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Creative Research

My research explores multimodal creativity through print and digital stories. Please feel free to comment or contact me!

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Monday, September 24, 2018

My Take on Specifications Grading (or, How I Learned to Not Spend My Weekends Marking)

I’ve been proselytizing this method for a while now, and have used it in a range of creative writing and publishing modules. It’s been wildly successful for me (though of course I’ll continue tweaking it), and enough people have asked about it that I thought I’d put it together into an overview/summary resource. It should probably be an actual paper one of these days, but that would require time and research and motivation. Natch.

My teaching model is based on Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading (she’s also got a great intro article on Inside Higher Ed), just so the original genius can get plenty of credit.

My motivations are these: I came a hair’s breadth from burning out entirely. I went from teaching creative writing classes with 7-10 students on them to massive creative writing modules with 80+ students on them. Marking loads were insane, despite the fact that I have a pretty streamlined process with rubrics and QuickMarks and commonly used comments that I can cut and paste, as well as voice recordings of general comments instead of writing them out. I was honestly thinking about chucking it all in.

I’d already instituted a few radical techniques to handle the ever-increasing academic load: I have a firm policy against checking emails on evenings, weekends, research days, and holidays. Undergraduate students are directed not to email me (either they can find their answers in the syllabus or online, or they can come to office hours); if they do email me, they get an auto-response with an FAQ and a reminder to come see me if they still can’t find the info. If I’m not required at work, I’m working at home, free from distractions and chatting and drop-ins.

If you haven’t read Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading (or her Inside Higher Ed article) yet, this template will seem nuts and overwhelming. So go, at least read the article, and come back, and it will make more sense.

Monday, July 24, 2017

In which the Apathy Monster is curtailed

Me, lately
I spent my PhD years going to many, many conferences. When you're in a small department in an isolated part of the world, they're kind of a necessity. You go to meet anyone - anyone - who is doing similar stuff, and who won't stare at you blankly when you describe your research. You go to try out your ideas, to make sure the academic community you'll be pitching them to don't think you're an absolute waste of space (imposter syndrome is for real). Also, you go just to go somewhere (though I think I went to Leicester far too often).

In the last few years, as I've gained contacts and confidence, I've gone to fewer and fewer conferences. I know the ones that best suit me now, and where I'll get to meet and/or catch up with my peeps. I also know the ones, of course, where I've never made any headway at all.

I was pleasantly surprised this week to be wrong about that last one.

MIX Digital - Bath Spa University

Let me back this on up. I've presented at two conferences in the last two weeks. The first of which was the MIX Digital 2017 Conference at Bath Spa University. It's the second time I've made it to this conference, and I'm always glad I do. It's a conference with a great mix of researchers, practitioners, and industry folks, and most are based in the UK. The mix means there are a lot of ideas floating around from a lot of different perspectives, which is refreshing for someone who, like I said, is relatively isolated.

This time, I brought three of my PhD students in tow, all presenting at their first conference. I was really pleased with both their presentations and their receptions, and glad they got the opportunity to chat with others and discover Twitter and know that they are not all alone in the research world.

ELO - Porto, Portugal

The second conference was the Electronic Literature Organization Conference in Porto, Portugal. I've been affiliated with the ELO since the very early days of my PhD, when they awarded me an editorship of the Electronic Literature Directory. I've been presenting at ELO conferences since 2012, but here's the thing: even though I've had tickets on the ELO train since the beginning, I have deliberately hopped on a different train, one that I thought had diverged enough that it wasn't going to cross tracks with the ELO anymore.

Because of this divergence, I haven't had the best luck with the ELO or its affiliated journal the electronic book review in the last few years. I know why, and it's been down to my choices:

  1. My research methods are unorthodox.
  2. My creative work is pedestrian.

And yeah, both of those are my choice. Research in literature and narrative has traditionally been kept carefully separate from creative practice; writers who are also academics publish their creative work, and then do research on other people's work (in my work on practice-based research, this is called "practice-and-research"). Obviously the creative practice will influence the way the research is conducted, and give insight into the work, but the practitioner is expected to keep their creative work out of it.

I don't do that. I'm interested in creative process, in writer cognition, in narrative-writer-reader interactions. I ask questions that can be answered only by doing the creative work, not by applying post-textual analysis to someone else's work.

