Tech Tips for Writers

My computer started to show its age recently, stiffening up like Tin Man in the rain. I enjoy writing longhand – pen on paper has its own special feel for writers – but I soon realized that I missed more than the quickness of keyboarding.

I’ve come to depend on how technology brings the world to my desk.

1. World building

The concept of world building is most often associated with science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction, but all novels benefit from a strong sense of place. Visiting the locations in which we set our scenes helps us discover the details that make them distinctive. An in-person visit is ideal, but not always practical. Two shortcuts that I find especially useful are exploring “Street View” with the yellow Pegman on Google Maps and searching under “Images” on Google.

If you’re not acquainted with Pegman, he’s in the lower right corner of the Google Maps screen. Just drag and drop him to the spot you want to see. You can use the arrows on the side to rotate your view and arrows on the image itself to move forward, sometimes even inside. For my recent novel, I needed to find an isolated location in Idaho. After a couple of hours with Pegman, I came up with my setting and language: “An open sky and railway tracks, a Phillips 66 gas station, a string of power lines, some low concrete buildings, scrubby trees in the distance, a horizon so flat you could see nothing for miles. Desolate, like something in an old Hitchcock movie. A trap that didn’t need walls.” None of that came to me until I saw that place on the screen.

A search under “Images” unlocks a gold mine of photos from all over the planet. I wanted to see how Munich looked at night for a short story: no problem. I found hundreds of photos with just a few clicks. An exclusive nightclub in Chicago? I couldn’t have gotten past the bouncer in person, but countless partiers had helpfully uploaded their selfies with plenty of background content. The images on Street View are static, but the photos here can show a whole range of situations (different times of day, number of people, and so forth).

2. Capturing character

Years ago, a writing teacher advised me to keep a collection of faces from magazines for character studies and story prompts. I soon discovered that magazines take far too narrow a view of who merits a  photo. Smart phones can help us collect faces from life. As long as you’re simply using them to inform your writing, and not for publication or commercial purposes, you’re allowed to take pictures of strangers in public. I’d advise discretion, but smart phones are good for that: you don’t stand out like someone with a 35 mm camera and telephoto lens.

In addition, you can use the video feature on your smart phone to catch conversations in public, such as on a bus where people might reasonably expect to be overheard. Transcribing how people actually speak to one another can help writers get a better feel for dialogue. Of course, in the end, you’ll want to use your own words. We’re talking about ways to inspire and grow your writing, not replace it.

Searching under “Images” can also help with finding characters and describing facial expressions. Not sure what happens to a woman’s face when she’s bored? Search “bored woman” under “Images” and you’ll see. You’ll still need to come up with original words to describe it, but at least you’ll have a concrete place to start.

3. Researching on the fly

All of us rely on our computers and smart phones for research these days. When was the last time you tackled the card catalogue at the library to read up on a topic for your book? Jonathan Franzen is known for working away from his computer, but many writers intersperse writing with quick searches, on everything from what is really meant by a panic attack to the right synonym for an overused word. My advice here is to open up a new window for research. Don’t be tempted by having tabs open to email or social media on the same screen. At the end of each session, you can save your research tabs as a group, by right-clicking one of the tabs and scrolling down to “Bookmark all tabs.” I’d also suggest turning off the push notifications for your email and other apps, so they don’t distract you. The trick, as always, is how to take advantage of technology without letting it undermine you.

Which brings me to a final caution: sometimes we all need to put convenience aside and unplug. To experience places in person, study faces with our own eyes, listen hard with nothing but our ears. How these things make us feel can be lost if we limit ourselves to a digital version of life. Technology may be able to bring the world to us, but we count on perceptive writers to step into the world.

Foibles and Fixes

Creative writing requires recommitment from time to time. Not writing is much easier than writing. Curiously, what many of us find is that although we want to write in theory, we keep letting other things get in the way. If those things involve our health, family or job, then writing may have to wait. But if the problems are our own foibles when it comes to writing, then they may be a form of anxiety avoidance which these strategies may help us to surmount:

1. You love to write, but can’t think of anything to say.

The most common answer to this problem is usually to read. Immersing yourself in great books in your genre will motivate and inspire you. The only difficulty is that sometimes those great books will make you feel more lacking. What could you possibly come up with that hasn’t already been said? My suggestion is that you try reading in a different discipline than your own: poetry to get a fiction writer thinking about character; fiction to lure a poet into diving deeper inside; real-life news articles to spur novelists into creating new “what if”s. Or extend your reach further, such as to the visual arts or music. Try attending a play and jot down notes in the dark. No form of artistic expression is exactly the same in terms of what it does best. If you’re a writer, you’ll sense the holes that writing would delve.

