May 2, 2006

Composing for Print and Hypertext

by Nick Montfort · , 11:47 am

Describe in single words, only the good things that come in to your mind about: hypertext.

Okay, that’s not exactly the way that Melanie Hundley’s series of questions begins. But Hundley did contact me with a survey she is doing for her dissertation in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia. It’s about how authors who have written both for print and hypertext compose their work.

I offered to post the questions and my replies here on Grand Text Auto, so that she could simply continue with her the survey in comments following this post. Others who want to answer some or all of the questions themselves, or to discuss them or my responses, are of course welcome to do so in comments, too. On to the questions and answers…

  1. Q. Tell me about your experiences writing print texts. How did you first get involved in writing in this medium?
  2. Q. Describe your writing process for a print piece.
  3. Q. Describe any limitations that you see in this format.
  4. Q. Tell me what you think the future of print is-both in general, and for you, specifically.
  5. Q. I know that you have written articles, a book (Twisty Little Passages), and edited a book (New Media Reader with NWF) but I am not sure what fiction or poetry writing experience for print that you have. The participants that I have so far have varying levels of experience with print writing (from scholars to novelists) so describe the print experiences you have had.
  6. Q. Tell me about your experiences writing hypertexts. How did you first get involved in writing in this medium?
  7. Q. Describe your process for writing a hypertext piece.
  8. Q. Describe the changes composing for the screen rather than the page made in your process.
  9. Q. Describe any limitations that you see in the hypertext format.
  10. Q. Tell me what you think the future of hypertext is-both in general, and for you, specifically. How do you see yourself using this medium in the future?
  1. (Nick). I suppose it started with that poem in an elementary school chapbook. I wrote for the student newspaper in college; since the newsroom was right by the press I definitely think of a print experience. Among my first “real” print publications of any sort – pieces that did not appear in student periodicals – were the articles I wrote for Wired Magazine, which were published on the Web and in print simultaneously.
  2. (Nick). I’m not sure how many of the creative works I’ve done are essentially “print pieces.” A recent conceptual writing project is in this category, but even that has a digital edition. Another case would be 2002: A Palindrome Story, a collaboration with William Gillespie which was my first published book. We first sent out the New Year’s edition, a chapbook that I designed and printed. The official Spineless Books edition was published later: a small book with a spine, designed by Ingrid Ankerson and illustrated by Shelley Jackson. But 2002 was also published online on a Web page (also designed by the book designer) and in a Java applet, Reifier, which I wrote and which allows the reader to easily see how one selection of text reverses on the other side of the palindrome. I read from 2002 at a literary reading at the ACM Hypertext conference, which I suppose could be construed as an argument that it’s a hypertext. At the same time, I think it would be difficult to argue that the Spineless Books edition, a codex with an ISBN, is not print. At any rate, the major distinguishing features of 2002, which really influenced the writing process, are that it is formally a palindrome and that it was written collaboratively.
  3. (Nick). Some useless things to say would be that it is difficult to reproduce motion pictures in their entirety in books, and books cannot run computer programs. Just as I don’t worry about how difficult it is to cook food in my bathroom or bathe in my closet, I seldom concern myself with limitations like these. These sorts of limitations don’t affect my writing process in any interesting way. I am more interested in what print uniquely affords, which is due to not only format but also the institutions surrounding and supporting print publication.
  4. (Nick). Print has a good future. I plan to continue publishing poems and other creative writing in print.
  5. (Nick). I co-wrote 2002 and have had poems published in print journals. I’ve also worked for two literary magazines. I edited and designed the book Drawn Inward and Other Poems by Mike Maguire. And I have other print writing background that is critical, editorial, and so forth, and not directly a part of my creative practice.
  6. (Nick). Can you tell me your definition of “hypertext”? It’s not obvious to me what the term means and which of my creative works are hypertexts. See, for example, the different ideas about the term described in Noah’s post here, “What Hypertext Is.”
  7. (Nick). Could you ask this about a specific piece? Otherwise, I might select a piece of new media writing that you don’t consider a hypertext. Many of my most important literary pieces for the computer are interactive fiction works; I agree with the “Golden Age” electronic literature authors that these aren’t hypertexts. I also think that what’s often been called “hypertext” is just one of many forms and genres of electronic literature.
  8. (Nick). Again, I’ll need to know the meaning of “hypertext” that you intend. In general, though, my new media writing is not composed “for the screen.” My interactive fiction pieces can be encountered via text-to-speech software (and some visually impaired players do encounter them this way) and there’s no reason you couldn’t interact with such work on a print terminal, a typical way to encounter interactive fiction decades ago. There’s more on this online in the text of my talk “Continuous Paper.” I understand that for some, page and screen might be important considerations. To me, the essential difference in composition between, say, a poem on the one hand and interactive fiction on the other is not a distinction between page and screen, but that I’m composing a sequence of words in the former case and I’m writing an interactive computer program in the latter.
  9. (Nick). Again, I’ll need to know the meaning of “hypertext” that you intend.
  10. (Nick). Again, I’ll need to know the meaning of “hypertext” that you intend.