So it's not surprising that a lot of journals and publishers don't know what to do with my research. I come up against this a lot. It was just that the ebr was the first to officially pooh-pooh my methods, and given the great relationships I have with the editors, that one stung. Plus, in trying to plead my case, I presented my methodology at the 2015 conference, which landed with a resounding thud.

(Don't feel bad for me - that thud urged me on and my work has had great success in other outlets.)

On the second point: my creative work is pedestrian. I'm good with that; I do it deliberately. I'm not a poet, lyricist, or artist. I like stories. I like stories where the writing and the form don't get in the way. I know - why write digital fiction, then? Isn't it all just faffing with form for the sake of playing with a cool new toy? 

To a certain extent, sure. But I mostly think that the novelty is not going to last long. Pretty soon, digital stories will be de rigeur - and when that very near day comes, we need to be able to tell the stories in them well. We need to be able to utilize the medium for maximum effect and potential. And hell, we need to be able to make a living. No one makes a living on experimental writing; plenty of people, however, make livings on just good fucking storytelling. 

A precious few innovate while they do it. But just a little. Just enough that our human-novelty-pleasure center is toggled, and not so much that we get lost. And that's my aim. To be innovative enough to be interesting, and to be pedestrian enough so that my audience is not lost.

But for the ELO, that means my work is...pedestrian. It's not going to win any prizes or be selected for exhibitions. So I don't win brownie points on that front, either.

All of this is a very long intro to my surprising report on the ELO conference in Porto this week. I didn't want to go. I didn't plan on going. Then a couple of colleagues contacted me and asked me to be on a panel with them, and I figured, what the hell. I've never been to Portugal - I'll do the panel, catch up with a couple of people, then play tourist the rest of the conference.

Which, honestly, is what I did. I was a terrible conference attendee. Blame it on the bad taste left in my mouth from my 2015 experience, blame it on the tits-in-the-dirt morale inspired by the current state of HE in the UK and my institution in general, but I just couldn't bring myself to care. Apathy struck me with a capital WHATEVS.

I made it in for at least half a day every day, went to the panels I was interested in, chatted a bit with people (and especially my awesome and amazing former supervisor, in all the way from Canada!), but generally wandered off into Porto otherwise.

I'd volunteered to chair the panels that were actually of relevance to me, just to force me and my apathy to go to them. I'm so glad I did. They were fantastic, and somehow, after all this time, I seem to have found my people. They basically adopted me, inviting me out to dinner and drinks and the like. It was like a record scratch from "It's a Hard Knock Life" to "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here."

And then...THEN...

Saturday's rock star keynote cited me. Like, by name. Like, in the context of everything I've been ranting about for years: that e-lit needs to go a little punk, needs to break some shackles, needs to actually pick up some fans outside our little avant-garde circles.

Of course, I wasn't there. I was on a boat. I learned about it via Twitter, like all things in life now. I'm hoping that made me at least a little bit punk.

Anyway, I've come away from both of these conferences with some great new friends, and maybe a touch less apathy. Certainly, I feel a lot more confident about the work I'm doing, both academically and creatively.

Until next year.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Can Digital Fiction and Commercial Publishing Work Together?

First of all, hello again, old blog. I haven't visited you, much less nourished you, in quite some time! What's that meme that goes around about the best friends being those that can go months or years between contact, and then just pick up right where they left off as if no time has passed at all? Let's go with that.

Second, the impetus for this blog post is a new research project I'm (slowly but surely) launching. I've been interested in the overlap (or, frankly, entire lack thereof) between digital fiction and the publishing industry; specifically, I've been wondering if that overlap is ever going to actually happen. So I'm kinda trying to shove them together.

There have been a few promising case studies emerging in the last few years that show audiences actually are interested in interactive storytelling: Ryan North's wild success with Shakespearean Choose-Your-Own-Adventure; Zoe Quinn's rocky go of publishing Depression Quest through Steam; and the rise of walking simulator games, which shows interactive engagement doesn't have to be maxed out for audiences to enjoy a hyperfiction. The popularity of Twine, and the increasing ease of creating hypertexts and hyperfictions, not to mention websites and mobile apps, mean more students and aspiring writers are experimenting with and creating incredible fictions in digital forms...

...yet still no commercial framework has emerged to service this growing creative industry.

