Thursday, April 14, 2011

Updating a Novel - Yes or No?

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post. I had originally sent an email to the phone provider questioning their repeated "don't forget to send your defective phone back" even before I had my phone. While I never got an answer to that email, I did get a phone call from someone who wanted to tell me there would be no problem as long as I sent everything back when I had it all. Needless to say, he got the full story. I admit he was very apologetic for all the mixups. Shortly thereafter, I got an automatic email asking me to take a survey about my experiences with the email response.
Since the poll specifically said to answer with respect to the email response, and not to phone calls, I fear they didn't fare well.

And, a follow up to my quickie hints for Track Changes. One frequent visitor to this blog, Elizabeth Spann Craig, tweeted about another, more detailed explanation. You can find it here.

My writing endeavors have been focused on editing, and for the last two days, it's been one of my earlier books. It's kind of nice to be able to go back and fix things—I don't think any author is ever 100% satisfied that the book is perfect. But beyond things like being able to apply everything I've learned after writing many more books, I'm trying to decide whether to leave the book set in an early 2000's time frame, or to update it to be current.

Normally, there's quite a lag time between submitting a book, accepting a contract, and having the book hit the shelves. We're probably talking several years between writing and publication. But with being able to publish these books myself, they can be current (at least for a few weeks!).

Technology changes rapidly. So, as I'm reading, I see things that are definitely out of date. People used pagers. Cell phones were relatively new. There was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter. No smart phones.

So, as I'm reading, I'm wondering if I should leave much of the technology as it was when I wrote the book, with an introductory "disclaimer" to orient readers in time, or if I should try to bring it up to date.

My heroine, Sarah, is on the verge of bankruptcy, so I can use the 'can't afford it' argument for many of these differences. I can justify that she and her late husband had put everything they owned into their business, with nothing left over for frills like updating their old computer. Paying for broadband would strain her budget.

But will a reader accept that she's not going to be using on-line shopping, bill paying, and spending all sorts of time on a cell phone? Even with an introduction reminding readers that they are stepping back in time—a few steps, to be sure, but the way technology changes, will they remember as they read, or keep wondering why Sarah doesn't have social network friends to help her thorough her ordeal.

And then there's music. I consulted my kids, who were Sarah's age when I wrote the book, asking what Sarah would likely listen to when she was happy. As I'm editing, I see she's picked out a U2 CD. Is that totally out of date? What's the 2011 of U2?

Or pay phones. Do they still exist? The hero, Randy, is a cop, and the technology used in his field has skyrocketed forward as well. I need to place a suspect somewhere, and having Randy able to trace an incoming call to a pay phone at an Interstate rest stop was necessary for the plot. Do I have to change it to a disposable cell phone with a GPS?

It's hard enough to write "current" in a new manuscript. Going back and dealing with something that's out of date presents another set of challenges.

What are your thoughts about reading books that aren't up to the minute? Can you remember you're reading about something set five to ten years ago, and accept how different things were then?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is a tough one. I'm guessing that "Black Eyed Peas" are probably up there with U2 as far as popularity now.

I recently finished a manuscript where I left technology almost *completely* out. And I'm a person who uses technology all day long. But I was worried about the dating aspect--especially now that our backlists will stay available forever with the advent of the e-reader. I made passing reference to cell phones, but that's it. It felt odd, but I thought that *no* reference might end up doing better than an *out of date* reference. We'll see!

Megan Johns said...

Technology changes the world so rapidly that I imagine it is nigh on impossible to ensure foolproof immunity to becoming dated. Great post

Sherry Gloag said...

Technology changes so rapidly, I think trying to update may be similar to trying to swim upstream during a flood.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - thanks for the Black-eyed Peas. I am NOT current with music for people the ages of my characters and always 'outsource' stuff like that. And there's surprisingly little technology in the book, but that seems to send up red flags as to, 'well, why doesn't she just sell stuff on eBay?' And since it's a cop story as well, there's the police technology, which I can get around because it's a small town setting.

Megan - I totally agree, and thanks.

Misty Dietz said...

Hi Terry, Great questions. I haven't read too many books that seemed really dated, but I have to say, the one that I did...I certainly remember, but not because it felt outdated. I remember it because I loved the story itself. It was Sandra Brown's Above and Beyond. I think as long as readers are aware from the beginning where you're placing them, if the writing is good enough, they will be along for the ride and lose themselves in the moment no matter what decade it is. That said, IMHO, I do think it's a tougher sell and the majority of readers aren't as likely to pick up books set in modern, but dated timeframes. That probably didn't help at all! :)

Terry Odell said...

Sherry - yes. One has to decide how much to include. Of course, I set a scene in a restaurant in my neighborhood in Nowhere to Hide, and it was out of business before the book was out.

Misty - I can usually overlook some of the fancy stuff (and even basics) because I don't use a whole lot of the available technology myself.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Terry: You're asking a question that I'm sure lots of writers would love an answer to. I have several novels like this, and I've deliberately not submitted them because they would require updating. One takes place at the turn of the 20th century and then 90 years into future, e.g. 1997. To update it, would take away the mystique of the era in my opinion, so I've just stashed it in my drawer.

