Sunday, November 16, 2008

Getting It Right

Hilary Mantell on the problems of word-processing fiction:
I remember how my first published book came together, back in the prehistoric typewriter age; I wrote it in longhand, typed it, then typed it again. This now seems both hideously laborious and pathetically inadequate. Now I pick away endlessly, balancing and rebalancing a paragraph, tuning and retuning it, trying to find some hidden note within it - and worry, a little, whether I'm privileging style over content, and all this tinkering is a substitute for fresh thought.
I haven't written anything of any length in longhand since school - for one thing my handwriting is appalling - but I did type my first novel out, three times (and because I'm not a touch typist I had retype a fair number of pages, because they had too many errors). So I migrated to word processing as soon as I could (1988, I believe: WordPerfect 4.2 on a two-disk system, one with the operating system, the other where you saved the text, because this was before hard drives were readily available on PCs; as it was the beast cost a cool £1000, and the printer another £1000, and this when the first and last new car I bought cost only twice as much).

But I do recognise the urge to endlessly fiddle with sentences and paragraphs and scenes, and often wonder if the thought processes used during composition of something using word-processing are more skittish and much shallower than when I used a typewriter. The work habit was certainly different back in those hunt-and-peck days. I would write three pages and if the last line of the third page of ended in the middle of a sentence I'd write the end of the sentence on a scrap of paper and type it up when beginning the next day. Now, of course, I aim to breast the tape of at least five pages a day, or 2000 words, when producing a first draft, not including all the fiddling and revision that happens before I get up steam. A more organic process than the mechanically linear three-pages-a-day routine, maybe, but as Mantell points out, perhaps a more neurotic one, too.

More from Mantell here...


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