Ratha's Island

Beginning on March 14, 2009, a new experiment in Y/A fantasy fiction appeared on Twitter. “Ratha's Island”, a novelette designed specifically for the micro-blogging service's 140 character format, ran twice daily in blocks of 6-10 sequential “tweets” or short posts (Twitter's logo is a little bluebird, so it's messages are called “tweets”). Twitter's designers imposed the 140 character limit to enable cellphones and other wireless devices to receive the messages.) Ratha's Island ran faithfully every day, with the exception of a one-weekend break, and drew over 1000 followers to my @rathacat Twitter stream.

 Ratha Attacking the Condor-Eagle, art and photo 2009 by Clare Bell

 

The main intent was to entertain people on Twitter, get them interested in the Ratha series, publicize the the new short story, "Bonechewer's Legacy" in Firebirds Soaring anthology, edited by Sharyn November, and to celebrate the newest novel, Ratha's Courage, published by Sheila Ruth of Imaginator Press.

The Ratha's Island project started when Sheila noted Twitter's early explosive growth. She began to use the site and suggested that I experiment with it to publicize the Ratha series. At first, like many new Twitter users, I wasn't sure why I was there, or what the service was really for. I noticed other authors trying out various types of fiction, ranging from compressed and punchy “micro-fiction” to complete novels, tweeted line-by-line. Reaction to these was mixed.

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At the time I joined Twitter, I found one Y/A author tweeting comments from three characters in her recently published book. She had set up three different user-names and had the three tweet back and forth to each other. I liked that idea, but for some reason I couldn't figure out how to set up different usernames, so I used the single @rathacat account I had established.

How then to distinguish the character tweets from my personal posts? I began by simply adding a short, attention-getting preface. First I tried “RathaTweets” , then “ClanCatTweets”, but neither had the unique quality I wanted. Everyone else tweeted. I wanted my cat characters to do something different.

Chirping Cats?

Cats, both large and small, make many other sounds other than the traditional meow, purr, growl, or hiss. Cheetahs, on which which the Named are partially based, make a chirping sound to call their young. Well, chirping is like tweeting, so my preface word became “ClanCatChirps”,which then got shortened to “ClanChirps”. Not perfect, but good enough to start with.

The first Chirp appeared at 12:39 AM, August 26, 2008. Sheila was tweeting about raising monarch butterfly caterpillars and how to deal with their excreta. Ratha made a typical feline suggestion, which was to her caterpillars to use a litterbox. After that, the Chirps tumbled out.

ClanChirps - Fessran says "I'll bet getting Courage to the printer was more work than herding three-horns!" 06:57 PM August 26, 2008 from TwitBin

ClanChirps - Bira says "Yes, cats can chirp. Ask any cheetah." 07:02 PM August 26, 2008 from TwitBin

The early ClanChirps varied a bit, but finally I settled into a format using the preface, a dash, the character's name followed by a colon, and then the speaker's dialog, indicated by quotes. This was an variation on screenplay format, but it worked.

Example:

ClanChirps – Ratha: “Yarrrr! Chirp!”

It quickly became evident that the Named weren't going to confine their remarks to their own world or their own experiences. Here's Ratha's opinion of her biological classification in the human world.

ClanChirps - Ratha says "Nimravid? Yarrr, I look like a cat, I walk like a cat, I smell like a cat, I sound like a cat, so I am a cat!" 09:49 PM August 26, 2008 from TwitBin

Here's a brief and abortive experiment in Twit-dapting an early chapter of Ratha's Courage.

ClanChirps - Ashon (from Ratha's Courage). "Ok, you face-tailed thing. You ARE going to back up. Quit throwing mud at me!" Splat... 10:41 AM August 31, 2008 from web

ClanChirps - Ratha, watching Ashon and the face-tail, thinking, "If he gets scared and backs down, we may lose a good herding student." 11:32 AM August 31, 2008 from web

Maybe I should have continued in that way, but the Named got distracted by a human event, the 2008 Labor Day weekend. Discussion began about the exchange of virtual food (cookies), and moved to speculation about the clan's ability to hold a celebratory barbecue. Thakur provided a suggestion for barbecue sauce, but Fessran quickly took the lead.