2. You freeze up when faced with an empty page.

This is similar to the first issue, but your anxiety is more formless. You’re so swamped with self-doubt, you can barely bring yourself to try. For this, I strongly recommend Julia Cameron’s advice in The Artist’s Way. She urges writers to start every morning with three pages of free writing. The only rule of morning pages is that there aren’t any rules. You could start each entry with “I hate blank pages” and complain for ten minutes. Cameron believes all that anxious stuff needs to be expunged. You may also find that within that time, you can’t help but shift from paralyzing fear to a more writerly preoccupation with expression. You think: What a great line of swearing. I should have a character say that! And you’re off. If you don’t want to write morning pages, instead try to limit your writing commitment with a timer. Agree to write for ten minutes – how bad could that be? Most writers find themselves resetting the timer again and again. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott reminds us that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. Try not to be so hard on yourself.

3. You get stuck in the middle of a piece.

Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. The plot sticks or the character becomes unconvincing or the tension flatlines; you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what to do. Staring at the page in a panic only makes the problem worse. In her excellent New Yorker article, “Where Do Eureka Moments Come From?,” Maria Konnikova explains that a focused gaze works with analytic problem-solving, but when further insight is needed, we need to step away and allow ourselves to think more diffusely. In other words, try coffee first, but if that doesn’t help, then go for a walk. Or switch your attention to another project and mull this one over in the back of your mind. If you prefer to stay on task, another trick for writers is to build up the details of the scene. Convince yourself more completely of its reality. Sometimes it helps to go back to an earlier point in the story and work forward from there. You could also try to free write the scene a few different ways. If nothing else works, go out for a drink with a trusted writer friend and free talk the damn thing.

4. You revise and revise, but never finish.

Many writers struggle to complete anything. As long as you’re still working on it, your novel, story or poem could always improve. You can dream and hope without fear. Rejection only happens if you finish and try to put your work out there. Unfortunately, if you never take that risk, then your work may never be read by others. You need to consider what it is you truly want. First and foremost, you should try to finish a piece for your own satisfaction. Think of seeking publication as a separate event. If you decide to pursue it, but are afraid of rejection, then you could try starting small. Send out a version to test the waters. At the same time, make a list of five more places. Some writers benefit from revising between submissions, but if this is your foible, you may want to resubmit as soon as a piece comes back. If it helps, think of yourself as two people: the creative writer and the businesslike submitter. Strip the process of emotional content as much as possible.

In a novel, when a character really wants something, we expect that to increase the stakes. Unless you have an ego of steel, anxiety is part of being an artist. Whether you’re sinking into other people’s art for inspiration or writing your morning pages or taking your issues for a walk, in every case, what you’re trying to do is block out the negative voices and let your focus return to the work. Resilience is key. Recommit as often as you need to.

The Love of a Writer

Love amazes me, more often this time of year than any other. The love that drives an exhausted parent to endure the bright plastic torture of Toy R Us. The love that keeps a smile on the face of a Salvation Army bell ringer long after most of us would have left that bucket to fend for itself. The love that makes us tear up when the season brings back a stray memory of someone once dear to us. Love of family, love of friends, love of faith. One of the most striking things about fiction is how it can trigger love in us for people who aren’t even real. But I think it goes further than that: without the capacity for love, we wouldn’t have fiction writing. Fiction is the art of human empathy.

How many of us have been so worried about a character that we couldn’t bear to stop reading well past a sane bedtime? Literary or genre fiction, for adults or children, it doesn’t matter: if the character is well crafted, we care. The third and fourth Harry Potter books kept me up for a week. I’m still worried about Theo in Goldfinch. When distressed about the plight of overworked horses in England, Anna Sewell turned a horse into a distinctive character and engaged the sympathies of a nation. After all these years, I can’t get through a single chapter of Black Beauty without choking up.

Love happens with a character similar to how it happens in life. We as readers have to meet someone very specific and real. Not perfect. We need to perceive that he or she faces challenges, just as we face challenges. We need to see attributes that we can relate to, such as humor, self-deprecation, courage, vulnerability, determination. We need to feel that the character truly wants something to stir our wanting it for him or her. The problems need to be big enough to engage our sympathies and interest. And there need to be details – lots of telling details – to conquer disbelief and break down our defenses.

But the key is that love must happen first with the writer. We as writers need to believe in our characters and be fully engaged with their struggles. We need their reality to break down our own defenses as well. I finally fell in love with my newest protagonist a few weeks ago, after months of fine tuning her voice, delving her history, and reimaging her story. Before that, I had an unusual character who interested me, the beginnings of a voice, an original premise, problems that I wasn’t yet sure how to solve . . . but I wasn’t carrying the character in my heart. I had to keep asking her questions. Why do you care so much? What are you afraid of? Why does that hurt? What do you hope for? I had to discover her past to care about her present, even if not all of it would appear in the book.

Loving your characters doesn’t mean you should shield them. It means you should trust them, and trust yourself. You need to throw life at them, be hard on them, push them farther out to sea. Force them to become more than they were. Love means you care about them despite their foibles, but it also means you need to respect their right to make mistakes and grow. The love of a true friend or wise parent, or maybe we need to create a new category: the love of a writer.

At heart, isn’t that why we do this? For love. It’s the only way this crazy business makes sense. To share with others the stories of people whom we can only imagine, and yet believe are worthy of real empathy and understanding. Worthy of love.