The Future of the Writer… As If Writing Books Wasn’t Hard Enough

A few weeks ago – back in that giddy time I now refer to as B.M.H. or Before My Holidays – I saw this video, The Future of the Book, a teaser trailer for the ways technology might change the way we read books.

Featured in the video are three different applications or ideas:

  • NELSON: Giving readers what they need to form their own opinions on the most important topics of our time. Nelson helps put reference materials and other writings into perspective by rating the impact they have had on popular opinion and debate. A multi-layered reading experience allows you not only to read the book in question, but to see what is being said about it – be it in agreement or against – right now, and highlights relevant media stories in real time. The whole idea is that instead of reading one person’s view on a subject (i.e the author’s) you get to see where that view sits in relation to everyone else’s.
  • COUPLAND: Keeping you up to date with what’s going on in your field. This application sorts the must-reads from the won’t-do-you-any-harm-not-to-read-this-reads in a professional context, based on the reading habits of everyone within your company, industry or organization. It allows you to access your colleagues’ reading lists and enter online discussions with them. “Suggesting a book to somebody is easy; no water cooler required.” If enough employees purchase a book, it automatically becomes available to everyone in the organization.
  • ALICE: An interactive and playful reading experience that invites exploration well beyond just turning the page. Parallel to the text of the book, the story unfolds through the reader’s active participation, “blurring the lines between reality and fiction.” Plot twists, B-stories and other elements are revealed “unexpectedly” when the reader does something such as being at a specified geographic location with their e-reader (e.g. “Get to the statue in Main Street by 5 pm”), or even communicating with the characters outside of the story, such as receiving text messages or emails from them. The reader “co-develops” the story.

Undoubtedly these hypothetical tools would have their benefits, and I love cool, exciting and sexy technology as much as the next Mac user. But I have some problems – and not just the obvious, which is that as a book lover I’m upset about anything which seems to completely eliminate the need for physical books.

(Although as a self-publisher, I’ve got my arms and legs well inside the gravy, um, I mean e-book train. I know. The irony, etc. etc.)

I think, for instance, we all already have a Nelson – except we call it our brain – and is it fair that I have to buy a book in order for it later to become free to my colleagues? You know there’s always the one who never buys the tea bags – having a communal office bookshelf would only make them worse…

But my real problem – as a book lover, as a reader and especially as a writer – is the innocent-sounding Alice.

Alice, if I’m being honest, makes me a little angry.

I get really annoyed when I see smart phone companies advertising things like “all your social networks on the same page” as if it’s a good thing, even a selling point. I got annoyed when Yahoo! mail started offering status updates, and Facebook changed their news feed to keep up with Twitter. I like Twitter and I like Facebook. I like that they’re different experiences. I don’t want to do both at the same time, and I definitely don’t want them to merge into one. That would be boring. Similarly, I like watching TV. I like reading books. I like discussing books I’ve read with other people. I like looking stuff up online that seems interesting at the time but soon gets relegated to the Useless Information file cabinet – or rows of same – in the dark dusty corners of my mind. I do not like doing all of them at the same time, which is what Alice seems to offer.

I want to read books – be it on paper or through code – because I like the experience of reading.

As it is now. No bells or whistles, just words.

Alice says that’s not enough.

Granted, young readers are a different matter. The bells and whistles help them learn, and I’m sure they’d love the interactivity. (I know I used to love those adventure books where you’d get to choose your own ending, even though I’d go back and read all the other ones too.) I’m on board with anything that gets children reading. But as an adult reader, I take offense.

And as a writer, it makes me want to strangle someone.

Writing 100,000 coherent words isn’t exactly a walk in the park on a sunny afternoon hand-in-hand with John Mayer. (Or Aaron Eckhart. Tangent: after hearing what has quickly become my new favorite song, Dear John by Taylor Swift, I think I should lose the Mayer crush. It’s reportedly about him and if it is, boy – is he a piece of work!) Who, pray tell, is going to write these new books, what with their videos and secret paragraphs and hidden backstories and treasure hunts and geo data and a partridge and a pear tree? And text messages from my characters? Seriously? I can barely get them to hang around long enough to round out my plot, for fudge’s sake – and that’s only after a lot of work, coffee and toast.

And at the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I’m the writer. It’s my story. I wrote it because I wanted you to read it, as it is. I love you and everything – really, I do – but I don’t want you messing around with it after it goes out into the world. This novel writing business isn’t a co-op, you know. The story doesn’t unfold by committee.

