Writers guide chapter 1

By Therese Fingleton

Avoid all paradigms, even mine! When someone says this is the way it’s done and it has to be this way, question it, because the landscape is changing so much.
Matt Costello, 2008

The world of the Internet, computer games and mobile technology, broadly referred to here as the new media industry, is a rapidly changing environment, difficult to grasp and keep still long enough to examine. It involves professionals from all walks of life who approach it from myriad points of view. In writing a guide especially for writers, and including the experiences of writers already active in this multi-faceted business, this guide will take you on a rich journey that resonates beyond any immediate use-by date by being relevant, presented in context and designed especially for you, the creative writer.

New media myths, true or false

As is typical in any evolving field of endeavour, myths abound in the new media industry. It is worth remembering that use of the term ‘myth’ by scholars implies neither the truth nor the falseness of the narrative. What follows here are some common new media industry myths relevant to writers and an examination of what they entail. They are presented to help inform you as you work in this shifting landscape, and remind you that you will need to decide who and what to believe.

Myth 1: The new media industry is killing the traditional media industry.

They took the credit for your second symphony.
Rewritten by machine and new technology.
Buggles, 1979 (lyric from Video killed the radio star*)

Here’s a story we’ve heard before. Cinema will kill books and radio, TV will spell the demise of the theatre release, and now Internet and computer games will supposedly obliterate newspapers, magazines and all other media that has come before. If history has taught us to disbelieve the past prophets of media doom, should we believe them this time?

In his 2007 title, The Book is Dead; Long live the Book, Australian academic Sherman Young argues that ‘book culture is dead; doomed by being tied to the printed object and the economics of scarcity that surround it’. As books are currently the most bought object on the Internet, one could assume that readers will continue to desire the experience of reading a printed book well into the future

That said, the book industry (authors, publishers and booksellers) is right to see the rise in popularity of new digital formats (e-books, games, virtual worlds) as an indication of a change in consumer behaviour and a possible threat to traditional business models.

The same logic applies to the print media and TV industries, which increasingly must compete with online media for advertising dollars, as well as the theatrical film release market, which is competing with on-demand video on the Internet and cable networks. Traditional media simply cannot ignore where new media is taking its audiences. While according to Roy Morgan research (2007) Australians still spend more than twice the amount of time watching TV as they spend online, they define one group in the survey as ‘heavy Internet users’. These are people who use the Internet 8+ times per week and are aged 14–24 years (1.332 million people – 7.8% of all Australians aged 14 years and over). This group spends more time online than they do watching TV – 22.8 hours online versus 15.5 hours watching TV – and is probably a good indication of what is to come http://www.roymorgan.com/news/internet-releases/2008/734/.

To prophesise doom for the traditional media industry at the hands of a new kid on the block may indeed be folly, but what we can be sure of is that the Internet, the mobile content and applications industry and computer games are reshaping the media industry. We can likely expect the emerging media industry to grow up just like its traditional media big brother, dominated by a few large players – Amazon and Google spring to mind – but with many smaller players too, servicing ever more splintering niche audience groups and buoyed by further shifts to e-commerce.

While debates on the demise of the traditional media industry may seem largely the concern of publishers and distributors, as writing will always be in demand, it is advisable for writers to understand the evolutionary process the media industry is currently undergoing. New media distribution and marketing channels are both more global and more niche than traditional media. To ignore the new media evolution, and in particular the Internet on a personal computer or mobile device as a distribution, marketing and creative channel, is to forgo valuable new craft and business opportunities.

For a more detailed introduction to the new media industry see The New Media Industry chapter .

* The video of the one-hit wonder Video killed the radio star is almost 30 years old, has been viewed by around 800,000 people on YouTube. Perhaps in 2008 The Buggles would have been singing, ‘New media revived the old media star’. 

Myth 2: New media is killing the craft of creative writing.

