Friday, July 9, 2010

On Technology and the Writer

I don’t know if I could write if it weren’t for computers. Words flow through my finger tips much more quickly on the keyboard than they do on paper. In fact, other than some childhood attempts at storytelling, I didn’t start writing fiction until two years after I bought my first PC. I’m on my fourth desktop computer now. On the downside, I can’t write very easily if I don’t have access to a computer. I can make notes or scribble comments on a printed out draft, but I am not able to produce anything new. Does that make me less committed than those who still pen entire novels on legal pads?

Editing is hardly a breeze, but it is both more inspiring and much easier to read a clean copy than one covered in scrawls. At the same time, editors and agents can more readily demand revisions. Is an expectation of perfection the price we pay for wordprocessing?

Of course, the computer has all but ruined the credibility of that favorite plot twist of the loss of the only copy of someone’s 500 page handwritten manuscript (as with Michael Douglas’s character in the 2000 film “Wonder Boys.”) It’s become as an anachronistic as the bad guy cutting the phone wires, thus destroying our protagonist’s only access to outside communication. Nor are we likely to feel as sympathetic toward the writer who doesn’t back up his work.

Would I have even bothered with the year of the aforementioned “Wonder Boys” if it weren’t for instant access to the Internet? The library of song lyrics, ideas for character names (including names common in other countries along with their meanings), dates when certain buildings were built, descriptions of religions, and countless other facts and speculations is mind-boggling.

Nevertheless, I still have shelves full of books that I’ve used as background material for my novels. I am more impatient when I search the web for information. If what I want doesn’t turn up in the first couple of pages of a Google search, with maybe a couple of different choices of key words, I give up. The other day, I couldn’t easily find a particular recording artist’s top 10 hits for a particular year, so I turned to my Billboard reference book.

We can take writing courses on-line and never meet our teachers our fellow students who are critiquing our work. We can send a copy of our manuscript to friends and colleagues (and people with whom we’ve become “pen pals” on-line), and receive back “track changes.” Our circle of acquaintances, of people who share our passions and interests, is broader through blogs and social networking. I emailed a published writer who was writing about the same kind of thing that I was, and miraculously, she replied. I read her novel just after it was published and wrote a short review for her; in return, she read and commented on my novel draft—all of it perhaps possible in the days of snail mail, but much simpler in cyberspace. Writing does not have to be the solitary activity it once was when there is a worldwide community of other writers accessible to us.

Theoretically, the submission process should be easier, too. We can research appropriate agents, follow the links to books and authors they’ve helped published, examine sample query letters, and even send many of our queries on-line.

So the next logical question is, what about the novel itself? Are the days of the paper version numbered? Is the novel doomed to a life of binary code, or will it, like my beloved reference books, continue to hold its own despite or perhaps because of all this technology?

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