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September 29, 2006

Tales of Horror From Years Gone By

In a column in Asimov's magazine, science fiction writer Robert Silverberg regales us with stories of the bad old days of writing, when there were no computers, you made copies of what you wrote with carbon paper, retyping your manuscript to get it clean enough to send to your publisher took a month, and Silverberg protected his retyped manuscript by storing it in an old refridgerator, where he assumed it would be able to survive a fire.


Contrast this, if you will, with my experience of writing The Last Colony, in which I finished the book on a Tuesday and by Wednesday afternoon had to my editor via e-mail. No "first draft," no retyping, no storing the original in a disused kitchen appliance to protect it from the flames. As soon as it was done, click, off it went. The experience of writing a book is mechanically so incredibly different than it was twenty five years ago that I actually hesitate to call it the same process at all. I constantly marvel that anyone ever wrote anything before computers.

I marvel about enough that I genuinely wonder if I would have been a writer if I had been born in the 1930s rather than in 1969, which allowed my desire to become a writer to coincide with the advent of the personal computer, and therefore, with the sort of ease of creation I have now. I suspect that I would have indeed become a writer, because I like to tell stories and because lacking a time machine, I wouldn't know that in the future the practice of writing would become almost absurdly simpler. But looking back, I'm appalled and terrified in precisely the same way I am about the practice of bleeding a sick person the relieve the phlegmatic humors vexing their bodies rather than, you know, giving them antibiotics. We live in an age of miracles and wonders, people.

Posted by john at September 29, 2006 09:04 AM

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Bearpaw | September 29, 2006 10:27 AM

Your comparison to the old practice of bleeding sick people makes me wonder how different the workflow is for editors these days.

Anne C. | September 29, 2006 10:45 AM

I've had the same thoughts, but from even further back, when writers had to write with pen and ink (and don't even get me started on quills). It takes me *forever* to write things in longhand and the faster I write, the worse my handwriting gets. I can't even fathom sitting down at a writing desk and seeing the story come out of my pen like a snail making its progress across the page.

But I think (if I had been wealthy enough to have time and materials) I would have done it anyway. I can't not.

RooK | September 29, 2006 10:53 AM

Writing? Pshaw. If suitably positioned to have the leisure of not being a serf scrabbling for survival, you could well have just written by dictation. Want multiple copies? Have multiple servants taking dictation simultaneously. Easy!

What really astounds me is that anything complex got designed at all. It's bad enough imagining engineers scrabbling basic designs on paper, but how in the hell did they manage to check the interplay between components? All I have to do is have the relevant 3D models articulate, and I magically can re-design as required. Those poor bastards had to start every design iteration from scratch, complete with new drawings. Madness!

And don't get me started on how awkward porn must have been. Truly, we live in enlightened times.

Scott Mactavish | September 29, 2006 10:57 AM


Back in the cold, dark days before desktop 'puters, clever software and the interweb, one would actually use the typewriter 'Tab' key over and over again to compose screenplays. It was enough to make a grown man scream like an eight-year old girl with a scorpion in her shoe.

Or maybe that was just me.

Nelson DeMille and Elmore Leonard still write freehand. I'm sure there are others. Meh...They can have it, the purist bastiges.

You'll have to pry my keyboard from my cold, dead fingers.

Stephen G | September 29, 2006 11:00 AM

In junior high and high school I used a typewriter for writing, mainly because my typing speed was (and is) ungodly fast when the words are flowing and because it was semi-portable and less expensive to replace than my Tandy 1000. The thought now of having to use that old manual typewriter day in and day out is enough to give me the vapors.

More even than computers and printers, the Internet has changed how I work and how I write. All of that information at my fingertips! Some of it even correct! And blogs like this one where I can waste time!

Jeff Hentosz | September 29, 2006 11:07 AM

Even though I started in graphic design with X-acto knives and wax, mechanicals and stat cameras, I can't imagine working today without InDesign on my Mac. I absolutely love it as much as I hate the smell of rubber cement.

As far as typewriters: I hate that old typing rules persist now that computer users are technically "typesetting." Double-space after periods ... nnaaaarrrgh! [exclaimed the cue-bald man trying to claw the hair off his scalp]

Tim Walker | September 29, 2006 11:16 AM

John McPhee switched from a typewriter to a computer when he was working on a book manuscript that included multiple block quotes from a particular source. He knew word processors were out there (this was in the early 1980s, I guess), he realized that he didn't want to type and retype these exact quotes into each new draft of his own book, and so he bought a new word processor and had a knowledgeable friend get him up and running all in one day.

