Books Jacket Copy

The Twitter Fiction Festival: Making the most of 140 characters

There's still time to read Twitter's first-ever Fiction Festival in real time; it began Wednesday afternoon and will continue around the clock until Sunday. It's the company's first official effort to organize and present a creative event that uses the social networking site -- best known as a spot for breaking news and personal chatter -- as a forum for art.

In one festival entry, three hipsters tweeted from a New York rooftop party as a redhead got out of control and then disappeared, falling to her death. If you had run across their Twitter feeds without warning, you might have thought to call 911.

But there was a hint that something else was going on: author Elliott Holt’s query asking if you thought it was an #accident, #suicide or #homicide. Her mystery story was one of 29 selected by a panel of judges for the festival. It ran over the course of a few hours Wednesday night. Other entries are delivered in daily installments.

The stories need to be broken up because each Twitter post, or tweet, is limited to 140 characters. Twitter sees a phenomenal 400 million tweets every day, but its extremely short form has seemed better suited to news than creative exploration – something the company hopes to change.

“We have been tracking lots of interesting experiments with creative storytelling on Twitter,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, Media R&D at Twitter. He points to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan's science fiction story for The New Yorker that ran both on Twitter and in print in May. “From our perspective, our hope is that this inspires more experimentation.”

The Twitter Fiction Festival is the first creative venture officially presented by the social networking site. Generally, the site is known as a place to chat, eavesdrop on celebrities or share news and information.

The selection panel looked for originality, storytelling, and “people who used Twitter in a different context,” explained Ryan Chapman (aka @chapmanchapman). Marketing director at The Penguin Press, Chapman was one of eight publishing professionals on the selection panel.

“There were a lot of micro stories,” he said, stories so short a tweet could contain a beginning, middle and end -- like the legendary six-word story by Ernest Hemingway, “For Sale, baby shoes – never worn.” It took something more innovative to make the cut.

Holt's fiction was inspired by recent reports that Occupy Wall Street protester Malcom Harris' tweets had been subpoenaed by the New York district attorney's office. Holt, who tweets @ElliottHolt, created a mysterious death and a situation where tweets by a random collection of bystanders might inform the story.

“I wanted to embrace the medium -- instead of tweeting a story, I constructed a narrative out of tweets,” she explained.

Holt opened Twitter accounts for three fictional characters, establishing them as individuals with unique voices: a British expat who ranted about the Arsenal football team, a social climber who directed a tweet at a fashion designer to get his attention, and a PR woman who digressed into astrology. So far, Holt has declined to solve the mystery, preferring to leave it ambiguous.

The partcipants offer a wide range of styles and ambitions. British writer @LucyCoats is tweeting Greek myths in a combination of Twitter-speak and tabloid headline-ese. As you might expect, some of those stories are a little too epic to fit into a single tweet -- but she manages to squeeze them into a dozen or so.

Satiric writer Andrew Schaffer (author of "The 50 Shames of Earl Grey") has created @ProudZombieMom, a fictional account of a mother whose tweets reveal she hasn't quite come to grips with what ails her daughter.

@Alina Simone enhanced her deliberately generic story of a young cubicle worker's love and loss using Twitter's relatively new embedded image feature. The story, she explained in a tweet, is “illustrated by my ridiculous outsider art.”

Novelist Scott Hutchins (@HutchScott) included more polished images, mostly moody black-and-white photographs, to illustrate his modern San Francisco noir, which spans five days. His approach, unlike Holt’s, is novelistic; it’s written in prose as traditional as might appear on a page – a very pithy page.

“You drink a lot of top-shelf liquor for a girl raging against the machine,” his sardonic detective says – or rather, tweets.

“There's quite a lot in the showcase I think is a very innovative use of Twitter,” Fizgerald said. He was also glad that Twitter users who were not official participants created fictional stories and used the #twitterfiction hashtag – a tool that automatically added their tweets to the Twitter Fiction Festival stream.

Chapman thinks that as the platform's technology and configuration evolve, they will open up further creative possibilities for writers hoping to use Twitter for fiction. “Twitter is changing its functionality all the time,” he said. “I hope they do it again.”


First-ever Twitter Fiction Festival comes a'Tweeting

The New Yorker tries Twitter fiction with Jennifer Egan

Rick Moody, author of 'The Ice Storm,' tries storytelling on Twitter

Carolyn Kellogg: Join me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Writer Nathan Englander's avenging pen
    Writer Nathan Englander's avenging pen

    Nathan Englander was in college when he first heard the story of Stalin's 1952 purge of Russia's top Yiddish writers. Determined that their story not die with them, he fictionalized their plight in "The Twenty-Seventh Man," the short story that led his 1999 award-winning debut collection,...

  • In Ishiguro's 'The Buried Giant,' memory draws a blank
    In Ishiguro's 'The Buried Giant,' memory draws a blank

    Kazuo Ishiguro has made a career of the unexpected. His best-known novel, 1989's Man Booker-winning "The Remains of the Day," is narrated by an English butler looking back on the love he let elude him on a country estate in the years leading to World War II. "When We Were Orphans" (2000)...

  • Quan Barry's 'She Weeps' listens to the stories of Vietnam's dead
    Quan Barry's 'She Weeps' listens to the stories of Vietnam's dead

    Here's a true dumb American confession: I have a hard time with historical novels that take place outside of the U.S. I'm not much of a history buff, and I find it takes a skillful, engaging author to both situate and dazzle me with beauty at the same time. Quan Barry, as it turns out, is...

  • J.K. Rowling bibliography reveals secrets of the 'Harry Potter' books
    J.K. Rowling bibliography reveals secrets of the 'Harry Potter' books

    An exhaustive new J.K. Rowling bibliography being published in the U.K. reveals secrets behind the workings of her Harry Potter books, the Guardian reports. "J.K. Rowling: A Bibliography 1997-2013" by Philip Errington includes correspondence between Rowling and her editor and details the...

  • Eleanor Marx led a revolutionary life with a tragic ending
    Eleanor Marx led a revolutionary life with a tragic ending

    The idea of Eleanor Marx is terribly attractive. Here was a young woman born in Victorian England, holding her own while living among some of the great intellectuals of her time — and ours. All those history books that depict the march of ideas and politics as the exclusive interests...

  • A story in a deck of cards, 'The Family Arcana,' takes off at Kickstarter
    A story in a deck of cards, 'The Family Arcana,' takes off at Kickstarter

    "The Family Arcana" goals were modest: $2,800 to create and print decks of cards that would tell multiple variations of a strange story. It's a classic deck -- four suits, deuce through ace -- that includes several sentences of the surreal, slightly creepy story on each card. Play a card...