It seems like every time I go to a publishing event, I end up having at least three versions of the same conversation about the use of technology in the world of writing. This is probably due to the fact that my smartphone is glued to my hand; either that or my pact with the devil to remain eternally youthful has finally given me a leg-up in my professional pursuits. Whatever the reason, it’s always the same questions. At first I thought that there must be a gap in the online tutorial market – that the entrepreneurs responsible for CD-ROM adult education programs had forgotten about Twitter, or Facebook. But the more I have this conversation, the more I believe it isn’t about learning the ins and outs of “hashtags” or “likes”. It’s something else entirely.
What is technology?
At the core of every one of these interactions is the same misunderstanding: that technology is somehow a hindrance or a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad. Let us be clear upon this point. Barring an apocalypse due to EMP bursts that take out all electronic gizmos on earth, technology is here to stay. Like it or not, these cases and cords will be a part of our lives in whatever form, until we somehow figure out a way to transcend solid matter and become sentient clouds of vapor. So just for now, suspend disbelief with me and agree that Phillip K. Dick was right.
How does it taste? A bit metallic? I thought so. So let’s talk about the true definition of technology and how our own thinking about it gets in the way of interfacing with it.
Technology is designed to make life easier. No, now don’t scoff. Hear me out.
Thirty years ago, people had a hard time with the microwave, and while we can disagree about the quality of the food that comes out of said cooking implement, we cannot deny that we all use them, that they steam vegetables in the blink of an eye, and that if said EMP bursts disabled the world, we would all have just a little microwave-withdrawal. People invent things to fill in gaps. This is the foundation of evolution, and the foundation of independent thought. If there is a gap to be filled, or an easier way to do it, lazy humans will find that way. It’s why we have the automobile. It’s why we have medicine. It’s why we have progress. Now here again, we can debate the pros and cons of this until we’re blue in the face, or we can all just admit that we like having more time and more brain cells to devote to more important things like spending time with our families.
You cannot be afraid of new tech. Fear gets in the way of understanding this primary concept: that all devices are built to be functional. Duh, you say, but set aside your pessimism.
The first law of industry is this: if a random human off the street cannot figure out the use of a new gadget, that gadget must be revamped. Don’t know how to end a program? Never fear. Some asshole will invent a clever little box with an “X” on it, so that your brain can say “Oh! Oh! Ex-it!” You can do this. You can figure out how to download and implement an app on your iPhone, just like you figured out how to use the “popcorn” button on your microwave or the cruise control in your car. Why? Because the designer who built that machine tried to make it as easy as humanly possible. That, in a nutshell, is the idea of “interface”.
The “interface” of any program, whiz-bang, or piece of Tomfoolery, must be simple, concise, and intuitive. And since you are reading this, I can say with confidence, you have all the necessary tools to get over your technological hurdles. This tech was made for you.
Yeah, but do you ever turn it off?
It’s true, interface has changed the world. Culture is shifting. Now kids are spending all their waking moments texting each other, having fights on Facebook, and posting pictures of you asleep on tumblr. Interfacing has become a synonym for “quality time”. I cannot lie about this, but keep in mind, this is always the way. Stop sounding like your parents when they guffawed at Rock and Roll, or when they grumbled about going to the moon. Their culture may not be your culture, but that does not mean you cannot leverage their culture. Two generations can speak in peace. It can be done.
Let me paint you an image. My literary agent and I were at a local restaurant having an important meeting. The power goes out. Her computer can no longer access the internet because the WiFi modem is down. I pull out my iPhone. I managed to look up an important phone number, email a cover artist, pull up some sample artwork for us to look at, schedule a reminder to go off the next day so that I could touch base with said artist, and looked up the current sales of the other authors for whom this artist rendered covers. All of that, in a moment, with the power out, on my telephone.
At work, I not only use my phone to manage my schedule, but to do all confirmation calls, cash checks, charge my clients, make purchasing orders and track their progress, and fill my workplace with charming flute music. If not for my phone, my massage business would not run. Plain and simple.
I suffer from a visual impairment. In years past, my great love affair with reading had suffered terribly. Reading went from a source of joy to a promise of migraines. One day, I was told “You have to read this new book that won the Hugo and Nebula Awards,” and I felt myself cringe. All my happiness gone. Until I found the Kindle. Now I can not only read as fast as I used to, I can store an entire library at the tip of my fingers, carry it in my pocket, forgo pain meds, make notes, set bookmarks, tweet quotes, and even look up the odd word that my dictionary of a brain cannot recall. That piece of technology is not just about progress for progress’ sake. It’s about survival and regaining my mobility.
During the San Francisco Writers Conference, attendees may have noticed that many of the presenters or volunteers were on their cell phones at crucial moments. What were we doing? Were we having Facebook convos? Were we playing Galaga? No. We were changing the landscape of social media. All of us, no matter where we were, were bombarding the interweb with photos, informational tidbits, videos, and data about the SFWC. We were raising awareness. And in addition to all that, we were making valuable business connections. My followership on Twitter jumped by fifty people. Fifty! In two days. That’s fifty more writers, publishers, editors, and agents that are listening to what I have to say. So not only were we archiving the event, building a community, and raising awareness for our trade and art, we were also running the convention, sending messages back and forth about who needed what where, which volunteers were still present and able to help out in a pinch, which presenters needed a projector. We were not distracted. We were badasses.
Not convinced yet? Gimme another shot.
Recently I was told by a smartphone naysayer that she believed this absorption in tech was having a negative effect on humanity. Her example was the inattentive parents using their cells when they came to pick up their children, dragging their young away with nary a glance. For the record, she is right. This is bad. We can all agree to this. But should we outlaw all cars and deny their usefulness because some people choose to Drink and Drive? No. We should be reasonable and not hide behind excuses. This argument does not wash. Responsible use of technology is a boon to humanity, but most importantly, a boon to your career as a writer.
