The Benefits of Forethought

A line of thunderstorms rumbled through northern New England late this afternoon, knocking the power out in our town (among a whole bunch of other towns) for over four hours, right about dinnertime.  The only place on Main Street with power was the local video rental, ice-cream shop, and pizza joint, because they had at some point invested in a generator.  And they were doing a land-office business, selling pizzas and sandwiches and ice cream to a whole bunch of people — including us — who didn’t want to open their refrigerators until the power came back on.  At the point we got our pizza and took it home, they had seventeen pizza orders stacked in a holding pattern waiting for oven space, and were down to their last five foot-long sandwich rolls.

And thus we see the virtue of having a good backup.

Backup plans and equipment are a good thing in the writing business as well.  Don’t throw out the old computer when you upgrade; you never know when you might be facing a hard deadline and looking at a dead machine.  (We had to drop back once from an Atari ST to a nearly-antique Atari 800, under just those circumstances.)  Don’t forget to keep backup files of completed and published works (otherwise you may find yourself laboriously rekeying something you wrote a long time ago; and yes, I’ve done that, too.)  Don’t forget to keep backup copies of works in progress — save in multiple places on your hard drive, save to the cloud (Microsoft Skydrive, Google Drive, Dropbox; or what the heck, all three), save to removable media.  That way, if two weeks before a hard deadline the state police start knocking on doors all over your neighborhood and yelling, “Get out now, the water’s rising,” you can, if need be, finish your work-in-progress on a library computer a hundred miles down the road.

From the Department of Things I Don’t Miss at All

There are some aspects of the writing business that the march of time has marched right on past, and I don’t miss them even a little bit.

The SASE, or Stamped And Self-addressed Envelope, for manuscript submissions, is one of them — because when you had only one good typescript of a story or a novel, you were going to want it back.  So first you had to get an envelope, or a cardboard box, that would fit your manuscript; and then you had to get another envelope or cardboard box that would fit into the first one along with the manuscript; and after that you had to get the post office to weigh first the manuscript and both envelopes (or boxes) and then the manuscript and just one envelope (or box); and before you could put the manuscript in the mail you had to double-check and make sure that the correct address and postage for the outer box had actually gone onto the outer box, and the correct address and postage for the inner box had actually gone onto the inner box . . . and when the manuscript finally got rejected and came back to you, you had to start the entire process all over again.

It’s a whole lot easier just to do the whole thing by e-mail; or if you’re dealing with hard copy, to slip in an ordinary self-addressed business envelope with a single first-class stamp on it, and put in your cover letter the magic words, “Please consider this a disposable manuscript.”

Thought for the Day

One of the many things I like about writing in the digital age: you can compose your text in any typeface you like, from Courier to Comic Sans — you can even write in Wingdings, if a wayward spirit so moves you — and then convert it for submission into whatever font it is that your publisher wants even if what your publisher wants is so butt-ugly you couldn’t write an original sentence in it to save your life.

I like to compose in single-spaced Courier New, then double-space it for editing and revisions.  Sometimes I’ll switch to Century or Times New Roman, just to change the physical layout of the words on the page, and their relationship to each other — it’s an easy way to get a fresh look at the text if it’s starting to get stale.  Double-spaced 12-point Courier New is good for doing printouts for readings, because you can get a good estimate of time that way:  One page with standard margins is roughly 250 words is roughly one minute if you’re reading it aloud.   But again, you can always get the estimate, then switch to some font you like better.  (Orator, as its name implies, is a good clear font for making reading printouts, though it does take up more paper than Courier or Times New Roman.)

Everybody has their typographical preferences, and in this age of electronic writing, we get to indulge them.  And it is good.

Good Tech, Better Tech, Really Good Tech

I’m as fond of toys as the next she-geek, but Really Good Tech — as in, the stuff that gets replaced at once, no question, if and when it ever dies — is something else again. In my book, to qualify for that title, the piece of technology involved has to:

1. be better than I am
2. at something I really hate doing
3. that nevertheless is usually my job to get done anyway.

This rules out my e-book reader, much as I adore it, because it just facilitates something that I’d enjoy doing regardless of the tech involved. The same goes for my crockpot, no matter how much I rely on it, because I could always fall back on the dutch oven if I had to. In fact, there are only four items, at the moment, that make my Really Good Tech list:

  • The computer/word processor/printer combination. Not for writing, but for turning what I write into a submittable electronic or paper MS. I’m enough of a dinosaur to remember the bad old days, when it would take me half an hour and an unconscionable amount of White-Out to produce a single page of submission-quality typescript. There’s a reason I didn’t start getting published until we got our first computer, the Atari 800 of blessed memory.
  • The GPS for our auto. Because it used to be me riding shotgun with my lap full of maps and triptiks, frantically doing arithmetic (at which I suck) in order to answer urgent questions like “How many minutes until our next exit?” and “What’s our current projected arrival time?”
  • The dishwasher. Because it maintains the fragile barrier between us and total (as opposed to merely partial) household disarray, and without it I would fall behind in the dishwashing and never catch up again.
  • The rice cooker. Because while it only does one thing, it does that one thing right every single time, whereas rice cookery by any other method, for me, is a project with only about a 50% chance of success.

