Writing Fiction On Twitter: Meet John Wray's Citizen

by Esther Zuckerman

Greetings. I’m going to be tweeting for a while about the misadventures of ‘Citizen’, a character who was cut from my novel, Lowboy.less than a minute ago via web

John Wray

So began novelist John Wray’s great, strange experiment in Twitter narrative, which last weekend attracted the notice of the New York Times. Started nearly two years ago, the project is still going — not a novel exactly, but some new form of serial storytelling. In 2009, Citizen woke up in the apartment of a dentist; in 2011, he found a condom, a coffee mug and a discarded math book on the street. On St. Patty’s Day he was passed by a “hooligan in an acid green wig” wearing an especially grotesque t-shirt.

For what is a highly personal medium, Wray’s approach to Twitter is mostly impersonal. If he does happen to tweet as himself and “let the mask slip” — as he put it in an email — he’ll eventually delete the post. In his feed, there are few hashtags, few links and no mentions of the misadventures of Charlie Sheen, Rebecca Black or Wray himself.

I met up with him at the Flying Saucer Cafe in Brooklyn to discuss the project. Here, in Wray’s own words, is a history of his… Twovel?

On the project’s origins:
When my last novel came out [my publisher] rigorously suggested that I start a Facebook account and a Twitter page. Since I always do what they tell me, I said “okay.” I set up my Facebook page in a pretty standard way, although I really never post on it. I’ve never kept a diary ever in my life, essentially because it always depressed me to just kind of look at the minutiae of my day, and I had the same feeling a few times that I tried to do a status update on Facebook. Like, you know, “time to get new high tops,” “that Charlie Sheen, what a nut.” All of that stuff just kind of bummed me out, so on Facebook I don’t really do that, I just parasitize other people’s YouTube links and stuff. The same held true for Twitter. Frankly, I didn’t want to tweet about myself so I decided I was going to try and do some kind of fiction project.

I had this character I’d felt close to in my last novel Lowboy, but who ended up being extraneous to that novel. I saw some potential in him. I wanted a character who would clearly be fictional, but also would be close enough to me at least in age and background and demographic that if I wanted to give an opinion, to crack a joke essentially as me on Twitter, I could just put the words in his mouth. This character Citizen seemed to fit the bill pretty well. He’s come a long way and changed quite a bit from the role that he originally played in the novel.

I’ve lost my edge, Citizen realized. I’m completely edge-free. Which means, mathematically speaking, that I’m infinite.less than a minute ago via web

John Wray

What to call it:
It’s not really a novel, it’s not really a story. I don’t know exactly what to call it. Eventually someone will come up with some Internet-appropriate term for it, like a Twovel or something. People don’t know what to call it and there are so few of them out there it seems that I guess there’s no great need to come up with a name.

The term ‘Twitter novel’ is problematic because it functions very differently from a novel; it functions very differently from a story; it functions very differently from a prose poem or a paragraph. I think one reason why so many early attempts to write a long-form fiction project in Twitter have tanked is that people trying to write them simply transposed what they knew about writing a novel or a short story into Twitter form. They didn’t think of it as a distinct medium, a distinct genre. It does have very different requirements, in my opinion. What I tried to do when I started out, and what I’ve stuck to pretty much because it seems to work, is viewing each tweet as something that both advances the story and is self-contained. I think of each tweet as a set up and a punch line — whether or not it’s a comic tweet. Most of them tend to be because it’s fun to make jokes, and certainly the most successful people on Twitter in my opinion by far are the comedians. I’m a big fan of Sarah Silverman and Tim and Eric and Louis C.K. and all sorts of people. I’ve found that the story of Citizen has become more playful and more comedic as it has evolved.

Where it’s going:
I’ve had different ideas about that at different times. I haven’t actually tweeted that often, the total number of tweets is only — right now I think it’s 120. That was because after an initial kind of excitement about it I just became distracted by other things, but recently over the last month I’ve been getting back into it again, I’m not exactly sure why. I think my friend Colson Whitehead, who’s a very, very savvy and entertaining um, um — what’s the name for someone who tweets again? There’s a new name, isn’t there? It’s a terrible word — anyway, let’s say, person using Twitter, is just clearly having a lot of fun with it. He’s doing something very different with his Twitter page, but seeing what a success he’s made of it kind of lit a fire under my ass a little bit. I’m not sure whether a project on Twitter that doesn’t promote me as a personality first and foremost has the same potential as what he and other people are doing. It’s probably always going to be for a specialized audience, but who knows? There does seem to be a correlation between how often a person has tweeted and how many people are paying attention, but then again I don’t really want to overdo it.

His new band was derivative of a band that was based on a band that had ripped off a band that had once, long ago, had one regrettable idea.less than a minute ago via web

John Wray

Wray has gone months without tweeting and then jumped right back into the story.
That’s a way in which it’s slightly different from both an online diary, the way many people use Twitter, and a novel or a fiction project that might be made more difficult by taking long periods off. To me, in a way the Citizen storyline is almost like a video game like Grand Theft Auto or something. If you pause the game you can go away indefinitely and then you come back to a certain situation, a certain set of conditions that apply and you just kind of reactivate your avatar and keep moving. I don’t know why I think of it that way, but it seems to work that way. Unlike my novels, I actually have no idea where the storyline is going and that’s what I like about it.