Every age seeks out the appropriate medium in which to confront unanswerable questions of human existence. We cannot limit ourselves to Elizabethan or Victorian forms any more than Shakespeare could have written within the conventions of the Aristotelian tragedy or medieval passion play.
Janet Murray, 1997

Janet Murray in her seminal work, Hamlet on the Holodeck, leaves us in no doubt that the craft of writing is evolving just as surely as technology is advancing. Yet still when those in the business of creative writing gather to discuss the future of writing they often decry the quality of writing in interactive media as just not being up to the standards of traditional media. Blogs, video portals and virtual worlds are commonly cited as examples of self-published works that typically undergo no editorial process and present little guarantee of quality. g. That new media is not progressing the craft of writing, simply throwing it open to the masses, is another common claim. Is it scare mongering from gatekeepers or is there some truth to the myth that new media is killing the craft of creative writing?

A lack of meaningful content or an overt focus on shooting rampages are commonly cited to prove that immersive, interactive media like social virtual worlds and role playing games, offer less emotionally engaging experiences. But this is only looking at a small section of games and interactive media. Narrative-driven games such as the 2006 Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition award winner, Façade, are paving the way for more serious engagement with emotions in games. This ‘one-act interactive drama’ immerses the player in the world of a bickering married couple and, according to its co-creator Andrew Stern, is about ‘making players feel a true connection to characters on the screen’. It sounds more like interactive theatre than what we have come to associate with video games.

In the same vein as fan fiction, players of role-playing games often generate their own characters and their engagement with the story is augmented by virtue of the fact that they and their characters are embodied in the work. University of Sydney academic Angela Thomas conducted a seven-year study, Youth Online, which chronicles the stories and online interactions of young people from several countries, A common statement from her young study subjects was ‘but my favourite part of role-playing is bringing your character to life … to bring your character to life you talk for them and it kinda lets you relate to the character you made up’.

Indisputably, there are limitless examples of ‘bad’ writing on blogs and in video portals, but there are also numerous examples of quality writing, some of which is ‘discovered’ and ‘legitimised’ by the media industry giants. Phone-sex operator Cody Diablo was blogging about her year as a stripper when a Hollywood producer came across her writing and asked her to write a screenplay. She did and it became the highly successful 2007 film Juno. Her blog became Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper (Gotham Books, Penguin 2006).

Similarly, the makers of Lonelygirl 15 (available on YouTube and Revver) generated a huge audience for a faux video diary of a young girl, which was finally exposed as being a scripted and acted series. The audience remained highly engaged because of the quality of the drama and the makers were subsequently contracted to create KateModern, a drama set in the same ‘universe’ as Lonelygirl15 and with some of the same characters. While available through many sites, KateModern was first published and distributed by Bebo [http://www.bebo.com] a social networking service.

As for claims that new media writing does not advance the craft, one can examine the impact of writing for new platforms on a writer’s methodology. Australian author Isabelle Merlin says ‘the experience of writing a blog for the main character in my book, and the interactions between that character and others on the blog, forced me to develop a whole new discipline in my writing. I had to write convincing real-time narrative that augmented the book-reading experience without detracting from it. It had to read convincingly as real-time interactions’. It would appear that writing for new media can expand your craft horizons in the same way as changing genres from novels to radio.

Only by writing for interactivity will a writer appreciate what new media can offer and which elements to appropriate for their purposes and to further their craft. Whether you wish to role-play your characters in virtual worlds in order to develop dialogue sequences or simply create a blog to build and interact with an audience and possibly be ‘discovered’, most avenues would suggest new media offers more opportunity to evolve the craft of writing than kill it. 

Myth 3: No business models work in new media, OMG it is killing commerce too!

Check the program on any new or traditional media industry seminar or conference these days and you’re practically guaranteed to find sessions dedicated to emerging business models. Discussions often centre on whether or not any models work for new media creative content, and in particular original independent creative content. Currently most of what is being developed (i.e. that which advertisers are prepared to spend advertising dollars on) is new media content created around existing properties such as sports events and reality TV shows. 

