Beyond the Book: The Beginning

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Paper Nations, a South West England-based creative writing incubator dedicated to diversity and innovation, has commissioned three writers with links to the region to develop exciting and experimental writing projects that use smartphone technologies to tell immersive stories. Led by Bambo Soyinka, Professor of Story at Bath Spa University, Paper Nations promotes collaboration across all sectors.  

The “Beyond the Book” commission, led in partnership with The Writing Platform’s co-editor Kate Pullinger, aims to develop innovative models for writing and publication, promoting dialogue between writers, technologists and new publishers. By supporting writers to work with technologists as part of a commission, Paper Nations is helping early-stage experimental writing to flourish. This will lead to a body of research into how to support and champion emerging digital writers, which will be shared both nationally and internationally. 

Following an open call and a selection panel made up of experts, (Hachette Publishing’s Chief Innovation Officer and Innovation Program Director Maja Thomas, Forward Prize highly commended writer Louisa Adjoa Parker, Bath Spa University’s Steve Hollyman and Kaleider’s Andy Wood) three writing projects were selected for commissions of £5,000 each. These three projects each experiment with different opportunities that the smartphone offers for telling stories and adds to a growing creative field.

The writers are in the early stages of their projects and are scoping out what might be possible as they grapple with story and technology. We have checked in with each of them to share details of their process so far. We will return to them each in the middle and end of their projects to see their progress. 

The Fog – Lucy Christopher and Rajiv Edward

Lucy Christopher and Rajiv Edward, a writer and technologist team, have been commissioned to develop “The Fog”, which use smartphone sensors, such as geolocation, to tell a story about a mission to save Bath from a time-freezing fog.

The idea for our digital story came from the idea of fog – both literal and metaphorical fog. We saw the call for Beyond the Book and thought it looked like a fantastic opportunity that spoke to both of our skills – Rajiv is a web developer and I am a writer for young people – but we didn’t know how to approach it. Neither of us have engaged in digital storytelling before. We started by talking through loads of ideas. The problem was that every time we thought we’d found the best one, we got stuck.

“It’s like descending into a fog,” I said, looking out into a foggy afternoon in our hometown of Bath. “In fact, being in a fog is a good metaphor for having writer’s block in general.”

“So, why don’t we make the project about fog then?” Rajiv said.

It was a throwaway line, but it got us thinking. What if the impetus for the digital story was a fog that descended into the character’s world? What if the reason the story couldn’t be finished was because a fog was in the mind of the author, also? What if the only way out was to get the reader / digital consumer to clear the fog themselves … i.e./ finish the story?

Being a writer for young people, I’ve always been interested in the idea of writing for a very specific audience. I believe a story has as many different readings as it has readers. For example, read the sentence ‘He got into the car’ and we each imagine a different kind of man getting into a different kind of car, for a different kind of reason.

But what if a story could literally have as many different versions as it has different readers? In this way, our story would be like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, but with even more options and moments of uniqueness.

Through The Fog, Rajiv and I are exploring participatory creativity. We are exploring the act of writing as well as the act of reading. We want to create a participatory story that clears a fog and, together with us, creates a story. It’s ambitious, and we are still in some fog ourselves about how we will do it, but we have well and truly leapt in. 

The Wallet Chapters – Lucy Telling

Writer Lucy Telling is developing “The Wallet Chapters”, which will use e-tickets accessed within the Wallet app, on both Apple and Android, to create an overarching story inspired by the information supplied in the tickets (dates, times, locations and other details). 

As I begin the process of developing my project, I have a whole bunch of questions. My proposition is to use the Wallet app on a phone, often used to contain tickets for events, air travel and trains, to access a fictional narrative. My intention is that each ticket contained within the app will unlock a chapter and provide a time and place for that part of the story. I have had an iPhone for roughly ten years and am imagining the story could span that kind of time period.

With this type of project, I often find there is a balance to be struck between immersing myself in the writing and working out the parameters of the technology. At this early stage, I feel it is useful to understand what’s possible with the tech, before going too deep into the story. In fact, in the past, I have found working out constraints is often inspiring and liberating because it sets out useful boundaries.

Working in-house with my company Stand + Stare – an interactive design studio – we are beginning to figure out how to upload the chapters into the Wallets on readers’ phones. Existing platforms, such as Eventbrite, allow you to generate your own tickets, but we have also found a few apps/websites – e.g. Pass2U and Passkit – that look preferable because you can use these to create different kinds of tickets, which can be stored within the Wallet.

We need to consider the look of the tickets themselves, what info we can include and whether we can access web links from each ticket. Links would allow us to deliver parts of the story via audio or link to additional websites.

I have further questions about how the story will be sent to readers’ Wallets and how it will work alongside their own personal tickets. If the dates do go back 10 years, will the tickets appear chronologically amongst the tickets already stored in their Wallets? Will I need to somehow make the story feel like it is connected to them, or will it be okay to have a story appear that is not related to their tickets or connected to them personally? The other, more practical consideration, is how the tickets appear at all. Is there some kind of sign up process, and, then, would a reader receive all the tickets at once? Or would they appear one by one, perhaps daily? Or maybe a reader would receive all the tickets up to the present time and then a few tickets that are time sensitive, such as an epilogue? At this stage in the process, there is a lot to think about.