Yesterday, my girlfriend was harassed by some drunken cheese dicks on the street. I immediately thought, “well the next tweet I do — he’s on the street anything can come his way — how about some [guy] in a St. Patty’s Day t-shirt with green beer foam on his chin.” So in a way, when I want to, I can acknowledge what’s happening in real time in the story. I’ve considered having Citizen comment on other things that are happening in pop culture and so on, but in general I try not to do that because I don’t want to get too close to what other people are doing on Twitter or people to say, “oh Citizen is just John, that’s just him calling himself that” because that’s not really what I wanted to do. But occasionally something comes along. I really am trying to be playful with it and not try to make too many rules for myself.

Wray uses typical Twitter style sparingly. He has hashtagged twice — once #FatBoys and once #Drake.
That was a very deliberate experiment to see whether, for example when hashtagging Drake, particularly since it was a diss, I was curious as to whether some Drake fans would be like “fuck you” or send me some hostile messages, but I guess Drake really is so soft that his fans don’t exact retribution.

Now he’ll kill me.

He also, obviously, has to work within 140 characters.
The extreme restriction that it places — or I should say I think a better way of putting it is — the extreme economy that that requires of a writer. That is one of the most beneficial things from a literary standpoint of the whole Twitter set up, because it really forces you to consider what’s necessary and what’s not in a given line of writing. The novel that I’m working on is huge and sprawling, and the fact that Twitter’s format is so diametrically opposed to that, it’s actually very healthy for me to realize how much you can say in a very small space. That said 140 characters really is outrageously constricting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a really good entry that was 180 or 176 or 168. 140 is just, that’s designed for basically two sentences, and I usually find that the twist that I want to get into my tweets is best served by three sentences and it’s very hard to fit three sentences into a tweet. Especially because I decided from the very beginning that I was going to write in complete sentences and I wasn’t going to use any lols or omgs.

There’s always a temptation to get rid of an apostrophe or use yr instead of your, but at the beginning I decided that I wanted something that made no stylistic compromises. And it turns out you can do it with a little bit of attention and care.

Citizen had two thoughts looking down at the condom: 1 what a waste those things only get used once. 2 I am destined for a life of solitude.less than a minute ago via web

John Wray

If someone were to start following Wray on Twitter today he or she would be dropped right in the middle of the Citizen story, but, as Wray explained, it’s not necessary to read the entire narrative to get caught up.
I think one of the successful things about the way I’m trying to do it is that that’s really up to them. The situation is really so straightforward: Citizen is just kind of a peculiar eccentric character who is wandering around a city that may or may not be New York and at times he seems little bit like someone you might want to go sing karaoke with, at times he seems really creepy and the sort of person you’d cross the street to avoid. I like not really coming down on one side or the other and the idea of people forming their own opinion. But really that’s the whole situation. Odd young man on the loose in the city, that’s all it is. And I think you get that in one or two tweets, and as I said I hope that most tweets are entertaining or at least intriguing on their own. So of course I think it would be fun for someone to go back and start at the beginning or anywhere because there are some tweets I’m pretty proud of earlier on that I would like people to read. It’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure. You could almost read it backward.

Wray will riff on the same topic or keep Citizen in the same scenario for repeated tweets.
If there’s a subject or a situation or a scene that seems fertile I try not to rush through it. I don’t feel the need to change the scene every day, because frankly nobody’s following it that closely. They are getting these tweets in the middle of a bunch of tweets about the future of e-books or about Charlie Sheen. They probably don’t really remember what happened the day before so that gives me a certain freedom to really stir the pot if I feel like it.

Besides the lessons of working in a highly constrained format, Twitter has taught Wray about “improvisation, really, and spontaneity.”
I once asked Haruki Murakami about his process of writing and he made me helplessly jealous by saying, “I get up early in the morning I put on a ’50s bebop record and I just don’t know myself what’s going to come out that day, I have no idea where my stories are going.” I don’t think that I could write an actual novel that way, but I have tried to put that into practice when writing Citizen’s story, it’s worked really well. It’s been really fun and liberating.

Though Wray has made the conscious decision not to Tweet about himself, there are elements of his personality that are in Citizen.
In so far as he’s connected to me, I guess he’d be more of a caricature. Basically the things that he goes on his little rants about, the things that he hates, like dreamcatchers and Uggs and Drake, are actually things that annoy me. So in that regard he’s a lot like me, but his more self-destructive side or his more paranoid side I hope is not like me at least in my normal chemical state.

I try to keep it free form enough that if something is on my mind that I think it could be entertaining and I think it could potentially fit into the aspect of me that is reflected in Citizen’s character, I have the flexibility to work that in. Because in writing a novel, you know, what you happen to be thinking about that day is not necessarily appropriate to work in there, so I definitely like the idea that if I want to go on a little rant about the end of the world or something that I can have Citizen do that for me.

Esther Zuckerman is a writer and student. Her tweets are not fictional.