Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A novel idea using e-mail

A novel idea using e-mailMonday, March 28, 2005James F. SweeneyPlain Dealer ReporterPicking up a novel can be hard. It's the start of hours of commitment with no guarantee of satisfaction. And an unfinished novel sits on the nightstand, a daily rebuke.Whereas opening e-mail is easy. Many of us read dozens of them a day with no more effort than it takes to click a mouse.So why not combine the two?That's what Toronto screenwriter Michael Betcherman and California journalist David Diamond have done with "The Daughters of Freya," apparently the first novel to be delivered to readers as e-mail.It can't be found in bookstores, and a traditional print-and-paper version of the mystery doesn't exist. Instead, readers order it online and receive three to four e-mails a day (99 in all) for 3½ weeks.

Each e-mail takes no more than a minute or two to read. Some contain links to fictitious magazine or newspaper articles or pictures of some characters.The novel is not only delivered in e-mail; it's written in that form. The entire story is told in e-mails between the characters. Each day's clump of e-mails ends on a cliffhanger, which tantalizes readers who cannot read ahead to solve the mystery.Betcherman said he and Diamond, old friends who'd kept in touch via e-mail, first got the idea of writing a book in e-mails, but a friend suggested they deliver it that way as well. It made sense to Betcherman.E-books are not new. Stephen King launched the first, "Riding the Bullet," in 2000. While he sold more than 500,000 copies, rampant piracy marred the debut. The form has come a long way since then but still requires downloading large blocks of text into computers or PDAs, which can be tiring to read. People are used to reading short e-mails, though."The medium and the form of the story are one. People use the Internet in the way they're accustomed to," Betcherman said.He said nearly 1,000 "copies" have been sold since the fall at a cost of $7.49 apiece.

He said he and Diamond are looking at it as a business model. They might hire other writers to write e-mail e-books in other genres."I think there is a big future to it," Betcherman said."The Daughters of Freya" is a mystery about an investigative reporter looking into a sex cult in San Francisco.The authors do a good job of keeping true to the form they've chosen. The e-mails read like real e-mails, not literature forced into an artificial form. There are no lengthy descriptions of sunsets or characters' looks. But, despite the creative use of a BlackBerry during the novel's climax, the limitations of e-mail make it hard to convey action or description.And that's the drawback to the form. A good novel absorbs the reader. The characters, the settings and the plot become real.While a competent mystery, "The Daughters of Freya" never achieves that intimacy. The reader is a passive viewer of e-mails between characters and so remains at an emotional distance. A cult member is murdered? The investigative reporter is in danger? Ho hum.In the end, the difference between "The Daughters of Freya" and a traditional novel is the difference between an e-mail and a handwritten letter from a friend. The electronic version is faster and easier but, ultimately, less satisfying.For more information about "The Daughters of Freya," go to www.emailmystery.com.

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