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Last week we ran a literary experiment on Twitter. We asked our followers to write a collective story, one tweet at a time. Novelist Russ Litten (whose new crime novel Swear Down is the first title in the Litro Book Club) wrote the first line for us, and then we handed the story over to fate … and Twitter.
We had no idea how the experiment would turn out. Could a story written this way work? Would it come out as nonsense, or the whole thing fizzle out in a day?
Well, the results are in, and you can now read the finished story below. We’ve compiled the tweets in the order they were written, making changes only to punctuation for the sake of clarity, and amending a change of person that seemed to be a mistake rather than artistic intention.
We’re rather pleased with it – admittedly, it’s madder than a bag of ferrets, makes little sense, careers from one plot idea to another and ends more confusingly than it started, but it is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
There’s been much discussion in recent years about what the internet will mean for literature in the long run, and there’s already a slew of work that embraces and plays with the possibilities of the web. There’s flarf poetry, which uses “found” text as the material for a poem, and writers are using the net to engage readers in new ways, like Calum Kerr, who posted a flash fiction story every day for a year on his blog. Fantasy author Silvia Hartmann recently wrote a novel live on Google Docs, inviting fans to watch it come out, word by word, as she typed.
But are these genuine literary innovations, or just publicity stunts, a bit of online fun to while away a lunch break?
Let’s be honest, we’re probably not on the brink of a new literary genre with our Twitfic experiment. But we do think it raises some interesting questions about collaborative fiction, and how similar projects could be made to work in future. The internet offers opportunities for collaboration and the cross-fertilization of ideas that are wider and more far-reaching than anything else in history. We’re already fantasising about getting a group of novelists to write together on Twitter. (Imagine it – Margaret Atwood and Bret Easton Ellis, compiling a joint magnum opus, tweet by tweet…)
Of course, the internet is also by its nature largely unedited, which is generally a pain – finding ways to sift the few grains of genius from the morass of nonsense is getting harder by the day. But perhaps the unedited net is also something to be embraced.
We rather admire (although we don’t recommend) Silvia Hartmann’s decision not to do re-writes on her novel, because, she says, “as far as I can tell, the metaphors are all in order, the timelines sound and the personae who they are all the way through.” So the finished e-book she puts out will truly be an artefact, the “live” novel that her fans watched her create online.
The way we find and read literature has already been fundamentally changed by digital technology. It seems likely that the way writers write will be similarly affected. There’ll still be plenty of them scribbling away with a biro in their garden shed, but there’ll also be revolutionary new approaches to how literature is produced, and by who. The challenge will be watching for the meaningful patterns in the noise.
A Moment of Weakness: A Twitter Story
It was a moment of weakness. Nothing more. A chance for a lie-in – but afterwards she would torture herself by asking, what if I had taken him to school that morning, instead of letting him tag along with the kids from up the road?
She could hear the neighbour’s radio from her bed. They were playing Thelonious Monk, but she was too exhausted to get up. She couldn’t face the reality that the sounds of Thelonius brought back the memory of a romantic evening that ended in the disastrous meeting with the man who had called himself Messenger.
She still perfectly remembered the first time she caught that mysterious glimpse in his dark black eyes, drawn, but yet fearful of what it might lead to. She let him take her hand, though he was a perfect stranger, and he took her in his arms, looked into her eyes, and she signed for the delivery of a motorcycle tire for number 30.
“I always wanted to go on a motorcycle trip,” she remembered. Her eyes turned dark, with the memory of her lost dreams rising. Thinking of that chilly April morning when she’d learned of her father’s horrific crash, she mourned both her dad and her dream. It had taken her a lot to put that horrific episode behind her and move on with her life. She knew now that she couldn’t escape the Talents which made her special. The Messenger had come to tell her it was time to make her father proud.
She sat up in bed, and pulled back the covers. Her son was probably safe at school now. She could go anywhere, do anything.
Her mind kept wandering back to Messenger. Last time was a disaster but he called to her. She scrolled through her phone. Could she do it? She scrolled down for the number. Her hands, slippery with anticipation, dropped the phone. She listened to the dial tone stutter. Paralyzed by regret she waited for the phone to go silent. “Is this a bad time?” she gasped.
“Bad times,” he said, the signal chopping his voice into pieces. “But you know that. I want you to come to the cliffs. You know the place.”
Her heart thudded. She knew. “Midday,” he said. “You’ll be there?” The line crackled and then went dead. “I’ll be there,” she said.
