Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 5: Brainstorm toward the new


For people who make a living, or at least have the talent for, creating worlds from nothing but the contents of their heads, fiction writers today are taking the easy route. Writers are often lauded for their fresh characters, situations, settings, and great dialogue, but while these have always been the mainstay of new fiction, they don’t usually bring about a paradigm shift.

Where will the next paradigm come from? How will it emerge in the context of a paralyzed industry and a self-publishing wave focused on genre writing?

Let’s brainstorm. The first thing I start thinking about in terms of something new is how to mash up two or more elements/approaches/media. It’s not unreasonable now to think in terms of multimedia treatment of fiction, as a matter of fact, and there have been some attempts at ebooks with a variety of graphics, music clips, videos, and interactivity that make for an entirely new experience. Like I mentioned earlier, the ebook allows for plenty of options, yet one huge drawback is the expense of adding these materials to a “book.” The concept quickly becomes a production rather than a manuscript, so that the writer will need an art director, a designer, a music coordinator, a rights manager, and, probably, actors to put together a product that doesn’t feel shabby. That means a big budget. That means fundraising, Kickstarter campaigns, pounding the pavement for contributors, investing as much in the infrastructure of the thing as in its creation.

Yet, there could be something less elaborate instead, which might use images and other kinds of graphics that are not so hard to produce. Our culture is becoming more visual by the day, it seems, so that attracting a new audience to this kind of reading wouldn’t be difficult.

But there are other kinds of mash-ups that are possible, and perhaps we’re already seeing some of that in literary fiction. More and more novels incorporate snippets of emails, texts, and other kinds of “source” documents that writers use to move the plot rather than the traditional scene. The journal has been a long-time tool for novelists, allowing the insertion of first-person segments within a third-person narrative (see Town Father, for example), but use of emails lets us see how a character is presenting herself to a particular person, to compare her approaches to different people, and to read between the lines of her emails in contrast to her dialogue. Characters can become more multidimensional this way.

There’s already been at least one novel written in nothing but email exchanges (The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot, Avon Books) — an epistolary novel for modern times. Tweets, text messages, Facebook entries, and other electronic footprints are popping up a lot in fiction as technologies evolve.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline shows, too, that autobiography is fast becoming the fuel of modern fiction as the writer’s persona is actually the thing being sold, possibly more than the books themselves. There will probably soon be ebooks in which the writer features selfies, short videos, sound clips, photographs of settings — any variety of elements that would help support the text — giving the reader what feels like a one-on-one glimpse into the writer’s life. Of course, the art of fiction is to take autobiography and smear it with the paint of creativity, so that what seems like autobiography is really a well-designed, only half-true narrative. The multi-media approach makes it seem more real, even though it’s mainly fabricated.

Like many writers, I often collect photographs and songs that relate to my work-in-progress. Why not plunk some of these into the electronic text, where, especially if the author took the picture, enhancing the reader’s experience need not cost very much. Songs are another matter, obviously, since reproduction rights are horrendously expensive. They do help to plunge the writer into the time and place of a book though, like my own developing project set in the summer of ‘73. My ongoing playlist includes Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, The Moody Blues, Wings, and a Hoagy Carmichael flashback to 1946, “Ol’ Buttermilk Sky.”

Ambient sounds from the world of the book — say a street scene — could also be recorded by the writer and used like the soundtrack of a Ken Burns documentary, for instance, providing a subtle foundation for the scene. Snippets of speech, maybe voices that seem to be having the conversation the reader is seeing dialogue, would make the moment seem authentic in a way that plain text can’t.

In a way, this kind of approach would be a throwback to the old CD-ROMs of the ‘90s. They seemed like a nice idea at the time, but the technology wasn’t developed enough to make them a seamless or convenient experience. Producers didn’t appear to consider them a good medium for fiction either. Instead, they came to be seen as a way to deliver niche material to enthusiasts of whatever stripe: home-brewers, movie buffs, comic book collectors, vintage TV fans. But the idea of images and other media used in concert with text is certainly still a viable way to extend the appeal of fiction. Creativity allows for experimentation, though it will probably happen first in the indie world rather than in traditional publishing.

A backlash to the ebook is also possible, causing a resurgence of limited-edition texts that are as much art objects as books. I can remember the impression made by the Griffin & Sabine series twenty years ago — compelling narratives but also remarkable conversation pieces. Each volume had a fascinating array of hidden artifacts: letters tucked into envelopes, real stamps, postcards, all seemingly handwritten by the characters. There’s no doubt that something like that would be prohibitively expensive today for an indie writer, and might be seen as nothing but a novelty. But the idea is to find ways to make the world inhabited by the characters overlap with the one we live in. The reader gets an immersive experience, a place to poke around in instead of being strictly led through by the usual rules of narrative.


