Cybermountain logo

<--Word Circuits ---->Information about CyberMountain Colloquium and the corresponding MOO

The Eight Minute Test Drive: Hooking readers in and persuading them to drive for the long haul

Deena Larsen

I have just finished listening to an expert on chairs on NPR disclosed that most car manufacturers design their drivers seats to be comfortable for about eight minutes--the average time of a test drive. This struck me as completely off the wall, because most folks out in the western US have to drive at least half an hour to simply get across town--or in many cases, to get to a grocery store. We should be designing for actual uses--which means for hours at a stretch--rather than the first impression.

Then I got it. No. The car manufacturers have it right, and I have it wrong. When I write, I concentrate almost completely on the long haul. I somehow expect my readers will become so involved tha tthey will spend hours upon years with this stuff--ferreting out all the intricate connections and structures. I suspect other hypertext writers do the same, as I have never really liked a hypertext in eight minutes. (Aside 1) Hypertexts simply take a lot of reading time, digging out intricate passwords, finding arcane connections, learning how to read word symphonies. I confess. I have to force myself to read other works. In regular bookstores and libraries, I give myself a test drive of about 30 seconds per novel. I open up a page at random. If I don't get caught up in the language and the characters in that time, having to know what comes next, then I don't get the book. And yet there are about 30 books on my bedroom shelf right now that I want to read. I read about a book a week--more if I can spare the time. There are hundreds more on my wish list. Yet if I gave myself even eight minute test drive minutes with a hypertext, I wouldn't read any.

I hear many voices in the background saying, yes, but if you really wanted to read hypertext you would simply agree to spend years with the work. Just as you would spend years learning mediaeval Italian if you really wanted to read Dante, or years learning Assembler, C++, JAVA if you really wanted to write hypertexts. I honestly don't hear that many at the opposite extreme, that linear writers do not have to write their own word processing programs (or even spelling, grammar, plot or character checkers). (Aside 2) Or even that programmers have to write their own novels or games to relax a little.

Wait. Wait. Wait. All of these extremes are just plain silly. And what is even more silly is the underlying assumption that these extremes are mutually exclusive. Yes, I have to spend more than 30 seconds to enjoy a novel. But still, I should be able to decide in about 8 minutes whether or not I'm going to LIKE this hypertext. Yes, I need to learn some basic programming so that I can at least talk to folks and explain what I want to do. But still, I should be able to create what I want without having to create the entire infrastructure needed to do it.

What we need here is a range. The car seat designers have it half-right--that first test drive is crucial. The goal is to sell cars--and thus drivers should be able to relax and get comfortable in the drivers seat, and thus want to buy the car in about eight minutes. By the same token, if the goal is to sell hypertexts then readers should be able to understand what the thing is about and have a good time in about 30 seconds. (Aside 3)

But the car seat designers have it half-wrong--that long haul is just as crucial. People need to rely on the car seat remaining comfortable when they drive for long distances. Hypertexts need to have the depth and breadth and intricacy to capture serious readers, willing to spend a great deal of time on one hypertext.

I have tried to design Stone Moons, my hypertext novel about a mother struggling to save her autistic daughter from Social Services and the Moon, so that I have both the 30 second hook and the long haul drive. I would like to "test drive" Stone Moons at CyberMountain. I want to know if the structure is apparent at the outset, if people understand what is going on and can relate to the characters quickly. I also want to find out if the depth and breadth is too much, not enough, etc. to convey the story.

I am looking forward to discussing ways we can develop effective 30 second hooks and large, complex structures--at the same time. Further, I want to continue the discussions from the hypertext conferences, Technology Platforms for 21rst Century Literature, online, etc. and determine ways that we can coordinate and collaborate so that programmers don't have to write their own novels, and writers don't have to write their own assembler code.


Aside 1) I would really like to extend this to other hypertext writers, as this has been a common plaint in our musings about where the readers could possibly be hiding. But I will restrict myself here, and let you draw your own necessary connections from your experiences. (back)

Aside 2) However, I have to wonder how manyhypertext writers mutter these things to themselves--especially after the program commits link-o-cide the night before a presentation, or when you find you simply can't get there from here with any software. Period. (back)

Aside 3). Yes. 30 seconds. This is more time than we give to tv channels when surfing, more time than we give to initial web pages. This is a serious commitment here. (back)