Part of the issue is history. Online marketplaces emerged as child-nodes of brick-and-mortar stores, and their nomenclature is inherited. Visit Amazon, and you'll find categories laud out like sections of a massive box retailer: books, DVDs/movies, electronics, clothing. Even within sections, the genre listings conform to the same tropes as the old bookstores. Even digital content is arranged by strict sections and categories: Kindle books, Instant Video, Apps. There's just no room to put something new.

Currently, digital fiction is offered much like software: through the developer's own site, or as one-off apps in the Apple Store or Google Play (on which, I'd note, they still don't have capability to group anything like "digital fiction" into an easily searchable area; the categories still conform to old brick-and-mortar analogs). One or two might have success, but as a recognizable form, it has yet to emerge. (Of course, it would help if we would all agree to call it the same thing, but when has that ever happened in the history of humans naming things???)

Another issue is the perception of digital fiction. Because of early gatekeeping and barriers to entry in terms of cost and skill, digital fiction has proliferated among academics and avant garde artists. My students reactions to most digital fiction - even the avid gamers and internet-dwellers - are often initially negative. I'd point out they have similar reactions to most Modernist and Postmodernist literature - that the authors have sacrificed story for the sake of playing around with form.

Of course, the more digital fiction my students are exposed to, the more nuanced their reactions become, until some of them take it to heart as writers and artists and start creating their own. But it takes a while. It takes assigned readings and in-class discussions. It takes guided tutorials in creating digital fictions and exploring the new form for writing. Your average reader, looking for a little distraction and entertainment, is never going to commit that much.

Enter my latest effort: hyperbooks. I'm launching a series of hyperfictions that take two simultaneous forms: one, a digital form such as hypertext or interactive fiction (entirely text-based), and the other a familiar, run-of-the-mill (nowadays, anyway) e-book that can be sold on all major eBookseller sites and read on all digital devices and eBook apps.

The first of these, "The Futographer" can be found here in its eBook form, and here in its hypertext form.

Adjustments have to be made from the typical highly experimental shape and drive of digital fictions, in terms of both narrative and programming (Kindle books, in particular, are pretty restrictive). I plan to publish more about these changes as the project progresses, and as I learn more about the process and writing these works. What I'm hoping to achieve is some audience awareness of hyperfiction/digital fiction, some desire for more, and to establish an expectation that these works are worthy of paying for, rather than just floating around free on the internet.

There's a lot of room for expansion (what if an actual publishing house got on board with these, and could persuade the eBooksellers to create new, searchable categories?!?), and a real possibility of just shouting into a densely packed convention hall of self-publishers and developers all angling for airtime. Wherever this falls, I expect it to at least be an interesting creative endeavor.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Satisfaction, y'all: what is it good for?

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was strong with me this week. It's end of term, end of the academic year, and we're all caught up in the requesting (begging) of student feedback, along with its requisite trauma. An old friend of mine who is a nurse posted this article about patient satisfaction vs. patient health, and the sentiments strongly parallel what I hear from staff and out of my own mouth. My mom just wants it all to stop; with every purchase, site visit, and receipt, she gets a request for customer feedback, and let's face it: unless you're on one extreme of customer experience or another, you just can't dredge the energy to care.

Student feedback is fertile ground for frustration. We're told we're not collecting enough feedback (the bean-counter kind): we can't get enough responses to officially administered feedback for statistically significant and/or representative feedback. On the other hand, we collect so much feedback that at times it feels as though educators are no longer running the show: online, on Facebook, in class, in staff/student meetings, on email, in person, in hallways, during office hours, during special sessions, mid-semester, end of semester, end of term, end of degree. My most engaged students -- the ones who voluntarily turn up on Open Days out of pure enthusiasm -- tell me they frequently don't offer feedback because they don't have anything to complain about. So the actual satisfaction isn't being collected, but the dissatisfaction is. Our response to this skewed feedback is to justify what we're doing, or make changes to the program. But you can't make everyone happy all the time, and the next group will find something new to be unhappy about, and so begins the cycle of diminishing returns, as is quite well-described in Powey & Hall's 1998 study on the efficacy of student feedback. It's disturbing that 16 years later, their portrait of the dubious value of student feedback is still remarkably accurate.

