Thursday, April 19, 2012

Telephones, or why technology is bad for writers.

Don't worry. I'm sitting here bashing this out using my speech recognition software, while searching out links and images on my new iPad. I don't really think technology is bad for writers. Or at least, not bad for writing...

You might remember that late last year, among all the fun and games that is the silly season,  my lovely publishers at University of Queensland Press put out the new edition of my 2001 book A New Kind Of Dreaming. One of the nice things about having a new edition released is that it gives you the kind of reassurance that your writing hasn't dated.

Actually, this is something I often tell writing students to be very aware of, particularly when writing young adult fiction – there's this difficult balancing act  between being relevant and contemporary, and being too ‘trendy’ (for want of a better term), in which case you run a very real risk of your work becoming very quickly dated. The first of my Nathan Nuttboard books, for example, includes a scene where the main character and his sister have a fight because she's stolen the batteries to his Discman CD player. Remember those? When I wrote that book they'd been around for about a twenty years, and were – in my opinion – just the coolest things ever. And they were exactly what a boy of Nathan's age would've used to wile away the hours of a long car journey.

Image and excerpt from Nathan Nuttboard Hits the Beach
The thought of another 6 hours of tractor music and Nadine whispering “crap" every five seconds was almost too much to take. I dug around behind the seat and pulled out my Discman. At least I could do something about the music.
I put in my favourite CD, Machines of Blood and Glory. I don't actually like the music all that much, but Narelle absolutely hates it, so I tend to play quite a bit. The best thing about a Discman is that you can turn the volume up loud enough so that only the sound of the drumbeats escapes through the earphones. It's a little bit like having a mozzie buzzing around your ears in the middle of the night. Totally annoying, and there's nothing you can do about it. It would drive both of the girls crazy. I pressed play.

Nathan Nuttboard Hits the Beach was published in early 2002, hitting the shelves and almost immediately finding a solid readership and getting good reviews. What I hadn't factored in, however, was that a few months earlier – on 23 October, 2001, to be precise – the Apple Computer company had announced a funky new product. An odd little music playing device they called the iPod. And, of course, within 2 years the Discman as a piece of technology was effectively dead in the water. And so was that chapter of my book. I couldn't have timed it worse.

But of course, that's the problem with trying to write for posterity; you can't. It's impossible to predict – especially in this day and age, with technology being what it is – what the digital landscape is going to look like in 6 months, let alone in 10 years.

That's why I was thrilled when UQP agreed to re-release and repackage Dreaming – It's really nice to have a vote of confidence in the fact that I'm not the only one who feels that the book is still relevant and worth keeping on the shelves.

And I'm pleased to see that other people think so too; the talented Steph Bowe earlier this week posted this lovely review of the new edition on her blog. And she makes a very good point about telephones, too. Certainly when I was bashing out the first draft of Dreaming, in the late 1990s, mobile phones were technology on the increase, but certainly not as widespread or as powerful as they are today. In fact, the school where I was teaching at the time had a policy that all students with mobile phones were to turn them in at the office at the start of the day, and pick them up at the end. This was a school with roughly 800 students. There were regularly about 9 phones in the collection box. I don't imagine any school would even try enforcing such a policy today.

And, as Steph points out in her review, the rise of the mobile phone has in many ways made life a lot more difficult for the writer of realist action/adventure. Her observation that "about 90% of problems in novels can be solved with a phone call or text…" is so true.

Luckily, however, even mobiles have their weaknesses. Flat batteries, signal holes, or they might be attached to the Virgin mobile network in Canberra. There is a solution, of course, and that's to simply  set everything in a slightly alternative world or near future. But I suspect that's not entirely sustainable. All you can really do is 'future proof' your writing as much as is possible, try not to rely too much on contemporary trends and jargon, and cross your fingers.

In any case, thanks, Steph, for the lovely review. It's really nice to know that the book is still working after all these years.

And now I'm off to start work on my next novel. It's about a girl who develops a 'One Direction' app for her iPad2  ;)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Anthony,

    I wouldn't bother so much about being behind with technology. ... I recall a drive with some Burundian woman I drove home and I talked with her about my sf I had written - but still not finished - and she was amazed about the story itself, about my prescience of modern-day society. About how we are checked on everything, just as I know how technology works, or rather, how nature works (more or less). This is all based on the 4 (or 3) forces of nature (gravity might not be one of them after all). ... What I did learn about my mistakes is ... well ... to be vague about technological developments ... like the way Sir Pratchett uses sex in his novels: do not be explicit about it. ... Sex being sex, it is easy to relate to it, but I am sure you are aware there are awards for the worst scenes depicted every year. The same goes about technology. Personally I do not bother about it so much, it is the story that counts after all, and I like to make tons of fun with it; but that is my approach to the thing.

    However I can feel with your story, as one year ago this computer of mine went to the eternal fields of BSOD, and due to poverty (as a writer becomes) I had to resort to the age-old technology of the dead-tree format as I could not replace it. It did me well. I am still behind on my work with that, and I wished by times that I didn't have another typewriter connected to the rest of the planet. ... I hope I will soon have that luxury again, for the stories I had in mind are still great ... and sometimes do wish I have the time to write for I am to busy writing. But I am sure you know the problem.

    I selected "anonymous" as a poster, but I believe I am going to have dinner tomorrow with somebody you know, for that is how I got here. And since I am not a coward, here is my full name:

    Albert van der Heijden.

    I hope to write to you soon again, ...
    groeten uit nederland.



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