5 Responses to “Composing for Print and Hypertext”

  1. Melanie Says:

    2. Several of the print writers that I have interviewed describe specific rituals that they go through or use to prepare for their daily writing; these are writers who make their living from their print work. They talk about how they get into a story, how they plan it, research it, plot it. These writers are very comfortable talking about their print writing processes; while it seems to be a very recursive process for them, they do seem to talk about specific stages that they go through as they construct a piece of writing.
    When you compose a story or poem specifically for print, how do you plan it? What do you do first? How do you start? Describe, if you can, your process from conception to shareable draft.
    6. I use hypertext and hypermedia interchangeably and I am trying to keep my definition as open as I can without saying just anything goes. The authors that I am working with in my study have composed radically different kinds of text that they identify as hypertext; some of these texts are blocks of text connected by links while others incorporate image, movement, sound, video, and animation with the text/links. In all of these texts, the reader navigates through the text based on choices that she makes. I am defining hypertext as blocks of text connected by links; these blocks of text can incorporate image, sound, and animation.
    7. What was your composing process for Digital Ream? Why choose this format for this work? In your writing experience, have you had pieces that could only “work” in print or on screen?

  2. nick Says:

    Hi, Melanie. Here are some answers, which I hope are of use…

    2. I do plan, write, and revise, but I really don’t have a single process for doing this, or even very many good habits. The way I work on a day-to-day basis is determined to a large extent by the formal constraints of the project, the nature of my collaboration (if the project is collaborative), and the physical location in which I’m writing, not to mention other things else I’m trying to avoid doing by writing.

    For instance, in writing 2002, William and I first outlined the plot together very generally and provided additional constraints, then wrote short reversible fragments which we exchanged and revised, keeping them reversible so they could be assembled into a palindrome. Implementation was constrained, among other things, by the label paper it was to be printed on – a material rather than formal constraint – and by some elements of plot, but Scott and I also wrote it and mailed it out serially, developing the underlying story as we wrote each installment. This was an important part of the process. In writing poems by myself, I don’t have someone else to work with and learn from through these sorts of collaborations. I seem to be more prone to make large-scale changes in structure after a good deal has been written.

    While a lot of my work is driven by a core concept or form, I start writing some poems because of line, phrase, or sound, and that overall concept is only discovered later.

    6. It sounds like the original text of Implementation, printed on stickers and placed around a city, is not a hypertext in this definition, because there are no explicit links. Interactive fiction, as I suspected, is not hypertext, since its form is that of an interactive text-generating computer program, the activity of which can’t always be characterized in this way. There is some of my work that does fall into the hypertext category – early on, The Help File; more recently, “The Purpling,” which is forthcoming. I should point out that I don’t have anything against blocks of text connected by links. Sometimes I go looking for hypertext fiction to read. But I’m really not a “hypertext author.”

    I’m interested in computation and in computer and network contexts. Hypertexts as you broadly describe them are one small subset of computer programs, as I discuss in “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star.” (I think this also may help to answer 9.) My interest in pre-existing forms and contexts is really why I wrote The Help File in that format – I wasn’t setting out to write a hypertext, but a work in one pre-existing, “non-fiction” form, one which happened to be a hypertext form.

    While “hypertext” may still be a useful critical and creative idea for some people, I sort of feel at this point like a poet who happened to have incidentally written some 14-line poems over the years and who is then quizzed about his sonneteering. There’s just not much I can say about my hypertext practice per se that will be helpful, because I don’t think of it as being a hypertext practice.

    7. Ah, good question. This is the recent piece of mine that has oddly strong ties to both print and the Web in its two editions. And in this case, the second edition of the work is pretty much “for the screen” (as in question 8) rather than for sheet, or at least for a browser which will usually be screen-based.

