Monday, 18 December 2017

Your Muse sent you a Message . . .

Earlier this month, I was helping out with some gardening and as usual I left my mobile phone in my pocket. For some reason - probably due to the heat, my posture or both - my phone's screen cracked and the touchscreen stopped working right. I tried resetting it, but the screen went black. My phone . . . was dead.
R.I.P. Samsung Galaxy S5, 27/09/16 ― 08/12/17
But, I need a phone, so I went and bought a new one. It has some useful features, it has a bit more space and a faster CPU and it even comes with an app called Samsung Smart Switch, so I could move all of my old applications and data onto my new phone. However, when I first started using the phone, I did not know this, so I was just downloading new apps and games.

When I was looking for games for my phone, I wanted to get something new, since I had a bit more space on this phone, and in my search I found a collection of apps all with the same basic idea. They were databases for stories written in the style of an Instant Messenger program - in particular, Facebook Messenger, an app that many people have on their phone. This style intrigued me . . .
I don't "do" subscriptions, since it seems like a waste of money to me, but I accessed the free trial subscriptions for several of these apps, including Hooked, Tap, Cliffhanger & Seen so that I could see what the big deal was. Ultimately, it wasn't what I was expecting, but I figured it was perfect to write a blog post about. I'll get to the specifics of those apps in a moment, but first I want to talk about electronic literature in general.

When it comes to literature, fiction and writing, there are some amazing ways to read and to write. And, when you throw in the modern world with modern media and electronics, you get even more. For starters, I'm aware of some amazing ways that basic chat programs have been used in fiction.
To begin with, in the book John Dies at the End, there is a part of the story where, to show how powerful the big, bad monster is, the main characters read a transcript of a chat program with several people who are friends with one of the victims of the main story's conflict, and it just . . . I won't spoil it except to say that it does not exist in the Film of the Book, so even if you've seen the film, I still think you need to check out the original story for this one, it's rather well done.
Chat programs seem to lend themselves quite well to horror in fiction. I remember Noah Antwiler (aka 'Spoony') talking about Renraku Arcology: Shutdown, an RPG story setting that used in-world transcripts of chat programs for world-building, and because the characters involved were all top-shelf hackers it showed just how corrupt and dangerous the world was becoming.
I can also remember A Series of Poor Decisions, also known as "The Twitter Song", which used the "Newest First" layout from Twitter to inspire a song whose narrative was sung in reverse order. Unfortunately, the original video seems to be missing, so the only version I found online was on the Russian social media site VK.com, and the original CareWhatIThink Twitter profile still exists, but the song is worth checking out.
Speaking of Twitter, I have to mention a book I saw in my local bookstore called Twitterature. Written by Alexander Aciman & Emmett Rensin, this retells classic literature, through tweets, written from the viewpoint of the main character or other relevant characters. Of course it's very silly, since it tells stories like Beowulf, Dracula & Hamlet even though Twitter clearly didn't exist back then and uses a very crude vocabulary. Personally, I didn't like the way it was done, but it's an interesting idea nonetheless.
Also, one of my favourites is Digital: A Love Story. an indie visual novel where you play the main character and control the game through his computer. The story is told through e-mails with the love interest and by searching different websites. I haven't played in a while, but I found the story very enjoyable. Also, the game is available online, for free at the creator's website.

Different technologies have inspired all kinds of different stories and recently I've discovered one of the newest kind to join the gang, the aforementioned chat story.
Unfortunately, unlike "twitterature" or "electronic literature", chat stories don't have a cool name. Well, not yet . . .
Personally, I like the idea of calling them immemoirs. See, a memoir is a form of writing that memorializes experiences of the past from one person's perspective. Similarly, these chat stories tend to have one fixed perspective, but because it's fictional (therefore not written from memory) it's immemorial. Also, as these are written with chat programs and instant-messaging programs, also known as "I.M. programs" the title reflects how these are I.M.-memoirs. Well, I thought it was pretty clever. Unfortunately, it hasn't caught on yet, but maybe I can encourage others to utilize it.
In fact, let's make that our Word of the Day: 'IMMEMOIR'

Immemoir /i'memwah/ n. 1. A piece of fictitious writing which emulates the style of an instant messaging program, or SMS messages. 2. A work of fiction written within an instant messaging program. Also, Epistolary novel.

