Guide to Brazil to an archive of my working notes, plus a journal kept on a four-month 20,000-kilometer trek across Brazil. What better way for the reader-explorer of an epic as vast as Brazil to discover a totally new and original world beyond stereotypes of samba and Carnival!

Were Gutenberg here to see the Kindle, he would have one word to say: "Bravo!"

[Don't have a Kindle yet? - You can access the Guide online at my website. Note: Kindle's browser currently displays images in b&w.]