Monday, September 27, 2010

The Frightening Case of the Dead Computer

How do writers write? The question usually evokes ideas of style, attitude, or voice. Sometimes, the concept of when and where the writing is performed comes up, but far less often do people inquire about exactly how the writing is done. Pen and paper, typewriter, computer, what?

I know several writers who insist on writing long hand. Some believe that it slows them down and forces them to think harder. They transfer what they wrote to computer and this transference process works as a second drafting, allowing them to clean their prose. I only wrote one book in longhand, well it was actually a novelette, and technically I only wrote half in longhand. I simply think too fast and write too slow. I end up losing too much in the process.

I’m old enough to remember typewriters. The first eight novels I wrote were on typewriters. I preferred electric. At the end I had a real nice Olivetti Praxis, one of the first typewriters to offer the ability to make corrections without using the little strip of Wite-Out chalk paper. (The idea was to backspace over the unwanted character, slide the correction paper under the carriage—chalk side down—then hit the same character to imprint the chalk over the offending text.)

The Olivetti had the correction built right into the ink ribbon. We’re talking state-of-the-art back in the early eighties. As you can see, the sleek, black space age design was the envy of all my friends…then the personal computer arrived. To this day I still don’t know what happened to that Olivetti.

I’ve always worked on a PC (except for the year I worked as a graphic designer, when I had a nice desktop Mac.) My first computer I got back in the spring of 1984 and was a Compaq Desktop Pro with an 8086 processor and a whopping 20 MB of HD space.

In the early days all PCs had were WordPerfect and Word for DOS, both of which were a nightmare because computers didn't have mice. (well the Xerox did, but it wasn't until the Apple Macintosh, which came out that same spring, that the first commercially successful computer mouse appeared.) Without a mouse, just navigating the screen of a word processor was an act in frustration. I had to check the manual just to determine how to move my cursor to the correct position to insert a word. I actually rejected both programs in favor of an obscure word processor called SAMNA that acted much more like a typewriter. Despite all the hassles, and the awful quality of the dot-matrix printer, it was still light-years better than the Olivetti. Being able to backspace was wonderful.

Back then there was a huge controversy about writing a novel on a computer due to the fear of losing it in an electronic second. The controversy continues, but I no longer know anyone who still uses a typewriter. The lack of a solid stack of pages that couldn’t just vanish if you pressed the wrong button, scared many. While I rarely ever lost anything due to accidental deletion, as I kept back-ups and regularly sent copies to others, I did lose a few novels to technology. My old Compac took the huge, literally floppy, 5.25” disks. These were soon replaced by the smaller hard plastic disks, then the double-sided, double-density disks and now CD and DVD drives.

The result is that several of my early books are locked on old technology I no longer have the key to open. Of course, my very first works, those on paper, were lost as well, the victims of moves and dusty attics. So who’s to say which is better.

These days I use MS Word. Nothing fancy, just the basic program, although I do also use WordWeb that functions with all programs as a dictionary and thesaurus. And while I keep my books up to date now on the current media, I still have problems.

Just recently I had finished the final review/edits for Wintertide. The book was ready to trot off to the printer for the first proofs. Being a little paranoid—even to this day—I sent a copy to my wife Robin, just in case.

The next morning I noticed my machine was making a rattling sound. It’s an old IBM ThinkPad that I inherited during a time I could not afford to buy a new computer. I had been thinking about getting a new machine, but hoped the old black box would survive to see the release of Wintertide. I rebooted only the machine refused, instead displaying an error declaring my fan was being lazy and not reporting to work. I was so thankful that I had taken the precaution of sending the file to Robin, only when I asked she said..."What file?" She never got it, and now the book was done, but trapped on my dead little corpse of a computer, which looked so sad with all its LED lights, dark.

The machine did not warrant a repair bill, but I was faced with taking the computer to a repair shop and letting it—and my book—sit for days, perhaps weeks until it could be fixed. My release deadline was barreling at me like a train and I was tied to the tracks. I was not in a good mood.

Now if it had been a typewriter, I could just pull the last page out of the carriage and ship the book off. Of course I would still be editing the thing, too. The book has been such an ordeal to get out, I just wanted it to be done, to be finished and out the door.

Robin suggested I try fixing it myself. Being the computer geek that I'm not, I tried anyway. Replacing the fan looked beyond my talents, but pulling the hard drive and slipping it into my son's machine looked a whole lot easier. One screw later I was done. I could access my files, I got the book—it was still there safe and sound—the end of the world, averted. At long last the book was done…

...then Robin found a few more errors...

The struggle goes on.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Crunch Month

I have no idea how other writers handle the process of final editing. Perhaps with a big publisher it is a very sterile, very formal enterprise. With my first publisher I received infrequent mark-ups in a Word file that I accepted or rejected then emailed back—all very civilized, but not very effective.

