Saturday, October 25, 2014

Writers and Technology – Now and Then

(A talk given at a meeting of the Australian Society of Authors in Castlemaine, October 25, 2014)
The crime writer Val Mcdermid said at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival that publishing today is so very different from what it was twenty years ago that if she had been starting out now she reckons would not have had a career as a writer. Why? Because today a writer really has to have a big success with the first book. Otherwise there won’t be a second book. Game over. There is no sense, as there once was, of a writer having time to build skills with experience. She described it as ‘hitting the ground running’ – that’s what you have to do now. In other words, if you don’t prove yourself marketable on Bookscan to begin with, you won’t get another contract. There was a time when publishers were the nurturers of writers. Perhaps they have handed that responsibility over to writing courses.
There are ways around this of course, but it’s basically true, and I think it’s probably what drives publishing today. The values are different from what they were. It is a different industry.
We can discuss the various avenues to publishing today – you will probably know things that I don’t know. But I understand that audiences like to hear the personal stories of writers’ histories of writing and publishing. So that’s what I will talk about.
Somebody asked me recently how many of my books are still in print. I hadn’t thought about that for a while, but when I did, I realized that out of the thirty books I have written, nine are in print. On paper, between covers. I wonder if that’s good or bad. There are some ebooks – I’ve lost track, and also some audiobooks. Yes, I have lost track. Of course I shouldn’t have lost track, should I? Am I unprofessional or just bewildered by the rush of change in the publishing industry over the past ten years?
Much of what I will say here amounts to a reflection on how things are as against how things used to be. I realise that is probably just an old person’s way of looking at life, but I also think that in the matter of writing fiction and so on, it’s possibly a quite interesting and revealing way to go. We’ll see.
Maybe writing fiction is a bit like knitting in that the basic stitches remain the same no matter what the technology does, and no matter how the patterns change. Am I being too fanciful?
Anway, when anyone thinks about writing and publishing these days they probably think about technology. I realise they also think about writing courses and agents and publishers and festivals and prizes and grants. Or they should. And about plots and characters and so forth. But mostly I think the mind flies to the possibilities of the computer, the internet, the blogs, the ipad, the iphone – and swiftly to social media – how facebook and twitter and all the rest will work in the service of the publication of whatever it is you write. Sometimes it looks as if the paper book might be in the service of the social media. Rather than the other way round. The Australian Society of Authors figures in this too – they are an important part of the background (or is it the foreground?) for writers in Australia today.
Before I wrote a word of this talk, I tweeted about it. So before the fact of the thing, before it even existed on my screen, I let people know when and where it would be delivered. If I tweet about it, it must be true. You think? With the help of twitter and my imagination, all this came into being.
You will have noticed that in my lists of things people think about when they think about writing, I have really said almost nothing about writing and nothing at all about reading. Do they matter? I think they do. Maybe they don't. They used to. Bear with me – I’m a little bit old-fashioned. I love reading and I love writing – it’s just personal.
Children today have a fairly clear idea of how books come into being. As a child, I needed to figure it out, because I had an ambition to write books. I wrote a lot with a pencil in spiral bound books, until, for my seventeenth birthday I got a typewriter. The latest technology – a red Olivetti letter writer. I don’t have it any more, but I have its successor which is a grey-green Olivetti letter writer in a carry case. I think the same model was used in the movie of The Talented Mr Ripley which was set in the late 1950s. I taught myself to type from Pitman’s Business Typewriting. I don’t know how I found the time, really. I was on holidays from university, working in an ice cream factory by day and a café by night. Yet every day I worked on my typing. No social life. No apps.
Today children learn to use a keyboard and all the rest around the age of two.
There’s an exhibition at the State Library – Mirror of the World – where you can explore the evolution of books and printing – from cuneiform writing onwards – from clay tablets to vellum to paper. There’s a bookshop in Dorset where people can leave reviews on a typewriter. Yes, it’s a second hand bookshop, Wild and Homeless Books. And in Toronto The Monkey’s Paw – also a second hand bookshop – sells typewriters as well as books.
