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Experiments in Twitter

Friday, 25 March 2016

For a long time I resisted Twitter. Why, after all, I reasoned, would anyone want to listen to my witterings about what I had for breakfast?

But my husband Chris and my twin sister Julia Williams kept telling me that there was much more to twitter than that. They banged on about it so much that eventually I gave in just to shut them up. Of course, when I finally joined, I found it every bit as useful and fun as they said it would be and ever since I've been a twitter enthusiast. 

And after a while, I realised that twitter threw up all sorts of possibilities for a writer. In 2010 I wrote this piece of flash fiction  a story told backwards reading along the main character's Twitter timeline. It baffled most of my readers, as the narrative structure was confusing. It also felt a little flat to me, as it was trying to reflect live interactions in a static form. Nonetheless, I liked it enough to rewrite it as 'Following Miss Piggy's Timeline'. This story ended up being published in a pamphlet to accompany Manchester based Blank Media's 2012 Inside art exhibition. It still puzzled people (possibly because it was severely edited for space reasons) but nonetheless I was very proud of the achievement - the first time I was ever paid for a piece of writing. 

Then in 2011, I formed the Atos Collective in protest at the government's work capability assessment system. Together with a writing colleague, we wrote two plays Atos Stories and The Atos Monologues crowdsourced from people's real experiences.  Later we had a mass read  with people using twitter, live streaming and public performance to tell the stories and raise awareness of the issue.

When I heard about the International Twitter Fiction Festival in 2012, I was intrigued. Inspired by my original story, I pitched an idea involving multiple tweeters taking part in a narrative that unfolded in real time. Although the project wasn't accepted, I decided to go ahead anyway. I appealed for help on twitter and found 8 people willing to take part. Over a weekend in November we told the story of Ally (@The_Derby_Diva) and her son Jack (@JackDee18) whose fragile relationship was tested to breaking point as he turned 18. Although I had the basic plot in my head, I was amazed by the way the characters took on a life of their own.There were drunk cougars, friends fell out, the main protagonists came to blows and a new character arrived unexpectedly. (Ally's Mum brilliantly written by my twin sister Julia who totally blindsided me with her arrival on the Sunday - she totally infuriated my character Ally. To such an extent I began to take it personally). It was extremely intense, a lot of fun, and very time consuming, which is why I haven't repeated it.(You can see the results here).

I'm not alone in experimenting with twitter, plenty of established authors also use it for fictional purposes. In 2012, The Guardian challenged 21 authors to write a story in 140 characters, a rather extreme version of microfiction. Meanwhile, Joanne Harris (@joannechocolat) has been running #storytime on her twitterfeed for years. These excellent fables all begin in the same way and are all well worth following as this example shows. And my favourite author, David Mitchell, has used twitter brilliantly on several occasions. His short story 'The Right Sort' was published in 2014, in the run up to 'The Bone Clocks', each tweet slowly building the tension, in between classic Mitchell humour, all the way to the horrifying ending. Last year, I was delighted to see him tweet on his way to the Hay Festival as one of my favourite characters in 'The Bone Clocks', the jaundiced author Crispin Hershey even favouriting one of my tweets to him.  And in the run up to the publication of Slade House, he ran a twitter feed from a strange character called @I_Bombadil whose obsessions gradually led him to his doom. Fangirl that I am, it was hugely thrilling to receive a tweet from @I_Bombadil & then from David Mitchell himself. Which probably tells you everything you need to know about me and books.

This week, it occurred to me that I could follow Mitchell's example and build up a bit of interest in 'Echo Hall' by letting some of the characters loose on twitter. Some of my Edwardian characters have jumped at the opportunity, suggesting they are very keen to get on the page. Rachel Walters, my heroine, turned 18 on March 25th 1911. To celebrate she has joined twitter as @porcelain_sis1, keen to find about fashion, music and theatre, and with a growing curiosity about the suffragette movement. She'd like sister Leah to join too, but she knows there is no point asking, Leah would find it too frivlous for words. Later in the year, Rachel will encounter two men who will become very important in her life. Jacob Flint, lay preacher and second son of Aaron Flint, the owner of Echo Hall, is not keen on twitter but sees it as an important way to evangelise. He tweets as @LiveByTheWord11.A man of firmly held, but rigid beliefs, he is likely to undergo a few trials and temptations before he meets the Walters sisters, will he stay true to his faith?  Whilst Joseph Clarkson (@Quiet_Quaker), a teacher in London, is just about to find that expressing his Quaker beliefs too strongly to his pupils might land him in trouble.

Now they're out of the book, there's no telling what they might get up to, so please do follow them and see where the story leads!

Of course, Twitter (and Facebook) are also useful for marketing purposes. Which is why, I've also started a Thunderclap to give Echo Hall a signal boost. If you are on social media you can give add your support here.

 

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Published
Publication date: November 2017
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