Technology & the writer

No, I’m not going to be waxing mouth-foamingly lyrical here about the latest obscure math-rock band to emerge from Akron, Ohio (although the title of this blog would make a good math-rock band name and yes, there IS such a genre of music – Google it) – instead, I’ll be talking about how technology, specifically the advent of the internet, has helped writers, both aspiring and established, to get themselves and their work ‘out there’.

And, let’s face it, it IS considerably easier to get noticed and send your work out to potential publishers and magazines these days. Some of my regular readers here may know that I once ran and edited a paper-based music fanzine called FRACtured in the late eighties/early nineties, a mere twenty or so years ago.  In its metamorphosis from contacting authors and reviewers, typing up submissions, getting in touch with record companies and such, to final printed magazine, all the communications were done the slow way. It’s hard to imagine for many today, but back then, the technological landscape was very different – computers were barely out of their electronic nappies (diapers to my American friends), certainly PCs were noticeable by their very scarcity (and they were probably relatively expensive and only businesses could afford them then) and the World-Wide Web was still only a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. The main forms of long-distance communication were the telephone (the cumbersome, desk-bound variety – personal and affordable mobile phones were still far in the future) and the humble hand-written or typed letter. And that was practically it (disregarding faxes and telegrams and the like).

What did that mean for writers? Firstly, they had to type out their entire manuscripts (let’s not even get into second/third drafts or rewrites), Tippex correction fluid at the ready, and, when they’d done so, send the typed pages off, in an envelope with sufficient return postage, to the prospective publisher/mag, along with a cover letter. (Some publishers still do this, even today – TTA Press [Interzone/Black Static], for example). THEN, the would-be author simply had to wait until either a large envelope dropped onto their doormat several weeks/months later (meaning it had been rejected and returned) or a smaller one (which meant the story had been accepted – there may even have been a cheque enclosed). Quite a process eh? Involving a lot of time, effort and money, in some cases. One can easily imagine frustration being a constant companion and it wouldn’t be too hard to extrapolate from the foregoing that many just simply gave up after a few attempts – one wonders just how many good writers there would have been had not the process been so tiresome and tedious.

These days, it’s a different story. Write up your story on the computer, in an application like Word, make changes/corrections as you go along, and save it onto your hard-drive. In your breaks between writing, log onto the internet, research places where they might possibly publish your work, note down their email address, and then fire off a quick message, attaching the file to it. Press send. Bits, bytes and all that malarky instantaneously drop into the publisher’s inbox. Sit back, open a cold one, and wait.

Far simpler and quicker, n’est-ce pas? Indubitably, yes, but one still has to wait. Communications can now be done in real-time, however – no longer the routine of receiving a letter, answering it, sending it back and then waiting for the next reply to arrive. Using up a lot of time and pennies for stamps. An editor can now send you a reply, discuss issues, edits and all that gubbins while you consume your coffee and croissant these days at the local internet cafe. And, as a bonus, you can now advertise your latest acceptance to all your friends and fans via the social networking website of your choice just before you pay your bill, too.

Beyond that, of course, there are now dedicated writer’s internet-only sites and forums to which people can submit their literary efforts. Writer’s advice sites, too, as well as agents and publishers now exist on the web. Addtionally, internet companies have  come into existence which help you to publish your own work in book form, cutting out all that difficult bit in between. Add into the mixture the recent phenomenon of blogging and twittering – the writer’s potential reach is enormous. In other words, the world and his misses is now much closer to us all, and it’s a damn sight easier to get your work where you want it to be – in the public eye.

But there is, as always, a downside to the spread and democratisation of technology  – quality control, or lack of it. Just about anyone can set up a website of their own and upload their material to it. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s any good or not, it’s still entered the public domain, for everyone to scrutinise. This can be seen as a both a GOOD thing, AND as a BAD thing. It’s gratifying that people are able to reach out to others, but it can also promote mediocrity. It’s the X-Factor/Pop Idol syndrome at work, possibly – everybody seems to want to be famous (because it’s their RIGHT, apparently), without necessarily having to go through the hard grind to get there. I think the internet encourages that mentality – ‘If I put my work up on a website, someone’ll notice me and track me down to offer me a contract straightaway’. It MIGHT happen, but the probability is that it won’t.

There ARE sites, or so I am led to understand, that will publish whatever gets sent to them, regardless of quality –  a submission here doesn’t help a writer (at least if they write for something other than fun) develop their craft. I would state the opposite is more likely to happen – a writer could develop a false idea of their how good or otherwise their work is. Before anyone think anything, however, I don’t necessarily disagree with places like that – if you just like to write for pleasure, or if seeing your work online brings a smile to your face, then they’re ideal. Writers with serious intentions should just be wary of them, that’s all I am saying. Research is absolutely key here.

It’s simply a case of matching the needs of your goals to the technology available, and then utilising it effectively in order to fulfil them. But as several people have pointed out to me, talent still has to be there to begin with. The measuring rod of whether you have that requisite quality can only come by submitting to publishers and magazines, and gauging their reactions. Asking those outside the circle of family and friends to read and critique your work also helps form an impression of how good/bad your writing is and what you need to do to improve it (networking is very important in this respect). Accepting constructive criticism is absolutely necessary here. If you are indeed serious about your writing, then you will find the best way of getting the ‘net to work for you.

When all is said and done, though, the most important part of writing is actually doing it. Seadily developing your craft and sharpening what’s already there, and always continuing to learn. If you marry that talent with some judicious research, there’s every chance that you’ll get to the place you envisage for yourself.

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