The Archivists Post Mortem!

MCMThursday, March 31, 2011

So! From March 24-26, in the fantastic city of Ghent, Belgium, I livewrote another novel. It was called The Archivists, and it was so many kinds of fun, I literally can't feel my legs right now. I am damaged by the fun. Legendarily so.

The event didn't go off quite as expected, so let me take a moment to review some of the things that we did, and how we can do better in the future. And by "we" I mean "Anna". Because she's the root of all problems.

The Set-Up

Because we were livewriting LIVE, we had to have some way for the audience to participate. There were two giant screens hung over the table where I sat (scary!) with one projecting the answers sent in by the audience, and the other with the livewritten text as it was written. Then below, there were two laptops with custom-built interfaces to entice people to play along.

The big problem with the set-up wasn't in the physical arrangement of stuff (the Vooruit folks did a truly astounding job making it all work)... the problem was with Google Docs. The trick with Google Docs is that it shows you live writing, but you have to manually scroll to see the latest info. Not too efficient when you can't actually scroll. The audience would only see the top few lines at a time. Yeesh.

I didn't have much time to fix the problem, so I wrote a very crude AJAX-y system that took my input, posted it to the server, and then retrieved the data every 2.5 seconds to display on the screen. There are definitely some glitches to this system, but the biggest issue was bandwidth: I racked up 70GB of data transfer in three days. Not the best use of bandwidth either: it was all just text. The trick was, I believe, that for the first time, the livewriting actually made sense to a lot of people. Google Docs was confusing, I know, and this was simple. So we had more readers, and more bandwidth, and more pain for my server.

On the other hand, it's a brilliant jumping-off point. I've got things in the works for a more streamlined interface next time, which should deliver the realtime results without costing an arm and a leg.

Fast-As-You-Can Questions and Answers

Another big change this time around were the questions and answers. Usually, I have a few chapter questions, and then a wildcard or two. The problem with that system is that I feel bad when I finish a chapter and I haven't used all the answers. So I tried to disassociate the answers from the chapters entirely: I get fed an answer and have to integrate it ASAP, and when I'm done, there's another answer waiting. The unfortunate problem with this technique is that it puts a big distance between entering an answer and seeing it pay off, and also, it means I can get some truly bizarre answers at the wrong time.

Next time around, we're losing the wildcard questions, losing user-submitted questions, and sticking with one-to-three chapter questions with clear integration points. And the questions will be released as each answer is used, so the time between answering and seeing the results will be much shorter.

Hopefully it works. If not, we keep revising things until it does!

The Actual Writing

I was jetlagged in Belgium, there is no doubt. First thing in the morning, I was barely functional. It took me until noon to really start thinking properly, and not until much later did I start writing things that made sense. So you can see it in the chapters themselves: it would come and go in waves, where my brain slowly caught up with things.

Usually, my outlines save me from this kind of thing, but for whatever reason, with The Archivists, I didn't have that safety net properly in place. I can very easily envision totally rewriting half the book before it's fully released, because there's so much I dislike right now. The Aziz storyline in particular kicks off in the wrong place, and just drags far too much. I do want people to be confused about how it all fits together, but there should be enough engaging distraction along the way that you don't worry too much. Right now, it's too slow in too many places.

Another key glitch is that I just didn't take enough time to deal with any of the storylines. That was partly a function of the 45-chapter limit, and the fact that livewriting is hard... but I think if we spent more time with Francis and Adele, Koen and De Smedt and especially Aziz... we'd have a stronger story. Luckily, I have about four months to revise it all, so there's LOTS of time to make things worse!

The People

Let me just say: the people at Vooruit are some of the most fantastic people I have ever met. I was telling a friend this the other day: coming from an arts school, it was like our classmates had grown up and been given the keys to a really incredible resource. Lunatics running the asylum, but they run it WELL. Kathleen made everything happen on time and oh-so smoothly (even when the mistakes were my fault!), and Tom threw positivity at me whenever I was starting to be unsure (also: best glasses of all time). Oh, and Peter saved my life with the right drinks at the right moments, which is incredibly invaluable.

And a livewriting adventure wouldn't be a proper adventure without the Dispatch team. This time, we had Jan and Anna there IN PERSON, which you would think would be distracting and possibly painful, but in fact, it was INCREDIBLY distracting and unexpectedly painful. Chocolates thrown at my face, strange conversations that were impossible to filter out... it was utter madness, and I loved every second of it. With Cathi and Greg and Eli joining in online (especially Eli's Mickey Mouse voice), it was probably the most entertaining three days I've ever experienced. Even the party afterwards, which I only partially remember.

If you are ever in Belgium, you must visit Ghent. And if you're ever in Ghent, you must go to Vooruit. They make life worth living, really.

Shut Up and Give Me Stats

Harsh! But okay: in the three days of livewriting, I spat out 55,000 words (depends on whether you trust my hacky wordcounter or the one in Pages). Forty-five chapters done, the average chapter is about 1,200 words. There were 87,000 questions and answers submitted from 12,000 users. Overall, something in the range of 300,000 people watched the writing unfold, and the PDF of the final product was downloaded over 10,000 times in the three days since it was released.

Can we do better? Definitely. Will we do better? Oh baby, you know we will.

What's Next Then?

What's next is editing. We have to get that sucker in good shape, and I reckon it'll be over 100,000 words when it's done. Look for that sometime in the later summer.

So you may be asking yourself: when do I get to find out about the cup and Aziz's letter and what happens to Adele? Well, I'm afraid there's a bit of a wait for that. The second book in the Archivists series isn't due for more than a year. But I promise you the revised book one will have so much in it, you won't mind so much.

But you'll still mind. Mwahaha.

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