Inauspiciously, Tom Scharpling began his Twitter novel with a typo. Posting at 4:52 pm on December 19, he banged out the first sentence of his work-still-in-progress, Fuel Dump:
"Michael Richards started at the shotgun resting on his coffee table and knew what he had to do."
Scharpling — a writer/producer for the TV show Monk, who also hosts a weekly radio show on New Jersey's WFMU — has plenty of fans. And, minutes after his story was sent out, one of them tweeted in with a question:
"@scharpling 'started' or 'stared'? . . . just want to make sure I'm following so far."
Scharpling replied within minutes:
"@gregscranton It's STARTED, you boob! Do you actually think I would mistakenly write 'stared' when I meant 'started'?!?!"
Two hours after that, however, he fessed up:
"@gregscranton (I'm kidding — between you and I, I meant to write 'stared'.) But I make it work."
And, as he's limned the opening chapters of his absurdist piece of hardboiled pulp (see it at twitter.com/scharpling) — starring Seinfeld's Kramer (with his "pile of hair"), a mysterious Southern gentleman moldering in a hospital, and a (so far) inexplicably blood-soaked Joe Lieberman — Scharpling has made it work.
Because, when one is crafting a novel 140 characters at a time, the possibilities for adapting and evolving are vast. Even if, once it's done, you have to read the story backward.
The tweetest thing
As has quickly become evident, Twitter — the "microblogging" social-networking site with a 140-character limit on each post, or "tweet" — isn't merely a solipsistic way to announce to your friends that you've just flossed your teeth, or a voyeuristic portal through which to follow the quotidian goings-on of celebs like Shaq and Luke Wilson. (Though it surely is that, too.)
Rather, the "ambient intimacy" afforded by a site where, in Web 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly's words, "anyone can follow me, and I can follow anyone else," has been put to myriad creative and utilitarian uses. When the Phoenix Mars Lander discovered water ice on the red planet, NASA used Twitter to get out the word. One overcaffeinated user tweets exclusively about how much he likes Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Another Twitter site features parodic updates from Harvard, as if the 373-year-old university were a thumb-tapping teenage texter.
But, with the exception of the guy who's figured out a way to make Twitter turn off his lights (see the demo here), most of those are still relatively straightforward uses of the site's quick-hit status reports.
More compelling is when Twitter's simple, enforced brevity is put in the service of a larger aim: the Twitter novel.
In December, the New Yorker ran a story about Japan's fascination with "cell-phone novels" — or keitai shosetsu — in which chapters circulate via text message.
Now, with some tweaks, the phenomenon is emerging here as authors post stories, short sentence by short sentence, to Twitter via their computer, cell, or PDA over periods of months. There are dozens out there so far. Just how popular they become, of course, is another story.
Read all over
Initially wary of yet another social-networking site for which to be on the hook, Scharpling soon recognized Twitter's potential: it was like the best part of Facebook — the status updates — without the hassle of uploading photos or getting "poked."
"It's such an immediate thing," he says. "You have two sentences you wanna say, and you just say them instantly. If somebody's following you, they get that thought — boom — the second you write it."
But after putting Twitter to more orthodox use for a few weeks, Scharpling started thinking. "Where are the parameters of this thing?," he asked himself. "It doesn't have to just be, 'I'm waiting to go see Benjamin Button with my friends.' What if I took on an enormous undertaking, but did it with this thing piece by piece?"
Others were wondering the same thing.
Toronto ad man John Kewley — he writes concisely for a living — likens Twitter, teeming with constant updates, to a global "brainstream" where users can submerge themselves in others' thoughts, feelings, and existential particulars. So he's co-writing a language-dense, James Joyce– and Philip K. Dick–inspired Twitter sci-fi narrative, Joy Motel, the plot of which plugs the reader into the protagonist's stream of consciousness.
Kewley's writing partner, Wayne Allen Sallee, is someone he's never met. ("We've never even spoken on the telephone.") Nonetheless, they correspond online, and "share a wavelength," and one day, when Sallee tweeted Kewley with "a snippet of a film noir–sounding sentence," Kewley replied in kind. "I sent him one back, to sort of build on his, and we did about 20 of those."
The pair banged on back and forth, braced by the brevity and immediacy mandated by the medium. "You can just jump on there because you have half a thought, and then an hour later, Wayne will respond," says Kewley. "We don't know where this is going. It's real-time writing on Twitter."