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Interview Extension

Asked for a few words, I went on, and on.

A short while ago, Jim McLellan interviewed me for a piece in The Guardian about pretentious websites like this one, called “How to write a blog-buster.” I am prolix at best, so instead of delivering a few thoughtful, useful quotes, which is what you should do for a journalist under deadline, I wrote him an essay.

Jim managed to find some quotes in all of my verbiage, and as a side effect, I created an explanation of what I'm trying to do here, which appears below. Jim's questions are in bold, followed by my replies, and a few after-the-fact annotations in italics.

(This is somewhat dry stuff, and probably only of interest to a small number of similarly inclined folk.)

.  .  .  .  .  

With FTrain, you seems to deliberately mix things up - there's non-fiction commentary, alongside 'stories' and contributions from fictional personae - what are you aiming to do with the site?

I take great pleasure from writing, just from the act, so it's a way for me to share that with anyone who wanders by. But I am also entirely fascinated by the possibilities of hypertext, by the new means we have of structuring, sorting, and searching text. This fascination keeps me writing for the web, and has led me to become a programmer. I am continually striving (at first alone, but now with others) to create a publishing system that will give readers a rich reading experience, and one that will take full advantage of the web.

I work in waves: I research and write code, then I write inside the system I've built, trying to figure out its limits. Then I flop around for a bit, trying to figure out what comes next. I've repeated this process many times over the years.

I don't think of what I do as a 'blog.' Rather, I call Ftrain a 'graph narrative,' with 'graph' in the mathematical sense, defined by Merriam-Webster, of 'a collection of vertices and edges that join pairs of vertices.' 'Graph narrative' describes the underlying structure of the text: many pieces linking in many ways. Look at me! I have big ideas! So big I have to coin terms to describe them. But wait, there's even more didactic hoo-ha to come. The stories and essays are the vertices, and the links are the edges. The blog structure, as its most often understood, is simpler: blocks of text tagged by date, and category, and a few other kinds of relational data. The difference--and this is probably more information than you'd like--is that blogs are text stored in a database, but Ftrain is a database unto itself, and is defined in terms of itself. So in a way it's my map of reality.

Right now I'm trying to figure out the right way to apply these ideas to fiction and personal narrative, but it's slow, slow progress. Sometimes the possibilities of the medium are confusing and tiring.

How long have you been writing FTrain? Have you always used it as a place to do fiction as well as commentary?

I've been writing online for a decade, and writing Ftrain since 1997. The site has always been a mix of fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, and commonplace book, with photographs, and the occasional sound file and illustration, mixed in.

Do you see blogs as a publishing platform - something that helps you get out work that could just as well appear in print? Or do you see them as a specific form, that offers different creative possibilities? Or is it a mixture of both?

It's a mixture, and mostly up to the writer. I think much of the thinking about blogs and, more broadly, how people create things online, grapples with this problem: how do you define a form in a medium which can accommodate nearly any form? When the same machine can display books, play songs, show movies, and run video games, it's very hard to pin down a form, because there are so few boundaries, and forms are defined by their limits. The 'blog' is an attempt to define a form, and whole communities have come up around it, with a vested interest in pinning down what a blog is, what it means to society, what it means to write one, and the best ways to go about creating one.

(This can lead to hyperbole, and tunnel vision, as when people were convinced that Howard Dean would win the Democratic nomination because he had harnessed the awe-inspiring power of the blog, or when people claim that bloggers will replace journalists.)

In my experience, writing for the web, with the links and other options available, is not the same as writing for other media. I also write for magazines and the radio, and the requirements of each are quite different, the editorial guidelines more defined, and the sense of audience more pronounced. I've turned essays on Ftrain into spoken-word pieces for the radio, and they must be radically changed in order to cross over to a different medium: shortened, sure, but the rhythm of the prose and the sense of what the audience will know, or not know, also changes. I can't count on the context that the other hundreds of thousands of words on my site provides; each piece must be complete.

Much blog-writing right now, I think, is nodding to different editorial traditions: journalism, short-story writing, diaries. It takes decades for a medium to come into its own, for people to qualify what works and doesn't. Right now, and for the forseeable future, we're in an intermediate state: somewhere between prose on paper and digital narratives, which might not be only prose. So you're going to see things which would work fine on paper with no changes, and those which can't be removed from their websites without losing their ability to evoke, or amuse, or entertain, perhaps because they require a song to be downloaded to make sense, or don't work without their links. People are still searching for a common language so that they might talk about this process. The discussions around blogs are one way that people talk about these things, but the common language of blogging doesn't make room for all the other possibilities.