© 2016 by Kevin Brennan


16 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 5: Brainstorm toward the new

  1. islandeditions
    January 15, 2016

    Or authors could forego print and eBook formats altogether and use the new social media to tell their stories, as has Reading Recommendations-promoted Canadian author, Arjun Basu, by writing what he calls “twisters”. Here is is from his website telling how this came about: In October of 2009, I heard about Twitter and being the curious sort, checked it out. And then for whatever reason, I wrote a “short story” – and that story came in at over 140 characters. And while editing it down, I realized something about the possibilities inherent in the limitations Twitter imposes on all of us. That first story came in at exactly 140 characters. I thought perhaps this was a new form and so I gave it a name: Twisters. And all of my stories since then, now numbering in the thousands, are 140 characters.

    On the Twisters Page of his blog you may read all these he has “published” on Twitter. http://arjunbasu.com/

    And since Arjun began doing this, I’ve heard that Japanese students are writing novels through texting on their phones.

    Different methods and mediums, but still telling a story.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 15, 2016

      I just read a bunch of Arjun’s Twisters and love them! It’s a great idea, and I like the almost haiku-like sensibility they have.

      Obviously they lack a lot of elements of real “story.” They’re more like little prose poems with irony and humor, yet they definitely imply a story, which you’re free to fill in as you like, I guess.

      If social media weren’t so “me”-oriented, I’d say there’s a lot of potential here. Arjun has a lot of followers on Twitter (I just followed myself!), but I’m wondering if his Twisters have gained him a following for his other writing.

      Someone’s going to come up with a great new thing in one of these media. Can’t wait to see how it all goes!

  2. John W. Howell
    January 15, 2016

    All very interesting and food for thought. I think the next big thing needs to come from someone who is removed for the current big thing. Might be someone who can’t read.

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    January 17, 2016

    Reminds me of the inadequately titled “S.” by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst, also known as Ship of Theseus, although that’s the title of the book-within-a-book. It’s an interesting artifact, but was a small nightmare to catalogue and process for library circulation (I work in a library). Figures that a film director should create something like this.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2016

      How did I miss that one? Sounds interesting and definitely the kind of thing that pushes boundaries.

  4. Vonclair
    January 17, 2016

    This has been very fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through these, it got me thinking, and that’s never a bad thing.
    Cheers, to me, cheers to you and cheers to good stories!

  5. 1WriteWay
    January 21, 2016

    I’m enough of a Luddite to not want multimedia ebooks (or at least, I’m not likely to purchase them). I had a subscription for a brief time to Atavist magazine, but the time it took to download the stories and other technological hurdles (because, you know, I’m usually a bit behind in the currency of software) was enough to make me kill the subscription. That said, I took a glance through Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and almost laughed out loud at the PowerPoint slides she had included in the novel. I’ve had to tell “stories” with PowerPoint for work so I definitely appreciated Egan’s use of it for her novel. Maybe I’m too lazy, but I don’t like experiments for the sake of experiments. If including music or emails or photos enhances the story, then great. But not-so-great if the author is just trying to show how clever he/she is.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 21, 2016

      I do think it’s fraught, though I’d like to see what someone could do with it. Multi-media would always have to suit the story. If it’s gratuitous, it’s just a gimmick, but I can imagine a clever writer finding a way to pull it off.

      I think David Byrne did something with PowerPoint a few years back. Another stamp of approval!

      • 1WriteWay
        January 21, 2016

        And then there’s the idea that Life isn’t just words on a page, but full of sounds, smells, sights. A multimedia novel could leave a reader feeling as if she did literally walk in that character’s shoes.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 21, 2016

        I’m waiting for the first Scratch-n-Sniff novel…

      • 1WriteWay
        January 21, 2016

        I knew you were going to say that 😉

  6. cinthiaritchie
    January 22, 2016

    I’m so behind. I can’t seem to catch up to these posts but I’m slowly working my way through (like trying to keep up with reading issues of “The New Yorker,” lol).

    But as far as the post, I think it’s going to be soon impossible, or almost impossible, to write a novel set in the present without including emails, texts, Snapchat exchanges, etc., especially YA novels. The online experience has become such a large part of our lives that it can’t help but blend inside our writings.

    I love the idea of novel mash-ups (like those songs from “Glee,” hee, hee). Also love the idea of including illustrations, recipes, photographs, diary entries, etc.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 23, 2016

      You know all about recipes in novels! But I do like the idea of approaching characters through all kinds of communications. They each reveal something unique. We’re probably not far off technically from actual YouTube vids or Skype conversations being plugged into ebooks. And after that, holograms popping up off the page!

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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