ClanChirps - Fessran and the Firekeepers are digging a barbecue pit. They'll put green twigs over it, and hot coals underneath. 01:56 PM August 31, 2008 from web

ClanChirps - Fessran: "Fireekeepers, bring more wood to the pit and be careful you don't fall in. We don't want to bbq you!" 03:51 PM September 01, 2008 from web

As blogged in the Scratching Log, the Named clan cats began chirping about anything and everything, even venturing into the human world of holidays and politics. ( see “ClanChirps – Ratha on Twitter” - http://www.rathascourage.com/2008/10/clanchirps-ratha-on-twitter_07.html). From random snacky comments to Sheila Ruth and other Twitter users, and more snarky remarks to each other, the clan set out exploring the strange world of Twitter.

I wondered how far I should let the clan cats wander from the established “cannon” of the printed Ratha books and stories, but the Named gang had already made their decision. They wanted to interact with the human world. Ratha made that clear with the first Chirp about Sheila's butterflies. I could only follow where she and the others led.

Encouraged by the fact that people on Twitter enjoyed these exchanges, I decided to do something more elaborate. To publicize Ratha's Courage, I began a little prequel to the book in dialog. In order to make more sense, I blocked the chirps in sequences. Sometimes as few as two appeared together, sometimes six or even eight.

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Here's a description of the first Twitter story from The Scratching Log blog's“ClanChirps – Ratha on Twitter” posts

The Chirps also include a little ongoing tale, done in dialog, which is a prequel to Ratha's Courage. Featuring Bundi, from Clan Ground, and Mishanti, from Ratha and Thistle-Chaser, this little Twitter-playlet relates how the rumblers (indrotheres) Grunt and Belch came to be among the clan's herdbeasts and how they got their names. Composed directly on Twitter, this Named Twit-improv (Twitprov?) is coming directly from the kitty's mouth, so to speak, and not even the author knows what the Named will do or say next.”

This time, since this Twitter play introduced Ratha's Courage, the Miocene mob stayed within their setting and time.

In order to help orient readers who were unfamiliar with the series, (and encourage them to actually read the books!) some Chirps included links, especially at the beginning. For example, this first story tweet named the character and linked to the book where he first appeared.

ClanChirps-Bundi (Clan Ground, http://tinyurl.com/5t4y2l ):"Those poor rumbler babies are starving." 10:51 AM September 03, 2008 from web.

Here is Mishanti, warning Bundi to be careful while getting a threehorn milch-doe from the herd to provide milk for the rumbler babies:

ClanChirps- Mishanti: "Not get kicked in head, else you talk like me and Thistle. Kicked in furry butt, maybe OK." 10:18 PM September 04, 2008 from web

The tale got interrupted by several very “non-canon” escapades where the cats assumed the ability to teleport through time and peer into human activities, including the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and, of course, the 2008 Presidential election.

See The Scratching Log post, “The Named Are Being Twits Again”

http://www.rathascourage.com/2008/11/the-named-are-being-twits-again.html

The tale did not so much end as wobble to a finish, but this Chirp helped bring it to a close.

ClanChirps - Thakur: "You can keep Grunt and Belch, and the milch-doe. You do have to take proper care of the deer, and I will check on that."12:13 PM Dec 11th, 2008 from web

So, the Named had gotten their paws wet in the Twitter stream. Both they and their fans on Twitter wanted more.

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Then, this email started me thinking.  It contained an idea from Jaqueline Simmonds, of Beagle Bay, the distributor for Imaginator Press.

From Sheila Ruth, 1/21/2009

"I also wanted to pass along a suggestion from Jacqueline for you to think about. She loves the idea of the ClanChirps, but was wondering if it would be possible for you to come up with a story with a little more "hook" - something that would draw people in who haven't read the series and get them interested."

Another phenomenon that impelled me was the growing popularity of cellphone novels, which were hot in Japan

I began thinking about this. First, decisions. Continue in the ClanChirps format, which was dialog only, or blend the Chirps in with some description? Should I try straight narration? I noticed that some authors who were using narrative chose first person (the “I”) seemed to have more Twitter followers and that those who worked in other modes weren't quite as successful. Seeing comments that indicated that readers were getting confused and dropping out of twitted tales made me look for reasons and I found them.

Readers said that multiple characters and multiple viewpoints made it difficult to follow what was going on, especially when they got one or two tweets per day. They lost track of who was saying what, and which events and description applied to which people. By using the screenplay-like format, grouping Tweets in blocks, and keeping to a regular timed twice-a-day schedule (12 noon and 6 PM), I had avoided many pitfalls.

