September 8, 2010

Mortal Kiss: The Future of Interactive Young Adult Fiction?

This past Monday, Random House UK released an "awesome new interactive story on Stardoll" called Mortal Kiss. Unfortunately, technology does little to augment the story. Worse, it already feels dated.

The story opens to a map of the setting. Buildings including a police station, bookstore, high school, mall, and several houses are labeled.
As of today, two days after the launch, most buildings are inactive until listed opening dates. The only active building is the police station. Clicking on it takes the user inside where there's an evidence bag on a desk and an open file cabinet. Both expand and glow when moused over, showing that they can be clicked.

The evidence bag contains no interactive elements yet.
The case file from the drawer is a little more interesting as there's a 2-page incident report about a murder.
The actual story can be found by clicking on the book icon in the right hand navigation.
However when the book opens, it covers the entire map, rendering it inaccessible, and users click through pages for a traditional, linear story. The animation awkwardly tries to emulate a physical reading experience. A summary version of the story is provided, so instead of reading multiple pages, users can read single paragraph sketches of each chapter.
The story, like the clickable world, will expand between now and Halloween. I hope that as new parts of the world open, actual interactive elements are added. As of now Mortal Kiss reads like an illustrated novel, and technology doesn't improve the experience. Clicking on objects brings up some detail; however user actions don't affect the narrative.
In fact, more than anything, this "interactive story" resembles JK Rowling's website, which launched in 2005. Her site represents her desk, and clicking on various objects brings up her bio, news, and all sorts of other information.
Unlike Mortal Kiss, Rowling's site also contains games and Easter eggs. User actions unlock parts of the site, making it more interactive than this story.
Mortal Kiss is not revolutionizing YA fiction or creating a new storytelling model, at least not yet. Rather it resembles a pop-up book and not even a complexly crafted one.

August 24, 2010


There's a new application called Storify that's in private user testing right now, and it promises to be an interesting way of assembling stories online. That's right: assemble, not necessarily write.

According to the demo, Storify allows users to curate social media posts, such as tweets, YouTube videos, and other links, to create a narrative about a current event or conference.

Here's the video:

Storify demo from Burt Herman on Vimeo.

It's easy to see immediate applications, especially when trying to filter content from noise on a specific hash tag.

But let's step away from intended use for a moment and think about new narrative possibilities. Imagine this as a tool for fiction. You could extract a story told through tweets and easily share it with those who aren't on Twitter, so this becomes a new method of publication or distribution for a short work. You could assemble a digital dérive, combining tweets with images and video. Even more radical, you could put together an entire story without writing a single line of it by piecing together items found on the web and then publishing the compilation. The interface is simple enough to permit a gap between intention and openness, so there's ample room for appropriation and play.

If you try out Storify for fiction, let me know. I'd love to see what you create.

August 18, 2010

WriteOnCon Post Mortem

Last week a group of kidlit writers put together an online conference that was honestly one of the best applications of technology I've ever seen for writers.

Most writers work alone at home. Conferences cost money between travel, hotel, food, and registration fees. Attending conferences can also be inconvenient -- they happen during the weekend, which is when writers usually relinquish their solitude and interact with the rest of the world.

So the organizers of WriteOnCon did the logical thing: they put together a midweek conference that was free and online. Writers wouldn't have to interrupt their usual work schedules (or change into business attire!) and could still connect with one another.

The organizers put together a mix of static and live content. Every hour during the work day they published either a blog or vlog post. In the evening they scheduled moderated chats. Over the course of the conference, there was also a forum where people could post work and provide critiques.

There was only one big glitch (inevitable with any event involving tech): the site went down on Day 1. I'm guessing WriteOnCon was hit with more traffic than they were ready to handle. A few hundred people pre-registered for the conference (in other words these registrants created accounts to participate in the forum and chat). Once the event began and individual posts were announced on Twitter and retweeted, thousands joined, many of whom followed the static content either on the website or through feed readers and never created accounts.

The site eventually returned, and in the meantime, organizers cross-posted static content to their own blogs to keep the momentum going and to stick to the schedule they'd created -- a simple solution while they got the site back up -- and the rest of the conference went on as planned.

The best part of this event? All of the static events are archived on the WriteOnCon website. There's a treasure trove of panels, talks, and essays on a wide range of topics from industry professionals. This is worth exploring and one of the biggest advantages of an online conference. Even if you didn't attend or didn't hear about the event until it ended, you can still access the presentations.

Will this sort of event replace in person conferences? Of course not. Nor should they. There's a great deal to be said for meeting writers in person, to dedicating a weekend to developing craft, and to having the opportunity to interact with presenters. However, WriteOnCon was accessible to an enormous cross-section of people -- both geographically and economically -- providing complementary learning and networking opportunities.

I'm looking forward to more online events such as these. Kudos to the organizers!

August 14, 2010

SxSW proposals

I wasn't going to list all of the fabulous SxSW Interactive proposals by people I like, and now I don't have to, because Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic has done it for me!

PanelPicker is down right now (go figure, right?), but Andrew's proposal and Deb's are both listed in the Atlantic's Top 15 panel picks (woo hoo!), along with some fabulous proposals by book people.

Boston bookfuturist Joanne McNeil proposed a panel on caring for your online introvert -- important for many writers. Rural librarian Jessamyn West would like to talk about the digital divide. I didn't realize that 22% of Americans aren't online, and this is a huge topic to discuss. IO9 editors Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders are part of a group that proposed a talk on science fiction, social networking, and the future. I'm particularly excited about Richard Nash's panel proposal on the future of the book. I expect it to be a challenging, insightful talk, and really hope it's selected.

