On Writing

Waiting For The Great American Cell Phone Novel

Excuse me, I feel a little queasy – I’ve been experiencing keitai shosetsu.

RIN mobile author
Rin, 21, wrote a mobile phone novel, with 400,000 hardcover sales.

What’s keitai shosetsu? A new Asian flu?

Not exactly. Keitai shosetsu are “cell phone novels” and they’ve been all the rage in Japan and China for the last decade.  Yeah, novels written on cell phones in tiny, 100-word chunks and delivered in installments to other cell phone users.

How popular are keitai shosetsu in Japan? In the first half of 2007, five of the country’s top 10 bestselling novels were written on mobile phones, selling an average of 400,000 copies apiece. That’s got Japanese print publishers happy, while Japanese literary critics decry the form as tawdry and lurid.

Now, with the rise of “unlimited texting” plans and cheap, QWERTY-keyboarded handsets, cell phone novels are making their way to America. There are already several web sites dedicated to helping people get their cell phone novels out to the public.

Pro and Cons of Cell Phone Scribing

Will the cell phone novel fly in America? Will people take the time to bring their own inner novel to life – in tiny 140 character chunks? Seems silly, but the cell phone novel is an interesting idea for a number of reasons:

  • a)     Writing a novel on a cell phone solves the age-old writer’s dilemma of “never having time to write.” You can write anytime you have a few moments and a free thumb. And it solves the reader’s dilemma of never having time to read. These are novels broken down into text messages – everybody’s got time for a text message.
  • b)    The cell phone novel offers an immediacy and connection with the reader that traditional paper and ink books lack. Readers can comment on the book as it is being written and help shape its development.  It’s a new kind of interactive, user-directed fiction.
  • c)     Cell phone novels are portable, and private (nobody can see what kind of trash you’re reading on your handset!) and since they’re downloaded directly to your phone they save you a trip to the bookstore. Plus they are enviro-friendly: no more dead trees and stinky paper mills.
  • d)    Cell phone novels use new technology to revive an old form. Telling stories in serial form dates back to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Sir Author Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), and Stephen King (The Green Mile) have all published serial novels. Plus traditional Japanese keitai shosetsu is heavy on teen melodrama; a form that never goes out of style. If the cell phone novel has an American audience it’s probably among the Gossip Girl/Twilight crowd.
  • e)     Once upon a time, when kings and queens ruled the land, the poet was the top of the literary food chain; they earned the most money and commanded the most respect. Nowadays most poets can’t earn enough from their writing to buy a cup of latte (unless they’ve sold out to write advertising copy). But the cell phone’s space constraints demands an economy of words that the poet is uniquely qualified to deliver.  The rise of the cell phone novel could mean the rebirth of the poet…or, at the very least, a new market for crafted verse.
  • f)     Using cell phones as a writing tool encourages more non-writers to write, and the World of Letters always needs new blood infusions to stay alive. As a writer myself, I should think that anything that gets people using written words to express themselves is a good thing, right?

Well…yeah, but…I’ve got some problems with this last one. Because “texting” isn’t writing. There are elements of writing – word choice, sentence structure, narrative flow – that you can only learn through reading and studying how things are written.  Maybe everybody has a story to tell, but not everybody has the tools to be a writer.

You are supposed to be able to write competently by the time you graduate high school. But look at 90 percent of Internet blogs, and you’ll see that is not the case. Even though there are more opportunities than ever for people to express themselves as writers, people have never been more ill-equipped to seize those opportunities.

You’d think that having the chance to reach millions of readers would make people want to become better writers, but that doesn’t appear to be the case either.  Japanese cell phone novelist Katsura Okiyama won a keitai shosetsu contest that earned her cash and a print publishing deal. But before tapping out her prize-winning story, she admits, “I had never written a story…I had never liked reading either.” She developed her style writing 100 text messages a day and using the same format and tone for her fictional story.

The Slush Pile is Everywhere!

At the risk of sounding like a pompous elitist, cell phone novels allow a lot of non-writers the opportunity to unleash their inner Stephen King or Danielle Steele and while I’m all for free expression, I’d rather see somebody take time to shape their writing before sharing their masterpiece with the world. Writing is a craft, a skill, a gift – you can’t just “tap it out” and send it like a…a…quick text!

Consider this. Cheap video cameras, powerful editing software and YouTube gives everyone the power to create their own cinematic masterpiece. But have you seen a new Citizen Kane come out of YouTube yet? No. You see a lot of goofballs acting goofy. Cell phone novels give everyone the chance to share their writing with the world. But if you think it’s a matter of time before the next War and Peace arrives on your cell phone you’d better hunker down for a long wait.

[Rob Note: Since writing this column, I’ve written a novel on my cell phone (well, most of the first draft was written on an LG Envy-2, the re-writes and edits were done on a standard computer). Because I’m old school (read: old) I’m looking for a paper-and-glue publisher – if you know one that likes rock-n-roll horror, please let me know!]

reprinted courtesy of WAYNE TODAY, March 2009

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