Diving into Digital Fiction: The Year 8’s Try it On

As stated previously, thank goodness for school breaks, what would educational bloggers do without them?

Photo courtesy: t-dot-s-dot Flickr cc

After all my digital fiction groundwork, a couple of meetings with the collaborating teacher (Leanne) and a few emails, we introduced her Year 8 English students to digital fiction midway through Term 4. We decided to approach it from an exploration perspective rather than an in-depth assignment. I was especially glad we had when the intro session discussion revealed that almost none of them were even aware digital fiction existed (we thought this might be the case).  Two of the students read manga online and one student had heard of fan fiction. None of them had used an e-reader although many were aware of Kindles (none had seen one). They all knew you could ‘read books on an iPad’ but none had tried this.  I should also mention the level of interest in reading was average or below average for this group; this was one of the reasons the teacher initially approached me.

After a brief discussion about what they already knew, I showed them several examples on the IWB (interactive white board) and talked briefly about the differences and about the idea of linear and non-linear stories. The teacher allowed them to explore the different types of online fiction and the stories on offer for the rest of the session. During the second session they were to decide on one to read and review. Because the students would have only two weeks to do this, if a longer piece of fiction was chosen the student was only required to review the equivalent of one chapter (to be negotiated with the teacher).

The literature review questions posed to the students covered:

  • their thoughts on what digital fiction is and how it differs from traditional novels
  • title, brief summary and the other titles they looked at before settling on the one they reviewed
  • discussion of the digital/interactive techniques used by the author, why they may have been chosen and the effect on the story (eg. distraction, add-on, enhancement, essential).
  • students overall opinion of their chosen type of digital/interactive/online fiction and some discussion on their preference between it and traditional novels.
Results were interesting. The teacher reported that interest and engagement were high. Students’ responses confirmed  our perception of increased level of engagement; Leane thought the written opinions were more detailed than usual. Most students chose to review Inanimate Alice and Choose Your Own Adventure stories. Was this perhaps because they were the most familiar forms? We should include a question next time about why they chose the stories they did. We should also include some exploration questions about the author to help students better understand their motives for using certain devices and techniques in their works. The biggest surprise? Many of the students expressed a preference for the traditional delivery of a story via a book over the the digital method.
The good news was that word spread amongst the teachers about using the digital fiction. I also collaborated  to introduce this with one of the Year 9 classes. We modified some of the questions and the teacher reported high levels of engagement for this class too. I did not get to debrief with the teacher but she was keen to do this again next year. I look forward to further developing this look at new forms of fiction in 2012.

Diving into Digital Fiction: Locating/Selecting Part 3: Web Fiction and Online Novels

Online/Web Fiction

This form of fiction is simply a regular novel or collection of stories that exist online. Web fiction authors often publish on blogs or community wikis. Readers can comment, review, and subscribe to novels if they are still works in progress.

Web Fiction Guide

This is a community site with online novels, story collections and reviews. You can select from categories and one of those categories is young adults. There is quite a collection to choose from, some still being updated and others complete. Readers score the stories and stories are tagged as well so you know what you’re getting into ahead of time. Some of these stories can be downloaded as pdf files so could be loaded on to handheld devices, some are available on Issuu, some  also have podcasts with them so students can read and listen, a bonus especially for ESL students or those with reading difficulties. Novels still in progress often have an rss feed available so you automatically receive the next chapter when it comes out. Here are a few I’ve dipped into (each quite different) so I plan to include:

Scary Mary

Impeccable Petunia 

Mortal Ghost 

Also part of this site is Top Web Fiction a listing of the top rated stories on the site.

One of the downsides of using a site like Web Fiction Guide is it does leave your students the option to go to other categories of fiction, one of which is erotica. This may or may not be blocked by your school filters. Common sense says active supervision is a must if students are the ones searching and selecting stories online.

Fifty-two Stories with Cal Morgan

Fifty-Two Stories is a website run by Harper Perennial (part of HarperCollins) and is a showcase for short stories. Each year a theme is selected and authors contribute their offerings. Each week one story is selected for publication on the site. The theme for 2011 is: ASK. The quality of writing is professional, the stories are for general consumption so again it pays to preview what’s on offer although I haven’t run into anything untoward.

One of the offerings worth a look on this site is  The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a novella by popular author and screenplay writer, Neil Gaiman.


This is another community offering novels in different genres. It was started by a Christian self-published author so features some of her writings but also contains many other self-published authors. There does not appear to be any mature content stories on this but preview before selecting. I did like the fact that this site includes some online graphic novels. The down-side of this site is that there are no ratings on it so quality is highly variable.

In Terms of New Fiction

Hyperdeck-one Henry Swanson flickrcc

Photo by Henry Swanson on Flickr cc

First, I want to pause and consider what I’m doing through the lens of the InformationProcess (always good to take a step back and view the big picture).

1.   Defining: what do I really want to find out?

I want to find out what digital options are out there for  readers, I want to know more about new kinds and modes of fiction available in the online environment. I then need to narrow this down to what’s out there that is appropriate for lower secondary students to look at.