She hung up and couldn’t do anything but hold her breath. She looked at the clock on the wall, the hands were pointing at 11:27 am. There were enough reasons not to go, but Billy would be safe at school by now. She had nothing but time. She kicked off the covers and stumbled into the bathroom. The face staring back at her was calmer than she felt. Every time she blinked, it blurred a bit more.
No painkiller in the world could take away the ache she felt in her chest. Like her heart had been picked apart by angry ravens. Angry ravens that followed him home. His territory mocking Poe, his version of the urban becoming a den of the strange.
Sometimes, though, it was enough to just take yourself to the front door, stand on the step, and open your nostrils to the day.
There was no use in worrying about it. She dressed quickly, grabbed her car key and headed up to the cliffs. He was already there. She took a deep breath and got out of the car. He started to walk towards her, his coat flapping in the wind. She tried to smile.
“Here is your next assignment,” he said, passing her a fat manila envelope and not waiting for a reply
Her hands were shaking. She opened it and his name was there. She put it back but The Messenger stopped her. “You know you have no choice.”
They locked eyes.
“There’s always a choice, and the choice is mine to make, mine alone.” She squared her shoulders & pushed him aside. “That’s trouble with choices. Power to choose means responsibility for the choice.” A thin smile, and she headed to the cliff edge.
She threw the envelope. It hit the water like something dead. She didn’t need it. She knew where she’d find him. She turned, shouted his name into the darkness, the wind whispering it through the valley. She needed to know how far she could go. She walked towards his name into the darkness, the wind whispering it through the valley. She needed the echo of that name.
“Come find, comfort and guide me. I know I have spirit but I’m not afraid to say I’m scared.” She looked into the pitiless face of Death, then calmly applied her eye liner. If she had a date with Destiny, she was going to look damn fine.
“Delaying the inevitable?” he called. “Why draw it out?” She turned, tossing the eyeliner after the folder. “A moment of weakness?”
He looked pointedly at the No Litter sign, “Can’t you use the bin like everyone else?” But he didn’t wait for an answer. Kneeling down, he picked the envelope out of the water and opened it again for her. “Do you really think you could hide by destroying the letter? I’ll never give up my hunt for the Messenger. Now read it out loud and tell me what you know in your heart. That you will. You have to. You’re a chosen one without any choice. She sighed & started to read but the writing was blurred, the black ink flashing red. What was happening to her eyes? What language was this?
She didn’t know what to do. The tears in her eyes were blurring the words and her eyeliner. She took a hit from a flask she kept hidden in her purse. Hard stuff. Tasted like nail varnish but it was going to do the job. Then it was time to go. She jumped behind the wheel of the waiting car and put her foot down, leaving the crashing waves behind. Fire in her belly, rage in her heart but cold her resolve to end this tonight.
She tried to steady her shaking hands but only succeeded in gripping the steering wheel tighter. There was no turning back. Under mercury sky she smelt victory, the car pulling the horizon closer. It was a dark and stormy night. She roared into the gravelled lot and slammed to a stop.
Under the flashing neon, she felt for the switchblade in her garter. He’d called it “A tyre for No. 30”, but there was no No. 30 on her street. She pulled the box from the boot, and cut it open. Inside was a note. “If not for your father, for your son” it said, signed by him. She pulled the blade, and headed for the light.
Thanks to all our Twitter writers who contributed lines to this story:
@RussLitten @Ashfeld @EleOssola @WeirdJourno @GlenisStott @EmilyCleaver @patrickedunne @MarianneCronin @XavBlancmange @DorotheeLang @ChrisGNguyen @hennabutt @patrickedunne @jadamthwaite @laurabesley @jlstroudjr @AnuNande @MichaeldeSoet @braket3 @365daystory @Paris_Franz @call_me_inga @BI_Blogfic @SmallPlays @kiwirebecca @MrsCarlieLee @BokehFlux @BI_Blogfic @MirandaHqv @manickmanda @madlendavies @laurabesley @f_sd @hennabutt @AnuNande @braket3 @ormiga
Emily Cleaver is Litro's Online Editor. She is passionate about short stories and writes, reads and reviews them. Her own stories have been published in the London Lies anthology from Arachne Press, Paraxis, .Cent, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, One Eye Grey, and Smoke magazines, performed to audiences at Liars League, Stand Up Tragedy, WritLOUD, Tales of the Decongested and Spark London and broadcasted on Resonance FM and Pagan Radio. As a former manager of one of London’s oldest second-hand bookshops, she also blogs about old and obscure books. You can read her tiny true dramas about working in a secondhand bookshop at smallplays.com and see more of her writing at emilycleaver.net.