The emphasis placed on student feedback during and directly after their degrees begins to resemble the obsequious store clerk's "the customer is always right" attitude. In fact, numerous studies note that the "customer who is 'always right' has the upper hand by default and an opportunity to push the boundaries of fair behavior" (Berry & Seiders 2008); this attitude leads to bullying. I've certainly experienced it in both business settings and higher education, and I'm sure many colleagues have as well. Providing such a wealth of feedback opportunities, coupled with the subsequent need to react to that feedback, transfers a great deal of (imagined?) power to the students; while I agree that it is important to hear the student voice, students in general simply do not have enough experience and knowledge to know how modules and degrees should be administered, taught, and assessed. What's more, it isn't fair to expect them to.

Good parents don't let their children dictate bedtimes or diet. Good mentors know to push their students to "wax on, wax off", even when their pupils rage against such "meaningless" activities. Good service providers know better than to follow the letter of a customer's instructions, instead offering the guidance of their expertise and experience. Whether we see the lecturer-student relationship as paternal, as a mentorship, or as an exchange of services for currency, we nonetheless are doing our students a disservice if we cater to their every whim. At some point, we have to know when (and have the ability) to say "This is for your own good. Eat up."

When I was in the throes of my adolescent omniscience, my mother threw some ice water on my hot head. She asked me "Do you want to base the rest of your life on decisions made by a teenager?" It was enough to make the rational part of me say "No, I don't think I would." Do we really want to base higher education on feedback offered by teenagers (21-year-olds, at best), rather than lecturers and researchers with decades of knowledge and experience? And given the dissatisfaction that arises out of the increasing perception of power we allow them to have via all this kow-towing, it's harmful to everyone, long-term.

Because that's what education is: a long-term investment. Short-term feedback offers us nothing. It's a degree, not a hamburger. I had no idea on the day I graduated that the skills I'd learned from my ancient tech writing lecturer's mimeographed handouts would land me high-paying job after high-paying job. I had no idea that my Arthurian Lit professor's teaching methods would be reflected in my own lecture rooms 15 years later. The Chicano lit tutor I thought was so ridiculously pompous introduced me to Sandra Cisneros, whose writing still greatly influences my own. My feedback on my degrees now is a completely different creature from what it was at the time.

Parents know how important the long-term data are. It's why their questions on Open Days are the scariest: What jobs do graduates of this program get? How many go into this industry? What sort of cross-disciplinary skills will they be learning that can be applied to lots of different careers? By and large, our answers are anecdotal, gathered from the Facebook statuses of the one or two students a year who ask to be our friends. Or we offer generalizations about how many opportunities the internet/globalization/economy is opening up in our sector. But we don't actually know, because that data isn't deemed important to the bottom line for next year. Next decade's recruitment will be someone else's problem, right?

Higher education isn't an exchange of goods. It isn't even a service, and certainly not a right. It's a privilege. That's what the cost is: payment for knowledge delivered by experienced mentors. The purpose of a university is the pursuit of knowledge. It's not a vocational school or an apprenticeship; it is an active learning environment that seeks to deepen our understanding of the universe, to seek out the connections of the mind, to grasp for the foundations of humanity. The primary objective is research, original thought, contribution to a growing sphere of knowledge. Students shouldn't come to take what they can get and run away again; they should come to be part of that pursuit of knowledge, to carry the baton to future generations.

I'm not an idiot, nor am I naïve. I know that not all universities, researchers, and students were/are so pure in their motivations. But the tenet has value (our science, our technology, our culture are largely built upon it), and it seems to have been lost to the structuring of higher education as a business. Money plays an enormous factor, and with fewer government grants and the economy in a spin it becomes a glaring point of contention between those who pay tuition and those who ask for it (with the lecturers caught in between). The more we see higher education as a business, the poorer it will become, as short-term gains (5% increase in recruitment every year!) trump long-term quality and reputation.

