From Hand to Screen: Technology and the Writer
By Mary Vensel White
My son and I just returned from a short vacation in Austin, where our final stop was the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. On display from March through October this year is an exhibit detailing Texas’s rich music history. Behind one section of glass stood a series of listening devices, beginning with the first phonograph, a console-like piece of furniture with its faded, scalloped speaker, and ending with a tiny iPod and earphones. And it got me thinking about the trajectory of my own writing career, which bridges an unprecedented technology boom.
We had an electric typewriter at home, and my grade school reports were done on erasable bond—an almost transparent, embossed paper. Hunt and peck, of course, and sometimes even with the erasable paper, you’d smear something beyond redemption and have to start a page again. I learned to type properly in high school on a more modern machine. I was enamored with the sound of the thing, a gentle whirring over which you had to raise your voice and when an entire classroom of would-be typists fired up, the teacher had to speak very volubly indeed.
Before I began college at a slightly older age than is traditional, my future husband bought me a gift to encourage my writing: a Brother word processor. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry. Consider it an extinct ancestor of our current laptops. Supposedly, it was portable, although it was unwieldy and probably weighed twenty pounds. A small screen displayed letters only above a keyboard, and documents were saved onto floppy disks which, as I recall, did not easily translate to computer later.
By the end of my college years, computers were in wide use. We had one at home, and I used it to type the many essays and papers required of English majors. We had a dial-up connection that took forever, and I never really knew what to do on the internet once I got there. During graduate school, I worked days in an office and for the first time was at the helm of a computer all day. Some benefits of the internet were becoming apparent—maps and travel, information and phone numbers—though I still did most school research at the library. During this period, I began sending out short stories to literary journals and magazines, and I finished three novels and sent queries for those. Everything was mailed then. I’d print off a complete copy of each story, type a cover letter and mailing labels, and stuff everything into a big manila envelope. With another envelope included, stamped and self-addressed for return of the materials, which they usually did.
I definitely consider myself the technology-resistant sort. I never thought we needed a cell phone when they first came out, and later I kept my simple Nokia for a long time when everyone was updating to faster phones with more features. What do I need that for? I’d say. In those years, I was busy with children and didn’t have time to talk anyway. My writing career took a hiatus, although I did use the computer for a variety of things.
Several years ago, I decided to retrieve my body of work and see if there was anything to build on. Most of my writing was on floppy disks, and we no longer had a computer that would read them. I ordered a converter (you can find anything online, I marveled!) and when it arrived, it reminded me a bit of the 8-track converter I had for my first car. If you don’t know what this is, again, don’t worry. Picture a plastic, boxy sheath, with a slot where you insert the older media.
When Kindles exploded onto the book scene, my resistant side flared up. I’d say: I love books. Who wants to read on a screen? I bought one of the early models for my husband, thinking he might like to download periodicals when he traveled. I never used it myself. I like the look and feel of books, ink on paper, I’d insist.
I started sending out queries again on a novel called The Qualities of Wood. This was the one that seemed most likely to succeed, a story about a young city couple immersed in a mystery out in the Midwestern countryside. To my delight, many agents and publishers accepted emailed queries and while this didn’t ensure a faster response than a mailed one, it was a major convenience. For reference, there were online resources like agentquery.com, writersmarket.com, blogs about writing, etc.
I stumbled upon authonomy.com, a site for unpublished writers established by HarperCollins. While I waited for the traditional route to open up (signing by an agent, book deal, etc.), I posted some of the novel online to get other writers’ opinions. Authonomy is like many online communities. You create a profile and agree to certain civilized behavior. All or part of a writing project can be uploaded, to be critiqued and rated by other members. Books with the most support at the end of each month are sent for review by a HarperCollins editor. But the benefits of participating at the site went beyond this. I met wonderful colleagues, fellow writers who understood the process and the soul-draining business aspects. I discovered more online resources. I got my feet wet with social media. My editing skills improved. And most importantly, I had readers for my writing.
In January of 2011, The Qualities of Wood reached the Editor’s Desk at authonomy and was sent for review. I didn’t expect much, to be honest. I had learned enough about the current publishing climate to know what an uphill climb I had in store for me. Many of my fellow writers were self-publishing their own books and I began to consider that. The review came back from authonomy. It was very positive and implied the novel had been forwarded for further review. In the meantime, a friend referred me to a small publisher and they made an offer for the book. Also, a New York agent expressed interest.
And then I got an email from HarperCollins. By a strange twist of fate, the editor who had read my novel had just taken over the authonomy website. He was Scott Pack, publisher of The Friday Project and HC’s new director of digital development. He was looking to start a new imprint with authonomy books, to be published as digital originals with print versions later for the most successful books. He wanted mine to be the first. I accepted the offer.
As the book was being readied for publication, I picked up my husband’s “old” Kindle. My book was going to be a digital release, after all, so I decided to try the technology. I downloaded one of my book club’s picks and read my first digital book. It wasn’t bad. I liked the slimness of the Kindle and the screen looked much like a regular page. Over the following months, I read many books on that Kindle—novels self-published by fellow authonomy members, traditionally published novels, unpublished manuscripts I’d promised to critique—and I began to appreciate my e-reader. In fact, for this past birthday, I asked for a Kindle Fire and am still in a blissful honeymoon state with it. My technology-resistant self hates to say this, but I just finished a hardcover book that was quite inconvenient to lug around, and it hurt my hands when I held it up in bed. Also, I got shrimp sauce on it around page 165, so there was guilt for that.
The internet abounds with articles and debates about e-books and what they mean for publishing and print books. Since my novel was published, I am frequently asked when the print version is coming out. Most people who ask have already read the book in digital form. I suppose to have a book in hand still symbolizes some level of legitimacy, even to e-reader enthusiasts. My own world is one where printed books and e-books live in harmony, neither displacing the other. And I am no longer quite as resistant to technology. Some of my writing has made the journey from handwritten to typed page, from floppy disk to digital file, and really, it’s the story and the readers that still matter.
Mary Vensel White lives in southern California with her husband, four children and two badly trained dogs in a chaotic but happy home. The Qualities of Wood (HarperCollins), winner of a 2012 International Book Award, is her first novel.