Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Time Is Not on My Side

I'm doing my final round of edits prior to starting to query and have had a few readers give me feedback. One of them pointed out that kids today don't use email anymore, they use Facebook to communicate, something I know since I'm the proud owner of a teenager. But my narrator uses email and doesn't have a Facebook account - which is something of a deliberate choice on my part, but it did bring up a problem I have had with the novel and one that plagues a lot of writers. Technology changes. And it seems to change overnight. And nothing dates your work faster than having out of date technology.

My novel started out as a short story in 1999. Remember 1999? That was thirteen years ago. Cell phones were around, but not everyone had one yet. The Internet was around, but most people used AOL, and having a computer was not quite as ubiquitous as it is now, especially one that had Internet access. In my original short story, no one had a cell phone, no one had a computer. Forget about iPods and smart phones and all these other things we've come to take for granted (a blog? what the heck was a blog?) By the time my short story (which had grown into a novella) came out and openly declared itself to be a full-fledged novel in 2008, the world had changed radically. And I have been playing technology catch-up ever since. In this final draft, I realized the flip phone I'd given to the older brother in the first draft (completed in 2009) was now dated, and have been going through the draft and changing all references to "flipping the phone open" to "turning the phone on." My narrator can no longer "snap the phone shut," which is a shame because that's such a great emotional indicator and you can't really turn a smart phone off in a way that shows annoyance.

I am not alone in chasing technology in this way or dealing with the technology conundrum in fiction. Literary fiction is plagued with a dearth of technology in its books. Fantasy has it a little easier since magic tends to take the place of technology, and the genres of Science Fiction and Thriller tend to place technology (and usually fantastical technology that hasn't been invented yet) front and center. The convenience of technology has eliminated a lot of the plot devices we writers of more reality-based fiction relied on to create delays or build tension.

I've written about this before, although I can't find the post right now, about the various ways in which I and other writers have gotten around the convenience of cell phones. See, cell phones made it possible for the hero to call his family to warn about imminent disaster or for the parents to call to warn their daughter they'd just found out her fiance was a psychopath. It eliminated all the time musing in the car while the protagonist drives from point A to point B thinking about the conversation she needs to have with her ex-husband. Now she can pick up her phone and bloody-well call him. So writers have had to invent reasons for the call not to be possible. Protagonists in fiction forget their cell phones a lot, or they forget to charge them, or they forget to turn them on. Their phones are highly susceptible to falling into toilets or other bodies of water that will cause them to be less than functional as phones. Their phones get damaged. A lot. All these are work-arounds, nods to the convenience of technology, but also to the narrative demands of story.

Story requires characters to face adversity. Their lives can't be too convenient or else they become boring, uninteresting. They have nothing to fight against. And, while a non-working cell phone may not be the overbearing evil of Sauron or Lord Voldemort, it certainly is an every day evil with which most people have to contend. Think about the last time your phone didn't work. Didn't you get pissed off? Didn't you want to fire off an angry letter to your cell phone service provider?

Trying to get around the technology conundrum makes a lot of literary writers place their stories in the pre-computer age of the 1980's. It solves a lot of problems because you don't have to worry about how quickly today's smart phone is going to be replaced by something else, like cyborg implants that place the Internet in our brains rather than at our fingertips. A cautionary tale for me is the final story in Jennifer Egan's terrific short story collection, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I actually didn't finish the story because it was set in a future time where people used their hand-held devices to "T" each other (something we commonly refer to as 'texting'). It was such clunky future-history (and I've read so much better from people who actually write in that genre), it felt like a literary writer trying to co-opt the fantasy genre without understanding the conventions of that genre (I could do a whole blog entry on that, let me tell you) or understanding how fantasy writers have actually done it already (and many times) and done it better. What I learned in an interview was that Egan had written that story prior to the iPhone's release. The iPhone brought a whole new way of relating to our phones into the culture and made many of the things Egan wrote about a reality. Unfortunately, reality didn't look exactly like what Egan wrote, so it came off, (to me, at least) as clunky future-history writing and not as revolutionary as many critics said.

I think it's getting better. The transformational pace of technology may not be slowing down, but I think we writers are beginning to adjust to the necessity of its inclusion in our stories and to use it more seamlessly. It's probably not a bad thing that cell phones have made us find other ways to build tension into our stories, or to prevent communication between two characters. The interesting thing, though, is when a writer doesn't find those new ways, it's now glaringly obvious that the whole cell phone problem is a plot device and nothing more.

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