However, much of the richness in the Ratha books comes from narrative and description, which the ClanChirps couldn't easily sustain. The idea of a longer piece was to provide a taste of the series, encouraging more people to read the books. It had to be narrative. For some reason I did not even consider using first person. Perhaps it was because the series uses standard third-person limited viewpoint for clarity, venturing only into a “pseudo first-person” to give a glimpse into a mind that was very different than that of the conscious Named. I had done that with Quiet Hunter in Ratha's Challenge, and Night-who-eats-Stars in Ratha's Courage, but it was a very intense mode, to be used sparingly.

So the pieces began falling into place. The Twitter fiction would read like the books, or as close as possible, given the 140 character limitation. The number of main players would have to be severely limited, to make events clear. I decided to go with one clan-cat viewpoint character and concentrate on that individual's experiences and reactions.

That choice imposed some story restrictions. I could not have a complex plot, with a lot of antagonist-protagonist and subsidiary character interactions, without risking confusion. The story would have to be simpler, involving one Named cat off by themselves, trying to explore or do something that would intrigue a reader's interest. What would that something be?

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Several ideas and themes came into play. One involved flight. I have been a student pilot and greatly enjoyed it until I ran out of time and money. I had used that background to invent a type of ride-able flying animal, the “aronans” of my novel People of the Sky

I was playing with the concept of a society of bat-winged cheetah-like big cats in a book proposal for a new series. A flying animal the size of a big cat would have to attain a high take-off speed, and cheetahs can hit 70 mph, which is faster than the take-off speed of some light aircraft. Cheetahs are also lightly built and have deep chests. A cheetah-like creature could develop a keel-bone to anchor flight muscles I had great fun developing the creature's structure, lifestyle, society, etc. and building its world, but, unfortunately, the proposal itself didn't fly.

The “Ratha's Creatures” posts in my Scratching Log blog (link) described various Miocene animals the clan either used or encountered. All had been mammals. Because my stepson was raising poultry, and a young friend of mine was taking a class on hawks, I decided to explore Miocene birds, specifically the birds of prey. Did hawks and eagles exist 20 million years ago? I researched the subject, and found that indeed their ancestors did.

Raptors also include vultures and other carrior-eaters. I knew about the giant vultures (Teratornis) found in the LaBrea Tarpits. I was also peripherally aware of a new discovery called Agentavis magnifens, vulture-like bird approaching the size of a Cessna 152 (link). It also belonged to the teratorn family. I became more intrigued with Argentavis,especially when I discovered that it had ancestors in the Miocene, and some fossil evidence showed that the ancestors may have been even larger than Argentavis itself.

 

 

Argentavis compared in size to a human

 

Thistle-chaser Airlines?

OK, I wanted to use this bird in the Named Twitter fiction. An idea bit me and I followed it. What if one of the clan-cats, say, for instance, Thistle-chaser, encountered a young giant teratorn that was abandoned and starving. What if she took care of the bird, raised it, and learned that it was so big that should could ride on it as it flew? Perhaps she could even figure out how to direct it. Thistle-chaser Airlines! It would be a large and unexpected jump in the biological technology of the Named, and great fun to work with.

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Before I could run with that concept, however, another idea pounced on me, demanding attention. This involved evolution; more specifically, alternate evolution. By creating the Named and their society I had already begun exploring a what-if, which was, "What if conscious awareness and sapience arose in a big cat?" Now I began to investigate another what-if, which was, "What if there was a place on earth where creatures had arisen from six-legged rather than four-legged forms (i.e.hexapod ancestors rather than quadripedal ones) "? What if one of the Named got there and encountered these animals?

Still another idea ambushed me. One of my readers is a visually-challenged fan who offered to help me if I ever wanted to do a Ratha story about a clan cub who was born blind. She has actually role-played a limited-vision character on the Ratha forum, and has done a wonderful job, using her own experience and perceptions. (link) It would be a fun opportunity, and could offer a very unique perspective.

I decided to run some ideas by Sheila Ruth, so I sent her an email describing both the Thistle-tames-giant-bird idea and the blind-clan-cub idea. Sheila gave me some good feedback. She wasn't all that fond of the Thistle-tames-giant-bird concept. To her it seemed far-fetched, even for Thistle-chaser. As presented, it didn't offer that much of a story opportunity.

