Texting a Novel

Yesterday I read a quote by John Steinbeck that reminded me of some friends of mine:

“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” – John Steinbeck

You see, I also write best when I have one particular person in mind –usually someone I can send it to straightaway. So I often write my poems directly in emails or haiku in text messages. Even drafts of stories have been written on emails to send directly to a friend who would enjoy it. Pat Louw, whose Haiku you can read in this new anthology, Current Haiku, introduced me to the sport of writing haiku in text messages to friends while traveling – a way to keep a travelogue and take people along on the trip. The draft of a story about an old man in a park – thinking back over his years working for a newspaper and presidents that came and went – got send to a friend who was down in the dumps about the elections in his country. And the poem about finding a pen in my bag that reminded me of a trip to New York, went to the friend I visited there – also doubling as a don’t-bother-looking-for-your-pen message.

I’m working on a humorous novel at the moment, and many little sections have been written for and sent off to friends – especially the ones who like dogs or know the area where the story is set. It’s an Afrikaans story, but it’s been interesting to switch languages or translate so that other friends got follow the story too. So when a friend landed in hospital recently and asked for a chapter, I had think quickly, because as far as I could tell she could only talk to me via phone text messages.

So for the past week or so, I’ve been swiping and stabbing at a touch screen at funny hours to compose this section of the novel directly in text messages. At first I thought it would be a pain: at best the touch screen and I are not friends, the space is so confined and the predictive text drives me up the wall – not to mention the likeliness of losing a text halfway because of swiping the wrong thing by accident.

But it’s been one of the most enjoyable and surprising writing experiences I’ve ever had. Somehow letting the story’s many characters run around in that medium, the action becomes more immediate, it is as if the dialogue really is happening “live”.

I find myself sitting and writing longer sections than I normally do, simply because there’s an implicit “and then? what next?” flickering from the next empty bubble. Or I see that the message has been read and I think: I can’t end with this line! And the characters finish their conversation.

My friend in hospital thanked me for helping to cheer her up a bit. But I have to thank her too, for being that one person to write to right now – what a treat to have a reader directly at the other end of the story, turning that annoying screen into the storyteller’s flickering campfire.

Hang around if you want to hear more about the infamous novel. The trailer is coming soon (no pun).