Similar, simpler application from my own life: This morning I'm preparing my part of a panel presentation to be given this afternoon. I'm doing what I think a good panelist should, which is to front-load the big points I want to make, *then* give context, *then* flesh out the big points in order. It's the easiest thing in the world to write out the telegram version of the three big points I want to make in the first part of the talk, then copy-and-paste them into the last part so I can expand them easily. In this case, I'm expanding them by copying-and-pasting relevant quotations that I typed directly into this selfsame laptop while sitting in a historical archive. Piece of cake to do, and it saves paper to boot.

(And yes, I'm procrastinating from doing all of *that* by typing *this* . . .)

Tim Walker | September 29, 2006 11:23 AM

Jeff Hentosz: Double-space after periods ... nnaaaarrrgh!

It's funny: even though I learned to type on our then-old TRS-80 & then-new Apple IIGS, I picked up all the old tricks like this, since my father taught me. He's got mad typing skillz, but he learned to type in the 1950s and he's thoroughly Old Skool about stuff like this. You can be sure that all of my college applications went out, lo these many years gone by, *perfectly* formatted.

Chang | September 29, 2006 11:25 AM

I know I wouldn't have begun writing without my old Mac Plus. I was a horrible typist and though I find writing easy, it's made much easier by being able to rework things, throw paragraphs around like God does kittens and I have some coherent works in digital then print form.

That said, I wish I had a small newt or something that reminded me to spellcheck my posts to the Whatever so I don't look like a total Chumpatron 9000E.

Annalee Flower Horne | September 29, 2006 11:29 AM

I definitely see where you're coming from here. My family got its first computer (an Aplle II E) when I was in elementary school. I still fondly remember the days when teachers believed the 'my printer ate my homework' excuse.

As a writer, I can't imagine not being able to treat my text like a collection of toy blocks that can be pulled apart and reorganized at will (and put back just as easily). I shudder at the thought that 'cut and paste' used to involve scissors and glue instead of the control key.

JC | September 29, 2006 11:45 AM

Joe Haldeman said something relevant to this post at ReaderCon 16 during a presentation where he talked about his writing process. (He also showed us the pocket sized notebook in which he does his writing.)

He remarked that computers really haven't made much of a difference with respect to the quality of work his writing class turns in. In the old days, the students would pad out the stories at the end. Now, with computers, they pad them out in the middle.

I got the impression that he does most of his writing by hand. Then he transcribes. I like that idea in theory since it really forces me to read and consider my words. In practice, my handwriting is so bad that it doesn't really work.

Tripp | September 29, 2006 11:51 AM

I dunno, I tend to think some of the new ways are 'different' but not necessarily better. I'm not very comfortable with many of our 'wasteful' ways.

For example in many cases it is cheaper to discard rather than repair but that doesn't feel as right to me, even with intangible things such as computer programs.

Speaking of wasting (or losing) things, I hope you show as much care with your new manuscript as the people who stored them in the frig in case of fire.

I'm a firm believer in having multiple backups.

cisko | September 29, 2006 12:04 PM

On the other hand, Robert Silverberg didn't have to worry about the allure of YouTube.

Lisa | September 29, 2006 12:06 PM

Lemme tell ya, as a blind person...I absolutely shudder to think of how bad it was for blind people of an earlier generation. I do not write long hand AT ALL under nearly any circumstances except to sign my name. And when those folks used to write papers for school, they did it first on a braillewriter so they could proof it, then transferred the whole thing (stopping every line to read with their fingers) to a typewriter that they could not see and had to keep track of everything in their heads.
There was also no newspaper reading or news getting without getting some lovely senior citizen volunteer to read it for you.
Books were all on tape and listened to with a big, clunky four track machine that was not the least portable, not blind people carry around super-light laptops and mp3 players and read on the train.
And shopping!!! You had to call the grocery store ahead, make arrangements for a clerk to help you, get on a bus, go around with said clerk while he helped you pick out your tampons, then have the clerk call you a cab, wait for the cab hoping it would get there before your ice cream melted, and then drag all your groceries in from where the cabby dumped them at the front door. Now, I have the nice delivery man from Safeway.com coming this afternoon to bring me my groceries that I picked out myself online.
And travel! I don't have one, but I hear GPS systems are revolutionizing travel for blind people, but I still get a lot of help from internet maps and bus schedules.