She liked the blind-cub concept better, but pointed out that Erin Hunter's Warrior Cat series had introduced a blind clan-cat character, and we risked being accused of stealing their idea if we went with it. She did say that my enthusiasm for flying would enliven whatever I wrote and that she encouraged me to include it.

None of her comments actually excluded the previous ideas, but prompted me to re-evaluate them.

I still had the Named-clan-cat-on-hexapod-animal-island concept, and decided to explore that before settling on either one of the others, or coming up with an entirely new idea.

I decided that the clan cat had to be Ratha herself. Much as I enjoy writing about Thistle-chaser, Ratha is the star of the series, the best known, and the one I knew best.

Since I like to be as accurate as I can in depicting the animals of the Named world, based on fossils, and there was absolutely no fossil evidence to suggest that a hexapodal evolutionary line ever existed on earth, I had a bit of a quandry. Was this concept even feasible. I thought for awhile and decided that even if there was no evidence that it actually happened, there was nothing to say it couldn't have.

There were no fossils indicating that any of earth's mammals had been hexapodal, but it sure worked well for insects, who are in numbers, the dominant species on the planet. I also ran across an article suggesting that a prehistoric fish might have walked on the ocean bottom using three pairs of fins. So the concept wasn't impossible. Suppose such creatures had existed in a place where their fossils were wiped out by a natural disaster, so that we couldn't discover them? Suppose their homeland suffered volcanic eruption and earthquake, sinking so deeply beneath the sea that we know nothing about it?

Such a scenario suggested a large island. Isolated habitats such as islands often send evolution in strange and wonderful directions. Perhaps some unknown hexapodal ancestors reached a large island and gave rise to a very different branch of evolution, the way the marsupials did in South America and Australia.

Having a line with six-limbed ancestors is great fun for creature-building. In a hexapod evolutionary sequence, one or more pairs of walking limbs can transform into other appendages, such as arms or wings. Hexapod ancestors can generate centauroids (two arms, four legs) winged tetrapods (winged mammals and four-legged birds) winged bipeds (arms, legs and wings), and many other combinations.

Of course, one of the winged tetrapods could be cheetah-like cat.

So here were the ingredients for a nifty tale: 1) A Named clan cat flying on the back of a giant vulture or condor-like bird. 2) Being taken by the bird to an island where evolution generated a hexapod-based fauna. 3) Discovering the various island creatures through the clan-cat's perceptions.

That, however, couldn't be all. Yes, it would be great fun finding all these strange creatures, but there had to be something more to the story. Well, one could make it an "individual against nature" tale, with the clan cat having to cope with an earthquake and volcanic eruption, as well as everyday survival. I decided to go with that until something better suggested itself.

For three and a half days in mid-February, I sat on my bed with a writing-pad. I began with notes. What if this happened? What if that happened? Snatches of description and dialog. Sequences of events. Critically, how would Ratha get aboard the giant teratorn and fly to the island?

I did more research to make the idea plausible. Some teratorn features suggested that the giant birds weren't just scavengers; they may have hunted, and snatched prey off the ground as hawks and eagles do. Indeed, some reconstructions of Argentavis showed it with an eagle-like fully feathered head instead of bare skin, like that of a vulture. Experiments with wind-tunneling an Argentavis model, and observations of soaring birds suggested that, with a headwind and an elevated launching site, the giant teratorn could lift off from the ground, perhaps even while clutching prey.

The first scene laid itself out. The Named herding their beasts in a meadow as a storm approaches. A great teratorn circles beneath the clouds, making the clan cats nervous. The cubs help to get the restive creatures to shelter under the trees. A three-horn fawn breaks away from the herd and a clan-cub chases it.The bird swoops to grab the cub and Ratha attacks to defend it. In the fight, Ratha frees the cub, but the bird grabs her and flies away.

Other scenes in "note narrative" followed, answering questions such as how could Ratha escape from the bird's claws up to its back, where she could control its flight? How much control would she really have? And so on.

The first draft was largely in "note-narrative" form, and finished in a day. The next draft, taking on more pure narrative form, took another two days. A bit cross-eyed at this point, I typed the first part it into my word processor, saved it, and took a break, letting it cool off before re-reading it. Later, I looked it over, liked it, and decided to email it to Sheila. Her response encouraged me to continue.