Many people who have tried to tell stories via blogs have worked on extensions of traditional diary fictions - from Diary of A Nobody to Bridget Jones - did you ever experiment with that kind of thing? Or are you trying to do something different?

I have a short attention span, and I can't stick to a plot. This used to bother me, but I've found that over time, themes and ideas emerge, and people respond to those in unique ways. I'll write one piece, and then conclude it a year or two later, and those who want to can read the two pieces in sequence, or read the first, and everything that came between, and then the second. Or they might have been reading the whole time, checking in on me every few weeks.

That variable reading experience, I think, makes this medium unique: this ability to watch the author try, and fail, and try again, the reader's option to see either the edited, or remixed version of the prose, or to see every step along the path. It's these choices--choices which the current wave of blog software do not always enable, but which I feel will be possible as new tools emerge--that make the medium unique. William Gass has a quote, in his book 'Finding a Form': 'The reader's freedom is a holy thing.' I usually place that quote in a comment at the top of my JavaScript and XSLT code, as a reminder of who I'm serving, and the ends to which I am working. I sound like a particular wanker here, no? But I love that quote.

Can fictional diaries really work as blogs? Or do they pose some rather tricky problems when it comes to telling a story? For example, when you read a fictional diary in print, you tend to read a lot of entries in one go - and hence you get a sense of a narrative. Also, in diaries the sense of time and chronology is uncomplicated - But in blogs, you start with the latest entry and scroll down/back in time - so creating a sense of narrative development is more difficult?

This is a technical problem, and can be solved by software. As more people take online prose seriously, the focus is shifting from the writers to the readers, and different ways of arranging narratives for the reader's benefit are emerging. When readers can specify how they want to read, by category, or character, or chronology, or along other axes, this problem will vanish.

What kinds of stories work best in blog form, do you think? Are there some things that won't work?

The personal diary has a special place online, because individuals appear unedited and raw, with all their sublime and mundane qualities together. It's possible to hear hundreds of different voices, to sample personalities like they were hors d'oeuvres, just by clicking around. But I don't think we have any way of knowing, just yet, what other sorts of stories are going to work. It's still too new.

I'm often surprised by what brings in readers. Or that I have any at all. There are some obvious suspects: an article about a new technology has a built-in audience, because the audience on the web has a disproportionate interest in technology when compared with the rest of humanity. The bloggers will link to the article you're writing now, because it's about them. And something short, tight, and funny based on current events will bring thousands of people to a site. But personal essays, and strange bits of fiction, can also generate a huge amount of traffic. When these bring in a large number of readers, and email response, it feels like a victory, because I've reached people in a way that is outside of the news, and outside of their direct interests. These pieces are good examples:

Colgate Money Shot
Cleaning My Room

They were widely read and linked, and discussed, both the ideas within and the way the prose worked, even though the latter one took some time to read.

In terms of online self-publishing, the 'home page' gave way to the 'web journal,' which gave way to the blog. Something will come next, labeled with its own neologism, and it will incorporate what came before. Probably not 'Graph Narrative,' though. More likely something like e-site or s-blog.

With blog fictions, is there potential to involve the readership in some way - to incorporate their feedback into the episodic narrative - but without relinquishing control of the general direction of the story?

I definitely listen to my audience, although I've learned not to let them dictate to me. Hear that? When people find something they like, they want more of it, and so I've been asked for more fiction featuring a given character, more personal essays, more articles on technology. When I've tried to please, the efforts fall flat. Also when I don't try to please.

People also, I find, react to editing: a piece I've edited carefully will garner more readers, more feedback, and more links than something more roughly composed. They respond to craft. Note the sad corollary to this statement: many, many pieces have not been “edited carefully.”

There's a long precedent for audience feedback in serial literature. As the Pickwick Papers was published, the character of Sam Weller proved immensely popular, and Dickens changed the focus to Weller in future installments, and Dickens bought a house on the proceeds. So it obviously pays to listen, but you must also maintain the individual voice that caught the reader's eye in the first place.Which I have not been very good about--and when I say “you” I'm talking to me.

What other blog fictions do you read? Can you recommend anything I should check out?

Josh Allen's Fireland.com is grand and has been going for years; Todd Levin's Tremble.com is comic semi-fictional commentary and excellent; Bob Powers' GirlsArePretty.com is amazing and always there; and Anonymous' NotPretty.com is excellent personal non-fiction--not so much a diary or blog as a crafted memoir. Lastly, Logodrome.net (a Russian-speaking ex-pat), Brokentype.com (a fellow working in publishing), and RhetoricalDevice.com (by a writer/musician/programmer), are written by friends, and each site comes highly recommended. The four of us meet each week to talk out what we're trying to do on the web, and complain.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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