Longwind

Short thoughts about long words

Nov 15

I Finally Read Snowfall. Here’s What I Thought.

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I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I only recently read “Snow Fall.” It came out almost a year ago. Like everyone else, I was impressed with its stunning visualizations; I heard people start using “snowfall” as a verb. But I never gave it a full read. It’s not a crime, I know, but it feels a little shameful because I produce multimedia stories for The Atavist,where my job is predicated on the assumptions that 1. People want to consume (actually, pay for) longer form stories and 2. Multimedia enhances the reader experience.

I’m a multimedia storytelling enthusiast, but I often wonder if my job is necessary. I sometimes think, maybe we should leave those words alone. Sometimes we should, and sometimes we do. But then I think back to the first time I downloaded The Atavist app, and opened up Brendan Koerner’s “Piano Demon,” and heard those sweet, sweet sounds of Teddy Weatherford’s music pouring from my iPhone. I thought, This is magic.

I strive to create those moments in my work, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always successful. And in some sense, it’s hard to tell what works universally: One reader’s magic can always be another reader’s annoyance. Which is why it was so intriguing to see the reaction to “Snow Fall.” As much as has been written about the story, there hasn’t been much deep critique of the interaction of its form and content. What surprised me most about “Snow Fall” was how sad it was. The human tragedy of the event seems to have been trumped by the technology used to tell it.

So here it is, a review of “Snow Fall” from someone who bothered to read it, and who cares about the craft of multimedia narrative.

I curled up on my couch with my laptop (a bit awkwardly — something I’ll write more about at a later time) and settled in. “Snow Fall” begins with a breath-taking description of the avalanche, focusing on skier Elyse Saugstad, who is caught in the worst of it:

“She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine.”

Then we meet Saugstad in a video. She describes the same scene: “It was like being in a washing machine.” Suddenly she’s in front of you! The video doesn’t add new factual information, but it’s a visceral reminder that this is a real person, and this is what she looks like and sounds like. The video is 45 seconds, which is a good length. It serves a purpose similar to that of a quote, but it’s better because the words are straight from the character’s mouth. If the author had included a written quote from her, it would only have disrupted the narrative style of the opening.

In the next section Tunnel Creek is shown through a stunning aerial 3D visualization pinpointing its place in the Cascades mountain range. You feel like you are flying right to the top of the mountain. There is some history of the area and a short video that is standard backcountry ski documentary fare.

Then we meet the other skiers who are about to get caught in the avalanche. Note: If you haven’t read “Snow Fall” and plan to, stop reading here and go read the story already! What are you waiting for?

I love the way writer John Branch builds tension to the event by taking us through each person’s experience of that day. He says something personal about all 16 people who there, so by the time you get to a photo grid of them, gathered and ready to head down the mountain, you feel some connection to each one. However, from the moment I met Chris Rudolph, director of marketing at Stevens Pass, I started calculating. I immediately wondered why there was no Times-credited photograph of him. There were also photos of him as a child. I thought: he must be dead. As I sifted through other photo galleries for other people, I catalogued each one as living or dead by the presence or absence of a Times-shot photograph. It pulled me out of the story slightly. I further wondered about the inclusion of childhood photos of people who had obviously survived. Was it so as not to spoil the outcome? But hadn’t it already been spoiled by the lack of recent photos for those who perished?

Another minor thing I noticed, mostly because I encounter it in my own work and don’t always see a good way out of it, was the repetition of information. When Keith Carlsen is introduced we have what amounts to three mentions of the exact same information: that he’s “a photographer and former editor of Powder.” First, in the main text, second, in the sidebar preview of his slideshow, and third, in the first image of him in the slideshow.

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Other than those small points, the piece is pretty flawless. I liked how each person’s path before, during and after the avalanche is visualized with a responsive animation. I cried when I learned of the deaths, even as I mentally calculated beforehand who had survived based on which pictures were included. All of the visualizations create a sense of place that draw you deeper into the story. The helmet cam footage adds an unexpected dimension—rendering drama, though not as much as I might have guessed. Which makes it even more gut-wrenching, because of how coldly the camera documents how muddled those moments between “everything’s fine” and utter panic really are. The 9-1-1 calls bring home the moments of panic.

The avalanche infographic provides a really clear picture of the physics of what happened on that horrible day. The airbag animation made me appreciate how important that technology was for Elyse Saugstad’s survival. There are small things that I liked, like the picture of the Ski Area Boundary sign, which is also described in detail in the main text.

