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.

11 Comments on “Tales of Horror From Years Gone By”

  1. 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.

  2. 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–

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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