I’ve been giving considerable thought to adding the electric wok to the shortlist, but I’m still on the fence about that one.  I could fake stir-frying in a different pan, or I could adjust my meal plans to make up for the loss if I had to, and besides, I kind of enjoy cooking and I’m not all that bad at it . . . on the other hand, I really like having a proper wok.

The observant reader will have noticed that only one of the items on the Really Good Tech list has anything to do with writing, and the one that does, has more to do with the mechanical end of the job than the creative end.  All you really need for the creative end are the contents of your own head and some means — pencil and paper, typewriter, dictaphone, computer, whatever you’ve got handy — of getting them fixed in permanent form.

For the mechanical end, there’s no magic in either retro or cutting-edge technology.  Use whatever tech you like and can afford and are comfortable with, so long as it can get your material to the marketplace in a form that the marketplace can handle.

Stet

Stet is Latin for “let it stand.”  It’s also a word of power for dealing with copyeditors who have — in the author’s opinion — overstepped the limits of their job.

A good copyeditor is the author’s friend.  He or she will do things like keeping track of a whole extended family of fictional characters across a multi-volume series, with accompanying fictional place-names and scraps of invented language, so that even if the author fails to do the math and accidentally keeps the same minor character twenty-five years old for almost a decade, the mistake will be fixed before the book hits print.   Characters who enter a scene wearing a t-shirt and jeans will not leave it wearing khaki cargo pants and a flannel button-down, unless they’ve been witnessed changing clothes in the interim.  The setting sun will not shine in through what can only be an eastward-facing window (if the author has supplied enough detail for a reader to infer the layout of the manor house, a good copyeditor will keep that layout in mind.)

In short, a good copyeditor will make you look smarter than you really are, and will ensure that your book is as good as it deserves to be.  If you get a particularly good or face-saving copyedit, it’s a kindness to tell your editor to pass along your thanks to the copyeditor — rather like sending your compliments to the chef — and to mention that if they’re free the next time you have a book come up on the schedule, you’d love to work with them again.

Bad copyedits . . . let’s just say that it’s almost impossible to be a professional writer and not fall victim to at least one staggeringly awful copyedit.    Authors gather in bars and tell copyeditor horror stories.  (To be fair, the group at the other end of the bar is a gang of copyeditors, telling author horror stories.  If no man is a hero to his valet, no author is a hero to his copyeditor.)  At times like these, it helps to keep in mind that the book is, in the end, your book, and to remember the magic word.

Stet.

Mr. Melville Submits a Proposal

Any writer who’s ever tried to put together a proposal package for an editor or an agent knows the unpleasant truth:  Writing a proposal sucks.  You have to make up a summary version of something that you’re telling at novel length because you haven’t got any way to say it that’s shorter; and you have to put the prose equivalent of false eyelashes and fishnet stockings onto something that is — you devoutly hope — subtle and understated, or at least is naturally flashy and dazzling and not some tasteless imitation of the real thing.

Take heart.  And consider the example of Herman Melville, who in 1850 wrote to his English publisher:

“In the latter part of the coming autumn I shall have ready a new work; and I write you now to propose its publication in England. The book is a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer. Should you be inclined to undertake the book, I think that it will be worth to you 200 pounds.. Could you be positively put in possession of the copyright, it might be worth to you a larger sum — considering its great novelty; for I do not know that the subject treated of has ever been worked up by a romancer; or, indeed, by any writer, in any adequate manner.”

This is an effective proposal — the publisher in question bought the book.  Consider what it does:   It lets the publisher know when the projected work is going to be finished; it describes the nature of the book in terms of how it would appeal to the reading public (it’s a “romance of adventure” in an exotic setting — “the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries”); it lets the publisher know of the author’s special qualification through personal experience “of two years & more”; it demonstrates that the author can think of the project in commercial terms and is willing to negotiate.

Wisely, the proposal doesn’t say, as Melville later did when he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne:

This is the book’s motto (the secret one), Ego non baptizo te in nomine – but make out the rest yourself.

Melville didn’t enjoy the commercial side of writing (“Dollars damn me,” he wrote — to Nathaniel Hawthorne, again; the long-suffering Hawthorne deserves a gold star) but he could make himself do it when he had to.  And if he could, so can we.

Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli — “I do not baptize you in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil.” It’s one of Captain Ahab’s memorable lines from Moby-Dick.

Another Thing it Doesn’t Pay to Worry About

Back in the dark ages, when I was first learning to type, the Word of God as passed down from on high by the instructor (who was more interested in training 80-words-a-minute secretaries than in teaching the rudiments of touch typing to a future English major) was that you double-spaced following a period.

I never became an 80-words-a-minute typist, but those two spaces after the period were hardwired into my brain, not to mention into my spacebar-hitting thumb.

Cue the musical montage representing the passage of time, with the tappity-tappity-tappity-bing! of the typewriter fading into the musical-popcorn boop-boop-boop of the old computer keyboards, and that sound fading in turn into the near-silence of keyboards today . . . followed by the Word of God saying that it is now customary to space only once after a period.

