By Matt Richtel
You might remember the novel in its earlier form. It had such staples as a cover that held many pages printed on paper; forethought of plot; editors and agents weighing in; and, oh yes, it generally had sentences and punctuation. And, finally, some poor suckers had to take the time out of their busy days to actually read it.
Who has time for all those niceties? They're so first half of 2008.
Introducing the Twiller.
Recently, a handful of creators (present company included) have scrapped pen and paper for mobile phone and keypad, and started texting their novels—in real time, just a few characters at a time. Our medium is Twitter, a service that lets you broadcast bursts of 160 characters at a time to be read by people who subscribe to get your updates.
Not surprisingly, the concept first caught on Japan, given the even bigger role technology and gadgets play there in daily life. Cell-phone-centric novels have been a big hit-creating bestsellers, as The New York Times reportedback in January.
In my case, for the last two months, I've been using Twitter to write a real-time thriller. Hence: Twiller.
My story is about a man who wakes up with in the mountains of Colorado, suffering from amnesia, a haunting feeling he is a murderer, and possessing only of a cell phone that lets him Twitter. He uses the device to tell his story of self-discovery, 140 characters at a time. Think the film Memento on a mobile phone, with the occasional emoticon.
The story hit something of a crescend last week at the Democratic National Convention, where the protagonist is connecting the dots in a mystery that, it is growing clear, involves the party brass, a dead DC Madam, and a strange medical twist that has our protagonist charged with a murder he only half-committed. (You'd have to read it to see what I mean). At point, a high-end prostitute absconds with his phone and manages to get in a few Twitters of her own.
Is this a novel? A novelty? Or, just maybe (we writers can be so high-falutin') a bigger sign of the times?
I tend to think it's a sign.
Thrillers are among the hottest genres in publishing. One reason, I'm pretty sure, is they're easy to get into and get through. But even within that context, they are becoming faster reads: short chapters and hookish endings mean you can barely finish reading one twist before the next turn is upon you. I know this first-hand from writing a thriller that came out last year called Hooked, which had chapters often less than 1,500 words long. In short: A Freakin' Eternity! (This Twiller has a few deliberate connections to Hooked, but I'm loath to mention them for fear of divulging anything to the few readers paying close enough attention to care)
On a philosophical level, I guess you could say the Twiller is an experiment in short attention-span literature. Writers and readers are busy. We're simultaneously texting, driving, talking, blogging, and holding down personal relationships. When it comes to literature, it seems like we're commitment-phobes—we simply don't have the (forgive me) bandwith to write or read a novel. The Twiller is, in this respect, a sign of the times: a reductio ad absdurdum of the one medium that is supposed to be bitten into, tasted, and swirled around in the mouth before being swallowed.
Plus, it's a short story with a proverbial "long tail," albeit a short long tail. Only about four hundred people are reading the story—a few get added every few days. It's whatever the opposite of "mass market" is. Apropos our digital age, these readers are experiencing the thing in real time instead of bedtime, whenever a moment to read hits. (Some of them are even responding to the story in real time. Periodically, a "tweader" responds to a plot twist with a suggestion, such as one response recently that suggested what highway the protagonist should take to get to Washington, D.C., to avoid traffic.)
I recognize some of what I've just written is not just heretical and exaggerated, but absurd. The twiller is no replacement for a meaty, thoughtful story with characters who develop and evolve, and that is worth every penny and second of investment on the part of the reader. That said, if you want to see what I'm penning ("twenning?"), visit twitter.comand sign up for the feed of "mrichtel." And for a plot summary of these last three months, visit my personal site,click on "blog" and read "plot summary."
Finally, this is a story in the spirit of the long tradition of marrying muse to medium. People once serialized stories for magazines, for instance. The medium here channels a muse who writes in truncated syntax, concise ideas, and who is not a huge fan of traditional punctuation.
So there you have it...an experiment in using the technology that has become a staple in the lives of the digerati. I invite you to peek in, or, better yet, start your own twiller. Someday, someone with forethought of plot, command of concise ideas, the truncated syntax of the 21st century—and tiny typing thumbs—will text a masterpiece.