Afterword: Writing a serial interactive story
I am compelled to offer up a capstone to the March Story project (though we are now halfway into April). It was very much an experiment, and as with an experiment, it is important to publish your results.
I hope this experiment is a good example for other writers out there interested in playing with fiction. For all of you— here’s what I learned along the way:
Real-time serial fiction
Cranking out 2-3,000 words per week was not actually as daunting as I thought it would be. Could those words have used a substantial edit? Yes. (Definitely.) But I was able to fit the writing and light editing into my schedule fairly easily. And setting it in the present was a lot of fun. Each week I would pick a good news day to serve as the backdrop to that week’s episode and take notes as the day progressed. The Vatican was very obliged to provide some great content.
To that end, the newsroom was a great setting. It allowed the news of each day to serve as the background to the setting. There was also a lot of resonance between the process of cranking out news copy and cranking out episodes. My process was quick, sometimes (usually) sloppy. It was motivated by deadlines as much as quality. The penultimate episode, in which a team collaborates to write a big news story, is sort of an homage to this process. (Though none of the episodes had the luxury of a dozen sets of eyes reading them before they were published.)
The contributions from readers were an incredibly important part of the process. Writing fast and in between workdays, I didn’t always have the luxury of gobs of creative time to ruminate over plot details. The suggestions from readers were tiny motes of inspiration around which I could start to build the episodes. Words, names, locations— readers helped define all of these. My favorite example of this collective creativity at work is probably in Episode 2, as we learn the history of the Manhattan Dome.
Having contributors to a work of fiction also means having a built-in audience for each episode. I expected the number of readers per episode to dwindle week-over-week, which happened. The outlier to that pattern was Episode 5, which included the highest number of contributions.
The final episode of the story was written in a public Google Doc in one sitting. I had not originally planned for the final episode to be written live, but it seemed like a natural conclusion to a story set in the present. It did offer a challenge in the narrative— I would have loved the final scene to be rain falling down on Manhattan, but it wasn’t raining that afternoon!
Writing live for a watching audience was nerve-wracking. I knew where I wanted the story to go, I had the final scene pictured perfectly in my mind, but I felt myself meandering a bit to get there. And I really didn’t want to get stumped in front of an audience. Once I started writing the last scenes though it really flowed. It was exhilarating. My heart was actually pounding for the final hour as Monica ran into Times Square and my fingers tapped out everything she saw and did. It was hard to stand up and walk away at the end.
Medium was a great platform to work with. I can’t recommend it enough. And the real-time, public nature of Twitter meant that there were always readers out there when I was looking for contributions. Writing the final episode I tweeted “All right, I need a word. Give me whatever you’ve got and I’ll fit it in.” Within two minutes I had 13 different polysyllabic contributions to piece together.
As a writer I find experiments like this valuable. They help me to grow my skills; the exposure to an audience keeps me on task; the interactivity builds a community around the stories. And it’s fun. Is it my best, most polished writing? Absolutely not. But there is something valuable in ephemeral fiction. It’s a fun and challenging way to explore an idea and connect with readers.
If you ever decide to run an experiment like this, reach out to me and let me know what you’re doing — I’m always on Twitter at @magicandrew.