14 July 2010

And another thing about LJ...

A little more search and experimentation has shown that, in certain LJ themes, you can indeed change the format of the date in both entries and comments to show whatever year you like. This is good.

The bad news is that this is only visible in the comments view if you have a paid or Plus account. A paid account is $20 a year, while a Plus account is free, but puts ads all over your blog. Not only are ads generally annoying (especially with the very limited display and content options LJ provide) but they'd serve as a constant reminder that this blog is not, in fact, taking place 15 years into the future, thus defeating the whole object of getting the Plus account. This irks me.

Four paid LJs will cost me, at current exchange rates, around £55 for the year it'll take for the story to run its course. All told, I suppose it's not a huge amount of money for a Ph.D. project - it costs as much for a couple of bound copies of a paper-based thesis - but what happens after the initial year? I would like to keep the story online - in fact, I'm going to have to until the accompanying thesis is written the entire project assessed - but upwards of £50 a year is pretty steep just to keep the comment time-stamps in the right format. So the options are: pay up, give in to the ads or go with another platform.

12 July 2010

Blogging Live from the Future

Having clawed back a little free time, I'm getting back into the swing of writing, and while doing so I've been considering the choices of blogging platform available for Bad Influences.

I've chosen LiveJournal, despite the fact that the vast majority of successful blog fiction is based on Wordpress, Blogger or Typepad. While these tools are seen as quite respectable, and are designed primarily to be found on a search engine and read by the public, LJ seems to have a reputation as a frivolous place to blog, more of a social networking site, a platform for personal angst and collective drama rather than serious commentary. While I can see how this would put some writers off using it to showcase their work, it nevertheless gives the platform features that make it ideal for multiple character blog fiction.

For a start, comments on posts are set up for conversational threads (i.e. comments have a visual hierarchy to show which are direct answers to each other), while the other major blogging platforms have a more journalistic layout, with all comments being given equal weight and the writer replying to many at once. This is a more useful structure if there is one central author who is to answer all comments to the post, but thread-style arrangements are better for opening up multiple dialogues on the same post, and so lend themselves better to interactions between a group of characters.

However, it's the friends list aggregator that really makes LJ different to the journalistic blogs: it creates a sense of community, a true social network in which feed subscriptions are reciprocal and people don't just "follow" but "friend" each other's blogs. The bloggers in my story aren’t journalists or academics, posting for the respect and elucidation of strangers; they are friends, blogging to keep in touch. I especially want to make use of the customisable page that automatically aggregates the "friends list" feeds to set up a blog from which to read the whole story. This blog would be friended to all the others and I could link to its friends list for a full reverse-chronological story-so-far. There are probably other feed aggregator sites I could do this from with the other blogging tools, but personal icons and customisable colours make LJ friends feeds both more readable and a little more credible as an implied reader1. The reader who subscribes to each RSS feed and reads them on an aggregator somewhere else will read the same story, but the reader who uses the friends page will be subtly implied into the characters' community, despite their inability to comment on the blogs directly. I'm interested to see how many readers actually friend the characters on their own LiveJournals and read their blogs in amongst those of their present day, real life friends (which works, even when you change the year to 2026 - I tried it).

One feature of LJ that I'm concerned about using is the facility to make posts public, private, viewable by “friends only” or even restricted to a custom list or an individual friend. This could be very useful – allowing some characters to see posts that others can’t has obvious applications for plot - but this does bring up logistical problems. Readers may start to question why, if the post is supposed to be restricted, they are themselves able to view it. It will be interesting to see whether small inconsistencies like this will cause readers to question the format, or whether they will be taken in the same light as more obvious ones that are built into the premise: what's the inexplicable ability to read private posts next to the fact that you're reading a blog that won't be written for another 15 years? But this may well be the point - asking the reader to make explicit exceptions for the form may well show up devices that would otherwise remain implicit. It's tinkering with the fourth wall, and I'll have to think carefully about whether or not I can get away with it.

There are credibility issues to get around in content as well as format. Convincing explanations for narrative conveniences are often an important part of writing science fiction (which has to explain how the world came to be as the story portrays it) and epistolary fiction (which has to explain how the narrator came to produce the account of it that the reader is viewing). My explanation as to why the internet still works when the rest of society is collapsing will involve all phones and modems using satellite technology as standard, and so not even requiring a powered phone mast to boost the signal (this technology already exists, of course, though it is currently slower than mobile broadband). A greater problem, where feasibility is concerned, is explaining the continued existence and reliability of the internet's infrastructure, including the LJ servers. Mirror sites in Iceland on geothermal power can't account for everything, and unreliable connections and temporary outages will have to be built into the plot, but Cory Doctorow's 'When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth' has provided some enjoyable inspiration.

