Even in a completely online world, the book will never go out of style. The novel hasn't changed much over the years, barring more colorful covers, more environmentally friendly paper, and some new electronic distribution methods -- but that doesn't mean the way you write the next bestseller has to stay the same. Below we'll explore some start ups that take creative writing into the Web 2.0 era.
Novlet is a collaborative writing web application. It allows what they term "non-linear" writing, which means you can take any story in their database and write a fork, branching off from any point in the story. Stories are divided into "passages" -- sections of about 2-3 paragraphs. Readers are given the opportunity to create a fork at the end of any passage. What you end up with as a reader is a sort of "choose your own adventure" (remember those?) where at the end of each passage you are often presented with a choice of which path to proceed down -- or you can create your own.
Novlet allows readers to comment on and rate stories, which are categorized by genre. The site has some social networking features (friends, messages, favorite users).
Potrayl is another collaborative writing app. It works in a similar way to Novlet, allowing readers to create branches from your story at any point, breaking stories up in to "chapters" (which tend to be longer than Novlet's passages -- though that's up to the writer). Portrayl puts more emphasis on the original work than Novlet, encouraging writers to finish what they started and create a pdf ebook of their creation.
Readers can comment on and rate stories, which are categorized by tags. The site also supports some primitive social networking features (profile, friends, blogs, recommendations).
Ficlets is an AOL-owned collaborative writing site. Once you post your story to Ficlets, other users can expand it by writing a prequel or sequel. Ficlets really focuses on completed short stories, but in practice it works very much like Novlet or Portrayl. People seem to use the site to collaboratively write stories a few paragraphs at a time, bouncing the prose back and forth. Ficlets differs from the other sites by allowing people to branch stories backward by writing prequels.
Users can comment on and rate stories, which are categorized by tags. The site has some social networking features, like user profile, favorites, and friends, as well as an interesting feature: editors. Users whom you've marked as "editors" will be able to see your drafts (unfinished "ficlets") and comment on them. Ficlets also has a feature called "Clippings" that allows you to save stories you may want to write a prequel or sequel to for later.
Unblokt is a little different than the sites above, but is still focused on collaborative writing. Unblokt gives you two sentences, and your job is to write the one that goes between it. An example: "And yet, I wanted him more than I'd ever wanted anyone in my entire life." and "His voice was high-pitched, girlish almost, which was surprising for such a big man."
I'm not exactly sure how it stitches everything together, but Unblokt has created some surprisingly readable fiction.
I would be remiss if I did not mention National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), even though it is not really a Web 2.0 app. It is, however, a novel way to write a novel (ha! get it?). The idea is simple: every November, a growing group of writers with a death wish from all over the world gather online and in various pubs and coffee shops to each write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I can assure you that a 50,000 word novel in a single month is a grueling undertaking, but the NaNoWriMo support network helps writers get together and encourage one another. I tried it last November, and didn't get very far (maybe I wasn't man enough, but I found a lot of people sacrificing quality for quantity and decided speed writing just wasn't my bag).
NaNoWriMo will be going into its 9th year this November. Also check out their newly launched sister project Script Frenzy, currently in progress -- a 20,000 word screenplay in the month of June.
We all know a million monkeys locked in a room with a type writer will eventually create Shakespeare, but what about a million humans turned loose on a wiki? A Million Penguins was an experiment carried out last February by Penguin Books and the De Montfort University to see if it was possible to crowdsource a novel over a wiki. The novel was guided by Penguin editors, but was largely created by the crowd.
The results are inconclusive. It was built from a single original sentence: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day ..." (the opening to Jane Eyre) and turned into a long (over 450 pages) and rambling novel with probably too many characters than it needs. Those characters often seemed very self aware, so I will leave you with this passage from the book:
"So a community can write a novel?" Jim looked up with a skeptical expression.
"Yes, but only a humorous one."
You probably won't see the next Dario Fo or Seamus Heaney emerge from any of these writing experiments. But they all offer a fun outlet for creativity and an interesting take on writing fiction. And something started on any one of these sites could easily become the basis for a more refined and polished piece of prose.
Full disclosure: I am currently in the midst of developing a hobby collaborative writing website.