The Writing Production Process

I’m old enough to remember when you bought a typewriter with a ribbon to write nice prose, back in the days when buying such a tool was a lifetime investment. Such typewriters would last forever. Remember, back in the days when making a copy meant adding a sheet of carbon paper to your paper and then another sheet, rolling all through the roller on the machine. Back then you had to type perfectly because there were no self correcting balls like the later IBM Selectric machines. Remember them?

Back in those days as a writer you worked with pens or pencil and paper, hand written drafts, before committing to a typewriter. I never earned to type properly. I am a two finger typist, only. I bet I am one of the fastest on earth and I use the backspace a lot because I make plenty of mistakes. Yet even by high school I was writing papers right from my head onto the paper, no drafts, nothing. I wrote lousy papers but I passed and I now see I was just learning how to use a typewriter fast.

By the time I was out of school there was a lot of talk about computers but in the 70s we still wrote by hand and typed final drafts. By then the Selectric had appeared which vastly simplified life, along with Whiteout. Remember Whiteout? I used gallons. Gallons.

Until say thirty years ago we writers, if I can call myself such, worked the same as we had hundreds of years before, sheet by sheet, pen by pen. Writing was slower then, more laborious, and probably more careful. When we finished something we would use a typewriter or go to a typesetter or print shop.

Then the computer, the personal computer, appeared. My first was an MSDOS Kayro, weighed about forty pounds, was the size of a suitcase, had a brown screen. I wrote my first full book then. I had started a few before, several times, even gotten into them forty or fifty pages, typed, but that was it, life intervened. Then in the mid 80s I wanted to write a story and I was working in the World Trade Center, 64th Floor, for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, before it was sullied by New Jersey pols, and I rode the train from Millington New Jersey every day. I got a lined notebook and some pens, and every day for that half hour ride I wrote longhand on the train, a half hour at a time. It’s amazing how the pages pile up. Weekends I would then type the handwritten ages into the Kaypro. This took hours and pissed off my kids and my wife, understandably, and I realized that if I was going to tell stories I needed a better production system.

Then of course once the handwritten drafts were on a computer file I needed to print off the drafts, and the printer we had with the Kaypro was a dot matrix printer that roared like a lion and spat out paper at a terrifying rate, and took forever to print a book, but then at least I had a typed draft that was clean and I could start editing. Editing is wonderful fun, working with text, moving things around, changing things, leaving the sheets covered with arrows and notes and lines, all then to be retyped into a new file, and printed again….I learned a lot later, of course, that we writers cannot edit our own stuff, at all, and unless we hire or find someone who is good who can take a ruthless look at our work and start hacking away the unneeded stuff, our work will be weak, sloppy looking, bad.

And thus began the saga, still emerging, now almost thirty years long. In the 80s Windows came along and Microsoft and software and everything changed. Everything. Now it was possible to sit in front of a machine and type perfect prose, auto spell checked, letters replaced without whiteout or erasure, everything was formatted, it was a miracle once you understood it. I was slow, of course. I am slow.

It used to be you bought a typewriter for a hundred dollars and it lasted a lifetime. Now, in perhaps the most brilliant marketing vision in history, you need to spend fifteen hundred dollars every two or three years for a full color, bells and whistles….typewriter. Brilliant, at least for the makers of computers. The death of the typewriter and the end, mainly, of handwritten drafts. Now it seems everyone can type and write pages and pages, books and books, and the volume of production has soared, and is soaring still. Maybe people today write and then edit on screen entirely, never using real paper, but for me, personally, there is something about taking a stack of fresh printed pages and a pen and digging in, changing, working, altering. I love that part of it, even though I know now I still need a professional editor at the end.

But. Maybe if you are a full time writer you can like John Cheever (I think it was) get dressed then go downstairs to your computer and write six hours a day, but for those of us who had to earn a living the writing must come in between, afterward, or before, stolen in the cracks of days, hours stolen from chores and family, or sleep. I am lazy, mostly, and not very well disciplined, so what I find works for me over the years has been stealing time if I can when going to or from work, on the train in New York, or, once I moved to Seattle, and found a house across the sound a ferry ride from the city, on the ferry, while commuting. In motion, trapped, moving, and only for a short time, thirty, forty minutes. This works for me, and as I said the pages add up if you stick to it. In my experience, it takes three or four months, this way, writing five days a week, to produce a 100,000 word draft, and then at least that long working with the draft and a pen editing and changing and improving. This adds up to two books a year for anyone mathematically inclined, but for me there is a recharge period, a fallow time, a do-nothing and rest time, necessary between one tale and another, because the time of reflection and pondering and dreams is pretty important to a good tale, and this I think I have finally learned, but as I said earlier, I am slow.

