If you’re a writer, by now you’ve probably caught on that things are changing. Publishing, books, the world — even humankind as a species is evolving. The kids on Jersey Shore wield roughly the same political influence as Obama, which doesn’t bode well for our continued survival. Charlie Sheen still isn’t in prison, which doesn’t bode well for whoever he happens to be in bed with this week. The Human Singularity is fast approaching, scientists say; we could all be immortal, computerized intelligences in mechanical bodies any day now. I hope like hell they’re wrong, because I don’t think we could handle it. Not just yet.
But we who observe and interpret all this constant motion, this intractable chaos, have stories to keep us sane. The hungry reader still has her books; the haunted soul can still write to his heart’s content.
The Dell Inspiron on which I’m typing this is jacked into the internet, which gives me access to various avenues of stimulation: There’s Twitter and Facebook, where I could go chat with my fellow writers for an hour or so; there’s Flickr and Tumblr, who apparently donated their e‘s to the terms ebook andemail — how generous of them; and then there’s the vast abyss of the rest of the net at my fingertips, courtesy of the folks at Google.
Pinned to my taskbar, at the bottom of my Windows 7 screen, is OpenOffice, the shareware app on which I compose all of my fiction.
If the laptop is a highway, and each of these options is an exit ramp, where do you think I head most often? All the stories I’ve written, you’d think maybe OpenOffice. But you’d be wrong. The internet isn’t just an abyss; it’s a veritable black hole of human interaction, data collection, and solitary stimulation. It’s a kind of playground with every toy you’d ever want to play with, every slide or swing set you’d ever want to toss you around for a couple hours.
This is a problem for the writer who wants to ever get anything done. With so many distractions, it’s half a miracle that any fiction gets written by anyone these days. I honestly don’t know how Neil Gaiman (known nowadays mostly as @neilhimself) or Joe Hill (@joe_hill) can get a book written, as much time as they spend fooling around online.
Problem is, we’re all guilty of it. Aren’t we?
And if we writers are spending every second of our free time online, isn’t that what readers are doing, too?
Let me give you some facts about myself. Before my girlfriend upgraded her DirectTV package to include HBO, Showtime, and a handful of other movie channels, I watched absolutely zero television programming. I still don’t, unless you count the occasional South Park episode or two on DVD. If my eyes are aimed at the television, it’s either because I’m at my girlfriend’s apartment without a book, my Kindle, or this laptop or because I’m putting off my work as a writer.
(Writer, you say? Work?)
Yes, I do consider writing a job. If I don’t write regularly, I can’t very well call myself a writer, can I? And if you want to make money doing it, or maybe even cultivate a career out of it someday, then yes, it’s definitely a job.
Some more facts: Here in my bedroom, to my left, are a pair of Guitar Hero controllers, an Xbox 360, a television, and a stack of games. Tonight I played two games of Halo: Reach and three or four games of Modern Warfare 2. This was the first time I’d played my Xbox in three months!
Insanity, I know.
Why did I stop playing Xbox, on this night or in general? Well, because I want to get in at least two or three hours of reading time in between now and the time I go to bed. Let’s be honest: If you can’t get any reading done, I can guarantee you won’t be getting any writing done, either.
A stack of new black moleskin journals sit just to the left of the 360, waiting to be scribbled in. T. C. McCarthy’s debut novel Germline is queued for download on my Kindle, just dying to be accessed for the first time. Kevin Smith’s Batman: The Widening Gyre pleads to be finished, after having been read halfway to the end this afternoon on my shift at the bank. A used hardcover copy of William Gibson’s Spook Country begs for my attention, despite its current position beneath James S. A. Corey’s new space opera novel Leviathan Wakes and a one-shot Batman comic. Beneath the Gibson novel lie thirteen books in my “to-read” pile. Elsewhere, two enormous bookshelves are filled with books waiting to be explored: King’s Dark Tower saga, the Harry Potter books, a bunch of short fiction collections by writers like Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, and Ray Bradbury.
An endless journey through countless universes, each the product of one author’s imagination at one point in time, one place in the world. So very many books.
I wish I could read them all this year alone, then replace them with new, equally incredible works; rinse and repeat. But who has the time?
It’s a sad truth, which I believe the twenty-first century writer needs to accept and confront rather than ignore, that fiction is no longer the dominant form of storytelling anymore. Comic books are coming back in a big way, thanks to the outpouring of Hollywood’s innumerable, mesmerizing superhero flicks like Captain America, Thor, and Green Lantern. Video games have hit the mainstream, and aren’t going anywhere; the communities forged by online gaming experiences rival real-life time commitments and even relationships that were once seen as high-priority.
With all the Tweets on Twitter, the endless consumption of factoids and hearsay and mental masturbation, and with all the entries in the Call of Duty franchise seizing the attention of adolescent boys everywhere, what hope does fiction have? Isn’t it just a matter of time before young people learn to ignore books altogether? After all, only their evil schoolteachers make them read…
These thoughts force a deep sigh out of me, the sheer cynicism like fire at my back, threatening to flood my mind entirely so that I’m forced to simply throw in the towel. But I can’t, and so I write. I write, I submit my work to places like Dark Highlands and Digital Science Fiction, and I write some more. Because I find hope in the possibilities of the novel, of the short story, the flash fiction piece and novella. The rare novelette so popular among science fiction writers. I find hope in the untapped possibilities of the craft — in the things fiction can do that no one’s quite managed yet, or hasn’t gotten around to envisioning.
The writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror has a particularly nice advantage: With speculative fiction, the only barrier is the writer’s imagination. You only need to think it up to find it within your grasp through the power of words.
The hundreds or thousands of individuals needed on a video game development team to design, write, program, and test a game like Halo: Reach or L.A. Noire is just mind-boggling. The millions of dollars to produce a film like Captain America: The First Avenger or Avatar, well, that’s utterly nauseating.
With fiction, it only takes one. It requires no budget save for a pen and paper, or the disk space on your hard drive. To write the Great American Novel, or the next Bram Stoker Award-winner, or the next Hugo nominee, you need only your imagination, voice or fingertips, and time.
Time is that thing you used to have. Remember? Back before it was vital to check your Facebook for notifications several times a day, before you found it necessary to Tweet your every fleeting thought. Time is what you used to have before you gave a damn about who just died on Grey’s Anatomy, who the soulless stud on The Bachelor handed out a rose to this week. Who had the Disney-standard Good Looks and passable voice to be named this season’s American Idol.
Time is what you need to enjoy a book, or to write one.
If you wish to be a writer, you may find that your best first move is to ditch the television, cancel the Xbox Live subscription, and take the scissors to your internet cable. And remember, friends: Do as I say, not as I do.
(Coming soon: The Twenty-First Century Storyteller, Part II: Keeping an Audience)
This post is reprinted from DarkHighlands.com. Look for the follow-up chapter on the Dark Highlands website very soon; if you miss it there, though, it’ll show up here eventually.