    Digital Ream itself wasn’t composed; it is a Web edition of the poem Ream, which I thought up, wrote, and printed out on April 5, 2006. After determining that this would be a 500-page poem with a single, one-syllable word on each page, each word appearing in alphabetical order, I began the “writing.” The concept itself is a great deal of the point here. I wanted to perform a writing feat, and eventually a public reading feat, of some sort, and wanted to use a standard package of paper to define the effort. When I actually wrote the poem, I used a series of techniques to help determine what words would go onto paper, although these did not entirely eradicate authorial choice. I often use formal constraints, of the sort the Oulipo pioneered in the last century, in both large-scale and offhand ways as I write. After writing Ream, I read through the poem and revised it. Then I went and bought a ream of paper and printed the poem out.

    Reading the poem in public, at the Speakeasy reading at the Kelly Writers House, was the next step. This reinforced, again, that the effort involved in flipping 500 pages was essential to the experience of the poem. Printing the 500 words on one page, or putting them on a Web page in an ordinary way, would have demolished the interesting concept here. Beyond that, it would also have been nice to show in a digital edition the extent of poem, and how far you are into the stack as you read, but in writing and reading the poem I came to think that this was not really essential. The alphabetical order of the words already set up a sort of “progress meter.”

    Only after the original writing and printing on paper was done, and after I had read the poem in public, did I start seriously thinking about a Web edition. I wanted the “page” to be black with a white word on it. For one thing, the default color for a screen when it is off is black; for another, I wanted the digital version to have its own identity; and, finally, I saw that Charles Bernstein had really liked the way that one online version of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés was white-on-black instead of black-on-white, so, why not? I thought the word should appear in “ordinary” type (the default font for your browser), not much bigger than usual, centered. Since there are no other elements on the page except for the word, it seemed that the word would have to serve as the link to the next page. To make things a bit more difficult, I decided that linked text should turn dark gray when the mouse pointer is over it. This makes one thing easier: It shows you where a link is when you’re just starting to read. But in many browsers it means that you have to move the mouse away from a word in order to read it, then back onto the word in order to click it, in a motion which I thought was arduous enough to be somewhat mimetic of flipping through pages.

    10. Given your definition of hypertext, there is sure to be a lot more interesting hypertext work. I don’t think it will become a focusing concept for me in my creative work, though. For now, I continue to be interested in digital context and how computation can work in literary systems.

  3. andrew Says:

    1. Q. Tell me about your experiences writing print texts. How did you first get involved in writing in this medium?
    (Andrew) The closest in my adult life I’ve come to writing print texts are the many screenplays I wrote for no-budget indie films I made — mostly shorts but also one feature-length (a dozen years ago now!). In the context of print vs. hyper/cybertext, screenplays are worth mentioning because like print they are linear and non-interactive, versus digital and interactive. I got involved writing screenplays because, at the time in my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to write and direct my own films, and had a great time doing so. (In college I double-majored in computer engineering and filmmaking, but hadn’t thought of a way to combine those interests at the time; I applied to the top graduate film schools, and didn’t get in, which in hindsight I’m happy about, it would have been too much of a diversion from the direction I ultimately found, AI-based interactive character and narrative.)

    2. Q. Describe your writing process for a print piece.
    (Andrew) Thinking back to my writing process particularly for the feature film I co-wrote, Open Call, an ensemble piece a la The Breakfast Club, it’s remarkably like the character-based writing process I detailed in the blog post Head Games — where I and my co-writer simulated the characters in our minds as we wrote the script, and let their interactions play out without planning too far in advance what would happen.

    3. Q. Describe any limitations that you see in this format.
    (Andrew) I’ll agree with Nick that comparing non-interactive text with interactive text is like comparing apples and oranges. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll say this: the more I write for interactive experiences, the more I grow to appreciate the strengths of non-interactive text.

    4. Q. Tell me what you think the future of print is-both in general, and for you, specifically.
    (Andrew) There’s no way non-interactive text is going away. (I absolutely love print fiction, and read it voraciously; I just finished Roth’s The Plot Against America, incredible. Also, I read alternative comics. ) Will print itself go away, and we’ll read everything on digital screens? If that includes digital paper, then perhaps ink-on-paper will go away, save for nostalgia. As for me, writing almost completely consists of: short emails for communication and correspondance; hypertext essays (blog posts); and highly procedural texts (interactive drama), my primary work activity. I have no plans to write another linear screenplay or make another film (save for nostalgia, for good-ol’-times-sake). That is, I’ve already moved away from non-interactive “print” to fully digital writing. The thank-you notes for my newborn daughter’s baby gifts were a rare exception.

