For the past few days I've been reading a few romance novels set in the world of technology and have taken to my personal Twitter account to vent my frustrations about a lot of what I saw. Updates like, "THAT'S NOT HOW IT WORKS AT ALL!" and "APPS ARE NOT BUSINESSES!" were a common theme, and yes, always in caps. *HulkSmash* (My sister, a labor & delivery nurse in a very busy hospital assures me it's the same way for her when people write about giving birth.)
The problem is I'm too close to it. I'm married to a software architect at one of Silicon Valley's most successful companies. For over a decade I did technology PR for start-ups and public companies alike. For the last three and a half years of my career I did in-house corporate communications for the engineering department of one of the world's biggest information security companies. Most of my friends have at one time been in tech or tech PR. Basically, my credentials are sound.
After ranting and raving like a lunatic, my friend and fellow author Jamaila Brinkley contacted me about contributing an Ask the Expert article for an upcoming newsletter for the Maryland chapter of Romance Writers of America, which she is actively involved in. I jumped at the chance to help educate authors on how to write about tech in their novels. Here's the longer version of an edited article that will go out later this year.
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A new sort of romance hero has emerged: dark, brooding, and frequently a billionaire tycoon, but open the Wall Street Journal and you’ll soon see that most billionaires today are actually old white guys, not smoking hot under-30 sex gods. So where’s a girl to find a filthy, stinking rich hottie to dominate her? Authors, I give you the tech sector.
With over $85 billion dollars raised in tech IPOs in 2014 alone, that’s a whole lotta new millionaires to write about. And with more and more cutting edge technologies making their way into the hands of everyday consumers, now’s a great time to introduce your readers to a new type of dashing hero. The problem with writing this sort of character is that technology is hard to get right if you don’t already know much about it. As an author you want to provide your readers with an authentic level of intrigue, while making sure your words are technically sound as well.
Here are some tips I’ve compiled to keep in mind when writing about technology:
Write about technologies that are hot right now, not last year.
Technology is an incredibly fast-paced industry and sometimes was hot last year might have already gone out of business (I'm looking at you Color), so know what's hot and what's not before you dive in. I recommend you check out publications like Wired and Fast Company, or read the technology sections of Gizmodo, USA Today, and The New York Times. These publications - just a handful of what I read on a daily basis when I worked in tech - all do a terrific job of distilling often-difficult technological mumbo jumbo into stories that are easily consumable by the general public.
Leverage tech gossip to fuel your story
Silicon Valley is a hotbed of gossip and has its own strange insulated world of celebrity around which much of the industry circles. Sites like Valleywag, Gawker, and Techcrunch will give you a really good feel of what people are talking about over drinks at trendy bars up and down the Valley - the scandals, the rumors, and who's going down next.
Be descriptive enough that it feels like you’re giving your readers an inside look at a world that’s actually really difficult to comprehend, but don’t overdo it to the point they don’t know what you’re saying.
Instead of your hero saying, “I’ve developed apps for multiple platforms,” have him talk about what those apps allow people to do, how they impact the world. Want to make him powerful? Have him be the brains behind something truly revolutionary. I guarantee you the creators of Twitter, Instagram, Pandora, or Uber never simply say, “I developed an app for your iPhone,” and there’s no way an alpha hero would either. But talking about something truly impactful, something that everyone in the world knows about and uses? That's sexy as eff.
I’m reminded of watching ER when it first came on so many years back. I knew absolutely nothing about what it was like in an ER in a major urban city, but I believed that Anthony Edwards was an ER doc because he sounded authentic. I later found out that half the stuff they called out while rolling a gurney through blood-soaked hallways was preposterous but it sounded authentic to me. I can’t imagine the show would have lasted as long as it did if the ambulance rolled in a shooting victim and the script had him saying, “I am a doctor and this man has a hole in his chest.” Or, if George Clooney’s character was asked for his credentials and he said, “I am a doctor who has been in many hospitals.”
Understand that most companies don’t have money being thrown at them.
The process of getting funding can be a long and arduous one. Very rarely does someone walk into a VC firm and after a twenty minute presentation get handed a check for four million dollars. A company’s technology has to be tight, has to be thoroughly tested, and the people pitching have to have a solid business plan in place that makes a VC feel confident about his return on investment. There are stories from before the dot-com bust of young tech wizards getting handed wads of cash based solely on an idea, but those days are over.
Very few people can build a good app in a week. Yes, there are some who can but they are the exception, not the rule.
I can’t tell you the number of companies my former agencies have repped over the years who thought their apps or products were ready for the market before they were. If you release something to consumers and it crashes, doesn’t do what it says it’ll do, or is buggy, you’re going to get eaten alive and that business you thought you were building? Done before it even started. Also, an app does not make a business. A business requires a plan.
Fantasy is good, but there needs to be some reality grounding the story as well (aka: there’s rarely such thing as a 21-year-old marketing director at a VC funded-company).
As amazing as it would be to have your heroine get hired on as a marketing director straight out of college, that really isn’t the way these things work if your company isn’t self-funded. Sure it’s great to surround your heroine with friends she shared a dorm with only months prior, but when you hit the big time, the people who have invested in you want expertise and no recent grad with only a handful of internships under her* belt is going to be given the reigns to such a big ship. (*I say “her” because marketing and PR departments are predominantly made up of women)
Watch TV shows and movies about the tech sector
One final note – if you haven’t worked in tech before, you should watch the HBO show Silicon Valley. A lot of it is grossly exaggerated and way out there, but at least once an episode I turn to my husband and say, “I’ve heard that,” or “Yup, I know that guy.” It’s satire, to be sure, but so much of what ends up on that show is based in reality. If you put aside the character Erlich’s atrocious behavior while they’re pitching VCs and look solely at the process that Pied Piper goes through to get money, it’s not far off from what many of my friends have experienced themselves.