Tales from the Before Time

This is a story from the days before electronic submissions, when all the internet was on dial-up and the web hadn’t yet been invented, and printing was done by dot-matrix printers on fanfold paper, and writers — by which I mean in this case my husband/co-author and I — turned in their novels in the form of four-and-five-inch-deep stacks of hard copy.

So there we were, on a sunny summer day, motoring down to New York from far northern New Hampshire, with the intention of handing over a stack of hard copy to our publisher and (if we were lucky) getting a lunch downtown on the strength of it.  Under ordinary circumstances, we would have used the post office like normal people, but as it happens we were piggybacking the novel delivery onto a family visit in Westchester County.  We were also hauling our complete computer setup — CPU, monitor, printer, and all — with us in the back of our mini-van, because my co-author’s other paying job at the time was as managing sysop for one of the pre-web online communities, and he couldn’t leave the place unwatched.

About fifteen minutes into what was going to be a six hour drive, my co-author said, “The middle of the book doesn’t work.”

I made a noise like Donald Duck being goosed with a cattle prod.  “What do you mean, ‘the middle of the book doesn’t work’?”

“Don’t worry.  I know how to fix it.”

And, in fact, he did.  Because the novel in question was a space opera, “fixing it” ended up requiring the insertion of an entire space battle of epic proportions, plus all of its foreshadowing and repercussions, written in a single thirty-six hour push by the two of us hot-seating it at our computer in the living room of his family’s house.

But that turned out to be the easy part, because then we had to print out the hard copy — something we’d originally planned to do in a leisurely manner the day before we were to take the train from Mount Kisco into Manhattan, and which we now had to accomplish in the narrow window of time between writing “The End” to the revised novel at sometime past midnight and leaving for the train station in the mid-morning of the following day.  And then, at around two in the morning, we discovered that the brand of dot-matrix printer we owned had a Feature:  in order to protect the print head from burning out through overheating, whenever the print head got too hot the printer would simply stop printing until the print head cooled down.

We were in a house without air conditioning, on a sultry night in August, and we had a deadline.

“We do not care about the integrity of the print head,” we said.  “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.”

So we took the cover off the printer, set a fan blowing directly onto the print head, and let ‘er rip.

We finished printing out the manuscript with a couple of minutes to spare, and spent the train ride into Manhattan separating the fanfold pages and tearing off the perforated tractor-feed strips so as to turn the printout into a stack of hard copy fit to hand over to an editor.

Which we did, and then we had lunch.  Martinis may have been involved, because we felt that under the circumstances, we deserved them.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, other than that if you need to fix the middle of the story, you do what you have to do in order to get it fixed; or possibly, that writers under pressure can come up with workable solutions to all sorts of things.

Also — laptop computers, broadband internet, and electronic manuscript submissions are all awesome developments; and I don’t miss fanfold computer paper at all.

One thought on “Tales from the Before Time

  1. It wasn’t 36 hours. It was 24. Or less. When we headed down from the North Country we were planning on getting the ten-ish a.m. train The Next Morning.

    The good part was that we had a seven-hour car ride, a hard copy of the Book As It Existed, and pencils. So an awful lot of the work was done before arrival. What remained was a small matter of actually making the changes, doing the original writing, integrating the entire mess, and hoping that we didn’t break more than we fixed.

    Then we figured out pages-per-hour on the printer. And page-in-the-book. And found that if we wanted to make the train we had to start printing before all the changes/corrections/additions had even been made. So while Doyle was typing the later chapters, the printer was already spewing out the early chapters.

    And … when the printer overheated, and we took off the lid, we discovered that the printer had a Safety Feature. It wouldn’t print at all with the lid off.

    We fixed that with a paperclip jammed into the hole where the printer checked for the presence of a cover. Thus did we disable the interlock.

    Yes, martinis were involved in lunch. Because I’d heard so much about the “Three Martini Lunch” in political discourse, I had a goal.

    Folks who want to see how well that one-day rewrite went can check out Starpilot’s Grave. Available wherever fine books are sold, and under the counter in bus stations everywhere.

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