I could go on and on...but let's just say that I am so fortunate I was born when I was and was using my little AppleIIc in middle school with the first grainy, awful voice output programs. Computer/internet access to me is just about as important as Oxygen. I'm a wuss. The blind people before me were some tough crackers.

Catja (green_knight) | September 29, 2006 12:08 PM

Without computers I would not be a writer...
I started writing two weeks after I got my first computer, a Mac SE.

I'm currently taking viewings on my house, and the estate agent has a key to take viewings, and my laptop is stored safely off-site, and my writing output dropped to zero.

Then I remembered my Psion, which exports as text and saves onto a flashcard where I can easily transfer it to proper computers for editing and whooosh! my output rose to normal proportions again.

If a story is attacking madly, I will write on paper, sure. I carry a notebook for that purpose. But much of my writing is done in the 'I'm sorta curious what happens next but I could just as well read or do something else' kind of mindset; and without a computer, I do 'something else'.

Mary Robinette Kowal | September 29, 2006 12:21 PM

My dad worked for IBM and we had the very first PC. Before that it was the IBM selectric, although, ours had fancy erasable ink.

I also have to say, that I got to the end of the article and, I am so writing a SF story with a zorch port and a frammis storage unit.

Nathan | September 29, 2006 12:45 PM

Since we’re all talking about clunky old things we don’t use any more (manual typewriters, carbon paper, etc.), and at the risk of sounding like a peevish 14-year-old (“Warp Drive is the way to go: Hyperspace is a myth, you moron”!), I’d like to take this opportunity to trot out one of my peeves. I have a small nit to pick.

In the last few months, I’ve read four different novels in contemporary settings that referred to “Klieg lights” (Agent to the Stars, p. 76 for one). Klieg lights (named for the Kliegl brothers who invented them), were huge arc lights with fresnel lenses. They were extremely bright (handy in the days of slow film speeds), and burned at 5000 to 6000 degrees Kelvin, the color of daylight.

In the late 1970’s HMI lights were made commercially available. . (Hydragyrum Medium arc-length Iodide) : A mercury-halide discharge lamp with a color temperature of 5600K (daylight).

This meant you could have a bright daylight colored lamp that a.) did not require an additional person to stand next to each lamp constantly spinning a wheel to keep the carbon rods at the proper separation to keep the arc from burning out and b.) you didn’t need to haul around a bunch of cast iron lights that weighed upwards of 300lbs. each.

While its true that “klieg light” was, for a time, synonymous with “movie light”, (think Kleenex, Xerox), the term fell out of favor in the 80’s. Why? Because whenever you hear someone refer to “Klieg lights”, your first impulse is to look over your shoulder where you’ll see Mickey Rooney hollering, “Hey kids, lets put on a play”.

The term should only be used in a period piece or metaphorically. (I’ve noted a number of other film folks on this blog and I think they’ll concur.)

As unsexy as it is, unforturnately, I don’t have an alternative catchall term to offer. We just refer to them as “stage or theatrical lighting”….or “movie lights”. Or, if you want to infer “really big light” its probably an 18k (18 kilowatt HMI).

Sorry folks, just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to vent in a forum populated by so many writers, editors and folks otherwise involved in publishing.

Forget I was here. Please return to you Selectrics ,Apple II E's or whatever and sin no more.

-sound of Nathan finally taking a breath--

Patty Cryan | September 29, 2006 01:08 PM

I must confess that I still write fiction in longhand. And I'm one of the last of the red-hot letter writers. I'm actually very bad at keeping up with e-mail and better at sending out snail mail greeting cards with little missives.

And I'm only seven years older than you are, John.

However, I am truly grateful to computers to allow me to EDIT on a computer screen... at least the final edit. I still like to do my first edit with a printed hard copy in my lap, on which I make longhand notes.

I may enjoy looking at the stars, but there are times I feel that I view them best from the deck of a sailing ship.

AEnodia | September 29, 2006 01:17 PM

The two spaces after a period predates typewriters. It goes back to the printing press and lead type. It also is a visible clue as much as the period to the end of a sentence. White space is almost as important to readability as is the print. And with computers you don't have to enter the double space yourself as it is built into the font instructions.

