What I’ve Learned from Writing Digital Fiction

The first writing I did for the internet was a serialized novel. The title was Ω.

Ω went out on the Guardian’s first, short-lived website, Shift Control, in 1996.

I had a collaborator, Bronwen Davies, who supplied hyperlinked footnotes (often more coherent and entertaining than the text).

The story was a science fiction caper set in NuCal, a futuristic California. (God, how I’d have hated it to be called a ‘caper’ back then.) It was influenced by Mark Leyner, Jeff Noon, Douglas Coupland and what I’d found washed up on the weirder shores of online. Imagine a Day-Glo mess fighting another Day-Glo mess.

The main thing I wanted to do, in terms of moving from paper pages to the screen, was keep the reader reading. This meant I needed to include something like a cliffhanger at the end of every 250 words. (I didn’t want mini-sections to be bigger than the screen itself. No scrolling necessary.)

This gave the whole novel an air of panic. So what I learned was, Adapt but don’t adapt too much.

In 1998, I worked with Pulp Books and three other writers – Darren Francis, James Flint, Penny J Cotton – on BabyLondon.

Here’s the blurb:

BabyLondon is a text-based hyperfiction website written by 4 young London-based authors, with London’s multiplicity as its theme… Britain’s first major hyperfiction site featuring crosslinked narratives, BabyLondon is not technically publishable in book form, as each path through the site is potentially unique with no two readers getting the text in the same order.

The idea of all this, from my side of things, was to steal readers. I wanted see if I could lure readers away from other narratives by putting hypertext links on the most enticing words they contained.

One section of this ended up being published separately as ‘Alphabed’ in Exhibitionism. It’s about a disintegrating couple having the worst imaginable sex. There are 26 sections, to be read randomly.

What I learned: Hypertext is not the future.

By 1999, I decided it was time to start my own website – tobylitt.com – which I’ve been running, in one form or another, ever since. Its first slogan was ‘Thought-heavy, flash-light.’ This later became: ‘“a funny little website” – mysteriously popular on Wednesdays between 11 and 11.30am’. My favourite section was the Askings, in which I requested obscure information. (Those who know my Facebook posts will be familiar with this.)

What I learned: If you ask people interesting enough questions, someone out there will give you the answer.

The most widely-read thing I’ve done online, so far, is We Tell Stories. It was another collaboration, but this time with high-level technical support from games developer Six to Start. This ambitious project ended up winning Best in Show at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Web Awards 2009 in Austin, Texas.

My bit was two blogs and a Twitter feed. I expected the blogs to work best, because they contained The Whole Story, but it was Twitter that took off. (I subsequently did a standalone story on Twitter, setting up an account and tweeting in real time. This is the story ‘Veronika & Roger-Roger’ in Life-Like.)

What I learned: If you’re going to collaborate, do it with people who are better than you are.

The next experiment took me one step closer to A Writer’s Diary. I serialised an unpublished novel, Lilian’s Spell Book, on Wattpad. The response from readers was wonderful. For several months it hung around the top of the Paranormal Fiction chart. It ended up with over 750,000 reads. A novel which had seemed dead-to-the-world was revived.

What I learned: Readers can save a book’s life – and a writer’s, too.

Since then, I’ve serialised a couple more books online. First was Writing and Shit, which went out weekly on my blog. A creative writing manual that started with failed work, abandoned stories, this tried to give some suggestions about how you could get out of the shit. All of this came from painful experience.

What I learned: If it really hurt, you probably learned something from it.

The other standalone book, released in the last year, was How to Tell a Story to Save the World. In this, five screenwriting manuals and a couple of films are anatomized. What effect does all this supercharged heroism have on the climate? How to Tell a Story was serialized on the Writers Rebel website, which I’ve been editing. A pdf of the whole thing can now be downloaded.

What I learned: The more specific you are, the more useful you’re likely to be.

Which brings us to A Writer’s Diary, where I’ve tried to use everything I’ve learned.

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