Since the story looked promising, we began emailing each other about more practical aspects, such as when would the tale start on Twitter, so that we could announce and generate publicity for it. I continued to write the story and send it to Sheila.

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Now came the challenging part, which was “Twitterizing” the tale. The first step was to take what I had written so far and cast each sentence into the 140-character format. We also decided to make use of Twitter's search tag function. These “hashtags” as they are known, mark tweets so that a search will list all tweets with the tag. Putting a “#” before any word or phrase turns it into a hashtag. I first noticed these during the 2008 US Presidential election, when #obama and #mcain became prominent tags.

Sheila and I decided to use “#rathafic” to mark the story posts. Since the tag eats up some of the 140 character allotment, we tried to make it as short as possible. Even with the short tag, the characters available for story posts shrank to 130, making the task harder. The posts would look like this:

“#rathafic_First sentence of the story.”

The editing process was a bit different from that used in tightening up a draft manuscript. Instead of a limiting word-count on the overall piece, each sentence had to be tightened and tuned. There were no strict limits on the number of sentences, although neither I nor the audience wanted the tale to drag out.

So I scrutinized each sentence for excess baggage, sloppy construction, passive voice, and other unnecessary verbiage. Long sentences divided into two or three small ones. Sometimes two short sentences became one, which was re-divided so that part went on the next line. Here's an example:

Original sentence:

 

"Bristlemanes and night-howlers might tear into the the belly of their prey while it was still standing, but the Named stuck to kill and waited until death stilled struggle and suffering."

 

Sheila, who was helping me edit, flagged this sentence as way too long. And it had a misspelled word. "Stuck" should have been "struck".

 

We used large colored type and comments bracketed in asterisks to tell each other about the changes we were suggesting.

Here's the sentence as it appeared in a very late draft (we went through drafts 4a to 4m, so there were quite a few).

 

Bristlemanes and night-howlers might tear into the the belly of their prey while it was still standing.

 

The Named ***struck***to kill and waited until death stilled struggle and suffering.***I took out “but” and split this into two sentences.***

 

However, if each sentence was an individual tweet, the narrative became too choppy. It needed variable length sentences to make it read more easily, and convey a sense of style.

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Another example: From this early version (posts weren't in blocks):

"From a distance Ratha recognized the little female. She was one of the best of Thakur's cub students.

Her boldness and dedication reminded Ratha of herself, when she trained under Thakur. Boldness, however, wasn't the best idea right now.

"Leave the creature!" Ratha yowled. "Follow Ashon!" The cub, however, was too focused on the three-horn fawn.

Ratha knew that instinct had locked the youngster on her quarry.

Nothing would make the cub break away unless someone knocked her down. The really good Named herders had that one vulnerability."

To this:

"Block 14

#rathafic From a distance Ratha recognized the little female. She was one of the best of Thakur's cub students.

#rathafic Her boldness and dedication reminded Ratha of herself, when she had trained under Thakur.

#rathafic Boldness, however, wasn't the best idea right now. "Leave the creature!" Ratha yowled. "Follow Ashon!"

Block 15

#rathafic The cub, however, was too focused on the three-horn fawn. Ratha knew that instinct had locked the youngster on her quarry.

#rathafic Nothing would make the cub break away unless someone knocked her down. The really good Named herders had that one vulnerability."

 

These examples show how one can work within a 130 character limit to create an exciting, easy to read tale. Since Twitter allowed clickable links in posts, I decided to give readers some of the research background on the tale by adding links to webpages describing various prehistoric animals or other items in the story. Another hashtag, “#rathalink”, announced those. Noticing that Twittered fiction posts tended to get lost in the Twitstream, I decided to make them more prominent by 1. scheduling them at set times twice a day, 2. announcing the upcoming posts starting a half-hour before they appeared, 3 arranging the posts in blocks of 3-5 per set (later 6-10 per set at reader request), and appending one or more #rathalink posts. The number of posts were limited to a maximum of 10-12, and often less to avoid clogging the Twitter tubes. We also decided to create a story accumulation page, so that readers who came late could orient themselves and enjoy the story. This wasn't new – many other authors had done it.

Now all I had to do was make sure the posts appeared on schedule and were duly logged on the Ratha's Island story compilation page.  For a month!

But we did it, and I hope you enjoyed this peek into the workings of a writer's (and publisher's ) minds when challenged by the new medium of Twitter. 

"Tweet!  Yarrrrrr....."