Saturday, September 10, 2011

The 24 Hour Novel Project

On May 28, 2001 twenty-three writers wrote a novel in 24 hours while interested observers watched. This 24 Hour Novel project was initiated by John Herman.

Herman recruited collaborators for this project in-person at Writer's Day 2011,1 via an invitation issued on Twitter,2 and perhaps also through personal contacts. Prior to the writing day, collaborators were asked to provide ideas about the story, from which Herman developed an outline. This outline, which included a 3-4 sentence synopsis for each chapter, was made available to the collaborators at 12am on May 28, along with writing assignments.3, 4

Each of 23 writers wrote one chapter. They did this working in parallel by simultaneously editing a single online document using Google Docs. At the same time, an illustrator worked on a design for the book's cover, also via an online document. Work on both the text of the novel and the cover illustration could be viewed in real time via an Internet connection. In fact, viewing of the project's work-in-progress was a featured event at the NewMediator Art Show held on May 28, 2011 at Nighthawk Books in Highland Park, New Jersey.5, 6

As collaborators finished their initial drafts, they began scanning for continuity problems, revising, and making editing suggestions for other chapters. In addition to the 23 chapter writers, at least one additional collaborator participated as an editor.

Coordination for this collaborative project was accomplished in several ways. The outline and assignment of chapters to writers provided a type of coordination by directing the activities of each collaborator so as to avoid redundant or conflicting actions. In addition, coordination was accomplished by communication between the writers while they were engaged in their work.

The following tweets by collaborators provide examples of how this communication channel was used for coordination:

[rwwgreene] What time of day is the plane crashing?

[johnherman] Mid-afternoon plane crash.

[rwwgreene] Prop plane or jet?

[johnherman] Small passenger plane is all I say in Chapter 1. 10 passengers. You can establish whatever you want.

[onewordheadline] @johnherman - Where'd you get a perfect score of 301? WP tells me 300 is tops?

[johnherman] @onewordheadline - Ah, yes. Now you understand. George is accomplishing the impossible. You decide how. We're giggling at you here.

[onewordheadline] @johnherman @JoeStanganelli - Boo. But a seasoned bowler keeping his own score, throwing all strikes would just think 300. HOW!?

[johnherman] @onewordheadline @JoeStanganelli - A magic pin? A scoring glitch that math can't undo for some reason? Magic?

[jasminhunter] @no_youshutup - Robert killed Randy's family. Made it look like an accidental car crash. You in?

[JoeStanganelli] @jasminhunter @no_youshutup - FYI: I've got Marek Cade's biological parents dying in a car crash. In case you wanted to tie it in.

[jasminhunter] @joestanganelli - would three car crashes be a bit excessive? I guess if @johnherman can make the top bowling score 301

[JoeStanganelli] @jasminhunter @onewordheadline - You can blame me for the 301 instead of poor @johnherman. I suggested it in the webform.

[johnherman] @JoeStanganelli @jasminhunter - Listen, we are now up to 4 car crashes in the novel. @onewordheadline can do an extra bowling pin.

Some participants did not have accounts on Twitter, making it necessary to use Google Docs for communication as well as for writing. The need to use two separate communication channels rather than one typically creates additional overhead in this type of collaborative effort. However, although Google Docs messing might have been used for all communication between participants, it was not. This suggests that Twitter was preferred as a communications channel by those who used it, and that the cost of using a second channel on occasion was outweighed by the benefits of using that preferred channel whenever possible.

Was the project a success? If success is judged by the literary merits of the novel produced, the jury is still out. As performance art, however, it seems clear that the project was a success. In addition, the project provided an experience that most, if not all, collaborators seem to have found valuable. And finally, the project succeeds in demonstrating what I believe the group hoped to show: that collaboration makes it possible for people to accomplish together something they could not accomplish individually (i.e. create an entire novel in 24 hours), and that new media make it possible to collaborate in new ways.

1This was a conference organized by the New Hampshire Writer's project, and occurred on March 5, 2011 at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH.

2John Herman issued a tweet on May 6, 2011: "Last call for writers for a 1 day collaborative writing / new media art project on May 28th. Handful of slots left. Interested? Let me know."

3Reported by two of the project collaborators, Dan Brian and R. W. W. Greene, in The Dandy Scotch Brawlers podcast DSB #32, May 28, 2011.

4Reported by project collaborator Joe Staganelli in an article 23 Authors + 24 Hours + the Web = 1 Novel he wrote for publication on the website Internet Evolution.

5Description of NewMediator Art Show in the blog of David LaMorte.

6NewMediator Art Show May 2011 podcast, accessed September 10, 2011 from the NewMediator website at