Saturday, September 19, 2015

Relics of Writing Past and Present

I just turned 54. It would appear from the Facebook and Twitter well-wishing that most of you know this already. I was 48 when I first published The Crown Conspiracy, and a full 50 years old when I was first traditionally published. Stephen King was on The Late Show this week and mentioned he was 26 when he published his first book, Carrie. And rumor has it that the average age of a novelist's first publication is around 36 years old.

One of the better questions I've been asked in interviews is,  "If I could go back in time, what advice would I give myself?"

 They mean about writing of course, not advice in general. If that were the case, I'd have plenty to say. I hit a fire hydrant sideways at eighty, blowing all four tires and rupturing the gas tank of my first car because I was stupid. Then there was the time I went on a week-long canoe trip deep in the wilderness with food for three days (because that’s how long we thought it would take). On the same trip we never considered bringing an extra paddle because…what were the odds of losing a paddle? Apparently they were pretty good and we had to carve a replacement from a  log. All there of these would have been good candidates.  But, no, they mean what writing advice would I give myself. For me that’s an easy one:

I would have told the early me..."It’s all gonna be worth it someday."

That’s it. That’s all I’d tell that poor twenty-something with the two toddlers living in the deep snows of Vermont. I honestly think that’s all it would have taken. I just couldn’t see it happening back then. I still wince when watching the Charlie Brown Halloween Special. Poor Linus. I lucked out at least. My Sally Brown was way more understanding.

Still, I wonder what I might have accomplished by now if I had known. How many books could I have written during the twelve years I stopped writing. Maybe nothing at all. Might have taken that long for me to unlock the puzzle that is novel writing, or maybe the market needed to shift, or the Kindle had to hit. On the other hand, maybe—like Stephen King—I, too, might have had a stack of published books as tall as me. Elan could have been a more complete place today, and a handful of other worlds might have been born.

On the third hand, maybe technology just wasn’t there yet.

I’ll admit software helped. I learned loads from all those red and green underlines that are so prevalent in word processors today that weren’t there when I started because word processors didn’t exist. The instant teacher that ran a red underscore every time I typed the word “ recieved” wasn't around. Eventually I realized—oh right—except after C. 

After a certain point, birthdays aren’t celebrations anymore than New Years Eve. They’re times to look back and take stock. This year I looked back at the Relics of Writing Past. Like just about everyone, I started with a pen and notebook, the cheap spiral you got at a five-and-dime—with inflation I think they call them Dollar Stores now. And, like most kids, I couldn’t figure out why the ink in the clear stemmed Bic didn’t flow backward when you pointed the tip up. To be honest, I still don’t.

Writing only really got fun when I found my sister’s old portable Royal that fit in a little hard-shell case. You had to hammer the keys to get a good letter on the paper, especially when the ribbon was running dry. If you hit too hard some of the holes in your Bs and Ds would fill in, but at least three days later I could still understand what I wrote. Other people could, too, and that changed everything.
After marrying my wife (I was twenty-one, Robin not yet twenty), I invested big money in a top-of-the-line typewriter—an Olivetti Praxis. Sleek, black, and aerodynamic—why a typewriter needed to have the profile of a sports car I had no idea, but it was sexy as hell. But the coolest thing was it had correctable typing. This meant that the lower band on the ink ribbon was laced with White-Out powder. Before that, I had to paint mistakes with a bottle and brush like applying white eyeliner, then reinsert the page, line it up, and type again. Later they made little sheets the size of cigarette paper that came in nifty plastic cases. You’d just backspace, insert the correction sheet between the key and the paper and retype the mistake. The powder would cover it up far more neatly than the paint. But the Olivetti had that bit of magic built right into the ribbon.

The ability to erase a mistake? What a dream come true! I had to have that. Robin was less than happy about spending $300 on a typewriter, but this was my dream, and she of all people knew how much I needed to correct mistakes. Sadly, this was 1983. Now that I think about it, I might also tell my younger self to hold off on that space-age typewriter, because the real deal was right around the corner.

In 1984, my wife—an electrical engineer for a small firm in Michigan—found herself being drawn more and more into this new field of Software Engineering, and one day she came home with a present for me: a Compaq Deskpro—a computer. I'd never been so excited about a present...except when I was eight and found a full set of Tonka trucks under the Christmas tree. I was also bewildered beyond words. I had no idea how to use it. What I did know—what Robin told me—was that it was gonna beat the crap out of the Olivetti.

I never could learn Basic, and most of the word processors at the time were not much more than typewriters—except you could backspace and erase mistakes before printing. That was beyond cool, a form of time travel that let me fix mistakes before I made them.  There was no mouse, so moving the curser and highlighting blocks of text required an advance degree in keyboard language. I couldn’t get the hang of most programs, but one called Samna worked like a typewriter. I understood it, and off I went on my amber-on-black screen (green on black was so 1982.) I wrote close to five novels on that Compaq, printing them on a noisy dot-matrix printer that shook my desk. Life for a writer was so sweet.
When Word for Windows came out, I discovered the luxuries a mouse provides -- although it was awkward having to take my hand off the keyboard. I became an ardent fan of the new company called Gateway Computers. I think I single-handedly made them successful as over the the next twenty years I bought more than a dozen of them. I’d given up my dream of becoming an author by the time I bought the big 21 inch, fifty pound, monitor I called Mammoth. At that time, I was running my own advertising agency, which was why I could afford the monitor. We had a little iMac for translating files between platforms, one of those plastic gum ball machines that I couldn’t take seriously. No one in the office actually used it. I suspected the Mac might be a better system, but all the good games were on Windows, and after thirty years of breaking and fixing them, I knew Microsoft like I knew my old ’68 Dodge Dart—the one I wrapped around the fire hydrant.

When my career took off, when Orbit picked up my series, I was using a five year old Gateway and a ten year old monitor. I convinced myself I deserved a new computer, a nice one. I bought an Alienware. After six months it was having problems, and after a year it failed. Looking back I realized this happened a lot. For decades I had to wipe and reinstall everything on my computers at least once a year or buy a new one. By the time the Alienware melted down, I decided to take the plunge and go all-out iMac, baby!

I bought it last year, and as I expected, it has been like going through rehabilitation after an awful car crash. Learning to walk again as an adult sucks. I spent a month doing nothing but learning, but I got the hang of it. It’s been well over a year and I haven’t had a single issue with the iMac. The thing runs as good as the day I bought it.
I realize there’s a cold war between Apple and Microsoft—at least there used to be. Not so much these days, I think. Now its more of a shrug and an eye-roll sort of a battle, still I might ruffle a few old-school feathers, but I have to say I think there’s one more thing I might tell my younger self. 
And yeah, it was all worth it.

So anyway, another year over and it was nice seeing all the birthday well wishes. It was also fun strolling memory lane.  Thanks for your thoughts and best wishes.


  1. Happy birthday, Michael! I just turned 56, so you're not far behind me. I grinned through most of your post. We have a similar history (except for the car crash part). Hope you have a great day!

  2. Happy Birthday, Michael. Thank you for sharing your writing journey with us. I'm 44 years old and have been writing on and off since my teens. I'm now struggling to get serious about it in the midst of raising a teenager (17) and a toddler (16 months), working full time, cooking, cleaning, and all the rest of the "routine" necessary to get through the week. I may end up over 50 by the time I manage to create something publishable, but your story gives me inspiration and hope that over 50 is not too late. In fact, it may be right on time.

  3. Happy Birthday Michael! Your comments about Gateway made my day as I worked there for almost 15 years. Ah, the good old days!

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