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War and tweets 

A push toward publishing 140 characters at a time

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The idea of instant e-novels has intrigued many writers in the Western world. But obviously, cell phone novels are, like, so 2007. Now it's all about Twitter.

This, of course, is the social Web site that allows users to update friends and followers on what's new, in 140 characters or fewer. Twitter's updates stack up backward with the earliest being the last — which makes traditional novel structure a challenge.

Bakersfield, Calif., writer Nick Belardes, author of the trivia book Random Obsessions, which a traditional publisher will release this summer, is up for the challenge.

Belardes started his Twitter novel titled Small Places last April, and now has more than 3,500 followers and an ever-growing story. Small Places skewers the corporate world and follows one man's mundane day-to-day life, where he compares himself to a bug and tries to escape monotony by amusing himself and others in the workplace.

The endeavor began when Belardes heard of the success of cell-phone novels in Japan. High school girls there with no professional writing experience text sentences in their spare time and upload them to Web sites that, in turn, send them out to fans' cell phones. Then leading-edge companies cut deals to swiftly compile them into books. These novels accounted for five of the Japanese Top 10 bestsellers in 2007.

"Being a novelist," Belardes says, "I instantly thought, 'Are there any Twitter novels?'"

When he found only rewritten novels, erotic fiction and defunct group writing projects, Belardes decided he would stake his claim and tweet.

"I'd already written part of a manuscript called Cubicles," he says. "I'd find a section I want to use and then rewrite that to fit the 140-character box."

He's joined a community different from the famous one in Japan: Despite how-to guides circulating the Internet, most Twitter novels today come from fiction writers with experience. Otherwise, you get regular folks basing their "novels" on their lives, like a blog or diary.

"Part of the phenomenon these days is for people to write about themselves," Belardes explains. "To me, that's the 'Ego Generation,' a 16-year-old kid who is a nobody at school but who's empowered through the Internet. People get so caught in those egos that they forget that there is this medium out there called fiction. So very few people read fiction and write fiction."

Of course, embracing such an open forum also means opening up for criticism. Twitter novelist Tom Scharpling lashed out in February, angrily exclaiming about losing followers when posting tweets about his novel: "And my apologies to those who hate FUEL DUMP. I am not tweeting about the fucking sandwich I ate today. I AM USING TWITTER TO MAKE ART."

And unlike the blog craze that landed former sex worker Diablo Cody the chance to write and sell the Juno screenplay or the Japanese cell-phone phenomenon, it rarely leads to money.

"Do I have to speak Japanese to get a hold of some Japanese publisher?" Belardes asks in exasperation. "Publishing companies are still really archaic. They are still thinking in hardcopy book.

"Everything is going the way of cell phones," he adds. "Cell phones are just going to get smarter, better, more addicting."

So they're practically on their way to world domination. But will cell phones crush good old-fashioned reading beneath them?

"Goodness," Belardes says, "we can only hope people will read more — even if it's on a cell phone."

scene@csindy.com

Hannah Smith is an intern for the North Bay Bohemian, where a longer version of this story originally appeared.

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