How to write a novel, 140 characters at a time

Nov 23, 2011

Back in the ‘50s, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” challenged how people thought a poem should sound. Recently, e-books challenged how we think a book should feel. And now, the Twitter Novel is challenging how a novel should be written.

Journalist Doug Sovern took it upon himself to write a novel on Twitter. That means just what it sounds like – a complete novel, written entirely in tweets, live on Twitter, only 140 characters at a time. Every day, he posts about six or seven tweets of the story, and says, he's making it up as he goes along. It's the story of Zoe, a troubled woman who lives on the streets of Berkeley. Her character is loosely based on the life of Sovern's real life significant other, and her story is called TweetHeart. KALW's Hana Baba sat down with Sovern in our studios to ask him how he writes a Twitter novel.

DOUGLAS SOVERN: You only have 140 characters per tweet and I will tweet five, seven, eight tweets each day, usually in a row to make it easier for the readers who are following so they don’t get lost in their Twitter feed. But 140 characters you’ve got to abbreviate. You have to write really tight. There are a lot of constrictions put on me as a writer. You can’t … say you wanted to go into some two-page descriptive passages you might in a real novel or some long description of an event. You can’t do it because you only have 140 characters times five, or seven, or eight tweets. So anything you do has to be the equivalent of about a paragraph long and then the next day it’s something new.

HANA BABA: And so it has to be gripping then?

SOVERN: I hope so.

BABA: A gripping 140 characters.

SOVERN: Right. You can do a lot in 140 characters. It’s surprising actually how much you can do.

BABA: And you’re able to use kind of the number two instead of the word two.

SOVERN: Right, yeah I do a lot of that. You have to. Yeah the number “2,” the number “4,” “C,” “U.” All of those little abbreviations that we’ve gotten use to in Twitter speak you have to employ those.

BABA: Where did the idea come from? Did it really have something to do with a dream?

SOVERN: Yeah, it kind of did. Alright, so I’ve always wanted to be a novelist ever since I was a little kid but I never had the discipline to do it. And I had the problem of, can’t get your butt in the seat and do the writing, so I went into other things. And I crashed on my bicycle and broke a couple of ribs in December, last December. And was laid up for a couple of weeks and I started tweeting a lot anyways for work purposes and suddenly thought, “Hey” – I mean I literally woke up one morning and thought, “Hey, I should write a novel on Twitter. Why don’t I Tweet a novel?”

And I had no idea if anyone had ever done that before, but I thought that might be an interesting thing to do and it will force me to do it and give me the discipline of doing it each day. And I just started doing it in January and it has worked and it’s a lot of fun to do. And it has imposed this discipline. I’ve learned how to do this now, to actually be a writer and write each day for a certain amount of time. I don’t know, it just came from somewhere. Wherever inspirations come from.

BABA: And so how does it work? I mean you do you have a story already in your head and you really kind of live-tweet it? Or do you think it out, write it somewhere, but you’re just breaking up that into tweet?

SOVERN: No this is spontaneous and unplanned, and I do not have an outline or scripted out ahead of time. Each morning I wake up, sometimes in a panic, and think what’s going to happen in this story today. I sometimes work two or three days ahead, where I get an idea and jot down some thoughts. But most days I wake up and I don’t know what’s going to happen to this character and it may incorporate something that may happen to me or something that I’ve seen out on the street that day. I’ll go out and spend some time on the street and sort of take in experiences in weave that in. I have not outlined it ahead of time. I have not written it ahead of time. And my understanding is that people have written novels on Twitter in the past, where they’ve written a novel and then they’ve just tweeted it out in segments. But no one has apparently done it quite the way I’m doing it, which is just live. It’s a live rough draft, no net. No idea what’s going to happen. And so that means, you know, some days it’s not as good as others. You can’t have great inspirational moments every day. But there is a live element to it and that I’m making it up as I go along. And I have a sense of a story arc. And I have a few ideas because it’s based on a real person I know and some real experiences in my life, I know a few things that are going to happen to her along the way.

BABA: So let’s talk about the story a little bit. Where did it come from? And how did you determine this is the story I want to do?

SOVERN: I had an experience. I was involved with someone for a number of years who has a lot of problems and she ended up in a circumstance like this. She was semi-homeless and in fact homeless for a while. And she had substance abuse issues and mental health issues. And I thought, what if she had been part of this Twitter generation? And what if she had been a little younger and was going through what she was going through at this time of social networking and social media, where everything has changed so much? What impact would that have on her life? And would that have helped her communicate and connect with people around her more? And I sort of thinking about the redemptive power of social media and social networking and is this brining everyone together more? Is there a greater sense of community?

You know there has been a lot of stories in the news, the last couple of years about how crime is dropping and they have various explanations for it. But one that has occurred to me and that hasn’t gotten too much play, is that maybe one of the reasons crime is dropping is that people feel less detached from each other, less alienated from each other because of things like Twitter and Facebook. They have more connections to more people. And there are fewer people they think of as the other, someone that has nothing to do with them. So I thought what if she had that kind of connection. How would that have affected her life? So I decided, okay, I’m going to give her a phone and a Twitter account and say that she is out there tweeting. And it’s based loosely on her. I changed her name, I changed a lot of family circumstances, but a lot of the main events and factors going on in her life are based on real events.

BABA: What happened in reality?

SOVERN: In reality she spiraled out of control and I tried very hard to get her turned around with very little help from her family. And ultimately she committed suicide, which was pretty hard. And we weren’t together any more but she was still one of the most important people in my life and I was one of the most important people in her life. And she didn’t make it and it was really hard. And so that’s part of the reason I thought this is a way to rewrite history a little bit. Maybe I can try to save her life in fiction, when I couldn’t in real life.

So I don’t want to give away the ending but I’ve decided that it’s going to have a happier ending because that’s part of the theme of the story is how this helps her reconnect with family and make new friends she didn’t even know about who start following her on Twitter through her tweets.

This story originally aired on August 3, 2011.