Things Possible With Digital Stories Which Are Not So Possible With Paper Stories

A lot is still being said about all the ways in which ebooks and tablet books are not as good as ‘real books’: you can’t smell them, there’s screen glare, you don’t know where you are up to in the book…

Ebooks: “I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.”

Maurice Sendak

Then there are the dissenters and skeptics who think that excessive focus on the physical beauty of books undermines the real purpose of literature, which can be found in the text and not in the vessel that delivers it.

Internet Book Fetishists, from The New Yorker

But there are also some excellent things that are newly possible in the age of digital books. I focus here on digital picturebooks in particular.

1. ALTERNATIVE ENDINGS AND OTHER NON-LINEAR STORYLINES

Postmodern Non-linearity

I know from book club that endings pose a particular challenge for authors; no single ending can satisfy all readers. But with eBooks and apps, technically, it’s possible to offer a few different endings. Whichever one the reader gets might be based on a few simple questions at the very beginning of the book, such as, ‘Do you have a high tolerance for ambiguity?’ or ‘Are you a fan of happy endings?’ or something like that. Or the reader might simply be asked, ‘Do you want the happy ending or the tragic ending?’

I can’t see publishers ever embracing the option to encourage readers not to read every single book in a series — publishers are making most of their money from series after all — but I write now of pie-in-the-sky possibilities afforded by the electronic age.

It’s possible that most readers don’t want to choose when they sit down with a book, though this doesn’t explain the popularity (though niche) market of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. It’s possible that paper books do best when it comes to lengthy, linear works:

“Printed content also tends to be packaged in a way that encourages the reader to consume it, if not in its entirety in one go, at least in a linear fashion. In doing so, the reader leaves mental footprints from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of the textural landscape. Some psychologists believe these mental maps of a reader’s journey through a piece of text provide the deeper sense of understanding that distinguishes reading on paper from reading on a screen.”

The Paperless Dilemma

But what about the non-linear works? Speaking of her book Paradise, Toni Morrison said:

“People’s anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that’s the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies,” she says. “But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past.”

Might we be on the cusp of a new age of non-linear storytelling?

 

2. MULTIPLE RATINGS IN THE ONE STORY

After realising that our three-year-old had remembered one of the more scary pages in a proto version of Midnight Feast, and that she was requesting this page before bedtime, I worried that she might start waking from nightmares. As it happened, she didn’t, but at the time I had been mulling over whether a certain scene in our next story was perhaps too scary for the more tender individuals in our target readership.

So for the Midnight Feast release version readers or parents can turn off the scariest elements of the story for younger or more sensitive readers. This is definitely something which might be more widely implemented if time and money were no object.

Related to this: Same book but not: Publishers offer titles in adult, kid versions (from the Los Angeles Times).

 

3. TOUCH INTERACTIVITY AND ANIMATION TO INDICATE THE PASSING OF TIME

Depicting the flow of time in a picturebook isn’t easy, especially if the story is for younger children, who haven’t yet learnt the usual codes. For instance, in Eva Eriksson’s illustration of The Wild Baby, we see six different babies on and around the stairs. The wild baby is doing a different naughty thing in each picture, and older readers will easily pick up that there are not suddenly six different wild babies — this is the same baby doing different naughty things successively. Young readers can get confused, wondering where the other wild babies came from.

A storybook app can avoid this problem, if touches to the screen get rid of one baby before the next one appears.

(Over at The Guardian, Naomi Alderman has contributed an excellent article in her capacity as both games writer and ‘serious writer’ explaining how interactive technologies open up various possibilities in storytelling.)

art by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Odyssey.
by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Odyssey.

 

4. THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE

The element of surprise in a picturebook is constrained by the page turn. In order to reveal something unexpected, an author/illustrator team must sometimes contrive the prose so that the surprise doesn’t happen on the recto side of a double spread, but rather overleaf. Lift-the-flap books do more with the element of surprise, though in my experience, are best man-handled by an older reader, even though the target readership are chubby little destructive fingers! In an app, a surprise can be hidden until it is found via touch.

 

5. SYNCHRONISING TEXT AND PICTURE

Related to this is that sometimes in a picturebook (though more often in illustrated stories) the words and pictures are somewhat out of sync. I notice when reading illustrated chapter books to my six year old that she’ll often ask about some element of a picture but if she were to wait for me to read all of the accompanying text she would have her questions explained. Sometimes questions are good; other times they are distracting, and occur only due to the constraints of the physical page. An app can manipulate timeing with touch interactivity; text and the relevant part of an illustration can appear together, or not, as best serves the reader.