Yes, I do turn it off, at dinner with my family, at movie theaters and funerals, or frankly anywhere where it might be obtrusive, but this is because I am responsible. You will not interface with our young if you belittle their use of technology. You can however teach them responsible use of it. To do this, you must not be fearful or disdainful. In fact, you must have your own smartphone. When your child refuses to stop “poking”, text their friends, or perhaps create a tumblr post of that dreaded half-naked toddler photo you’ve been saving.
How can this help me?
I’ve already explained interface, the idea that when using a piece of technology you are, in fact, compressing time, chunking data, simplifying your life. I’ve also given you several examples of how I have used technology to my advantage, but I feel that even this will not be enough to convince some. I need to show you how all of this new-fangled clap-trap is useful to you, specifically in your writing career.
Let’s create a simple map that you can follow to grow your success.
You must have a website, just as you must have a home address. This website is the online counterpart to your house.
What should it have on it? If you are not yet published, this first page should be a brief bio, almost like a fun, short, and sweet resume. There should be a photo of you, so that you can be identified. There should be a second page that briefly describes all of your works in progress and their states of completion. Your third page should have contact info, links to social media websites, etc. Anything to get people to connect with you. Your fourth page should be your blog (more on this later). If you are self-published or traditionally published, the first page should be your most recent book: a photo of the cover, the summary from the inside flap, and a link to a place that the viewer can purchase it. The second is your bio and links to your social media. The third should be your blog. You get the idea.
Ah, the dreaded foe. Must you do this? Yes. But allow me to clarify, lest you shrink away involuntarily and begin excuse-mining.
Twitter and Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, tumblr, etc. are not playplaces. Well, that’s not entirely true. You can have a great deal of fun, and nonsense of all types abounds, but these sites can also be quite serious. If you are writing an historical fictional novel surrounding the Middle East, for example, you can use these social media programs to create a platform, do your research, even start your publishing career. Follow all newspapers that cover the events in question. Follow key figures. Follow publishers that have put out the books you are using for your research. Follow authors of similar works, whether in subject or genre. And most importantly, redistribute all of their information to the masses. Make yourself into the human collator for all data having to do with the Middle East, and fairly soon, you will not only be an authority, you will be a necessary resource for everyone who might someday read your book.
Writing a romance novel? Great. Go friend all your favorite authors, cover artists, publishers, etc. If you’ve been keeping up with trends in social media, you may have noticed that even a few characters have Twitter profiles, so go tweet Mr. Darcy and tell him how happy you are that he pulled his head out of his backside. Ten extra points if you can do it in Edwardian voice. Use these sites as the lever and crowbar that inserts you into the world of Romance. Review all the books you read, share the joys of your favorite authors by raising hell when a new book comes out. Create a friend group that shares your interests, because those will be your first readers.
Need peer review? Easy, friend or follow every grammar-nazi on the interweb and Retweet whatever they say. Use the same methods to create an online peer review group and keep it going. These people will all be interested in the same idea, and all of your posts will be linked by the simple feature of the hashtag. Remember them? I talked about them earlier. Suffices to say that anything with a # in front of it is like a doorway. If you click on it, all other posts that feature that word or hashtag will be linked. #Reading often has great book reviews. #writing has a lot of people giving tips about their writing process. You see how powerful a tool this is?
A blog is an online journal. This is where many people fall. But it’s okay. I am still learning too. If you’re here reading this, you can scroll through and see how my blog has changed throughout the years.
Start with a love or expertise. What do you like? You’re a fantasy author. Great. Go with that. Write about all things fantasy, but don’t just stop there. Title all of your posts simply, and to the point. Link all your posts by “tags” so that if a reader finds something they like, they can find more and hang out, or possibly look up your book because they really dig your voice. Keep an eye on your stats. Many blog hosting sites (places that will house your data) will feature tools that allow you to see where your readers are located, what posts have gotten the greatest number of reads, and how many times your blog post has been cited in a link on places like Twitter. You can literally tailor your blog to whatever data your readers wish to read. This is one way you pull in followers and create a professional base. Twitter allows you cross-contamination. You can tweet about your blog posts, with a link. Thus people who find you on Twitter get sucked into your online home and vice versa.
This is the holy trinity of online presence.
I would love to use a friend of mine as an example. Pam van Hylckama is a literary agent who represents Young Adult and Genre Fiction. Before she did this, she was simply a reader. She had a website (bookalicio.us) and on this website, a blog. On this blog, she would post nothing but reviews of her favorite YA fictions. Very soon, her reviews became insanely popular. Before long, authors were writing to her to be featured on her site. She became an authority on Young Adult fiction, just as it was coming into its own, and every person who read her blog, followed her on Twitter. Now whenever she tweets about a book, several thousand humans hear about it. Several thousand readers think about buying it. Several thousand humans consider looking up that author and following them on Twitter.
Do you see it yet?
This trinity of technology is not just a must, it’s an entirely new way of doing things. The agent in question built herself a whole new career out of her love for one genre. Now she is responsible for the hunting and farming of new talents. She is changing the landscape. And incidentally using her Twitter audience as a great organizational tool for zombie pub crawls.
So what have we learned?
It’s here, it’s not leaving. You can do it. It is useful. And when treated with respect and used responsibly, you can change the world.
Still with me?
Get over your fear that you may not be able to handle it, that it will overrun your life. Buy a smart phone and play with it. See what kinds of apps are out there. Try reading a book on your phone, writing a book review on your blog, friending some publishers on Twitter.