There is one very blatant inconsistency that I simply can't get around, though it applies to all blogging tools, not just LJ. While dates for each entry can be chosen and altered to display the year of the setting, comments posted to an entry have the date and time of posting, including the year, inalterably stamped on them. As above, I'm not sure whether to ignore the problem and trust the reader to suspend disbelief, or make it explicit and try to get around it with a little dialogue about a glitch in the system.

The only way around this particular glitch would be to not use a standard blogging platform at all but create my own website in which I design and control every element, made to look like a blog. I could possibly even use some of the LJ code for this, which is open source. The first thing that puts me off this idea is the amount of work that would be involved. The amount of time that I need for the actual writing - which is supposed to be the core of my study - may not leave me time for messing around with Dreamweaver and LJ source code. Even if I did have time and leisure, though, I wouldn't want to lose some of the advantages that come with the community aspect of being part of LJ itself. One of these is that each of the characters' journals would immediately go into searchable listings based on their interests, and I can include “Blog Fiction”, “Internet Fiction”, “Hypertext Fiction”, “Disaster Fiction” and “Science Fiction” in these and attract a large potential audience from LJ users.

So, a few decisions still to be made. Opinions welcome - what aspects of the LJ platform (or any others) would interest you as a reader? Which would put you off?

1 This feature, incidentally, not only adds an immediate distinguisher between the characters’ blogs, but provides a visual indicator of how the characters see themselves (or wish others to see them), adding a form-specific mode of exposition to the text.

31 March 2010

Writing and Politics

I had a meeting with my supervisors the other week and they seem pleased with the writing so far - so that's good. Perhaps a little more writing at this point wouldn't have gone amiss, but I've managed to rope myself into collectives for an Anarcha-feminist event in Manchester and the Merseyside Mayday Festival, so not much chance of writing anything fictional until at least May 2nd.

Just so this blog doesn't die before it's begun, though, I decided that, since my politics is clearly getting in the way of my writing, I'd do a post about why my politics doesn't get in the way of my writing.

I'll start by mentioning a thing that annoys me. I am explaining an idea for a story, or something that happens in the story, or even showing an extract of my story to somebody who happens to know my politics. People don't know me for any length of time without finding out about my politics, so I may as well make my politics known here: I am, in no particular order, an anarchist, a communist and a feminist. I probably count as a few other things, but that's my conspicuously secular trinity (in that I tend to a belief that the three are actually one and the same, as the core values of any one of those ideologies implies the necessity of the others, but that's not what I want to talk about here.)

So, it may come to the attention of somebody viewing my writing, and knowing my politics, that elements of my politics can be detected in elements of my writing. What I want to know from the reader of an early draft is what every writer wants to know: does the plot work? Are the characters engaging? Are the outcomes plausible? Does the language sound right? Am I a worthless peddler of purple prose? Should I burn every word I've ever written and never show my face in polite society again? But all that person wants to tell me is: "That bit, there, with the anarchist/feminist/communist thing...You're just writing that in because you're an anarchist/feminist/communist." It's the qualifier that irks me rather than the observation. Why "just"? Why should the presence of political thought preclude other narrative concerns? The implication is that visible ideological bias is inherently damaging to the quality of creative writing, and this assumption is expected to hold without the need for any solid objections to either the ideology or the writing.

There's a misconception that if radical political thought and narrative collide, the only possible result can be propaganda, often described as "thinly veiled" to compound the crime, as if hiding the ideology behind heavier drapes would make it more acceptable. Now, if what's actually meant by "thinly veiled" is "badly integrated" or "inconsistent with the plot and characters" or "The plot and characters are insubstantial enough that there's nothing to this story except the ideological message", then those are all valid criticisms, but the presence of an ideological theme does not, in itself, turn a well-written story into "mere" propaganda. In fact, it's difficult to imagine well-written fiction that doesn't have political or ideological themes going on somewhere.