The second takes place in the era of the Viet Nam War. Same thing. I could change it to the Gulf War, but then I would lose the tragic feel of the MIAs that were lost during the Vietnam era.

By updating, do we lose a little bit of the history and insights the author knew as they wrote? Are we forsaking a part of the history as we knew it, just to keep *updated* for a lack of a better word.

How boring is that? Very, in my opinion.

Terry Odell said...

Donnell - I think a novel clearly set in a specific "historical" period, such as the Viet Nam war wouldn't be a problem. It wouldn't be trying to be "current."

Marsha A. Moore said...

I think if the technology isn't a focal point in the plot, the characters and their interactions with each other are what readers focus on. Look back at major past works. I don't feel strange reading those references to past current times.

Terry Odell said...

Marsha - technology is more important for the police side of the story, but that's easier to explain: small town, low budget, no fancy forensics technology. It's more about why my heroine doesn't even have a cell phone, much less a smart phone; stuff like that. I do know a lot of people who don't have/use computers, but they tend to be in a much high age demographic than my heroine. But good to know readers aren't likely to be pulled too far out of the story. Thanks

Susan Oleksiw said...

I also think about these details when I'm writing, but I also read lots of successful books that avoid technology issues or even stick to a time when things were simpler. Cara Black sets her stories in the 1990s, but it doesn't feel historical, or as if anything is missing. If the story works, I don't care about the technology, or even notice it.

anny cook said...

Personally, I wouldn't update it. I would make mention somewhere early in the book of the date... maybe have the heroine refer to the year (such as boy, the 2001 taxes were high this year...) and then I would move on.

That "historical" aspect is one of the things I enjoy when re-reading my Nora Roberts or Linda Howards or Jayne Ann Krentz's books. Our world changes sooooo rapidly that whatever you update will be out of date by the end of the year.

Terry Odell said...

Susan - good points. I'm all about the characters, and I don't think the time is as important as how they deal with what I throw at them.

Anny -- and everyone. Some good points. I'll be sure to take all of them into consideration.

Kathy said...

I'm not super techno savy either. I have a laptop, a desktop, a cell phone(thanks to my niece my husband and I both do). But I feel so unsure about some of the things I worry my heroine isn't tech savy enough, she's an army captain but I did throw in she and her husband used the Internet and web cams to share the progress of her pregnancy. The premise there was they were deployed together and during R&R she goofed and got pregnant, immediate return to the states due to prenatal care in the war zone. He is killed before the baby arrives but I have her remember how they decorated the nursery and did things to prepare for the baby togeter. It does help I have a nephew overseas and his wife is living here with us. She talks to him on Vonage all the time. Recently she went to meet him for a month. They called home and "talked" to the kids. The kids are one year and two and a half. She has them talk to Daddy now that she is back all the time. I know before she came home before the second baby was born she would use the web cam and talk to me on the phone of course with a mike you can talk via the computer too so I guess I'd say like someone else suggested, have the date mentioned in passing somewhere near the beginning. GO from there. Personally I'd rather write historicals I did a western and it was easier in some ways lol. Contemporary drives me nuts because I feel behind the times.

Kathryn Scannell said...

I wouldn't try to make it current. Technology changes so fast that it's a losing battle. If anything I'd suggest maybe finding a few ways to remind the reader that the time period isn't today. Dates are one option, but you might work in other clues/reminders - a newspaper headline mentioning President Reagan or Carter, for example. Even if the reader doesn't remember exactly when they were in office, it establishes it as "a while ago" instead of "now".

Of course I read lots of older books as well as recent releases, so my reactions may not be typical.

Makenna Marie said...

That's an interesting thing to think about. I recently had some experience with this as a reader with the book Howl's Moving Castle, which was written in the 1980's. Although most of the story is set in a fantasy world of wizards and magic, there is a point in the book where the reader is taken into the "real world," and I was a bit confused. The wizard's nephew is playing some video games on the computer, but it took me awhile to identify them as video games because he was playing the old kind of rpg games that used all text. I eventually realized what it was because I remembered that the book was written in the 80's and so would be out of date.

Joan Reeves said...

Great post, Terry, and great subject. I've started publishing my backlist on ebooks. Just One Look was the first I put out, and I made the conscious decision to update it for not only technology but also for cultural references, i.e., music, etc.

I think if you're going to attract today's readers then you must make your work something to which they can relate. Technology is so much a part of the fabric of our lives that to have a book that leaves out mentions of email, IMs, smartphones, iPods, net surfing, and all the other things we all do on a daily basis is to create something, in my opinion, that's lacking verisimilitude.

The only way you can get around the technology is to explain why the characters DON'T have it. That's what I did with the ebook I'm publishing today. In The Trouble With Love, my heroine lives on a strict budget and can't afford smartphones and high-speed internet in her small town and all the other gadgets.