Why is this something it doesn’t pay to worry about?  Because, one, of all the reasons an editor may have for rejecting your manuscript, the question of how many spaces you’ve put after your periods is way low on the list.  And, two, if the whole thing bothers you that much, you don’t have to sweat blood retraining your spacebar thumb — all you have to do is run a search and replace during the final edit, and change every instance of two spaces to a single space instead.

Tales of the Before Time: From Paper to Pixels

Back when I first started writing, as a wee young sprat, it was all paper and pen or pencil — I wasn’t yet up to the level of actually submitting things, so the idea of a typed manuscript was unknown to me.  The family typewriter was an Underwood that weighed approximately as much as a boat anchor, with keys so stiff that my grade-school fingers would have buckled under the strain of pressing them.  I wrote my first short stories (which sucked) and my first you-could-probably-call-it-a-novel (which also sucked) in ink on narrow-ruled notebook paper.  I used a cartridge pen for preference, rather than a ball-point, and my handwriting was dreadful.

Time went by, and eventually I achieved a Smith-Corona electric typewriter, a high-school graduation present from a maiden aunt who knew me, perhaps, better than some of my other aunts (who tended to give me things like hairbrushes and pillow-slips.)  That typewriter lasted me nearly a decade, and saw the production of numerous college and graduate school papers, plus a handful of not really very good short stories and the first five or six pages of a novel that never went anywhere.

The Smith-Corona electric in time acquired a companion, an Olivetti modern Icelandic manual that I used to prepare the first draft of my dissertation.  (Previously, with the Smith-Corona, I’d had to add in the special Old English characters by hand.)

Neither of these typewriters, however, was very good for writing fiction.  My handwriting was still dreadful, but my typing wasn’t much better — I estimated at the time that it took me about thirty minutes to produce a clean page of submittable copy.

Then came the glorious day when Atari brought out a personal computer that could be had for a price that ordinary human beings could afford.  Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I was a rotten typist; the computer was a very good typist, and just as soon as I could find a letter-quality printer to hook up to it, I’d be in clover.  In the meantime, at least I had a dot-matrix printer (does anybody out there remember dot-matrix?) for the early drafts.  And when we finally did get a household letter-quality printer, shortly afterward it was manuscript-submission time.

The next decade or so witnessed our household’s march forward through advancements in printer technology — dot-matrix to letter-quality daisy-wheel to laser to inkjet, faster and better and faster again.  And we bought paper.  Lots and lots of paper.  We bought fanfold paper in foot-high stacks; we bought 20-pound bond in ten-ream boxes.

And time kept moving on.  One day we looked around the office, and realized that it had been a year or more since the last time we’d submitted anything as a printout on paper that we sent through the US Mail.  At some point while we were busy writing, it had all switched over to electronic manuscripts submitted by e-mail, and we’d scarcely noticed.

I could spend some time at this point indulging myself in nostalgia, but the truth of the matter is that I am immensely grateful for the computer and word processor combination that types better than I ever could, and the electronic mail that doesn’t insist on proper postage and a stamped and self-addressed envelope.

What I Did Yesterday

I didn’t post yesterday because I was upgrading my operating system.

I’d picked up the Windows 8 upgrade at the good-until-31-January sale price, which — unlike the regular list price for a Microsoft product — was low enough that I didn’t have to angst and ponder over making the purchase.  I was originally planning to hold off on installing the upgrade until I’d finished all the work on the current novel, but reader, I caved.

Maybe it was my prophylactic efforts at backing up everything in sight before I started, and there’s always the chance that some lurking time bomb will explode and splatter my files all to hell and gone, but so far it appears that the Windows 7 to Windows 8 upgrade process is the fastest and cleanest (and least data-destructive) of any I’ve seen yet.  And I started with Windows 3.1, so that’s been a lot of upgrades.

A Pitfall for the Unwary

One of the bits of advice given to fledgling writers in the current era is “the spellchecker is your friend.”

Like a lot of advice-for-writers, this advice is both true and not-true.  Or, to put it another way, the spellchecker is your friend, but it’s not your best friend.  It’s the friend who’s fun to be with and helpful on the easy stuff, but who’s nowhere in sight when you’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do, or the one who’s got your back right up to the point where they run off with your prom date.

A spellchecker will catch your typos, and it will catch your misspellings . . . but only so long as the typos and misspellings aren’t also legitimate words in your spellchecker’s language-of-choice.  It won’t do you a bit of good with the its/it’s problem, or the to/two/too problem, or the there/their/they’re problem, or any of those fatally similar and easily confused homonyms.  It won’t remind you to put apostrophes in your possessives, and it won’t catch embarrassing stuff like pubic for public or untied for united.

As for your characters’ names, or for any terminology coined especially for the story you’re working on . . . unless you remember to add those words to the spellchecker’s user dictionary, it’s not going to keep you from messing those up either.  And heaven help you if you accidentally add a wrong spelling to the user dictionary, because getting in there and taking it out again is not something most word processors tend to make easy.

The sad  fact is that spellchecker or no spellchecker, there’s still no substitute for going over your manuscript by hand and eye before sending it out.