At the end of this experiment/exploration I’d like to discuss with the teacher our observations/conclusions on:

  • If the students weren’t motivated to read something because it was printed on the page, were they any more motivated to read something because it is delivered online/digitally/in a different way?

As I deepen my search for online fiction, I’ve also run into a lot of terms and aconyms that I should document for future reference. Defining the terms now means I can stick to the ones most relevant to my needs.

Online fiction

While this term should be self-explanatory I wanted to be sure and so looked for a definition. There wasn’t one, but I ran across this wonderful article by David Backer that eloquently described the search I was on:

Literature is supposed to be a culture’s conversation with itself. A way of telling the story of its time, its moment. It’s a healthy and necessary thing, an authentic expression of the truth of the age. As a writer and student of literature and of this conversation, I went in search of the new fiction. I wanted to see its extent, the borders of its world. I wanted to do a little cartography to glimpse the map of our conversation with ourselves.

Backer’s article along with some google searching, leads me to believe that the term online fiction describes fiction that stays on the straight and narrow – fiction in its traditional delivery (words in whatever form the piece dictates) but brought to the reader online. Backer’s search did not reach the borders of the world I was looking for, not by a long shot.

Digital Fiction

Wikipedia provides this definition of digital fiction:

… fiction that is written for and read on a computer screen, that pursues its verbal, discursive and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium, and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium. (definition created by the Digital Fiction International Network at Sheffield Hallam University who support research in the field of digital fiction)

Transmedia storytelling

To my mind, the best definition of transmedia is on Seize the Media and if you go to the link there is also a very useful diagram clarifying how it all works.

Transmedia is a format of formats; an approach to story delivery that aggregates fragmented audiences by adapting productions to new modes of presentation and social integration. The execution of a transmedia production weaves together diverse storylines, across multiple outlets, as parts of an overarching narrative structure. These elements are distributed through both traditional and new media outlets. The online components exploit the social conventions, and social locations, of the internet.

Electronic literature /fiction

Good old Wikipedia saved me from sidetracking to read N. Katherine Hayles’s entire article, Electronic Fiction:What is It? (It’s great but very academic, I have dipped into it several times now).

Wikipedia passes on the Electronic Literature Organization’s definition of electronic fiction (also cited by Hayles):

“work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.”

It appears to include animated poetry, hypertext fiction, collaborative fiction, chatterbot stories and other forms of interactive fiction.

Interactive Fiction (IF)

This is probably the form of electronic fiction people are most familiar with. Most often thought of as a type of game, IFWiki.org explains it simply as:

A computer program that generates textual narrative in response to user input, generally in the form of simple natural-language commands

So with no shortage of keywords to make use of (and already several leads from my initial reading) I’ve started searching in earnest.

2. Locating: Where can I find the information I need?

I’ve got to admit that even though I’m a trained and true Teacher Librarian I still start with a Google search. But I have an excuse/motive. I look for what I know then use the articles’ background information to drill deeper.  So when googling ‘online fiction’ and I find Backer’s article, I use it to explore the sites he speaks of and then ones mentioned on those sites and graduallly patterns of connection begin to appear. Certain people’s names re-occur or blog sites are recommended and mentioned and I rapidly close in on the expert opinions I’m after. Here are also a couple of sites that I’ve been finding particularly helpful in exploring this new landscape:

If Kate Pullinger is the international guru then Angela Thomas is the Australian expert in multimedia authoring.

Angela has a blog you can access here and a digital fiction wiki that you can access here

I’ve also been able to drill down into this field by following Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling blog.

Interactive fiction has several sites for dedicated fans including:

Diving into Digital Fiction: first dip

Photo courtesy: Mike Baird at flickr.bairdphotos.com

Photo courtesy: Mike Baird at flickr.bairdphotos.com

At the end of term 2 one of the English teachers came to the library to talk about ways of engaging some of her Year 8 students who don’t like to read. She said she wanted to try eBooks but as we talked I discovered it wasn’t really eBooks she meant but online/digital/interactive fiction – something novel (excuse the pun) to hook them back into reading.

I talked to her about Inanimate Alice and a few other possibilities and she’s now keen for her class to sample a variety of online fiction. I’m spending the term break becoming familiar with ‘what’s out there’ and the possibilities for use in classrooms.

Inanimate Alice is the obvious starting place, Kate Pullinger is not only an author but also an educator and many fabulous teaching/learning resources have grown up around Inanimate Alice. There is an official Pedagogy Project containing lesson plans and other educational resources. It is available (free) by registering with iTeach on the website. Some introductory articles are linked at the start of the resource providing helpful background information. The lesson plans themselves focus on the multimodality of the work and multiliteracies:

‘Inanimate Alice’ is a new media fiction that allows students to develop multiple literacies (literary, cinematic, artistic, etc.) in combination with the highly collaborative and participatory nature of the online environment (from iTeach, Inanimate Alice)

Other great resources for Inanimate Alice worth checking out:

But the teacher doesn’t want to focus only on Inanimate Alice so what else is out there?