In order to improve the finished product, I have enlisted various beta readers, editors, and proof readers (many are fans who have graciously volunteered.) Beta readers are charged with finding problems with the story. Was I too subtle with that hint? Was that part interesting or just boring? Were the actions of that character believable? You can never use just one Beta Reader. Three or more are required, for as with all things, what is wonderful to one is awful to another. The input of one then can easily be misleading. Three or more can break ties and reveal trends. If three people all hate something you love, you might want to reevaluate.

Beta readers are employed early on in the final editing process. That is to say, long after, I as the author, have finished the final draft and gone through my own series of pathetic editing passes, but before the heavy sanding and polishing starts. This early beta reading/editing period I refer to as the Structural Phase when the system is tested to see if it can handle the weight of a cold, highly critical, reader. I tend to interrogate my beta readers with a list of prepared questions. Then ask for general feedback. Based off of this I find weak areas, logic holes, and places where my intent failed to register.

This results in Structural Reworking, in the form of moving paragraphs, cutting whole sections and rewriting. As with most jobs requiring massive reconstruction, it’s a very dangerous work environment—characters have been known to die. Others are sometimes miraculously saved, shoved out of the way of a swinging plot point at the last second.

A few of my beta readers are also my gross editors, which can be a problem as they become attached to their own involvement, adopting those characters or lines that they save. It then becomes hard to give them up. A veteran of watching my hard-won words gutted, I’ve become like one of those platoon members who refuses to make friends with new recruits because he doesn’t want to go through the pain when the newbie gets killed. I have discovered that a useful skill as a writer is learning to see my writing as someone with nothing invested sees it. This allows me to cut previously beloved lines when they just don’t fit anymore.

Another pitfall is familiarity. When a paragraph or sentence was written eons ago, you get used to it being that way. When it is changed, or removed, it is unsettling. I recognized this preference for “tradition” in my own decisions. A new line has to be great to replace a crappy line that’s been there since the first draft. Only recently have I spotted this behavior in my editors. Watching them freak when a first generation phrase or paragraph is cut or re-worded.

Speaking of cutting. After the structural phase ends the Editing starts and I am convinced now that “editing” is Latin for “cutting every other word.” Wintertide has gone from about 120,000 words to 92,000 words and still cutting. Aside from removing longwinded tangents and run-on sentences, there is the art of jettisoning excess words from each sentence. If someone “sat” you don’t need to remind the reader he “sat down.”

Aside from cutting there is also the rearranging. Moving sentences into more logical orders and moving the phrases in sentences into more intelligible language. And then of course there is grammar. I suppose there are writers who love grammar, and those who feel restricted by it. Actually I suspect a great number of creative writers are annoyed by the rules of English, just as any creative type tends to resent controls on their expression. There have been times I have insisted on breaking the rules for effect. There have also been times—far too many—that I’ve done this out of ignorance. I still growl when I write something and an editor tells me I can’t do that, because it isn’t grammatical correct despite being abundantly clear in its meaning. I can’t begrudge them too much as no one holds it against the author when they find grammar mistakes in a book. They always blame the editor.

The Coarse Editing is grueling as it requires the study and breakdown of every sentence in the book, often with an accompanying twenty minute debate as to whether or not it is better to remove an “and” and replace it with a comma. Also should a girl “say sweetly,” or “sweetly say?” “For this reason Amilia avoided eating?” or “Amilia avoided eating for this reason?” Discussions and arguments rage over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. It might sound awful, but as the author, the majority of the time, I don’t care. Unless the rewording affects the meaning or the cadence of a phrase, it doesn’t matter to me which way it goes. Editors however will draw swords and do battle, searching for authoritative reference to support them. These can often be hard to find when dealing with the truly finer points of grammar. Most websites and grammar books make the usually correct assumption that the average user is only vaguely familiar with the difference between a noun and a verb and so don’t get into the theoretical string theory physics of coordinating conjunction verses subordinate conjunctions.

Once this coarse editing is finished, the book undergoes a Polishing. This is where the professional or at least the more experienced language engineer makes a pass looking for mistakes in punctuation, word usage and such. Then the book is dropped into layout/galley form and the Proofing stage begins. Everyone reads it in final form to look for missing words, dropped periods, quotes pushed to the next line, duplicated sentences that failed to get trimmed out or passages that were supposed to have been cut weeks ago, but are still there because of a file glitch.

After this, the book goes to the printer for a handful of proofs and once more everyone reads the book. This time looking for any errors the printing process might have introduced. One time during the release of Nyphron Rising, the printer inexplicably shuffled eight pages in the middle of the novel. When Avempartha was printed the last ten pages were in Spanish! The result is that, with Wintertide set to be released in October, I will be reading the book enough times in short succession that I will hate it by the time the rest of the world gets to see it.

For those of you wondering where we are, Wintertide is in the final stage of Coarse Editing. Debates still rage, swords still ring and I’m thinking it might be a good time to take up smoking, or at least get one of those little red stress balls.