We will never get rid of the need for feedback; we still need to know when a lecturer, module, or program is going off track, or is best-practice that should be shared with colleagues. What we need, however, is smarter feedback, not more, feedback that actually tells us how our degrees fulfill their primary purpose: to create critical thinkers with the knowledge, communication skills, and confidence to succeed in their chosen career paths, above and beyond vocational skillsets. We're universities, leaders and shapers of the next generation. Unless we want the next generation to spiral into Idiocracy, we need to act like it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Found" Art

I've been thinking quite a lot lately about the use of "found" art, as in re-appropriating images, video, code, etc., in stories.  Obviously, in my case, that means digital fiction, though I don't really think it's tied to any one communication genre or medium.  After all, there are plenty of news stories I see that use stock images that either really enhance the piece, or freakishly contrast with it.  It affects the piece, one way or the other.

I also think it's related, but a bit different, from palimpsest (as defined by Genette).  I recently supervised a fantastic MA dissertation on how everything we create (specifically speaking about creative writers) is palimpsestical: re-envisioning our lives, what we've read, what we've written.  It may be done on purpose - those intertextual references we love to embed so much - and it may be done entirely subconsciously, but in the end, the idea boils down to that frustrating and yet liberating adage that "nothing is original".

But with much of what I'm doing, it's something other than palimpsest, and closer to a one-sided collaboration, a permissive theft almost.  For example, for a visual Flash story that I'm putting together, I simply can't take all the photos I'd like to use myself.  I'd need models, and sets, and a budget (yeah, right), and frankly, a whole lot of time and travel to collect them all.  It's beach shots and interiors and transport and aerials and portraits, in addition to composite images of the important details.  So I trawl Creative Commons images for those that come close to what I've envisioned in the script.

And here's where it gets interesting.  If I had unlimited budget and time to put this together, the images would be exactly what I've envisioned.  If I wanted a video clip of a little raggedy blond girl staring out the back window of and underground train as it pulled away amidst cycling carnival lights, I could totally set that up somewhere exactly as I've storyboarded it.  But I can't do that.  And so I find images and videos and bits and pieces here and there that come close.  Some of them are compromises - not quite what I'd really want, but I just can't get anything better without applying for a business loan.

Some of them are magic.  Some of them I never could have imagined on my own, and their art contributes to and influences - and at times, even changes - what I'm creating.  I think of those cheesy driftwood sculptures, where the shape and color and texture of what washes ashore inspires and forms the final artefact; in a way, I'm driftwood sculpting here.  I do an exercise with my writing students sometimes where I give them some photographs as a prompt for a story - I feel like I'm doing this exercise in a little way when I incorporate others' art into my work.  Even just searching for the right image or clip seems to bring up things that are inspiring or interesting, taking me in different directions, or adding different mood or nuance.

In this way, I'm collaborating on the work before I've really even invited collaborators.  These bits of "found" art definitely contribute in a significant manner to the story I'm creating, not just through the actual visual illustration and content of the work, but in the process of creating the work itself.  It's an implied collaboration, to use the parlance of the literary theorists, but it's there all the same, and it would be delusional to deny it has an important role to play in the work.

I've even wondered, in the case of coding, where this implied collaboration starts to become plagiarism or copyright infringement.  Mostly I think about this when building interactive fictions with Inform, where authors often are very generous in sharing their source code, and there are a finite number of ways to code certain actions.  I know it's possible to infringe software copyright, so clearly it can be done in these story games as well.  And these are stories - you're not only possibly "stealing" someone's software coding (which, granted, they mostly share with you so you can borrow it for your own work), but you could be stealing their story as well, which I would never want to do to another writer.  I acknowledge that different writers can and do do wildly different things with the same tools, but when does my collection of software actions become story...and if I've borrowed the coding for those actions largely from someone else's source code, when does my story infringe upon yours?  When is citing your contribution to my work no longer sufficient?  I don't really know the answers to these questions, and they may lie in theory and arguments about fan fiction, or about software copyright.  Something I suppose I'll be looking into.

I'll be able to discuss these effects more once the pieces in question are finished, particularly with regard to influences on the creative process and the final result.  For now, I just wanted to note this new aspect of my process, and that it's both changing the process and likely changing the finished piece.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Great Writing 2011

I seem to only do my blog writing on trains lately.  Must see to that...

I presented at the Great Writing new-and-improved-London-edition conference this weekend, a talk that focused on one of the finer points of my current research: how writing with the intent to mediate a story in multiple media changes the fundamental aspects of the story itself (character, structure, perspective), as well as how it affects the writer's (my) composition process.

