Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Readers, please help us complete our first Twitter short story!

Good Day Folks:
You have 37 characters.

It was a foggy night only Jack The Ripper enjoyed. Suddenly from the shadows ...... ............ and ..... ......... emerged. Yikes! Instinctively I reached for my ..... . (140 characters)

Clare L. Pieuk
Seriously Short Stories
On Twitter, authors are finding a new way to flex their creative muscles – and soak up instant reader feedback in the process

March 24, 2009

Arjun Basu may be Canada's most prolific author.

Since November, the Montreal-based writer has produced some 500 short stories. But this is short fiction with a twist: Follow @arjunbasu on Twitter and you'll be reading lots and lots of very short stories — all exactly 140 characters long.

"It started as a lark and relatively quickly became something I was mildly obsessed with," says Basu, the editorial director for custom publisher Spafax and author of last year's short story collection Squishy.

"In the beginning I was doing one a day. Now I'm up to four or five, if not more. And slowly but surely, like all things Twitter, people start noticing you and what you're trying to do, and they start following you and telling other people about it."

Novel Tweets

A selection of recent stories from Arjun Basu's Twitter account:

He woke up and went out to the balcony. I am love, he shouted. I am everything! Someone threw a cupcake at him. I'm also cupcakes, he yelled (March 19th)

He opened the door and announced, my nipples are so cold they could cut glass. And then he saw his future inlaws in the kitchen drinking tea. (March 21st)

He takes a look at his feet and realizes he can't wear flip flops. I've become a girl, he tells his wife. I already knew that dear, she says (March 21st)

He was stuck in that neverland between sleep and needing to pee. The night was over but the day had yet to begin. Story of my life, he sighs (March 22nd)

Given the 140-character limit, Basu manages to evoke a surprising range of moods in his micro-stories. Some are wry: "The lawn reminds me of my fourth wife; feral but sort of beautiful. The grass needs cutting, my son says. Oh, it needs more than that, I say" (Basu occasionally squeezes out an extra character by dropping the final period). Many hint at loss: "They argued the merits of Roxy Music until they realized they were both old. All our tunes are commercials for unglamorous things, Joe said." And some are sheer fun: "The kid says yay I don't have to do anything today. The dad says why not? The kid says my teacher said so. She said it's the idles of March."

Basu is one of a growing number of writers who are using Twitter to create pieces of micro-fiction and to develop a more immediate relationship with readers. There are writers producing short science fiction, scenes captured in images, and even using the site to publish longer original works.

Take Clare Bell, for example. On March 14, the California-based writer began releasing the novelette Ratha's Island — the latest instalment in her young adult series about giant, talking cats living 20 million years ago — in bursts of 140 characters or fewer on Twitter.

Bell is a former electric vehicle engineer (she used to drive her electric Porsche in races in Arizona), and, with an engineer's efficiency, she carefully planned out an online campaign to support her book, Ratha's Courage, released last year.

But Twitter hadn't been part of the plan, until publisher Sheila Ruth of Imaginator Press encouraged her to create an account.

"At first I thought it was just a toy. You couldn't do a whole lot with 140 characters," Bell says.

"But I began to realize that people were adapting it for all sorts of purposes. I started out exchanging messages with Sheila and others, and then I had an idea … Let's see if I can do a little prequel to the book I just published — basically for publicity and to entertain people."

In addition to posting as herself, Bell started to write tweets she called "ClanChirps" in the personas of her characters, and had them tell a story in dialogue. It ran through most of the second half of 2008.

Readers responded, and Bell and her publisher began to think about releasing a whole new story through the website.

"I wrote the draft out in fairly short pieces, but they weren't as short as 140 characters. It's a little more difficult than writing straight narrative. It takes some more engineering." Bell said in an interview the day before the story began appearing online.

"The trick is to get the entries so they fit into the Twitter format, so they're not choppy and they draw the reader into the next one. There's also much more of a focus on clarity since these posts are going to be separated in time."

While Bell's Twitter fiction extends a world she's already created into a new medium, Basu just fell into writing fictional tweets.

After a few banal tweets ("total conference call hell"), Basu posted his first twister on October 28. "I had this image in my head of a kid trying to reach a cookie on a table. I don't know why, but I wrote a little scene out of it. When I got to the end, I was two characters over, and I thought 'Oh, I have to amend this.' So I got it into 140 characters perfectly. And then I did it again a few minutes later, and I thought it was kind of interesting. To write the ultimate flash fiction within the rules Twitter's established."

Now, more than 500 twisters later, he says he has signed on with a New York agent who discovered him through Twitter and is confident he can land him a book deal.

Bell also hopes Ratha's Island ends up in print. For now, she is archiving the posts for fans who come into the story partway through and want to catch up easily.

In addition to the challenge of trying to fit fiction into the 140-character limit, Basu says part of the fun of writing on Twitter "is that the feedback is almost instantaneous, and writers don't usually get that. Some twisters go out there and people start writing you within seconds. For a writer that's almost like catnip."

He adds, "I expend a lot of creative capital on this now. It's affecting the way I write. I'm thinking in these little snippets now. I was recently asked to write a short story for a magazine, and I had to wrap my head around it. It was long. Well, it wasn't long — but it was longer than 140 characters."


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