“All it could see was a mob of alphabets pushing each other angrily. As soon as it touched down, the thumb ruled supreme. The alphabets re-arranged in neat little tweets”
Unfortunately, this lacklustre attempt at demonstrating how tweets are born, in a manner that can come across as an intelligent piece of microfiction, violates the Twitter limit of 140 characters. But hold on to that chuckle. If you think it’s easy to weave a story within such a tight space, try giving it a shot. Chances are, in the first couple of attempts, your story will only be a shade better than the above gem. Perhaps longer.
And yet authors across the world today are choosing (successfully) to create byte-sized fiction; condensing words and stories to suit this ever emerging medium of brevity. Pulitzer prize-winning author Jennifer Egan first published her story Black Box in 2012 as a series of tweets, before nestling in the conventional space of print in The New Yorker.
Teju Cole, another contemporary author and historian, also took to Twitter to publish his latest longform essay “A Piece of the Wall” in March 2014. He used about 250 tweets for the project. Twitter, that digital space where the 140-character revolution first started, is well attuned to this form of writing that is constantly evolving and looking to experiment with content.
In 2012, it organised the first #TwitterFiction Festival. Spread over a period of five days, the event sought to celebrate the art of storytelling, but entirely on Twitter. You didn’t have to be an established author on Twitter or otherwise to be part of it. Anyone could try their hand at this unique fiction fest using the hashtag #TwitterFiction. Innumerable tales, unimpeded by barriers of exclusivity, censorship and publishers, were told in 140 characters or less.
Pratiksha Rao, 26, the entertainment and partnerships manager at Twitter India, feels that the transparent and inclusive nature of the platform lends itself well to fiction. “Frictionless publishing in today’s context is what’s been made easy by a platform such as Twitter. Everyone has a story to tell, and now they can do so instantly simply by tweeting,” she says.
This year’s #TwitterFiction Festival was held in collaboration with Penguin-Random House, and Rao says the response to the festival was phenomenal, adding that the 140-character limit ends up testing the imagination of authors and brings out the best in them.
It certainly brought out the creative best in Meghna Pant, 33, Mumbai based author of Happy Birthday! and One and a Half Wife. For the #Twitter-Fiction Festival 2014, Pant chose to narrate the epic saga Mahabharata in 100 tweets. The overarching tale of family, power, war and love — all the layers of the grand Indian epic distilled in 100 little tweets. “Today’s lifestyle leaves very little time for people and somewhere the attention span has reduced,” says Pant. “It isn’t just books, even news channels produce shorter information tablets really, and this is a shift happening across the world not just India.”
Pant adds that she wanted to make the story of Mahabharata more accessible to people who may not have the wherewithal to sift through hundreds of pages. She was already working with Penguin-Random House when they pointed out the #TwitterFiction Festival. Pant pitched her idea and it was accepted with much enthusiasm. “As an author I feel you can tell a good story in a number of ways and length doesn’t really matter. If you know your craft and the story is good, then it will get across to the reader. And the Mahabharata is as good a story as can be. So when I attempted to retell one of the world’s longest stories in the shortest possible form, and was received well, it just proved how a good story always finds an audience,” she says.
If you thought an audience for a 100-tweet Mahabharata was niche, then Devdutt Pattanaik could unsettle your perceptions further. The 43-year-old author and Indian mythologist recently recreated the same epic Mahabharata in 36 tweets! One of the main reasons behind taking on this ambitious task, says Pattanaik, was to show how the Mahabharata is actually a simple text, and not the complex tale that people think it to be.
Pattanaik says that a poor reading of the epic, aggravated by assumptions, give people wrong notions about the story, and he wanted to showcase the core ideas as simply as possible. He is also clear about his choice of an ultra-short format. “I think this is in line with the ‘sutra’ form of communication that was prevalent in ancient India,” he says. “Sutra is a mind-seed that grows into a mind-tree in the right mind-soil. Since I associate strongly with the idea of a sutra, I decided to make use of the medium that comes closest to this ancient format.”
At 30, Ankur Thakkar knows a thing or two about formats and experimenting with content. Fiction editor of TriQuarterly magazine, Thakkar was a featured author at this year’s #TwitterFiction Festival. But instead of words, he decided to go with images to tell his tale. He presented his own version of a Bollywood movie by collating screenshots from about 15 Hindi films and putting them all together to form a coherent visual narrative. “I don’t think it matters if a book’s pages are turned, swiped, tapped, or scrolled; technology has always forced writers to innovate with their craft,” says Thakkar. “The impulse to tell stories is as old as the creation of language, just that storytellers now have various platforms and ways to tell them.”
Terribly Tiny Tales (TTT) is one of those unique platforms now available to writers looking to experiment with content and build a readership. The man behind this initiative is 27-year-old Anuj Gosalia. Formed on 3 March 2013, TTT is a product of Gosalia’s communications agency Not Like That. “TTT was formed purely from my frustration at not getting a relevant platform on the social web,” says Anuj. “Twitter asked me to share too much all the time and I didn’t have the bandwidth for that. My Facebook feed was getting hijacked by cat memes and all kinds of ridiculous content. But Twitter fiction was gaining popularity, and I knew photographs always got attention on Facebook. So I decided to marry the two elements and create a platform where byte-sized prose in the form of photographs could be produced, and which could be compatible across various mobile devices and screens.”
With a pool of just 15 writers, TTT has been able to reach out to about five lakh readers every week. That does say a thing or two about the quality of writers on board. It also helps when you have someone like Prathap Suthan on your team. A prolific writer, 50-year-old Suthan is one of the most eminent faces in the Indian advertising fraternity and leads his own creative agency, Bang in the Middle. Suthan says he took it up as a challenge to see if he could “crush a story down to 140 characters”. But even within that constraint, says Suthan, he tries to experiment with various constructs to bring in a unique flavour. For someone who still swears by long-form copy in advertising, doesn’t he feel curbed by the whole concept?
“Creativity is the art of being brilliant within parameters. If it’s an open canvas without any limitations, then a lot of things can be done by a lot of people,” he says. Given the popularity of ‘tiny fiction’, what are the chances of the form getting the attention of publishers? Suthan says that “anything that is written has the potential to be published. One just needs to look at the innumerable books on haiku poetry for example. In today’s world, publishing along with the technology on offer, can have many possibilities. If it’s interesting content, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the digital space”.
For now though, it’s the digital space that is being explored more and more by authors and publishers. Says Caroline Newbury, the vice-president of marketing and corporate communications, Random House India, “We decided to co-organise the #TwitterFiction fest mainly to bring out the commitment of Penguin-Random House to the art of good storytelling, and also to explore newer ways for authors to connect with a reader base. Both aspects are important obviously — great stories and engaging with the readers effectively — and this sort of encompasses all those requirements.” However, Newbury is quick to point out that whether publishing houses will look to utilise the form further for commercial profit, is uncertain at this stage. “Right now it’s mostly about promoting engaging stories, helping authors reach out to a wider audience. There may be other plans for the future but as of now, I don’t think that capitalising on this content financially is a priority.”