The talk consisted of several readings, sections drawn from my prose fiction in chronological order, from my MFA novel (2005) to my most recent compositions for the PhD work (November 2011 - rough draft).  The progression from straightforward, MFA-mill produced fiction (i.e., literary, navel-gazing) to postmodern, multiple narrator, layered, rhizomatically structured fiction was dramatic, and I was pleased that my audience saw the same things in the work that I did.  What was even more rad was that they were actually interested in it.

It was the first time I've presented where I didn't get the "so, is digital fiction like those old choose-your-own-adventure books?" question, which indicates I have not lowest-common-denominatorified my talk enough.  There were more questions from the audience than the panel time would allow, and most of them were enthusiastic and nuanced.  There was even a new PhD student in the group who is embarking on a similar project (I think with hypertext), so it was fantastic to finally feel like I'm not shouting to an empty room.  My evangelizing efforts on behalf of digital fiction seem to be taking root, at least tiny tendrils of a sort.

There were many talks and readings, discussions of pedagogy and REF for creative writers, research methodologies, and what seemed to me an unusually high amount of therapeutic writing presentations (like poetry, these are definitely not my bag - I am fortunate to not have suffered these significant traumas - yet? - so I don't connect with them very well, I admit, and I find them often lacking in actual research value).  A few stood out for me though:
  • Eleanor Dare, a lecturer now at Goldsmith's, shared her practice-based, multimodal, multimedia PhD research with us.  There was far more there than she could fit into a 20-minute talk, but the project looks fascinating, and I must experience at least a little piece of it.  The linked site provides a far better description than I could ever hope to offer, but the most important bits are:
    • The "formation of dynamic relationships between readers and texts"
    • "South is built around a series of autonomous agents who perform analytical and interpretive tasks."
    • Use of multiple media - software, hardware, codex, sensory theater - multiple modes within those media, and the exploration of mind-body connection, paralleling the reader-text connection.

  • Harvey Dingwall, a lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, is actually an illustrator, teaching an undergraduate program on illustration.  I was interested and mollified to see that he bases quite a lot of his work in similar theory to mine - multimodality, transmedia, semiotics.  It was also interesting that he does not also cover formal aspects of literary analysis or theory with his illustrators (I was interested in how he might combine theories from across disciplines, as I am trying to do in teaching digital writing), but he acknowledged it's something that would probably be worthwhile if he can come up with a way to work it in.

  • My GW buddy Calum Kerr gave a great talk on his recent work in flash fiction (the shorty-short prose pieces, not the digital Flash fictions), and how doing NaNoWriMo inspired him to write every day (he switched to flash instead of noveling after the month was done).  He's since self-published a book of these pieces (which is quite fun - go buy it), and is working on a new flash365 (one a day for a year) project.  I love this mostly for the aspect of just writing something every day - something that's disposable if it sucks, and is fun and interesting if it doesn't - as well as the prompts he comes up with (song lines, titles, pictures, etc.) in order to keep going over a length of time.

Overall, it was a successful conference if only for these three bits of inspiration.  I found London a bit ridiculously expensive (increased by the fact that I got there on Wednesday so I could see David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing - well worth it), and I got lonely in addition to continuing to feel like I'm not quite in the right group of creators (there aren't enough digital writer-academics to do a whole conference, I'm thinking).  I'll have to think about whether I want to shell out for this one again next year, given the expense, or explore conferences that are more electronically-oriented.  We shall see.  For now, success and inspiration are good enough for me.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Thoughts on @dreamingmethods Digital Writing Workshop

I'm on the long train(s) ride home from Kent after a one-day digital fiction workshop with Andy Campbell (Dreaming Methods).  It's the first time I've met Andy IRL - great to put a face to the name & works.

The workshop itself was set up by Peggy at East Kent Live Lit, funded by the Kent Arts Council, and she was graceful enough to let a non-Kent-resident such as me sit in.  Most of the attendees were not necessarily new to digital fiction, but new to building it.  They were writers, musicians, installation artists, and sometimes a combination of the above.  Almost everyone save me and one other had been able to make the Friday evening session, which was an overview of digital fiction and some of Andy's background.

The morning session covered a few examples of dig-fic (from the Poole Literary Festival New Media Prize), recommended software (more on this in a minute), and resources for media files (more...).  The afternoon session was more hands-on building of digital interfaces.

