140 characters might seem to give you only enough space in which to write a haiku. But plenty of people have written Twitter novels (“Twovels”) including Matt Stewart’s 2009 The French Revolution and Neil Gaiman‘s collaborative effort, not to mention a host of other efforts to use the social media site to create Twitterature. Tonight at 8:00 pm EST the New Yorker will start tweeting a new story, “Black Box,” by novelist Jennifer Egan @NYerFiction; the entire story will then appear in the magazine’s Science Fiction Issue, on Monday.
Egan, whose 2010 novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” included a chapter (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses“) consisting of PowerPoint slides, seems more than well-suited to write a novel that will, in its first incarnation, be tweeted. The very 21st-century digital format of Twitter has influenced her writing, as she says on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog:
Several of my long-standing fictional interests converged in the writing of “Black Box.” One involves fiction that takes the form of lists; stories that appear to be told inadvertently, using a narrator’s notes to him or herself. My working title for this story was “Lessons Learned,” and my hope was to tell a story whose shape would emerge from the lessons the narrator derived from each step in the action, rather than from descriptions of the action itself….
I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters. I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea.
Egan also says that she is seeking to “take a character from a naturalistic story and travel with her into a different genre,” such as a cartoon or a spy-thriller version.
It will be intriguing to see how and if the particular conventions of writing on Twitter shape Egan’s writing. For readers (users/Tweeters), will reading a short story in 140-character or fewer bits differ from reading it in toto in the magazine’s Science Fiction Issue?
While the digital format of Twitter is exclusive to our age, writing — women writing — in small bits is not: Consider Emily Dickinson’s poetry, written in the blank spaces of candy wrappers, shoppings lists and envelopes and Jane Austen’s comment in a letter about writing on “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory.”
Egan had completed writing the text of “Black Box” prior to tweeting it. On Page-Turner, she says that, to write “odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters,” she actually wrote in a Japanese notebook with eight rectangles per page, producing a story originally twice as long as the end result that took a year to “control and calibrate.”
Imagine if people took that long to chisel their tweets into proper form?
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