For those of you who are publishing backlist, here's a bit of advice to spot the anachronisms. Do a global search for "music" and "phone" and any other thing you think might be archaic.

Also, be careful about scenes where a character must warn someone about something but there's no way pay phone in sight! LOL Today's readers will wonder why a cell phone wasn't used to make the call. Technology can really mess up some plot points.

Best wishes,
Joan Reeves

Terry Odell said...

Kathy - I agree, it helps to have "hands on" experience when writing. Or a good consultant.

Makena - I can imagine what would have happened if the author had his characters playing "Pong"

Joan - I'm dealing with the pay phone issue myself. My sil has even offered to hit the interstate rest stops to see if they've left any phones there.

Margaret Carter said...

Personally, in a reissue of a book previously published, I prefer a note establishing the time period, with no attempt to update to the present day. I like reading older books the way they were originally written! The "quaintness" of older technology is part of the pleasure. If the author is revising a book that's never been published, I'd say go ahead and update it to the present unless the time period as already written is important to the story. When my first vampire novel was published, the date of the action (1979) had receded into the past, even though it had been current when I originally wrote the book. I didn't change it because it was important to the in-universe chronology that the character, then age 40, was born early in World War II.

As for pay phones, they are still around. I happened to see two of them when shopping at Target today. I find it rather distressing that so many are being taken out of commission. NOT everybody has a cell phone! Also, sometimes your phone might not work (low battery or in a bad reception area).

Jenyfer Matthews said...

Terry, this is something I had to deal with myself recently with my book HERE TO STAY, which I recently got the rights back to and made available on Kindle, etc. In the end, I compromised a bit: I took out some references to pagers and put in cell phones and then sort of just ignored the technological stuff because it wasn't a very big part of the story anyway (but neither of my characters is a cop either!)

As for music, I don't see why you would have to update that if you didn't want to. Some of my favorite music is 10+ years old and I still listen to it :)

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I think as long as readers know the time period, they will go with it.I'm reading a book written in the 50s- it's really dated, but I love the story anyway.

Ron at CM said...

Memo to self. Always Always Always copy a Blogger post before you hit Post...

Technology, unless you're Tom Clancy, should be as minimal as possible in the story. The stuff they use for the CSI franchise and the Hawaii 5-0 remake isn't real yet, but it will be believable when the shows go into syndication a few years hence.

[copy...paste] B^)

Your in addition to a brick for a cell phone, your cop probably has a pager, a FAX machine, and a car with an ignition key...

I always make up my own bands and musicians, but music is OK if you stick with the classic acts... Stones 49 years on the road and still touring to sold out stadiums. U2, 35 years and drawing bigger crowds than ever -- I have tickets for May 21 YAY!. Stay away from the flavor of the month and anybody who's been on American Idol.

I love Tom Petty's quote "these people who think they can create rock stars on a game show are just cheating the audiences. And the bands who worked all their lives."

I had two rival Vietnam vets in a kidnap thriller that worked several years ago when they were in their 30s and 40s... Not so much in their late 60s and early 70s.

Having pre-teen children at that age only works if you're Michael Douglas or Harrison Ford.

Writers and arms dealers shouldn't worry though, there are at least a couple of wars for every generation. You just change the climate and the color and language of the bad guys.

Terry Odell said...

Margaret - Definitely, if your character was alive during a specific point in history, then I can see keeping the original time, or you're stuck with a character that's too old.

Jenyfer - I think there are ways to deal with 'generic' type references to technology.

Karen - as long as I am well-grounded in the time period, I can read without being pulled out of the story. I know Sue Grafton had to remind her readers that her books were written in "book time" and not "real time" so although there are decades between her first and last books, the time in the books is still in the 80's.

Ron - totally agree that the technology, especially in forensics is out of date before you finish writing the manuscript. And the rest of your points are excellent.

Jude Mason said...

Hi Terry,

This is something I'm dealing with at the moment too. I very recently got the rights back to several of my older books and am in the process of sending them out again, slowly. I asked a good friend, a reader, who has many of my books. His thoughts were, not to change things to any great extent. His reasons: Once the book is published, it no longer belongs to just the author. Yes, we wrote it, but to change something he'd already read and fallen in love with was a bad thing.

So, I'm all for doing the fixes we authors need to do, the grammar mistakes or the misplaced comma. But, don't go changin' stuff.

I agree, the music needs to be updated, find a teenager. LOL Also, the technology should be updated, but it doesn't have to be leading edge. As you said, it takes time to get a book out, so no matter what you do, it's probably going to be outdated. Not everyone has the new ---fill in the blank. Some of us are quite happy that way.


Anonymous said...


THANK YOU for linking to my Track Changes blog - I'm so glad it was helpful to you. I'm currently running a contest to give away an hour long webinar of training on Twitter/Facebook/TweetDeck/Word/Blogsite setup. Is that of interest to you?

I hope so, because due to your link, I threw your name in the hat! Much appreciated...

As far as your question above - I am usually fascinated and nostalgic when i read a book that has old fashioned, out of date things and facts. It's like a little trip into yesterday, which is always fun.