What separates good fiction from propaganda is not how well-hidden, or even how valid the politics are, but how good the fiction is. William Morris' News from Nowhere, for instance - much as I can get behind its aims and principles, and enjoy it for its visionary passion - is a dull story. The characters are not characters but devices, the questions don't ever challenge the explanations the protagonist is given, and nothing really happens - no changes in pace, no tension, no conflict, no plot. Something like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, on the other hand, despite some politics I find elitist and objectionable, is a good piece of fiction. It has characters who change, develop, make decisions, take risks, ask awkward questions of themselves, each other and the reader. It has twists and turns that make me want to know how it ends. I may not accept Bradbury's assertion that a society seeking after equality for all will attempt to eradicate innate intellectual advantage by burning all the books, but the readability of the novel allows me to suspend my disbelief - if not my disagreement - enough to enjoy it as a good read. This doesn't only apply to overtly political utopian and dystopian fiction, either.

The idea that fiction can be apolitical fails to take into account that every fiction writer is the de facto dictator of their own world. More than that, writers are gods, with ultimate power over cause and effect. I not only decide what dilemmas my characters will face, and how they will react to them, but what the outcome of their reactions will be. It's a mighty responsibility, but I don't shirk it. Many writers do. They claim not to be political or, worse, politically neutral. My favourite debunking of this attitude comes from Yonmei on FeministSF, who says:

I cannot make a decision politically neutral by declaring I have no interest in politics or that I am not a political writer: that statement just means a writer who is [not] prepared to think about the politics of their fractal selection - or at least that they’re not prepared to acknowledge any political thought. The only political decisions/political thought that appears neutral is the politics of the dominant majority. If, without thinking about it, a writer strives to appear politically neutral, the kind of political writing they will do is the promotion of the dominant narrative.
Yonmei, 'What is a Writer's Job?'

Nobody, and certainly no fiction, is politically neutral. Espousing the dominant politics of one's own time and place is not neutrality, but it is safe, practically invisible and highly unlikely to get you labelled a propagandist. This is illusory, though. Failing to question the status quo is as good as tacitly approving it, and besides, characters who don't question are boring. Attempts at political neutrality are, therefore, far more likely to lead a story into both bad politics and bad writing than a committed, well-integrated ideological component to the narrative.

So, when it is pointed out to me that my writing reflects my politics, I can only look puzzled and ask: "Whose politics were you expecting it to reflect?"

14 February 2010

Navigating Blog Fiction

I'm not, just yet, going to go into reviews and analysis of individual Blogfics that I've been reading - though I plan to do that soon. My reading of Blog Fiction so far has been more about exploring the structure of the narratives than the narratives themselves, and I've been thinking about the way that fictional blogs are read, or at least the way I find myself reading them. This differs from the way I read real blogs.

When I find a new blog, it's normally because I've followed a link to a specific entry. If I like that entry, I read the latest one, perhaps the latest couple, and then subscribe to the feed and read new entries as they appear. If it’s the blog of a friend, or if I really like it, and if it hasn't been updated every day for 5 years, I might go back and read it all from the beginning. If they've blogged on a topic that particularly interests me, I might click on the tag and see what else they have to say about that topic, ignoring the rest of the blog. But generally, I read as they write, starting from the point I added them and not really looking back, because life doesn’t go that way. Fictional blogs are different: I’m aware that there’s a narrative, and narratives have a beginning, middle and end, so I naturally want to see the beginning and the middle. Because of the way blogs work, my first click brings me in at the end. At first, I deleted that last thought, because unless somebody has died or very conclusively decided to blog no more, there is no real end. You come in somewhere amongst a hazy and structureless eternal middle. Then I put it back, deciding that, actually, you come in at a hazy and structureless eternal end. This is provided the writer a) is trying to make the fiction seem credible as a real blog and b) is any good at it. There are plenty of blog fiction writers, even those who are writing Blog Aware Blogfic (see Mineau's definitions), who just tell a serialised story cut into chunks, using the blog more as a publishing tool than a medium, and these lack a certain credibility. People use their blogs to reflect on their lives and relate recent events, not to serialise an ongoing narrative, and they certainly don’t leave cliff-hangers (unless a villain comes in mid-sentence and

