Writers Ask Writers: Writing In The Digital Age

Today, Annabel Smith is publishing her exciting new novel The Ark: a dystopian tale about the breakdown of society in the face of an environmental disaster. Sounds interesting, right? But this isn’t an ordinary publication. Alongside the eBook and physical book, Annabel is releasing an interactive app to enhance the reading experience. She’s even encouraging readers to contribute to the story on the book’s website.

The Ark couldn’t have been published without the digital age. In celebration of Annabel’s pioneering book, the Writers Ask Writers gang (including our newest member Yvette Walker – welcome Yvette!) are exploring what it’s like to write at this time in history. Is this new world a good place for authors?

Writers Ask Writers

Into the future…

“With freedom comes great responsibility” – Eleanor Roosevelt

There’s no doubt that the digital age has changed writing. It’s altered the way we communicate. It’s offered us a way of broadcasting and recording our thoughts and daily lives. It’s also removed many of the traditional barriers to publication, giving many people the freedom to share their work. As established authors, it’s also offered us many new ways to connect with readers and the publishing industry. In this post, I’ll explore some of these advances, and ask whether they are completely good things for writing professionals.

Preserving our pasts

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Blogs, tweets and facebook posts: they preserve and share our thoughts in a way that was once only possible in a diary or letter.  We’re sharing our thoughts not only with friends and strangers, but also with our future selves. I recently downloaded an app called Time Hop, which allows me to see what photos I took and what I posted on social media up to eight years ago, when I started sharing such information. This week eight years ago was my 21st birthday party: I know because the above image popped up in my app yesterday. But these momentous events are easy to remember. The moments I cherish in the app are the ones I’ve forgotten: the everyday things I was doing this time last year when I was starting my new life in Jakarta, or five years ago when I was visiting my boyfriend in Australia (I never came home).

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Many argue that preserving our lives in this way is dangerous. Once we’ve sent something out, it’s there forever, saved in some server or on a ‘cloud’, waiting for a future employer to discover. There are definitely risks we need to be wary of. But as someone who has always been a recorder – what else is a writer, after all? – I love that I have a trail of breadcrumbs to remind me of who I was and how much I’ve changed.

The road to publication just got shorter…

What does this new communicative environment mean for professional writers? It shakes up the traditional order of things: it means that the floodgates are open not only to those who are ‘accepted’ but also to those who just want to share. This is a great thing: the ultimate freedom of speech. Reaching an audience doesn’t rely on ‘other powers’ any more: one person can do the job of creating, designing and distributing their work themselves. This video explores some of those ideas in a really interesting way.

But is this total freedom always a good thing? I know from experience that without the feedback of my agent and editor, my writing only comes from me. I need this outside influence and critique: without it, I have no idea whether my ideas are clearly expressed, or indeed whether I even know what they are. I think there will always be a place for it in the traditional publishing realm.

I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism. – Charles Schwab

Journalists and working for free…

In the Media world, digital advancement has been damaging to writers. Many people are now happy to provide free blog content on new stories – and often these commentaries are detailed and well written. Where does that leave the staff writers who want to make a living from their words? Hardly any major newspapers can afford to have teams of staff in many different hubs around the world any more. They rely on freelancers, who are paid for what they produce. In dangerous areas, this also removes the pressure from news organizations in terms of the safety of their staff. Freelancers take the risks, and as photojournalist Denby Fawcett wrote in August:

“There will always be young reporters who want to cover wars. I know. I was one of them.”

My new book explores some of these ideas across the second half of the twentieth century.

Connecting with readers

For fiction writers, the digital age offers great opportunity to connect with readers, both of our own books, and in general. Being physically so far away from the UK, the internet has proved a bit of a lifeline for me: it’s allowed me to stay in touch with both the publication process and the ongoing publishing world. I get most of my book recommendations from Twitter, and I’m able to chat with readers who have questions about How To Be A Good Wife.

I’m also able to plan in-person book tours, for those rare times I am back in the UK. This summer, I planned my Indie Book Crawl from Jakarta, emailing all the bookshops directly to ask them if it was okay to stop by. This level of speedy communication simply would not have been possible without the internet. Once I was on the tour, I was also able to share my journey via social media, and give a visual sense of each of the shops I visited and shop owners I met.

BOOK-ISH CRICKHOWELL (SIGN)

I was also able to design my own website for How To Be A Good Wife (this one!), which encourages readers to weigh up the evidence and learn more about the themes of the book. This was a way to keep the momentum for the novel going when I was too far away to do any author visits. The internet makes everyone an entrepreneur. I was able to teach myself website design relatively easily through You Tube videos. That kind of knowledge simply wasn’t available easily before.

It’s not going away…

I think that the digital world we live in shows no sign of slowing down. It offers freedom to share, communicate and preserve our ideas. With this freedom – to quote Eleanor Roosevelt – comes great responsibility. We need to censor our own content, and to preserve the industries that have spent centuries building up the skills required to filter and improve writing. Without that, there are no distinctions and no accountability. Without criticism, there is nothing that makes us strive to be better.

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” – Albert Camus

So, what do the other members of the Writers Ask Writers gang think of the Digital Age?

Annabel Smith – ‘I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to create a work which is at the cutting edge of publishing.’

Dawn Barker – ‘The biggest challenge for me as a writer in the digital age is finding the balance between the benefits of the internet and social media, and the endless distraction’

Sara Foster – ‘When I become one of the billions of consumers of internet content, I can have a dozen moments of connection and disconnection in a single minute’

Natasha Lester – ‘I’ve come full circle to become an author who views the digital age with excitement’

Amanda Curtin – ‘Online research complements all the other kinds of research I do, and sometimes makes the impossible possible.’

Yvette Walker – ‘I don’t see myself as a content provider. I still prefer to be called a writer’

And just as importantly – what do you think?  Please leave a comment below about your experiences of writing in the digital age…

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