Sunday, November 08, 2009

Instant Metafiction

It has been a hectic month so far, for a variety of reasons, and I'm glad that I deferred/diverted my plans for National Novel Writing Month this year. Kudos to all of you who are participating, and particularly to those of you in the Weblit community who are simultaneously keeping up with serialized writing. This is quite frankly an amazing achievement!

Several months back, I invested some time (okay, a weekend) in developing a framework for what I call "Instant Metafiction" - which I was planning to use for NaNoWriMo this year. I have mentioned this before, but, because I want to capture the project properly before moving on (and eventually taking it to the next level), I am going to describe it in a fair detail here.

The idea was to make it possible to create a finished product resembling metafictional works inspired by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Mark Danielowski's House of Leaves, which are characterized by narratorial insertions like footnotes, endnotes and sidebars. To do this, I would use a source document conforming to the DocBook document specification, typically used for technical manuals, which provides ample opportunity for annotation.

Using this approach, I could then use the standard transform package to generate a final metatext as an ePub version, an XHTML version, or a PDF version from the same source. Using DocBook would facilitate two other things, scheduling and crowdsourcing.

Scheduling is handled by using Blogger as a backend. Like many 'blogging platforms, Blogger allows you to date a post in the future. When the day arrives, the post is published. Conveniently, Blogger also uses labels, so I was able to label all posts I wanted to serialize with the same label. With a handful of lines of XQuery hosted on Google AppSpot (using Java and Saxon 8 to run the XQuery), I could now take the Atom syndication from Blogger, and convert it into DocBook.

Crowdsourcing is also handled by Blogger. Like any 'blogging platform, Blogger allows comments, which are then published in a separate syndication. A small modification to the XQuery used to extract the main Atom feed allowed any comments authored by me to be added to the DocBook source as a sidebar element (I had by this point chosen to focus on sidebars instead of endnotes for sylistic reasons).

By ignoring any other comments, the final metatext remains my own; however, if someone comments on a chapter, I can comment back with a response. And this response gets integrated into the metanarrative as a sidebar. In this way, as people read the narrative, the story is deepened. I am not sure how successful this would actually be, but it seemed like fun, and the tools are all free.

Beyond a weekend project using free technology, this approach offers several advantages - using an existing CMS can be limiting, as it is hard to extend its functionality unless you are familiar with its plugin hooks, and you are hosting your own deployment. This was not something that appealed to me. To my mind, integrated crowdsourcing may be a very important facet for serialized online literature, as it encourages deeper engagement, and it breaks down the barrier between author and audience. And it is something print literature just cannot do.

I would be happy to discuss any of the ideas and approaches described above further. This is definitely a project I will revisit in the near future, when time is more plentiful. I am just looking for a good excuse to do so.

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