I could almost hear the beeps of the Avalanche Transceiver Check Station as each skier passes by it on the way to Tunnel Creek. Would it enhance the experience to actually hear them? I’ve experimented with those types of sound effects in stories for The AtavistAudio effects are tricky because timing is important, and they aren’t as forgiving as visual effects when a reader backs up or jumps around in a story.

At the end of “Snow Fall,” there is a ten-minute documentary, which surprised me. I knew it would probably include a lot of footage I had just seen, but I felt like watching it anyway. Now that I had finally taken the time to really experience “Snow Fall,” I couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to know more about the survivors, I wanted to know what happened to them after the avalanche, what they were up to now. I watched the video to extend the experience as long as possible.

If you have scrolled through but haven’t actually yet read “Snow Fall” in its entirety, I highly recommend that you do.

And if you want to do some “snowfalling” of your own, check out Atavist’s multimedia storytelling tool Creatavist.


May 8

Eventually we’ll discover what is real.


Today we’re filming a tape recording for one of our stories. Digital storytelling can be a bit absurd at times.

Today we’re filming a tape recording for one of our stories. Digital storytelling can be a bit absurd at times.


May 7

Humbled!

Here I am, complaining about reviewers not paying attention to what we do because we don’t fit into the little boxes that they are used to. 

Then I find out about Miracle Jones. He doesn’t seem to give a hoot about reviews, and is doing some of the most interesting experiments with digital literature I’ve seen.

http://therumpus.net/2013/05/the-rumpus-interview-with-miracle-jones/


Everyone’s A Critic (As Long As You Print It)

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Photo: shutterhacks / Flickr

I’m as anxious about criticism as anyone. The only thing I know of that is worse than being criticized, however, is not being criticized. Welcome to the wonderful world of ebooks. Although the landscape is changing, it’s sometimes a struggle to convince people with established columns in established publications to review an ebook that exists “only” as an ebook. We always succeed in getting at least a few reviews for the stories we publish at The Atavist,  but much of the time the reviews focus on the words, with little mention of multimedia other than the fact that it exists. Don’t get me wrong, we spend a lot of time on the words and for most of our stories they perhaps deserve the primary focus of analysis. But when the multimedia nature of our stories is ignored it makes me sad because my entire job is to produce multimedia.

A few years ago, Carl Zimmer, a prolific writer and pioneering electronic publishing experimentalist himself, recognized that ebooks were underserved when it came to reviews of them. He took action by creating Download the Universe, a website dedicated to reviewing downloadable books. It’s the one community that embraces the unconventional technology that we use. I was thrilled to read the review last year of Island of Secrets, which is the very first time I saw any mention of how the multimedia elements of The Atavist stories work (or don’t) in a narrative context. It wasn’t all positive:

"Some may find these audio-visual elements distracting or unnecessary (notably the looped chirping crickets that function as a soundtrack), more often than not they work in concert to create one of the richest media experiences available on an iPad or iPhone. "

But it was exciting to get this type of feedback. What we do is so different from what everyone else does that it sometimes feels like we are working in a vacuum. What other books open with the chirping of crickets, or with Winston Churchill’s booming voice, or with the sound of a rocket launch countdown?


Many of our readers still only experience the text-only versions of our stories, and in the cases where there is no text-only version, such as with Stowaway or The Last Clinic, they miss out on the story entirely. Early on, a lot of our sales occurred through the Kindle Singles store, and this initial success was exciting even if our goal was to move beyond text. What’s special about what we do is that we allow our storytellers—be they writers or filmmakers or animators or photographers—complete freedom in the way they tell their stories, especially if they want to transition between forms or collaborate with other types of creators. It’s a challenge to both honor the medium that brings a story to life in the best way, and reach as diverse an audience as possible. With so many communities to please, it complicates the production process slightly since we have more versions to manage. The biggest challenge is editorial—deciding how (and also whether) to translate a multimedia version into a text-only version. It’s analogous to having a movie version and book version of a story. Each is a unique aesthetic experience, and people will disagree about which is their favorite.

There are too few reviewers of mixed media works. As a multimedia producer, I seek criticism, in any form. Stories I produce at The Atavist are fusions of film, writing, illustration, photography and video game. It is the opposite of “platform agnostic” because we care deeply about the form stories take, and put thought into the different versions that we create.

My hope is that people enjoy the media experiments we conduct at The Atavist, and that more communities of creators committed to digital longform, like Download the Universe, take interest in the new experiences that digital storytelling makes possible.


