Writer’s Notebook: Commissioning for Attention

The 2009 post Getting Attention was an interesting description of how the Internet was then changing from people visiting sites to receiving a stream of content.

Most people using the web, especially in younger age-​groups, now experience the web as streams, not sites. It might be the stream of updates in Facebook, or their contact’s Flickr photostream, or a string of results on Google, or in an RSS reader.

Getting Attention was about new ways of storytelling designed for the stream – text that could be discovered as fragments and still produce an interesting experience. Content that might be discovered out-of-order or as fragments.

[you should] design content that plays nicely with streams – content that can be interesting and enticing as a one-line text result in a search query, and that doesn’t mind being broken up into small pieces…

In some ways it’s exciting – every piece is its own little launch.

launch the project early, and often. Put out lots of little bits of content over time, and reward people who stick with you. Take the time to listen and work out why people are coming to the project, and more importantly, why they’re not. Make it easy for newcomers to pick up the story at any point, and to view content in any order if they want to.

15 years later, we are very much in that world of streams. Where people once used to visit a large number of sites to look for changes (or follow them with RSS feeds), now they visit a handful of sites which choose what to show them.

I wish I’d done more with writing for the stream back in 2009 when I was first thinking about it. I should have attempted some experiments. But, whenever you think you’ve missed about, it’s important to remember there are other boats still docked that are currently waiting. What will web-native writing look like in 2025?

Writer’s Notebook: The Doc Web

Elan Kiderman Ullendorff’s essay The Doc Web is a wonderful piece about how people find spaces to publish on the Internet:

Axiom 4: If you build a tool with the ability to publish, so help them god, people will publish

They will publish often, zealously, and without regard for the intended purpose of the tool. Yelp reviews will be co-opted to publish blog posts; Venmo payments will be co-opted to publish poems; spreadsheets will be co-opted to publish personal websites; maps will be co-opted to publish magazines.

They go on to list some of the things that have been published on Google docs and it’s a beautiful list:

I love this article for suggesting an world of underground publishing, with documents hidden in these large application. Many of them won’t be be picked up by the archiving sites, but the documents have a simple route to being published and shared.

Writer’s Notebook: The power of a project

Looking back, some of my most enjoyable things I’ve done have been challenging projects:

  • Working at Future Platforms to build one of the UK’s earliest dating apps.
  • Completing my MA.
  • Working as a ‘technical liaison’ on a project with an ambitiously short deadline in 2017.
  • Being involved with the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage and setting up an online radio station for it.

I see certain things in common here – all of these items were ambitious goals with a fixed deadline and required hard work and collaboration. This is true even of the MA – while the work was solo, I made a lot of good friends on the course, and we all discussed our projects and supported each other.

One of the things I’m always telling people in agile projects is that you should look at the past to shape the future. Looking back here, some of the best experiences I’ve had have involved well-defined projects that I was dedicated to. Each of these took a significant investment of time of energy, over a fixed duration. And, for each of them, the goal was clear.

So: I should look for more projects like these, or consider seeing how I can make the things I want to do into such projects.

Writer’s Notebook: Finish or Delete

One of the interesting things about sending out a weekly story is that it’s got me thinking about how I write. One thing I’ve seen is that the best stories I’ve written are very fast. Some of the most successful very-short-stories needed very little editing.

I’ve also noticed that when I struggle with a story it rarely turns out well. There are pieces I’ve been tinkering with for years that haven’t quite worked. I’ve got notes for ideas that go back 30 years and have yet to result in anything.

One of the problems with hoarding is that you start to lose track of what’s valuable. By keeping everything, you distract from the things you should focus on. I have over 60,000 words of notes in 180 documents for the South Downs Way project but progress has slowed to a crawl.

A few years back, someone invented a word processor called The Most Dangerous Writing App that deletes your work in progress if you stop writing. Apparently it’s very good for curing writer’s block.

I’m considering doing something similar with all my writing notes. That each time I work on a document, I should make swift and significant progress; and if I don’t I will delete the document.

If nothing else, it will stop me wasting my time playing with ancient ideas, and free up more energy to focus on new things.

