WIR #25: Creating Short Fiction

creating short fiction-125 Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction was written in 1981. This makes it a pre-computer book. Consequently, it contains a section on typewriters. Despite this, the book is not outdated.¹ (I actually like pre-computer writing books.)

Early editions of post-computer writing books had sections on computers. "What sort of computer should I buy? A PC or a Macintosh?" were the questions most often addressed. In the beginning, this was understandable. Some early computers were dedicated word processors that did nothing else. The first computer I thought to buy was such a one. A friend, a professional writer, warned me against buying it, and I'm glad I listened to her.

As time wore on, though, the "What sort of computer should I buy? A PC or a Macintosh?" sections became tiresome. The computing platform simply didn't matter. Novels and short stories were sent to publishers via snail mail. So, as long as your manuscript was formatted correctly, no one gave a damn about which platform you used or about the file format in which you had saved your precious story.

With electronic submissions now possible, the majority of publishers still prefer submissions via snail mail (although that is slowly changing). Basically, they don't want to risk viruses.

Obviously, online publishers are exceptions. The question now is: "What format?" The answer is almost always: "Either RTF files or Word documents."

(I prefer RTF — Rich Text Format — because it is cross-platform. The choice of computing platform is still irrelevant. You can get MS Word for the Mac and save the files in PC or Mac format.)

In the original edition of Knight's book, he brings up some important points:

Here and there in this book when I talk about your writing, I say "when you are at the typewriter," but you may not want to work that way at all. Richard McKenna, the author of The Sand Pebbles, wrote his first drafts in longhand with a mechanical pencil — it had to be the same mechanical pencil — and revised on the typewriter. I know another writer who works in pen, using different colors of ink; when he gets tired of one, he switches to another.

People got along without typewriters for thousands of years [GDT's NOTE: and computers, too], and some of them wrote more in their lifetimes than I ever expect to. There are only two problems involved in writing by hand: one is writer's cramp, a crippling and painful spasm of the fingers [GDT's NOTE: it's been years since I've experienced writers cramp] and the other is illegibility.

I worked for twenty years on a manual Royal portable; then I foolishly bought the first of a series of electric typewriters, and I am so addicted to them now that I will never go back to a manual, but I sometimes wish I weren't. The manual was a little slower, but maybe that was good because it gave me more time to think. I could take it anywhere, and if the power went off I was not left sitting in front of a useless hunk of metal. [GDT's NOTE: The same could be said of laptops, regardless of their advertised battery life.] The manual, which was not new when my father gave it to me, was still in good shape when I abandoned it. [GDT's NOTE: Compare the life-expectancy of a typewriter, electric or manual, to that of a computer, and in some ways it seems like we've gone backwards.] Modern typewriters are getting more and more sophisticated, complicated, and sensitive. If something goes wrong with one of them, you probably will not be able to fix it yourself and will have to wait for a company repairperson who will charge you thirty dollars an hour. [GDT's NOTE: Same for computers, but increase that wage!]

For about three thousand dollars, you can get a "word processor," a computerized typewriter that will store what you write and allow you to correct it on a cathode-ray tube; then it will type the corrected copy automatically. [GDT's NOTE: If that price seems crazy, remember to factor in inflation.] It won't take a page out of the typewriter and put in another one, though; so there you sit, watching your typewriter work and waiting to perform your humble task, feeling like a vestigial organ that has not yet been eliminated by science. [GDT's NOTE: Reminds me of the days when I wrote on my old Apple IIe and printed on my ever-faithful daisy-wheel printer, the Brother HR15.]

So, yeah, this is dated, but a you can't deny that a manual typewriter doesn't require electricity and that it doesn't hold out the risk of your battery dying at an inopportune moment.

¹ It is amazing the number of reviews at Amazon that criticize works like this because they are "outdated." Newer editions of Knight's book appear to have been updated, as this section is now titled "Typewriters and Other Keyboards." It annoys me that those reviews consistently ignore the nearly immutable nature of writing advice. If you can, check out writing books from the 1920s or the 1930s, or even old issues of Writer's Digest magazine. The advice has not changed and I doubt it ever will. Writing is writing, regardless of the technology used.

5 comment(s):

monstro said...
November 22, 2009 2:49 PM

Criticizing a book about writing because one of its sections is "out of date" is just plain stupid. I always think of some photography books I bought - and I'm not thinking of Ansel-Adams-old, but of last-year-old - and I know I have to disregard the section on cameras, because I know they're outdated already. But everything else remains valid, be it on a book released last year or 50 years ago. It's because of that advice that I bought the book; recent advice on which camera to buy I can get easily online. :)

g d townshende said...
November 22, 2009 6:41 PM

I agree. Some people simply prefer to focus on things that are irrelevant.

Writing a Research Paper said...
November 23, 2009 6:26 AM

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

gypsyharper said...
December 17, 2009 11:23 PM

To switch that up, one of the photography books I read recently rendered my camera outdated - the author stated that he would assume everyone had at least 4 megapixels. I have 3.2. No matter, I still learned from the book. I agree that information is often good regardless of whether it's newer or older than your equipment.

Truth be told, I still prefer to write with a pencil in a notebook. I find less distraction there than on my computer. :)

g d townshende said...
December 18, 2009 1:05 AM

Leslie, his assumption shouldn't render your camera outdated. Advice about photography will remain the same, regardless of a camera's resolution. Resolution affects only the sharpness of a printed photograph, and even at 3.2 megapixels you'd have to be printing a rather large photo before its sharpness would become noticeable.

I've always enjoyed writing longhand, but I'm now getting myself used to composing on the computer. It helps that I now have software that makes my computer sound like a typewriter. It does have an affect on the writing, especially if you've spent any time at all using a manual typewriter.

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