Friday, July 5, 2013

Technology and the Writer

If you can read this, you have electricity and access to the Internet (and, yes, a computer). As I write this, I do not have access to the Internet, and I'm borrowing a computer in an office. My home router has shown its true character--it shuts down in the heat. We've tried storing it in the freezer for an hour or so, and that seems to help, but inevitably, the router heats up and the Internet disappears.

I don't mind being cut off from the rest of the world, but this problem with access to email and the Internet got me thinking. When I first began publishing, in the mid 1980s, computers were just beginning to find their way into private homes, and they were clunky and complicated to use (plus they took up the entire desk top). In the 1980s approximately 50,000 books were published each year, and this number included all books, such as versions of the Bible, textbooks, insurance sales manuals, romance novels, and how-to-put-together-your-new-bookcase guides as well as popular fiction and nonfiction. Today over 300,000 new titles are published every year, and that will go even higher as readers shift more and more to eBooks.

The computer has made composing a book easier, and the new publishing technologies such as POD (print on demand) and eBooks have made the opportunity to publish books accessible to everyone. I don't know if this is good or bad, but it certainly is different from the 1980s.

In the late 1980s I edited a mss for a professor who said bluntly that he could not have written it without his computer (and his pretty young wife, his former secretary, probably helped too). I found this statement odd, but I have since encountered any number of people who say the same thing. Without the computer, they would not be writing or publishing anything.

I wrote my first novel longhand in college in the 1960s and revised it on paper, version after version. A good typewriter was a treasure, but this was before electric typewriters. (Does anyone remember WiteOut?) I still revise by hand, on paper, and go through six or seven major versions, but that's another blog. Writing by hand and typing and revising is work. Writing on a computer is a breeze, especially with autocorrect.

I like to think that the computer hasn't really affected my writing, but I know that it has. I have grown used to seeing a truncated page on the screen, rewriting a paragraph without seeing another page spread out on the desk where that paragraph might be better placed (that happens only in editing the hard copy), making lists of changes I can make with find/replace without having to think hard about whether or not it's the right change because the change is so easy to carry out.

But the biggest change is not having to hover over and protect the final, pristine copy of my mss. If I send out a paper copy and it comes back wrinkled, I no longer have to worry about pressing it back into shape for the next reading by a stranger. I print out a new copy and recycle the old one.

I'm sure there are other results from switching from a typewriter to a computer, and I am guessing that many of them are unconscious, things that happen that I'm no longer aware of. I try to tease them out by looking at much earlier work, but my writing has changed far too much since the 1960s to make this exercise useful. Still, I know the changes are there.

Have you noticed changes in your work as the result of technology?


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I'm sorry for your router problem. I know how frustrating it is when computers don't work. They've become such an important part of our lives. I'm going to date myself and mention that I too originally wrote my work on a Smith Corona typewriter, not an electric either. I got my first manual as a gift from my mother when I was eleven. She taught me how to touch type. I never stopped writing. My sons got their first Apple when it came out and taught me Appleworks. And yes, it was a big improvement. No longer did I have to bring manuscripts to a printer to make multiple copies to send to publishers. We have come a long way. It's staggering how many people are "publishing" their writing today via the internet. In a sense, ebooks a form of democracy.

James S. Dorr said...

Hi Susan,

Interesting topic and, yes, I go back that far myself. I still do most poetry first drafts by hand, in fact, and while I draft fiction on the computer, part of the process for me is printing out a copy to edit by hand.

That said, though, one of the biggest changes, to cite your article . . . you send out printed copies??? A few magazines still require them (ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S, FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, I think), but by far most of the submission I do is electronically, including book-length MSS (my latest collection, THE TEARS OF ISIS, was submitted in .rtf to startup publisher Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, following negotiations by email, and now if you want to buy it -- in a paper or an electronic edition -- the easiest way is to order it over your computer from Amazon!).

Dan Persinger said...

I would no sooner go back to a typewriter and paper edits than a writer in longhand would have wanted to go back to a sharp rock and a slate. There's just no downside to being able to do a thing better and faster.

As Mae West said, "I've been rich and I've been poor, and honey, rich is better."

Jan Christensen said...

Susan, so sorry about your router problems. All computer problems are so frustrating. But as you pointed out, the way we used to write by hand and then typewriters had their own frustrations. I've extremely happy to use a computer now. I can write more, faster and with less effort with the process itself. No downside. Great blog post!

Susan Oleksiw said...

First off, yes, I agree the computer is wonderful for composing and editing. I wouldn't want to return to my Hermes 3000 (I think) because typing is physically harder as well as slower. But yes, I do have to send paper copies to some editors (AHMM is one of them), and I don't mind too much, especially if I think I have a real chance with the editor.

Second, technology is just one more double-edged sword, like everything else. But when it goes, it really goes down.

There's something about watching ourselves grow, and seeing the changes that is fascinating to me.

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

BTW, I'm online at the library. Boston is in the middle of a heatwave, so we'll have melting routers for a while yet.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

My mysteries start out low-tech, with notes of possible scenes on index cards, character details on notebook paper, and a calendar to keep track of events. But without the computer I'd be dead in the water. Having to write it all out longhand, or even type it, and then rewrite and retype would definitely put a cork in the inspiration bottle.