Although SxSW Interactive is a "tech" conference, I wish more writers would attend. Instead of fearing the death of publishing and waiting to see what happens, we should engage with publishers and start ups and creators of systems to help define and implement new models of publication and distribution.

I attended SxSWi for the first time this past March and live tweeted panels on storytelling, teens, and race/gender. I plan to attend similar strands in the spring, along with any panels on publishing, and hope to continue the conversation. Think about attending, as well. The conference is in Austin, where there's a tight knit and extraordinarily welcoming kidlit community, so it's a chance to get to know wonderful writers as well as people researching and creating future media.

Edited to add: GalleyCat posted a list of SxSW publishing panels. Check them out, and vote! You don't have to attend the conference to help select panels. All you need is a free account.

April 7, 2010


As a writer, it can be helpful to visualize a story or an article (1) to find overused words and (2) to identify main concepts or themes. If the main character of a novel is named Harry and he's a wizard, those words should dominate a visualization. If the most common words are "just" or "back" or "obviously", the author should probably revise and take a careful look at word choice.

Wordle is a popular visualization tool that many writers use, although it wasn't created explicitly for writers. From the site:
Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.
Jonathan Feinberg, creator of Wordle (full disclosure: he and my husband worked in the same group at IBM research for two years), makes explicit that Wordle is a toy. It is not a tool for analysis. The reason relates to design: Wordle doesn't only count word frequencies and generate a visualization. It lets users make these word clouds pretty. Users can play with fonts, choose colors, even select whether Wordle should take capitalization into consideration. All of these decisions affect what the viewer judges to be important.

For example, if there are two words of the same size on a black background, one in white, the other in dark purple, which will stand out more? The viewer will give the white word more "weight" than the purple word because it's brighter against the background, although technically both words appeared in the text the same number of times.

I generated the following visualizations by running my previous post on Gender Guessing through Wordle:

Because of my design decisions, different words leap out in each visualization. In the third image, "GENDER" holds the most weight due to a combination of size, color, and location in the word cloud. In the first, "writing", "gender", and "words" have approximately equal prominence. In the final image, "words" pops the most, and "feminine" is fairly bright, much more so than "masculine" although they are similar in size/weight (therefore frequency).

For writers using Wordle as a revision tool, here are a couple of tips:
  1. Make multiple visualizations.
  2. Choose all caps or all lowercase so that words like "gender" and "Gender" aren't counted separately.
  3. Include a black and white visualization for a word cloud that doesn't apply color biases.
  4. Experiment with horizontal, vertical, and mixed orientations to see how this affects your understanding of word frequency/prominence.
For writers using Wordle for fun: Enjoy! It's an interesting and illuminating exercise to view your words through a new lens.

March 11, 2010

Gender Guessing

A few weeks ago, a conversation began on the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (NESCBWI) listserv on the accuracy of voice, specifically with regard to gender. How can someone writing across gender lines tell if a character's voice is authentic? Elizabeth Bluemle, author and bookseller, posted a link to Gender Guesser, and writers immediately began to copy and paste excerpts of their manuscripts into this tool to test how male or female their character sounded.

The tool is called Gender "Guesser" because according to the site, "[w]hile Gender Guesser may be 60% - 70% accurate, it is not 100% accurate. This is better than random guessing (50%), but should not be interpreted as 'fact'."

This begs the question, what is it about voice that sounds male or female? What do writers writing across gender need to consider?

From the website:
In 2003, a team of researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology and Bar-Ilan University in Israel (Shlomo Argamon, Moshe Koppel, Jonathan Fine, and Anat Rachel Shimoni) developed a method to estimate gender from word usage. Their paper described a Bayesian network where weighted word frequencies and parts of speech could be used to estimate the gender of an author. Their approach made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction writing styles.

A simplified version of this work was implemented as the Gender Genie. They showed that fewer words were needed and that writing styles varied based on the forum. For example, fiction and non-fiction differs from blogs (informal writing). Even though the genres differ, there are still gender-specific word frequencies.

The claim is that a small subset of words can skew the "gender" of a writing sample, and these sets vary according to formal versus informal writing styles. The source code clearly shows how words are ranked as masculine or feminine. In the category of informal writing, the top five feminine words are: him, something, because, actually, and everything. The top five masculine words are: some, this, as, now, and good.

Two qualities leap out: first, with the exception of "him", feminine words are polysyllabic, whereas masculine words are monosyllabic. Second, masculine words are definite, e.g. "some" vs. "something," while the listed feminine words add vagueness or qualification.

Of course this only counts for 10-20% of gender guessing beyond the 50% accuracy of a coin toss. What comprises the other 30-40% of a character's voice?

Beyond the words themselves, there's the nature of thought, the types of observations a character makes, his or her metaphors for experiencing the world. Voice emerges from patterns of thought as well as from word choice and syntax, and these elements reinforce each other. It's also important to acknowledge that most people, and therefore most characters, will not register as 100% of a gender -- a certain level of ambiguity can actually (note the feminine word!) increase authenticity.

While a tool like Gender Guesser is fun, it provides a superficial measure of "authenticity." A character's voice must work in multiple dimensions which cannot be quantified easily.

March 2, 2010


Although writing is viewed as a low-tech occupation (all one needs is a pencil and paper), the relationship between writers and technology is constantly growing more complex. There are technological tools created for writers as well as tools that writers have appropriated. Publishing platforms are evolving, and many writers are expressing emotions ranging from excitement to uncertainty to fear about what new platforms mean for "traditional" storytellers.

This blog is a space in which to explore the relationship between writers and technology, covering everything from software for writers to new forms of storytelling. If you'd like me to post about a specific tool or topic, please comment below.