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March 08, 2006

Reader Request Week 2006 #3: Writers and Technology

Zhwj asks about where writers and technology intersect:

Where do you think writers should be, technology-wise? With your presence on this blog, and your forays into online distribution and publishing, you probably are in the upper .n% of technologically-capable writers. And we don't tend to hear too much these days from writers who insist on pecking things out on an Underwood. What's the minimum technical competence at present? e-mail? online research? regexp formulation? How much does technology help (or hinder) writing? Obviously this will depend subject matter and such, but is it still possible to buy envelopes and stamps and have that be your connection to the publishing world?

Well, strictly speaking, as the vast majority of magazines and book publishers out there in the world demand query/submissions to be mailed in with an SASE, and all but the most bleeding-edge technophile publishers at the very least still accept such queries/submissions, you can indeed still get along with envelopes, stamps and paper. And I doubt that's going to change any time soon.

Indeed, to some extent, rabidly technophile writers are at a disadvantage to more traditional writers. To use myself as an example, it's been so long since I've conducted business using paper that I don't even own a printer anymore, and haven't for about two years now. When documents come that need to be printed out, I forward them to Krissy, who prints them out at work (I understand she pays her work for the cost of the printing) and brings them home. But what this means is that I don't in fact query or send submissions to magazines/publishers who require paper submissions; in effect, I am cutting myself off from that 80% or so of publishing opportunities. Now, personally speaking this is not too much of a problem because at this point in my career work tends to come looking for me rather than the other way around, and people with whom I work are willing to tolerate my "paper is what happens to other people" ways. But a writer who was just starting out or who did not have a professional network akin to my current set of connections would be dumb to do what I do.

(And to be clear, just because this is how my career works today doesn't mean that's how it'll work a year, five years or ten years from now; if it ever comes to a point where I have to get a printer or risk not being able to work as a writer -- duh, I'm buying a printer. I like being on the tech edge of things, but I'm also not stupid about it.)

However, this is only talking about the submissions process. Can writers survive without recent technology in other ways -- such as research, connecting with sources, working with editors and so on? Again the answer is yes... if you live in New York, London, Los Angeles or other places where the cultural infrastructure allows a writer real-world access to these things. If you wish to live somewhere $2000 a month gets you more than a one-bedroom third-floor walk-up, however, you really do need to be connected. To use myself again, I live in a small, rural community with one very small library, hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from the editors with whom I work on a regular basis, and an equal distance from most of the people whom I deal with for interviews, materials and so on. I could not do the non-fiction aspect of my writing career with any sort of facility, living where I do, without today's technology. I could do the fiction aspect of it reasonably well, but even that would be more difficult. This is in fact technology's gift to writers: Now we can live anywhere we wish and still have access to the tools and people that (and who) allow us to be able to do our jobs. Thank you, technology!

Technology does have its drawbacks as well, of course. As I noted at a panel at Boskone, thanks to the advent of the Internet, this is the first era in which a writer's primary tool of output -- the computer -- is now also his primary tool of input. Which is to say the same machine you write your stories on is also the machine from which you get your news, correspondence and entertainment and also (for a growing number of far-flung writers) community. And it's easy to switch between input and output modes -- so easy it becomes a real problem. At one point writing The Ghost Brigades I had to switch off my broadband connection because I was checking e-mail every sixty seconds rather than thinking about what I was writing. Equally, I now make it a point to get up from my computer when I'm plotting story because if I stay in front of the computer, I'll just ego-surf or read other people's blogs. Which doesn't actually help me tell my story. Now, writers have never had a problem procrastinating, ever, so one can't blame technology for this. But one can recognize that technology makes it easier.

One also should recognize that technology shapes writing and writers; the tools one uses matter in one's final product. I have no doubt that my writing is directly informed by the technology I use to write it. I can't imagine trying to write a novel on a typewriter, for example; I realize other people did it -- for a century! -- but then people lived without antibiotics, too, and I don't want that either.

Here's an interesting fact: All my novels to date are first drafts that weren't outlined in advance. Why? Because the computer makes that possible. I can edit on the fly as I write so many of the major tasks of additional drafts of a book (polishing of the text, sanding down plot lines, etc) occur as I go along. The rewriting I've been required to do for my novels (so far, at least) has been minimal because by the time I write "The End," most re-writing has been done as I went along. I suspect it's not accurate to call the draft I send to my editors a "first draft"; it's more of a "fractal draft," in that it incorporates several waves of on-the-fly editing, emanating backward from various points in the text, terminating at the point of completion.