Which isn’t a very effective way to create tension or curiosity, because it shatters the illusion that this is a real blogger trying to write about their life. If they got cut short in the middle of typing, who posted the entry? Real bloggers, and credible blog-fiction writers, write in self-contained episodes. The fact that those episodes may be referred back to in later self-contained episodes doesn’t make them a narrative middle, it makes those later episodes a form sequel. A Blogfic is a peculiar combination of novel and short story collection. It’s somewhat like a TV series, except that the episodes are less formulaic, or perhaps just have a more varied range of formulae. It is a type of epistolary form, obviously, but it has its own characteristics beyond this. For a start, it introduces a non-linear or multi-linear element to the narrative, even when it doesn’t intend to, by having choices of reading order inherent in the structure. The reader comes in at the end – that’s just how most blogging tools work – and probably reads the latest instalment before deciding whether they can be bothered to go back to the beginning and read from the start. Or they may choose to read it in reverse-chronological order, like Memento. Whichever they decide on, they may choose to keep reading this way, or if, like me, they have a short attention span and no self-control, they may get through the first (or last) few entries before getting distracted by the list of entry titles in the margin and randomly clicking on something that sounds interesting. If the author has been thoughtful enough to provide tags, that’s another way of navigating. If the Blogfic is multiple character, this adds even more possibilities. Do you read through each journal in turn, An Instance of the Fingerpost-style, or do you create a custom friends list and read all the characters’ blogs on a single friends page? Either way, do you read them forwards, backwards, randomly or tagwise? Does it matter?

I’ve come to the conclusion that due to the self-contained nature of each entry, it probably doesn’t. Even if you don’t read the cause before the effect, the effect will have evidence of the cause within itself, and when you later read the cause it will add to the effect retrospectively. I’ve been trying to think of narrative devices that only make sense when read in a certain order, but I’ve come to realise that actually I don’t need to be anywhere near that clever. Clues, whether detective-style or just ordinary narrative pointers, will work when the reader has read them all, no matter what order they are read in. This is not due to the cleverness of the author but the sophistication of the reader, who already recognises the possibilities being offered and the allowances being asked by this new medium.

A Blog Fiction narrative relies less on suspense and the gradual exposition of plot than on a knowledge of the facets of the characters and their relationships. While my fictional bloggers may well have the odd action-packed escape or conflict, when they write it up they won’t be aiming to entertain or excite (except one of them perhaps, but he’ll mostly be exaggerating). There certainly won’t be much true suspense, as the very fact that the character is blogging rather gives away the outcome of any perilous encounter. Blogs deal with mundanity, not adventure; the pleasure of reading a blog is in how interesting the character’s life is and how well they write about it, and the latter can easily make up for any lack of the former (though categorically not the other way around). I think the interesting thing about Bad Influences will not be in what the characters do, but in how it changes them, and the way they see themselves, each other and the world around them.

03 February 2010

Planning a Multiple Character Blogfic

So, down to the practical stuff.

You have four characters, each with their own separate blog telling their story over the course of a year. You also have a cross-over story in the comments. You're planning to do this thing in real time. You have your plots just about worked out, but certain elements of the crossover plot rely on certain elements of the separate plots happening at roughly synchronous times. How do you plan who posts what and when?

After a great deal of fruitless messing with paper diaries, coloured pens, sticky notes and enough tippex to renew the markings on a major motorway, I discovered that the latest version of Outlook allows you to have extra calendars, and to save them on a USB pen. As someone with terrible handwriting and a propensity for dropping card index boxes all over the floor, I find this rather useful.

I can put all my major plot events and blog entries in the year I want them and then move them around. I can add major holidays and anniversaries for each of the characters' locations, and use these to influence events at those times. I can keep my notes on each entry or incident in the appointment box and categorise each appointment by character. I can then view the whole thing by month, week or day and fine-tune the character stories to contrast or reflect each other at various points.

Isn't it great when you discover a tool that works perfectly to carry out a task it was never designed for?

26 January 2010

Thoughts on the self-conscious first person

Blog fiction is a very self-conscious form. Novels in the first person don't necessarily portray the face that the character intends to show to the world; a stream-of-consciousness or internal monologue voice can observe and reflect freely, totally unaware of the reader. Most epistolary is written from the viewpoint of a character who either expects never to be read (diaries) or to be read by only one other person (letters). Yes, there are forms where the character expects a broader readership, and the author plays on the form of memoirs or autobiographies, but the implied writer is, in those cases, so distanced from the implied reader that they1 can say almost anything they like.

