A tale digitally transmitted

Illustrations: Chris Scicluna

Illustrations: Chris Scicluna

With 100-word episodes hitting the web every week, The Transmissions is writer John Bonello’s latest experiment. He tells Ramona Depares why he opted for digital flash fiction for his latest dystopian saga.

A new kind of local literature is taking the web by storm – literally so, as John Bonello’s latest work, The Transmissions, fully embraces the digital forum we live in by taking an online, serialised format with regular episodes of 100 words.

Bonello, whose published works include the iconic Allat trilogy, this time round focuses his tale around a sinister dystopian setting, with the mysterious man referred to as ‘Left’ taking on the role of narrator.

The writer explains that the intention behind the experiment was that of “combining elements of flash fiction with those of epic sci-fi and fantasy”.

“I think that listening to friends nagging about not having enough time to read, coupled with the popularity of blogging, inspired me to try something new, something that can take life over an invasive medium such as the Internet. I feel it is like re-inventing an approach taken by authors in the 1930s, when printing and publishing was still at its early stages.

“Authors like Juann Mamo and others wrote stories in weekly instalments sold for a penny a piece. To make the experiment much more daring from my point of view, this time round I decided to write this story in English.”

The series is being hosted on, a platform that was created precisely with these kind of narratives in mind, but which also allows the author to mix media formats such as text, graphics, audio and video, like other typical blogging sites. Bonello explains that this format of writing provides an environment where the only limit is the writer’s creativity.

“It is fast and straight to market, where you can build up an audience. It has also provided me with opportunities to collaborate with other creative people – for example, the artwork was created by a talented designer who felt inspired after reading the first two transmissions. And a voice actor offered his talents to give another dimension to the main character in transmission #012,” he says.

Keeping followers constantly engaged requires a lot of thought – and it’s not just limited to the actual content, but even to seemingly trivial details such as what day of the week to post or at what time of day

Of course, the Internet is a fickle place and keeping the attention of readers and followers is vital to the success of the project. Bonello admits that keeping followers constantly engaged requires a lot of thought – and it’s not just limited to the actual content, but even to seemingly trivial details such as what day of the week to post or at what time of day.

“These are all determining factors. But, I have to say, I was overwhelmed by the immediate positive reaction to this experimental story. In just 18 days, I had over 1,400 views and lots of re-commendations. This is one of the advantages of the medium; readers can recommend stories they like to their friends. I was also contacted by other medium artists and editors to collaborate. It’s simply fantastic,” the author says.

And he adds that flash fiction is certainly one way to combat today’s diminishing attention span when it comes to reading, especially in what he calls “today’s smart-device-ridden society”.

“Everywhere you look, you see young and old glued to their smartphone, e-reader or tablet screens and someone with an actual, traditional book has become quite a rarity. We’re so overloaded with information that shorter and shorter pieces of writing become inevitable. For example, even if you’re simply looking for a recipe, you’ll search google and click on the one that promises you can cook it in five simple steps. We want it short, to the point and we want it now.”

The idea, in fact, has been so well-received that it even inspired artist Chris Scicluna to create a distorted view of the city that is the subject of The Transmissions, with an appropriately eerie cloud of smoke in the background. To complement it, Chris also designed a tattoo that plays a role in the story, as well as a logo representing a radio-wave used to send signals over great distances.

Besides the innovative element, one other potential advantage to this format is its flexibility – no plot points are set in stone, until they’re actually uploaded, so to speak. With this in mind, does Bonello already have a clear idea of the direction the story is taking, or is it happening organically as he writes? The answer to that, it would appear, is a mixture of both.

“When the idea first popped up, I drafted a very high level outline of the story, without going into great detail. It was just a general direction where I would like my story to go. But each transmission is being written as I go along, so that I can assimilate feedback from readers and respond to their reactions.”

Finally, why 100 words?

“The wordcount limit was a conscious choice. I wanted each transmission to fit on a smartphone screen so that the reader does not need to scroll and can devote his full attention to the content. It only takes one minute to read a whole transmission.

“The self-imposed limit also means that I go straight to the point, which makes each episode immediate and also intimate, since the main character is speaking in his own voice, from somewhere far, far into a dystopian future where the earth has changed a lot.”

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