Recommended Software:

There were quite a few I was familiar with (Flash, Photoshop, Audacity, Notepad++), and a few that I haven't needed because I have alternative software, but I thought I'd list a few here that look totally rad to me for various reasons:

Flash alternatives - Swish and WIX (an online WYSIWYG)
Artrage - a drawing program that mimics natural art textures like painting
Miro Video Converter
AVS Media programs, including Document Converter and Video Converter
Lightworks Video Editing Suite
Coppercube for 3D world building - I have one piece at the moment that takes place in a Snow Crash-type environment (more Neuromancer than Second Life), and I've been actively not thinking about how to build it.  This is absolutely the perfect solution for me here.  Just goes to show that if you wait for it, it will come (thank you Heinz 57 for that valuable life lesson).


Essentially, the tip here is to subscribe to art, video, and photography sites like artbeats.com, istockphoto.com, detonationfilms.com, and as a subscriber you will frequently be given free video, photos, and sound files to use as you like.  Bonus.  Also, purchase magazines like Digital Arts and Web Designer every so often - they often include download codes for media.  Expands my options for images beyond flickr.com quite significantly.

As no one in the room either had Flash installed on their laptops or had Flash at all in most cases, the afternoon session was spent focusing on building open source pieces.  I'm actually pretty grateful for this.  Flash makes me twitchy.  It's an awesome tool - it can do so many cool things, and is so customizable and slick, that I can't help but want to pet the shiny shiny toy all the time.  BUT...it's a proprietary software.  It's such an expensive proprietary software that it definitely creates a barrier between people who are so committed to building digital pieces they'll drain their bank account, and people who'd like to try it, but aren't certain - the latter making up about 99% of people who might be interested.  And then there's the T-Rex fight between Adobe and Apple, which means no one will play in anyone else's sandbox (I'm getting twitchy about Apple products for the same reason - as I type on my MacBook Pro with my iPhone next to me - as they are shiny and work really well, but Apple are d-bags for the most part).  Long story short, it was really great to see how someone else approaches this problem, and get a leg up on it.

The leg up is javascript, specifically jQuery.  I've played with javascript a little bit, when needed for various web stuff, but hadn't built anything of any significance with it.  We used a boilerplate Andy offered us, and build a basic piece with some basic interactivity.  It was a struggle for those who have no scripting background whatsoever (as scripting always is), but I could pop right through it and see how to expand and customize the boilerplate until it's just another palimpsest like any other.  I have a feeling I might like to first attempt to build my first story not in Flash as I had planned, and put it in jQuery instead.  It means I don't have to always have that squicky feeling stuck to the piece because of Flash.

The boilerplate brings me to the best aspect of the workshop: the materials Andy gave us, free, no strings, just for being there and being willing to try writing digital fiction.  Here's an entire DVD which includes his Resource Pack (available on his site, which I'd gotten from him a while back before getting bogged in a teaching semester), a few source files of his projects, images, sounds, videos, Flash components, and the jQuery boilerplate.  With this, and enough time to explore it all, you can build some pretty stellar digital fictions.  If you're at all interested in playing with digital fiction, check out the Dreaming Methods Labs, where Andy generously offers similar source code and resources.

I don't know why everyone doesn't do this.  After all, technology and scripts and coding isn't (or at least, shouldn't be, IMO) proprietary.  Content often is, sure, but the code to make text draggable and fadable?  What's the point in keeping that a secret, when a sufficient time/effort training will lead anyone else to the exact same thing?  No one will ever recreate Hamlet's language and content - why do we then hold the technological equivalent of pages sewn together secret from everyone else?  I love that Andy wants to share this with other digital writers, to welcome newcomers to the art, to encourage more of it so that publishers and readers and authors will start to notice that this stuff isn't going away.  We discussed this briefly at the end of the session, as well as a hope for some sort of digital writer resource center/community to make these technology more transparent and open source.  Maybe it's a project for me in the future...when I'm done with all my current craziness.

Overall, it was a most excellent day - the first time I've gotten to actually sit down with anyone else who writes this stuff from story to code, and see how they work and what they like to use.  It's good to know that for the most part I'm on the right track with my tools and strategies, and being able to learn from what he's already figured out will be enormously valuable to my current project.  These kinds of workshops need to happen WAY more often.