Dave | September 29, 2006 01:30 PM

Weirdly enough, I had the exact opposite take on this last night. My wife is writing her first book, and I was struck at just how crude the standard writer's toolkit seems to be compared to modern software development environments. Minimal automated error checking, no automated restructuring beyond search-and-paste, no shared-session follow-alongs, weak version tracking, no integration with off-site repositories, no automated workflow to speak of, minimal alternate high-level views, no issue tracking, extremely crude search and navigation. In all, her writing environment closely approximated software development environments of about fifteen years ago, except that she was on a laptop rather than chained to a desk. Hell, she still transfers her work to her editor via e-mail!

If there were money to be made selling to authors, then you'd see what serious tooling is about.

Jeff Hentosz | September 29, 2006 02:01 PM


Lighten up.

Adam Rakunas | September 29, 2006 02:14 PM

Typewriters are for the weak. The hardcore use cuneiform.

Nathan | September 29, 2006 02:22 PM

But Jeff,

Think of the children.

-sobs and leaves room-

Jeff Hentosz | September 29, 2006 02:35 PM

Dammit, I'm such a prick sometimes [smacks self in forehead and runs after Nathan with arms wide]. Nathan, c'mere...

Patty Cryan | September 29, 2006 02:54 PM

To Adam Rakunas:

You rule.

Tosy and Cosh | September 29, 2006 02:54 PM

So don't cry, baby, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry.

Dr. Phil | September 29, 2006 03:02 PM

Ah, I learned to type and began writing SF stories on my mother's old Royal Elite portable -- with a chemical keyboard for typing my father's MS thesis back in the early 1950s. That meant I had sub-numbers (or superscripts if you rolled the paper half a step -- which also gave cool looking footnotes which amazed my teachers), but no ";" or "!" or "*". I had to type them as combos: ":"+:," and "'"+"." and "+"+"x" (grin). But I did have both ( ) and [ ]. And a degree sign "º" plus a vertical bar "|". But I had to build dollar signs "$" and cent signs "¢". (Not sure if everything will display correctly here or not -- HUGE grin.)

Before I got my first PC in 1986, I was writing stories on the mainframes, using EDT under VMS, vi and emacs in UNIX. Then came the IBM PC and WordStar 3.30. Oooh, baby -- we're cookin' with gas now! (We'll skip ChiWriter, the scientific word processor.)

In 1990 I wanted something more robust to write something of booklength. And I'd heard those mouse things were useful for editing, so I went to the university bookstore and bought a bundled Microsoft Bus Mouse 2.0 and MS Word 4.0. Installed it on my 4.77MHz IBM PC and began writing a SF novel. Still working in that same universe... but we've upgraded the machines a couple of times, though I still have that IBM Personal Computer.

Dr. Phil

Carol Elaine | September 29, 2006 03:12 PM

I started writing in the olden days with pencil and paper. I never trusted myself enough to start out with pen, but once I got it perfect I'd trace over the pencil with a pen, allow it to dry, then erase the pencil marks. Yes, I was so happy when eraseable pens were invented.

My family was poor, so no could afford a typewriter until my early teens. I swear, the angels sang when my father brought home that used "portable" electric typewriter. And since I was the only one in the family who actually liked to write, it was definitely my baby.

Then came the days of Commodore 64 and WordStar and again, the angels sang and the poets wept. (My father never got into Apple, more's the pity.) And once I started working office jobs, where I had easy access to IBM PCs and WordPerfect, there was no looking back for this girl born in '66.

I still do some writing in longhand (with a pen this time), as I'm a bus rider and I never know when inspiration will strike. I don't yet have a laptop, but even if I did, I'd probably just use my pen and notebook, as they're far less cumbersome on a bus. It keeps my handwriting muscle flexed and I do feel more of connection with my words when they flow from a pen. But hardcore, sitting-for-hours-at-a-time writing? Computer all the way, baby.

Steve Burnap | September 29, 2006 03:12 PM

Twenty-five years ago is not quite right. I wrote a book in 1986 using a word processor (AppleWriter) and delivered it to the publisher electronically, with a 300 baud modem. At the time, this didn't seem to be "new".

(Admittedly, it was a publisher of technical books...but my impression is that publishers adopted these technologies early.)

Though I suppose having to spend a few hours just to print my personal copy was different.

Zachary Gole | September 29, 2006 03:20 PM

I remember when I was very young, I wrote a lot of stories on my parents' typewriter. Mostly about haunted houses, I think. The typewriter in question had the capability to type in either black or red ink (it had two ribbons), a capability of which I took much more advantage than I really should have...

