I was reluctant to attempt this column, partly because it means contemplating current technology, for which I have little aptitude (most of my fiction is set in the Bronze Age) but also because I fear that whatever I write would soon be obsolete. I want to create classic columns that will be useful long after I am dead and buried -- or at least not go stale within six months. Nevertheless e-readers, even though they are a moving target, merit discussion.
There are articles that focus on what e-publishing has done for the marketplace, for authors yearning to see their work in print, and for readers devoted to mid-list series that were no longer being printed by the large publishing houses. There are other articles that bewail some of the dreck enabled by e-publishing (although I think some is published by the traditional houses). I'm not going to discuss these issues, or will mention them only tangentially. Instead, the subject of this column is how e-readers impact your readers' experience with your story -- and what, if anything, you can consider doing to enhance that experience.
Let's take a few snapshots of storytelling throughout the ages and see how it has been influenced by the changing forms. In the time of Homer, very few people could read or write, yet storytelling was still important. Poets recited their works, and some extremely long poems, such as The Iliad, were very popular. Epic poetry contained many repeated phrases, partly because only certain phrases suited the meter, but also because they helped the reciter and the hearers keep everything straight. The poems were also often designed to remind the listeners of their heritage, so they sometimes contained passages with lists of people and places. An example of this is Homer's catalogue of ships. Some of today's readers find these sections tedious, although they are still of great interest to historians and archaeologists. I imagine that it was of intense interest to people several thousand years ago, who were listening for the names of their own cities and local heroes. Perhaps they even stopped the bards with cheers.
Now let's fast-forward to look at storytelling during the era of the Victorians, in the 1800s. At this point, several centuries had passed since the invention of the printing press, so plenty of people were literate. It was still well before film, television and even radio, so unless you were going to the theatre, or the pastor of your local parish was unusually entertaining, reading was one of the few sources of storytelling. At that time many novels were published serially, with the new installments of the most popular authors, such as Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas, anticipated with bated breath. The most successful of these authors adapted their styles and structures to suit the limitations of the medium. Dickens used weird quirks, especially in his second-tier characters, to help readers recall them even if those characters had not appeared in the story for several months. Authors used cliffhangers, so that readers would not just turn the page of the magazine that they had in their hands but want to buy the next installment. Memorable characters and gripping plotlines are traits worth keeping today, but these aspects were even more important back then -- and were best included in a way that complemented the medium.
Since the days of Dickens, the different ways of getting our stories have proliferated: film, TV, audiobooks and graphic novels. I won't discuss the other media, but just e-readers and what they mean for readers and storytellers today.
Some features make reading easier. The ability to change the font size is fabulous for people who used to be restricted to whatever was available in "large print books." The fact that e-readers weigh so little yet can contain many, many books has been a boon for travelers and the arthritic. Readers can also download many books almost anywhere, allowing them instant gratification. All these features may have expanded the reading market -- or at least stopped it from shrinking as quickly.
Besides being convenient and making many books more accessible, how do the features of e-readers change the reader's experience of the story?
One issue concerns paragraphs. If a paragraph spans more than two screens, readers may not get its point. Therefore you may want to limit the length of your paragraphs so that this is less likely to happen. Of course, screens can be miniscule and font gigantic, so you won't be able to accommodate everyone.
In fact, readers losing their place may be more of a concern in other respects as well, because with some e-readers, flipping or scrolling back to check something earlier in the text is not easy. Therefore you may want to give more attention to tics and tags, so that your readers can keep your characters straight, and pay more attention to dialogue attribution. Some e-readers include information about the chapter number, possibly its title, and how far the readers have to go to reach the end of the chapter and/or the book. Other reading devices do not, so some of this information may be lost to the reader. Of course readers can lose their place and the thread of the story in hard copies too, but e-readers exacerbate the problem.
The tendency to surf has also influenced how some people read. It has been documented that some people now have shorter attention spans. This, by the way, is not really a good thing -- many scientists argue that darting from one subject to another lowers the IQ, as concentrated thought is actually good for brains. Nevertheless, many people are accustomed to surfing, and so you may want to change some aspects of your story so that reading mimics surfing. You may choose to go with shorter scenes and to follow more characters and threads.
Some of the features now available in e-readers are similar to surfing or other habits formed on the internet. With many electronic readers, passages can be highlighted, so that they can be easily found again. (The inability to flip through pages is reserved mostly for the technologically challenged.) My research into what electronic readers can do with respect to footnotes and cross-references indicates that the functionality in this area is changing swiftly. If you have hard-to-pronounce names, or characters who are hard to remember, or other digressions that might assist your readers but don't belong in the story proper, you may be able to use pop-ups or links. Gradually these will become more common within the text itself, implemented by authors and publishers who are technologically capable for the readers of their ilk.
Because of the ease with which e-books can be published -- there are virtually no gatekeepers and no waiting times -- it is possible for a lot of bad stuff to be published. Even good stuff can be published too soon. I once gave a one-star rating to a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, because the e-version was laced with typos. It looked as if the publisher had scanned the print version, and had never bothered with even a cursory copy-edit of the e-version. I was especially annoyed because the price for the e-version was significantly higher than the print version and yet the product was much worse. So if you publish an e-version, you need to proof it. And if you publish multiple variations of e-versions for different devices, you should not assume that the formatting that worked on one machine will work on the next.
The ease with which you can publish allows for stories of different lengths. Novels have to be a certain length to be acceptable to most traditional print publishers, who sometimes even specify ranges for genres. E-books, however, can be any length, which gives more freedom to the storyteller to choose a word count that suits the story instead of a story that suits a word count. Furthermore, now you can publish stories in lengths that were considered unsuitable before. Some authors even publish chapters of books, selling them for small amounts, reverting to the serialization techniques used by Dickens and Dumas.
I'm sure there are features to e-readers which I have not touched, as well as many others that have not yet been invented or are still in their infancies. Although there is much that I do not know, I believe that these changes in technology can influence how readers read. If you become aware of them, you can take advantage of them to improve how your readers experience your stories.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.