I came to coding like a mute. When I went to a conference presenting a new coding language from Google called Go last month, I realised I couldn't understand what was being said. Later I met with Inês Teles, director of London coding bootcamp Founders & Coders, curious to learn how coding could push my own writing project. But I couldn't explain my ideas as my language wouldn't translate into hers.
“What do you want to do with it?” A simple question I was unable to answer. However, I was told that, if you know how to write code, you can pretty much do anything. So I went along and started learning the basics of web development, starting with HTML and CSS. Little did I realise just how much learning code would teach me about language of the other kind.
Translation as creation
I recently organised a highly innovative distribution campaign around the novel The Ward Porter. And while I was excited by how this project challenged traditional book publishing and the relationship between physical and digital spaces, I wanted my next project to explore the idea of innovation through language itself.
As a writer, language is my technology, and I'm fascinated by the hidden layers beneath what an author writes. I believe that creativity lies in that gap between a thought process and a word written down.
In his essay 'Thinking In-Between Languages', the French linguist Heinz Wismann explains how, when someone speaks two languages, a space opens up between those two languages. In this space, the thought process of one language is influenced by the syntax and vocabulary of the other, to create a new language. Practically, you would hear this when a sentence from a bilingual speaker sounds slightly odd. This translation from one language to another is a unique sort of creation.
I believe that the same can apply between coding and literary language, creating an "in-between" space with the opportunity for the reader to interject and a story to be transformed. As I learned more about coding, I began to explore the idea of a a digital interface that would translate the book and its written language into a different form, in order to make it highly interactive: a book that engages the reader into the writing project.
Code has its own syntax and vocabulary but, as a language, it is opaque. The code is never displayed onto the web page you create; rather it is an invisible under-layer that brings your writing into another form. What coding allows you to do is to separate content and aesthetics (form). It allows its 'speaker' to add layers onto text: from adding pictures and videos to enabling interactivity such as hyperlinks or comments. These layers enable a writer to enhance meaning and create a wider artistic wrapping around a story, and gives a reader a more visually and contextually dense experience. All with the 'extra work' entirely hidden - if you desire.
By contrast, a printed book is incredibly transparent - but it also has its own sort of opacity. Unless they are a professional critic, the reader rarely notices individual words or artistic choices; the overall meaning and emotional experience of the words prevails.
Therefore coding allows us to play with these ideas of what is hidden by the author, what is seen, and what the reader controls. It encourages both reader and author to notice and explore the medium of transmission as much as the content. Coding gifts a book with greater visibility, while all the time the coding page itself remains silent and invisible.
Aside from aesthetics, code can also transform a writer's very content. Unlike the linear logic of the written language, code assembles and links blocks in different ways in order to open new options for the text. The style of the written word remains, but the narrative elements (characters, places, story-lines) are far more mobile.
So how do the logic of coding and the logic of written language interact? Here's where there are exciting opportunities to push the boundaries of interactivity.
In coding, HTML arranges a web-page into blocks, while CSS edits color, font and so on. On your coding page, you can pick some HTML blocks and put them together using CSS, and this process of assembling some elements of your page together translates the meaning of the whole page. Because a novel is defined as a sequence of signs linked together and delivering a meaning (the story), the logic of coding can apply to storytelling. The author can write a code that gives the reader options on where the story goes.
In another sort of interactivity, Founders & Coders have started a project to write a collaborative book in open source through GitHub. Anyone using the platform can add to the book; the software keeps every stage of the writing in memory with a 'version controlled system', where you can see all the changes over time. This enterprise redefines the concept of the author, as anybody can give their input into the code, the content and the style, and add comments and ideas to existing work. And he idea of conserving all stages of the draft once again brings new transparency to the writing process for the reader, too.
Redefining literary values
Another outcome of the Founders & Coders project is that it highlights the values behind writing code. The main coding values are accessibility (a blind person needs to be able to use the software for example), open-source (your code is public) and adaptability (code should be workable on all browsers). When you put the two together, this integrity becomes translated into the written book. Writing becomes more public-minded, and a community rises around the book.
Using coding in the production of a book changes so much more than just its medium or mode of distribution. It demands a thorough-going rethink about how authors and readers share, influence, hide from and expose each other. Even if you're a paper and ink sort of writer, going through the exercise of understanding how to make a digital book brings a host of challenges thoughts to your analogue work.
And of course, any experimental digital book is even better when accompanied with a printed edition. There's nothing simple or old-fashioned in traditional literary language. The magic is in exploring the differences.