Of course, it isn’t true to say that no business models work in new media, it’s just that they are more diverse and complex than the ones we know from traditional media. In some cases they are a hybrid of old and new models.
Video games for example are native digital content services that employ a mix of traditional and new business models. Video game makers often distribute demos with a few free levels and if you like them you can pay to unlock the others. Online virtual worlds like Second Life invite you to ‘play’ for free and as you become more active in the world you can purchase digital goods, lease digital land and even start making digital money yourself. But video games also work as traditional media in that there is a massive market for selling games on DVD. The games industry is largely dominated by major corporations but also includes numerous independent companies who are succeeding in this space by using various business models and content types. Successful Australian companies include Krome Studios [http://www.kromestudios.com/], the producer of over 37 titles including The Legend of Spyro (series), Hellboy and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger and Auran Games – creator of Dark Reign, one of the most successful real-time strategy games worldwide.

Cross-platform projects are more complex again, usually relying on a web of revenue channels including advertising, sponsorship and subscriptions. Some argue that these multi-pronged models are not yet sufficiently tested and as such can’t be considered proven, but again independent writers and producers are making them work. Some notable Australian examples are Hoodlum [http://www.hoodlum.com.au/], who develop content as extensions to existing properties (e.g. Find 815, based in the Lost TV show universe) and sometimes use new creative ideas and content; Blue Rocket [http://www.blue-rocket.com.au/], an animation and cartoon house who create for film, TV, broadband (Internet) and mobile (Hoota & Snoz, and Bang the Cat); and Global Dilemma, producers of award-winning cross-platform distributed drama Forget the Rules [http://www.forgettherules.com/].

See the profiles of Marissa Cooke  – who has worked as a writer on Hoodlum projects, and those of Blue Rocket principal Dave Gurney and Jim Shomos, writer-producer of Forget the Rules, in the DIY Part 2 - The Business Case and Business Models chapter .

Writing delivered in traditional media formats that use new media for marketing and distribution is in many ways the big winner in this space. As discussed previously, audiences, be they readers, viewers or players, still have a voracious appetite for traditional media. The Internet has revolutionised how these objects are bought and sold and in many ways the most reliable business model going is using new media to sell old media. Amazon and the millions of niche media sites using the tried and tested transaction or purchase business model have created ‘The Long Tail’ effect, generating huge revenues from what were previously dead products, such as publishers’ back lists. This concept is examined further in The New Media Industry chapter.

What we can take from this myth is that while there is a great deal of uncertainty and change, business models do exist for new media creative content. As we will see in later chapters (Marketing & distribution, Business models), in many cases business models are less divorced from the creative concept than in traditional media models. For writers this means you need to be more aware of business models than ever before.

Where to next?

Nothing offers a better starting point for writers new to this area than curiosity. What lies over that hill? Is there really a pot of gold? In the unchartered territory of new media, questions abound: not only asking which direction to take, but on board which vessel and by which route? And what will you find at the end of your journey? Common questions posed by writers entering this arena may help you think about your own new media questions:

  • With more media and more stories, is there more work for creative writers?
  • Can I work as a writer on other people’s creative projects?
  • Can I finally give up my day job?
  • Will my literary writing skills transfer to the world of interactive media?
  • Can my existing works find new life as interactive content or games?
  • How do I know if my idea will make a good game?
  • Am I capable of developing digital native ideas?
  • If my audience becomes co-creators, what about the integrity of my work?
  • I don’t know the first thing about websites or game engines. Who would I collaborate with, how would I find them, how would that work?
  • How can I stop people from copying and illegally distributing my work?
  • Should I just put my work out there and let it build me an audience?
  • If I want to stick to writing for traditional media, does digital technology offer me options to find and reach new audiences?
  • Who is my audience and with so much noise how will they find my work?
  • How can I generate revenue from my creative content?
  • Who funds and invests in interactive media, websites and games?
  • Can someone please tell me what is Twitter?

This guide aims to help you to learn how and where to find the answers to these as well as your own set of questions.

> Introduction references

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The writer's guide to making a digital living: choose your own adventure by Fingleton, T. Dena, C. & Wilson, J. for the Australia Council for the Arts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. For permissions beyond the scope of this license contact http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/about_us/contact_us.