Before we begin, I have a confession to make: I haven’t read anything by David Mitchell. I hear a lot of good things about his work from people I respect. I have CLOUD ATLAS on my reading list, but I don’t know when I’m going to get to it. But what I just said is almost not true anymore, at least not as of July 15, 2014, because Mitchell is doing something rather interesting on his Twitter feed: he’s tweeting a short story, 140 characters at a time.
The idea appeals to me directly as a writer. I’m constantly trying to think of new ways to tell tales. Some of my experiments succeed (see “Unkillable” in MORPHEUS TALES and “Amber” in TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE for these), but most fail (take a look in my drawer for these, if you can get past me first). Putting a story out through Twitter is a very fascinating idea, so you can imagine I looked it up right away to see what it was like.
First of all, I like Mitchell’s style. From what I’ve seen so far, I like what he’s doing. Yet . . . maybe it’s a bit soon for me to talk about this story, since it’s not finished yet, but so far I don’t think it’s living up to its potential. Right now, I think it’s coming off as a gimmick, nothing more.
What the story needs is a reason to be told through Twitter. I lucked out: I came to it a bit late in the game, so I was able to read a good chunk of it back to back. For those reading it as each tweet comes out? I don’t think it would be a very good reading experience. It reminds me a bit of Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s SCATTERLANDS experiment. They were telling a comic book story by posting one panel every day. Again, a wonderful idea, but flawed.
Mitchell’s story suffers from the same problem that SCATTERLANDS does: it is unnecessarily divided in the way that it is. Perhaps I would get more of a kick out of it if Twitter was actually involved in the plot. Or if the protagonist lived in a world where people could only speak in 140-character increments. Or something. I know those are lame examples (which is why I haven’t gotten a lot of attention with a Twitter story of my own), but you get the idea.
Have you ever watched a TV version of a movie? The ones edited for time and content? Something’s always off about them. That’s because the network has to edit them down so they fit into perfect 13 minute increments. Or 15. Or whatever. Because of that, it fucks with the flow of the movie. It’s kind of like listening to a song when the bass player is out of phase with everyone else.
You can’t take, say, a novel and cut it up into 20-page increments and just post it like that. Mitchell’s story just seems like it was cut into those 140-character pieces just because that’s what Twitter demands. He’s the bass player, and he’s out of phase with the reader.
Not only that, but based on the delivery system, it makes things really hard for a reader. Say it’s been a while since you could check back with the story. All of a sudden, you find that you have to go back and read the previous entries because something might have slipped your mind. Or you start to wonder if you missed something. That feeling that you’re Donny in THE BIG LEBOWSKI starts to set in.
I had that problem with SCATTERLANDS constantly. It’s hard to get a cohesive idea of story, and when that happens, it’s easy for a reader to feel alienated from what’s going on. Sometimes, it feels like having a conversation with someone who doesn’t recognize and understand social cues.
I never want to make it hard for my readers. That’s not to say I don’t write complex things with action between the lines and implications that might need deductive thinking. That’s all good, and I enjoy that. What I mean is, I don’t want my readers to have the impression that they’re reading something.
I’m not stupid, and neither are my readers. Every reader EVER knows with 100% certainty that they’re reading something someone made up. But for me, the cardinal sin is letting the readers feel that truth. I want them to be so lost in my words that they forget they’re reading a book.
This isn’t working for Mitchell’s story. Based on the delivery system, it might be impossible. I don’t want to believe it is, though. There’s got to be someone out there who can make this medium work as a way of believably telling fiction. The idea is just too good to let go.
I end most of these things asking you all if you think I’m full of shit. Despite getting a significant number of Everyone’s Got One readers, no one ever does this. I can’t be right all the time . . . can I? Let me know in the comments below.