When you started writing, there was no word processor or personal computer, no Internet. Have these technological changes affected your work, and do you see the digital age as offering a possible solution to the continuing problem writers have encountered with distribution?
—Al Fisher, Ljubljana, Slovenia
I enjoy the memory lane questions, Al, and this is a particularly good one. Aside from using a sharp rock as a stylus to write on stone or using a quill pen, my writing history probably covers the gamut of tools writers have used to record their work. But I like the more subtle point you suggest—that the means of writing can have something to do with the writing itself. I think it does and I’ll try to explain what I mean.
My first real writing implement was one of those very fat, stubby pencils children used to make their letters in school when I was small. I can still remember the feel of one in my hand and the effort involved in using it, which was much like the mental effort of shaping the letters themselves. Once I’d graduated to thinner lead (or faux-lead) pencils, there was the fascination of sharpening them to a fine point, which could make the line on the paper skinnier and more precise, perhaps a metaphor for developing writing skills. By fourth grade, there was the fountain pen and the particular pleasure of filling it with ink—the very tactile nature of pulling back the silver lever on the side to suction in the ink and the permanence of writing things that couldn’t be erased. It assumed particular care in writing or a copy phase in which revised work went into final form. A fountain pen suggested a certain respect for the work, though coupled with the fear that a spot of errant ink would leak onto the page. Ballpoint pens, as they became ubiquitous, were far easier, but their ink splotches less predictable, the look of the ink on the page much less aesthetic.
With all these implements, there was and is a sense of transfer we probably all recognize—moving words and thoughts from our brains to the page. I actually borrowed the way my father used to write for one of my characters because it was such a graphic representation of this. As he was thinking and forming words in his brain, he would start a small stuttering movement with his hand before actually writing. It was such a clear illustration of the bridge between thought and page, almost like a priming-the-pump action.There’s always that tension when the words are being formed and a sense of release when they move to the page, captured and no longer able to flit away.
For me, this particular sense of communication between the brain working to compose and the paper in front of me always assumed the necessary role of conduit for the pen in my hand, that there was some sort of physical prod there that helped the less formed ideas in my head arrive as logical sentences that connected one to the other. This meant that when I learned to type—a manual Smith-Corona was my first typewriter—I never dreamed of composing directly on the typewriter. I wrote in longhand first and then typed what I’d written. My first electric typewriter, which was a big bulky thing I bought used, was a real step forward in terms of ease of use though a dinosaur by today’s terms. The real breakthrough came with a small electric typewriter I got that had a few words of memory. Again, this was an aid mostly to the appearance of a finished document because it was possible to get rid of typos during the writing process. Limited as it was, it still seemed like a miracle.
I know our family’s first computer was a Commodore 64 we got for Christmas one year. I didn’t think of it in terms of word processing, which was a very new idea, but as something that would give my kids some at-home computer experience. I’m not sure when I began to use it for typing my work. I was an instant convert when I did. Soon afterwards, there was an explosion of interest in home PCs and I got the first computer—some off brand—that was mine alone for my work. As software developed, I wanted a way to convert my old Commodore files so I could read them and reformat them for use. Luckily, we have a computer scientist in the family and he looked into it and told me I needed to buy something called the Big Blue Reader. I did—I loved the name—and, over time and with updates to software and later generation computers, got virtually everything I’d ever typed on a computer into compatible digital form. This was a long way from that early stubby pencil.
I was still absolutely dedicated to the idea of composing with pen and paper. It seemed so integral to the whole proccess of writing. Gradually, when I found words crowding my head and I realized I could capture them more quickly by typing rather than scribbling them out, I made some first tentative steps toward actual composition on the word processor. Even then, I didn’t feel secure about it. I would immediately print out what I’d written and read it over with pen in hand making corrections. Then I’d transfer those corrections to the computer and print it out yet again for as many times as I needed to until I felt I’d made all the required changes. I went through forests of paper.
It was sometime around that period that I began doing early research for Suite Harmonic and wanted a way to take notes that were typed and so needed some sort of portable device. It was before laptops or before they were affordable or small enough to travel with and I bought something called an AlphaSmart that was really designed for kids. It showed a few lines of type in the display, and they could be edited with some awkwardness. More importantly, it held about thirty-forty pages of notes, which seemed to correspond well to the amount of notes I took on a given research trip. I was then able to download the typewritten notes to my computer when I got home, which was a big timesaver. And eventually, I did get a laptop that served as both my home and travel computer, though now I just have a desktop and an iPad.
Perhaps I should have marked the date on my calendar when I first realized I had started to prefer composing work from scratch on the computer, but I don’t think it happened that precipitously. Rather, in using the computer for things other than stories, I began to realize it was a remarkable editing tool. I could move parts of sentences and whole blocks of type and create work that was instantly more effective. It took me quite a long time to feel secure in not keeping files with my initial work, but I gradually learned that the changed text was reliably better than what I had started with. And this change to composing through typing rather than writing in longhand inevitably moved to my fiction. I suppose it was a little like a child moving from a bottle to a cup. Once I felt confident in the change, I felt liberated. I still kept printing work out and making some changes in longhand, but eventually that all but disappeared as well. I think I’d made a transfer to feeling that my fingers on the keyboard were the same conduit as a pen had been. And the speed of revision was pretty amazing.
