I’ve spent the weekend so far responding to questionnaires and compiling information for my publishers, on everything from my favourite tipple to advice for aspiring writers, in preparation for the marketing blitz that is to come. The questions have for the most part been interesting and astute, and have made me think through my responses to a number of issues. Nowhere has my answer been more long-winded than when they asked what I thought of ebooks and online writing, and whether I’d ever done any myself. Clearly there are things I want to say on the subject, so here, in my primary online writing outlet, is what I think and what I hope.
At the risk of offending the purists, I am not one of those who thinks ebooks are somehow a lesser entity to printed books. I don’t think digital publication is a passing fad, or something that will peak at 20-30% of the market while physical books continue to occupy the lion’s share for ever and ever. If you think about it, on an increasingly overcrowded and environmentally polluted and depleted planet it would be crazy if we kept on chopping down trees, in order to chemically process them into blocks of paper, which we then have to find space to store – at both ends of an energy-intensive distribution chain. In the future I’ve imagined for the ®Evolution trilogy anything printed on paper is by definition an antique, and that’s the one thing I’m pretty certain will really be true in another hundred years or so.
But we are still at the early stages of that transition, and another aspect of it is the explosion of writing which is taking place online. One of the very good things about this is that more people are writing; they are using the medium of written language to convey thoughts, feelings, experiences, ideas, interests, philosophies – and they are reaching a wider audience than would ever have been possible before the Internet era, creating new communities unbounded by geography or many of the other traditional parameters like class, race or educational attainment. We are seeing the emergence of a new form of social ecosystem based on written communication. I think this is hugely exciting.
The downside of course is that there is a lot of bad writing online – easy access and the circumvention of any editorial process means that quality has not kept pace with quantity. Digital self-publishing, for example, enables simply atrocious books to be published in overwhelming quantities. But in the long term I’m not too worried, because I think that this particular phenomenon is a fad that will run its course. I think the sheer scale and complexity of online content will throw up new models of curation, upon which we will come to rely to find the products and smaller networks – those social ecosystems – that suit us best. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t think the enduring curation mechanisms are going to be based on the ‘friend’ model which now predominates.)
So what’s my contribution been to the primordial soup of online content? I dove in a couple of years ago by inventing an interactive, collaborative, creative writing exercise facilitator called Scriptopus. It’s essentially a game, in which visitors to the site can flip through a series of stories-in-progress, of which they can see only the last short section. Once they select the one they want to continue, they have to write the next section against the clock. Prior contributors to the same ‘story’ get an email to tell them it has been added to, and the new contributor can also email it to whoever they like, as well as post on their social media networks. After ten contributions the ‘story’ ends and everyone who’s participated gets an email with a link to the finished article. The fun of course is seeing how the initial idea gets transmuted as it passes from one writer to the next.
Scriptopus generates an astonishing range of brilliant, quirky, sometimes kinky ideas, and writing that ranges from sublimely beautiful to barely comprehensible. I don’t write on it myself much anymore, but I had to create a lot of the initial content so there would be enough ‘story starters’ for visitors to choose from. I still find it very useful when I am stuck and just not feeling very creative; fortunately that doesn’t happen too often. What it has and continues to do for me though – apart from helping me develop skill, confidence and expertise as a writer-entrepreneur – is develop my thinking around this idea of curation.
If I could afford it my next step would be to create tools that could sort the snippets of contributed prose both qualitatively and thematically, enabling like-minded and similarly-skilled writers to form tighter, better matched collaborations. What stories might come out of that?