Writers, Your Cell Phone Is out to Get You!

[Week 20: Writer’s Block]
Photo Courtesy of clocksforseeing via Creative Commons

I thought that title would get your attention. Look, this isn’t going to be some stupid rant about how we need to return to simpler times when people walked instead of drove cars, washed their own clothes in the river and churned their own butter. Technology can be beneficial when used wisely. But whoever the genius was who decided to cram an incredibly powerful computer that fits in your palm was clearly not thinking about the welfare of writers.

I mean, seriously. We’re talking about a demographic that will use any excuse not to write. Hypochondriacs who insist they are suffering from a painful medical condition known in most English-speaking countries as writer’s block (or bloqueo de escritor to our Spanish-speaking friends). Lollygaggers who have zero problem binge-watching every television show ever created because they are “doing research.” Yeah, let’s give those guys one more thing to distract them.

The Good Old Days
Back in the day when cell phones didn’t exist, writers were more observational. How do I know this? Well, because I used to be that way. It was not uncommon for me to sit in a public place for hours, watching people. And when in conversation, I used to give the other person my undivided attention. This was normal, people! It’s how we used to conduct ourselves in a civilized society. Later when I sat down to write, I recalled character traits and dialogue I had observed. It’s what, I feel, gave my work authenticity.

Of course, this is not to say there weren’t distractions. Television, for example. But you couldn’t very well schlep around a set around with you. Sure, portable TVs did exist, but they were used mostly by smiling seniors traveling the country in high-mileage campers.

Now
Things really are different today. I know everyone says that, but it’s true. It’s as if we are more distracted than ever. I blame technology. Think about it. We can spend hours consuming content on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. And, yes, we can also get lost in Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Pokémon GO. (Speaking of Netflix, check out my earlier post, “Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer.”)

Let me ask you something. When was the last time you went to a public place and watched real people interacting, rather than staring down at your phone every five seconds? I thought so. And I’m not claiming I’m any better. In fact, the main reason I decided to post this was to warn myself about the dangers of personal electronics.

So what happens when you don’t spend enough time thinking and observing? Well, you tend to rip off characters and dialogue from movies and television. Sure, you’re probably still reading but, come on. How many minutes a day do you spend looking at your phone instead of reading a book? Yeah …

Everything in Moderation
Things are only going to get worse. Cats and dogs living together. I am confident there will come a day when devices that can connect to the Internet will be embedded in our brains. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article from 2013. It’s only a matter of time. What then? Do we, as writers, just give up? Oh, and haven’t you heard? Researchers have been programming AI machines to write novels without any need for human intervention. Take a look at this. I’ve already resigned myself to the possibility that this infernal machine will land a literary agent before I do.

Okay, this is starting to go sideways. Back to my original point. The key to the whole thing, in my view, is discipline. As I stated earlier, cell phones can offer a great advantage when used properly. if I’m in a conversation with someone and one of us happens to mention a fact the other feels is inaccurate, either of us can quickly Google the topic and correct the error right there and then—though I would advise you against trying that with your spouse. Trust me.

There is a time to use your cell phone and a time to put it the hell away. I suggest you remember that during meals, at parties and when attending church. Our brains are wired to observe, and it would be a shame if we let that higher function atrophy to the point where we evolve into a bunch of dumb, drooling spectators. Kind of like those clueless characters in ‘Idiocracy.’ Consider yourself warned.

What in the World Is “Family Fiction”?

[Arrested Development]
Photo courtesy of Deadline | Hollywood

A while ago, I told you about a novel I had adapted from one of my old screenplays (see “Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times”). As I was writing the book, I thought my biggest challenge would be making a decent novel out of what is essentially a blueprint for a movie, which is what a screenplay is. The good news? I showed a recent draft to a few trusted friends, and the consensus is that the story works. Now for the bad news.

Finding Your Genre
Typically, when writing a novel you have pretty good idea about which genre you’re in. We’ve been trained to think this way, and it’s my view that this is mostly due to the influence of movies and television. What’s the first thing an agent asks you (after “Who are you again?”)—what is it? And they’re not talking about the story, my friend. No, they are asking whether it’s rom-com, horror, thriller, period, coming-of-age, etc. In other words, they want to know how to market it.

And here’s the thing—because we as writers are already trained, we will write according to these predefined genres, or categories. Of course, Amazon makes it easy too. When you publish your book, you are asked to select up to three categories. Here’s one—Fiction->Romance->Contemporary.

But what if your story doesn’t fall neatly into a pigeon hole?

Genre Benders
This is where I found myself after finishing my novel. And I will tell you in all honesty, this is precisely why I had struggled with the screenplay. In my mind, I had a great story, but it wasn’t targeted at a particular audience (kids, millennials, older adults, etc.). So, now what?

Well, I had a great conversation with my friend Melodie Ramone, who I interviewed recently. Melodie is not only a brilliant writer, but she knows the publishing world well—particularly when it comes to what publishers want from fiction. And what they want is apparently no different than what those pesky Hollywood agents want—they want to categorize the book so they can market it in the same tired way they do all the others that fall into your particular genre.

Sadly, my book is what Melodie calls a “genre bender.” And, bless her, she didn’t discourage me from publishing it. Sure, I’ll probably never get a literary agent to look at it, but who cares? I’m focused on indie publishing anyway. Of course, I still have to figure out how to market the damned thing, and that is still the problem.

Family Fiction
In researching genre-bending types of fiction, I ran across a term I wasn’t familiar with—family fiction. I tried looking it up, and guess what—there is no definition. I found items as diverse as “Christian fiction,” “family saga” and “domestic fiction.” In fact, there’s a site called FamilyFiction.com that appears to try and own the brand, categorizing itself as a purveyor of Christian fiction.

When I searched Amazon’s Kindle store, I found that “family fiction” is a recognized search term. The first book that popped up on the list at the time of this writing was The Doctor’s Unexpected Family by Kristen Ethridge. You got it—Christian fiction. The second was A Legacy of Secrets by Jean Reinhardt, which is listed as a family saga. Then there’s Alone by Holly Hook, which appears to be targeted to the YA/Sci-Fi/Fantasy crowd. I saw other titles with “family” in them, which unfortunately means that Mario Puzo’s The Family is included. Now, most people are aware that Amazon is great at leveraging big data, but the fact that Christian fiction-themed books appear alongside stories about La Cosa Nostra tells me that family fiction is not a true genre, at least as far as they’re concerned.

Alternatively, if you visit Goodreads, you’ll find a list of family fiction that features books as diverse as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle (which is part of her “A Wrinkle in Time” series). Now granted, the only reason the list contains these books is because readers shelved them that way, which tells me that readers themselves don’t really understand what family fiction is. They probably figure, hey, if it’s about a family, then it must be family fiction. So wait, could it be that simple?

Bringing It Home
Back to my story. My book is told mostly in the first person by a thirteen-year-old girl. But occasionally, I use third-person omniscient because there are important scenes that don’t include her but drive the other characters—her mother and father, for example.

I still haven’t figured out how I am going to market this thing, but Melodie gave me some great suggestions. I will keep you informed as to my progress. In the meantime, I would love to see some comments about what you consider to be family fiction.