Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Short and Curlies

John McFetridge

We’ve been talking a lot about short fiction on DSD lately.

There’s also been a lot of talk online about e-books and e-readers – and I think there’s a connection here.

With music changes in technology moved us from singles to albums and that changed content. Longer songs, concept albums (oh the pretentious horror of Journey to the Center of the Earth but I liked In the Court of the Crimson King and even Frank Sinatra put out a concept album, In the Wee Small Hours), rock operas and entire live concerts in boxed sets (I had the four-record Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall and I inherited the three-record Concert for Bangladesh when my sister moved out).

(and probably a bunch of changes in classical and jazz, and who knows, maybe even country music, too, I have no idea)

Then music went digital and everything changed again. Now we’re back to buying singles on iTunes and everything is playlists now. An old fogie like me struggles to get my iPod to “shuffle” albums. What I really want is an app that will divide the albums on my iPod into the original two sides they were on the LP and play them one side at a time – so I can recreate stacking four albums on the old turntable and listening to all side ones and then flipping them all over and listening to all side twos. The way rock music was meant to be listened to. But I digress.

So, now we’re seeing changes in reading technology that I think may change the content.

Sure, there have always been novels written in many, many short chapters. And there have always been very, very short stories even before the term ‘flash fiction’ was coined.

But the addition of the internet is a big change. Look at flash fiction challenges. Dozens of writers from all over the world post short stories on the same day and hundreds of people from all over the world can read them instantly. And this is really only the beginning. (someday I want to try a flash fiction challenge that’s also a kind of scavenger hunt around the internet – I haven’t worked out the details yet)

There are services now that will email a new short story to your cell phone every day. Will this mean a return to the serialized novel? Or maybe more people than just Alice Munro will be able to make a living writing only short stories (but don't stop working on that novel just yet, Patti).

Sometimes I joke that my novels now are really just 70 flash fiction pieces strung together, but it isn’t that far off. Short sections, each one with its own beginning, middle and end (I hope. Or at least I try for, some have sections have that).

I know a lot of people don’t like this style and complain about it being the dumbing-down of literature or pandering to short attention spans or... something, where was I? I also get the complaint that there are too many characters to keep track of and now I'm thinking with e-books there could be links to quick character-refresher notes. I'm sure there will be new complaints about that, too, but some people will like the feature.

And now there is the Vook, that weird combination of book and video which we’ll probably see a lot more of when the iPad really gets going - nice big screen, great graphics, it could be really good.

What else do you think we’re going to see? What other changes besides short chapters?


Dana King said...

I like the idea of allowing readers to get character refreshers through links in the story. This could free up writers from writing most exposition; just link to a brief character sketch the reader can check, or not. In your books, John, the reader could click a link that showed Richard knew Roxanne from back in DIRTY SWEET. It's stuff they wouldn't have to know to stay in the current story, but adds a layer for those of us who have been along since the beginning.

Technology gave classical and jazz music the gift of time. LPs meant jazz compositions and improvisations didn't have to be cut off at the 3-4 minute level; they could spread out to 15 and even 20 minutes.

CDs meant longer classical pieces didn't have to have movements broken up across sides of LPs. It's a rare piece that won't fit on one disk.

Mike Dennis said...

The very fact that you're bringing this up now, John, means (to me, anyway) that the floodgates will truly be flung open when eBooks take hold. Almost anything will be possible. I mean, who could've foreseen, as Dana pointed out, 20-minute jazz recordings? But bring on the LP and presto! There they were.

The eBook, because it's a new, raw technology, will no doubt spur inventive minds to come up with new ways to use it. And some of those ways will be killer, beyond anything we could've imagined.

I can hardly wait.

Steve Weddle said...

And take a look at it from the other end. As my pal Lein Shory points out somewhere out here, writers aren't constrained by bindings. (haha) Because a 500,000 word book ain't much bigger file-size-wise than a 50,000 word book, we oughta have more bigger books.

So yeah. More smaller hunks of content. And more bigger.

Dana King said...

Steve's point is well taken. We have come to accept certain physical restrictions on book, due to such things as the width of the binding, how hard it might be to hold, optimal numbers of pages to be bound most easily (which often leads to wasting paper on blank pages just to make the print-to-binding process come out right. Books will no longer have to adhere to those restrictions.

I like books; I'll hold off an an e-reader as long as it's feasible. Somewhere, some day, someone is going to come up with a way to produce and deliver electronic books none of us has even considered, and it will be very cool.

John McFetridge said...

A radio station in town is running a contest and the prize is an iPod Touch preloaded with the entire Jimi Hendrix catalogue.

I can see the same kind of thing happening with e-readers, get one free when you buy the entire Raymond Chandler catalogue.

Paul D Brazill said...

I'm just a technophobe, I know that -'we fear change'- and I'm just about coming to terms with CD's and the internet so this stuff makes my head spin!

I think breaking novels down into scenes is a pretty tasty idea and it allows multiple POV stories more space to breathe.

Re: concept albums, John- they're not gone completely. Have a look at this and see if it tickles your fancy.

John McFetridge said...

You're a technophone? I tried to find the music on that site and I couldn't.

It does sound interesting, though.