Can technology help authors write a book?
Celebrated American author Mark Twain was very dismissive of people who think it is possible for someone to learn how to write a novel.
“A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel,” he said. “He has no clear idea of his story. In fact, he has no story.”
British writer Stephen Fry puts it another way. He says that successful authors are those who know just how difficult it is to write a book.
Every year around the world a whopping 2.2 million books are published, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which monitors the number. The figure includes both fiction and non-fiction titles.
For most of these authors the writing process is relatively unchanged since Twain’s heyday in the late 19th Century. Plot outlines and ideas are written down to be deciphered, developed and refined over time.
These days, however, technology is increasingly making the life of an author a little easier.
For Michael Green, a US data scientist turned novelist, the need to use technology to simplify and streamline the writing process came when he was in the middle of writing his first book.
With 500 pages of a complex story written, he recalls that the process had become difficult to manage: “In the midst of editing, I got to the point where I started feeling like I had a lot of plots and characters.”
“I had all these documents on the deeper aspects of the world I was creating. I was worried about being able to keep track of it all. That’s when I switched into my more data science-minded approach to solving a complex problem with a lot of different pieces.”
The end result was that Mr Green created Lynit, a digital platform that helps authors visualise, plan and weave together the various elements – such as characters, plot arcs, themes and key events – that form a story.
The app is now in its beta stage, and is being tested by a number of writers. Currently free to use, users can draw and update intricate digital templates or story maps.
Mr Green says that many novelists begin their work with little more than a general idea of a plot or a particular character. With Lynit he says that the process of adding to this initial idea is simplified.
“As the author gets a new idea that they want to bring into the story, they are able to input it into a natural framework. They’re building a visualization.
“Piece by piece, they’re adding to the story. As new ideas come in, they change, maybe by creating new nodes [or interactions], new relationships.”
Once a writer has got his or her book published, technology is now also being increasingly used to help authors connect with their readers.
This can be via the simple use of social media, with some writers happy to chat at length to their fans. Alternatively, authors can turn to specialist firms such as Chicago-based Hiitide.
Its website and app allows writers to participate in live paid-for question and answer sessions with their readers. And writers of self-help books can create and earn money from learning courses.
Evan Shy, Hiitide’s chief executive, says that the courses are “immersive workbook versions of the books”. “They help you better understand the material, and integrate its principles into everyday life.”
As an example, he points to Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, which largely draws its inspiration from the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism.
“Users don’t just learn about stoicism [via the Hiitide course],” says Mr Shy. “They can decide which virtues they want to embody and be held accountable for those every day,
“And they can participate in an exclusive Q&A with Ryan Holiday himself about the book.”
Another tech firm, California-based Crazy Maple Studios, says it helps authors bring their books to life.
Instead of just giving the readers words on a page, its four apps – Chapters, Scream, Spotlight and Kiss – add animation, music, sound effects and even game play to digital books – whereby the reader can decide what a character does.
“The digital revolution and the advent of e-readers made the first big shift in the publishing industry,” says Joey Jia, the firm’s founder and chief executive. “It lessened the impact of ‘gatekeepers’, but it didn’t go far enough.”
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According to Mr Jia, authors are likely to increasingly turn to technology as a result of a need to compete in a world in which potential readers have many options on how to spend their leisure time.
Experts, however, still caution against an overreliance on technologies aimed at helping writers.
“Technology can also be distracting, particularly if you’re one step away from social media, or jumping down a research hole,” says Melissa Haveman, a ghost writer and author coach.
“A quick five minutes can sometimes lead to hours of lost writing time. One of the pieces of advice I’d give on technology is to find work what works for your personality and natural writing styles, and then use it.
“But authors can sometimes fall into the trap of trying everything in the hope that it will be the magic piece, which really just turns into another distraction.”
Yet Michael Green says he believes technology will become even more prominent as a new – and a tech-savvy – generation of writers becomes more prominent.
“What I’m finding with the Generation Z and even younger writers is that they’re looking for technology to give them guidance,” he says. “They see it as a tool to learn and grow with, rather than extra work.”