Digi-Writing: A New Challenge

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FOR TEACHERS AND LIBRARIANS

Digi-Writing: A New Challenge

By : Annie Besant Jon  /  Nov 2010

Nine-year-old Daniel is mesmerized by Who Will Rule?—a digital book he’s reading on the iPad. A light touch sends a kookaburra streaking across the sky; another light touch gets the elephant to trumpet loudly and blow water out of its trunk. Daniel is still mesmerized as he turns the earth round and round, and gets the clouds to pour rain on the mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and insects of the world.

The nine-year-old boy, like so many children his age, has just been introduced to a book app—digital books that can be accessed through smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone and iPod, and now the iPad. According to Mobclix, which does mobile advertising for apps, there are more that 27,000 app-based books available on Apple’s App Store—a big booming market for publishers, and for the writer, an entirely new way of writing.

Anju Darshini is a creative writer with an e-learning company that has set its sights on capturing the digital book market. She says, ‘It’s just been six months since we turned our attention to creating book apps, and as a writer it’s a challenge for me because I’m no longer telling a straightforward story. I’m thinking of all the different ways the characters and objects in my story can be animated, the educational value I can add to these objects. Even when I sit down to a meeting with the app developers, the question is “How interactive can we make this?”’

Writing a story that is going to be printed on paper often requires the writer to focus solely on the plot, the characters, the theme, and the moral if any. But as Sreeja Sreenivasan, a writer based in the U.S says, ‘When writing for an e-book, my questions are more along the lines of “What will my character’s actions be when a user touches it?”, “What play value can I inject into this e-book?”, “What extra features can I suggest to make this app rank higher than the others?”’.

There’s no denying that the smartphone and iPad have revolutionized how books are read. For e.g., Disney has made its Toy Story digital books interactive and educative by throwing in a Trivia Challenge that’s meant to help reading comprehension, and even a Story Builder that lets the more advanced readers add their own images to the story and modify the text to create their own tale!

Callaway Arts & Entertainment’s Miss Spider’s Tea Party lets the reader elicit a reaction from the characters by touching them—Miss Spider will wave goodbye; the butterflies will flit around a vase of flowers etc. After reading or listening to the book, the reader has colour pages that s/he can play with, and matching games to improve memory. All this is meant to reinforce the story and keep the child coming back for more.

But has all of this come together to also redefine the role of a writer? Anju laughs, ‘I think writing for the digital book has tampered with my abilities a bit.’ She pauses as if searching for the right words and then adds, ‘Even if I let my mind go where it wants to, in the end I have to assess my story in terms of how convertible it is, how exciting it is for children whose attention span is growing shorter with every new digital device that’s coming out, and how different it is from the book apps put out by the bigger giants.’

Sreeja recalls instances when her editor trashed some ‘perfectly good’ stories because they weren’t better than the ones out there. ‘I think when you write a book you don’t go to a bookstore and compare your script to the books out there. But when you write a digital book, the pressure is on you to read through every book app in the iTunes store and try to better it.’

Creative writing in the digital age is a fun and exciting time for writers; it can also be a little unnerving for those who prefer the paper medium for their words. A writer can not only experiment with his/her writing styles and stories, but can watch these stories literally ‘come alive’.

Think about it: You write about a heroine who loves to collect caterpillars, and digital technology allows the caterpillars to move around your heroine as she goes hunting for them. A simple touch can leave a caterpillar giggling, and a drag-and-drop can leave them in little jars. The possibilities are endless. For digital age writers like Anju and Sreeja, the story begins with the new technological discoveries around them. And for young readers like Daniel, the discoveries begin where the story ends.

Annie Besant (yes, that really is her name) resides in Chennai, and loves to write sitting in her balcony under a jasmine plant that is defiantly growing wild. A freelancer. A short story writer. An aspiring novelist. A witch who brews a mean cup of tea.