Writing in the 21st Century

I wonder from time to time if I could have finished a novel in any other century.

I am just old enough to have written stories on a manual typewriter, slamming the carriage return at the end of each line. My mom had an electric typewriter, but I wasn’t allowed to use it. My brother had a manual typewriter, and I wasn’t allowed to use that, either, but did anyway. I left the caps key on because it was easier TO WRITE LIKE THIS than to find the shift key. I used white out liberally. A two page story was an epic task, and the thought of retyping it was miserable, especially since I’d still riddle the new draft with errors. Could I have ever done a novel that way?

Maybe I would have grown into it, maybe not. I’ll never know, because by the time I was 14 we were in the word processing era. In high school I had a computer that hooked up to a TV. I hammered out stories that were blatant rip offs of Kurt Vonnegut and the first thousand words of the next Catcher in the Rye. The word processor was slow and clunky. I had to save the stories to a cassette tape and printed them off on a dot matrix printer.

A five or six page story would overwhelm the computer’s RAM, and to write anything longer, you had to save every chapter to a different file. You couldn’t even have two files open at the same time. The tape drive was prone to read and write errors, and all your hard work would be lost. Even writing and revising a few pages was a hassle. I might have thrown the whole mess out the window before I got to chapter three of a novel.

Macintosh introduced “cut” and “paste,” so by college I was either using my mom’s Mac or one of the Macs in the library. Now I could shuffle paragraphs around — formerly you had to delete and retype something to move it within a story. A year or two later Mac introduced the all-powerful “multifinder,” which even let you open two files at once. The world was my oyster! I now had enough technology to easily write and revise stories.

Novels were still impractical. I wrote my first novel in graduate school, using an early version of Microsoft Word. It was a much better word processor than the ones I’d used before, but I still found it necessary to save chapters as separate files. Word had a merge feature where you could set up a master file with listed sub files, and you could print off the whole thing with successive pagination. That was close to what I needed, but it was a hassle to get everything in order and printed correctly. I wasted reams of paper trying. I also had serious setbacks when disks suddenly stopped working. I limped across the finish line, but with a sloppy draft and a diskette full of carelessly named files I couldn’t deal with any more.

In short, given any previous decade I might not have ever seen my way through a novel. Would I have ever had the discipline to retype a manuscript as many times as I’ve revised the two I’ve written? In a later era, would I have gotten so overwhelmed by the file management problems and the inevitable and sudden loss of data that I just gave up?

I don’t know. There’s a lot to be said for the resilience of the human spirit, but nowadays it’s just easier. I’m able to have an entire novel open in one window, navigate easily using the document map, throw scenes this way and that, save multiple drafts, back up in a plethora of ways, and share files among computers. It keeps getting easier, too. I’ve started using Scrivener for first drafts, which lets me keep notes and move scenes around like their index cards. There’s “the cloud” for storing files, for collaborating, for annotations. There’s the Internet for research. Even if you can’t find the answers you need on a web page, you can usually tap the right people on the shoulder and ask them what you want to know. There’s immediate visible support of fellow authors and friends.

Of course, in earlier eras I wouldn’t have had the same distractions — Facebook, Twitter, Amazon.com sales ranks, LOL cats and cake wrecks. But I think it’s a pretty good trade off.

What do you think? Do you wish it were harder? Do you miss the days when writing was done with porcupine quills dipped in berry juice, written on foolscap (whatever that is)? Do you think technology has just opened the door for less dedicated and lazier writers to add their (less dedicated, lazier) efforts to an already crowded marketplace? Or are you just nostalgic for the ink stains and cramped hands of a bygone era?

2 thoughts on “Writing in the 21st Century

  1. Interesting points! I never used my typewriter for writing stories, just for typing up papers for school. Had an old-fashioned word processing program on the Commodore 64–had to hit Enter at the end of every line and you didn’t know how much room you had so it would just beep and suddenly stop working, then you’d have to backspace, hit Enter and retype your word on the next line. Such a pain!

    I wrote everything in longhand but never wrote a full-length bona fide novel until I had my own personal computer with a decent word processor. I am a lightning fast typist but the thought of hand-writing drafts and then retyping them . . . *shudder* I too am grateful for computers. And I ❤ Scrivener so much!!!

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