Jan 8, 2012

How much tech is too much?

For Christmas this year, I got an iPhone and a Kindle...two things my oldest children say were long overdue. Both of them fell on the iPhone like it was a raft in turbulant waters, despite the fact they also have a Wii and a PlayStation. They've managed to upload more than a dozen free games which they take turns playing until the battery wears out. Which doesn't take very long, unfortunately. (They also scoff at my own game playing abilities whenever I try to wrest it out of their clenched fingers. Seriously, how am I supposed to get better if they hog it all the time??)

As for the Kindle, the kids don't get to touch that. Ever. I've had it embedded into my arm so my favorite book is never more than twelve inches away from my face. Kidding. (Or am I?) Combined with Netgalley, my Kindle is the best thing ever. I'm reading Elizabeth George's new release a full week before it's released. *happy squeal* I know!! It's amazing.

Which brings me to my point - and thanks for sticking with me this long. My life is crowded with technical stuff. I spend about four hours on the computer each day, whether I'm writing, doing research, blogging, Facebooking, emailing or looking up the recipe for Eggnog Fudge. My husband, son and I text often - even to the point of, when hubsy's in Belgium, I'm texting him at son's hockey game while hubsy is listening to the game online via the local radio station. o.O

Technology is everywhere. So how much of it should I include in my WiP? (This is definitely a problem Charles Dickens or LM Montgomery didn't face. Unless of course, they had to wrestle with the intriguing problem of electric vs. gas lights and which would fit better in their story.) Tech is changing so fast, it's a pretty sure bet that whatever we include will be dated in say, five years. But for contemporary writers - especially YA writers -  leaving it out is a HUGE omission. Like leaving the nose off a character's face.

On the other hand, including too much of it will probably be a bit like watching a movie when a rotary phone rings or a character develops film in darkroom. As a reader, this details pulls me out of the story for a moment, if only to mentally reassess my mental pictures of the characters' appearances, surroundings and mindsets. I do this going into reading a classic novel but for contemporary fiction, this can be a jarring transition.

As authors, we not only have to create our world, we have to determine which parts of the real world are likely to be around long enough to become standard. Like cell phones. I think all of us can agree that, barring a nuclear catastrophe or an asteroid hit, cell phones are here to stay. As are personal computers. But what about the process of 'renting' a movie? Amazon already streams them, as does Netflix, which means the slow death of external rental places (perhaps including RedBox). And the terminology may change as well to simply 'streaming' a movie. Why is this important, you ask? Well, for contemporary YA authors, how often do teens watch movies on the weekends? Yeah, a lot. This is a tiny detail but nevertheless, the kind of detail that can date your story. I'm sure you can come up with other, better examples.

The fact is, we have no idea what's coming tech-wise in the next five years. I just read that a dude in Japan invented the first touchable hologram...so imagine what gaming could be like in the next decade.  People who own iPhone 4S can already talk to it...so imagine the way voice interface will affect keyboards. (Imagine not having to type!) The Ford Focus can parallel park itself...so imagine an auto-drive feature. And forget paper maps or phone books. Anyone with a GPS or a computer no longer needs to read them. This kind of speculation is a playground for dystopian authors but contemporary authors are stuck with what IS.

So how do you handle technology in your story? How do you write a good dose of reality without shortchanging the future?
at least, not right now...


Sarah Pearson said...

I include what I have to, but definitely don't mention brand names!

Lauren Alissa Hunter said...

This is a huge question! I don’t know the answer! In my own WIP I want to refer to emails and texts (because that’s just how things work!) but I try to just refer to it all as “messages,” opting for a vaguer and hopefully less likely to expire description.

Last year I was living in China and read a memoir written by a Peace Corps memoir about his time in China, “RIVER TOWN,” and the book was phenomenal—but I was always distracted by him talking about vcrs! It was written in the mid 90s and while most everything was still relevant, and his insights and experiences will always be valuable, it completely took me out of the story anytime he referenced antiquated technology.

So, it’s definitely an issue.

What would JK ROWLING do? Oh, she’d just have people send messages by Owl. Of course. Why didn’t we think of that?

Andrew Leon said...

Google (yes, Google) has already been working on a car that drives itself with GPS. They've been doing field tests for a couple of years, now.

Here's my take on tech: unless it's important to the story, leave it out. Just don't bring attention to it. People can fill in the gaps with whatever's applicable that way. If you have to have a character make a call, just have them make a call. Don't focus on what they're using to do it, just have it done.

