Launching on Twitter: Microblogged Novels

Launching on Twitter: Microblogged Novels
Allison Mooney
  • 2 september 2008

The Japanese phenomenon of writing and reading novels via cellphone has officially made their way to our shores–via Twitter.

We reported on “mobile novels” back in January, a few of which have broken the bestseller list or turned into movies. But as with many Japanese trends-especially involving mobile-it’s hard to say whether they will translate to anything here (beyond “wow, cool”). Mobile writing and reading seemed uniquely suited to Japanese commuter culture and Kanji symbols.

Not so. In May, Copyblogger ran a “TwitLit” contest asking for extra-short short stories–max of 140-words. The LA Times dubbed it the latest literary genre.

Now New York Times journalist-slash-novelist Matt Richtel said he had begun working on a new novel by microblogging installments on his Twitter, which he calls a “Twiller.” On the Times’ website this past Friday he pointed to a larger trend:

Recently, a handful of creators (present company included) have scrapped pen and paper for mobile phone and keypad, and started texting their novels – in real time, just a few characters at a time. Our medium is Twitter, a service that lets you broadcast bursts of 140 characters at a time to be read by people who subscribe to get your updates.

In my case, I’ve for the last two months been using Twitter to write a real-time thriller. Hence: Twiller. (Cheap word play is what you get when you disintermediate, as they say, your agent and editor).

Richtel and others have essentially hyper-serialized the novel. Merging form with content, he’s even integrated Twitter into the storyline:

It’s about a man who wakes up in the mountains of Colorado, suffering from amnesia, with a haunting feeling he is a murderer. In possession of only a cell phone that lets him Twitter, he uses the phone to tell his story of self-discovery, 140 characters at a time. Think “Memento” on a mobile phone, with the occasional emoticon.

This method has an obvious draw for a part-time writer like Richtel: Given the nature of our 24/7 media cycle, it can be difficult to find the time-let alone the attention span– to write anything as lengthy a novel.  So why not tap out installments while in line for a tall latte? And considering that people have Twittered their way out of jail, the premise isn’t too far-fetched. Though he’s gotten some criticism for it, mostly because of lines like this:

I am a hooker, but not a liar. Truth: Lev sits in Pitkin County Jail. He is suspected of murder but has not been charged. I know this becaus 09:18 PM August 14, 2008

Cheesiness aside, do people want to read 1.5 sentences at a time? Richtel has been at this since June 9 and as of this publishing he only has 515 followers–115 more than when his article hit the web. He calls it an experiment, “a short story with a long tail” that is “the opposite of mass market.” (Note to Richtel: try following more than two people, you might grow your audience…)

While TwitLit surely isn’t ready for prime-time, the concept of microblogged novels (“microbooks”?) could catch on here, especially when they can be easily sent to a cellphone. No one wants to read, say, Anna Karenina via SMS, but it would be easy to squeeze some pulp fiction in while waiting for that latte.

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