A few months ago, I was sent a review copy of Andrew Shantos’ debut novel, Dead Star Island. You can read my review here. Andrew is here today to tell us what it’s like to be an author – particularly a debut author – in the digital age.
Writing in the digital age
Computers, what’s not to like? I can write something, delete it, change it, save it, send it, publish it, promote it. And all without getting out of my pyjamas. But then again, it did take an awfully long time to finish my book, what with all those emails to check, viral Youtube videos to watch, inane tweets to mark as favourite.
So do I like writing in the digital age? Well I know no other age. But they do still sell pens and paper in shops. Apparently.
Here are 5 reasons I love it, and 5 reasons I don’t.
Love #1) Research anything
My book features real people. Elvis, Marilyn, Jimi – rock and movie superstars the world thinks are dead, but aren’t. I already knew an awful lot about them. But how could I bring them back to life and make the reader believe it was them?
The answer: Youtube.
While I was interested in their histories (fan websites, Wikipedia, dozens of other online articles) what fascinated me most of all was this: what did Jimi Hendrix look at when he was talking about his first album? What was Bruce Lee doing with his hands while he was discussing so eloquently his philosophy on martial arts? My aim in the book was for the reader to believe this really was the superstar, thirty years on, could see and hear the person, could feel their passion.
Hate #1) Research everything
Yes, well we can all become obsessive. How many versions of Elvis performing Suspicious Minds do I really need to watch? One probably would have been enough. Maybe someone could shrink the internet to about a tenth of its size. Then it would be perfect.
Love #2) Word processing
Just as when we speak we have mannerisms, habits, preferred turns of phrase, so we do when we write. It’s pretty much inevitable. Reading back a chapter, particularly a first draft, can show this clearly. Narrative with a rhythm so constant it puts you into a zombie-like state when you read it back. Good old cut and paste. Simply altering the position of one clause can fix a whole paragraph.
And then sometimes, you just have a realisation that while a scene works really well, it needs to happen sooner. No problem: I can shift action from one part of the book to another, apply a little narrative glue to make it work, job done.
And the alternative? Well, feel pity for Leo Tolstoy. Actually, pity his wife Sophia, who had the job of making sense of thousands of pages of spidery handwriting, covered in annotations and crossings out, when readying War and Peace for publication.
Hate #2) Processing words
Screens, well sometimes they just suck the life out of you, don’t they? I remember sitting in the kitchen late at night, the world miles away, total darkness but for the harsh light of Microsoft Word burning my face. Reading the same passage over and over again. Was it any good? I had no idea. The answer? Turn on the light, find a pen and write it down. And I found, actually, it was pretty good, but somehow, the physical, intimate act of inscribing letters onto paper subtly changed the words I wrote and made them better.
Love #3) Backups
I remember when I first started my current day job, as a computer programmer. I was about a week in. The phone rang. This was unusual. No one usually wants to speak to the computer programmer. It was an elderly man.
“You don’t know me,” he began.
He had found us in the Yellow Pages.
“You see, I’ve written a novel,” he said, a certain desperation in his voice.
I winced, knowing what was coming.
“I’m about three quarters through. But I can’t find it. I’ve opened the file, and there’s nothing there.”
I put him on hold, told my boss. Feeling rather sorry for him, we tried our best to recover the novel. We looked everywhere, directing him to the recycle bin, looking at temporary files, temporary folders. Nothing.
I felt terrible for him. But I bet he felt worse. Maybe he rewrote it, and his novel was better for it in the end. Maybe he just gave up.
I’ll never know, but I’ve never forgotten. So when I write anything, at the end of each sitting, I append a version number to the filename. I copy this file to my Dropbox folder, and also to my OneDrive folder (Microsoft’s cloud storage offering). By the time I found a publisher the filename was “Dead Star Island – Andrew Shantos – v1.252.docx. I decided it was time to go to version 2. Version 6.0 is the final published version. But in total I have 301 versions of the novel backed up in three different places.
Hate #3) F*ckups
You can get in trouble with all those versions flying all over the place. I did go over the top a little. You have to be really careful you don’t start editing the wrong file. I did that a couple of times, and then spent hours working out what had changed and trying to incorporate that in the real latest version. Luckily there’s a simple safeguard: use Track Changes in Word.
Love #4) Spreading the word – reach out to everyone
When I’d finally finished fine tuning my book, next was building a profile as an author.
Firstly, a website. Not so hard:
Buy a domain (in my case andrewshantos.com);
Buy hosting (I went for Hostgator);
Use WordPress (just click a button in your Hostgator control panel and it’s installed); Choose a WordPress theme… This wasn’t so easy. There’s just so many out there. I looked at hundreds. In the end I went for Avada. It’s one of the most popular WordPress themes out there, highly customisable and very importantly, because it’s popular, it’s well supported. So when a new browser version comes out, which perhaps breaks something in your website, so will a new version of the theme.
Second job: email. No problem. Free with my website hosting, using my own domain.
Finally, social media. Easy to setup. Connect with your friends, hound them constantly, telling them what you’re doing until they tell their friends what you’re doing, and they tell their friends what you’re doing, and so on. How much time do you spend on this? Which social media outlets do you choose? I suppose it depends on how long you don’t want to spend actually writing your next novel.
Hate #4) Spreading the word – everyone’s always bloody reaching out all the time
I’ve gone for Twitter and Facebook. I toyed with Google+, decided I didn’t want to understand what Pinterest was for, and didn’t know how to pronounce Tumblr. And I’m a computer programmer. God help everyone else.
Facebook’s alright. It’s easy to get the word out to people you know. But then, how long does that word stay etched on their consciousness? But it does seem to me, that if I work hard on Facebook to accrue likes and that sort of thing, I will build up a well-earned following who might care a little.
Twitter on the other hand, well, I still don’t get it. I can’t help but think it’s best for people who are already ultra-famous, who want to cement that fame into an impregnable castle, surrounded with fields the size of New Zealand full of sheep. I’m pretty chuffed if I get retweeted once.
Does Twitter have worth for a debut author? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I can be bothered to find out. I know that I could build a large following by using something like Crowdfire. If you aren’t familiar with it, this app, and others like it, allow you to find followers (eg followers of your followers, that kind of thing), identify anyone you follow who doesn’t follow you back (and summarily unfollow them as a consequence).
Great. But if everyone’s doing it (and you can tell who they are by people with huge numbers of both followers and people they follow) then what’s the point? Will they ever be able read one of your tweets, in the howling gale that must be their twitter feed? No. They probably use Twitter lists, containing the people they really do want to follow.
Love #5) Billions of potential readers
It’s never been easier to market a book, worldwide, to billions of people across hundreds of countries. How about copying and pasting my manuscript into Google Translate? Yeah, let’s give it a go and stick it on Amazon China. It’ll only take an hour.
Hate #5) Millions of actual book titles
It’s never been harder to make a book standout from the millions that sit unsold on the Amazon marketplace. Sometimes it feels like promoting a book is like starring in your very own version of Where’s Wally, on a canvas a mile wide. OK, let’s not bother with Amazon China.
So what can I draw from all this? How to conclude? Well, it does make me wonder if I’d have liked writing in the analogue age. I hope so. But I hope it wouldn’t have mattered that much what age it was. I’ll never know. Right. Now: save this, edit it, send it, publish it. Time to get out of my pyjamas. Hang on, what’s this… an email from Facebook telling me I have 42 notifications? I’d better have a look.