Recording the Novel, Word by Fricking Word

It is my Web 2.0 dream to create a real-time representation of writing a novelWell, maybe Web 1.0. I’m not sure I’d like to crowd-source the thing. I’d like a video, perhaps, that shows the letters appearing and disappearing. The tap of a stone mason’s hammer could accompany each new letter; a squeaky sound a deletion. Once the novel is represented in this way, the film could be speeded up. Imagine a novel taking form like a house, brick by brick.

Cory DoctorowIn October, 2005, I reviewed his book Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. has been working with Thomas Gideon to produce a system in which all changes to arbitrary text files are logged in a database. It builds upon the Unix versioning technology that programmers often use to track source code.

I was prompted to do this after discussions with several digital archivists who complained that, prior to the computerized era, writers produced a series complete drafts on the way to publications, complete with erasures, annotations, and so on. These are archival gold, since they illuminate the creative process in a way that often reveals the hidden stories behind the books we care about. By contrast, many writers produce only a single (or a few) digital files that are modified right up to publication time, without any real systematic records of the interim states between the first bit of composition and the final draft.

The utility is called Flashbake.

Enter Flashbake. Every 15 minutes, Flashbake looks at any files that you ask it to check (I have it looking at all my fiction-in-progress, my todo list, my file of useful bits of information, and the completed electronic versions of my recent books), and records any changes made since the last check

Right now, the Flashbake site appears to be down. This is possibly because Doctorow spoke about it on last night’s TWIT podcast.

Is this the perfect solution to digital archives of word-based works in progress? It’s a step in the right direction, for sure, but I’m worried that it’s designed to work with plain text. If it kicks up a fuss with non-text files, such as Microsoft Word documents, or Pages files, that’s not so good.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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