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05.13.09

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Phaedra

WORDS ON THE FLY: Twitter novels arrive as flitting bursts of inspiration.

Keep It Short

In the Twitterverse, the ego generation and novel writing meet, 140 characters at a time

By Hannah Smith


JAPAN, land of shiny buildings, flashing neon lights and futuristic cars, has long been ahead of us when it comes to technological gadgets, but when it comes to the classic, page-turning novel, not so much. Until now.

Thanks to the alarming speed of teenage girls' thumbs, we are once again a step behind. Japanese high school girls with no professional writing experience have been texting out sentences in their spare time and uploading them to websites that send them out to fans' cell phones before swiftly being compiled into books.

These novels have become so popular that five of the Japanese Top 10 bestsellers in 2007 were cell-phone novels, and the young girls who nonchalantly texted about love and heartbreak while shopping at the mall have become celebrities.

"More than 3 million cell phone novels have been published so far this year," reported Masayoshi Yoshino, president of Goma Books, on the Japanese Writer's House website. "I want to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture."

The idea of instant E-novels has intrigued many would-be and professional authors in the Western world. But obviously, cell-phone novels are, like, so 2007. Now it's all about Twitter. A social website that allows users to give updates about themselves to their followers in 140 characters or less, Twitter's updates stack up backward with the earliest being the last, making traditional novel structure a challenge. In short, it takes commitment to tweet a Twitter novel.

Bakersfield writer Nick Belardes, author of the trivia book Random Obsessions, due out in paperback from a traditional publisher this summer, is up for the challenge.

Belardes started his Twitter novel titled Small Places last April, and now has more than 3,000 followers and an ever-growing story. Small Places skewers the corporate world and follows one man's mundane day-to-day life, where he compares himself to a bug and tries to escape monotony by amusing himself and others in the workplace.

Small Places' working-for-the-Man theme has obviously brought Belardes many chained-to-their-cubicle fans, including those in India and Canada. "A lot of the time they are in corporate meetings, they message me back, and they are kind of snickering about it," he says.

Belardes was using Twitter as a journalistic tool at first, but soon heard of the cell-phone novels in Japan. "Being a novelist," Belardes says, "I instantly thought, 'Are there any Twitter novels?'" He started researching and only found rewritten novels, erotic fiction and group writing projects that had gone by the wayside. He decided he would stake his claim and begin his own Twitter novel. "I'd already written part of a manuscript called Cubicles," he says. "I'd find a section I want to use and then rewrite that to fit the 140-character box."

Although many may read Twitter novels, not too many nonprofessionals are taking to their keyboard or cell phones to write them, despite how-to guides circulating the Internet. Most Twitter novels are by fiction writers with experience. Otherwise, the only Twitter novels found are written by regular folks based on their lives, like a blog or diary.

"Part of the phenomenon these days is for people to write about themselves," Belardes explains. "To me, that's the 'ego generation,' a 16-year-old kid who is a nobody at school but who's empowered through the Internet. People get so caught in those egos that they forget that there is this medium out there called fiction. So very few people read fiction and write fiction."

Of course, embracing such an open forum also means opening up for criticism. Twitter novelist Tom Scharpling lashed out late one Monday night in February, angrily exclaiming about losing followers when posting tweets about his novel Fuel Dump. "And my apologies to those who hate FUEL DUMP. I am not tweeting about the fucking sandwich I ate today. I AM USING TWITTER TO MAKE ART," he flamed.

And unlike the blog craze that landed former stripper Diablo Cody the chance to write and sell the Juno screenplay or the overseas high school cell-phone phenomenon, it is not a money-making endeavor and rarely leads to a book deal. "Do I have to speak Japanese to get a hold of some Japanese publisher?" Belardes asks in exasperation. "Publishing companies are still really archaic. They are still thinking in hardcopy book."

King Dork author Frank Portman has never read a Twitter novel but understands its popularity in our short-attention-span culture. "As for whether it's a passing trend or the phenomenon that could kill the book—and I say this as a big fan of gimmicks—it is a gimmick," Portman says via email. "I'm sure the future of the book will be electronic, but I don't think that means novels will all become a patchwork of short sharp shocks."

Well, who doesn't love a good gimmick? Yet with people complaining if a YouTube video is more than five minutes long, there could be a problem with books becoming shorter and more condensed in order to keep readers from wandering off to watch a show about celebrity rehab. Portman doesn't share this worry. "Since writers like to blather on and rarely like being edited, I would imagine that freedom from the limitations of conventional media will result in longer books rather than shorter ones."

 Belardes may not see Twitter novels as a gimmick, but as an author he shares Portman's hope that the Twitter novel will never overtake the hardcover book. "I find that writing a regular novel is more entertaining for me because that is my true love," he says. Yet he still believes that the Twitter novel is only going to get bigger and more popular with quickly advancing technology. "Everything is going the way of cell phones," he says. "Cell phones are just going to get smarter, better, more addicting."

New technology like Amazon's Kindle, a razor-thin wireless reader, which downloads E-books, and websites like DailyLit.com, which sends installments of books to customers via email, are just two new E-streams for writing. Cell phones are practically on their way to world domination, but will they crush good old-fashioned reading beneath them?

"Goodness," Belardes says, "we can only hope people will read more—even if it's on a cell phone."

 

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