Heh. I wonder where those old stories are now; I haven't looked at them in many years. Probably somewhere in my parents' attic or in a closet at their house, I suspect.

Ken Houghton | September 29, 2006 03:23 PM

Just two data points:

Silverberg, of course, had a fire burn down his house relatively early in his career. The refrigerator was probably from that experience.

If your Hard Drive had fried the day before The Last Colony was completed, "having to" retype the manuscript would be relatively preferable.

I never had to "back up" the output from my old Smith-Corona.

John Scalzi | September 29, 2006 03:43 PM

Ken Houghton:

"If your Hard Drive had fried the day before The Last Colony was completed, 'having to' retype the manuscript would be relatively preferable."

Heh. Trust me, Ken, if my hard drive had fried, I had a fine selection of backups salted about my recordable media, home network, Web site and Internet to choose from. I would have lost, at most, a chapter. I've got paranoia down, yo.

Adam Rakunas | September 29, 2006 04:16 PM

So, putting aside the wet clay tablet and reed stylus:

I wrote my first story using one of those Lincoln log pencils on paper with the freeway lines that tore if you erased anything. This was good for my little hands, but complete crap otherwise.

Then I got to fart around with my parents' Smith-Corona electric typewriter. I have to admit, it was satisfying as hell to hit the carriage return, but I wasn't doing much more than farting around to make bang-bang noises.

And then came junior high with touch typing, the Apple IIe and FrEdWriter. My seventh grade English teacher, to whom I'm indebted for pushing us to use this free word processor to write our classwork, was as early adopter as you could get. I wrote an incredibly crappy Mary Sue novel on that beast, but I wrote the damn thing, and I kept using the ol' Apple II up until high school, when it finally croaked and we had to get a PC and use WordPerfect.

And then came the college Mac lab.

And then came the working world just as Windows 95 was unleashed upon the world.

And then came the laptop.

And then came the Palm Tungsten T3 with an infrared keyboard (Carole Elaine, I'm a bus rider, too, and I couldn't write longhand to save my life. The ol' T3, however, was great: small enough to fold into my pocket, cheap enough that if someone boosted it I wouldn't weep, and weird enough that people left me the hell alone).

And now it's my phone (a Nokia E61) and a Bluetooth keyboard that syncs to my work machine and home machine, plus backups on a USB thumbdrive, a Gmail account and a Yahoo account. I think the ability to write when you can write is invaluable, and while it's good to have a notebook handy, I put more and more stuff down on the phone because I can think faster with my keyboard than a pen.

But the cuneiform? Still badass.

Alex S. | September 29, 2006 04:42 PM

To quote Dave:

My wife is writing her first book, and I was struck at just how crude the standard writer's toolkit seems to be compared to modern software development environments. Minimal automated error checking, no automated restructuring beyond search-and-paste, no shared-session follow-alongs, weak version tracking, no integration with off-site repositories, no automated workflow to speak of, minimal alternate high-level views, no issue tracking, extremely crude search and navigation. In all, her writing environment closely approximated software development environments of about fifteen years ago, except that she was on a laptop rather than chained to a desk. Hell, she still transfers her work to her editor via e-mail!

You can get some of this with standard tools included on your system.

If you use Windows, there's something called "briefcase" which will automatically sync your work with another device/computer. If you use a unix-based system (mac, linux) there's a tool called 'rsync' to perform the same funtion.

There's a "written by a writer for writers" tool called yWrite (windows only - but works under emulators on the others) which will do most of the reast...

erin | September 29, 2006 05:03 PM

Great observation. When I was a kid, I used to write lots of silly stories longhand. (I even collected some in composition notebooks and called them "novels"!) I occasionally write longhand, but not anything real...journaling, prompts, brainstorming and the like.

I'd be lost without my iBook. :)

Kero aka Kevin | September 29, 2006 05:11 PM

My earliest memories of typing are from Olympic Junior High in typing class listening to Journey while doing our excercises on the manual typewriters. If you were good you got to use the IBM Selectrics... Ugh, I hate these little moments of nostalgia when you realize it's been 20+ years since something or other happened. Fortunately my imaturity keeps me young.

Steve Buchheit | September 29, 2006 05:38 PM

Jeff, I love the smell of rubber-cement, but that's from warm memories of 30 of us in a small room with no ventilation learning paste-up. Memories, I think.