John Williams said...

Be sure to follow the thinkers in SciFi. You may not be interested in writing SciFi, but they are often excellent at predicting trends (or at least those trends which are possible.)

I follow Charle's Stross' blog (in addition to yours) and he had a fantastic post recently theorizing what the next 20 (and 80) years will look like:


Botanist said...

Hooo boy! What a topic. Contemporary Fiction, meet Sci-Fi. I'm sure you'll get along just fine.

This is exactly the problem writers of near-future SF have wrestled with for decades, but it just shows the pace of technological change when contemporary authors have to deal with it too.

My thoughts are, it depends on how central technology is to the story. If it's critical, then I guess you need to bite the bullet and make sure the era is firmly fixed. If you include enough other detail to ground the reader in the right year, then you shouldn't have a problem. I certainly don't have an issue with a rotary phone if I am already mentally in that era.

If technology is peripheral then you might be able to generalise it enough to be time-insensitive, for a few years anyway.

Mindy McGinnis said...

True. You definitely run the risk of dating your ms if you get too specific. But at the same time, I can't have my YA characters writing notes to each other.... Cause they dont do that anymore:)

Suzi said...

That's an interesting question and there is another issue that goes along with that, getting the technology wrong. I'm fairly tech savvy, but I don't have all the gadets I'd love to own.

On the ms I'm currently querying, I had a scene where a guy reveals the existence of a sex tape.

My mc said, "Did you burn it?"

It wasn't until many months later when I had my a-ha moment. You don't burn (as in fire) a tape. Everything is digital and is located in a file.

So not only do you have to be wary of not being too specific, but you have to make sure you get the technology right.

Carrie Butler said...

Vagueness and moderation. ;)

John Williams said...

@ Suzi,

To a certain degree, even contemporary genre fiction must contend with the same problem as you mentioned in your ms.

If you want someone to make a phone call, do they have to go somewhere to do it or do you assume a cell?

Does your character get breaking news via tv/radio, the internet, or their smart phone?

Is wireless (internet) ubiquitous, are internet cafes available, or do you even have the internet?

Technology defines our lives in ways that we commonly don’t think about. In the 1980s, you used to be able to go to the boarding area whether you had a ticket or not, but not anymore. The X-ray technology has been updated Cell phones are beginning to replace ground-line phones in the US, but overseas people went from not having a phone to having a cell (ground-line infrastructure isn’t as robust outside of the US). Video recording had Betamax, VHS, DVDs, HD-DVDs and Blue-Ray, music had 8-track, cassette and then CD. Cameras were film, then digital and now most cameras have some kind of video recording feature. Motion pictures went from black and white to color, reels that needed developing to digital images. And there have been changes in the digital codec technology (reducing the file size and improving image quality.)

If you’re technology savvy, you can date any piece by the technology portrayed in the ms.

A favorite example of this is the Greywalker series, where the protagonist doesn’t get a cell phone until the second book (because the initial ms was written during a decade when cell phones were bulky and uncommon and the ms wasn’t published until many years after they’d become nearly ubiquitous.)

Emily R. King said...

This is an excellent question. I don't include technology too much, unless it's pertinent to the plot line. Even then, I don't like to get into specifics. It's a fine line between just enough and not enough.

Sarah B said...

I'm with Carrie and Sarah and Mindy. Vague and no brand names, but at the same time, what else am I going to call a touch-screen tablet besides a tablet?

And I absolutely LOVE that Sci-Fi is coming back into mainstream popularity again, especially with YA. (I actually have a guest post about my thoughts on that on lianabrooks.blogspot.com going up on 1/10/12)

Jade Hart said...

I'm the same minded. Vague with no names. However the amount of MS's that I've read with iPod's, iPad's etc... it's like free advertising for apple! :)

Look forward to following you :)

Melodie Wright said...

I try to follow the consensus on keeping to generalities but it can be tricky. Like Sarah said, sometimes a proper name can date you - like a tablet computer. Or Skype. Or even the mention of playing a video game. All we can do is our best - and hope our editor has a crystal ball. :)

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

It's so hard! I recently heard that we shouldn't name specifics in our novels (like Facebook or Skype), but it's so hard not to! Maybe it's true--we need to make up fictional names for these things so that we don't look ridiculous in two years when our books come out and Facebook is a thing of the past. This is the world in which we live!