I’m working on Faulkner. That text is an argument but also a description of a situation and a history of its context.
Working, I’ve discovered that links can lie.
The jump from one thing to the next can suggest a logical connection between the things without specifying it. And the lacunae can be masked by the page change and clever writing.
Definitely a temptation to avoid.
The flip side of this: any page text will likely be (should be!) the target of multiple links, each suggesting a different logical relationship with that text. So specifying the nature of a connection can be hard.
This is a follow-up to my post about front-of-the-manual tools in Eastgate’s Tinderbox. It explains how I make the in-text links I discussed there. Because it’s sometimes easier to see things done than to read about it, I’m also including a couple of short screen cap videos. I don’t often post videos and have a spotty record with them. The ones here look like black boxes to me…but they play. If they don’t for you, please let me know by email or Twitter.
Links Within the Same Tab
In-text links within the same tab are pretty straightforward. You simply:
select the anchor text;
click the link button in the text viewer;
drag the button’s link animation to another note;
click “create link” in the pop-up that appears.
The video shows what it looks like in practice. (It also shows how to assign a prototype and how I change the badge of an agenda item to a check mark once it is dealt with in a meeting.)
With these links in place, you can move from the meeting container to an agenda item’s note with a single click.
Links Across Different Tabs
Links across tabs are made in roughly the same way although there are a couple extra steps that allow you to find the note you are looking for. To make these links, you:
select the anchor text;
click the link button in the text viewer;
drag the button’s link animation to the link placeholder in the upper left corner of the window;
click the tab that has the note you wish to link to;
drag the link animation from the link placeholder to a note;
click “create link” in the pop-up that appears.
Here’s what is looks like in practice:
This example also shows the reason I link from meeting containers to agenda items (i.e. what I demonstrate in the first video). In the future when I need refer to information from this meeting I will link to the meeting container and not the specific note I need. Doing so will bring me to an agenda that lets me access the specific information I’m looking for by using the blue links. But it also provides an overview of the context in which the information originally appeared and lets me click to see that information if I decide it’s useful to me.
Finally, if you don’t have multiple tabs open but wish to link to a note that is not visible in your outline, that’s no problem. Once you’ve dragged your link from the source note to the placeholder, you can dig around and find your destination note. Once you do, you drag the link from the placeholder and finish the process.
In-text Links and Maps
These in-text links show up on maps. Because my admin file has many more links than notes, these links often confuse things rather than clarify them in map view. In my course plan, I deal with this problem by using the inspector to make all but one link type invisible. When I think a particular link will add something to a map, I assign it the visible type using the drop-down menu on the create link pop-up window.
Deleting Accidental Links
I make mistakes when I create in-text links. When this happens I hit opt-cmd-L to pull up the “Browse Links” pop-up for the note, find my mistaken link, delete it and then try again.
Links to Files & to the Web
I also create links to files in my dropbox (frequently) and to sites on the web (rarely). These links are held in key attributes for a note. I make them by dragging and dropping the file from a finder window (or the url from my browser) onto the attribute’s field at the top of the note viewer.
A Tinderbox file is like sculpture. You chip away at your project—first here, then there—slowly digging to find the shape of your specific problem and its logic.
It can seem hard because there are a lot of tools at hand. Some of them are complicated. And, in a sense, you are all alone: other people aren’t doing what you are doing and the Tinderbox files they use in their work are very different from the files you need for yours. So even when they offer advice, they can’t really tell you what to do. Not really.
My tendency is to assume that work would be easier if I could just master the complicated tools at the back of the manual. Yet, I find (and too often forget) that Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools—links and aliases for example—are flexible and powerful enough to work wonders. To show what I mean (and to remind myself when I’ll have forgotten in a couple months), I’ve prepared a mock-up of the TBX file I’m using to do my administrative work.
A lot of administration boils down to managing meetings and reports. So when I created my file, I simply started adding container notes for for each of my upcoming meetings.
