By Dr Jessica Seymour
Being a writer was always a romantic idea for me. I was a terribly antisocial child, and I liked the idea of hiding away in my bedroom for days – even months – on end and bashing away at a keyboard until a masterpiece came out. I was born in 1990, so a keyboard was part of my fantasy. Maybe if I’d been born a little earlier, I would have dreamed of stacks of pen and paper. Or a typewriter.
It used to be that you could build a career as a writer with very limited supplies. The cost was sometimes prohibitive – JRR Tolkien wrote much of The Hobbit on the backs of students’ exam papers – and you needed to be able to commit to sitting down and writing out your masterpiece by hand. Different limitations, different skills born of necessity.
Now the writer needs, at the very least, a social media presence (to keep in touch with your readers), a phone (to network), an internet connection (to help with the first thing, and also to submit your MS when it’s done) and a computer/laptop (to actually write on). Pen and paper helps if you want to draft out ideas, but if you try to submit a hand-written story an editor is more likely to use your MS as a mousepad than they are to read it.
Note: I’m talking about writers here, but I think a lot of these observations apply to other creative fields. Being a creator today means working within a completely different space, and we need to adapt our collective skillsets to cope with these changes.
From a creator’s perspective, the digital space affects both the process and the opportunities available. Need an idea for a story? There’s an app for that. Need to block out distractions and hit a word count, collaborate, or keep track of character backstories? There is an industry around developing software for writers.
In my fantasies, I used to picture myself typing stories directly into Microsoft Word. Now, I’d think myself insane for not backing up my documents on Dropbox and maybe adding a copy on Google Drive (just to be safe).
Online literary magazines mean that there have never been more spaces for a new writer to publish their work. These magazines don’t often pay, and some even charge for the privilege of submission, so the new writer also needs to learn skills in discernment; a new writer needs to be able to sift through the chaff and find the reputable magazines where their name in print will actually mean something.
There are also digital spaces where freelancers can get in contact with clients – opening up revenue streams that were previously closed to all but the select few ‘in the biz’ who had connections or a way to get their foot in the door. This also means that there is a much larger pool of potential competitors vying for jobs, some of whom are willing to work for $10USD/1,000 words. You need to be very, very good to make a living from freelance. Even then, you still need to build up a reputation before you can start charging the big bucks.
If you land a publishing deal (and after you’re done drinking yourself through six or seven bottles of celebratory champagne, you lucky duck) you’ll probably be asked to build your own online presence. That means maintaining active Twitter and Facebook accounts, a website that looks chic and modern without being too chic and modern, and a vlog or podcast if you can squeeze it in. A lot of hours that could be taken up writing are spent updating socials, so creators need to be able to do this efficiently and with maximum impact.
As educators, we can help our students by gently guiding them towards the reality of the industry as it stands. Don’t – please, oh please – don’t burst any bubbles. Writers are in the business of dreaming impossible dreams, so tearing down their fantasies is just cruel. But if we can train them with the right thinking patterns and show them the ropes, then the digital space can be just as fantasy-worthy as a bedroom and a keyboard.
Dr Jessica Seymour is an Australian researcher, lecturer, and freelance writer based in the Netherlands. She loves travelling, petting strangers’ dogs on the train, and taking naps, and her creative work can be found in Voiceworks Magazine, NeedleInTheHay, and Meniscus.