Today’s readers take paperback books for granted, as they take ebooks too for granted – and then there’s a distinct movement today towards producing books as works of art. The latest novel by Ian McEwan (The Children Act) was produced in a limited edition (as well as a regular edition) and I thought the advertisement for it in the London Review of Books read like an hilarious parody from a novel about novels (of which there are many). It goes like this:
‘This is a special limited edition of the Children Act signed by the author before publication, comprising 100 copies only, printed in Logan Book Wove 150gsm paper. Seventy-five are quarter-bound in Kaduna Green Nigerian Goatskin, the sides letter-press printed on Passport Sage Felt with a design by Edward Bawden and numbered one to 75. Twenty-five copies, numbered 1 to 25, are fully bound in the same leather and contain 3 facsimile pages of notebook manuscript and one page of hand corrected typescript from an early draft of the novel. All copies have head and tail bands, coloured tops and endpapers, and are contained in a suedel-lined slipcase, also featuring the Bawden design.’
The full leather ones had already sold out by the time the advertisement appeared. Suedel, by the way, is imitation suede.
It’s a long way from an ebook – which is of course also available. Forget the Kaduna Green Nigerian Goatskin to put in your glass fronted bookcase or atmosphere controlled safe. Just swipe the screen like everybody else.
From the high high hilarious end of today’s publishing – back to the girl in the ice cream factory learning to type and continuing to read.
Of course there was no such thing as a Young Adult Book when I was a young adult. Young adults were just people who might be reading Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice and so on. P.G. Wodehouse and Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie and James Thurber. Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Graham, Enid Blyton of course. Richmal Crompton. The Brothers Grimm. So writers such as those were my models and inspiration, more or less. Meanjin existed but I didn’t know. Australian fiction – well I remember reading Thomas Keneally and Patrick White and Ernestine Hill and Ruth Park. Before all that I read Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and the William books. I didn’t have Australian children’s books for some reason. Imagine, no Snugglepot or Cuddlepie. I lived in Tasmania – it was I think more connected to England than to Australia. Also, my family used to get the Saturday Evening Post from America – as well as the Illustrated London News.
I had a few short stories published in places such as the Herald Sun (true) and the Women’s Weekly. But it wasn’t until the late eighties, (still using typewriters and paper and carbon copies) when publishing in Australia was graced by the presence of McPheeGribble, that I had a collection of stories published. Also, writing by women was being taken more seriously, and there was miraculous support from the Federal Labor Government there for a while.
There were no university courses in writing, really nowhere that one could look for guidance. There were small societies of writers – but I didn't really get into any of that. I just did whatever I thought might work. Enter competitions, submit to magazines. Work it out for yourself. Hope for the best. The ASA has existed since 1963, but I didn’t know that then.
What has happened since then is that writing fiction in Australia – which is mainly what I do – has become an industry. Adelaide Writers’ Week began in 1960 – a kind of marker, I think, for a certain leap forward in Australian literature. The Australia Council for the Arts was founded in 1967. Manning Clark published the first of his six volume History of Australia in 1962.
You can see then that the 1960s were a time of great significance for literature in this country. The Miles Franklin Prize was first awarded in 1957. Awards also are a marker in the history of writing and publishing. Nowadays there are too many awards to count. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.
Personally, I was really just working away and stumbling along until the publication of my collection of stories with McPhee Gribble in 1987, when I really began to be aware of what was possible. That’s nearly thirty years ago.
Some of the things I observed and was affected by in that time – in 1990 I was sent by the Australia Council to do a college residency in Florida. There I learned to use bitnet, a primitive form of the internet, in order to keep in touch with a friend in Melbourne. This meant I had to learn really quickly how to use a computer. The computers were in a basement room at the university. They were large clumsy things, and my conversations via bitnet did not come up on the screen, they were printed out on continuous sheets of paper. Here are some. They went on for miles. When I got them out of the filing cabinet, I had a horrible feeling they might have faded like old faxes, but lo and behold, they haven’t.
I did learn how to use a computer.