May 6

Every story we publish at The Atavist comes with an audiobook version, which is convenient when you want to switch between reading and listening. We always try to have the author record the audiobook version of their piece, rather than relying on voice actors. There’s something special about hearing someone speak aloud the words that they have written. Some writers are better at it than others… While Joe Kloc, author and illustrator of “The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks,” has a fantastic voice, his sense of perfectionism made the editing of the audiobook version of his story a bit of a challenge. He stopped frequently to repeat sentences after perceiving a minor aberration in the way he spoke, marking the mistake by saying “Again.” I started collecting these “again” declarations while editing the audiobook, and the result is five solid minutes of Joe Kloc saying “again.” There are also some amusing outtakes that I deemed worthy of including.

Read (or listen to the pristine audiobook version of) The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks by clicking here.


Feb 6

The 50th Anniversary of the New York Review of Books

Tonight I saw Michael Chabon speak—all hair, beard, glasses and charm—and he recalled how he came to write his first novel. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant to write a novel, but he hoped it might just be a very long short story, because he kind of knew how to write one of those.

We never know what to call what we do at the Atavist, because it defies definition. Our stories average 10,000 to 15,000 words, but they include things besides words. Those things might be interactive tidbits—like graphs that respond to the touch—soundtracks, or words that reveal new layers of meaning when you point at them. Sometimes the stories are movies. The main thing that matters is that they are good.

Tonight I attended the 50th anniversary of the New York Review of Books, and it was soul-crushingly superb. Afterwards I argued with my friend (the one who invited me to the event) about what made it so. He insisted that time was the key element. It takes time to painstakingly research and hone content, which I allow is not something many journalists have. But I also feel there is something special about NYRB, a publication that defines itself by a fearless pursuit of capital-t Truth. Not everyone is interested enough or brave enough to either consume or produce the deep, deep thinking that goes into your average NYRB piece. The contributors are scholars, people whose job it is to think.

It was an evening that left me breathless. I cried the entire time, and it started with Joan Didion.* I practically started bawling when I first saw her, not because I am a superfan and have read all of her work, but because I have read very little of her work, and I know I should read a lot more of it, and I knew something really important was about to happen. She was graceful and frail, and a couple of beefy roadies frantically appeared to escort her to an elegant desk. She took a seat wordlessly and started to read.

She read from her 1991 article “Sentimental Journeys,” about the hopelessly flawed investigation of a woman’s rape. At 17,000 words, it was one of the longest articles NYRB ever published, NYRB editor Robert Silvers explained when he introduced her, and her prescient observations go largely unacknowledged even now. Twenty years before Central Park Five, the recent Ken Burns documentary about the case, Didion spoke the painful truths about gender and race in America. She spoke the painful truths as she saw them, as they were happening. She spoke the painful truths that we all need to hear but rarely do.

My crying subsided when Mark Danner showed up. He stood at the podium, thrusting papers in front of his face as he read. Cheeks drying, I laughed hysterically when he read from “Obama and Sweet Potato Pie," a story that started as an email he wrote during the 2008 election. My smile flattened when he jumped to 2012, reminding me and the rest of the audience of Guantanamo, and other disappointments from Obama’s presidency.

Mary Beard was cheerful and lovely and reminded me that I still need to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (and pretty much all of the classics). I was happy to learn she is on Twitter (@marybeard ), so I have a guide.

When Darryl Pinckney began to speak I closed my eyes, because his words were beautiful. He made the audience gasp when he described the moment, as a young writer, when he drunkenly confronted his idol, James Baldwin.

Daniel Mendelsohn shook me to my core when he remembered his 2006 essay “September 11 at the Movies" in light of Zero Dark Thirty, exposing Hollywood’s empty (and arguably insincere) attempts to represent reality. He thinks that the advent of spy-themed entertainment has made us more accepting of torture, and I know that he is right and that I am part of the problem. He kept saying “our entertainments,” and this delighted me. 

And that’s how, shepherded through the evening by the deft hand of Robert Silvers, we came to Michael Chabon. He was light and self-deprecating and vulnerable. He said he once loved someone so much that the thought of sleeping with him didn’t even occur to him, and that will stay with me for a very long time.

The audience cheered, and all of the speakers shuffled in and sat in the stuffed leather chairs that had been haunting the stage all night. Silvers peered out at the audience and asked if there were any questions, and everyone in the audience looked at everyone else in the audience incredulously, and Silvers nodded knowingly and said, “You’re satiated. I certainly can empathize with that.” So we clapped, and a few of us stood, and the speakers, the writers, the intellectual powerhouses, the scholars, these beacons of truth in my media-overwhelmed life wandered off the stage. Martin Scorsese filmed the whole thing. I was dying of thirst, had a headache, and had never been happier.

Time to renew my subscription.

*Although not technically crying yet, I did start tearing up when Robert Silvers described founding the New York Review of Books with Barbara Epstein, and how he misses her now.