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THE GOODS : Techno Tales : It's a brave new world of interactive storytelling as writers turn to CD-ROM. And now's the perfect time to experiment.

July 22, 1994|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VANCOUVER — Meet Christina O'Sullivan. She's a cyberspace junkie from Vancouver who met her Kentucky fiance after playing on-line Scrabble with him for hours every day.

She wants to be a new breed of writer, one who adapts comic books and murder mysteries for CD-ROM.

Then there's Joanne Omang, Washington Post correspondent turned novelist; Canadian feminist writer Candas Dorsey; William Gibson, a science fiction writer with a cult following, and Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier."

They are among several hundred writers who gathered this summer on Granville Island, a warehouse district turned art village in the heart of Vancouver, for a three-day retreat on the new world of multimedia and interactive technology.

The breadth and eclecticism of the group that responded to a call sent out to millions over the Internet was a sign of the broadening impact of a digital technology that allows voice, images and text to be merged, stored and sent over telephone lines with increasing ease. Some writers were already riding the new wave; others wanted to know how to catch it.

The answers that emerged from the retreat were inspiring and somewhat intimidating: The combination of increasingly powerful telephone networks and powerful multimedia computers will create huge opportunities. But writers may have to become producers--as comfortable juggling images and sound as they are with text--or lose control of their work.

Mark Schlicting explains. He is the creator of Broderbund Software's successful Living Books line of interactive CD-ROM children's titles. "The way we work with writers," he says, "we give you the story and characters. You write the dialogue, help us with the plot. You are part of a production team.

"If you want ownership," Schlicting said, "you have to do it yourself."

That's what Schlicting did six years ago when, disappointed with the quality of California schools and surprised by the absence of computer software for children, he came up with the idea for Living Books. He got himself hired as creative director for the series at the Novato-based educational software company Broderbund, where he comes up with the ideas and writes many of the books.

Greg Roach, a former theater director who produces interactive movies for CD-ROM in Seattle, says the multimedia world is far more accessible than the world of film.

"Hollywood is like an alien planet. You have to take a spaceship there and beg to be let in," Roach said.

"Using one of these boxes," he said, pointing to a computer, "you can be Hollywood in your spare bedroom. Now is the perfect time to experiment, to play, to jump in. An unknown can emerge as a superstar."

Experts say the window may not remain open for long. Today, movie producers and book publishers are throwing money at multimedia projects eager to gain market share with more CD-ROM titles. That money could dry up quickly, they warn, if the ventures prove unprofitable.

Jobs are still scarce and not necessarily lucrative. Jim Colbert, an advertising copywriter who recently finished an interactive children's book for Electronic Arts, says writers might get paid about $1,000 for a treatment and about $20,000 for writing a full story and dialogue. Projects involve heavy interaction with artists and musicians and can take eight months or more to complete. "If you aren't careful, you can end up getting 29 cents an hour."

Novices seem eager to give it a try. James Tichener, 24, comes from a family of film producers and has been making films since age 12. He is a writer for a fantasy series showing on Canadian television. But he likes the idea of working in smaller groups allowed by multimedia projects. "You can have four people with four sets of ideas working together. It's very cool."

Jennifer Mitton, a Vancouver teacher who has written a short novel in French for young adults, is interested in using the new medium to help kids learn French.

Established fiction writers are also taking a close look at the new technology.

"My agent is dubious. My husband said I'm wasting my time," said Joanne Omang, who was at the Washington Post for 18 years and worked in Latin America as the paper's first woman foreign correspondent before quitting in 1991 to write her first novel. "But I find it exciting; I feel like I did with my first novel."

Omang envisions writing a novel that takes place on the Internet. "People reveal themselves to strangers in unconscious prose that is often very beautiful," Omang said. "You could have a novel that looks like a forum." But while she is excited by the idea of an interactive novel that would allow readers to choose from one of several paths through a narrative, she admits that she is still stumped about how to do it.

Omang and others agree that the most suited form for interactive novels may be detective stories and romances that are already formulaic.

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