The ultimate enhanced e-book

Inspiration the first: I’m a great fan of Tolkien, though many things in his works grate. I have all the volumes of the History of Middle-Earth except the Index volume (!), and it’s fascinating to see how his works and mythologies grow and change, draft by draft, in a great web of manuscripts and typescripts, rewritten and emended and amended and clashing against each other.

Inspiration the second: There’s an enhanced e-book of A Game of Thrones, the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. (Which is a series that kicks ass so much the ass splits like a pinata.) “Enhanced” means here a character-tracking map and a few clips from the audiobook.

Result: Modern technology is capable of more than the Game enhanced book. What would be the ultimate enhanced e-book, showing more of the creation of the work than Tolkien’s drafts ever could, would be this.

Have the author use a special program to write the book. (I hear some people don’t use computers to write. This sounds unspeakably perverse to me.) Have the program time and note every single change to the work; every keypress, every cut and paste, every edit and search-and-replace, every editorial red mark. Then, when the book is ready, shove all this data — which will be a manageable amount, today — into a shell, an explorer, and bundle it with the e-book.

Then, you can see a timeline of how the book grew. You can see the moment the first sentence was written, and how after five minutes of thought it was erased and a different one written in instead. You can see where characters and scenes entered the work, and how quickly. You can see which chapters came easy, and which took time. (And most probably you can’t tell the difference by the finished work.) You can, if you so want, run the timeline (speeded up, of course), and watch how the work opened, how the work grew and how corrections polished it. Not in a handful of drafts, but in versions as many as the key-presses made by the author.

That would be, in youth parlance, awesomely geeky and geekily awesome.

Note the first: Well, this would not be awesome if you’re of the school that books spring whole arcane and perfect from some holy place of high art — but hey, I’ve read John Scalzi’s blog for years, I’ve written a few amateurish novels, I find books by authors about writing interesting; I’m not inclined to be religious about this.

Note the second: Probably would be good to keep it as mere text — a webcam video of 200 hours of Jim Butcher making faces at the screen would not be all that thrilling. Plus the writer would find that intrusive, no doubt.

Note the third: Not that anyone’s going to go all a-coding inspired by this post, but which writer would I like to see produce something like this? I think Neal Stephenson would be a great fit, being both a technology person and a maker of quite detailed novels. Or Charles Stross, god, provided you put his browser history into it. (I was more than a bit shocked to see a documentary about the lake Issyk-Kul on the TV yesterday. What, that’s a real place now? It’s scary how little he makes up.)

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