Thursday, May 10, 2012


I tell stories by trade. These stories take a variety of forms. Sometimes I look at a story concept and think that it will work in a short form, or a long form, or as a comic or as game. It is part of the process, and allows me a wide variety of options, much like a visual artist having a wide variety of media available.

Actually, that paragraph is totally wrong. In most of what I do, people come to me and say, can you give me a story on this particular subject of these particular dimensions? Often the limits as to length and general subject matter are exact, in others they are relatively lax. But in the end, they are looking for a comic book story (twenty-some pages, illustrated), or a short story (5-6k words for me) or a novel (anywhere from 70k to heavy 120k words). In addition, there may be content limitations as far as license and audience. In this way I am closer to a illustrator asked to customize my creative impulses down a particular channel than the archetypical artist facing a blank canvas.

As a result of this, I'm thinking about ebooks, and what happens when you say, "I'm going to write an ebook". What is different in that statement that is different than "I'm going to write a book"? What are the limitations of form and word count that come out of reading a bunch of pixels on a screen as opposed to dark chemicals on mashed and dried vegetative matter?

Previously, I've always thought of electronic publishing as another format, like a foreign translation. The words are all there, as are the ideas, and sending it to the Kindle or Nook is the same as, in computer game terms, a direct port. As much of the original is there, within the limitations of the new media, but precious little is added. The limitations of the new form are particularly noticeable when you see things in print that do not transfer over to the new media. I once picked up a copy of Richard Dawkin's Greatest Show on Earth for the Kindle, and discovered that not only the color plates were a hash in a B/W can, the interior diagrams, suitable for print, were unreadable in the electronic format.

So, OK, some graphic elements change are right out. What changes itself in the text. I mean, a book is a book, right?

Well, how about chapter length? In most books, I want to have a maximum of 30 chapters, which works out to about 3000 words per chapter (actually, I tend to range between 3-4k, so we're looking at fewer chapters). There is often an intro and/or a denouement that occupy a thousand words. If I get over the 4k limit on a chapter, I look to see if there are section breaks in that chapter.When I am reading, I flip ahead a few pages to see where that break is, particularly if it is late at night. I'd rather stop at a break than in the middle of a scene.

But with my primitive first-gen Kindle, I don't know where that break is. And scrolling ahead means I either have to bookmark or count the clicks as I move forward or just search to find where I've stopped reading in order to regain my chain of thought. So should chapters, an artifact of physical media, be a necessary part of electronic media? Should we see a steady stream of text, or more section breaks? How does that affect the rhythm of the story?

As another example, with dead-tree media, I know roughly where I am in a book by the weight in my right hand as opposed to the left. My Kindle has a progress bar along the bottom, but that doesn't always work, in particular for books with extensive footnotes and/or backmatter (like the Dawkins book I mentioned), and I run out of book before I anticipate it.

And anticipation is part of reading a print book. I know I'm coming to the end of the book as clearly as I know I am getting to the end of a play or a movie, for no other reason that I start regretting that big gulp diet soda I drank before sitting down. Here comes the resolution!

Those are two real differences, and I am wondering if there are others. And yes, this is what I think about late at night.

More later,