The Curse of Communications Technologies

Technology is a pain in the rear end. For us writers especially. In my post on tools I used for the 2011 NaNoWriMo what I used was mostly late 20th and 21st century technology, which while generally fantastic aids to storytelling, do have their traps (the Technology Trap™ as I have decided to title it).

However beyond that writing in a world of technology is a real pain in the rear, too. The worlds you create, and that your characters must interact with have their own traps and pit falls, and equally rewards when things work out.

It’s a problem that writers have increasingly faced when writing about their own time, and/or future times over the past century or so. Jane Austen had it relatively easy, she only had three basic forms of communication to deal with:

  • Face to face
  • Letters
  • Grapevine

Dumas mixed it up a bit with some technology in the form of the semaphore and news media. It was all a lot simpler though, and constrained. Since then communications technology has come on in leaps and bounds. It is now feasible that people can go days without meaningful real world communication, (I mean face to face verbal and body language and such), but communicate regularly throughout a day through one of the following:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Peer to peer chat services (MSN, AOL, Facebook chat)
  • Forums
  • Email
  • Text message
  • Phone calls (especially mobile ones)

It’s a nightmare if you want to convey a sense of a modern world in your story. Sure a quick phone call, or a summary of an email is easy enough to handle, but communication is so instant, distant, constant, and intrusive that you’re probably better off ignoring most modern communication just to keep your story flowing, even though in all likelihood your character would deal with this stuff, (even mildly technical people are sucked into it these days).

I write under the philosophy that this type of communication should be kept to what is necessary for your story anyway, it is surprisingly easy to drift off into subplots that are made up of communication, but do nothing to drive your story. Even if it’s really interesting character developing stuff, your readers might not appreciate it quite the same way.

Something else to bear in mind, when you feel you need to expose your story to modern communications technology, we generally use a different form of our language in written forms of communication. So that character voice you’ve worked so hard to develop will become confused and diluted with the addition of another voice that is theirs and not quite theirs.

Another hint, (because I’m full of advice today), if you have to fit in a text, email, facebook status or an instant message, avoid acronyms, you’d be surprised how many readers won’t know something you think of as very common. It should go without saying that these should appear nowhere else in your novel unless you want a character or narrator to be truly obnoxious.

It doesn’t stop with modern communication though, how people communicate is pretty tied into the structure of societies. Completely ignore it in a futuristic piece and you risk society being something akin to neanderthals in space, with over half your book being travelling to communicate or your cast of characters being severely isolated from the rest of the universe that should exist.

In my NaNoWriMo novel this year, it was set in space hundreds of years ahead us and to get round the communication problems, I had to have a range of communication methods from infrequent near range video signals,  to mid-range text like transmission system, and a slow moving information network system that could spread across the galaxy.

Even with all that I still had to fit in near range personal communications via a smartphone like device because it makes no sense at all to be restrained to a desk to ask the engine room why they’re not breaking the laws of physics yet. Because you also need modern like communications to cut down on travelling through your world just for petty but important plot points. As much its nice to describe your world your readers and your characters will get equally bored and tired. There’s a need for balance, but wherever possible I put the extra effort in for real interactions, you learn a lot more about your characters that way, and you can include a lot more subtext in the communication.

So it’s a tough job to get all this organised in a cool and consistent way, without cluttering your story, and without reducing the believablity. Once you do though, you’ll have a lot easier to read story.

I stand by the method of avoiding communications that don’t involve face to face interaction as much as is feasible. I’d rather read real human interaction with all it’s intricate conscious and sub-conscious messages intact. Something increasingly lost in modern communication.

Having said all that, one of my current works in progress relies on Twitter posts as a way to provide narration about the wilder world during a cataclysmic event, but aside from brief cut outs to a Twitter news feed, the interactions with the world are mostly in person, with just the odd text and phone call to provide real time distance communication with a goal. So watch this space to see if I can see if I can get it to work, against my own general advice.

Tools for NaNoWriMo 2011 (Writing)

This post is a little delayed, but that’s a good thing as my NaNoWriMo project this year nearly got caught in the Technology Trap™.

The Technology Trap™ is where seemingly productivity enhancing tools aren’t actually productive at all. This can be through misunderstanding of the purpose of a piece of technology, inappropriate training or education for a piece of technology, or through design flaws and errors in technology.

My problems were the latter, I wanted to be able to write on my phone and on my PC. Surely there must be an app for that right?

Congratulations there was, a nice simple little app called My Writing Spot on Android. It had word counts in the file list of the app, and in the Web application on the PC (the latter being better as it gave you word count per file and for the whole project). The website is My Writing Nook. It’s very good in theory, you write in a series of text files (which means no complications from unnecessary functionality at this stage of writing and if you’re worried about spell checking, most browsers handle this natively, and auto-correct on your phone when it’s not in a DAYC mood will take care of spelling there), when you click save the file is stored on a protected area of your Google account and is ready for your other device to pick up when it syncs. Now syncing is the best way – but it’s also where My Writing Spot falls down in its current version – the syncing is imperfect and at points you could be syncing over and over until the file moves from your phone to appear on your computer screen and vice versa. You nervously delete it from one, and hope that works, you make umpteen copies just in case.

All this lost time, and concentration becomes a distraction from writing. I finally gave up on it when one night I ended spending a several hours trying to sort it.

Since then, I’ve switched back to good old trusty Microsoft Word when on my laptop on my mobile where I still want to write I’ve gone with QuickOffice which allows me to work on the same file and I could easily view and add to my Excel tracker for NaNoWriMo.

