The Age Reaches For The Phone Book

"I just went with what I knew": newly minted mobile novelist Marieke Hardy.

"I just went with what I knew": newly minted mobile novelist Marieke Hardy.

Last Saturday, The Age announced a new publishing experiment: a 20-episode fiction story by Marieke Hardy that you can subscribe to have sent to your mobile phone every weekday for four weeks, starting from this coming Monday, 12 October.

“It’s probable that this is Australia’s first sizeable fiction written for the mobile phone,” wrote a clearly proud Age books writer Jane Sullivan, while Age editor Paul Ramadge promised, “It will be quite riveting.”

Hardy tells The Enthusiast that her story is “about a socially inept woman who joins a neighbourhood vigilante group to expand her social circle and ‘get involved’. It starts off essentially quite warm and funny but takes a bit of a dark twist. That’s the intention, anyway.”

The Age Texttales, as it will be known, is the brainchild of Sally Heath, who edits A2, the paper’s Saturday arts, books and culture section. Asked what gave her the idea, Heath tells The Enthusiast: “Simply that the devices we all carry around in our bags and pockets might be used to transmit and receive little grabs of fiction. A marrying of the original serialised fiction with a more modern medium. And that a morning text of fiction might be a diverting way to start the day.”

Episodic novels aren’t new. Arguably, Scheherazade’s One Thousand And One Arabian Nights is the first serial novel, complete with cliffhangers. Charles Dickens originally published many of his works in newspaper instalments – and his mad freelancing skillz may explain why they’re so long. Stephen King’s The Green Mile was written in six instalments, and The Guardian serialised Michel Faber’s 2002 Dickens pastiche, The Crimson Petal and the White.

Technology has only invigorated the serial novel. Both publishers and readers are increasingly embracing e-books, a format that will likely become more common when Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader soon becomes available in Australia.

Stephen King experimented (somewhat unsucessfully) with online serialisation with 2000′s The Plant, and via email or RSS, the website DailyLit will deliver bite-sized daily instalments of classic, out-of-copyright novels for free… or new novels by subscription. Blog-novels were in vogue a few years back, and even microblogging is proving fruitful: English novelist Will Ashon is currently writing Twitter fiction.

The development of 3G phone technology has made these technologies converge – you can read Twitter, email or blog serials on your mobile phone. But it’s in Japan, where mobile technology tends to be far more advanced and its use more immersive than in Australia, that the cellphone novel has taken off as a hugely popular and profitable literary genre.

Written largely by first-time novelists – and often composed via text message as well as being delivered that way – they are consumed largely by younger readers who formerly would only have read manga comics. Stylistically they’re characterised by short sentences, rambling plots, emoticons and lack of character development. Genre-wise they tend to be romances. But most interestingly of all, when republished in book form, they’ve rocketed to the top of Japan’s bestseller lists.

The Age Texttales will deliver instalments of between 300 and 350 words to subscribers’ phones – or, more precisely, a text message containing a link to a website where they can read that day’s instalment. So only those with mobile internet can access Hardy’s 7,000-word story.

The cost of the exercise will be borne by readers, who pay 25c to set up the service and 55c (plus their mobile provider’s data charges) per instalment. “Because it is uncharted waters we have shared the cost with subscribers,” explains Heath.

So, why did The Age choose Marieke Hardy to pen it? Jane Sullivan has another story banging on about how generally awesome Marieke is, but for her commissioning editor, Hardy’s skill set just added up.

“Apart from her obvious talent as a writer she was used to the demands of instalments because of her television scripts,” Heath tells us. “She had won an award for her blog and her tweets are fun, so I thought she might be up for the challenge of writing for such a specific brief and constrained medium.”

Hardy didn’t research the format to see how it had previously been done. “No, I just went with what I knew,” she says. “Writing fiction was a challenge, but I tried not to be overwhelmed by the ‘lots of tiny cliffhangers’ theory… the fact that I’d have to go through afterwards and find appropriate end points for the day’s download. I just blocked out the story and tried to get it on the page.”

Although Hardy is well known for her personal, often confessional writing, she doesn’t often work in fiction. “I found it fairly challenging – though I feel comfortable with the ‘voice’ in the piece as I’ve now had a deal of experience in column and blogging work,” she says. “As a piece, once I had the story down everything seemed to come relatively rapidly. Though there were, of course, plenty of days with writer’s block.”

Time will tell whether Texttales is a gimmick or a legitimate new form of publishing. “I don’t know if people will instantly take to the new format, so I’m as curious as anyone else as to what may happen,” says Hardy. “The fact that I’ve written a piece of fiction is a success to me. That and if my mum figures out how to subscribe.”

“I guess we are really putting a toe in the water to see if it works for readers,” considers Heath. “At first I thought it would be fun to see what it was like for the writer, and if it was picked up by the reading community and possibly invited the developing story to be discussed and talked about more instantaneously than a good book does.

“If this first Texttale works, yes, we would look to use it for other stories and as another way to send information to readers. I think it might be a bit of fun.”

Asked if she’d do this kind of writing again, Hardy says, simply, “In a heartbeat.”

To subscribe to The Age Texttales, text ‘‘Marieke’’ to 19700043. It’ll cost you 25c for the initial text and 55c per message received, and you have to have an internet-enabled phone. If you’re with 3 Mobile then no Marieke for you! as they don’t allow subscriptions to premium services. More information here.

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