Friday, September 4, 2009

Three To Watch

Yesterday I asked if you could name some people who "live outside of the lines". Here are some of the people I see who are doing intriguing and risky things with their fiction, three authors who are (for better or worse) moving beyond the traditional definition of the novel. People whose innovative ideas will get across better than anything I can tell you about how crucial it has become for us to look beyond our imaginary walls -- to think outside the box. These are three people moving beyond the traditional definition of the book and taking full advantage of all that digital filmaking, websites and computer downloads can offer...
  1. John Green is a young adult author I've mentioned here before. He writes smart fiction that challenges young readers and has the most loyal fanbase I've ever seen, mostly through the video blogging he does on YouTube. Green's a case study in so-called "Platform Building". That's innovative enough, but he is also re-defining what the novel is. John created something called This Is Not Tom, which is a novel posted for free on the website I just linked to, but in order to read it you have to solve a series of increasingly-difficult riddles and visual puzzles. The novel is free. But you have to solve a bunch of very difficult riddles in order to read it. So much of the writing trade is supposed to be about making it easier and easier for the reader to get through the book. Green is imposing obstacles between the reader and the book and it's working. As his story grows in astonishing directions, the readers are hooked and word is spreading. And at this point all I know is that that guy... well, he's not Tom.
  2. Anthony Zuiker, creator of the hit television show(s) "CSI" is setting his creative sights on multimedia novels. "Zuiker said people's attention span was becoming shorter and shorter and that it was important to give people more options on how they consumed entertainment and books." (Reuters) I fear that this is a self-inflicted ailment and I'm not sure he's necessarily right when the younger generation of readers got their taste for the printed word by hefting the cinderblocks that JK Rowling calls novels. Regardless of the attention-span issue, Zuiker is making intriguing use of all the technological tools available to him and is betting that through shear audio/visual moxie, he can tell a compelling story that people will want to read and see. A story that crosses the bridge from just being a printed block of paper by having readers visit a website every twenty pages and typing a code into the site to view the next film clip related to the novel. How this all ties together and how the codes will be presented remains to be seen. I should hope by some logical storytelling mechanism they are inserted into the storyline.
  3. Cory Doctorow. If you read Writer's Digest, there's a great interview with Cory this month that sort of outlines his philosophy and his view of how the novel is unfolding. While he's not writing novels in four dimensions like Green, Cory is a force in the movement to unleash the novel from the staid traditions of his forebears.. All of Cory's publishing contracts include the rights to distribute his works under a Creative Commons license for free download. Yes, as the books are selling on the store shelves, Cory is also giving them away. Your mother told you that if you give away the milk, they'll never buy the cow? Cory says your momma is wrong. In a move that essentially treats the electronic book as a marketing tool rather than a product, Doctorow is gambling that the people who read it for free will like the milk enough to come back and buy the cow. And so far he's right.
I don't know that any of these guys are necessarily right. I commonly tag these posts with "technophobia" because in some ways, that's exactly what's keeping a lot of us from doing what these three are doing. John Green's riddle novel is compelling, but is working in part because he has a devoted fanbase of self-proclaimed nerds who are willing to unravel the story rather than have it just laid out for them. All the same, he displays a deft hand with his subject, his format and his fans that we could all learn from. Zuiker's "digi-book" looks a little gimmicky from here, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of my time. If nothing else, we know he's capable of spinning a good story and he has always displayed a finely-tuned sense of his technologies. Cory Doctorow is as much an activist as he is a novelist. Much like Green, he enjoys a certain 'geek cache' and a devoted following of readers who make his business plan functional. Maybe the real lesson all of these guys are teaching us is how far you can stretch once you've created an audience that is willing to follow you down the rabbit hole. Or perhaps they are simply showing us that the walls that exist between page and screen are as imaginary as Les Nessman's office walls and we all need to be ready to write in a new cross between the two formats.


  1. I keep hearing about John Green, but haven't read his work yet--and I write YA! I just added him to my list of must reads.

    Somoene who thinks outside the box? How about Brian Selznick? Check out THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET and you'll see why. It's a novel, but the illustrations help tell the story like a picture book. He's brilliant--and a hilarious speaker.

    By the way, I plugged your blog yesterday--and stole one of your topics. Well, I didn't really STEAL it. I borrowed it. ;)

  2. Thanks for the plug! And i like where you took it. Everything I write here if fair game for expansion and comment.

    I do like Selznick's books. Interesting, I hadn't really considered the intersection of the graphic novel (or picture book) and the so-called 'standard' novel. Early readers and YA novels have been pushing that envelope recently. The Spiderwick Chronicles had a large contribution from the illustrator as well.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).