shop talk: It was a dark and stormy tweet

Leila Marshy is the literary editor of The Rover. She is also a contributing editor of carte blanche.

In 2000 I was working for a wireless applications company. While we were busy retrofitting 80s-style games to accommodate the limited capability of cell phones, another technology was migrating from Europe and Asia: SMS messaging. The ability to send short messages over a data line seemed to have limitless possibilities. Then again, it seemed to have none; what the heck could you say of value in 140 characters? Even we, an office full of geeks, agreed: it would go nowhere.

Fast forward ten years and a hundred gajillion text messages, Twitter, using a self-imposed 140-character limit, is now the fastest-growing, most ubiquitous communications tool on the planet.  Created in 2006 as simply a conduit to exchange “short bursts of inconsequential information,” Twitter is at the centre of celebrity feuds, social trends, and bloody revolutions.

It is also a fiction publishing phenomenon. While not as popular as keitai shosetsu (literally, cellphone novel) in Japan, it is increasingly being taken on by serious writers, serious wannabe writers, and seriously get-on-the-bandwagon publishers.

So the ADD generation (the average Twitter user is between 25 and 34, so you can’t really blame the kids) is squeezing their fiction ya-ya’s into 140 character bursts. Some examples:

At eye level, the herring gull floated on thermals, searching the white-capped waves. Its call, sharp, echoing, jolted me. I stepped out. Proving that Twitter really is an impressionist’s delight.

After the rockfall they crawled blindly, holding each other’s heels. At some point they realised there was no beginning or end to the line. This one comes with its own cliffhanger.

I said that the winding flight of stairs would take you to the princess. I never said there weren’t poisoned arrows. It never hurts to borrow from the classics.

While serialized fiction hasn’t really captured the imagination since Charles Dickens, there’s no reason to hold your breath. Even James Joyce can get in on the action: at two sentences per burst, it took eight months to tweet all 24,765 lines of Ulysses. Then again, I started the book when I was 15 and still haven’t finished it.

More recently, Reif Larsen captivated his followers with dozens of “mysterious package” tweets (I am at box #54, with still no sign of the center. At least the boxes are getting smaller. #54 was the size of a woman’s fist) that narrated the opening of a matryoshka box that showed up at his doorstep one day.

If you are on your way to the great twit novel (probably an apt description in more ways than one) you might want to stop by twitip for a few encouragements (What’s great about a Twitter novel is that your content is no longer static) as well some warnings (More than five Twitter posts on any given day can be dangerous).

Hard to say what’s gimmick and what’s the beginning of something transformative or game-changing.  I’m certainly no expert, having poo-poohed cell phone applications from the get-go (all the while designing them). But inasmuch as technological advancements freak me out with their echoes of EM Forster’s The Machine Stops (be careful of what you finish at age 15, it stays with you forever), it seems to me that Twitter fiction does one thing well: it takes the writer directly to her readership.

With its horizontally expansive platform, identifiable followers, daily freshness, and built in feedback loop, the writer is instantly part of a community of sorts. Communication goes both ways and conversations are begun.

But be careful what you wish for: in Forster’s 1909 story, the world is an underground maze of individual living pods where people are connected only via large screen internet-style monitors. But disaster strikes when the machine eventually crumbles and stops, forcing inhabitants out into long abandoned corridors and passageways. Repulsed by the actual sight of each other they are unable to save themselves from destruction.

So, tweet away writers. Go wild with 140 characters. Pile on the hashtags and rack up the followers. Just remember to leave the house every now and then. Oh, and learn how to grow a vegetable or two. It’s a practical skill for when the machine stops.