Considering the lengths I have to go to just to write a book in the first place, all Alice encourages me to do is crawl under the duvet and despair. Tacked to my noticeboard is one of my favorite writing quotes by Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

How much worse are things like Alice going to make it for writers in the years to come? Or will there be a new breed of writers who specialize in those kinds of books? And which of us will be more attractive to a publishing house?

And am I just having a mental health episode, or is this something you’re occasionally mildly worried about too?

10 thoughts on “The Future of the Writer… As If Writing Books Wasn’t Hard Enough

  1. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    I’m with you on this one. ALICE sounds like a children’s toy, and it may be a very good one. For children.

    Every reader “completes” a story in his or her own way, but they do not need a computer application to help them do it. They already have what they need. It is called imagination. Actually, I think an app like ALICE could work against imagination.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Indeed Lindsay – a children’s toy. You’ve summed it up there. I am really interested to know if any of the brains behind this video – and they are big brains, evidently, because they are some really intriguing ideas in there – came from writers, because they seem to be left out of this equation. The first time I watched it I was like, hmm. Interesting. And then I was like, wait a second? Where is all this going to come from?!

  2. Cynthia Briggs says:

    Now my brain is really full…overflowing in fact, oh wait, it just blew up.

    I agree with you completely…leave our books alone! We like the feel of a real book in our hands and we want to travel to where the book/author takes us.

    If we wanted to make up our own story, we should write our own book. Maybe I don’t fully get it, but it seems we’re going to have to put on our mental running shoes to keep up with an easy read. There will be no more curling up in front of the fireplace on a cold winter day to read a good book.

    And BTW, there is a reason we call work, work and it’s not called something like play. Isn’t there a reason why we call reading, reading and we don’t call it watching a movie or running a marathon?

    Cynthia Briggs, Cookbook Author

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Ha! I hope your brain is okay Cynthia. 🙂

      “If we wanted to make up our own story, we should write our own book” – exactly! When I pick up a book, it’s because I want to hear someone else’s story – or their opinion/perspective, which NELSON seems to want to eradicate. Although I do like the idea of the likes of evangelical US tea party types getting read with a big warning sign next to the text! [Evil laugh] But I think we don’t need technology to make up our own minds, or even a story. Books already work.

  3. Marcus says:

    I guess “Alice” stories would be produced by the games industry. Writers would only be part of the creative team, like in movie-making. I don’t think it will replace the traditional novel. The Alice type story games might exist in parallel, with a different focus to novels, with reader choices and social networking.

    There is actually something similar already. They are called “Visual Novels”, of which there are different types. They are like novels with choices by the reader and graphics. VNs are popular in Japan. But novels exist in parallel, just like graphic novels, and comics.

    Finding or creating quality is the same difficulty, no matter which medium you choose. A weak screenplay won’t make a great movie either.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I guess it’s not the actual thing itself that bothers me – I know they are already interactive books, etc. – but the attitude, as in, “Books are boring. We need to sex up reading.” As I said to Cynthia, books already work. Let’s stop coming up with ever more ways to complicate and pollute the reading experience, and focus on producing better books, or getting more people published or whatever. Down with Alice (unless it’s for children)! ;-D

  4. Rod Griffiths says:

    What I really want is the app where I get text messages from my characters (hat I haven’t written) and all I have to do is put them into the plot in the right order. It would make such a change from they waking me up at four in the morning when I know if I don’t type it out right away I’ll forget by the time I wake up properly.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Now THAT’S a good idea! Perhaps the best thing would be for our characters to write the entire books via text messages during the night, so when we wake up we can just transcribe them? A kind of communication from the creative ether. It would make my life so much more pleasant. Rob, if you can figure out a way to make this work – you’ll be a billionaire! 😀

  5. Rod Griffiths says:

    I got a mesage from your wordpress thingy. I read your blog by subscribing on Google reader, so I don’t need to subscribe by email. Is there some way of letting this thing know?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      If it’s the post itself, there should be an option in the email to unsubscribe. If you can’t find me, email me your email address (to and I’ll take you off the list myself at this end.

      If it’s a notification of new comments or a reply to your comments on this post, they’ll stop when the comments stop, but you should also be able to unsubscribe.

      If you have your own WordPress blog, you should also be able to unsubscribe from your dashboard.

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