If you think of writing as a solitary pastime, the Web could change your world. Thanks to online strategies, the art of creating literature has turned into an interactive process.
Credit Edward Packard with the concept. He released a unique book in 1979 entitled The Cave Of Time that was so dedicated to its second-person narrative that the reader actually determined the structure of the book. The choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) franchise was born.
It's no surprise that books like this fair well online; the Internet itself is like one giant, amorphous CYOA, with a never-ending, looping structure and pages that pop in and out of existence.
However, because of lines like "You glance to the exit which can be your salvation," the world of CYOA usually isn't mistaken for high literature.
The more traditional literary world has been slow to take advantage of the opportunities provided through on-line communication. Books with expired copyright are currently available online through archival projects like Project Gutenberg ( www.gutenberg.com ), and new ones will be soon through the massive scan-and-post projects of Google and Yahoo.
Contemporary authors, though, are still struggling with ways to adapt the linear format of the novel to the decidedly non-linear form of the Web.
Stephen King was one of the first to ride the trend of e-publishing. His novella Riding The Bullet was published online in 2000.
Hackers quickly bypassed the encryption, though, rendering the project a financial failure.
King was not to be deterred, however, and in 2004 tried again. Instead of employing the typical publishing route, he posted the first chapter of The Plant as a serial on his own website, requesting $1 from anyone who downloaded the chapter. Payment was voluntary, though, so to make people pay, King essentially held his own work hostage, and decided he would write subsequent chapters only if more than 75 per cent of the down-loaders paid up.
It worked for the first few chapters, but when the publishers increased the price to $2, then $4, compliance plummeted and the serial stalled. King's representatives maintain the project was an utter failure and decry the world of Web publishing as commercially unfeasible.
The experiment King embarked on, before his publishers mucked it up, was centred on the philosophy of shared culture and copyright subversion espoused most clearly by law professor Lawrence Lessig.
Lessig continually praises new media and digital technologies, pointing to music and video mash-ups as evidence of the creativity being unleashed on desktops around the world. He warns us that our current "war on pirates" (i.e., illegal downloaders) will also restrict the creative potential of these technologies.
Lessig puts his money where his mouth is: he released his seminal book Free Culture under a Creative Commons licence, which allows people to do what they want with the content as long as they give a reference to the author.
I actually listened to the book as a series of podcasts, each chapter read aloud by a rotating cast of broadcasters, musicians and even a physician.
Toronto-born Cory Doctorow, a NOW cover subject, has been championing the idea of free cultural exchange from a literary angle. Recently, he's been writing fiction full-time, allowing his work to be released electronically under a Creative Commons licence and encouraging people to mash up, rewrite or reinterpret it.
Authors like Doctorow promote this process, called "fan fiction" ( www.fanfiction.net ), as a way for people to become creatively engaged in an author's work. It's also a way to expand the fan base via unconventional means.
Writers such as Neal Pollack, Joss Whedon, J. K. Rowling, Eric Flint and Douglas Adams have all shown their appreciation for online fan fiction.
Some authors have trouble seeing the benefits, though. Six years ago, Anne Rice posted a scathing condemnation of fan fiction on her personal website, complaining that its prevalence online subverts the authority of the original.
But if skilled scribes experiment the way Doctorow and King have, the Internet may one day become a place of serious literature rather than a refuge for run-on sentences.