Notes for agenda items are placed in the meeting container; the container text is a typed copy of the agenda with in-text links to individual item notes. Basic, non-hierarchical prototypes set “File” as a key attribute allowing me to link to the pdfs of supporting documents that I have stored in the Finder. [note]These pdf files sit in a work specific section of my hard drive that has a stable, date-based filing system so that links to the document files won’t be broken accidentally by moving the file to a new location. Topical organization is done in Tinderbox, not the Finder.[/note]
As more meetings are added to the file, material discussed in earlier meeting often appears on agendas for later ones. Each time it does I link from that later meeting’s agenda item back to the container for the earlier meeting and link the earlier meeting’s agenda item to the agenda item note in the later one.
Making these cross-links requires no additional work because I have to go back to my earlier meeting notes when I prepare for the new meeting anyway. I simply make these links when I do. Yet despite being easy to make, their pay-off is huge: these cross-links capture my knowledge of my materials and are are fast and productive in use. When I click, my past work is there, supporting my current work.
Scale & Complexity
Tinderbox allows this very simple system of cross-links to scale easily. In the span of only two months, my TBX file looks something like this:
In one sense, this is pure chaos: dozens of different meetings and projects spread across three different organizational units (each kept open as a tab), all of which subdivide into numerous other units. It’s overwhelming. And yet, woven through the noise is a system of links creating sensible paths through the confusion.
Aliases supplement these links by letting me keep a note in the container for it’s original meeting while simultaneously placing it in the container for a new meeting. This allows me to access relevant material both through in-text cross-links as well as through the outline, where I can click on aliases directly.
More importantly, these links and aliases lower the bar for beginning to work on otherwise daunting tasks. When I have something to do or something to prepare, I click on the note for that thing and begin to work my links. I follow them, add to them, do what I can, skip over what I can’t and bit-by-bit I manage to chip away at the task at hand. And the notes, links and aliases I build up preserve the work I do. It’s a powerful system.
But Tinderbox…So Attributes & Agents
In my actual working file, the linking strategy I’ve described is fundamental. Yet once I had a few hundred notes, I saw that some info would serve me better if I moved it to user attributes that I then set to key attributes by prototypes so that I could see it easily. (Committee membership for people, for example.)
Then I had an idea and added a keyword attribute, making it a set. I then went through all my notes assigning keywords, adding new ones when I need them, selecting them from the dropdown menu when I could. This took some time, but I was shocked by how many notes took no keywords, shocked by how many notes weren’t important enough to merit keywords. (That counts as an insight.)
And then I created a few simple agents with a single query: $keyword=(“[one of my keywords]”) to pull out and group topical notes. This is the first complicated difficult thing I do in my Tinderbox file. Up to this point, everything else has been basic “create file, drag and drop, make alias or make a link” file-managment type stuff, most of it done in outline mode. Those links and aliases are still there and still fundamental, but these topical groupings added something new and useful.
So this is a long post, but my point, I guess, is that I’m drawn to back-of-the-manual tools. They are fancy, impressive, and seem to be where the action is. But Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools are the action too. Links and aliases make sense, are easy to use, and they can do great things, especially in cases where you’re bombarded with information and just need to keep your head above water while you figure out how to move forward.
I’m making an online presentation of the argument and research from my dissertation, but I don’t want to create an ordinary web site in the sense of a menu or search driven collection of resources. Instead, I want to offer something that someone could actually read and that, as they move from page to page, unfolds only aspects of the story that are of interest to them.
Despite what I’ll say below, things are going well and I’m excited. I have a third (maybe a bit more) of the thing done and the way I’m working is already very different from what I planned and imagined as I began: it seems that there’s life in the beast and so I’m letting it show me what to work on and when. I’ve also accepted that this is an experiment, everything’s new to me, and whatever I might dream up, things are not going to be perfect if I ever want to finish.
Things I’ve Noticed
How do I decide to link: I imagine the questions people will ask as they read then link to the answer. Rinse, repeat.
