Becoming an Author in the iPad Era

Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith

If you’re like most folks, at one time or another, you’ve thought about taking that one great idea, hunkering down in front of the typewriter or word processor and just letting the words flow till they all come together to form The Great Novel. Many have actually done so, launching themselves head first, typing out the first few sentences of their masterpiece. But if you’re like most, you probably gave up after less than a page, never mind finishing one chapter. And from there, the numbers thin out to just the very few who somehow plug away till their book is done.

If you managed to finish the first draft of your very first novel, congratulations. It’s not easy. But you like it. You think it’s good. Real good. Now you want to share it with the world.

The world of book publishing has changed. A lot. For a budding new writer, now may be the best time ever to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big players.

Consumption versus Creation
Technology has accelerated people’s ability to consume endless amounts of information and media. There is an abundance of choice today previously unknown in human history. The industrial revolution created an almost limitless supply of physical goods that consumers could buy and enhance their lives. Now with the information revolution, media content has exponentially grown to the point where no one person could ever conceivably watch, listen, read or experience everything they find enticing.

Oh. But there is a downside.

With all this consumption, individuals could miss out on the other opportunities afforded by today’s technology: content creation.

Okay. So maybe you can’t sing or play an instrument. And for most, making a movie or a television show is out of the question.

But we all have one skill that we can leverage into content: language. As long as you can string a sentence together, you can write a book. All it takes is a good idea, a computer with writing software and patience to see it through. And a good book can propel a person from obscurity to fame and fortune.

Well, okay. Rarely. But you just know it’ll be you this time, right? Right on.

Electronic Distribution
The publishing industry is a big machine with a chain made up of authors (the folks who write the books), agents (the folks who match up authors with publishing houses), publishers (the folks who print, package, market and ship the books), retailers (the folks who sell the books) and consumers (the folks who buy and read the books). Like baseball, music labels and movie studios, publishers found that they could make oodles of cash by taking raw talent and turning it into gold. And by getting as much strict control on as many links in the chain as they can, they can make sure they maximize their profits. In the good ol’ days, you needed their big machine to do all things required to print and distribute a book. They liked it this way. It’s understandable.

Now it’s different.

There’s the internet. There are e-books. There are e-readers. There’s EPUB. There are short-run book manufacturers like Blurb and Lulu who can make one book at a time that looks as professional as anything at your local bookstore. There are turnkey solutions like iUniverse. There’s the Kindle. And then there’s the iPad and iBooks. And even more to come.

You don’t have to go through the machine anymore.

Media Lessons Learned
The music industry failed to embrace digital technology from the outset and they’re paying the price. By its nature, music is a low commitment medium. It takes about four minutes to consume one distinct unit. CD players and radios are cheap. It can just hover there in the background while you mow the lawn or drive your car. The file sizes are small (thanks, MP3), so pirating piles of songs is like using up a wad of napkins at Mickey D’s that you don’t really need, but like to have around, just in case. Plus the quality can be middling for most people’s tastes. Not a good medium to stake your financial future on.

Then there’s movies and television. Bigger commitment. You need to be sitting still for between 30 and 180 minutes to consume one distinct unit. Television sets, video players and trips to the theater cost more. The file sizes are much bigger, so that stems piracy. Somewhat. They’re looking at the music industry and thinking, ‘maybe we should be a little more open to digital technology’. It’s helping. A little. But their industry isn’t been on the verge of tanking like music has. Yet.

Now, publishing. Books? Huge commitment. You really need to have your nose in front of that page. Hours, days, even weeks to consume one unit. Photocopy a book? Who has the time? If there’s no PDF floating around, who would bother ripping it off? People have a much more visceral relationship with books. Almost a sensual one. And the publishing industry, thanks to Apple and Amazon, have decided to embrace digital technology.

There’s an opportunity there.

The Writing Process
So. You want to be a fiction writer? Fire up the ol’ Word or OpenOffice and just start typing away, right? Well, that’s probably not the best way to go about it.

Introduce yourself to the concept of non-linear writing.

Word processors by the nature of their architecture presume you will begin your document in the upper lefthand corner, work your way to the right, make a carriage return and drop a line and so on till your manuscript is done.

There’s a better way.

What if you want to start a third of the way in? Then maybe write a scene near the end. Or maybe you have an idea for a prologue before the first chapter.

In the olden days, there were these small pieces of cardboard called index cards. You could write a story idea on one and just lay it out on a corkboard or table. Then you could just play with these discrete ideas and reorder them till you fleshed out your narrative.

For Mac users, there’s Scrivener. For Windows folks, PageFour and others. They will free you from the bonds of linear thinking and make your writing project that much more pleasant. If not for Scrivener, I would have never been able to finish the first draft of my first real novel.

For years, I took stab after stab at writing a book. Never could do it. I always ran out of steam very early on. A non-linear text editor like Scrivener really changed everything for me. Like the first time I put together an Ikea bookcase with a cordless drill instead of breaking my wrist with a screwdriver, doing a major project was something to look forward to, not dread like some awful chore.

Good tools make a difference.

In the process of writing my book, there were some valuable lessons I learned that every newbie writer ought to know. There are many others, but these are all pretty basic.

Show. Don’t tell. In other words, describe the scene using the senses. Don’t just report what’s happened.

Remember the rule of three acts: establish your lead character, make him or her in face ever-mounting conflicts, end off with a huge climax.

Read good authors. Learn from them.

Raise the stakes. Constantly. Keep the action juiced up with a few breathers here and there for some balance.

Finish every scene with a sentence that has an emotional touchstone or a springboard to propel the reader onward.

You can’t completely avoid using adjectives and adverbs, but use descriptive, illustrative images instead when you can.

Keep the final manuscript to between 80,000 and 120,000 words. 100,000 is the sweet spot to aim for.

Hire an editor. If you can’t, be brutal with yourself, even if it is your baby and lop off excess limbs to make it better.

Use a dictionary, thesaurus and spell checker. Watch the grammar.

Keep the drama high and the peril ominous. But don’t be preachy or melodramatic.

Avoid clichés.

Trim the dialog. Keep it punchy, quick and understated.

Expect criticism.

The first draft will be garbage. Period. Don’t worry and don’t self-edit till it’s finished. Once the first draft’s out the door, you can brutalize it all you want. Whatever you do, don’t stop in the middle and nitpick.

Wikipedia is your buddy. Hang out.

Don’t frontload your story. Let it stretch out naturally. Don’t give it all away in the first chapter. Feed the reader by the morsel.

Enjoy every minute.

The Urge to Write
They say do it for love. Not for money. That’s good advice for anything worth spending your time on. For writing, the motive should be for the pure pleasure of telling a story.

As a web designer, there is a great satisfaction in the process of starting with nothing and then creating something beautiful and functional that all the world can experience. That’s the great thing about the web. Anyone anywhere can see what we’ve made.

Creativity is what satisfies the ongoing personal struggle we all deal with when trying to decipher the hidden meaning of our existence. It is in making something beautiful out of our pure imagination that gives us as designers, programmers and authors a real sense of purpose that is tangible. In a sense, we all are storytellers in our own right.

The art of writing fiction gives everyone an opportunity to explore the sheerest heights and depths of human emotion and experience, pitting characters who represent us in the most extreme situations, putting to the test our values, aspirations and our weaknesses and sharing them with others in insightful and entertaining ways. Everyone should, at least once in their lives, write a long form story, if only for the experience.

And there’s no better time than right now.