Thursday, April 28, 2011


I was chatting with Jon Courtenay-Grimwood last night, after the Clarke Awards, and we got onto the topic of switching from typewriters to word processing, and how it changed our work habits.  Amongst other things, we both retyped final draft pages if we made more than five mistakes when using a typewriter, and we both wrote to the end of the page at the end of a work session; if this meant stopping in the middle of a sentence, then we wrote the end of the sentence on a scrap of paper and the next day inserted a fresh sheet of paper in the machine and carried on from there.  I doubt that anyone, now, reaches their self-assigned word (rather than page) count and stops dead in the middle of a sentence.  You just keep going, chasing that blinking cursor across the screen.  And if you're in the middle of a particular juicy and exciting scene or section, there's a temptation to keep going until the end - which means that the next day you have to cold-start the next scene from the very beginning, and risk getting blocked.  Always leave something you want to write for the next day.

I have a small nostalgia for the steady clickety-clack* of the keys imprinting thoughts onto paper letter by letter, but none at all for the messy task of ribbon-changing, of having to stop to disentangle keys that jammed together because I was typing too fast, or of waiting for a streak of Tip-Ex to dry.  And I never was (nor am I yet) a touch-typist.  As soon as personal computers became affordable, I bought one, learned how to use WordPerfect 4.2, and never looked back.

The mechanical, linear process of typewriting meant that serious revisions were left until the draft was completed.  Now, of course, you can worry away forever at what you've just written, and the changes are writ on water instead of paper.  The process is a lot more playful than it once was, takes place on the screen as well as inside your head, and is kind of . . . indefinite.  When you typed the final word of a manuscript and ripped the paper from the typewriter's platten, there was a real sense of completion, albeit momentary.  For even in the days of typewritten MSS, there was a nagging feeling that there were still changes that needed to be made once the story or novel had made it, after editing, copy-editing and proofing, into print.  That sense is perhaps a little stronger now.  Unless you print it out straight away, there's a temptation to go back time and again to a word-processed document: to tweak and fiddle and adjust this or that sentence, to endlessly fine-tune.  Nothing is ever really finished.  Instead, you have to let it go.

Which brings me to the ongoing novel, which has now about three-quarters finished in first draft, and has reached the point where, rather than start to tie everything up and aim it towards the last sentence (I do know what it is), I have the growing urge to start over, change everything that needs fixing or revision, and cut away all the persiflage.  As usual, I didn't discover the theme of the novel until it had progressed a fair way.  The plot has grown far too complicated, as I followed all kinds of exciting leads.  And just the other day, I realised that I'm missing a whole section that really needs to be included, and not just because it will contain some cool stuff about the fate of Earth, a chiliastic crusade, and involve the hero in some difficult moral decisions.  Well, it can be dropped in later.  Right now, this thing, like a shark, needs to keep moving forward.  That imperative hasn't changed, at least.

*(UPDATE) Of course, the keys really went clack clack clack, but (this isn't an original thought; I can't remember who said it) the human mind imposes a narrative on everything, turning the steady tick tick tick tick of a clock into a time-directional tick tock tick tock.  Does Chinese water torture work because the intervals between drips are just long enough to prevent the subject imposing a tick-tock narrative?  Does the lack of coherent narrative drive us crazy?


Blogger RFYork said...


I was lucky enough to use an IBM Selectric at my job. It remains the single greatest keyboard ever made. For a while, one company - Northstar? - made a keyboard for the PC which came close. And, of course, no laptop keyboard comes close to the Selectric.

Everything else you said is right on the money. The ability to revise work on the fly is one of the great gifts the personal computer has given us.

April 28, 2011 9:42 pm  
Blogger Wendy Wagner; said...

Did you see that the last typewriter factory closed its doors this week? Apparently there was a small market in India, but no longer.

April 28, 2011 10:40 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

My first typewriter was a Smith Corona portable borrowed from a neighbour. At age 17, I sold my bike and bought a sturdy Olivetti portable which I used for eleven years, selling it (with the rest of my domestic goods, and my car) to a lab colleague after working for two years in UCLA. That's where I had occasional use of an IBM Selectric, and you're dead on the money, RFYork: it was a fantastic machine. Back in the UK, I bought a Smith Corona electric typewriter with autocorrection (involving white tape and a chip that remembered the last six characters you'd typed) and a daisywheel that wasn't, frankly, up to the job. It also made a noise like a high-voltage transformer about to fail. Another reason for moving across to a PC ASAP (even though computer plus printer cost over £2000, about half the price of a brand-new Peugot 205).

Wendy: I like to think that in some souk or bazaar someone is handmaking replacement parts for those Indian typewriters...

April 29, 2011 9:32 am  
Anonymous Sergey said...

"...which means that the next day you have to cold-start the next scene from the very beginning, and risk getting blocked. Always leave something you want to write for the next day".

Good and wise words, Paul!
It works for scientific articles too.

May 01, 2011 6:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Clickety-Clack:

There's also a phenomenon (I forget the term for it) where your mind imposes meaning and order upon a single repeating syllable. Probably similar to the tick-tock effect.

Also, if a timepiece has reciprocating action, there may actually be different sounds for alternating beats (but this is just a guess).

May 02, 2011 6:57 am  
Anonymous Mark Welker said...

I wonder whether we produce different types of stories now that we have the ability to retype and insert. And whether they are necessarily better, or just different, representing some kind of split between the immediate (writing on a computer) and the deliberate (writing on a type writer).

I always feel that I am writing over stuff all the time on a computer. So that the final product is the result of all the other drafts that came before it.

Has the number of drafts you write increased since ditching the type writer?

May 03, 2011 12:01 am  
Anonymous talkie_tim said...

Did you ever see Max Barry's work "Machine Man"? He wrote it as a "real-time serial" writing about a page a day, and delivering them to his subscribers the same day. This forced him to keep moving forward an not over think each page. It also made him release what is effectively a first draft. Is this the cure for the ills of easy editing? As an exercise it was fascinating.

May 03, 2011 5:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops! I posted the wrong link yesterday. "Machine Man"

May 04, 2011 9:14 am  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

I used to like changing the reels of inked ribbon, largely because I absolutely loved the smell of the ink. I knew some kids at my school who sniffed glue (dangerous habit), but the stench of adhesives always rather put me off. But the smell of ink -- ah! That's another matter.

May 07, 2011 11:58 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Mark - don't know if they different. but my novels (like most other peoples') have grown longer, Although they're all different lengths, so hopefully they're all the right length for the story. I still print off one draft (first or second) and go over it page by page, annotating with a pen. Otherwise, yes, changes are made on the fly, and all is writ on water. Some passages may be altered ten times; others not at all.

Tim: hadn't heard of Machine Man. Thanks for the URL. Interesting idea.

Adam: ah, that earthy yet metallic odour of typewriter-ribbon ink. Will we ever encounter it again?

Watched Smoke (1990) the other day. William Hurt standing in for Paul Auster. He had what looked like an early Mac, shrouded on his desk. But used an electric typewriter, as fictional novelists do, in films. Clickety-clack. And, of course, that Pavlovian at the end of each line...

May 08, 2011 6:50 am  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

Just saw this post and wondered if any of you had heard of this guy:

Beautiful stuff, in my opinion. He uses the IBM Model M for the physical parts of much of his work. I bought a Model M after hearing about them from Datamancer, and I must say, the "buckling spring" mechanism makes just the right amount of click, both in terms of sound and sensation.

June 09, 2011 3:59 pm  

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