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.”

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