Writing Fiction in the Digital Age


Posted by justinemusk | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 20-04-2009

Justine Musk





The novel is dead.  Long live the novel.




So I got myself a Kindle2.  I resisted the first version, declaiming to all and sundry that I preferred the experience of book-as-object: the feel of the pages, the gloss of the jacket.  But the idea of reducing the weight of the reading load I carry around —  to something as slender as a butter knife — was too seductive to resist.  Still, I remained skeptical.  When the package arrived from Amazon,  I let it sit around the house for a few weeks like a neglected hamster.


But then I got hooked.  In minutes.


The convenience is amazing. Thinner and smaller than a notebook, it takes up so little space in my sack of a handbag I have to make sure it doesn’t get crushed.  Within two days I’d packed the thing with newspapers, magazines, blogs and nonfiction:  not only did I not mind reading them in this new form, I preferred it, happy to be without the clutter of all that print, articles so neatly at my fingertips. 


The coolest thing of all is to read or hear about a book, then be able to order it on my Kindle2, download it, and start reading within minutes.  Because, you know, that two-day wait from Amazon, that fifteen minute drive to the bookstore, is just waaaaay too long a wait.  And reading on a Kindle turns out to be not so very different from reading a book-object: the page looks the same, your eyes move across it the same way.  It just means that instead of getting a strained right wrist from propping up a hardcover, I get a strained thumb from pressing the ‘next page’ button.


Although I’d been following the conversations about the future of book publishing for several years, my attachment to my Kindle2 drove it all home in a way that left me a little awestruck.  I asked myself, Am I holding the death of traditional publishing in my hands? 


And I answered myself: Duh. 





Once upon a time, people sat around campfires in smoky caves and told each other stories and painted illustrations on the walls.  Generations handed stories down to each other through poetry and song, using rhythm and rhyme as an excellent memory device.


Enter the book.


 Once upon a time,  a book was this kind of holy relic that monks labored over high in their monasteries, copying page after page while the rest of Europe sloshed through the mulch of the Dark Ages.  Then, you see, this guy invented this thing called the printing press.  Suddenly anything you could think up in your head could be printed and distributed to an audience of unimaginable size.  People got more literate.  Even women.  Novels became the drug of choice, offering flight and fancy — they also allowed the more intrepid (or financially desperate) women writers to create identity, independence and a name for themselves.


Novels – from Edith Wharton to Charles Dickens –were published in serial installments in monthly newspapers.  Short fiction was the real moneymaker: Scott F Fitzgerald churned out lucrative short stories in order to subsidize the “real work” of his novels.  As the decades rolled by, the bulky length of a Victorian novel became more streamlined, due to the natural evolution of the form itself, but perhaps also because of technology.  The advent of word processing makes the cut-and-paste of revision a shockingly different experience than the literal cut-and-paste done under gaslight — or even the liquid paper and carbons and constant retyping I remember doing on the white Olympia typewriter I swiped from my mother when I was a kid.  Form and content have a living, shifting relationship to each other: content dictates form, and form dictates the possibilities of content.


But in the end, do the forms really change that much? 


The more things change, after all, the more they stay the same.  (Or, as Hollywood movie executives like to tell each other, “People want the same, yet different”).   People fret about what the future of fiction will look like, but could be the future is already here.  It looks like this: a Kindle2, popular because it mimics a familiar reading experience, not because it creates any real new one.  Along with books, we have e-books.  Digital fiction opens up a whole new world of interactive narrative, except we’ve already that for years: they’re called computer games, some of them with storylines more sophisticated and compelling than much of the stuff in the movie theatres on any given day.  


We’ll have a kind of hybrid, multimedia storytelling that combines text, music, pictures, video, perhaps even social media but is that really so different from storyworlds like the Star Wars universe, explored through movies, novels, comic books, soundtracks, action figures? (Would Luke Skywalker have a Twitter account?  Would Yoda be on Facebook?)  As traditional magazines shut down and shut out short stories and poetry, literary journals multiply all over the Web .   It’s possible that poetry and short-short fiction will find a whole new audience when distributed on iPhones and iPods.  Narrative-blogs are today’s published journals, living memoirs.  And what is Twitter but a grown-up version of notes passed in class or, for the more adventurous and poetic, a kind of haiku?


Fiction isn’t going anywhere, except digital.  We’re seeing old wine in new bottles.  The challenge is for the publishing industry to learn how to shape and build and package those new bottles. 


And, of course, for the writers.





A novel remains a novel:  a singular and well-crafted emotional experience that brings you into intimate contact with another person’s mind and vision.  It is, for me, an experience very different from any kind of interactive storytelling – after all, we’ve already had that too, they’re called Choose Your Own Adventures – because part of the fulfillment of a good novel is seeing what happens next.  And also how, in the end, everything comes together in a way you didn’t expect, and resonates back through the story to give it order and meaning. 


What has changed – the bottle that, in my mind, has been smashed to smithereens – is not the novel, but the position of the novelist. 


In this Internet age of connection, collaboration and communication,  it is harder and harder to view the writer as an isolated figure.  Blogs, forums and social media have transformed the relationship between writer and reader, between writer and other writers, providing feedback and contact when before there would have been only silence — until the trudging footsteps of the mailperson’s walk up the driveway.  Googling a writer can bring on a flood of information that in turn brings a weird kind of intimacy –  a sense of: I don’t know you, but I know you.  The writer’s identity was once a shrouded, mysterious thing in the distance, sometimes revealed, in glimpses, through whatever interviews and public readings the writer decided to give. 


Now, the writer doesn’t just have an identity, but a digital identity that anyone with an Internet connection can access at any time.  I was thinking about this after a conversation with the president of Causecast.org — a nonprofit dot.com company — who observed that “an author’s website no longer supports the books…the books support the website.”  I could see how this might apply to nonfiction, especially if the writer was also a touring public speaker, but fiction?  Fiction isn’t about anything other than the fiction; either a book engages you and does what it’s supposed to, or it doesn’t.


Except…a long time can elapse between books.  The books themselves can span different subjects, different genres.  And if the author’s body of work represents that author’s vision, could be that the author’s website serves as the heart of the vision, a signature digital cord that pulls everything together.  This is also a time when to market your work means to speak with a unique and authentic voice that draws people in, makes them want to connect with you and read your stuff.  Rather than just a promotional or ‘branding’ tool, the website – with its attendant blogs and links and takeaway reading material,  its bio and news and reviews – becomes the author’s persona removed from a distant background to be placed front and center.  It is the author’s way of putting herself out there and allowing herself to be found.  This is why a static website is a failed website; it should have a life of its own, changing and growing as the author’s work — and the author herself — does the same.   The work is the web, and the website – and the connection it enables with the reader — is the warm, fuzzy spider at the center. 


Because another thing that is changing – and not to the writer’s advantage – is the reading experience itself.  When I am reading my Kindle, I have many options to choose from.  One book loses my interest and – boom – I press a couple of buttons and go on to something else.  Or if nothing on my Kindle appeals to me, and I’m in the mood for something new, I just need to switch over to the wireless store and see what catches my fancy enough to download.  This, of course, is on top of everything else in today’s world competing for my time, my attention, and my money.  It’s more difficult than ever for a writer to grab – and hold – the reader’s attention. But, thanks to the multiple dimensions of the Internet, the writer has more ways than ever of doing so. 










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