The Proper Tools

Do you remember typewriters?  Not just electric typewriters, but the old manual machines, too.  Back at the dawn of time, I wrote my first novels on a manual typewriter (a portable red Olivetti – very stylish).  Forty words a minute, with one index finger for the letters and punctuation, and the other for the space and the shift keys.  My left hand was far too uncoordinated to strike the letter keys both accurately and with the force required by a manual, which is why I hunt and peck to this day.

As I am a hesitant writer, who needs to do much rewriting in order to create anything readable, I generally wrote six or seven drafts with my red Olivetti before I sent a story off for rejection.  A typed first draft, which I’d correct by hand for the second draft, then retype all over again for the third draft, then manually correct again for the fourth draft, and so on.  The final draft could take three weeks, and always included a sheet of carbon paper and a second blank page on the roller.  Who could afford to copy a 700 page manuscript at five cents a page in 1977?

As you can imagine, all this effort made rewriting extremely difficult.  For someone who often changes a paragraph three or four times before finally settling on the original version, getting something exactly right with this long, drawn out process was impossible.  Or at least far more time consuming than my twenty-five year old patience would allow.

As a result, I sold nothing.

Then the word processor came along.

I’m not sure I’d ever have sold a story if it hadn’t.  Word processors take away the fear of rewriting for many people, and make the process of writing much easier than it used to be.  Which is why I think so many more novels are written these days.  It’s my belief that the word processor is at least as responsible  for the current flood of self-publishing as the ebook and the internet.  Writing a novel is still hard, but it’s not as hard as it used to be.

Writing a good novel, on the other hand, is probably harder than ever, given the increase in competition.

Anyone else out there remember the bad old days?

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  1. 1. Rubus

    I am wondering, might the word processor in a similar way be responsible for this trend of 600 pages tomes which are the fifth part of a trilogy? It makes it possible to plan and write (and rewrite) these huge books, in a way that wasn’t possible on a typewriter?

  2. 2. Andrew A.

    I used my Mom’s 1954 typewriter during my teens for school and to write my first thirty page “Novel”. I kind of remember the story had a battle using colored pipe smoke taking forms and shapes… still a good concept…

    I also remember my teacher giving me low grades on my stories because of the spelling/grammatical errors I was making using that typewriter. Even new technologies doesn’t seem to fix my grammar and spelling problems though.

    I think Rubus might have an interesting point. There was a time that writers would get paid by the word even for novels — so more words the better. But those stories were ususally serialized. Word processors changed that to a degree. Though on-line self publishing does seem to be reintroducing the serial trend.

    Still amazes me how hard it was to write a thousand word paper for school and now how hard it is to write even a short under five thousand.

  3. 3. Mary

    When I was young, my parents wouldn’t let me use the electric typewriter even for my fiction. So I was banging away on the manual. . . I did so much they did have it overhauled so it would work right.

    Fortunately, I never managed to finish anything (I was new to writing, and young) so I never had to consider submission requirements.

    Though here’s an alternative view

  4. 4. Wolf Lahti

    When hobby computers came along in the mid-70s, my first thought about taking advantage of this new technology (after playing Star Trek, of course) was using them to make story writing far more efficient. If I’d jumped on that idea and done something with it then, I might well be a rich fellow today.

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, I love the topic and title. Having started my first of five aborted MS on an electric Brother, (with a 16-character-preview LCD!) I can’t imagine attempting a MS on a manual. Long hand? Yeah, sure, I’ll start on the 32nd of Never-uary.

    Conversely I did repair work during my love/hate affairs with VW but never used bailing wire or pantyhose, (you have no idea how hard it is for a man of my size to find pantyhose) or any of the other hippy-fixes I’ve read about.

    I’ve cooked since the age of 10 (one of the reason I have a hard time buying pantyhose) but I’ve never used liquid nitrogen, clay, or vinegar.

    The point is, good tools make all the diference. I’m a horrid speller and grammar post by your contemporaries gives me a case of the heebie jeebies. Don’t get me started on all the ways I’ve lost term papers, (I dance of floppy-disk’s grave) and outlines to be written latter. MSWord, for all it’s foibles, means I’m finishing up my 3rd MS as I pimp/pray for an agent.

  6. 6. twirlip of the mists

    Neal Stephenson wrote his last novel in longhand. IIRC, a good portion of his System of The World trilogy was done in longhand. He writes positively about it. My handwriting is this side of chickenscratch, but I am going to try Script Frenzy with a manual Remington typewriter.

  7. 7. Simon Haynes

    Modern tech is useful, but I still reckon a word processor is the worst program you can use to write a novel. Keeping track of everything involves going scroll-crazy.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Rubus – I think the trend for doorstop books is more a result of ’70s BFFs (Big Fat Fantasies) than the wordprocessor. If anything, I think a wp helps the editing process more than it adds to it.

    Andrew – I hear exactly what you’re saying about writing school papers. I never had anything to say! (Now I can’t shut up.)

    Mary – Ah, submission requirements. Making the ms look professional was all but impossible for me. I never could catch the typos. (All of which my father underlined in black ink until I stopped letting him read my stories.)

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Wolf – Gaming and writing, the two aspects of the Information Age I love the most.

    Elias – Even the best tools can’t do everything. They still haven’t figured out a good spell/grammar check, especially for fiction. Word does hate incomplete sentences. Good luck on number three!

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Mary – I missed the link when I first read your comment. Sounds like the naysayer is someone who likes to write with a single draft. For that person, there would be no difference.

    twirlip – I only wish I could write like Neal Stephenson, in more ways than one.

    Simon – A word processor beats hell out of trying to keep track of everything on a typewriter.

  11. 11. NewGuyDave

    My first stories were written on sheets of loose leaf and never typed because we didn’t have one. When I finally learned to type, I’d already given up writing for business.

    By the time I returned to writing, I bought a laptop from Best Buy for $400. Oh, how much times changed between the bad old days and the worse new days.


  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    NewGuyDave – Worse new days? But you own a laptop! You can play Halo and Civ IV! And the writing at least is easier, right?

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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