Some of my favourite novels as a teenager were ones that told a story through a different medium to the straight narrative, a medium I got. Whole novels told through email exchange or text or instant message (Even if all the characters seemed unusually good at articulating their story) appealed to me because when I was growing up they were the new thing and, well, my parents didn’t understand back then which made it all the more appealing. They were geared toward my generation, and the cool things I was learning how to use and make my own. These days email is ‘so yesterday’, and interactivity is the new MO. Attention spans are also the size of an embryo’s bladder. So what does that say for our newest generation of young people whose ‘hunting ground’ is social media? How is story telling adapting to (what I would deem) a revolution rather than a craze? To the punchier, quicker, serialised version of life that makes reading a book a project rather than just an everyday part of our daily entertainment? Young Adults don’t just expect to be able to read a book these days; they expect to be able to interact with it, whether it be interacting with the author, the story or the characters. This can lead to some legal grey areas but we’ll come to that in a minute. Young writers around the world are putting on their thinking caps and coming up with some amazing stories that make full use the features available on the social media platforms to enhance and augment a story. One such project is Our Town Oldham, a Twitter Soap Opera. This virtual suburb is inhabited by 18 fiction characters, which over a series of ten week periods explore contemporary issues like mental health and the disability arts scene. The storylines are written by young writers mentored by professional script writers and the drama unfolds daily via a range of social media platforms. The story is moved forward with pictures, text and video making the tale transmedia and giving it an element of reality, with a ‘face’ being put to the characters. What I found really fascinating were the writers don’t try to make the tweets conform to conventional prose but rather use Twitter style shortenings and symbols to get the story across.
Our Town Characters interacting on Twitter
For ‘Our Town Oldham’ writers, the entirety of their story is on the social media platforms (Not within a book or e-book first). A similar project, “The Real Mayor of Chicago” (Twitter: @MayorEmanuel) basically high-jacked a local Chicago Mayor’s campaign through an imaginary sequence of Tweets that brought infamy to the comedian who started the account. Yet social media is just as powerful for augmenting a story as it is for being the sole medium through which it’s told. Over the past two years I have been experimenting with telling story in a series of Facebook Novels. Similar to the narratives I use to read in High School where the story consisted of an email exchange, these comedy tales are told through Facebook status updates, comments, private messages and notes. My initial prompt was to write something light hearted, but as the novels grew I became more and more interested in how much you can tell about a person from the things they write on their social media. And yes, while everyone has friends who post mundane things (“This sandwich is so mind-blowing! Who knew ham could taste this good?”), are sex crazed or heart broken, I was more interested in the difference between how people present themselves publicly and how they present themselves in real life or private message.
These novels had an odd effect in the sense that my beta readers became really invested in the characters, talking to me about them as if they were like any other friend. At first I put the three-D-ness of the characters down to the personal interaction I have with Facebook. Then I realised it was not my experience but rather a kind of Jedi mind trick; I know when I use Facebook there are real people on the other end of the profile and this has carried over to my reading of prose in the Facebook format. Somehow, because it was set out like Facebook, where the interaction you make with people is real, it made the fiction in turn seem real. To my surprise, I wanted to interact with my own characters. This led me to the conclusion that if I wanted to interact with them, perhaps readers of my e-book would feel that way too.
The interaction between the Grand Adventures of Madeline Cain characters on one of the characters profile pages (including photographs and links to pages, hard to incorporate into a book/e-book)
So I created an interactive world that readers could plunge into after they had read the story, as a way to engage, but also to give a sense of realism to the tale. I made Facebook pages for each important character of the story. All of a sudden, using this free medium, I was able to provide readers with character backgrounds in an unobtrusive way, post pictures or videos on my characters profiles that fitted their personalities (and which are difficult to add to a print/e-book) and have the characters interact with each other. The kick I got out of seeing my characters’ conversations on my Facebook newsfeed was massive. In a way, it came back to what spoke to my generation – the ability to interact with fictional characters thrilled me. The idea that others could interact with them too, was even more exciting.
To post as particular character on another character’s page go to the edit pagetab then Use Facebook as ….
Posting as one character on another character’s posts in Facebook
On that first afternoon while I was congratulation myself on creating an interactive, transmedia story for no money, common sense descended. There was a cost to this interactivity. I wanted people to be able to interact with my story, to take part in the creation of other books in the series by helping direct where the story goes next. It was how the Grand Adventures of Madeline Cain was born, by throwing a call out to my Facebook friends for absurd ideas and kooky characters. But I was living in the 21st century, where we sued people for sneezing too close to our shoes. I may have just wanted to create an experience, but when ideas are involved, I also had to make sure I protected my arse.
So, when young readers are screaming out for interactivity and new experiences, how does an author protect themselves from the arising legal ramifications? Given how big the ‘social’ phenomena is, it seems stupid not to take advantage of the thing that the masses truly want - to be part of the story and to share that with others. However, it’s clear that legality is making us move further away from the biggest marketing revelation of our time; a chance to fully realise the reader/author connection. So do we as writers ignore the interactive potentials of our stories, delegate our novels to being a project for readers rather than a part of the new high tech life? (Yes, I’m going to the extreme here, however, if being on the sites that matter to younger generations gets them to read more stories, this is surely a good goal, no?)
Not one for allowing the few idiots in the world ruin it for the honest readers who just want take part, I put the below notice on all my character pages, which frankly destroys the illusion a bit and makes me feel like a dick:
“********RULES FOR POSTING ON THIS PAGE*************
Madeline Cain is a character created by Emily Craven for her Madeline Cain Series. This page is part of the interactive experience created by Emily as part of this series.
It's my wish to make this an interactive space and experience, allowing for readers to help dictate the direction the story takes in the future (And if I like your ideas enough I may even name a character after you!).
Unfortunately this sort of fun interactivity puts me in a legal copyright grey area. Even though this is an unpleasant thing to have to add, I need to cover my (and Madeline's!) arse. Please note that by posting on this page you are agreeing your content and ideas may appear in the Madeline Cain books written by Emily Craven and by posting you are consenting/giving permission for this content/idea to possibly be used by the author in her published works WITHOUT monetary compensation being provided to you for the content/idea. The author will try, where possible, to credit content/ideas in the dedication section of the novels but is not obligated to. Please do not post other people's content on this page or you will be legally liable.
If this makes you uncomfortable, rather than posting on the fan page please feel free to send myself (Emily) a personal message telling me your thoughts about the book. I love my readers and hearing from them and I feel like an arse for having a legal notice, but it's better this way, for you and me!”
Half the about section of the page has to lead participants/readers to the page rules so they know what they’re getting into.
I felt like it was a clumsy solution, but what else is there to do? Big name authors have to put disclaimers next to their email addresses discouraging fans from sending ideas, or manuscripts for an author to peruse because they’re advised to do so for their own protection. I don’t have the money to pay people for helping my character Madeline Cain reach new, absurd heights with their crazy ideas (nor the patience to record and grab the details of a contributor), nor do I have the time to argue in court that every person in the world could be given the same idea and we would get nine billion different stories varying from shitty to brilliant.
Truth be told, I don’t know what the solution is, but the idiots continue to be born and the legal system isn’t going anywhere. I’d dearly love your opinion below. Perhaps, for now, all we can do is create and put up our legal notices to deter the flies.
The Grand Adventures of Madeline Cain is live at: http://www.facebook.com/GrandAdventuresOfMadelineCain