Friday, July 17, 2009

Applying a Wiki to the Muse: Getting Back Into Writing

I've been interested in writing fiction since around the fifth grade, when I drew some very space opera-esque comics incorporating elements of Tom Swift, Star Trek, and V--the genesis of the Exerda, in fact (and a story for another time--no pun intended). Over time, the quality of my prose improved greatly, as did that of my stories, and though I cringe a bit when reading back over some of my earliest work, I can pick up dozens of books from the shelves of my home library which are equally cringeworthy, if not more so.

But over the past couple of years, I've been in a bit of a writer's funk, tinkering with chapters already written, refining the prose and re-plotting the stories yet making little headway on actual new writing. I've come up with dozens of great new ideas, too, but really putting pen to paper (even if by proxy of the keyboard) has been a real challenge. Call it writer's block; call it too much focus on "perfect" prose and not enough ability to get past "good enough" and put off perfection for the revision phase; however you label it, the prose which had formerly poured off my pen now came in only the merest of trickles. Gone were days of penning 7,500 words in an evening (something I did once in a creative writing course in college, putting an entire story together the night before it was due); I was lucky to even get 100 words of new work done.

However, recently I have found a new muse, an effort which has gotten the creative juices flowing again and has enabled me to plow ahead with work I'd set aside months and in some cases even years ago.

With the upgrade to the Web server, I've been able to deploy several pieces of software which the old system--an Pentium 100 from 1994, if you can believe it; isn't Linux grand?--just wouldn't support. Among them is MediaWiki, the engine which powers Wikipedia, and the de facto standard for wikis (collaboratively-authored Web sites) on the Internet.

Though one purpose I've in mind is to create a simple bird encyclopedia which incorporates my bird photos along with some well-sourced information about each species (an idea I've been tossing around in my head for a couple of years), the wiki application which spawned this post and which has me so excited about writing again is an encyclopedia describing the worlds of my imagination and the characters which populate them.

Now, this isn't the first time I've worked on encyclopedic content for my writing; several years ago, I'd worked up a lengthy timeline for the Exerda science fiction universe, along with a "technical manual" including drawings and designs for the various starships, weapons, and so forth. But with the fantasy which has made up so much of my serious writing since, a static document simply won't cut it. And though hypertext has been around for a long time, the framework of a wiki--and its encyclopedic, article-style layout--makes for a simpler task than wiring together a bunch of static Web pages.

Already, in fleshing out characters and events, I've discovered nuances and plot elements which I hadn't considered before but which vastly improve the stories. I'd set aside at least two novels which the stories simply seemed to adolescent, the characters too shallow and their motivations stiff and jerky. Suddenly, I saw connections which flowed from the foundations I'd already laid, and realized that I could so easily eliminate this deus ex machina aspect and give that character a more prominent (and sensical) role. In other cases, stories for which I had only a vague concept took on the depth at last necessary to be written out.

Even crafting the encyclopedic "articles" about things like particular magical abilities helped me realize new facets, directions, and nuances for the stories into which they fell. What had seemed a simple role playing game-esque piece of magic gained a solid foundation and contributed to the story itself, rather than being a plot element, no longer a McGuffin at best and a hackneyed special effect at worst. Characters for whom the plot and story structure logically insisted an "ability" suddenly gained such, and in ways which made so much more sense than I'd thought through before. Having to make the connections and the consistency across characters and story components because of the wiki has really, really done a lot to help me both iron out the inconsistencies and drive new creative juices to flowing.

Before you ask: no, my muse wiki is not publicly-accessible, though when particular stories see their way into print, I do intend to migrate the appropriate content to a wiki which is. In neither case, though, do I intend to allow the use of one of the primary aspects of wikis: collaborative editing. (Sorry, these are my stories, after all.)

That said, however, I do have an idea bouncing around in my head for a truly collaborative writing project in which much of the groundwork might be done using a wiki, and perhaps even the final product, something like those "pass the story around" exercises but writ large and perhaps resulting in a more coherent piece of writing than the much-satirized tugs-of-war so often the end product of those exercises. Indeed, if I ever return to academia, I'd love to try that notion out... the field of "new media" has really grown since I wrote a paper on the issues of gender and online identity in MUDs a decade ago.

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