Category Archives: collaboration

On Writing Digital Texts

Since 2001 I’ve been writing collaborative multimedia digital stories alongside my work as a writer of literary fiction.  Working in these parallel fields has served me well as writer, mostly accidentally. For example, one unintended consequence of being part of the small team that produces the digital story, ‘Inanimate Alice’, a work referred to elsewhere as ‘the world’s first born-digital transmedia pedagogical blockbuster for children’ (yes, we have a problem figuring out what to call these hybrid works), is that I often get asked to speak at digital publishing conferences. An unintended consequence of that is that I now know much more about digital publishing than I could have anticipated. Yet another unintended consequence is that I’ve recently become a digital publisher myself: working with a publishing consultant, I’ve created new ebook editions of four of my backlist literary novels under an imprint called, yes, Kate Pullinger Books (I suggested Kate Publishinger Books, but that was rejected).  So now I’m a transmedia collaborator, an author of literary fiction, and a publisher. C’est la vie.

One notable change over the past couple of years is that while these worlds which, as stated above, were largely parallel – in the same way that child psychologists observe toddlers engaging in ‘parallel play’: she has her toys, he has his, they are in the same room, occasionally they glance at each other suspiciously, but that’s about it – they have now begun to, well, not exactly merge, but at least they’ve grown up enough to exchange a few toys.

A few examples from my own work: firstly, a mainstream publisher playing in the realm of digital experimentation. My new novel, Landing Gear – literary fiction to the core – grew up out of www.flightpaths.net, the digital fiction I created with Chris Joseph. Doubleday, my Canadian publisher, was inspired by the novel’s pre-existing digital footprint to create a raw API from the first 30 pages of the novel. They then used that raw API to create an interactive map of the novel that pins extracts from the novel to the actual locations relevant to the text.

Second, two government bodies in two different countries investing in digital stories and digital pedagogy: ‘Inanimate Alice’, a project that has been not exactly dormant but certainly quiet for the last four years has just received two new tranches of funding to develop the next two episodes, and to create a companion set of interactive stories for language training in schools.

And lastly, my new digital collaboration, Letter to an Unknown Soldier, has been commissioned by 14-18NOW, a UK body set up to respond to the centenary of WW1 through a series of artists’ commissions. Letter to an Unknown Soldier is an attempt to create a new kind of war memorial, a digital memorial made of words. Open to everyone, it allows for collaboration on a massive scale; with its substantial budget and team of 18 people involved, it’s a far cry from my usual working method of me and a web artist, alone in front of our respective screens, communicating via email and Skype.

So, in conclusion – well, there isn’t really a conclusion. Writing is evolving. Reading is evolving. And publishing is evolving too. I, for one, find it incredibly exciting.

Of cards and decks

We’ve been thinking more about cards as the metaphor for the visual nodes of a story; everywhere the analogy gets reinforced, including today, when we had a good look at the excellent deck.js framework as a building block for our technology infrastructure. Deck.js was originally designed as an HTML5 slideshow/presentation tool, but it’s so nicely put together, modular, and well documented that we’ve begun adapting it as a basic platform for DF. A deck of slides or a deck of cards?

Similarly, we’ve been looking at the almost ineffably amazing TiddlyWiki5 as a content store and editorial management system; again, wiki’s origins were as a ‘deck of cards’ in software. TiddlyWiki5 is a stunning piece of recursive architecture, with the entire system built out of “tiddlers”–cards, that is –that hold content and/or the Javascript code that makes up the system itself. As Alan Kay would say, “it’s turtles all the way down.”

Beyond the technical details themselves, our goal is to put together a flexible system for assembling layers of media for digital fiction. We want to be able to support, on the fly, the creative directions set (or discovered) by our workshop participants, and to do so in an open, connective, and collaborative system that’s unconstrained by proprietary software or external limitations. That said, that such powerful toolkits are available on the open web (“Fork me on GitHub”) is a lovely thing.

Watch this space.

 

Managing collaboration

The Pathways workshop is to be a collaborative experience; participants, supporting faculty, and creative director/digital dramaturge Kate Pullinger to conceive, author, and produce a work of networked fiction.

But how, in such an environment, are we to value and recognize intellectual contributions and intellectual property? If everyone involved is an “author,” then are we to be left with a tangle of competing IP claims for the resulting work?

Back in the 1980s, free software pioneer Richard Stallman famously confronted this problem, faced with managing the contributions of hundreds of contributors to the code for the Emacs text editor. Stallman’s solution to the problem was to turn copyright on its ear and create a ‘copyleft’ license, consigning the work itself to the commons, and putting the rights to reuse, rework, remix, and redistribute ahead of the right to control copying or use. The result was the GPL1.

That worked very well for software projects. But the same idea has been employed to good effect in Wikipedia—where an indeterminate number of contributors labour to make the entries there better and better over time. Rather than a tangle of IP claims from competing contributors, Wikipedia begins with a blanket CC-By-SA licence: essentially a ‘copyleft’ license like Stallman’s GPL.

But can this work in the world of fiction and creative writing? Examples are few and far between? Is a copyleft approach necessary to manage collaboration at scale, or are a number of networked private IP claims workable?


  1. The story of Stallman’s predicament and the solution that came out of it is retold nicely in Chris Kelty’s excellent book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008)