Dear Authors: Here’s How to Avoid Writing Tech Gibberish

From Publishers Weekly:

It doesn’t take serious writers long to learn that we need to be fanatical about quality with every element of our stories. So why, when we demand quality everywhere else, do we embrace Hollywood hacker stereotypes when it comes to technology?

We’ve all seen the tropes: bad guys breaking into important systems and holding the world for ransom, until good guys save the world by guessing the secret password in the nick of time. Hollywood hackers tend to be the smartest people in the story, but awkward in social settings; the world would be a better place if only they weren’t so misunderstood.

There are plenty of other ways storytellers opt for superficial technical solutions. Want to hold a secret meeting? Bring in a superhacker dwarf to disable the security cameras by glomming onto the building Wi-Fi from an SUV in the parking ramp—with no prior recon and no advance knowledge of the video system. That’s what Brad Thor did in Blacklist, in which U.S. government agents use Skype for secure communication. But it’s okay, because good secret agents do their Skyping from behind a TOR proxy.

Want to bring the United States to its knees? Find a smart 21-year-old to write a virus and introduce it to every internet service provider in America. Then watch the fun as the president of the U.S. guesses the secret password and saves the world. That’s pretty much the story in The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. I wonder if Hollywood will turn that book into a movie.

. . . .

Why do we keep producing this stuff? I know, it’s fiction. We’re supposed to suspend disbelief. But come on—is this the best we writers can come up with? Our laziness has consequences. No wonder the public thinks they’re all just sitting ducks for any smart attacker looking to take over the world. The public deserves better. We can deliver better.

The real world offers plenty of sources of inspiration for technology-fueled tension. In 2015, two terrorists murdered 14 people at a San Bernardino Christmas party. They died in a shoot-out and left behind an encrypted iPhone. The FBI needed to get into that phone and threatened to bankrupt Apple unless the company built a software update to bypass the phone’s security safeguards. Think about being in the middle of that game of chicken.

Remember Stuxnet? Neither Israel nor the NSA will confirm that they introduced malicious software to Iran in 2008 to sabotage the country’s nuclear centrifuges. Kim Zetter chronicled it in Countdown to Zero Day. Imagine discovering an international software weapon. Tension? Drama? You betcha.

In my day job in the software industry, I encounter real-life situations that threaten to shut down the world all the time. I also routinely see smaller cybervictim scenarios that break my heart. Fiction writers should salivate at dramas like these.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG suspects that part of the problem is that persons with tech chops would avoid the traditional publishing world like the plague, assuming they even knew or cared about it.

Just a few reasons off the top of PG’s head: Too many clueless bosses, no meaningful career path, zero tech credits on a resume’, no opportunity to get rich with an IPO.

4 thoughts on “Dear Authors: Here’s How to Avoid Writing Tech Gibberish”

  1. Why do we keep producing this stuff?

    Because millions of consumers like it? Buy it? Buy it again and again?

    Ever notice how TV cops pick up a phone, click a bit, and find what the bad guy is up to? I can’t even pick up my own phone and do that. I don’t suspend disbelief. I know it’s BS. But, it’s still a good story because it entertains.

    • Up to a point, but when I hawked my military SF novel around, one of the criticisms from the established agents was that my character was proficient, and wasn’t railing about being in the military. So some assumptions are embedded within the writing world.

      However, while my books are not mega bestsellers, those reviews I have praise the technical competency of my research, capturing military culture, and getting the details right.

      So, I would argue that there’s room for both, but what I know is that what happens is that the lowest common denominator pushed the other out; as in people who don’t care buy whatever, whereas the numbers of people who do care, don’t matter.

      I could be wrong, and I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

      • One of my small joys in life is watching TV where the hero is wearing a bullet proof vest. Colleagues think he is dead, but he then arises, and shows the vest. Complete cartridges are embedded in the vest, and we see the back end of the casing sticking out. Just like it looked when taken out of the box.

    • Yeah. Truth and realism is not what makes a fiction popular. Sales come to those who divine what the audience is drooling to hear and offer it to them. Truth and realism improves the dish and makes an author feel better about pandering to the appetite of the mob, but you’ll never sell lobster to a crowd that wants meatloaf.

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