Interview With Doyce Testerman – Twitter As A New Medium In Authorship, Pt. 1

Doyce Testerman is an author who’s writing experimental fiction on Twitter, the micro-blogging web application which allows a maximum length of 140 characters (including spaces).  Instead of just ‘tweeting’ a novel one line at a time however, Doyce tweets in the character of Finnras, the protagonist of his story.  In this interview series, Doyce talks about the project.

P: Describe your serialized, flash fiction Twitter project. Are you building a novel one tweet at a time, or do you view the project as more experimental in nature, without a specific outcome in mind?

DT: Well, the story itself is a kind of sci-fi yarn – it has those trappings – the spaceships and the eerie, emotionless pre-teen pilot and the multilegged aliens and all that; that’s the window dressing, and it’s fun stuff to play with. That said, the heart of the story is really about the captain – Finnras (or @finnras, if you like) – and his search for his daughter and what he’s going to sacrifice to get back to her. All my stories are eventually about people; I don’t think I’m particularly unique in that regard.

Am I writing a novel one tweet at a time? No, I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. Now, for the sake of folks who don’t do Twitter but who still want to follow the story, I’m compiling the tweets on a blog, which I set up so that you can read each month’s posts top-to-bottom, but even when they’re read that way, it’s still not like reading a traditional novel.

First, the format of the story is something like a first-person private journal, so the language itself is terse, but it’s more than that: the constraints of the Twitter format (140 characters, and my own desire not to use any abbreviations or truncated words) require that you encapsulate far more action into a single post than you ever would in 140 characters using the typical style of storytelling found in a novel.

In part, that’s kind of encapsulation is necessary to keep the story moving at an enjoyable pace – it would take something like 25 twitter posts to get one page of a normal novel out, and each of those individual posts would be pretty boring… and people would hate you for spamming them like that – overall, not really the response I’m going for. So no: not a novel-via-twitter.

At some level, it’s obviously an experiment – to a degree, it feels like I’m writing one panel of a graphic novel every post, and in a lot of ways there’s a similarity between what I’m doing and any other kind of sequential story telling. I call it ‘serial micro-fiction’ for a reason: the old serial adventure stories always ended with a cliffhanger and I try to do something that with each post – leave the story on an "ooh, and then what happens?" note.

P: What motivated you to try Twitter flash fiction? Is it primarily about the creative challenges and rewards of working in a new medium, or leveraging social media to build awareness of, and interest in, your work?

DT: First off, let me give proper recognition to my two biggest inspirations. The first was @twitlit, which was probably the first thing I followed on Twitter, and the other is @othar.

Twitlit is this simple, genius little project that posts the first sentence from a book, and a link to where you can go find that book. I follow it for those sentences — they showed me how much story you can compress into one sentence.

Othar is – I believe – written at least in part by comic book genius Phil Foglio, and is essentially the diary of one of the minor characters from his Girl Genius comics — someone he basically didn’t have time to draw a whole book about, but who had some stories in him. I’d actually started writing Finnras’ story on twitter about a year or more ago and kind of let it fall off my to-do list, then I found Phil’s @othar twitter, and it really inspired me to get back to this project. Now, with those props given…

A big part of doing this is the challenge of working in a new medium. Not the biggest part – this will sound corny, but my biggest reason for doing this is just the joy of doing it; I am enjoying the hell out of every single post – I am flat-out having a great time with it, and I look forward to doing every new post.

But to go back, working this story out in a new medium is part of that fun, and definitely part of the reward. Composing each post is like putting together a haiku — the limitations force a tremendous amount of creativity and concise word choice — getting it right is a big reward, though sometimes it takes time to get there; I’ve spent what some might think is way too much time composing some of these 140 character posts.

And frankly, I think it’s long past time that writers look at new mediums for their work. Paper is just a medium (a sentiment I’m essentially reTweeting from this year’s Technology of Change conference), and as our world (and the smaller publishing world within it) changes, it makes sense for writers to take a look at the tools around us and see if there aren’t some that we overlooked. Artists and sculptors do this sort of thing all the time; "Maybe I can paint on this building, maybe I can make something out of this old car… wait, even better: maybe I can paint on this building with this old car! Genius!" Tom Waits likes to go into hardware stores with a mallet and see what kind of sounds he can find.

What do storytellers use? Spoken words… and paper. That’s it. Very recently, people have considered the still hotly-contested idea of taking the-thing-that’s-on-the-paper and reproducing that exact same thing electronically, and that’s good, but that isn’t storytelling intrinsically designed for the electronic medium – I mean so intrinsically designed for that medium that it doesn’t actually translate well back to paper or spoken words.