That’s fine with me, except I don’t want to be emailing files several times a day, it’s too inconvenient. So I signed up to Box, they are already integrated into QuickOffice, but they also have a plug in for Office so I can in effect open from and save to my account fairly fast, and then do the same from my mobile.

Even there though was a Technology Trap™, early on with QuickOffice, it crashed while saving to my Box while the signal was a bit intermittent. Lost a few hundred words (I should say this for My Writing Spot, I never lost any actual words just time). Since then I open the file save it down locally and when I’m ready for the PC I save it back to my Box. Haven’t had a problem since of that kind and it doesn’t really take much time more..

QuickOffice isn’t perfect, it doesn’t handle Swype well, but I’ve changed Android keyboards since which I’ll come on to shortly.

So to summarise the majority of my writing is done in Microsoft Word with stuff during commute and breaks at work is handled on QuickOffice – it’s worked for me for the last half of NaNoWriMo.

Another thing that’s made a big difference to writing on my phone has been Swype, it was a lot faster than typing – though it could get annoying at times not recognising what I was trying to say. When I was using My Writing Spot this wasn’t too bad, as I could press the Swype button and it would offer alternatives. The button doesn’t work like that in QuickOffice which was annoying, (it does do this automatically when it’s not sure first time – the issue is when it thinks it got it right and didn’t).

I have since changed keyboards to one called SwiftKey which uses Natural Language Processing to predict based on your historical typing what words come next, a bit like T9 and its derivatives but predicts further ahead. It means you can say more with fewer key presses. It’s taken me some time to get used to typing rather than swiping my way across the screen but it’s actually pretty good at what it does, (however since the most recent update of QuickOffice it annoyingly doesn’t work as well, with several faults in interaction between the two).

I’ll see how it does at writing fiction later, but it is doing okay with blog posts and text messages. Though, as I mentioned, there are a couple of issues with QuickOffice since the most recent update of the software.

Other tools I’ve found invaluable are covered below split between mobile, PC, and real world tools. Some of these may have been mentioned in the planning post, but I list them here as they are also vital to my writing process this NaNoWriMo.

Mobile apps (on my Samsung Galaxy SII with Android 2.3):

  • Thinking Space – mind mapping software for Android with a rough around the edges file syncing system. Most of my planning was stored in Mind Maps, meant it was easy to find and reference the information I stored there, navigate my plot plan and get my story roughly back to it. Thinking Space is the only Mind Mapping software I’ve tried for Android, but it does the job very well. It’s a lot easier to use than PC versions I’ve tried.
  • Fake Name Generator – based on criteria you select it generates a random name and identity information. It generates a lot of points of information such a national conforming phone number, email address, date of birth (gives you age as well if you’re not interested in DOB), occupation, fake credit details, fake website, and vital statistics like height weight and blood type. I have spreadsheets with thousands of fake details like this but it’s handy having an app that generates and does so by gender, ethnicity, and language. I tried two or three from the market this one worked best for me. It does require an internet connection to generate but you can save the identities you generate to access later without a connection.
  • Task – a generic app that came already installed on my, however I used it to craft an initial timeline based on my Excel forecasting as to when I would get to particular sections, and notes to remind me to do things when I did. However, after the first few chapters I gave up trying to divide my work as I went, and decided to do chapters in editing. However this was no fault of the app, and I will use it again because it has a relatively simply to use interface. I’ve looked on market, it’s not there, but there are alternatives.
  • Dolphin Browser HD – There are a lot of options for a browser, but if you’re writing in the wild, it’s handy to have internet references in the wild, and I find I get less distracted by the inconsequential when on mobile phone than when I’m at the PC. However there quite a few options for non-stock browsers on Android, I choose Dolphin Browser HD not because it’s the fastest, or because it does the most, but because it’s a good all rounder and handles complex sites fairly well. I also appreciate the interface most of the time, the sliding menu and favourites bar for instance are handy most of the time, unless they accidentally pop out at random.
  • QuickOffice – Which I’ve already mentioned, it does everything I need, except work consistently with custom keyboard technologies. However even those problems aren’t insurmountable.

PC applications and websites (on my Dell Inspiron Duo with Windows 8 Developer Preview):

  • Microsoft Office 2010
    • Microsoft Word – I’m a long time Microsoft Word user, I remember going way back into the days of DOS. I’ve grown up with it, I was educated on it, and have educated others in it. So out of all the free versions out there, I’ll still opt for this every time. I say this to admit my bias when I say this is the best Word Processor available bar none. Everyone however is entitled to their own view of this, but I like the things Microsoft does well, and better than the competition, and I like the idiosyncratic things they don’t. However to summarise it in an unbiased way, it accepts words in a variety of languages, has custom dictionaries, can do macros if you like for to automate common functions (I like having a short cut for adding page breaks), the newer versions have the ribbon, which I hated initially but have grown to enjoy for the most part, especially with a touch screen.
    • Microsoft Excel – For all your spreadsheeting needs, there’s nothing better. I am however a power user, and fill spreadsheets with macros, and charts many of them created or customised by me.
    • Microsoft OneNote – I use OneNote to store all my more detailed notes, web page clippings, random notes, and samples
  • FreeMind – is a free Mind Mapping software for the PC, which works with files from Thinking Space on the android phone. I mostly use it for reviewing on a larger screen what I’ve done on the mobile.


So there you have it, a brief over view of the tools I’ve used for NaNoWriMo 2011. I’m going to try out a different set of tools, and some different methods for going about my writing, to give me something to compare to. Also, while I acknowledge my favourites here, I am open to something better being out there, as long as its a tool that works with the whole process with minimum fuss.

I’ll do another post in the new year to let you know what I’ve chosen to try, and how it has gone. In the meantime, suggestions wouldn’t be unwelcome.