I’m cutting texts to the size of the screen and adapting language to multiple audiences. This changes the originally academic prose drastically. There are still deep places where academic guts are exposed and the language rumbles along with the mannered rhythms of a conference paper. Those who are interested will find these places easily enough. But hopefully, it will be just as easy for others to read Faulkner’s story in engaging prose without ever visiting these places. If I pull this double-language off, I will be very very happy.
Scale matters. Without enough “nodes” in play, links feel like icing, like an add-on. Once enough nodes are in play though, links serve a purpose and feel essential, like a line thrown out and tied off to keep loose things whole. With enough nodes in play, I have a standard for deciding what works and what doesn’t: does this link keep things from breaking or my head above water? Good. Then, what about this one? When I start asking these questions, a lot of my small-scale, links-to-have-links are deleted.
When linking materials, the complexity eventually settles down, becomes clear and “flows.” But only after a cruel march through spirit-crushing complication. How do I know things are right? A jumble of material suddenly runs like water through a system of canals. How do I know I’m not quite there? Things that used to make sense have become so complicated and confused I’m ready to throw in the towel. It’s brutal.
Words have momentum and writing words in a hypertext is as involved and as intimate as drafting and revising words for printed text. It takes time and effort and attention to detail. I hadn’t expected this and in an act of pure insanity chose to resurrect 100,000 words that I thought I was done with and had stashed away years ago. This too is brutal, and when I’m done, I’m staking the dissertation and scattering the ashes.
I don’t actually care if anyone reads all the pieces of this thing, which surprises me. I want people to read what interests them, to find what they need, maybe something unexpected, and then when they are satisfied, to leave. I imagine myself creating possibilities for useful partial readings, and that feels like a better way to write (which is another surprise).
The Topic: William Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays
My dissertation and the hypertext are about William Faulkner’s screenwriting during his first Hollywood contract at MGM Studios.
Faulkner’s reputation is based upon his novels and short stories, but he wrote in Hollywood for more than twenty years. That first year is special though. He was learning the ropes, and to do so, he adapted his own fiction for the screen, something he rarely attempted again and never with such commitment.
My dissertation looks at how Faulkner changed his source stories in response to Hollywood storytelling conventions and emerging censorship. And because he returned to and used these same stories when writing subsequent fiction, I also indicate the ways these adaptations produce important changes in his style that critics associate with his later works.
Mark Bernstein asks some basic questions of craft as he tries to write a hypertext page turner. Now, I don’t know Bernstein so it’s probably presumptuous for me to chime in on this and also foolish given how little I know of the hypertexts that have been written in the past twenty years or so. I’m also not a fiction writer. [note]As context, I’ve read only a few things that are available online. These include: Luminous Airplanes, “Changed,” Letters from Ireland, and My Body. Truth be told, these things are so different from each other, I’m not even sure which of them others might call hypertexts.[/note]
But I do know a fair bit about traditional poetics and am interested in the problem. So I’m going to take a risk and share a few thoughts and ideas I’ve come up with as I’ve made my first stab at writing an argumentative hypertext, a different but I think oddly analogous task. [note]In my hypertext, I’ve been working without the benefit of anything other than ordinary web links. So all of what I say here arises from coping with the situation where a reader can easily go anywhere in the hypertext regardless of what they’ve read or not. There are no gateways to cross.[/note]
In a rough way, I think a page-turning plot (or argument) is one that creates a desire to know. But it is also a plot that delays or frustrates that desire in a measured, carefully paced, and pleasurable way. Hypertexts create a problem for telling these kinds of stories because they pass control of sequence and, to an extent, narrative focus off to the reader. How do you elicit desire to understand or create suspense without controlling what readers know and when?
I have three ideas.
“Why?” or “How?” may be more powerful than “What next?”
Mysteries, one of the most heavily plotted, page-turning genres around, introduce the corpse early and spend the rest of their time working to figure out what happened before the book began (i.e. when the victim was still alive). By the same token, three narratives that I have begun to think of as “proto-hypertexts”–Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and Absalom, Absalom!— all begin with the ending of the story. In each case, the narrative is driven by a desire to know why or how something happened rather than what will happen next. And the only way to find out is to get mixed up in and explore the stories of various standers-by. (Something similar happens in the otherwise very different Pale Fire, although it is less ferociously plotted.)
