What If This Entry Had Never Been Written?

In September 2002, I left home for the first time to study at the University of the West of Scotland. After matriculation, I met a fellow student called Billy, and we decided to head to the student union. In those days, you received your first student loan tranche by cheque on matriculation day, then the rest by bank transfer at the start of each term.

As Billy and I passed my bank, I realised I’d forgotten to pick up said cheque. I had two main options:

  1. Head back to the university, collect it, then join him later.
  2. Continue to the union and collect it later or the next day.

I chose the first. I don’t recall taking too long, but when I arrived at the union, I couldn’t find Billy. In fact, I never saw him again. I don’t know why we didn’t swap phone numbers at the bank.

But what if I’d chosen the second option? We might have had a few drinks then went our separate ways, or we might have become firm friends and been inseparable for the rest of our respective courses.

This decision therefore created a point of diversions where one sequence of events happened because of an action, and another sequence of events didn’t happen thanks to the same action. In real life, we can’t know what might have occurred if the other decision were made, but we can make logical assumptions in fiction to produce an alternative narrative.

Sliding Doors
Sliding Doors (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most famous example might be the 1998 film Sliding Doors. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Helen Quilley catches a train in one narrative, but misses the train in the other. This creates two parallel but separate universes where two stories play out.

The technique also works in novels. In Fatherland, Robert Harris explores what might have happened in the event of a German win at the end of World War II. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling imagines that Charles Babbage completed his eponymous machine and began the computer revolution much earlier than it actually happened.

I have unpublished novels that use the same alternative history technique: in one, men are extinct by the 26th century; in another, the petrol engine isn’t invented until 1999. I’m editing a third at the moment that takes the Sliding Doors approach towards the end. I’ve had to work out a way to show this without confusing the reader, and my current solution is to label the chapters so there will be one Chapter 13, followed by a Chapter 14A then a Chapter 14B.

Will it work? Only time will tell.

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Alt.Format.

Last year, I joined a Life Writing class at the University of Dundee. One week, the tutor asked us to make mood boards to represent the themes of our writing. I didn’t look forward to this at all. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I’m not naturally gifted in visual expression.

But having consulted an artist for advice, I acquired materials from a nearby recycling plant, and pieces gradually fell into place. This task led to a short exhibition at the University where most of the class displayed their boards, with explanatory text and a personal story alongside each one.

The mood board in question
In the mood

My mood board came to be titled Bubble Memory, constructed of a 35mm slide holder with buttons and other found materials in each pocket. The photograph shows how it was displayed in the exhibition, which closed on Friday of last week, although we are in talks to extend it. Despite my initial dread, I was pleased with the all-round results.

This is not the first time I’ve experimented with alternative formats. Text-based artist Gerry O’Brien was also a member of the Life Writing class, and submitted a piece of homework on a thumb drive. It contained a PowerPoint presentation that told the story of meeting a man from Honduras in text, interspersed with photographs. The presentation runs automatically at a slow savoury pace, allowing the viewer to absorb every detail.

Inspired by this, another class member created a similar project, speaking about the dolls she makes and collects. And inspired by both their achievements, I converted an existing poem of mine into the format, but with no pictures and no audio. The text is displayed to the reader at approximately the speed I would speak it, but there is freedom on their part to imagine the emphasis and inflections.

I started experimenting with formats a couple of years ago when I took part in the Sketchbook Project at Brooklyn Art Library. I broke down one of my short stories into fragments of one or two sentences, then converted each fragment to a QR code. This is a square barcode that can be read by many mobile devices. When it’s scanned, the device shows the fragment of text.

I then glued each of these codes into the sketchbook in the right order to tell the story, and sent it back to the Library. It was then scanned and placed online, while the original sketchbook was taken on a tour around America. This is the finished sketchbook. The following year, I submitted an apology for the artwork in that first book.

I don’t think I will ever move completely away from text on paper, but the occasional piece in another format or another medium can engage the reader in a different way. I’ll leave you with the story of the world’s first hypertext novels, a form that would be challenging to reproduce on paper.