    Here’s my ranking of hours spent per week on different text formats, in descending order: reading/surfing web and blog articles and news; reading books, newspapers and magazines; reading alternative comics; playing digital fiction (e.g. games, hypertext fiction). Digital fiction gets so little attention from me because 1) I dislike most of what’s out there, and 2) I spend so much time creating my own, that I want to get away from the computer.

    5. Q. describe the print experiences you have had
    (Andrew) From a dozen years ago or more, I’ve written or co-written about two dozen short film scripts, and one feature script — which all got produced and directed by me, sometimes with collaborators. Before that, I wrote and drew comics.

    6. Q. Tell me about your experiences writing hypertexts. How did you first get involved in writing in this medium?
    (Andrew) By far the most hypertext writing I’ve done have been my blog posts, over the past 3 years — short essays that heavily link back to previous posts and other articles on the web. About 10 years ago I did begin writing a traditional hypertext fiction, but abandoned it in favor of creating AI-based characters (advanced cybertexts). My AI-based character work includes creating over a dozen personality-rich virtual dog and cat characters, a la Warner Brothers style archetypal characters, which then graduated to virtual babies, and then virtual adults with relationship issues.

    7. Q. Describe your process for writing a hypertext piece.
    (Andrew) For my process creating AI-based characters (advanced cybertexts), please read my hypertext essays What We Write About When We Write About Behavior, Toward Authentically Interactive Characters and Stories, and Procedural Authorship: A Case-Study Of the Interactive Drama Façade (pdf). (Actually the pdf reminds me that I occasionally (co-)write a non-interactive paper.)

    8. Q. Describe the changes composing for the screen rather than the page made in your process.
    (Andrew) Writing for AI-based characters is a combination of building a machine (programming) that manipulates text, e.g., character dialog and descriptive behavior, and then writing a massive collection of bits of dialog and behavior that the machine uses to create a coherent experience for the reader/player. Often I write a sample fixed, extended text of the output, including sample player interactions, that I wish the experience to potentially be like. That is, I write several “sample traces” of what interacting with these AI-based characters could be like. Then I deconstruct that sample trace, trying to understand what the machine would need to be doing to generate such a trace. The final system may not actually be able to exactly produce the sample traces I started from, but it can create something similar, with many variations not originally in those sample traces.

    9. Q. Describe any limitations that you see in the hypertext format.
    (Andrew) I’ll refer you to one of my first blog posts, from 3 years ago, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, for my feelings on the limitations of hypertext itself. As for the limitations of AI-based characters, they are enormous, at least from the reader/player’s perspective, because you raise your expectation level so high for what such characters should be able to understand and say. However I prefer the tradeoff of a much richer interface (e.g. natural language) that doesn’t always fulfill one’s expectations, versus a highly restricted interface of clicking a few links per lexia.

    10. Q. Tell me what you think the future of hypertext is-both in general, and for you, specifically. How do you see yourself using this medium in the future?
    (Andrew) Hypertext is flourishing in the Web itself, and blog posts in particular. Hypertext fiction, I’m not so sure about, since richer interfaces for, and richer simulations of, fictional worlds are actively being developed. I’ll refer you to the “Towards…” post in my answer to question 7 for the future of AI-based characters, and my hopes to contribute to the medium’s future.

  4. Melanie Says:

    Hi Nick and Andrew,

    Thanks again for the responses.

    I have been working with several young writers who are interested in hypertext fiction writing because, as they say, have stories that just don’t work on paper they way they want them to. As I am *struggling* to write a hypertext piece of fiction myself (part of study), I can understand what they mean about stories that work better in one environment or the other. One thing that several writers have said is that they have needed an image or a visual metaphor before they could begin their hypertext writing. They contrasted this to the way that they began their more traditional pieces. I’m wondering if that idea–the idea that the writer might need a visual metaphor or image to springboard the writing of hypertext–is present in your own work? Andrew, your work seems to deal with a lot of film and writing for that seems to require a great deal of visual images to help the text. (My guess–I only know one other person who has written screen plays.) Nick, the way you described the writing of Ream seemed extremely visual–you saw it as 500 pages, single words, etc.

  5. nick Says:

    Yes, there were pages and words involved in thinking up this poem, although I don’t recall writing that I “saw” or visualized anything about Ream. Generally, I don’t consider my work to be visual, nor do I use a visual image as a starting point for composition. I do want Ream to be open to being appreciated in whatever ways people would prefer, so your “vision” of it is certainly valid. But since you’ve asked me – I consider Ream to be quite different from visual art. Rather, I would say that it is an instance of what Duchamp called non-retinal art.

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