I have assembled, along with the Florida emails, a very little museum of technology for you. It emphasizes the physicality of things.
Here is my old typewriter.
Here are the covers of some of my books.
Here is a book that had to be torn up (more of that later)
Here is a typewritten manuscript.
Here is an audio book – this one is on tapes – imagine – but I do also have them on discs.
I planned to bring a CD-Rom that accompanied my novel Red Shoes in 1998. I couldn’t find a copy of the CD-Rom. It no longer works in any machine anyway. Although the novel is out of print, it is of course still possible to read the book. That is one of the beauties of the old technology of print on paper. Bits of the CD are still on my old website.
You can go to my current website if you like and click on a line that says: click here to go to the older site content. There you will find my old website – a primitive thing – that went up in 1998. I believe it was the first website of an Australian fiction writer. And of course now just having a website is so yesterday.
This brings me to the thing about books in print.
The one that has the most interesting history, I think, is Dear Writer.
This manual for writers was first published by McPhee Gribble in 1988. In 2013 it was out of print but people kept asking me where they could get it. So I decided to turn it into an ebook.
How naïve I was.
I will give you the short version of the story.
The file of the original proofs had not survived the various transfers from one computer to another. I realised I would first need to scan the text. It so happened that I had only one copy in my possession. If I tore it apart for the purpose of scanning, I would end up with no copies at all. It seemed wrong not to have at least one copy of my own book. You’d think that I could find one somewhere, at least online, but no. Although there were plenty of copies in Indonesian. So I persuaded a friend to relinquish her copy. The process of scanning, while being perhaps elegant and astonishing, was tedious. As the book on my left shrank page by page and the pile of loose pages on my right grew, the data on my laptop lay in between the two.
But that was only the beginning really. I had then to convert the scanned pages into a Word file. I am not gifted or practised in the use of the technology. But I got a program and set about the conversion, and I nearly went mad with frustration and despair. It was all TOO HARD.
Yet somehow, I actually did it. I don’t really understand how.
When the scanned pages at last became a file, I began an exhaustive revision of the text. While the basics of writing fiction remain constant, the vast and rapid changes and developments in technology, publishing, and teaching had to be acknowledged, reflected and addressed in the new version of the book. After all, today people write novels on twitter. The notion of writing letters is now quaint in its formality, but to abandon it would mean losing the tone of the book, and it was this tone that students and readers found particularly helpful and engaging. I say ‘readers’ because this is a book that can be read as a piece of fiction as well as a manual of instruction. It isn’t simply a matter of tone; Dear Writer is an enactment of its own principles. Interestingly, people frequently refer to Dear Writer as Dear Reader. I assume they feel the text speaks to them, that they, the readers, are the writer being addressed.
There are two characters in this book: Writer and Virginia. Writer is a middle-aged woman living somewhere in rural Australia and writing short stories which she sends to Virginia for assessment. The readers of Dear Writer never see the script of the story under review, but must build it up in their imaginations. There are no letters from Writer. Only letters from Virginia to Writer. Because the characters are of their time, which was long ago in 1988, they think about the virtues of writing with pens compared with working on a typewriter, and then on a computer. I remember being resistant to the image of the old Royal typewriter on the cover of one edition of the book, because I thought it was suggesting the text was nostalgic and ossified. Yet people said they loved the image. The cover of another version was never admired by anyone I ever heard of; it suggests, with its blood red woman at a typewriter, that writing fiction is something to do with menstruation.
You can see some of the problems that changes in technology have introduced to the revision and re-presentation of a book like this. Often when I see the phrase ‘changes in technology’, the image of Tess of the d’Urbervilles comes to mind; that tragic emblem of a young woman trapped in social revolution, destroyed. Writing, revising takes courage; I am brave enough to do this.
I had a sense, as I worked on Dear Writer Revisited, that something dramatic and revolutionary was happening to books generally, and that ‘publication’ was not a term that served the purpose.