Maybe this story about Finnras is that kind of non-transferable thing – if so, I’m comfortable with that – it’s enough that it’s fun for me and for the people reading it.

Now, with all that said, I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t aware that people following and enjoying @finnras (or even @doycet) might buy a book I wrote or an anthology I’m in — obviously, that kind of stuff is important. Today, writers really need to either build or be part of a community in order to enjoy some success, but for me that doesn’t mean "Doyce, you have to get on Facebook and Twitter and and post on a blog and get people following you so that you have an audience!", it means "People like other people (even authors) a little better if they feel like they’re connected to them. Go out and connect with people; don’t be a dick."

P: You have a background in the world of roleplaying games. At this year’s O’Reilly Tools Of Change conference, Jeff Jarvis remarked that people who subscribe to World Of Warcraft are essentially paying to participate in the creation of a group narrative. Do you agree?

DT: That’s an interesting statement, really, but I don’t know that I really agree with it. Perhaps for some players who are very into the meta storyline that’s unfolding through an online game (be it WoW, LotRO, City of Heroes or what have you), that’s part of the payoff, but even then I’d say what they’re paying for is the right to participate in Hamlet as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or, far more often, as Spear Carrier #2 and #3).

You can view the unfolding narrative from a front row seat, but I don’t think that’s participation in any but the most rudimentary sense — when it comes to the Big Story (as opposed to your personal story) you have no influence or control over what is or isn’t going to happen. You might be participating in the narrative, but you’re not participating in the creation of the narrative. That’s nothing against any of those games; I enjoyed WoW for a couple good years, I still play a couple other games — heck, I met my wife online.

To me, to really have some level of participation in creation, the players need to have real say in what’s going to happen — if, for example, you were ‘playing’ Hamlet – playing some of the characters, you should have some influence over the outcome: maybe Hamlet doesn’t die… maybe he and Ophelia blow the whole murder drama off and elope while Laertes conducts an affair with Gertrude and they conspire to kill the King. Or something. The point being that I think the players should have influence over the story to be truly said to be participating in the creation of a group narrative.

Face to face, ‘old-school’ pen and paper RPGs have the advantage in this arena over online MMOs — I think only EVE Online really gives the reins entirely to the players of the game, with crazy and often fascinating results.

P: Is the @finnras project your first undertaking as an author, and if so, why did you choose that route over the more traditional approach to writing (i.e., write, revise and polish a manuscript)?

DT: Oh, definitely not. I’ve been writing pretty much my whole life. I’ve put some serious focus into it over the last five years or so, and since then I’ve sold a number of short stories to publishers’ anthologies and ezines — even won a couple awards. I’ve got a couple novels completed, and a couple more in progress.

With my second novel, Hidden Things, I’m going through the entire traditional publishing cycle — that includes a number of pretty serious rewrites, making submissions to agents, eventually finding a great agent who agreed to represent me, then submitting to editors, and so forth. That’s an ongoing project; right now, I’m working on some suggestions from an interested publisher that are pretty fun — I’m excited to see how it’ll turn out. I may think the publishing industry needs an overhaul (both from the publishing side, but also from the point of view of author expectations), but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a real pleasure to work with people who know how to make a story better and who like yours well enough to work on it with you. I’m getting a chance to do that right now with Hidden Things, and it’s taught me a lot.

Of course, at the same time, I’m doing Finnras’ story, and I’ve participated in close to a half-dozen ‘storyball’-type collaborative projects with some great people. I’m a tech geek and a pretty early adopter, and when I start playing with a new thing, one of the first things I ask myself is "What can I create with this? What would that look like? Would it be cool? Will it be fun?"

I asked the same thing when contemplating traditional publishing — bottom line, I like doing all of it; each different method and medium is fun and rewarding in different ways — they each teach you different things. Traditional publishing teaches you, above all, discipline and determination. Self-publishing – however you do it – teaches you about the nuts and bolts of publishing and self-reliance. Writing on Twitter teaches facility with language and how important small choices can be; it’s a little zen, really — like working on a bonsai.

But I think it’s all worth doing, even if you ‘fail’ (whatever failure looks like for you) – especially if you fail; failing teaches you a lot. You have to fall down a lot before you figure out how to stay on your feet.

"It’s all about falling down." Something I’ve been known to say on occasion.

This interview will continue with parts two and three next week.