But, yeah, I love my Mac. What's worse than double spacing (universal find and replace how I love thee, let me count the ways) is having to explain copy-fitting this week when I was told that the name and titles should fit on the line because, after all, they are able to input 34 characters into the software database (most of the accreditations are all "M"s, MMEM, MCEM etc.).

One thing I do notice is that I rewrite more using the computer. That may just be the ease of doing it, but I think it's also very necessary. I can't write longhand for anything longer than 250 or so words. That usually gets me past the "muse dumps" (scraps of paper everywhere). And I also keep a notebook with me at most times for just such an emergency. However I do my major editing with a hard copy and red pen. I've just found that there's nothing better for my process. When I wrote in college (longhand and then transcribed on an office Selectric) I rewrote less and I think my prose was a little better the first time around.

AEnodia, I don't think double spacing was in old lead, as it wasted space, and cost more for the slugs. Those old printers were very frugal. Also, having set type by slug (in college, although I really love the look of letterpress and my book collection is divided into "things I like to read" and "very cool ephemera"), why would you double your work?

Stephen G | September 29, 2006 05:59 PM

Trust me, Ken, if my hard drive had fried, I had a fine selection of backups salted about my recordable media, home network, Web site and Internet to choose from. I would have lost, at most, a chapter. I've got paranoia down, yo.

Flashbacks to writing my thesis, wherein I had daily backups on my laptop, on my computer at home, on the department's servers (which had off-site backup), and on a different server in a completely different part of the country. I learned my lesson when, in my second year of graduate school, the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate. Standing in the parking lot outside the physics building, I saw one of my friends nearly faint when he realized that the only copies of his nearly-complete thesis, both printed and electronic, were in that building.

Jon | September 29, 2006 06:33 PM

I shudder at the thought of writing things like Les Miz, War and Peace, or the Illiad with a quill pen. It is incredible to me that anything longer than short stories ever got written before typewriters.

Scott Mactavish | September 29, 2006 06:33 PM

It's important to illuminate your work area with good lighting, to avoid eye strain.

I recommend the Klieg.

Nathan | September 29, 2006 06:57 PM

Hey Scott

That's just plain evil.

But if you must have a klieg over your desk don't ask me to pay for the 3 guys to lift it onto a stand and the other guy to keep it running.....and oh, by the way, did I mention that it burns out about every 1/2 hour and a good guy can get new carbons in and burning in about 5 minutes. Maybe you better get two.

And Jeff, Please put the prick away before chasing me.

Anonymous | September 29, 2006 08:32 PM


Those "memories" of 30 production artists in a small room? Uh, huh. My guess is it was you, a swing-arm lamp and a cloud of Bestine fumes.


How dare you? I try to kid around and you make it into something unwholesome and dirty, you burning hunk of sweet... Wait, let me start over —

Jeff Hentosz | September 29, 2006 08:38 PM

That was me. Someday I got to learn up on this fancy typing picture machine.

AliceB | September 29, 2006 09:03 PM

I still write better if I write longhand. It does all end up on the computer. And I can compose at the computer. But quality is 100% better if I start out in longhand. That isn't to knock technology: it *is* wonderful. But if I do a first draft on the computer, I just push the words around come editing time instead of rethinking the whole damn story.

And yeah, I write novels. Longhand.

Steve Buchheit | September 29, 2006 09:10 PM

Jeff, actually I think it was Production Art 203.

And sometimes it amazes me just how "high tech" I thought it was when I found a waxing machine for paste-up. Don't get me started on a Photo-typer. Ah, knocking the tray to get "fancy type effects." The good old days.

Nathan | September 29, 2006 10:07 PM


But really, Jeff. Put it away.

Dave | September 29, 2006 11:56 PM

If you use Windows, there's something called "briefcase" which will automatically sync your work with another device/computer. If you use a unix-based system (mac, linux) there's a tool called 'rsync' to perform the same funtion.

Backup and sync (while very handy) are very different things from version control. Engineers are used to being able to rewind the clock at any time to see snapshots of what their work spaces were like at any arbitrary point in the past (from 10 seconds to 10 years), couple with annotations to see just who changed what and when since then, and why. Versions are tracked obsessively, with intricate branching, merging, tracking, triggering and reporting possibilities. Newer systems include live reporting of just who is working on what at any given time, and opportunities to virtually "look over the shoulder" to see what they are doing in real time.