As a writer, I am intrigued by the potential of these immemoirs, but as a reader, so far, I've been left wanting. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't be this excited about this style if I didn't see something in those originally stories that I found inspiring. However, there were niggling issues that prevented me from truly enjoying the original immemoirs that I've read.
I won't reveal the titles, since I don't want to name and shame a bunch of writers who are trying to find their feet in a new medium, but the first story I read had a plothole involving blood in a bathroom sink, and the second one had issues with formatting, since it had a character talking to two different people in two different phone conversations, despite both appearing on the same screen.
Most unfortunate of all is that some of the apps involved included some features which totally ruined the story. On several occasions, partway through an immemoir, I was given the option to choose between different responses in a story. I'm sure it makes it harder to write the story, especially if it diverged significantly, but from my perspective this ruined the story's immersion.
See, for me, part of the interest in these stories is the inherently voyeuristic nature of it. Most, if not all of us, write chats with our friends and family using instant-messenger programs, and so reading someone else's chat is both familiar and foreign. It's different enough that we're interested in knowing more, but similar enough that we can empathize with the people involved.
By changing the perspective and saying "oh, you're the one making the choices", it rips you out of that spectator role and puts you in the driver's seat, but with very limited control, only then to force you back into a spectator role.
Another major issue is when these stories ignored their own format for the sake of a plot point.
In one of the stories, the writer included an epilogue. But, since these stories are written in separate chat-lines, like in a messenger program, the way they moved time forward was to use a non-character "narrator" bubble to say:
<three weeks later>
And I actually stopped reading to check my own Facebook messages. Not just because it ruined the immersion, but to check the facebook chat template and see - yep, messages do in fact come with the occasional timestamp when there's a long gap between messages.
So, why break the story immersion for the writer to essentially slap me in the face with a wet fish with the words "TIME IS PASSING" tattooed on its scales?
I've seen other stories do this as well, where to show character actions, the writer just writes:
<*character sighs heavily and lowers the gun*>
It seems like such a waste?! Why bother writing in an IM style, if you're not going to exploit the style?!!

It was all very disappointing . . .
BUT, these issues are not inherent in immemoirs. In fact, these are just little issues, which could be easily avoided. Not to mention, there was one aspect of the immemoir that I found very impressive. It was used twice, for great effect, in two different horror immemoirs that I read, but my favourite was the story called "Where is She?"
In the story, on several occasions, the character took pictures on her phone, because . . . well, because, why not? People do that all the time, in real life. I see something hilarious, and say "You HAVE to see this weird doll I found", then snap a picture and share it in the middle of a chat.
And in a horror story, it was incredibly effective. Especially because, like in some IM programs, whenever a picture appeared, it started as a blank, white square that said "click to download image". Which meant, when a character says "there's something in the basement", then snaps a photo, if I want to know what they saw, I have to click the image to reveal it. It was very good at making me second-guess myself.

Also, stuff to do with plotholes, unnecessary interactive and poorly-executed time-jumps, revealed with telling instead of showing - all of that is very easy to avoid, with a little care.

So, I am interested in writing an immemoir of my own. In fact, for Christmas, I want to put one on this blog. But, even more than that, I want you to write an immemoir, or some twitterature, or some other form of electronic epistolary novel.
I want to try it for myself, but I also want other people to try it for themselves. Getting the chance to read some really good electronic literature this christmas would be one heck of a gift.
And hey, since it is so close to Christmas, here is a gift from me to you.
If you're interested in writing an immemoir for your blog (or, you're just interested in playing around with the format), here is the format for my own instant-messenger story template:


MON AT 9:00 AM
He
Message text

FRI AT 3:00 PM
She
Reply text

This is the code that I used to create this:

<table align="left" style="background: #eeeeee; border-radius: 5px 50px 50px 25px; display: inline-table; margin-bottom: 10px; padding: 10px; text-align: left; width: 500px;"><caption style="color: grey; padding: 0px 0px 0px 100px;">
MON AT 9:00 AM
</caption><tbody style="font-size: 15px;">
<tr><td><div style="color: black; text-align: left;">
<span style="font-size: 17px;"><b>He</b></span></div>
Message text
</td></tr>
</tbody></table>
<br />
<div style="text-align: center;">
</div>
<table align="right" style="background: #cccccc; border-radius: 50px 5px 25px 50px; display: inline-table; margin-bottom: 10px; padding: 10px; text-align: left; width: 500px;"><caption style="color: grey; padding: 0px 100px 0px 0px;">
FRI AT 3:00 PM
</caption>
<tbody style="font-size: 15px;">
<tr><td><div style="color: black; text-align: right;">
<span style="font-size: 17px;"><b>She</b></span></div>
Reply text
</td></tr>
</tbody></table>
<br />

You can change the colours of the message bubbles rather easily, and even change the position or direction of the "sharp" corner on the chat bubble edges. You can write whatever you want within these tables, and they will adapt to fit your content. You can also include images, although I think you need to make sure their width is less then 500px . . .
Just be aware that I am not a perfect programmer, so if you type text underneath the bubbles (outside of the table elements), you will end up having the text wrap around the cracks of the table. I don't know how to fix that except with borderless, 100% width tables, to hide the text-wrapping, but if you know anything about html, maybe you can improve upon my efforts here. Just select the contents of the table, copy them, and paste (without formatting) into your own html, to play around with this for yourself, and write your very own immemoir on your blog!
Go crazy!

I found this format pretty inspiring, if you want to learn a bit more about it, you could check out some of those "Chat Story" apps I mentioned before, but much more than that, I recommend that you check out some of the free apps. Four that I have are TapTap, Lure, TapTale & Yarn. They have ads, but that's just so that you don't have to pay subscriptions, and these don't seem too glitchy, the stories seem alright . . . feel free to check out those links, if you have a compatible phone.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time - get typing, get tapping, and explore some of the ever-evolving ways that we tell stories.