It may seem strange to say it, but once upon a time, the book used to be a fine piece of cutting-edge tech. Suddenly, when humans learned how to slice trees really thinly and then put those thin slices back together again, humanity took huge leaps forward. Was it humanity’s first technological revolution? Perhaps, but in the midst of the mad rush to get all of these tales and facts spoken and whispered down the ages, the modern book was born.
And so it has stayed that way, pretty much unchanged. A paperback from your bricks-and-mortar bookshop today doesn’t look wildly different from how it would have done had it been printed hundreds of years ago.
But the process of how that book was put together is a completely different landscape now. Similar to movies, the final product may be slicker and crisper than a few decades before, but when it comes to the production stage, the creator has at their fingertips more options and flexibility than ever before. Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of another technology revolution, one that we must navigate until it all evens out.
Because, as it stands, the luddites still awkwardly rub shoulders with the pioneers. There are authors out there who stick to good old pen and paper, from planning to writing, leaving the creating of the digital manuscript to their poor editor. Even some of the old guard who have begrudgingly moved on still stick to an outmoded fashion: George R.R. Martin famously does all of his writing on a Wordstar 4.0. So next time you’re enjoying an adventure in Westeros, remember it all started in a wall of text that looks like DOS.
There’s no doubting that computers now offer a huge number of helpful tools to the aspiring writer, including ones we take for granted. The simple act of correcting mistakes, for example. In the days of the typewriter, that meant a laborious process of correction fluid, realigning the paper, or starting the sheet all over again. Now, almost all word processing programs can spot mistakes before even you’ve seen them, and correcting them is as simple as two clicks.
Creatively, the new technology revolution has opened up exciting new ways to be inspired and express that inspiration, as well. It is possible to type up drafts and ideas anywhere, with the aid of a Smartphone or tablet. Now we can draw instant inspiration and convert it to word form almost instantly– sitting, standing or lying down. It is also easier than ever before to weave intricate plot twists and important details into your novel. Say, for example, you get to a point in your book where your protagonist is literally checkmated. They have no way out of a dire situation, and you are therefore stuck too, with no way to get her out of danger without resorting to a deus ex machina. But now, with the power of the word processor, it is easy to plant that secret key three chapters back or to scatter subtle reminders here and there that your character has a special skill that is just tailor made for escaping these sort of situations.
So, when used right, technology can be a great help to the author in easing some of the busywork and unleashing the creativity in making a barnstorming story. But, as Orson Welles said, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” The fact that we can write wherever, whenever and however we want can breed laziness. Looking back on that retroactive threading of a plot twist into a novel, yes, when done well it can look as if it was meant to be there all along. But that’s the point: it should have been there all along in the place. The fact that the author in this situation had to reverse engineer his way out of the situation is simply poor practice, and probably points to the additional hints and reminders being not-so-subtle, either. Having your main character make a daring leap from a five-storey building and land safely because it was mentioned ten chapters ago that she trained as a stunt double and then that fact was never mentioned again just looks clunky and drags your novel down.
Likewise, no matter how good technology gets, there will never be anything quite like grabbing some sheathes of blank paper, a pencil and just thrashing out some insane new ideas until your kitchen looks like something from A Beautiful Mind. A word processor is still rigid, and it is prone to eyestrain after a while. And, as any seasoned author who has edited their own book will tell you, there is just something about seeing your own work in print that makes it look different, as well. Mistakes that you never spotted on the screen despite having read that sentence fifteen times will leap out at you on the real page.
And let’s be honest, when all is said in done we want to our book in a real, physical form, do we not? Emailing an e-book will never quite be the same as cracking the spine and running a thumb through real pages, especially when you wrote it.
So for new authors, the wealth of options available for planning and writing can be pretty overwhelming. For first time writers, I recommend trying multiple methods simultaneously, and seeing which method you gravitate towards. Even then, it may depend on your mood. For that, you will probably need to discipline yourself – there’s a lot to be said for consistency of format – but you may want to consider the idea of using a different method for different projects. A certain approach can produce a very different result from another, with different feels in the tone. See which one suits your voice best.
And if you’re reading this on a Smartphone up a mountain, you could try all of this right now! Oh what a world we live in, eh?