Thursday, August 4, 2011

Part Man, Part Machine. All Writer.

By Jay Stringer

I've talked about writing habits before. Remember how I always like to say I don't have to many set routines? I don't need to write at a certain desk, or a certain time of day. I don't need to waste time making sure my chair is at the right angle, or that my desk lamp is positioned just so.

I always pride myself that I don't give myself a million reasons not to write, and that I don't have routines or habits that would make that any easier.

But I've found out I do have something.

My laptop died at the weekend. Okay, it didn't die. It didn't cough and then write out a last will and testament. No priest turned up to deliver last rites. I never got down on my knees and screamed up at a camera in the sky whilst holding my dead machine in my arms.

But it got very sick. It's in for treatment right now. And, for reasons I won't bore you with, I'm balanced on a knife edge right now between it being a problem I can afford to have fixed, and a problem that means I have to give up on it.

And it wasn't until facing that choice that I realised what a big thing it would be.

Our lives can change in funny ways. When I was a tot, my Mum couldn't drive. Very early on I was used to the idea of walking everywhere, or getting public transport, or getting a lift. I think that's an education that's stood me in good stead. I've moved from England to Scotland, fine through several jobs and several large life changes, and never once needed a car. As Bob Dylan once sang, "I can walk any time around the block."

But my Mum, being one of those crazy parent people, decided she should learn to drive. And she did. Got a licence, and a car, and soon I got used to us driving everywhere that we needed to go. I remember about ten or twelve years ago, she was involved in a major accident, sideswiped by a drunk driver. She was fine, but her car was finished. And in the time it took for insurance to sort it out, in the time she didn't have a car, she seemed trapped at home, a driver without a car.

That made me even more determined not to car a car, aside from the fact that I can't tell left from right and have no attention span. But it also showed me the way machines can change our lives.

Coming up on a week now without my laptop, and I've been feeling that same trap. The driver without a car, the writer without a laptop.

There are solutions. I'm blogging right now from my wife's machine. I've been keeping an eye on twitter and emails from my phone. I can even do a little writing on my phone. But I'm limping. I'm not getting things done. And the thought that I might have to write my laptop off has made me realise that, shit, this could go on.

Why not simply write by hand? That's the logical question, and I'm sure you're asking it.

Well, I can. A bit. I can write snatches of conversations. I can write notes, suggestions and a few edit ideas. But the dyslexia demon that I write about sometimes means It's not really something I would want to do for a full novel, such as the one I'm halfway through a second draft on right now.

Looking back, I realise that having my own computer marked a sea change in my writing. I'd always been a writer in one form or another. From drawing comic books, to writing short stories, and then writing jokes and songs. I'd always been doing it. But it wasn't until I had a computer of my own that I really started to branch out, that my stories began to get long and more ambitious. Then, freed from handwriting and linear thinking, I leaped straight to writing screenplays, longer fiction and, not too much later, a novel.

So the thought of going back to that? Not so very much appealing.

But more, It's shown me things about how I write, and how I think about my writing.

There's the old saying that we'll all be familiar with, that writing is all about rewriting. And in my case, that pretty much defines me. As I'm typing the fifth line, I'm also thinking about how I can change the first line. I need to be able to go back mid sentence and correct something I've already done. I know some writers leave these things until later drafts, but I'm doing it constantly.

And there's no better way to do that than with a computer. Likewise, I need to see my current chapter in context with the rest of the story. I need to be able to scroll about. To jump to print view. To see the flow and shape of my words on the page, and the chapters in the story. I'm sat here right now with my notebook open. And there's notes I've been making all day about my current project. There are bits of conversation, notes about structure and what needs to happen. All in all, I probably have enough notes on these pages to equate to a whole chapter. But it doesn't feel like achieving anything. It's not loading words into the story itself and filling up a few more blank pages. I can't see the chapter in context of the ever growing story.

In short, I don't feel like I'm getting anything done this week, and it's making me cranky.

I figure in my case that the computer doesn't change the way I write, so much as it allows me to write the way I need to. But I can't help but notice how my writing habits have changed in the 10-12 years that I've had computers of my own.

How has technology changed the way you write? And what do you think you'd find about your writing process if the machines went away?


Gerald So said...

I was a slow longhand writer as a child, when I was required to write cursive. I often worried that my written notes wouldn't keep up with classes. I also typed slowly on a typewriter, was prone to typos, and didn't want to waste paper.

Computers solve all those problems for me. I'll never be the fastest typist, but I'm well past having to look at the keys.

This much said, my best projects have always started with a pen and memo pad to brainstorm ideas. No longer required to use a style of writing or note-taking, I can just take notes that make sense to me. So when a computer isn't available, I'm comfortable going to pen/pencil and paper.

Dana King said...

I'm with you 100% on this. I didn't write before computers--not worth mentioning--and I don't know how people did it with typewriters or--gasp!-- longhand, not if you plan on multiple drafts and revisions.

If computers went away tomorrow? I'd stop writing. It's enough work as it is without all that other crap.

Al Tucher said...

I wrote my 140-page senior thesis on a manual typewriter. Rewriting was a matter of crossing out paragraphs, handwriting corrections, wholesale retyping, and then more retyping when I discovered that I had left out a crucial word. I would never go back.

It could get even worse. A friend wrote his thesis on Turkish history, which meant translating quotations from sources in Turkish and then offering the originals in an appendix. He had to type the originals out also, and since Turkish has two letter i's, one with the dot and one without, he then went through dozens of pages with a toothpick and a bottle of whiteout to remove the dots.

He's never been the same.

Steve Weddle said...

I've tried writing on a computer screen, but it's just so, I dunno, covered in feelinglessness.

I started writing longhand into notebooks and that's helped. When I fill a notebook with my scrawl, I drive into the city and stop by Kwik Kopy and give this guy called Ron the notebook. He makes a copy of each page, then spiral-binds it for me. After that, I stop by the post office and mail the spiral-bound copy off to my agent. She gets it a couple of days later, reads it that day, then calls with some ideas.

So far, this new method has worked out great. Jay, you should try it. You'll want to write as quickly as you can to keep the momentum flying. I find a few drinks and a dark, wet ink help to keep things moving.

Michael Moreci said...

I'd like to pretend that I can exist independently of my computer, but if push came to shove, I doubt that I could. A novelist buddy of mine recently told me how he does everything in longhand first, then transcribes it to his word processor. It was like he had explained how he churned his own butter. It seemed so strange and unnecessary to me; but, at the same time, I get what you're saying, Steve. There's is a sterility there. Your written word is your own--a font belongs to everyone and anyone.

At the end of the day, for me, it has to be computers. I have doctor's longhand, so expecting an editor or agent to ever make sense of my scrawl is a burden I wouldn't ask of my worst of enemy.

Scott D. Parker said...

I do both. When I start a long project, I put all my notes in one of those black-and-white 'marbled' comp books. Everything goes in there except printed drafts. When I wrote my first book and two, separate vacations happened, I left the laptop at home and wrote longhand at nights. I found that speed to be wonderful. Plus, when I got home and typed my prose into the computer, it was like a first edit.

While I've not written anything completely longhand, I do enjoy the feel, the sound, and the speed of long hand. But I also love to fly on a keyboard.