Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Word Processing

Somebody asked me what I thought the biggest advantages/disadvantages of a computer word processor were, vis a vis writing fiction.

Interesting question.

I was never a pen-to-paper writer, save for those rare instances when I couldn't make to a typewriter and I absolutely-positively had to get a scene down right that minute. I keep a notebook with me, and something to write on next to the bed, but I took typing class in high school because I knew it would come in handy.

So, I composed at a typewriter from the git-go. I started out using a manual portable my wife bought in a pawn shop for about $50 in the 1960's, a pica machine. I liked that better than elite.
(For those of you who don't know these terms, they were the two most common fonts.)

In the following years, I owned maybe half a dozen other typewriters. Five years after we moved to Oregon, I got my first word processor. This was late in 1983, an Epson QX-10, a CPM machine that ran something called Valdocs. Printer was a daisy-wheel that did all of 15 characters a minute. I could manually type faster.

What a turkey that system was. Taught me the value of backing up files in a big hurry.

Second system was a Mac toaster, and it's been Mac OS since, probably half a dozen to the current iMac G4 running OS 10.xx. Probably get another one of those in the next year or so.

I went from manual to electric typewriters, and ended with an IBM Selectric clone, made by Sperry, at which point I didn't think it could get any better. You could change fonts using type balls, there was a sticky lift-off tape that allowed you to erase! and it used carbon ribbons for smudge-free print. It was a lease/purchase, and cost me about nine hundred dollars. I wrote my first three novels using it.

The biggest advantages of typewriters? None of them ever once said, "Sorry, that file is gone." With the manuals, the muscles used got worked better, and I never had a problem with any kind of RSI, which is much more common when keying computers.

Disadvantages: To get two copies of a manuscript, you had to use carbon paper, and every draft had to start with page one and go to the end, so you did a lot of retyping of stuff that didn't need to be retyped. And you had to have two copies -- if you sent your only copy out and it got lost? You were screwed. At least with a carbon, you could -- sigh -- retype it one more time.

If you had more than three errors on a page, even corrected with white-out, you had to retype the whole page, otherwise editors would spit on it and reject your story. The least they expected was clean copy.

With a computer system that shows the words black on a white screen as fast as you can type without lag, the advantages are legion -- assuming you back everything up frequently and in more than one place.

Probably the thing that is most useful to me is the ability to quickly fix and move stuff around.

What has happened more frequently in recent years is that I sometimes write out-of-sequence. Back in the day, I started on page one, chapter one, and wrote through to the end of the last chapter and -30- .

(This is an old newspaper thing, wherein articles were ended with XXX to show the editor you were done and the copy boy hadn't lost a page. XXX eventually became -30-, not too hard to figure why.)

So if, whilst writing chapter thirteen, I suddenly get a vision of a fight scene that isn't going to take place until six or twelve chapters later in the book, I can write that scene while I have it in mind, save it, and when I get to that place later, just paste it in. No worry about pagination, the computer does it. Sometimes the piece will require some tweaking, because the tone of the book might have altered, or a new character might step up and demand more screen time, so I have to give him or her the scene, but it is a big advantage to be able to get it down while it is flowing and know it's there.

Flow matters. If you have something come to you and you don't write it, later when you do get back to it, it won't be the same. Could be better, could be worse, but it won't be the same. And you'll wonder if it would have been better or worse ...

This is a great way to get the beast moving if it is stalled, by the way. I've been lucky enough not to have suffered from writer's block so far -- knock on wood -- and this is one of my tricks.

Current scene necessary, but not exciting, and you know you must, but don't really feel like grinding through it? Skip ahead, write something that gets the juices flowing, and then go back.

Inertia is both curse and blessing. If you are standing still, sometimes it is hard to get going. Once you are moving, it's easier to keep moving, and you can return to the sluggish sequence with renewed vigor.

And of course, there's all that electronic shuttling you can do, you can now submit books to some publishers without having to generate hard copy at all, but being able to fix copy and move it around is right up there at the top of the list. In the days when I routinely did three drafts of a short story -- first, rewrite, and final -- that meant each page got typed three times.
On a twenty page short story, this wasn't so bad. On a novel? Yeah, you had to do it, but it's a whole lot easier just to fix what's broken, and sometimes, a draft-and-a-half will do it.