Doing this sort of "fractal draft" would not be impossible on a typewriter (or on a pad of paper), but it would be difficult to the point of distraction, which is why writers did have second, third and subsequent drafts of their work. Drafts are an artifact of the technology. Now, I'm aware that many writers still make two or more drafts even though they use computers, and I won't gainsay them for doing so -- the writing process that works for you is the writing process you should use. But I'm glad I don't have to do that, and I'm glad I work on technology that allows me to write in a manner that is both comfortable and natural to me.

Back to the question of where writers should be with technology: I think if you have a recent computer and a decent Internet connection with e-mail, you're fine -- you've got output and input covered. Most everything else is ancilliary -- possibly useful, possibly distracting, but in either case not absolutely necessary. For example, take blogging: I certainly find it useful, and in general I think it's a great way for writers to stay connected to readers and to fellow writers. But is blogging necessary? No. You can still get along nicely without it, and ultimately, most writers today still do. Or cell phones: Handy little things, to be sure, but I went until a month ago without one and I never had any problems maintaining a writing career, and now that I have a cell phone I don't find it doing much for me as a writer.

Despite all the neat new toys and gadgets, the last critical technology for a writer was the Internet; there may be a new killer app for writers on the horizon, but I'm blind to what it is if it's there. For now, a computer and Internet connection with e-mail are mandatory for writers, technology-wise, and all else is elaboration.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)

Posted by john at March 8, 2006 10:36 AM

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Comments

Kevin Q | March 8, 2006 12:00 PM

My writerly fiancee was having similar procrastination issues from being hooked into the internet, so we got her an older desktop computer just to be used for writing, with no internet connection. She managed to pump out a NaNoWriMo project on it, so it seems to have worked.

K

JonathanMoeller | March 8, 2006 12:42 PM

>>Equally, I now make it a point to get up from my computer when I'm plotting story because if I stay in front of the computer, I'll just ego-surf or read other people's blogs.

Ayuh. Nowadays I have my Internet connection on my desktop, and do all my writing on an un-networked laptop. Cuz I know, from doleful experience, that if I do write on a networked computer, I'll spend all my time goofing off, and if I do get anything done, it'll blow chunks.

John E. | March 8, 2006 01:43 PM

Through high school (class of '88) I wrote my school papers and short stories either by hand (in cursive, which I gather kids aren't really learning these days) or on an electric typewriter with corrasable-bond paper. I did a lot of erasing lines and blowing eraser dust out of the typewriter works--that was my version of today's easy revising on the fly, but of course I still couldn't move whole paragraphs around and so on. Hard to imagine going back.

In college I used a Panasonic word processor, basically a typewriter with a screen and a floppy-disk drive. At least, I used it at the beginning of college: I made the mistake of shipping it home for the summer wrapped in a blanket and stuffed into a cardboard box marked "FRAGILE," so of course it was a loose pile of smashed pieces when it made its way to New York from Chicagoland. After that I borrowed friends' computers, as I recall. I don't think I ever had my own, but as there was no Web to speak of, I wasn't missing much. I didn't do much writing for pleasure after college (aside from the longhand journal I kept from 15 to 26), so I don't think I missed not having anything to write short stories on. Didn't really have a PC at my constant disposal at home until I moved in with my girlfriend in '97 (she became my wife three years later).

I keep meaning to get back into short-story writing at some point, but between marriage, kids, work and the many important TV shows I have to watch, I haven't made the time. Now that technology has advanced to the point that I can send myself brainstorm snippets in real time all day and night on my BlackBerry, maybe the time has come.

Cassie | March 8, 2006 03:17 PM

Here's a sort-of related question for the annual Question-John-a-thon.

Researching sf ideas: I have a work in progress that needs some scientific input. Have you needed it in your writing, and how do you get it?

Jeff Porten | March 9, 2006 06:55 PM

Cassie -- I think the answer is, do your own research first. Most scientists of my acquaintance are *more* than happy to answer questions in their fields, but only after you make it clear that you've done enough homework that you really need to talk to an expert.

What fascinates me about the electronic writing thing is the evidence that novels are getting a lot longer now that they're being done on computers. It's easier to do a 1,000 page novel than it used to be, so people do 1,000 page novels. Then the market drops out for 150 page novels and everyone needs to adapt or self-publish. We went through the writer's equivalent of the switch to talkies, and I don't think we noticed at the time.

zhwj | March 14, 2006 11:25 AM

John - that's a great detailed answer to my question. I asked it, I must admit, in the hopes of getting an answer to the opposite question as well (about how important non-technical stuff remains in publishing these days), and you came through with that, too. Thanks.

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