You may have heard that this past week David Mitchell, author of several novels including Cloud Atlas, was live-tweeting a short story called “The Right Sort” on his twitter.
If you haven’t checked it out yet, I recommend that you do. He isn’t the first major author to dabble in the new genre of twitterfiction; other well-known authors who have published through Twitter include Jennifer Egan and Teju Cole. But this was my first experience reading a live-tweeted short story, so while reading it, I began to wonder how viable of a platform is Twitter for fiction, especially for emerging writers who don’t have the follower base that bestselling authors do.
For authors like David Mitchell, Twitterfiction is more of a marketing tool than a sincere publishing platform. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from “The Right Sort.” The form of tweets, which must have 140 characters or less, is not extremely conducive to reading, since only a sentence or two at most can be tweeted at a time. I thought Mitchell did a good job working with the form to achieve the tone and style he wanted for his narrator. The narrator, a teenage boy hopped up on Valium, remarks,
Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.
Thus Mitchell’s narrator has great tweet-sized thoughts most of the time that fit well with the format. (Is Mitchell critiquing the Millenials’ miniscule attention span through his narrator Nathan’s tweetable voice?) Later the short, jarring sentences transform into confusing stream-of-consciousness, when the narrator’s tone changes and he becomes terrified and disoriented. Finally, closer to the end of the story, the story tends towards the surreal. But I think this format in 140 character pieces still works, because the tweets allow for the narrator’s strange impressions and thoughts to feel fragmented even as they run together.
It would have been easier to read the story just typed out, of course, but I can see why twitterfiction is appealing. Using twitter, authors deliver a story serially, creating suspense that keeps the reader interested. I’ve written about serial online writing before in my article about different online writing platforms and in my article about the online journal Five Chapters, and as a member of the social-media consuming Millenial generation, I can see the appeal in munching on a story in “bite-sized sentences,” as opposed to being confronted by a large mass of text. It’s like the difference between shoveling down three-course meal at the end of the day versus chewing little snacks throughout the day. The snacks aren’t necessarily good for you, and you might still be hungry, but at least you’ve kept your jaw busy.
So does that mean we should all start composing our short stories and poetry with 140 characters-per-line enjambment? Perhaps, but I really think it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with twitterfiction. Are you attempting to write the next great American novel and post it on Twitter? If so, the genre of twitterfiction is probably not for you. A Hemingway novel might be tweetable, that’s true, but I can’t see anyone trying to slosh their way through an ocean of long-winded Steinbeck-style tweets. I’m not trying to diss Steinbeck- I love his style, but let’s face it, The Grapes of Wrath is just not appropriate for twitter.
What is the ideal situation for posting twitterfiction then, if you’re an emerging writer? Well, for the people who are interested in Twitter as a flash fiction or poetry platform, there are a few twitter accounts that are self-styled twitter-zines. They curate fiction tweets, and submission is as easy as using the right hashtag or mentioning the zine in a tweet. A couple twitterzines include 140 characters and nanoism. Both accept submissions via email. Check out the Submission Info below for more details.
Twitter might have some other innovative uses for writers and editors of literary magazines looking to promote fiction. Why not use the short format to present the first sentence of a short story with a link to its publication, using a tweet as a hook to draw in readers? That seems to be what all the major news outlets do these days to try to get people to watch their videos or read their articles, so why wouldn’t it work for fiction?
Of course, these techniques assume you already have a follower base. If you don’t have a large follower base, I suggest working on building one first before trying to market through Twitter. As I type this, I have fewer follows on Twitter than I would like, but actually just through the act of putting tweets out there with hashtags to garner attention for yourself, you can start to gather more followers (Shameless plug: you can follow me on twitter @hapawriting). And you don’t have to feel guilty about attention-seeking because it’s all for the sake of your career as a writer, right?
If you have thoughts on how to use Twitter as a useful writing and publicity tool, please share them in the comments below. I’m interested to hear about your experiences with twitterfiction.
Direct message TwitterFiction on Twitter, or email your short stories to email@example.com. Submissions must be 140 characters or less, of course.
Email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org, include your name, bio (up to 134 characters), and subject line: “Nanoism Submission”