Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Brave New Story

Sharon Wildwind

This week instead of ending with a quote, I’d like to begin with one.

“If I could have a book at a publisher right now, to be printed today and in the stores tomorrow, it would be about a vampire detective who must battle terrorist to retrieve some stolen ancient relics that disappeared during a greenhouse-related weather incident. Perhaps it could only be more timely if it all could be blamed on [an American presidential candidate].”
~Gary Warren Niebuhr, librarian, Milwaulkee, Wisconsin

When I read that quote last month, a shock passed through my body. It wasn’t the plot that stunned me. I thought the premise sounded cool. It was the phrase “to be printed today and in the stores tomorrow.”

The traditional wisdom given to new writers has been, “It will take three to five years from the day you sit down to begin a book until it is published. We have no idea what the fiction fad will be in five years, so write what’s in your heart. Write what you know best. Write it well and worry about publishing later.”

It is possible to write a good book in a very short time. Say three days. You may already know about the International Three-Day Novel Contest, held every September for thirty years. Writers who enter are allowed to come to the contest with notes and an outline, but not a single written word of the actual story. Beginning at one minute past midnight on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and running until midnight on the Monday of that weekend, the writers write. The winner is published. And yes, it is possible to turn out a good book in three days. I had two friends who won the contest several years ago.

Technology now over-exists—if over-exists isn’t a word, I’m inventing it on the spot—to do just the opposite. We are ripe, as advertisements for dramatic nineteen-fifties B-movies claimed, for stories ripped from the pages of today’s newspapers. If I can invent a word on the spot, why couldn’t I invent a story as well?

Suppose that when I turned on my computer every morning, Google delivered to me a list of Internet postings related to search words I’d previously selected. I’d scan the news stories, blog postings, and other relevant material and, for several hours each morning, I’d translate real-life material into fiction. It might be a short story, or the next chapter of a serialized novel.

It wouldn’t have to be just words. I could insert links in my story to the non-fiction sources I used, or set up a side-bar that contained related videos, a chat room, a blog, a character web site, and so on, so that you could get the full multi-media, participatory experience.

Around noon, I’d publish. You might download what I’d written to your Kindle or have a subscription so that when you came home from work in the evening, you’d have an e-mail that would say something like, “Click here” to read Episode 27.

I might even let you vote. Do you want Tyrone to be a bad guy or a good guy? Should Melanie take the job offer or not? Is the cryptic message on Mrs. Osgood’s voice mail a clue or a red herring? Vote now and influence the way tomorrow’s episode runs.

What about if you didn’t like the way the story was running? Could you and a few of your friends break away and form a rival stream, taking the story in a totally different direction? If I were a smart writer, I wouldn’t try to stop you. Instead, I’d charge you a licensing fee to use my characters and give you my blessings to sharecrop. I might even set up writing workshops so you would understand my world, and how to write for it.

While thinking about all of this, the unanswered question I came up with was does “story” have to gel? Or brew? Or stew? Or rise? Or whatever word you choose to mean you put the raw facts in one end, and they sit there for a while so that the ingredients can interact with one another, like they do in bread or beer or wine or cheese or any of those foods that take a while to form.

The very first time I made bread, I was impatient. I’d produced a bread-like dough that nicely filled a single bread pan. What was this nonsense about kneading it, letting it rise, punching it down, letting it rise again, shaping it, and giving it a final rising? Four hours to make bread? Don’t be ridiculous. It looked ready to go, so I put it in the oven.

The problem was that the recipe was for four loaves, not one, and what I got out of the oven was a two-pound loaf. It was so dense that when I put it out for the birds to eat, their puny beaks couldn’t break off a single crumb. Four years later, when I moved from that house, most of the loaf was still in the backyard, now rounded into a mound and covered with moss. For all I know, it's still there today.

So yes, flash fiction is possible. But is it a good idea?

Oh, if you’re interested in learning more about the Three-Day Novel contest, or perhaps entering it this year, applications will be taken some time in the spring. The web site for the contest is


Julia Buckley said...

Very interesting, Sharon! I think the 3 day novel contest sounds fun--but I also think that in the past I've sometimes written the equivalent of that moss-covered loaf in your yard. ;0

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I have that moss-covered loaf of bread in the backyard--and several mysteries I wrote too fast and didn't revise enough in the drawer.

Anonymous said...

I think we all have that loaf hanging around somewhere. It's my firm belief that you can't force writing or bread dough into submission.

It's disconcerting sometimes to realize what technology gives us the capabilities of doing so poorly.

Anonymous said...

I am amused that you've managed to describe what's both the greatest strength and weakness of online fanfiction fandom. Still, in the middle of much-celebrated instantaneous interactivity (I've been reading too much academic fandom analysis) there are plenty of people who cling to old-fashioned storytelling, complete with editors and rewrites (and long, long, long gaps between installments). Sometimes the old ways are still definitely the best one.