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From the Tech Desk
Independent Author Uses Coding Tool to Show Drafts and Creative Process Behind Novel
Why is writing a novel so difficult? It's a question many of us have undoubtedly asked ourselves over the years. After all, it seems like someone in the publishing world—someone who spends hours each week reading, editing books written by other authors, and following book industry trends—would be a prime candidate for writing their own Great American Novel. Quite often, though, people who work in publishing find themselves as stumped as anyone else when they ponder starting a personal book project. And it's not even a lack of good story ideas. On the contrary, story ideas are what publishing vets should have. Rather, it's the thought of committing to such a sprawling and daunting project that scares most would-be authors away.
In her 1994 book, Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott said that the key to writing a book—or taking on any writing project, for that matter—was to dive right in and write a shitty rough draft. Or 20 shitty rough drafts. It's a piece of advice that would be wisely followed by those who like the idea of writing a novel, but who lose their inspiration every time they are faced with a blank Word document and a blinking cursor. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that, if we do undertake a novel-writing project, then it has to come out fully formed on first try. The characters have to be perfectly drawn; the jokes have to hit just right; the story has to flow in compelling and natural fashion, with no bum notes along the way. Forget the fact that you're talking about the first-ever draft of your first-ever novel: it has to be perfect, dammit!
Gregory Mazurek, an author and computer programmer from New York, recently used technology to show just how insane that expectation of first-try perfection really is. According to an article from Quartz, Mazurek—whose pen name is Gregory Gershwin—recently saw a way to merge his career and his hobby of writing. No, he didn't write a Kindle book about the secrets of computer programming. Rather, he used a tool that is often utilized by computer programmers—GitHub, which saves a new version of code every time a programmer makes changes—to show the long and arduous creative process that went into his novel.
In the coding world, GitHub is a useful tool because it allows programmers to make changes to code without worrying that they will mess something up and never be able to fix it. If something does go wrong with the code, a programmer can either use GitHub to revert to a previous, functional version of the code, or to locate the mistake and learn from it. Needless to say, it's a tool that has prevented emotional breakdowns for coders everywhere.
With his new book, a young adult adventure novel called Benjamin Buckingham and the Nightmare's Nightmare, Mazurek decided to use the draft-saving technology of GitHub as he wrote. Initially, he opted move the project over to GitHub for its technical benefits. The program would allow him to make notes and keep track of his thoughts easier than Microsoft Word would. Furthermore, with GitHub, Mazurek would be able to access his book project from any computer, and would simplify the eventual conversion to different eBook file types. Using the program just seemed like a logical thing to do: it wasn't supposed to be an experiment in charting the progression of a novel.
A year later, though, when Mazurek finally finished work on Benjamin Buckingham, GitHub had accumulated more than 25 drafts of the book, including the 400+ changes he'd made to the manuscript. Some of the edits were quite substantial, too. For instance, the original first chapter of the novel was excised entirely, while the protagonist traded his cowardly personality for a courageous one. And after speaking with friends about how he had used GitHub to keep track of all his drafts, Mazurek realized that the evolution of Benjamin Buckingham was nearly as important as the finished product itself. That awareness led him to publicly share the entire GitHub project online, giving readers access and insight into his creative process.
This kind of thing is valuable for three distinct reasons. First of all, for fans of the book, it will serve as a cool "bonus feature" of sorts, offering a window into what might have been for the story and its characters.
Secondly, Mazurek has found a groundbreaking new way of using technology to publish his book and draw attention to it. Of course, notes and drafts have been published for famous authors and works in the past. 15 years ago, Christopher Tolkien compiled and published his father's notes to show the development behind The Lord of the Rings saga—revealing, among other things, that the Aragorn character had initially been a hobbit. But in the past, only extremely high profile titles have been accompanied by these kinds of releases, simply because of the costs associated with doing a print run. By using GitHub, Mazurek has slashed those costs to nothing, thereby making it possible for any author to share the evolutionary development of his or her work.
Lastly, by accompanying the publication of his novel with the release of all the drafts and notes that led to that novel, Mazurek has reminded us that virtually no book worth reading comes out fully formed. Writing a novel is a process—not only of constructing scenes and finding a good flow, but also of discovering who your characters are and where your story wants to go. It's something that aspiring authors would do well to remember, because it helps minimize all that pressure that goes along with trying to start something so daunting. Don't worry: do as Anne Lamott says, and write a shitty rough draft. A year or two down the road, it could just be one of two dozen drafts that tell the story of how your finished novel came to be.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.