Creative writing has always been a solitary pastime; writers are usually pictured sitting alone at a desk with a pen in hand. These days, however, a writer is more likely to be sitting in front of a computer typing on a keyboard, and while physically alone, is engaged with the wider writing community through the Internet.

The Internet provides creative writers with many opportunities: instant access to information on the craft and business of writing; research opportunities; social networking; and electronic publishing. But it also brings challenges, and risks encroaching on the creative process.

The Internet as a writing resource

There are hundreds of websites with tips to help improve a new writer’s craft. Many of these are from amateur and professional writers, and contain both useful and dubious advice. More reliable guidance can be found on the websites of writers’ centres. As well as written information, these provide initiatives such as online writing courses and weekly interactive writing sessions. These allow emerging authors to ‘meet’ established authors and other industry professionals, and to get feedback in a semi-anonymous way. Writers can be sensitive and anxious about
sharing their work; the Internet provides a perfect buffer to soften any scrutiny.

Once a writer’s work is underway, he can use the Internet to research factual elements of his story, a task that would have been extremely time consuming in the past. And when the piece of writing is complete, information about writing competitions, magazines, literary agents and publishers is readily available.

Social networking and writing

Perhaps one of the most unique and interesting aspects of the Internet is how it provides readers with access to writers. Many - if not most - authors now have their own website and blog, and are active on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Authors not only provide biographical information about themselves and their book, but also blog about their writing process, or current affairs, or aspects of their personal lives. Readers seem to respond to this and enjoy feeling that authors are real people rather than a static photograph on the inner back cover of a novel. Having spoken to professionals in the writing industry, it seems to now be expected that any new writer keeps a blog, and is active on social networking sites. In fact, some literary agents have said that they won’t take on new writers as clients without an existing online presence, or ‘author platform’. Writing – professionally – is a business, and the Internet provides a way to market that business.

However, social networking sites like Twitter act as more than a feed of author information. For a writer, it provides hundreds of updates daily on the literary world with information from authors, editors, publishers, agents, bookshops, and journalists. Recently, one writer tweeted live from a literary awards ceremony so that Twitter followers could ‘virtually’ attend. It allows networking in the true sense of the word, connecting writers and allowing them to allowing them to exchange information – albeit in 140 characters or less – with hundreds of potentially useful contacts.

Electronic publishing

The electronic publishing of books has been a huge focus in the media for months, particularly after the collapse of the REDgroup and the subsequent closure of Borders and Angus & Roberston bookshops. One reason for this collapse is that Australians use the internet to order books from offshore companies at significantly lower prices, but another reason is the rise of electronic publishing. Amazon now sells more Kindle eBooks than paper books. What does this mean for a writer?

A writer can now self publish their work online in a matter of minutes. They can set their own price, and take a larger percentage of the book price that they would ever get through a traditional publisher. But the main problem with this model is that there is no ‘quality control’ provided by agents, editors and publishers.

The other challenge of self-publishing for a writer is knowing how to advertise their book to potential readers. There are exceptions to this: a few authors have done amazingly well through selling self-published novels online. But the vast majority of authors who self-publish electronically are not very successful in terms of sales, or in terms of recognition by the literary world.

There is a lot of anxiety at the moment about the collapse of bookshops. There is a concern that this could lead to less profit for publishers, and in turn, fewer new authors being published. But publishers are starting to change the way they work. Many publishers now sell their books in both paper and electronic formats and for readers, this provides choice and convenience. It may mean a temporary difficulty for writers while the industry’s anxiety settles, but ultimately the world still needs stories. People will always want to read books, it just may be a different format to now.

Other challenges

There is no doubt that the Internet provides a huge amount of information for creative writers that can lead to a wealth of opportunities. A big challenge for the new writer is to sort out the good from the bad, to sift through the personal opinions, advertising, and misinformation to find what is helpful. And this takes time.

Most creative writers don’t have the luxury of time: writing is something that is squeezed around the normal working day, and every minute is precious. In the course of writing this article, I wasted at least a couple of hours searching for information. I also was distracted by emails arriving, new posts on Twitter, and friends logging in and out of Skype.

The best piece of advice I was ever given was, “if you want to be a writer, you have to write.” Trawling the Internet is not writing; reading social networking sites is not writing. Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge for the writer on the Internet is to return  to that solitary state and just write. That means switching off the modem, closing the office door, and letting the words flow.

 

Dr Dawn Barker is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and writer based in Perth, Western Australia. Her first novel will be published by Hachette Australia in early 2013. She blogs at www.psychiatristparent.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter @drdawnbarker.