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Choose your own adventure

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We all make choices. And the choices we make have consequences. Should you have gone out for drinks with your friends last Thursday night instead of staying in? Should you have chosen to attend York instead of the University of Toronto? Have you ever found it unsettling to think that you’ll never know if you’ve made the right choices until years down the line? And sometimes you will never know.

I’ve made many choices, some for the better, some for the worse. And I spend a lot of time wishing that my life could be defined by a series of checkpoints. Then I would be able to go back to each checkpoint and take the road not traveled, just to see what would have happened next. Such was the nature of my involvement with Robert K. Logan, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and chief scientist of the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD, and with drafting a creative and interactive work for Wooden Rocket Press, an small press started this year by a would-be author and U of T alum.

Dr. Logan and I worked on an independent study this year considering the future of media. The Strategic Innovation Lab is a dynamic research facility that offers a graduate program in “design thinking,” a catchword for using interdisciplinary approaches to issues of sustainability and business models. The Smart Book project we have been working on is a proposed way to save the traditional book in our e-book buying, Web 2.0, ADHD-driven culture. The project hyperlinks a codex (read “normal”) book to the net. This fall, I attempted to draft an interactive and multi-media short story for publication in what would be an experimental foray into hyperlinked fiction, an anthology with the working title Art Meets Science.

Follow my choices, and see if you can make the right ones—or even good ones. I present an interactive fictional narrative of creative choices I’ve had to make in the last three months, reconstructing conversations and instances that have defined my successes and failures to the best of my ability. Some names have been omitted, some encounters have been completely fabricated—but both of the projects are ongoing. Think carefully before you make a choice, because you never know which one is going to lead you to an innovative idea, or a drunken stupor of writer’s block. So, be forewarned that you won’t always like the endings you’re led to, but at least, here, you can always try again.
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You’re hustling. Your feet are pounding, one in front of the other, making imprints in the damp leaves that coat the sidewalk. It’s October in Toronto, and you can feel the chill. You’ve wrapped a scarf around your neck to keep it away, but you can taste it in every haggard breath you take. You’re late. But, then again, that’s to be expected as the would-be-artist turned philosophy student that you are.

Dr. Robert K. Logan is waiting to discuss your independent study project on the third floor of the physics department, in a steely office that faces skyscrapers. If you crane your neck, you can catch a glimpse of the CN Tower. Dr. Logan has the kind of eyes that make you feel like you are free-falling from a drop-zone tower, but the kind of smile that makes you want to tell him every mundane detail about your life—like you haven’t done laundry in a month and you’re vaguely wondering how long you can live off of Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese and Mr. Noodles before you have to learn how to cook. The office is decorated with posters for seminars on media ecology, awards for sustainability research, and the bookshelves are packed with copies of his book, The Sixth Language, and stacks of typewritten manuscripts. Dr. Logan has credentials and life experience as an innovator in the field of media research, having co-authored papers with Marshall McLuhan, and worked to establish the field of future studies. More credentials and life experience than you prefer to remember.

“So, the Smart Book project,” he begins, pausing to fiddle with his laptop, which is coated in post-it notes.

Continue to B.
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“Media ecology is the study of how each medium affects the next, just as each factor of the environment affects the ecology that evolves,” he explains. “The first things caught on video were staged plays, because people simply began to dump the old medium of stage acting into the new medium of the television. But eventually television evolved to better suit the new opportunities of the medium and developed into what we see today. Online e-books are a similar effort. We’re dumping the old medium into the new medium. Simply putting books online is like making television broadcasts nothing more than a pale imitation of live plays.”

You nod, not sure if you understand, because your head’s a little bit fuzzy, but you’re starting to think, what if? What if a piece of fiction could also host a YouTube video? What if you could hyperlink part of a great novel to a Wikipedia page explaining the implications of an allusion that would otherwise be over your head? Would that destroy fiction—or enhance it?

“At OCAD, we’re working with several publishers in the area to create Smart Books: regular books which would be able to hook up to the Internet. Books that would attempt to take advantage of our new medium, and to become more than a pale representation of the real thing,” he pauses. “I’m actually headed to a meeting now with Tightrope books. Would you like to join me?”

So, you have your first choice to make. You have plans to go out for drinks with a burgeoning writer friend of yours who’s wanted to talk your ear off about a new project he’s working on, or you can blow him off to check out this small press.

If you decide to go out for drinks with your friend, continue to C.

If you blow off your friend and continue to Tightrope Books, continue to D.
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“Well, you remember how I started Wooden Rocket Press to publish my own book,” he explains, sipping a Stella in the warm front room of The Bedford. “I want to turn it into something more, and I think it will get to the heart of what fiction is all about. I thought that Choose Your Own Adventure Books are really at the heart of interactive fiction. I’d like to blend the interactive element with literary journal element. It will make more personal the experience you have with a writer; you’ll be more involved.

“So the idea is that you’re an ex-con stranded in the desert with your social worker and her boyfriend,” he continues. “And then, I just let the writers take it from there. The idea is to create a huge, out of control Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but in literary journal format. Or actually,” he pauses with a smile, “We’ll call it An Adventure of Your Own Choosing to avoid copyright issues. Hopefully, the anthology will come together in the editing process, but I think that the discontinuity will sort of add to the project. It’s ambitious, yeah, but just ambitious enough, I think.”

