Once upon a time not so very long ago, writers didn’t carry computers around. A sharp pencil and a notebook was all they needed. Maybe a typewriter if they wanted to get fancy, but those things were heavy. If they needed to communicate with anyone in writing, they wrote a letter, put a stamp on it and waited days, weeks or months for a reply.
But now, everybody’s online. You would think in the heart of Silicon Valley (aka Santa Clara Valley), the place from which most of our computers, iPads and smartphones originate, a traveling writer would be able to get online. But no. My father’s house, built in 1950, not only lacks a dishwasher and garbage disposal, but there’s not a hint of computer compatibility. I spent most of October and early N0vember there, and I could not connect to the Internet without going somewhere else.
Getting online has been a challenge since computers started talking to each other. Anybody remember modems and plugging your computer into a phone line? Yes, kids, that’s what we used to do. When my husband and I were both working in our home offices, we did lots of yelling along the lines of “I need to get online. When are you going to be off the phone?” In those days, when I visited my parents, I would wait until everyone was asleep, sneak into the kitchen, disconnect the family phone, plug in my computer and do my online business as quickly as possible. I paid AOL a small fortune for the privilege of getting online for maybe a half hour. Even in hotels, I had to plug into the phone line and dial over and over because the connections were usually overloaded. On maybe the tenth try, I’d get through.
Then, miracle of miracles, Wi-Fi (short for Wireless Fidelity) arrived. You could get online without telephone cables or hookups, the signals flying through the air. It was sort of like TV. But Wi-Fi, although available in a lot of places, is not everywhere, as I discovered at the Fishtrap writing workshop in the Wallowas last summer and at Dad’s house last month. Oh, there was Wi-Fi all over the place in San Jose, but all of the connections required passwords. The owners had put security blocks on them.
Then, as now, my father always had the same question: Why is it so important to be on your computer? Well, it wasn’t as important a decade ago as it is now. The writing business, like most businesses, is conducted over the Internet. Queries, manuscripts, acceptances, rejections, blog posts, comments, social networking, research, interviews, book orders—it all happens online, and we’re expected to respond quickly.
My dad is suffering from a heart problem. He’s scheduled for surgery next month. I was supposed to be taking care of him, so I couldn’t leave very often. I was late with my blog posts, couldn’t approve comments that came in, couldn’t process book orders, couldn’t post my book reviews, couldn’t hook up with my critique group. Compared to what was happening with my father, it wasn’t important, but I still ached to get online. When I could slip away, I grabbed some Internet time at Starbucks (noisy and crowded), at Kaiser Hospital while Dad was having tests (great Wi-Fi), at my aunt’s house where the connection kept cutting me off, and in the parking lot at the Westgate Mall, where I did weird contortions to keep the sun off my screen. If only I could have gotten online at the house.
It turns out I could have.
I’m not very up-to-date on my cell phone. I just hooked up to email a year or so ago. But it turns out where you can’t find Wi-Fi, you can often use the 3G or 4G mobile broadband networks that power smartphones and tablets. When my brother visited, he handed me his iPad, and it worked right there in that house where Wi-Fi never entered. I got to thinking about this. Yes, I could smarten up my phone. Or I could buy my own iPad. But what if I could hook the laptop I already have and like much better than my brother’s iPad to a 3G or 4G connection, whatever the heck those are?
Google! When I got home, I started researching, and voila, I can buy a 4G modem that plugs into my USB port or a “mobile hotspot” that will give me my own Wi-Fi connection wherever cell phones work. I’ll have to pay a monthly fee to my cell phone company, but hey, would I rather spend the money on Starbuck’s drinks I don’t really want or get cozy in the easy chair with my computer without some guy talking on his cell phone six inches from me?
The G in 4G stands for “generation” as in 4th generation communications technology. Each generation is supposedly faster and more efficient. Some devices still run on 3G these days, but 4G is the latest. If you’re going to do it, go for 4—unless there’s a 5G out there somewhere already. Some of the newer laptops already have the 4G built in. But if yours doesn’t, contact your computer guru or your cell phone company to check out the possibilities.
Next time I visit Silicon Valley, I will hook up to the Internet whenever I want, and that will be sweet. However, I did learn while I was gone that I don’t have to be online 24/7, that it’s healthy to walk away from the computer once in a while. I had some great sessions writing on paper while sitting in my mom’s old rocker by the window at dawn or in my bed just before I went to sleep. There was freedom in not having to worry about equipment, being interrupted by emails, or having to post anything, just writing. I recommend it. You can write without the Internet. You just can’t do research or sell what you write.
Eventually we’ve got to get online. So if you’re not sure how you’re going to hook up when you travel, check out the G thing. It might help you stay connected. That’s what I’m going to do. And then, when you’ve done all the Internet stuff you need to do, disconnect.
Now go write.
I’ve been stuffing down novels like candy lately, reading them one after another, not happy unless my head is immersed in an alternate world. Recently, my fiction addiction led to a breakthrough on my current nonfiction work in progress.
I was out of town on a book-selling expedition. After a long day of driving, I had checked into a motel in Roseburg, Oregon and was sinking into a warm bath when it hit me. I had to change the ending for my book. Words and scenes tumbled through my mind. Forget the bath. I had to write this down. I got out, wrapped a towel around me and hurried to my laptop, still wet as I started typing as fast as I could.
Outside, night fell. The parking lot filled with cars as people checked in. The murmur of a television filtered through the walls. Unaware of it all, I let the words flow for the next three hours. I had found the key to my book.
What happened? Two things: I got away from the usual distractions of home, and all that fiction I’d been reading seeped into my bones and showed me how to write my creative nonfiction project.
Non-writers chuckle when I talk about writing creative nonfiction. They assume that means I make stuff up. Not true. Creative nonfiction, also known as narrative nonfiction, uses the techniques of fiction to tell true stories. Those techniques include the use of scenes and settings, characters, dialogue, suspense, and rising and falling action that leads to a climax.
The book I’m working on had a lot of these elements in it, but it lacked the through story that would pull readers from beginning to end. It was all bits and pieces, and I interrupted the narrative too often with my research gems. “Info dump,” my fiction-writing friends call it. It was all good stuff, but I needed to make it more of a story, and suddenly I knew how, thanks to all those novels I’d been reading. I could see my people as characters and could see where I could increase tension, add suspense, turn telling into showing, and lure the reader on by making him wonder what happened next.
The writing world is full of books, magazines and websites telling you how to write. But I think we can learn the most from sitting down and reading good books. So go ahead, dive into a good novel. Enjoy the story, then go back and study what they did to make you keep turning the pages. It will make you a better writer.
Then, go write.