In writing this whole history, I see something that’s key. I know there are many older writers who still are committed to writing in longhand and feel that is how they do their best work. I would probably be one of them except for the fact that the changes I made were incremental and I didn’t move on to the next electronic step until I was ready for it. It was a very long process. Of course, the remarkable thing is that ways of writing keep evolving in the digital age. I’m always sort of amused when I hear people saying those changes mean people aren’t learning how to write. But with email and texting and tweeting and whatever else is out there, people are writing all the time and are coming up with inventive new ways of expressing themselves. I suspect they’re stimulating that same part of the brain that is needed for longer forms of composition.
I have written elsewhere about using the Internet for research. For me, it’s been a huge boon. Research that formerly would have taken a month can now be done in five minutes. And just as random items in card catalogues used to jog ideas for work, so does the Internet—and in spades. A writer simply has a much bigger palette to work from and quicker ways to check and to verify. The drudge work still has to be done, but it can be achieved more efficiently. (One caveat here: efficiency may not always be good. Sometimes work benefits from a more leisurely pace of development, and a writer needs to know when to pull back or regroup.)
It’s also interesting to me that technology keeps offering new possibilities to writers. I can illustrate this in as up-to-date fashion as I can by talking a little about the editorial process for all the Sky Spinner titles. With each of them, I made what I considered my final editorial cut, incorporating any useful ideas from agents or editors or other writers plus my own sense of the work. At that point, each book went to my copy editor, not in a paper manuscript but in a digital file. She did her very careful job of review and returned the file with her suggested edits displayed with Word’s tracking function. Once I learned how to use it, I went through all the suggested changes, accepting or occasionally rejecting them or rewriting some sentences for clarity. Then I sent the document back to her and she reviewed those changes. I then transferred the file to a program called Documents to Go and read through the entire manuscript, which now looked essentially like a book, on my iPad and made any further edits I wanted right on the screen.
Then there was the next big step. I sent the file to the ebook converter. When I got her .prc and .epub files back, I downloaded them to iBooks and Kindle. I read through the iBook version—which now really was a book—and made a note of any changes that were still needed on the notepad on my iPad and made further checks on the Kindle. (Still with me?) Then I emailed those changes to myself, put them in a computer document and in a format the ebook converter could use to easily make the last changes, which then came back to me in finished files, or finished after I checked the changes. In the meantime, after the copy editing and my first full readthrough, the digital files also went to my book designer for the paper copies, who implemented the design features with specialized software. She chose from a remarkable variety of fonts and, after deciding on the basic layout, went through the manuscript line by line checking and correcting line and page breaks. She also added any changes from my second readthrough when I sent her those. Then, finally, the copy editor checked the designer’s files for anything any of us had missed, and the final files went to the printer digitally. Paper entered the equation at this stage in the form of proofs to review before the final OK for printing.
This is a totally different publishing world from the one I was living in when I wrote by hand and sent off manuscripts corrected with White-out to editors, many of whom had a press in the basement at home to do typesetting. To produce truly finished work, the amount of effort hasn’t changed, but the tools available to the writer and designer and editor are vastly different. It’s remarkable. But here is the short answer to your first question now that I’ve given this very lengthy background. I feel the tools of the digital age have made me a better writer because they’ve let me be more aware of how a story tracks, whether it’s in using the search function to see what all I’ve said about a given minor character or checking for consistency of usage or spelling or, more importantly, moving or changing the various building blocks of the story—phrases, sentences, paragraphs, even whole sections—to strengthen it. And, finally, making my final complete read-through in true book form, means I have more overall awareness of what the reader may still need, which I can then address.
I’m obviously shorting your second question about whether the digital age can help writers with distribution, but not because I don’t think it’s important. Rather, I feel the jury is still out as things develop, though I give a qualified yes. There are huge opportunities, starting with the various communities it’s possible to contact and even create with digital access. There are on-line book clubs, Facebook and Twitter, websites like this one and ways of driving traffic to them through links. There are seemingly infinite possibilities for networking, which is really the start of something very new in terms of what publishing might become. I want to stress this, however. Even if it’s simpler now for people to publish their work and publicize it, for that work to find an audience, it still has to meet a certain real level of professionalism. At some level, a writer has to go through the arduous work of learning to write better and having work tested and rejected and learning from failures. That hasn’t changed. There is also the fact there are only so many people who hold gatekeeping functions and those functions are still very real and still very important. Anyone can find an email address to write to the country’s book reviewers. But getting their attention in the torrent of queries they receive may well be even harder now. As it’s always been with publishing, there are still questions of luck, timing, and access, with individual writers still puzzling over the combination that opens the lock.