how to write a short short story over twitter

The idea of a serialized novel hit it’s peak in the Victorian Era, and has always been something that interested me, for the particular challenge it poses in terms of always keeping the reader at a heightened state of interest. With a normal end to end novel or story, authors can indulge themselves with lengthy imagery, character building, or in the case of David Foster Wallace hundreds of pages of footnotes. But besides creating unforgiving regular deadlines for writers (a surefire anathema amongst the more petulant of them), there was also the equally unforgiving quota of words, a yardstick by which writers to this day get paid.

The idea that Twitter and text messaging lends itself to a short form serialization of a story over a predetermined length of time is not a paradigm shattering idea; In Japan serialized novels via texting have been making the top 10 sales consistently for over a year now. My specific goal for this project was to create a platform that would allow me work within the twitter parameters in an automated fashion.

Imagine my surprise when I turned to Google spreadsheets to create that platform.

Hey, I was just as surprised as you are. It turns out though, google docs is a wonderful platform for a rapid prototype. In fact, it’s used in game design frequently. It has a large number of of functions which include a modest amount of string parsing and external data pulling. In addition to that, google lets you create URLs that dynamically update your output in a variety of ways including RSS and CVS. For a quick and dirty way to manipulate some words and spread it around like I wanted to, I can’t think of anything better.

My spreadsheet has four columns: chapter numbers, characters per chapter, content, and accumulated words in story. Since, I was shooting for what’s known as a short short , approximately 1000 words. (The average short story is under 20,000 words, and over 1,000 , but who’s counting, Surely not David Foster Wallace.)

The chapter numbers column has a formula that creates a field incrementally, based on content existing in the same row:

The Character column has a formula that counts the length of the content field and modifies the background color to indicate if the characters are above, on, or below 140 characters, twitter’s thresh-hold:

The cumulative word column has a tricky function that counts the words in the content field by counting the occurences of space characters and adding one:
=if(C10=””;””,D9+SUM(LEN(C10)-LEN(SUBSTITUTE(C10,” “,””)))/LEN(” “) +1)

The happy thing about that one is that I did a vague search on google for it and the main part of that formula was my first match. prototyping with excel means that once you know what you want done programmatically, you can be pretty sure you’ll find a function for it since it’s such a widely used platform for scientists and finance folks.

click the thumbnail below to see what the end result looks like:

the next step was to export the finished document into an RSS feed but to choose only the content column:

Already you have a useful format, since now it’s a nicely formatted XML that you can parse as you please. For my purposes, I opened an account on twitterfeed.com which allows you to repurpose any rss feed into twitter updates, exactly what I was looking for. My particular setup involves updating twitter with only the latest feed item, once every 24 hours. that’s it, you’re done, go talk to some publishers and get some polish for your awesome pulitzer. Or howitzer.

In the next version, I would like to have the ability as an author to receive a text message 1 hour before the scheduled update with a review of the text about to go up, and the ability to edit on the fly. this might require getting out of google docs instead of shoehorning that in, but nonetheless, for today’s purpose, I think it served me pretty well. Excel prototyping. Who knew.

July 31st, 2008

1 Comment

  • 1. Corey Menscher  |  August 1st, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    PHENOMENAL! Someone could easily use your technique to launch their micro-writing career. (That someone is not me.)

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