The typewriter picture with this post is an Underwood Standard, probably made about 1930. I can't be sure, because the serial number plate is gone. (We have another, even older machine, a portable, circa 1920, that belonged to my wife's grandmother. Still works just fine.)

When we bought our first house, the old woman who lived there had passed away, and in the place when we looked at it were two items we wanted: An old Singer sewing machine treadle base of cast iron, and this typewriter. We had our real estate agent write that into the contract, we'd pay extra for those, and the heirs went along with it.

The treadle base is out back, with a board on it full of hot tub supplies now, after various incarnations as inside tables or desks. Treadle still works.

The Underwood is atop the reference bookshelf in my office. Dusty, and the ribbon is shot, but it still works, too. I wouldn't want to have to go back to such a machine, but it has a certain cachet sitting there. Probably weighs about forty pounds, a solid, well-made, utilitarian device that has, like buggy whips, its own place in history ...


J.D. Ray said...

You never know when you're going to need a writing device that doesn't rely on electricity. I'd track down a spare ribbon while you can.

I learned to sew on a treadle machine. Grandma had one (still has one, for that matter), and she babysat me while I was growing up. The nice thing about the treadle was that I couldn't step too hard on the pedal and sew my fingers together by accident. And, like learning to set type in high school from the crusty old guy in the repro center, I'm glad to have a skill that involves old-world, mechanical technology. Come to think of it, working in my grandfather's bicycle shop growing up falls into that category as well. Hmm....

Edwin Voskamp said...

Mmm, I was going to mention that last I used my 1907 Underwood I could still get ribbons for it. Until I remembered that the last time I used it was 32 years ago: it's still at my mother's home in the Netherlands.

Still, as much as I like writing on a computer, I loved the feel and sound of the IBM Selectric. There just was something to it.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, I used to think that, better to keep something non-electrical around. Then again, if things get to that point were we have no juice to run computer, I'd guess that the publishing industry would be kaput -- them old linotype machines are mostly gone, too.

Probably a stockpile of guns and ammo would be better machines to have, come the dark age ...

I like the sound and feel of a typewriter, too. My current keyboard clicks with each keystroke, not much, but enough for audible feedback. For a while, with a keyboard that was dead silent, I had a program that made the sound of a typewriter with each stroke. How retro is that?

J.D. Ray said...

Maybe you need a Steampunk keyboard:

Dunno if they actually clatter as much as an old Underwood, but it's something.

Steve Perry said...

I like the look of the steampunk keyboard -- tres cool.

Me, I use an Advantage Kinesis, which looks like of like somebody took a big ice cream scooper and dug out two big hollows and filled them with keys. The major control keys are under your thumbs.

I sit with this on my lap, lean back, and it works so well for me I can hardly use any other kind of keyboard.

When Kinesis comes out with a wireless model, I am going to buy half a dozen and use each one until it wears out and hope they outlast me ...

Anonymous said...

To be pedantic, pica and elite were two different sizes of typewriter fonts, 10-pitch and 12-pitch respectively (where pitch == characters per inch).

Quite agree about the advantages often of doing things by hand / the traditional way, and very much enjoy your Matador books.


Steve Perry said...

Will --

Yeah, I know. I should have said that; ;just being lazy.

Mike said...

When I got my first "modern" rig (64K Apple IIe with two floppy drives and a dot matrix printer) our son immediately discovered that while the technology had changed, the older way of doing things was still in force. His teachers wanted to see a rough draft as well as the finished paper, so his approach was to write the paper, use the computer to put it in final form and then write the rough draft. I wonder if kids are still doing this?

And along with Linotype machines, lots of small newspapers and printers were selling off Hamilton Glider type saws, super accurate and heavy-duty table saws that were used to cut up cast type. You could buy one of these beauties for $50 or so; another $25 would get the arbor machined to take regular woodworking blades and you had the best saw in the world for accurate trim work and furniture building. Sure wish I'd gotten a few more of these.