The inspiration for this project came partly from a Stand + Stare commission that I worked on for Birmingham Library, where we responded to the Wingate Bett Collection of travel tickets. There was no provenance, so I was free to write a fictional narrative. The story was a glamorous, yet tragic, tale of unrequited love told through diary entries between 1934 -1964. Each entry was inspired by a ticket in the collection.

I am always drawn to stories that span generations and reference historical events. I am considering using the Wingate Bett tale as a backdrop for this story, which could be set in the present day or in the recent past. It may link to characters or themes, such as music journalism or the experiences of a woman looking for love and a fulfilling career.  

It is vital that the story fits with the structure and that the tickets in the Wallet underpin each chapter. Once I have some answers to my practical/technical queries, I am excited about getting down to the planning and working out how this story will move the reader through time and place.

seer – Melanie Frances 

Writer Melanie Frances is producing “seer”, a reader-led interdimensional journalistic investigation where readers will act as the protagonist, a journalist who is investigating a new technology that claims to allow people to see into alternative dimensions. 

It feels somewhat contradictory to be sat here, writing about beginnings, considering what it means to start something, when in my work itself I am explicitly trying to push away this structure.

The piece I’m developing, seer, is non-linear and interactive. It offers not a story, but multiple potential stories for the reader to piece together, accounts to believe or doubt, reports to accept as fact or dismiss as fiction.

As I start – because as much as I riff on terms I am actually starting – I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it is to write a non-linear narrative well.

By ‘well’ I absolutely mean considering what good non-linearity looks like – offering meaningful choices, opening a dialogue with your reader, building a sense of the other potential routes they could have gone down – but I’m also asking myself ‘How do I write in a way that best facilitates this?’and ‘How do I write without a direction?’

How do I write without making the choices myself, but instead leaving them to someone else?

For now, my solution lies simply in embracing duality, celebrating multitudes. I accept that all versions of the story are true, all of them happened, and write as such.

“Multiverse” by Leo Villareal in the tunnel which connects the East and West buildings of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

This puts you at a distance from the world you create. If you want to leave the choices to someone else, you can’t also make them yourself. Each potential route has to be treated with the same care and respect. At the moment I’m finding pleasure in leaning into ambiguity and writing accounts that can be read a multitude of different ways. 

A surprise to me has been the ways in which this approach of embracing multiplicity is proving more broadly useful.

In my schedule, I have a period of research, a deep immersion, followed by a period of creation. I’d consume and then I’d respond. But I’m here at the start of my writing period and it feels important for the research to continue. I’m not ready to stop yet. 

I’m building a digital platform for the piece with a creative technologist. I want to be able to tell them exactly how the story will work – what all the choices will be, all the multitude moments I want to hit. But I haven’t written them. I want the platform to be ready so I can write on it, play with it. But I also want the whole story to be written so I can create a platform that suits it.

Everywhere I feel stuck in-between.

So, across the board, across the project, I am pushing myself to embrace duality, accept that things don’t have to happen in an order. I’ll do them all at once, not because that’s how it has to be, but because to make something truly non-linear, you have to inhabit the space of duality. You have to embrace the ambiguity, and celebrate it. Here I go.

For more details on Beyond the Book and the writers visit Paper Nations.

Writer Profiles

Lucy Telling 

In 2009, Lucy Telling co-founded Stand + Stare, an interactive design studio, with her brother Barney. Since then, the Bristol and Stroud-based writer has worked on numerous creative projects, including a recreation of two sets from The Muse by Jessie Burton, using touch tech to trigger audio extracts from the novel in 2018. An extensive list of her projects through Stand + Stare can be found on their website. Lucy is also an award-winning playwright and film-maker whose work has been performed across the country, both in theatres and schools.

Lucy Christopher and Rajiv Edward 

Lucy Christopher and Rajiv Edward are a creative and real life partnership interested in all the possibilities that digital storytelling presents. Rajiv is a Frontend Web Developer and UX designer who works at the University of Bath, and is looking to push further into app development. Lucy is an international bestselling Young Adult author, including novels Stolen, Flyaway, and Storm-wake. Her books have won the Branford Boase Award, the Printz Honor, and have been shortlisted for the Costa and Waterstones prizes. Lucy also works as a senior lecturer. Through her work leading the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa, she has helped to kickstart the careers of many writers who have gone on to have several books published themselves

Melanie Frances 

A writer with many hats, Melanie is a theatre-maker, artist, game designer, and mathematician who is also Co-Artistic Director of digital, interactive performance company Produced Moon. She has authored several app-based works, including The Inventor’s Squad, an audio guide that tells the stories of female scientists, mathematicians, engineers or inventors, such as Ada Lovelace and Hedy Lamarr.

Paper Nations is a creative writing incubator. We commission writers throughout the South-West of England to create new work, we nurture local communities of support for writers, and we create multi-channel partnerships to showcase new writing internationally.

Paper Nations is led by Bath Spa University’s TRACE centre (The Research Centre for Transcultural Creativity and Education). Paper Nations works in partnership with Bath Spa University’s Creative Writing Faculty and Institute for Education, Bath Festivals, the National Association of Writers in Education, StoryHive and a thriving community of local schools and arts organisations. Paper Nations is supported by Arts Council England, Bath Spa University and Investors in Writing.

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