 

6. BORROWING ELEMENTS OF FILM

For Hilda Bewildered we are playing around with various light effects in the screen transitions. Done badly, these can look like a terrible PowerPoint presentation. On the other hand, various film camera techniques can enhance a picture book in an unobtrusive and subtle way. For example, a ‘pan’ can be emulated by swiping to reveal more of a scene; a zoom effect can get around the limitations of the fixed-size screen; tilt-shift can be emulated to draw attention to a certain story element; the list is endless, if only the budget were.

 

7. WORD PLAY

I haven’t seen this yet (not to say it doesn’t exist) but there are many possibilities for word placement. In a printed book, the words are static on the page, which is indeed fine for most stories. But there is plenty of scope for an imaginative development team to come up with an interactive picturebook in which the movement/substitution/reader-selection of words becomes part of the story, and fosters a love of language via word play. Inspiration can be drawn from (rather old-fashioned, now) tomes of word puzzles (you know the kind, printed on newsprint, designed to be written in), or perhaps inspiration can come from some of the many word game apps on the App Store today. In an app, words could be flung off the page, arranged by the reader (a la Endless Alphabet), shuffled around to create something new (like fridge magnet poetry with pictures to match)… The possibilities are endless for developers who are adept in storytelling.

 

8. PALIMPSESTIC POSSIBILITIES

This style of painting by Tang Yau Hoong is perfectly suited to rub-to-reveal interactivity.
This style of painting by Tang Yau Hoong is perfectly suited to rub-to-reveal interactivity.

The rub-to-reveal feature of some book apps is sometimes used to no real effect, but we have used it with a definite purpose in mind: The image which is revealed beneath the rubbings reveals the inner-world of a character, or in Hilda Bewildered it reveals a different interpretation of the same event. The underlying picture can be completely different or it can be mostly the same. In a printed book, palimpsestic relationships between spreads work well if the picture is completely different; harder to convey is where the picture is only slightly different. The rub-to-reveal abilities of touch screens draw readers’ attention towards similarities in a way I’ve only seen in ‘Spot the difference’ type gamification in printed books.

 

9. SOUND EFFECTS AND NARRATION

This is yet another area to get badly wrong, but when done right, sound effects and music can really enhance the mood of a story. Print books sometimes come bundled with CDs; others such as the Little Einstein publications have a panel of buttons which the young reader can press when told to inside the story. In picturebook apps, sound is more flexible: Sound can either autoplay, or it can be activated by the user, depending on how the developers would like to manipulate the reader’s experience of the story. Sound effects can be calm and unobtrusive or they can be surprising and comical. It almost goes without saying, but the read-aloud benefits of narration help emerging readers and readers with dyslexia. Even competent readers can be helped though difficult texts via narration. Other apps may avoid the option of narration, opting instead for a soundscape that sounds best on its own.

 

10. CINEMAGRAPHIC INTEREST

A cinemagraph is like a GIF. Well, it is a GIF, except the difference between a cinemagraph and a GIF of a cat falling down a crevice over and over again is that a cinemagraph is more subtle, and often loops seemlessly. For instance, the only moving part in a cinemagraph of a woman sitting on a park bench may be the slight up and down movement of her foot. This simple movement can signify her impatience in a way a static picture could not. In short, the cinemagraphic possibilities of pictures in apps allow for even more telling of the story via pictures, which is good, because picturebook apps don’t tend to do well with large blocks of text.

 

11. HELPING WITH READING DIFFICULTIES

I’m looking forward to emerging research on this.

Reading Difficulties

 

***

But in the end, is it right to expect more of a storyapp than of a picturebook? Is it not enough to expect the same immersive experience, preferably shared? Such discussions are taking place all around the Internet, with a variety of diverse opinions. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing the research, which is by necessity behind the new technology itself.

 

Talk of ‘Babysitting’

Good apps or games should facilitate conversation between parents and children during this play, not get in the way of it.

– from a study from the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, summarised here.

But I don’t really buy the idea that gadgets can babysit. Kids need attention, and they demand it.

This chair sums it up perfectly.

chair

It’s called The Abooba Chair. Someone without kids — or else someone with an amazing tune-out ability — designed it to allow parents to read while their children play.

Bwahahahahahahaha

Do We Have Free Will?

brain

Graham Lawton: Even people who have largely come to terms with neuroscience find certain ideas troubling—particularly free will. Do we have it?

