Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Include Technology in Your Writing

Remember me?

Reading the Perks of Being a Wallflower was a blast from the past. The book takes place in 1991, before cell phones and computers. The characters make each other mixtapes and call each other on their family's landlines. It's easy to write around fashion and design fads, but technology has become its own beast. Constantly changing technology makes films and TV outdated instantly in a matter of years. (Anyone still use the T-mobile sidekick from The Devil Wears Prada?)

How the heck are you supposed to write a contemporary YA novel then?

You can't keep up with technology, especially with the 2-year lag time it can take books to get published. Think where we were 5 years ago. The iPhone just came out. The Motorola Razr and Myspace were huge. Think where we were 3 years ago. Nobody had iPads or Instagram. Teens are the most tech-savvy, so they'll notice any obsolete technology. Here are some Dos and Don'ts I try to follow when incorporating technology in my writing:

1) Don't get specific: Staying general will buy your book some time before the technology becomes obsolete. While specific products may change, the product categories will be around for a while.
  • If your characters are on a cell phone, don't say what kind it is. Just say they are using a phone. Don't even specify how they use it. For instance, "flip open" and "clap shut" imply flip phones, which are so mid-2000s. 
  • Don't elaborate on what type of computer your character uses. Desktop PCs are on their way out, and over time, even laptops will fade away in favor of tablets. 
  • For social networks, Facebook seems like it's here to stay, and it's so ingrained into our social lives that it's hard to ignore. However, just say that your characters are on Facebook, and if they must be on the site, only have them do basic, broad tasks like looking up people. Don't mention any nitty-gritty features or Facebook language because that is constantly changing, e.g. profiles are now timelines, fans are now likes.
  • Avoid mentioning specific web sites or web properties like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, even Words with Friends. Your characters can see something someone wrote online or posted online, but it's best to not mention where they saw it and what exactly they saw. Let your reader fill in those gaps him/herself.
  • I would avoid referencing DVDs, and even Netflix. Home entertainment is changing so rapidly. All you need to say is that she's watching a movie at home. Nobody cares about the specifics.
  • Technology may move fast, but not for everyone. Some people still use dial-up and a desktop computer. Approximately 85% of Americans have a cell phone, but that means that 15% still do not.
2) Do include technology when it's logical for characters: I've already ranted about characters using pay phones in YA. I haven't seen a pay phone in years. You can't avoid technology altogether, and trying to will look ridiculous. Your main character can't be the only person at her school without a cell phone. She can't listen to cassette tapes just because it's cool. However, you can get away with this if you provide a good enough reason -- she lost her phone, it got stolen, she's punished. In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah left behind a dozen cassette tapes, but at least Clay pointed out how old school that was, and how he had trouble finding a Walkman to play them on. It would've been strange if he just had a Walkman lying around like it was no big deal. Remember, for your readers today, CDs were popular when they were born, but they came of age in the era of MP3's.

3) Don't feel the need to rely heavily on technology: Yes, kids today are hooked to their gadgets. Get off my lawn! They communicate primarily through texting and online chatting; they're on their phones or computers constantly. But if you wrote your book like this, it would be kind of boring. Have characters talk face-to-face, even if kids wouldn't do that in real life. Do you ever notice how characters on TV shows are over each other's apartments all the time? Can't they have half of these conversations over the phone or via text? Nobody would watch a show like that. It's dramatic license, but we want to see characters interact in person. Books like Will Grayson, Will Grayson do a great job with turning Instant Messaging into compelling fiction, yet the most memorable and impactful scenes in that book are ones where characters have to face each other.

4) Don't let technology take over your story: This is the most important rule. Technology is forever changing, but emotions and conflicts are not. People read books for the characters and the story, not for the technological accuracy. Don't obsess over how to incorporate technology into your story. The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes place in 1991, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it. The characters in that book felt real and relatable, even if they didn't have cell phones. Holden Caulfield is still a wildly popular character, even though he never had a Facebook profile. Readers aren't going to throw your book out if your protagonist doesn't have a smartphone.

What are your rules of thumb for including technology in your writing?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Three Young Adult Authors Making It In Hollywood

In celebration of The Perks of Being a Wallflower the movie getting released this Friday, I'll be hosting a mini-theme week on the blog. I just finished reading the book and loved it. I think all writers can identify with Charlie, the titular Wallflower, and his random observations are ones I've thought about, too. (like realizing that people in old pictures felt the same way we do in the present) Even though Charlie writes in a semi-conversational style that's light on actual description, the characters he writes about still come off as real, fleshed-out people.

The author of Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, has had an interesting trajectory. He went from independent filmmaker to published author to Hollywood screenwriter. While lots of authors become Hollywood sensations because of their books (John Grisham, Stephen King), most of them don't actually dabble in screenwriting. Chbosky carved out a successful career in mainstream film and TV before adapting Wallflower into a film. The book was released in 1999, then a few years later, he was hired to write the film version of Rent (whose characters would mesh nicely with Charlie's circle of friends in Wallflower), then a year after that, he co-created the CBS series Jericho. It probably did help that Chbosky had a background in film and a film agent, but still, it's rare to see a YA author make this kind of transition. Nowadays, Hollywood writers are jumping on the YA bandwagon. (e.g. Paul Weitz, Liz Tigelaar) It can be done, though. In fact, at least three other writers have made the jump from writing YA to writing for film and TV.

1) Rob Thomas
YA books: Slave Day, Doing Time, Satellite Down, Rats Saw God
Rob Thomas has always had a foothold in the teen world. Not to be confused with the lead singer of Matchbox 20, this Rob Thomas went from high school teacher to working at kid's news station Channel One. While there, he began writing Rats Saw God in his spare time, and eventually got an agent. He went on to write five books.
Hollywood connection. On the strength of his YA novels, Thomas was asked to be a staff writer for this new show on the WB called Dawson's Creek. Maybe you've heard of it? From there, he created the series Cupid and then six years later created another show about a teenage sleuth called Veronica Mars. Maybe you've heard of it? Then four years after that, he wrote the script for the reboot of this show called 90210. Maybe you've heard of it? Ok, I'll stop.

2) Jake Coburn
YA books: Prep, Lovesick
Prep, about privileged Upper East Side kids who form violent gangs, caught the eye of MTV films, which optioned the book and hired James Frey to write the screenplay. However, like most book options, nothing has come of it yet. Still, Coburn has managed to carve out a niche in the New York socialites genre.
Hollywood connection. Because of Prep, Coburn was recruited to write a pilot called The Stanton with Kevin Williamson (creator of Dawson's Creek). While that didn't go, he was hired to write for ABC drama Dirty Sexy Money, which revolved around a super rich family in New York City. When that got canceled, he went on to write for a CW drama about privileged Upper East Siders - Gossip Girl - where he's risen to co-producer.

3) Shauna Cross
YA books: Derby Girl
As an aspiring screenwriting in LA with no produced credits, Shauna Cross found a literary agent through a mutual friend who encouraged her to write about her experiences in the roller derby. That turned into the novel Derby Girl.
Hollywood connection. The book caught the eye of Drew Barrymore, who hired Cross to adapt her novel for her directional debut - Whip It, which was released in 2009. Cross next went on to adapt another, very different book - What to Expect when You're Expecting, which was released in June.

One thing to note is that all three writers lived in Los Angeles either when they sold their books or got their film/TV gigs. Unlike publishing, film and TV are industries where newbie writers need to be living in LA in order to be considered for jobs. Sure, if you're best-selling authors like James Frey or Michael Chabon, then you can probably take gigs and stay put where you are.