The full weight of all this automation is probably way overkill for a single person novel, but I wouldn't be too surprised to see textbook and technical writing going down those paths soon.

CaseyL | September 30, 2006 12:15 AM

When the only writing that could be done was done with stylus and wax, people thought stylus and wax was very cool. Until papyrus was invented, and - OMG! - you could save what you wrote! Forever! Without one day being killed by a falling pile of used wax plates!

And the day Gutenberg's printing press went, ahem, live - you know there were orgasms in literary circles everywhere. Because: "OMG! You mean I only have to write it once and you can make copies? Lots of copies?! As many copies as I want?? Sweet!!!1!!1!" (Though the monks and clerks who'd made tidy livings copying manuscripts probably complained about the outsourcing.)

For me, the bit of writing technology that first truly blew my mind was the Smith-Corona with the correction cartridge. This was in '74. I was a frosh in college and my dorm roomie had one. No more carefully rolling the platen up so I could erase/whiteout the mistake! Just zap the correction cartridge in, retype, and zap it back out again! I loved that S/C with all my heart.

(I eventually left poor S/C for the IBM Self-Correcting Selectric, which I still have a very soft spot for, but that was more a refinement of technology than an outright innovation.)

Do I have a point in all this rambling? Well, yes.

People think whatever tools are available in their time are the right tools. Aristophanes didn't bitch and moan that there were no such things as typewriters, or even moveable type, much less computers, because it never occurred to him that there should or could be.

Maybe Silverberg, being a science fiction writer, thought longingly of a voice-activated typewriter - but it didn't stop him from rolling paper-and-carbon into the platen and getting to work. He didn't decide not to write because the process was tedious.

No one who wanted to write decided not to because it was just too damn much trouble to heat the wax, scrape the parchment, sharpen the quill, change the ribbon, or whatever.

If you, John, were to be transported back in time, still knowing what you know now, then of course you'd miss the technology that makes the process of writing so easy. Because that technology is what you have become accustomed to.

But if your memory was wiped, and all you knew about the mechanics of writing was what everyone else of that time knew, you'd sit down with stylus or quill or Olivetti - and, if you thought of it at all, you'd simply be grateful that writing was so much easier than it had been back before there were styli or quills or Olivettis.

Tim Walker | October 1, 2006 11:49 AM

Dave: Engineers are used to being able to rewind the clock at any time [...] Versions are tracked obsessively, with intricate branching, merging, tracking, triggering and reporting possibilities. [...]

The full weight of all this automation is probably way overkill for a single person novel [...]

Not just overkill, for me - it would be the end of productive writing altogether.
I have a book-writing friend who obsessively saves everything - all his draftwork, all his notes, all of everything. Even after his books are published - heck, after they're in paperback - he still keeps Draft #2 out of seven. This would indulge the worst of my packrat tendencies.

Me, I e-mail backups to myself at different addresses so that I have copies on servers in two or three different states of the Union. (This assumes that Gmail doesn't run off of servers here in Texas.) But by the time I'm working on version three of something, version one is in the recycling bin, in both the analog and digital worlds. "Live in the now," is my motto.

Mitch Wagner | October 1, 2006 06:33 PM

J: *I got the impression that he does most of his writing by hand. Then he transcribes. I like that idea in theory since it really forces me to read and consider my words. In practice, my handwriting is so bad that it doesn't really work.*

Joe has regular italic handwriting, and writes with a fine fountain pen in blank books. He doesn't do a significant amount of revising, which often, in other writers, results in careless prose, but Joe writes slowly and methodically, so his first drafts are quite polished.

He isn't a luddite, though -- he travels with a laptop, does e-mail, has a Web site, and an online journal.

Karen Funk Blocher | October 1, 2006 10:35 PM

I often think the same thing. I was always a terrible typist, who relied heavily on erasable bond back in high school - and it still looked bad.

More important, the whole revision process is a million percent easier now. Do you now realize that your protagonist should have mentioned the spaceship/bog monster/ancient curse six paragraphs ago? No problem! Just plop it in, and everything below it moves accordingly, with no retyping needed. Do you need to change the name of a major character so that it no longer starts with T, because you have too many T names? Simple! Do a Replace All. That is an enormous help. So is automatic pagination, not to mention spellchecking.

So when I run across a writer who retypes subsequent drafts, I just shake my head and ponder the horror of it. How can anyone write that way? How could they ever do so?

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