Friday, 9 December 2011

When Worlds Collide

It used to be so clear-cut for me. There was work and there was writing. Two separate tasks that fitted into two separate boxes. Work was software development – technical, logical and defiantly left-brained. Writing was frivolous, creative and predominantly right-brained. I liked this separation and the opportunities it gave me to exercise different aspects of my personality. But, slowly at first, things began to change.

I started designing software as well as coding it, working alongside graphic designers and other creative people. My writing developed - rather more slowly than my career, it has to be said – and over a couple of years I wrote a 140,000 word novel. Or, a 140,000 word mess as it might more fairly have been termed. What was I to do with this gargantuan lump of prose? Here was where I found my software skills unexpectedly useful. I was used to breaking down a problem and structuring a system in modular chunks. Could a novel be structured in the same way? What was a chapter, after all, if not a single brick that could form part of a larger, more beautiful building?

I won't ever claim that book became a masterpiece. Its final structure was more like a Victorian folly than a scale model of the Taj Mahal. But I learnt a huge amount about applying the problem-solving skills I already had to the business of plotting and characterisation. All the same, writing was still very much a hobby, so software paid the bills and I kept scribbling in my spare time.

Somewhere around the point I won Undiscovered Voices, writing became more like a job. Or, at least, an unpaid internship. I signed with an agent and found myself rewriting eighty percent of my second novel over a period of three months. We went out on submission and suffered the "rave rejections" that seem all too commonplace in the current market. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel, a single editor who loved the book enough to want to acquire it. I revised again, working to tighter and tighter deadlines, my day job firmly shunted into second place on my priority list.

As we neared acquisitions, I experienced an unexpected crisis. Was I really about to be published? Could I give up my day job and live out my dreams of being a full-time author? Well, actually, no. The book didn't sell and I slid into a terrible period of depression. In retrospect, I realise that there were a whole heap of factors contributing to what happened. I had been working at home exclusively for a year, communicating via phone and Skype with people in several different countries. It's now clear that the isolation didn't sit well with me, that I needed daily contact with my colleagues in a physical workplace. And this, I have realised, was why being a full-time writer could never have worked – the solitude would have crushed me.

I started a new novel, pouring my dark feelings from the previous months into it. It wasn't an easy book to write and remains difficult even now – but nothing worthwhile was ever straightforward, right? Happily, my day job took a much better direction, and I got a new contract position. I would be commuting again, but at least there would be a real office full of people. In actual fact, I got a lot more than I bargained for - all the responsibility I could eat and an incredible new challenge in an exploding mobile app market. At the same time, I watched as publishing realised that its very survival was at stake, that it must evolve into digital markets or risk becoming irrelevant. Suddenly, software – the thing I had been doing for the last fifteen years – was colliding head-on with the world of publishing.

I sat in a room full of authors and illustrators earlier this year, listening to Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow talking about children's apps. And I could see, from the faces and the questions, that I was one of the select few who really "got it," who understood how app development required a whole set of different skills to writing or illustrating a book. Was it chance that put me in the middle of the digital publishing revolution, or a decade and a half of hard work? Either way, the future looks pretty damn thrilling from where I'm sat.



  1. Go for it Nick!I think you're right.

    I personally find the birth of the e-book and the app really exciting and something to be embrassed. I hope not only to have my story published as a book, but created into an app that can be interacted and played with :-)

  2. I'm chuffed to read you being so enthusiastic, Nick. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, eh?