Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Scary (or Different) Future for Writers

Young or old, give thanks to the gentle reader. Writers must earn the attention of each and every one.

Recently, I heard the statistic that a person reads the equivalent of Moby Dick each week through digital bits such as email, Facebook posts and tweets. Can you imagine reading Moby Dick in a few days? (Actually, I'm simply trying to read it, but that's another blog post.)

Readers are a precious commodity. We are fighting to be worthy of their short attention spans and pocketbook demands. (Will you get to the bottom of this post without checking your bank balance online, ahem?) Writers are now asked to indulge readers online, inviting them into our lives via blogs, websites, tweets and Facebook pages. They want to participate in the story, not just read it.

But novelists may be going the way of the storyteller. Before printing presses, stories were handed down by oral historians, the storytellers, and although the art form isn't dead, it is not a crucial part of our culture anymore. Novelists may experience a similar shift because readers' habits are changing. Social and digital media, the very tools we use to connect with readers, are shaping our audience's expectations. We might begin to see Moby Dick introduced to high school students in 200-word posts online.

What does this mean for the novel and the novelist? The speculation is that we will write shorter books. Instead of 50,000-80,000 words, readers will turn increasingly to the novella, 25,000-40,000 words. Or, a reader will download a book chapter by chapter and once she loses interest, then she'll forego buying the rest. Will this mean we'll need to do better at cliff-hanging? Maybe, or it could mean we'll write alternative endings for every book we start. Click here for happy ending. Click here for more sex. Click here for explosion.

Our work will be increasingly dictated by the reader, which is worrisome to some extent because the generation growing up on apps and YouTube rather than long-form fiction won't go for long rides anymore. What to do? I think it is a good time to experiment. Try writing a story in 5 to 10 chapters. I know writers composing Facebook novels, in short chunks, for anyone to contribute in progress. Try recording your first chapter with your phone camera and posting it. Then, wait and see what evolves. We're just as vulnerable to evolution as the manual typewriter.

Thanks for getting to the end without an ebill pay!

This post was first published Oct. 31, 2011, on Nocturnal Nights.

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