Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fiction Writing in the Internet Age

(I started writing this response a month ago, which is why the blog article I refer to is over a month old).

This article from the Guardian Books Blog discusses Jack Kerouac's scroll for On the Road and how the scroll lent itself to Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness writing style. The author ponders over the impact that the word processor has had on the craft of writing, in terms of the edit-as you-go powers it grants the writer. I made a comment, which I'm reprinting and expanding here.

As a writer myself, I find the computer's Internet connection even more influential than the word processor. To be sure, I edit constantly as I write, so much so that I no portion of my writing could ever be considered a "first draft" in the traditional sense. Rarely do I allow a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase exist in its raw form for more than a few seconds --- as soon as they are born they are subject to rapid and frequent alterations.

This tendency alone probably makes my novel drastically different, in both style and substance, than if I had written it in 1951, but besides using word processor I also, always, write my fiction with two web browser windows open:

1ST WINDOW =, so that I can instantly and frequently look up synonyms and definitions, which allows me a lot more freedom to explore word choice than if if I had to open and scan a thesaurus or dictionary all the time. Since my vocabulary has always been somewhat limited (relative to other aspiring writers, anyway) this tool is a total blessing.

2ND WINDOW = This is my "research" window. It starts off as Wikipedia by default, but generally it serves as my launching pad to chase down, immediately, any notions or ideas I may suddenly get in my head. Once, for example, I decided that I needed to make a doctor-character of mine less accessible to another character who was romantically interested in her (drrrah-mah). I thought one way to do this might be to have her do humanitarian work overseas. I was able to research various third world regions of the word and the epidemics that plague those places, the cultural and geographical details that make these places interesting, and then internships and fellowships that could help get my character over there.

Thanks to the Internet, I can instantly determine the plausibility of an idea, seek related alternatives, and collect all the technical details necessary to make it authentic.

I've been incorporating Internet access into my writing routine pretty much since I began my novel, and it's so ingrained that if I don't have a connection, I'm automatically distracted and anxious before I even begin typing, preoccupied by the very idea of my missing lifeline, like I'm going to war without my lucky coin.

One could easily argue the disadvantages of this kind of writing routine. For one thing, it's a ready distraction, especially when one is feeling uninspired. Often what masquerades as researching is actually an unconscious avoidance of writing anything (I'm most prone to this when I've gone a few days without working on the book). The Internet can also be a black hole. Countless times I've chased down ideas for hours only to come up empty handed, dazed and frustrated, often forgetting where or why I started.

Still, I think the benefits of Internet access outweigh the disadvantages, because when I'm brainstorming ideas, the Internet is like a second, much larger brain, and I'm not restricted by my limited knowledge (and lord knows I know little) or the time it takes to check out a book from the library. There's a whole world out there waiting to be incorporated into my stories.

But let me put it to the other writers out there, whether you are pro, semi-pro or amateur. Do sometimes you wish you could go back to an age where you were limited to the type writer, or even the fountain pen?


Anonymous said...

i sometimes wish that i lived when there were fewer distractions. Internet, television, the ready access of friends and family, timmies, etc, are all distractions that keep me from doing things i should/could/would do if they weren't available. But.. maybe i'd be distracted by other things. Like churning butter.


Alex said...

i never will be a 'writer', but your post linked be back to a previous thought process of mine. (i apologize if this comment has more questions than answers) in our age of information overload, do we spread ourselves too thin and stop *really* thinking and absorbing things? working online, i feel almost jittery sometimes, like i've had too much coffee, because it's so easy to wander where ever your brain does. how do you think this affects writing? it's great to be able to research on the fly - but in the past, authors probably incorporated more personal life experience stuff because they had to. or the flip side, maybe researched stuff is more concrete than just adding details one dreamed up without research!

Amanda said...

In the days before internet I'm sure I remember gazing out the window...

jim cooney said...

It's an important point Alex, and to a certain extent, I agree that the internet can be not just a distraction, but prevent or interrupt certain aspects of the creative process.

Thankfully, what I've found from experience is that my most inspired writing bursts are so intense and focused, they seem immune to sidetracks. Put another way, if I'm on a roll (which is only the case maybe 20 percent of the time I write) I may get a notion that I need a certain detail outside of my knowledge, but if I can't find it instantly I anxiously return to my "flow," so afraid am I to lose it, or else I just make a note in the text to fill in later, when I'm less inspired (this becomes the grunt work that can keep me busy when I'm not feeling "on a roll").