Patricia Churchland: A better question is whether we have self-control, and it’s very easy to see what the evolutionary rationale of that is. We need to be able to maintain a goal despite distractions. We need to suppress certain kinds of impulses. We do know a little bit about the neurobiology of self-control, and there is no doubt that brains exhibit self-control.

Now, that’s as good as it gets, in my view. When we need to make a decision about something—whether to buy a new car, say—self-control mechanisms work in ways that we understand: We decide not to spend more than we can afford, to go with the more or less practical car. That is what free will is. But if you think that free will iscreating the decision, with no causal background, there isn’t that.

Slate: The Self As Brain

Using iPads In The Classroom

Excellent Books Released 2012 Which May Have Flown Under Your Radar

Kate De Goldi and Laura Kroetsch discuss books of 2012 on Radio New Zealand

Lists have been massively cut. So the number of books traditional publishers is shrinking, so people have to find new avenues to follow. We used to poo-poo self publishing but in the USA and increasingly in Australia lots of good stuff is happening online and in zines. New writing feels really healthy.

Self-publishing is happening in a very quiet way, often from mainstream published authors, things to share among friends e.g. Noel McKenna and Jenny Bornholdt’s Knives: A Personal History, very cheaply produced chapbook distributed last Christmas among their friends, hysterically funny. This gets no audience beyond friends. Sally Schwartz has been publishing zines — lo-fi publishing, done on computers and historically on photocopiers. Zines were an underground movement that came out of punk rock. (Chapbooks have been around since the beginning of publishing.)

The same thing is happening with blogs. A number of people have high literary blogs. Blogs are no different from printed matter in that readers discover them primarily via word-of-mouth. Bloggers are also no different from most writers in that most writers don’t make enough money to live. The average author in Australia makes about 6k per year. This can be a liberating notion because then you can do what you want. Bernard Beckett is a good example of a writer who uses a blog to write about various political and social issues.

Communities of readers are important for book discovery, along with online journals. The power has moved away from publishers and back to readers.

One bugbear for Laura: there’s almost no American literature in New Zealand and Australia.

eBooks

The problem in the eBook market is that there’s no consistent pricing. Many eBooks are priced the same as the paperbacks. It’s good that indie bookshops in NZ are bringing in Kobo readers, but who is going to pay $40 for an eBook? Kate is about to get a Kobo, partly to support booksellers as an ethical decision (rather than getting a Kindle). Owning a Kindle though can dramatically increase your purchase of books because of instant gratification. But publishers need to address the fact that readers of eBooks read twice as many books as readers of paperbacks. Why do readers have to carry the complete bag on this one? Why must publishers continue to charge so much for eBooks? This view is controversial.

The Publishing Industry 2012

The merging of big publishing companies in 2012 is very concerning. The number of places writers are pitching to will be more limited, and it will probably reduce the amount of money authors are getting. The fallout will be indie booksellers.

In a way, the collapse of the industry has been good for creativity. We have to let go of this notion that we’re going to make money. Huge sums of money are not going to change hands. If you want to make money, write Harlequin Romances.

Misery Memoirs

The ‘Misery Memoir’ seems very popular this year. The biography section used to be quite different. De Goldi thinks that the misery memoir forms the worst of the YA genre, and that misery memoir tends to be read by people still forming their reading tastes, popular among 17, 18, 19, 20 year olds. Everything is overblown and less than profound and the narrator is unreliable. It’s untransformed experience. It’s literal, and when it hits the page it becomes something else. Once a reader’s experience becomes more nuanced they start to want something else. This isn’t to diminish the experience the writers of such novels have actually had. They are a strange gauge of what’s going on in mental health. For years it was sexual abuse, there’s also been a period of books about eating disorders, cutting, drugs, another period of people writing about being overweight children. For Christmas this year there seems to be a surge of ‘I went crazy for a month’ sort of story. A lot that comes out of the USA speaks to the pharmacological industry. It’s the season of ‘Crazy Books’. (A M Homes May We Be Forgiven – something Oprah would promote if she went mad.) Misery memoir is quite different from the literary tradition. To become literary, a miserable experience must have been through a mouli of all sorts of other things from literature, which isn’t about hype and ‘unearned emotion’. Have we been misled by this thing we know as ‘real’, in the ‘reality TV’ sense of the word. Anecdote is not literature.

 

Kate’s Selection

Francis Spufford is a very intelligent writer who also writes with beautiful prose.

The Child That Books Built (Observer review) is autobiographical.

Red Plenty is about British boffins and English inventors.

