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 As long as you’re simply using them to inform your writing, and not for publication or commercial purposes, you’re allowed to take pictures of strangers in public.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.

Book Research Take Two

Solid research is a necessary part of fiction writing. We depend on factual details to convince readers to believe in our fictional worlds. But getting our work into the hands of readers merits another kind of homework. If you want to pursue traditional publishing, you need to spend some time researching agents to give your book its best chance in an extremely challenging marketplace.

1. Finding agents through other authors

Beginning your query letter with a referral from one of an agent’s authors is an ideal way to get some attention. Unfortunately, that’s rarely an option. Agents also appreciate hearing that you admire an author of theirs whose books are similar to yours – a much more achievable goal. You can start with books you love and look up their agents, or go to a library or bookstore and flip through books in your genre. Pay particular attention to recent books and debuts: the agent for a Pulitzer Prize winner would be a stretch. Alternatively, you can reverse-engineer this by first researching agents online and then looking up their authors to see if any of them are a good fit.

2. Researching agents online

QueryTracker, AgentQuery and the Poets & Writers’ Literary Agents Database are excellent free online resources with filters to help you find appropriate agents. You can use them to generate a list or to look up individual agents. Each agent’s contact information, genres of interest, and authors appear in the same place. With that in one tab, you can right click on links to his or her website and Twitter feed as well. The website will provide more information on the agent’s interests and submission policy. The Twitter feed will give you a sense of his or her personality (which you don’t need to be on Twitter to see). Finally, the author links will open up Amazon pages so you can take a peek at their books. Another terrific resource is the Writer’s Digest Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog: he makes a point of listing agents in search of new work. I’d also recommend a quick Google search of your agents in case they have interviews online. As well as determining who would be a good agent for your book, you want to see if you have something in common – literary tastes, of course, but even growing up in the same town – so you can mention it in your query in hopes of making a connection.

3. Meeting agents in person

Agents often appear at conferences or other programs for writers. I’ve attended a number of conferences which feature agents, from the immense Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, with over 800 writers and 50 literary and film agents, to the trimmer Writer’s Institute in Madison, with closer to 300 writers and 9 literary agents. Conferences like these give you the opportunity to hone your pitch – by giving it repeatedly and in person, you learn rapidly what’s working and what’s not. Agents are also more likely to look at your manuscript if they’ve met you in person (a connection has already been made). The downside is that conferences can be expensive, time-consuming, and inefficient as a means of finding agents. They can also be daunting. When choosing a conference, you should pay attention to how much time they give for pitches. Some conferences engage in pitch slams with as little as 90 seconds per pitch. The Willamette Writers Conference and the Writer’s Institute both allow 8 minutes for pitches, enough time for a brief conversation. Attending one of these conferences provides a great education, but if the cost or fear factor is a problem for you, you can still reach agents without it, as described above.

What I’m talking about here is the kind of work it takes to attempt an authentic connection with a stranger whom you’re asking to consider being an advocate for you and your book. Think about how you’d feel if the positions were reversed. There may be ways to shortcut this, such as the Twitter pitch fests like #PitMad, #PitchWars, #PitchtoPublication, #AgentMatch and #SFFpit, but they tend to rely on a short high-concept pitch without giving you a chance to include a writing sample or past publications. That approach may work for some books, but not others. It also doesn’t allow for a learning curve. But you should be sure to check them out to see what you think.

Whatever you decide, the search for an agent requires and deserves some of the same seriousness of purpose that you brought to writing your book.