Just like you, you think, laughing because the guy who’s crafting an opus on post-apocalyptic Toronto would create a project about being quite literally stranded in the desert. But you start thinking that while this fiction is print only, it’s still interactive in the same way that a World of Warcraft role-playing game would be, or a multi-genre piece that requires user participation. It’s almost a new kind of reading; it calls for an active reading where the reader calls the shots and has to continually think about where the narrative is going. And the challenge is to create something worthy of that effort on the part of the reader. Maybe this is looking at a medium of the past, but maybe now’s the time for our culture to really embrace it.

You leave the pub early, determined to create your own submission. How does a person craft suspense? How do you take a story that’s been set up for you, and take it in a new and creative way? And once it’s submitted, is anybody actually going to read it?

You get back to your apartment and start to write. Something about an ex-con with a heart of gold and a dark past, you think to yourself as you stare at a blank Word document.

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“We’re still waiting for approval on our grant proposal,” Dr. Logan explains. “That’s going to have to decide how much further we get with our project.”

You’re sitting in the offices of Tightrope Books, a small office nestled underneath a Vintage Shop on Markham Street. The place is buzzing with a few editors and interns, who are working to organize the small press’s latest launch.

“We’re calling the book Art Meets Science for now,” one of the editors explains briefly. “We envision it as a book of short fiction which takes advantage of the capabilities of the Smart Book to enhance each piece of fiction, which will have some kind of scientific element—be it science fiction or somehow concerning science. We think that’s the best way to get the writers thinking. Imagine if you could somehow involve special effects into your story, or if there’s some element that requires the reader’s participation. It’s almost a future of entertainment. You don’t consume. Instead, you’re forced to create.”

You pipe up hesitantly, “The problem with that is that the narrative has to be compelling enough to get the reader to engage. Active reading requires something worth discovering. It requires suspense, and it requires the reader to sacrifice. Not every narrative will be able to achieve that.”

“Well, there’s always that chance.”

You leave Tightrope Books twitching with creative energy, into a bright day on Markham Street. You feel as though you’re ready to create the next great suspense novel, except for this time around, readers will be forced to create their own ending. So what is it? Will you go back to your solitary apartment and scribble in a Moleskine for a while? Or will you consult the creative energies of your friends on this project?

Go it alone: read on to E.

Get by with a little help from your friends: continue to F.
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You go home and write a short story. It isn’t exactly what you’d imagined, but it’s a piece you’ve been meaning to write for a while, and you’re proud of your pretty imagery and fine word choice. You aren’t sure what the multimedia elements are going to be yet, but at least you have the basis for something that you think could be good. Really good.

The next day you’re in OCAD visiting the Strategic Innovation Lab with Dr. Logan. The Lab is a minimalist, modern, and clean space, perched at the top of OCAD. With circular windows and large desks with huge Macs, this seems like the perfect place to discuss innovation.

You take a seat at the windowsill as Dr. Logan looks over your manuscript. You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck prickling, and you feel as though you’re letting your little brother read your diary from Grade 7.

“It’s good,” he finally says after a long pause. “You’re a good writer. But what elements are you going to incorporate into this in order to take advantage of the new medium?”

You look back at him with an empty stare, and your mind goes a little bit blank. You’re frantically thinking about fanfiction, online content, and html code. What are the elements going to be?

Continue to G.
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Your friends are sitting on the floor of your store-top apartment in the Annex listening to your account of the day.

“You know, I really don’t get this project,” says one. “Why mess with a good thing?”

You try to respond, but that half-bottle of wine you’ve had has dulled your mind a bit, and you can’t think of responses to their questions of schematics. Okay, so maybe you don’t have computer skills. Maybe you don’t have a digital camera, or painting skills. You can still do this. Right?

Completely despondent and sapped of any confidence in your creative abilities, you send your friends home and call it a night. Maybe tomorrow will bring better tidings.

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You’ve put up a blogspot and you’re frantically looking over your copy of HTML for Dummies. You’re on your third cup of coffee, and you’re vaguely considering the fact that you missed your best friend’s birthday. And that your relationship seems to be crumbling. You’re not sure if that’s because you’ve been spending all of your time with a short story about a shrinking lake in western Saskatchewan, or whether it’s the inevitable progression of things. You shake it off and take a long sip, wishing that you could afford coffee a little bit better than that huge tub of Maxwell House you’ve been dipping into recently. You’ve made a website which should, ultimately, illustrate the landscape of your story. Each tree in the picture either has a back-story, or has the capacity for the user to write their own. In your vision, the place is filled with stories, both yours and others, and the place has the pulse of user-driven content.

It’s not much, but at least it’s something to show for months of work. You head back to the physics department, your head held high, this time punctual and caffeinated, only to meet a despondent Dr. Logan. The grant wasn’t approved. The project you’ve been working for has been indefinitely put on hold. The Smart Book project is stalled. You sit for a moment, staring at Dr. Logan’s posters. Media Ecology, they say. Innovation, they purport.

And for a moment, you can’t help but think that your efforts have been in vain. Your heart sinks to the bottom of your chest, and you think of hours at the library, and the excitement and exhilaration of starting the project. But then you realize things couldn’t have gone any differently. Your actions seem inevitable in retrospect, and when you’re innovating, failure is the gamble that you take. You’ve made all the right choices, or at least, that’s how it would seem, but things still didn’t work out the way you’d planned.

Maybe that’s the way the creative process works; you throw yourself into things. Sometimes you sink, sometimes you swim, and sometimes the lake just dries up. The landscape is changing, media is evolving, and you’re pretty sure that you’re going to evolve with it. And try to make the right choices all over again.