Wednesday 28 September 2011

Mobile Phone Novels

One of the things that’s surprised me is just how successful Kindle and other e-readers have been. I figured mobile phones made much more sense as the home of electronic reading. I still do. During one such conversation a month or so back on Authors Electric, I happened to mention mobile phone novels, and a couple of people suggested I write a piece about them. As it happens, the time is perfect for me to do so now.

Mobile phone novels (keita shousetsu in Japanese, where they are incredibly popular) are very different from regular novels that you might read on your smartphone with a Kindle app. They’re a completely different genre. I first became aware of them in early 2009 when I was just starting to write The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes as a serial novel on Facebook. The novel is about internet forums, YouTube, modern art, Japanese culture, and I wanted a format that would go with the subject matter. A serial online novel was perfect. And it lent itself to short chapters with not much description and regular cliffhangers. The kind of thing you’d read like a series of blog posts.

It was inevitable that I’d come across the Japanese cultural phenomenon the mobile phone novel. I did so through a site where you upload novels chapter by chapter and readers subscribe to new chapters by e-mail or text. Many of the novels are “regular” novels, but I was inexorably drawn to the proper hardcore mobile phone novels.

Mobile phone novels aren’t just read on phones, they started off being written on them and uploaded one text at a time. Because there’s a limit on phone text length (or there was in the mid 2000s when the phenomenon took off), chapters are very short – often under 100 words. And often written in text speak.

It’s a genuinely new form, written in a new way. And I know next to no English authors writing them (OK, I know of none, but I’m sure there must be many, though one feature of the mobile phone novel that befits its milieu is the anonymity of authors). So now I’m writing one. It’s called What There Is Instead Of Rainbows (you can subscribe by e-mail or text here ). And each chapter will be a maximum 200 words (probably around 100 chapters, though it’s a story that, if I were to write it as a novel, would be around 70,000 words).

Now this might sound a bit faddy and low culture (though I’m not sure why that would matter), but I must say I’ve never had so much time writing a book, and it’s completely cured a massive case of block with a book I was really looking forward to writing.

And I haven’t learned so much in a long time. I’m not yet writing text speak though I intend to rewrite The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes in the full format after I finish Rainbows. But the 200 word chapters are both liberating and instructive. Gone in one swoop are those awkward linking passages, those extraneous words you put in “because you ought to.” And that thing about making every scene contribute something? OH yes!

You’d think that voice, originality, beauty would suffer. They don’t. It’s no surprise that the format originated in Japan, of course, where there is an aesthetic of sparse elegance and heart-tugging minimalism. And it’s an aesthetic I love, which is one reason I’m so drawn to it. But the seeming restrictions remind me of another of my heroes, Jack White (of White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather fame). The White Stripes (see and is a two piece band – one guitar, one drum kit. And all their merchandise and branding is restricted to white, red, and black. Self-imposed restrictions Jack decided upon that he finds have enabled his creativity to flourish as he works within and pushes at those limits.

It’s the same with voice in a text novel. Chapter 1 of What The Is Instead of Rainbows is below. I can’t remember the last time I wrote something more me.

The world and I have had very little to do with each other in my 19 years, and if I died now I doubt it would remember me. I certainly wouldn’t remember it. That’s what I was thinking as I sat at Simon’s table drinking Simon’s beer.

It wasn’t a maudlin thought, and it certainly wasn’t going to spur me to suicide. It was just an observation.

Have you ever had that thought? Of course you have, only straightaway you realise that old film was right. You know, the one where the black and white guy throws himself off a black and white bridge and an angel shows him how different the world would have turned out if he’d never been born. Different and shittier.

So anyway straight after the self-pity you think of all the tiny ways your life’s touched all these other lives and how the traces are everywhere.

Which is where I was different from you. Because I didn’t feel any self-pity, and my life hadn’t left any traces. And I was fairly sure of that because Alice’s letter was on the table and I’d read it five times since I found it in Simon’s drawer.

And chapter 2 is just 14 words. A suicide note:

Please. Find a way of telling Steph because I can’t.

Sorry. Goodbye.


No context, no introduction. Every word counting. Forcing myself to get rid of those adornments made me realize how little I ever needed them.

Now, all I need is to find a way of making my blog posts shorter!


  1. This is such a genius idea, I can't believe I haven't come across it before and am so glad I have now. I look forward to reading the whole thing. Just lovely.

  2. I'm amazed it hasn't caught on more over here (I'm also convinced it's one way of getting teenagers reading more). I think there's possibly a latent snobbery among writers and critics that it wouldn't be a "serious" thing to do, and it does lend itself to popular culture, but I can see huge potential for creating something super and - really excitingly - fresh

  3. Take a look at this, for example. It's chapter 1 of one of the most popular novels on textnovel, and it's one of the most beautiful openings I can remember reading「むかしのおもいで」/548/

  4. This puts you right back in the flow of the experiments you were excited about when we first met. Love it.


  5. I can imagine something like Ornamental Onion working a blinder in this format

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  7. This is brilliant!! Should be a must-do exercise for every author addicted to verbosity!

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