Writer’s Notebook: A New Type of Novel?

Novels are not being read in the same way that they were thirty years ago. They have remained part of the cultural conversation in the media, but there’s not the same level of excitement and buzz around books as when I was younger. This could be an effect of my own ageing, but a lot of the evidence seems to back it up.

But, at the same time, people are reading more than ever. Even with the push-to-video, a lot of people’s time is spent reading text-based websites. At some level, this is a zero-sum game. Every minute spent reading Facebook is time that could be spent reading a novel (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once declared that the company’s biggest competitor was sleep). But it’s interesting how novels have failed to capitalise on this growth.

I wonder if part of this is that few novels reflect the way that people read online, the discordant, chaotic nature of it. How the threads of different stories are merged together, sometimes with wildly different tones – what the Content Mines podcast referred to as ‘structural dissonance’.

Some theories have it that people read novels to get a coherent experience that they are missing from life. I’m not suggesting that is done away with. Rather, I’m interested in a medium/style that reflects the stream, the way we are reading now. Having the narratives more broken up.

I’ve read some novels which reflected this, but they were intentionally written as novels about the Internet. The closest thing I’ve found are novels written as oral history, like Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant or Daisy Jones and the Six. I like that people can skip characters they are not interested in. They can follow the whole thing in different ways. Just like we do with the Internet. The text is more than a relentless line of paragraphs.

Writer’s Notebook: Live vs Dead Work

Craig Mod wrote about the death of Louise Glück, and quoted her saying to her students, “Write anything you want. Just make sure it’s not dead“.

I don’t know what qualities of language make a piece alive rather than dead, but I know exactly what Glück meant. Sometimes I read back a piece I’ve written and it has no spark, no energy.

A lot of the time, it comes about because I’m too focussed on an idea of a finished piece without thinking enough about the characters. A lot of the pieces I’ve tried to write for the South Downs Way have ended up like this. I’ve worked and re-worked some of them but they have not come to life.

I’m sure there must be something in the sentence structure that makes a piece come alive; or maybe it’s in the point of view.

Knowing that I tend to overthink ideas and kill them, I’m working more with the text. I’ve started writing more in longhand instead of just on screen. I try to think less about my goal and have more faith that I’ll end up there. Zen archery. I’m cutting down my distractions so I can give each piece more attention.

One of the most interesting things about writing is that what works for one person won’t work for another. Someone else’s methods will likely not work for you. But I am trying new things, and some of them seem to work.

Writers Notebook: Do you need to be an influencer to be a writer?

Jason Pargin is a successful writer who emerged from Cracked and has gone on to publish six novels. He also has a substack, and his recent post Celebrity Worship is Weird and Will Only Get Weirder discussed the strange situations that he’s in as an artist.

While Pargin has a big readership, it’s not quite large enough for bookstores and publishers to do his marketing for him. In order to let people know he has a new book out, he needs to keep an audience around ready for that announcement. Which means he has a newsletter, but that needs to be entertaining rather than just containing adverts for new books. He’s also had some success on TikTok, but that platform requires regular updates. A significant amount of Pargin’s time is spent maintaining an audience that he can market his books to.

As Pargin writes: “I literally cannot write novels as a full time job unless I turn myself into a multimedia influencer that posts daily to a large, loyal, highly-engaged audience.”

Writing a novel takes a substantial amount of work but, at the end of it, you then need to take it to readers. I’m guessing this was never an easy thing to do. But in the past you were dealing with human gatekeepers, but now the gatekeepers are algorithmic. You either need to build an audience, or be amplified by someone who already has one.

The obvious case of the latter is how a twitter review of This is How You Lose the Time War by someone called Bigolas Dickolas boosted the book to the top of the charts. It’s a lovely story. But Robin Sloan compared this to ‘the breath of the gods’, pointing out this is not a very efficient system. You either spend a substantial amount of time cultivating your own audience, or hope to be picked up by someone else’s.

You can complain about this state of affairs, but you still need to think about it. Writing a novel takes a large amount of time. Finding people have want to read a novel requires either hard work as an influencer or trusting to luck.