I considered the fact that most of the students of writing today are very young, that they use social media, that they are probably keen to by-pass traditional publishing, that traditional publishing is also morphing even I sat here at my laptop, that those young students of writing were probably writing novels with their forefingers and thumbs on their iPhones, that possibly anything Virginia might say to Writer about, say, the agreement of a verb with its subject, was not going to matter to anybody much.
Yet I know that it does matter, and that it will continue to matter. I am not talking about rigidity and inflexibility and fossilisation, but about clarity and freedom. The more you know about how language behaves, the better equipped you are to use it, the more power you have over your own thoughts and ideas. Not so long ago I was teaching a university course. At the end of the second session I asked the students what areas of writing they would like me to cover in the course. They asked me to teach them grammar. In the early nineties when I was at the college in Florida, the students wrote all their work, including their journals, on computers. A group of them came to me after class and said they were going to England for a semester and would have to write their journals by hand – this being long before the development of the laptop etc. They asked me to teach them how to do that. I know, and not just from those examples, that the things Virginia and Writer are able to convey are still important to people learning to write fiction, and I was keen to re-fashion the book in such a way that the original flavour would be preserved, while the nature of the world into which it would go continued to change.
The challenges I faced in the making the ebook were not just those presented by the current technologies, or by the changes in publishing, or the changes in hardware and software, but the changes in the whole climate and make-up of readers and students and writers themselves.
I thought that by the time the ebook was done, ebooks might be obsolete, might be the luxury houses built on the edge of the cliff, only to disappear beneath the waves as the level of the sea rises in the heat of the blazing sun.
Anyway, now I was ready to meet the technology of the ebook. Ready, it turns out, but not really quite able. I had to admit that I could not do this alone, and searched for support and help. There are websites offering methods and varying levels of support, but it was clear to me that they were not going to be my thing. There are of course people who can just get in and take up the challenge of the technology and produce their own ebooks. I was not one of those.
With the conversion to scans and then into Word, I think I did quite well for someone who didn’t know what they were doing.
Ebook help eventually came in the form of Bronwyn Mehan who is the publisher of Spineless Wonders, a publisher dedicated to, among other things, the production of ebooks, or books without paper, books without spines. Bronwyn offered to take over the making of the ebook – but then she pointed out something I had been trying not to think: she said a book such as Dear Writer is a book that many readers and students of writing like to hold in their hand, to consult in the old-fashioned way, to use the Index for quick reference, to keep on the bookshelf. This was obviously true, because I had found it impossible to get hold of a copy of Dear Writer until a fellow writer volunteered to let me have hers. So Bronwyn’s suggestion was that before she produced the ebook, maybe she could produce the paperback. The new title would be Dear Writer Revisited.
We would proceed from the paperback version to the ebook version, the ebook requiring its own specific layout and other elements needed for electronic delivery. How to manage an index in an ebook? Such matters would impact on the text. Quite.
Having told you how I felt about the covers of some of the editions, I can now rejoice to tell you that I designed the cover of Dear Writer Revisited myself. So I love it. The friend who gave me her copy of Dear Writer was children’s author Glenda Millard. We mocked up the cover at her house, using books we bought from the local charity shop and tore up into little bits. Another friend, Susan Bassett, did most of the work on the title and author on the front cover.
So that’s the story of one of the nine books that are in print.
I think I feel quite exhausted by it all.
Before you ask more questions, there are just two things that come to mind – the other day I drove past the vast hole in the ground at the corner of Lonsdale and Spencer Streets. There were a few smashed pillars of old concrete jutting from the rubble, twisted wires sprouting from them like dry wisteria in a drawing by Arthur Rackham. Big hoses were spraying water in wide arcs across the desolate landscape. It was the site of a new development of apartments – it was the site where The Age building used to be. Goodbye newspapers.
Actually, Rachel Buchanan published an interesting book Stop Press last year, giving her insider’s perspective on the rise and fall of the printed newspaper.
Change is in the air – newspapers, cheques, landlines, books are disappearing, sliding into obscurity  - the weather – the weather is changing.
So that was one thing – newspapers.
The other thing is a new book by one of my favourite authors, Fay Weldon. It’s called The Ted Dreams and it was written specially as an ebook. No paper involved.