Kate talks about Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Good Sense. The author himself doesn’t know if he believes. He’s non-fundamentalist, but has enormous theological understanding. Would one only enjoy it if one were disposed to faiths? Heaps of atheists really like it, so no. Spufford doesn’t like that people of faith are often cast as unfashionable. He’s cross about Dawkins having the moral highground.

Kate’s favourite book for 2012 is The Invisible Rider by Kirsten McDougall, a NZ book. This is a novel/novella about a married man living in the Happy Valley somewhere in Wellington wanting to engage with the world in an ethical way but isn’t quite getting it together. Elegiac, poetic and beautifully put together. Although it’s about a middle-aged man it’s pretty much the opposite of Jonathan Franzen. Philip, the main character, is the invisible rider. Each episode could stand alone as a vignette. It could be called a broken novel or discontinuous narrative.

Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe by Wayne Macauley

This Australian author has written two books previously. This book has a post apocalyptic feel about it. People drain away and survivors are left behind to deal with a surreal surround. It’s a quite excoriating comment on modern consumption and yet is a hopeful call for community. Macauley is a wonderful writer and thinker. He’s making a connection with destroyed civilisation and saying something about what we’re doing to ourselves. He’s also written about arts funding in a scathing way. Macauley’s earlier books were sitting in his publishers garage, and he has been pulled back from obscurity after writing for 20 years and having books fall out of print. He’s not a big name yet. He is a uniquely talented writer. In some way his obscurity has served him well. He’s been able to do what he wanted. He’s been involved in drama and theatre in Melbourne as well.

Edith Pearlman

Lots of people wonder why they haven’t heard of Edith Pearlman before. How many great short story tellers do we know, though? Short story writers are the Cinderellas of literary world. Ann Patchett has a lovely forward, full of praise. She’s sort of compared to Alice Munro. Pearlman is a fantastic stylist. The stories are faultless. She writes about Jewish people all over the world. Pearlman says it’s so much easier to write about despair than to write about hope. But Pearlman is able to do it.

 

I Got His Blood On Me by Lawrence Patchett

Another collection of short stories. Patchett had some firm views about historical fiction. He didn’t want to approach it in the way he’d been reading it. He writes almost speculative historical fiction which requires the reader to have a different entry point. He writes about Maori and he wants to be sure to have a perspective on them which is from the Pakeha rather than coopting them, so to speak. This feels like a very fresh new voice.

He regards writing as being like a craft, like a carpenter or a piano player in that you have to work at it.

He grew up without a television. Neither did Edith Pearlman, as it happens. (She’s not good on popular culture.)

Laura’s Selection

A.M. Homes’ last book was This Book Will Save Your Life.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes

Her new one is the story of two brothers and a man’s midlife crisis. Do we end up caring? Yes, enormously. She’s taking huge aim at contemporary American culture.  Homes has a lot more humanity than Jonathan Franzen. Both authors take modern life to task. But Franzen seems to have given up on us as a people, that our own greedy, messy ways have been our undoing.  People don’t know enough about Homes. That said, she’s a very disturbing writer. So does Franzen, but Homes may not be for everyone.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

This novel has gone like a rocket, about two boys surviving in the Iraq war. One gets killed, the other comes home. It’s told in past tense, so we know from the start that he survives. This highlights the crucial decision of tense. The past tense also allows the writer to question the big questions about being in the war in a larger, philosophical way. Their place in the war is meaningless. Only fiction can convey this idea. The character only sees it by looking back in a reflective way. This is an extraordinary book. The author was himself in the Iraq war for two years. Nearly half of the narrative is set back home, not in Iraq. An American soldier commits suicide everyday in America. There has been a reluctance to talk about it. The author talks very well about the desire to be annihilated, but at the same time there is something very hopeful about it. This book has been lavished with awards but deserved.

The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham

Shockingly forensic but also hugely moving.

Joan Wickersham’s new book is The News From Spain.

This is a series of love stories that begin in the 14th century and which all in some way involve the phrase ‘the news from Spain’. They are sad, with a terrible emotional poignancy about them. The author is an amazing stylist and a trickster. Each time you don’t expect ‘the news from Spain’ to occur, and yet it has.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

This collection is from a Canadian writer. (First name is pronounced Suzy.) Short stories are something that exist within a community. Gartner is an incredibly refreshing voice who is not for everyone because she’s also a very manic voice. Her stories are about all the ways in which we collide with technology, and about how the world has become frenetic in bad ways. They’re funny, and reminiscent of Miranda July. She’s a clever writer with very engaging characters, but she’s writing about the oddballs in the confusing world we live in. She’s very attached to the short story form and has talked about stupid literary bias against the form. The same thing happens in NZ. Like a poet, who can sell 500 copies but have a great reputation online. You can watch a writer for years and years and be really delighted when the collected stories come out. There will be a whole community of readers who do know about short story writers and poets but then they seem to break out when someone gives them an award or a collection comes out.