I think this same trick–starting with the end and working backwards–is suited to hypertext plotting.
We may desire most those things we can’t have
All three of my proto-hypertexts abstain from presenting the protagonist’s story except insofar as it is revealed through the smaller-scale “mini-plots” of the characters caught in its wake. All of them enforce this choice by making their protagonists dead before the movie or novel begins. In a sense this places the page-turning story in a black box, making it the only story that the reader can never choose to read, no matter how much they want to. They can only access it through numerous, equally minor stories that cling to its edges, each of which reveals it only partially and (perhaps) with bias.
Bouncing a protagonist’s otherwise inaccessible story off other characters seems like a good way to make readers want to click on links recounting minor characters’ lives.
Saying “no” to readers.
Much of the very limited commentary I’ve read about hypertext celebrates the fact that authorial control recedes and readers “make” or “create” their own reading. This is true in many, many ways. In the various collage, archival or a performance hypertexts that I’ve seen, writers seem to have abdicated authority and simply (!) to have created possibilities to be explored or enacted. Readers are left to experience insight or not, to draw conclusions or not. But there is rarely any “end” to be understood. [note]Except in the frequently occurring case where the text argues implicitly or explicitly the post-modern conceit that author-ity no longer exists. In these cases, there is a point, but not one that needs to be argued.[/note]
Plots and arguments cannot be so open-ended and cannot be left up to the reader; only the choice of which mini-plots they will read in order to understand the story as a whole can be. And because reader choice eliminates the distinction between foreground and background, all of the mini-plots they will choose from have to be written. This includes those mini-plots they will choose to read as well as all of the mini-plots that they will choose not to read! And all of these mini-plots have to, in their own ways, point toward the end we are “turning pages” to discover.
Creating these coordinated options is a lot of writing and a lot of work. To be successful, it seems to me there have to be limits. In fact, I’m tempted to say that the most important question related to plot or argument in a hypertext is going to be “what options are the readers not going to have?” followed closely by “This choice lets the reader get away. How do I close it without seeming to close anything?”
These questions strike me as contrary to the ethos of hypertext as I’ve understood it from the limited commentary I’ve read. I mean really: is there anything more authorial than “Thou Shalt Not!”? And yet, saying “no” seems essential to conveying story.
Is HTML like handwriting or like book printing? I can’t decide.
If it’s like book printing, then writers complete their manuscript and, after it’s edited and polished, send it off to be “published.”
But this seems wrong to me because not being able to layout pages or make links as casually as I jot notes on paper for a post like this one makes me feel like my students trying to handwrite an exam.
My students haven’t really learned how to write efficiently by hand. They keyboard. So anytime they have to write by hand, they are handicapped, and what they write in these situations expresses not what they know or can figure out or can imagine, but instead, what they can write down in the available time.
So here’s the question: if HTML is like handwriting, how do you “learn to write” when you have a real job and real work to do?
What is the book you turn to to learn something more than syntax or to find something more than a dictionary of available commands? Which book says “To make workable, modern pages, you should know this and think of your page (or site) in this way?”
Or is the answer just “Learn DreamWeaver or Flux”?
In my original template, dates and deadlines, kinds of material and their topics, and everything else I needed to know about a note was indicated and organized visually in map view using nested containers, colours screen position, badges, borders and even pattern overlays. This worked well but it also made my maps rigid rather than creative spaces. Every visual element was assigned with little room left to experiment. I’m trying to change this with my template revision my displacing some of this visual information from the map onto other attributes.
Because of how I’ve generated notes using my “wiki view,” my maps start out autogenerated, unadorned and monochromatic.
To begin working with these maps, I simply grouped notes loosely to get a basic sense of flow. This arrangement was ad hoc and changed based on what I was looking at. As I’ve worked and my notes have multiplied, this map has become a challenge to work with and to “see”–but this confusion is useful and generative. So I’ve resisted eliminating it by simply “tidying up” the map.
