Open Source Literature in the Wild
Or what has been done so far
When I asked people to open source their novel it was kind of a long shot, but that does not mean it has not been done before.In fact, this article by Ben Crowell from thirteen years ago proposes exactly the same, wondering whether the open source software model can be translated into book publishing and concluding:
I don’t see any general solution on the horizon to the technical problems involved in true open-source books. However, some of the interesting projects that require an open source approach might be doable with HTML format, which can be used with CVS.
Ben Crowell updated the state of the art in 2005, but writing books in the open has been done mainly for non-fiction and mainly also for technical books. Chris Parsons, for example, tells how he wrote his book for the Pragmatic Programmer Writing Month using Vim (man, that’s hard), Git and Ruby. It even created a Ruby gem called simply book with a community around it, being the basic idea you can create the outline of a book and then do stuff with it from the command line, same as is done in this list of git resources for writers. Even GitHub has resources for writers, but the Pioneer badge goes without a doubt to Charles Stross, who describes his writing tools:
Back in the day, I wrote several novels using: Vim as my editor (vi keystrokes are hardwired into my fingertips — I’ve been using it since 1989), POD macros (Perl’s Plain Old Documentation format), a Makefile to generate up-to-date output formats such as RTF, PDF, and HTML from the podfiles, and rcs to track changes. (With an entire novel occupying a single file, rcs is more than adequate for the task.)
Besides, he was as far as I know the first creative writer to do that kind of thing. Flashbake and Cory Doctorow came a bit later, but the thing about Flashbake is that the idea is to leave the writer alone and let it worry about version control, while I think the opposite is better: have the writer control versions and use version comments as a writing diary.
However, the first person, as far as I know, to put a novel in GitHub (but, from the commit history, it shows that it was only uploaded when finished) was Ken McConnell with The Rising:
First of all, it’s a great way to back up your writing off-site and in the cloud. I already save my files in DropBox. But using a version controlled system is just another way to record my changes while I back it up
That’s the path I’m following with Hoborg: open source from the beginning, release early, release often, and also do nice presentations using impress.js. So even if there seem to be only two novels in GitHub right now, I expect them to bloom like flowers in a season where they seem to be wont to do it.
Update: In fact, there’s already another open source novel: opensourcenovel.org . I have no idea how I could have missed this; it’s even on GitHub and it does have pull requests and all. So go ahead and fork it! I have already done it, and expect to help them in any way I can.
In fact, it’s happened before: this article talks about Inheritance, which, unfortunately, seems to have vanished. However, the concepts and the fact that they did it 8 years ago stands.