Unchaining writing from its paper-based roots

Andy Campbell, One to One Productions

Dreaming Methods – a journal of fiction and new media – has been online for over 10 years. We started life as digitalfiction.co.uk showcasing a handful of works that blended written fiction with animation, film, music and interactivity. Our very first project – Fractured, launched in 2000 – took the form of a virtual on-screen book littered with hyperlinks, mouse-interactive prose and cinematic cut-sequences.

The site evolved from the basic principle that through a computer, fiction could be written onto digital surfaces. Via new web technologies such as Flash it could exist alongside (or even within) animated timelines, video footage and complex graphical interfaces – places that a piece of paper or a word processor couldn’t reach.

Despite being well aware that the concept of reading fiction from a monitor screen seemed like an awful prospect to most people, we decided that, if we kept on experimenting and finding new ways to make our work engaging enough, we might eventually discover a way to evoke a different reaction in the mind of a reader. Just as we needed to learn new methods of writing fiction for the digital environment, readers might also need to figure out new ways of actually reading it.

Although we had confidence that the future of literature would eventually begin move in the direction of the digital world, we felt worried that what we were doing was too hybrid and off-the-wall to survive – that Dreaming Methods might exist as an intriguing but short-term experiment before being made obsolete by big corporate games designers, film-makers and web design studios. Having no financial backing and being produced purely within spare time, self financed by our company One to One Productions (something that hasn’t changed), we adapted the image of a butterfly to represent what we believed could be beautiful in its own strange way, but might also be short-lived.

To give itself the widest possible scope, Dreaming Methods clearly states on its homepage that it is purely experimental and inspired by dream-like and memory-related concepts that might be too difficult or abstract to capture using writing alone. Whilst this started out simply as an excuse to produce work that could include any subject matter imaginable – no matter how bizarre or incredulous – it eventually became clear that these themes were indeed very suited to the type of atmospheric and engaging new experiences we were trying to develop. We decided to treat the screen as a completely new canvas onto which to write, where stories could potentially be told in new ways and the text itself could explore a wide range of uniquely digital attributes: blurred, obscured, transient, animated and mouse-responsive, our fiction/new media hybrids began to reflect the unstable, continuously fluctuating nature of dreams and memories themselves.

The feedback we receive on our work and the reactions we have had from our readers has changed over the years. When the site was first launched, most writers who saw it couldn’t get their heads around it; the few readers we got feedback from said they didn’t understand it and felt sick at the thought of text that physically moved. Reading from the screen is just too much hard work they said. And what’s the point anyway, why wouldn’t you just read a book?

Fast-forward to 2010 and comments like these still appear in abundance across the web. Despite the launch of the iPad and the invention of the term ‘enhanced ebook’, the existence of digital fiction – certainly in the way Dreaming Methods envisions it – is still being argued down as hugely questionable. What is it exactly? And why would anyone want to experience something like that?

Perhaps the problem is that the concept of what writing can be – how it can be written and even how it can be read – is still chained to its paper-based roots. Even most enhanced ebooks are based around ‘extras’ bolted on to what is essentially just a digital version of a print publication. What would happen if the story itself – the actual writing – was produced with reading from a screen in mind from the outset? And what if readers were no longer totally put off by this idea?

We believe readers – as well as writers – are evolving and that the type of work we’ve been creating for a decade now may potentially have a serious future. Ebooks are becoming acceptable and reading from screens – of any shape or size – is much less painful than it used to be. Our biggest challenge is no longer captivating an audience or knowing how to write digitally but rather adapting to the increasingly difficult restrictions being imposed by changes in web technologies, such as Apple’s banning of Flash and the inconsistencies of HTML5.

To celebrate our butterfly having survived for longer than we expected, we recently released a virtual magazine through issuu.com: Impossible Journal, which features a series of stories-behind-the-stories from our projects. These highly fragmented narratives pave the way for links into browser-based experiences that range from an animated dream diary to an interactive apocalyptic waste ground.

Ironically, the text in Impossible Journal sits perfectly still. It’s only when you leave the safety of the increasingly tired-looking virtual book environment that it begins to take on new dimensions.

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