But there’s still the production problem. Remember this was before laptops. Remember? I was terrified of the weekend typing drill, so I looked and looked and finally found several little small units that allowed me to type text on tiny qwerty keyboards with short battery life which I could then dump onto a three inch disc and move to my Kaypro. But now I had another computer, Windows, better, but still huge. Oh the months of trials, this system, that pad, this unit, that unit, all flawed, but somehow workable. Moving files from one disc to another, in lots of 10,000 bits or fewer, what a pain in the ass. Hours in second hand computer stores in Ballard finding cast off systems that had the keyboard and a little memory. If I had been smarter, or richer, or something, I’d have bitten the laptop apple and bought one, but at three grand a pop that was way too much, so my expertience is a model of inefficiency and, I dare say, cheap-ness.

Laptops came out, five pounds, expensive, these could be taken on the ferry and typed into but there was a problem here, too, because they lasted about an hour on their battery – still a problem with most – and back then the idea of plug ins on the ferry for commuters was unknown.  So I  struggled along with one stupid machine after another, all cheap, not very useful, but workable, somehow.

There were many issues.The keys on the keyboard were too close together, or too hard to press. The unit itself was too small to rest on my lap for tying, meaning I had to find a table or desk which was not easy on the ferry and besides if I was writing on the ferry at such a table people would peer and ask questions and bother me. Writing is solitary, or should be, and I looked for the hidden remote seats up on the top deck out of the way and worked there, sometimes all weekend going back and forth, hiding from the ticket takers. But my machines needed expensive batteries and the file transfers were a pain in the ass and the laptops were too costly and heavy, and then when Ipads came out they had qwerty keyboards that you had to attach which was even more of a pain in the ass, or they had these virtual keys on a screen which had no feeling and you couldn’t really hit and I like to slam the keys, you know?

I moved to Seattle and stopped writing for years. Work and life intervened. One Pocketbooks publication and lots of rejections. I had a great agent but I pissed her off because I wouldn’t stay on the reservation, with a series or theme. And I wrote too fast and the stuff was, I now see, not professionally edited, and thus not good. I had a few books in manuscript form and these I edited, and one , Guardian, I had professionally edited,  and worked on then retyped and self published so they’d look like a book and could be read, not that anyone ever reads them, but by making them books they will last and sit there and not vanish in the dusty stuff we all gather.

Got this idea for a story, long long ago, and decided to write it but first spent three years doing research. I was living up in Bellingham working up there during the week and instead of watching TV at night I began reading, studying, wondering, taking notes, filling one then a second notebook with this idea, this tale, this dream. Then things changed and I went to sea. I had this stupid idea I might be able to write on the ship, brought my computer, notebooks, and tried, but you know what? Impossible, at least for an ordinary then an AB. We stood watch then worked another four or six hours a day, twelve or fourteen each day, and had time to shower, eat, sleep, and work. My first trip we were gone 205 days and I worked 2800 hours and the shortest day in that whole period was a six hour light day. So needless to say not much writing was done. But I would open the notebook and jot ideas, and thoughts, and stayed true to the idea. I went literally all over the world working while I did this. Then one day last October, ashore and taking a writing course at the University of Washington, on the first day of class, just as we sat down, our great teacher Lyn Coffin said, we’ll start with a writing exercise, and that’s when I started The Spear Thrower, in that class, that exercise, October 8. I was home between trips on the ship I was working on and so for the first time ever I could write at home when not being Randa’s wife and cooking and cleaning the house,  not in motion, using my laptop plugged in, and you know what, it was wonderful. Every day I’d work in the morning, three four five hours, telling this tale, and we went to the east coast to see my sister and I had a little IPad then and wrote with that, and so was able to do something every day (as they say you must). And you know what? By the end of November I had 80,000 words written and in December a sort of miracle happened and I sat there and watched my fingers move and another 70,000 words appeared such that by year end I had a book, 150,000 words. I also had, and this is KEY, that class and comments from Lyn and the students, all great writers, and those were not only essential but key to whatever value this tale has. Then I did the right thing and asked Pete Wise one of the students, a fantastic editor by the way, to edit my tale and he did so over about six weeks, and my 150,000 word story ended up 105,000 words long, mostly through his efforts, and he managed to reveal the core of the tale in so doing. I entered this Amazon Breakthrough contest and somehow have survived through the quarterfinals with one of the final cuts, choosing 5 from 100 in the general fiction category, coming Friday the 13th of June, and who the hell knows if I survive that? Point is, for this novel the production was easier. I could write at home. It was simple to take a memory stick and go down to the store and print off and bind drafts to work on and edit and show people. One of these days Randa and I will get a decent printer. But the process of production now is far easier. Just as the process of book publishing is totally different than it was. It’s now easy and cheap to publish anything. Costs literally pennies. But, and this is a big but, now we have millions of titles and how do you get noticed? Seen? Read? I know this, in the end the story better be good. That’s key. If you have a tale that absorbs the reader, draws them in, envelops them, then you have succeeded.

The production these days is so much easier, but maybe it fosters bad habits, haste, ill thinking. Who knows?

Now I have this new MacBook Air it is light and has perfect keys and lasts nine hours on its battery and I can write at home or on a ship or on a train and I think, nearly a geezer and finally maybe have the production system I need. That makes writing easier, for sure. But does it make it better? Only the story makes it better.





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