Blogs are both public and intimate. The character writes for friends and strangers alike, and may expect replies from both, possibly challenging ones. A blogger has to be careful what they say and how they say it, because they're directly answerable to their readers (and since you ask, yes, I am a little anxious right now). It may be that they don't care what their readers think, or even spark arguments deliberately, but these are equally self-conscious positions to write from. My point is that a character in Blog Fiction is not merely the narrator of their story, but a self-aware narrator, who decides consciously how they will portray themselves and those around them, which aspects of their lives they will write about, and which they won't. This puts in my writer's toolkit that fun little gadget, the unreliable narrator.

Most first person narrators are in some sense unreliable - if only because if they were to instantly understand and explain everything that's going on, there wouldn't be much interesting plot to discover. Narrators are usually unreliable because they're missing something - they don't understand their situation as well as the reader does. Traditionally, the unreliable narrator is honest but mistaken. But what about an unreliable narrator who's being deliberately dishonest? In a traditional first person form, this is a hard one to pull off . When the liar is your only source of information, being informed at the end that it was all lies seems like a pointless Deus ex Machina (though it's been pulled off successfully in some detective stories). The clues to the truth have to have been there throughout for the reader to feel deceived rather than just cheated. But if the narrator is the guardian of those clues, and a highly self-conscious one at that, how does the reader get to them? Without making the implied writer stupid enough to give the game away unintentionally, how does the reader even find out there is a game? Where does the doubt come from?

That's where the 'multiple characters' format (a distinct type of Blog Fiction, as defined by DustinM on Blog Fiction) comes in handy. All these first person characters are not merely self-consciously writing their own stories but scrutinising each other's. They may not be looking specifically for inconsistencies, but they know each other, and they can spot when something isn't quite right. They can challenge, berate and encourage each other, or go behind each other's backs. They have secrets from each other and secrets amongst themselves. And just because they're self-conscious about what they say, they don't have to be entirely conscious of their own motivations at all times. Unreliable narrators may be more successful at fooling themselves than their friends. So what I'm trying to create with Bad Influences is not four 1st person stories that stand alone, but an overall story of how those four characters interact, communicate and influence one another - in honesty and deceit, for good and bad. The story in the comments is, I'm realising, going to be as big as any of the character blogs.

1 I'm with LeGuin on the use of the plural pronoun as gender-neutral singular, and I'm gong to have to ask you to deal with it.

19 January 2010

Welcome to my research blog

Since I'm now officially a research student at Edge Hill University, and blogging is part of my research, I should really be keeping a blog about it. This is in part a way to keep my supervisors, family and anybody else with a passing interest informed on what I'm up to, and partly a guide to remind myself what I've done, what I have to do and when I'm meant to be doing it.

My Ph.D., for the above interested parties, will be in Blog Fiction and Narrative Time. I'm researching from a Creative Writing perspective, so the main part of my thesis will be a work of Blog Fiction. I'm currently almost certain that this will be called Bad Influences, hence the title of this blog.

Somewhere on this page you will find a link to the full version of my research proposal , but in brief, my plan for the next year is to write Bad Influences. This will consist of the fictional blogs of four characters during a worldwide influenza pandemic in the year 2025. The story will consist not only of these four characters' survival stories but their comments and interaction on each other's blogs, and the comments of other bloggers and minor characters (whose blogs will be either locked or less extensive and included as the hypertext equivalent of a DVD extra). The idea is to deal with the usual apocalyptic themes - loss, societal breakdown, survival, isolation, community etc. - all set amongst the confusion of distance and intimacy that comes with online relationships.

The year after writing the story, I'll post it in real time - that is, the time lapse between posts and comments being revealed to the reader will match the narrative time experienced by the characters. It is the narrative time aspect of Blog Fiction that interests me most, and I'll be writing a critical analysis or mini-thesis on this topic to accompany the fictional work that makes up my main thesis.

This critical work will take up the remainder of my research time. I've spend the last year or so preparing background research to the story and providing the evidence of methodological and ethical consideration that my research department requires, so I'm hoping to complete the Ph.D. within three years. However, I am on a part-time programme and I'm also going to be working three to four days a week, so this time may be extended. In short, if you're holding your breath for the story to appear, I take no responsibility for any symptoms of oxygen deprivation.

In the meantime, I'll keep you updated on my current research and anything about the writing process that I deem to be interesting enough to record here. This is mostly for my benefit, as a record of the research and writing process will be useful when the time comes to write up the critical part of the thesis, but I'd love to chat about it to anyone else who reads, writes or researches blog fiction.