Creative Block?

Don Draper’s advice to Peggy Olsen in Mad Men was to think about it hard for a really long time, then don’t think about it at all. I’m pretty sure the creator of Don Draper didn’t come up with that — I suspect it’s what all creative people learn sooner or later.

For those of us working with graphics, here is some more advice, tailored to the visual medium. I think it applies to illustration as much as to design.

How To Get Unstuck, from Eric Paul Snowden

 

Artist to Admire: Daniel Kvasznicza

See a collection of his landscapes here.

I don’t see many artists of this style working in children’s picturebooks. That’s not saying there are none at all, but the art in children’s picturebooks tends to be more ‘illustrative’ rather than photo-realistic. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing — I’m not trying to make any statements about one style of illustration being superior to another. But I would like to see more of this style in children’s books because photo-realistic artwork was my favourite kind as a kid. The more realistic it was, the better I liked it. I’m pretty sure that’s why I liked the artwork of Georgina Hargreaves in my large, illustrated editions of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree — the artwork looked as if the children and the made-up creatures had been created from photographs. There is certainly charm in the oft-seen watercolour strokes defined by dark  outlines, and the likes of Quentin Blake can do a marvellous amount with a few quick flourishes of an inkpen.

All that said, I’d love for some of the SFF artists currently working in the game industry to illustrate some really good picturebooks for school aged children. I think that would be an excellent way to get a certain reluctant demographic into reading.

I say all of this with one big reservation. Artists working with the SFF genre are very much inclined to depict female characters in sexualised poses, exposing as much of their bodies as possible.

 

So when I say I’d like to see more SFF artists moving into children’s illustration, what I’m really asking is for artists working in children’s illustration to be paid adequately, to support the number of hours it takes to create such artwork — not for artists trained in SFF tropes to bring those SFF stereotypes down into children’s illustration.

Men Are Better At Making Sound Effects With Their Mouths, Apparently.

This headline caught my eye because I’m busy collecting and making my own sound effects this week for Midnight Feast.

Hilarious Video Proof: Your Ability To Make Realistic Sound Effects Is Gender-Based.

Here it is: Sound Effects Film

Is it just me, or are the men actually no better than the women at making sound effects in this short film? They just don’t look as stupid doing it.

I would agree that the worst of the female sounds have been edited to appear at the beginning and I would agree that the men are better at imitating guns than the women. I would hazard a guess that this is because the men of this demographic — youngish and white as they all are — have had more practice listening to such sound effects while playing computer games and watching action films. Then there’s, you know, all those years of school yard play.

I also get the feeling from that film that the men are less inhibited about making such sounds.

But as one of the women says, why weren’t they asked to make a duck or something? I think women and men would be equally good at making duck noises. I can definitely do a better sheep imitation than my husband. Definitely. I think that’s to do with the fact that his voice dropped due to testosterone and mine didn’t. So, can a woman make another short film and get the men to make sheep noises and music boxes and babies crying, perhaps? Don’t ask them to stand on their own. Get them to stand with their friends, preferably after a few drinks.

We’d soon find out that women are just as good as men at making stupid sound effects with our mouths.

Related, sort of: Ever wondered how the dinosaur sounds got made in Jurassic Park? No? Not keeping you awake at night? Well, I guess you don’t need to check out the answer, then.

In this clip, Tom Myers talks about his job as sound designer for the Pixar animated film Monsters University (which I have no intention of seeing, BTW). He explains that he has to create the world from the ground up, unlike in regular (non-animated movies, in which there exists some diegetic sound to work with). It involved visiting real world locations on campus, though they didn’t get invited to any frat parties. They pan the dialogue a little more aggressively because the voice is so clean. The sound designers play with ‘reflection’ and ‘perspective‘ and tricks like that. They didn’t put a lot of ambient material in a scene which already had music. The last pass is the ‘foley’ pass, where they put in footsteps and things like that. The most important thing about sound editing is keeping the dialogue clear. (As the feet swell the sound of their footsteps change.) I’m sure that next time I watch an animated film I’ll be listening with newly appreciative ears.