The one container I have created so far is called “Daily Schedule” and I use its map view to plan activities that have clear start dates or deadlines. But even here I have resisted nesting containers and have tried to move information into non-map attributes: my schedule is now built with overlapping adornments and on-add actions set the $StartDate attribute automatically for aliases dropped on an adornment.
Having working $StartDate data allows me to use timelines, something I couldn’t do before and have barely begun experimenting with.
Boolean Attributes & Agents
In addition to $StartDate, I have created a series of user attributes to carry the information I’d previously stashed in note colour, badges, etc. For example, material types are now stored in $Story, $Film, or $SecondarySource attributes. $OralPresentations and $Assigned attributes criss-cross these and distinguish materials selected for use from those that were simply considered.
All of these attributes are boolean, which is another departure. In my previous template I used mostly sets. For example, I had a $MaterialType attribute that was first a string and then a set. But typos were a hassle and selecting from (or remembering) multiple names for the types I was using was too. Having multiple yes/no attributes (one per type) is easier for me to maintain and keep consistent.
These new boolean attributes also make it easier for me to build agents on-the-fly. Do I need a schedule of oral presentations? Then I create an agent that searches for $OralPresentation as “true” and set it to sort by $StartDate. Am I building a bibliography of supplementary readings and screenings? I create an agent that searches for $Story, $Film and $SecondarySource as “true” and $OralPresentation and $Assigned as “false.”
These agents have a simple syntax and take only moments to create. As a result, I can make them up as I need them even if I need them only for a short time.
Link Types on a Map
Finally, the links on my top-level map have become extensive and they read primarily in terms of density. But I have been thinking about what else they might be made to tell me if I thought of them in terms of link types.
What I’ve realized is that many of these links are simply for navigation, and I don’t need to see them in map view. Others are navigational and also informational insofar as they indicate kinds of materials and the relationships between them. It seems there would be value in assigning these different links different types and then setting them to display differently on the map. Navigation links could be hidden, for example, but links to required and supplementary materials might be presented in different colours.
And in a Note Text…
If link types can be useful in map view, it also seems they ought to be able to differentiate relations between materials in note texts as well. For example, right now link-text colour simply tells me what I’ve clicked on. Knowing instead that a green link leads to an assignment and a blue link leads to reading notes could be very useful. But I suppose this depends on whether I could set up rules or agents to make link-text colour representative of link type. And I don’t know how to do that or even if it’s possible…
The End (for now)
And so this post ends with ideas and speculation and I take that as a sign that my description of my template revision has caught up with my practice and that it’s time to wrap up the series. When the term is further along and I know more about how things have gone, I’ll give an update.
I’ve been thinking about the mismatch between how revolutionary my “wiki view” seems to me and how completely insignificant it appears when I reread my description of it in my last post. When I reread, my take-away is: so I’ve started writing notes…in Tinderbox…”The Tool for Notes”…and… (yawn).
So I’m wondering: what is it about my work that makes writing and navigating notes with links seem so powerful?
The answer I think lies in the way I have been using “course content” to refer to two different things. On the one hand, it is my knowledge of a field, call it literature. On the other, it is all the lectures, activities and assignments I create for my students so that they can practice skills and demonstrate knowledge. The first of these is what I teach; the second, how I teach it.
In order to organize how I teach, I need to sequence course lectures, activities, and assignments so that they fit within the time constraints of a single semester. I also need to manage and track my movement–and my students’ movement–through this sequence. My original template offers me the tools I need to do these things.
Sequence is less important when organizing what I teach. Literature is complex. It operates through language. It organizes itself aesthetically. It is a field of meaning and a history and an etc. When I organize what I teach, I create an interpretation of this complexity pitched at my students.
My “wiki view” creates a word-based system for organizing what I teach that is independent of the graphical representations of sequence that organize how I teach. It allows me to dive into and swim freely through a sea of words. And when I need a breath of sequential air, I know that I can come up to the surface and bob around in map or outline view.
This new freedom to develop what I teach in a way proper to my field is, I think, the revolution I’m feeling.