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January 26, 2006

Low-Tech Sci-Fi

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Let's say you're a well-known Science Fiction writer and you decide to knock out a handful of thousand-page novels -- a series, actually. You spend a little time scratching your head and staring at the wall till you've got a sense of the concept, plot and major characters. Now it's time to start writing.

So you grab a sheet of paper and a fountain pen and get cracking.


Paper? Fountain pen?

Well, if you are Neal Stephenson and you are writing the "Baroque Cycle" ("Quicksilver," "The Confusion" and "The System of the World"), paper and fountain pen it is.

Given that the series takes place around the year 1700, I suppose some sort of case could be made that writing with pen and ink might get you in the proper mood. But to be authentically authentic, that would mean using a quill pen, right?

Actually Stephenson make no such mood-claim. He says in interviews that he thought he could draft and correct the books better using pen and ink rather than a computer. And he does use a computer, eventually transcribing his handwriting while making further corrections and changes.

Stephenson has a picture of the trilogy manuscript on his website (it's a GIF image and 2Blowhards is a JPEG shop, so you'll just have to click to see it).

I saw the MS in person recently. As I mentioned in my last post, I took in Paul Allen's Science Fiction Museum . One of the displays was a Stephenson manuscript.

This interests me in a perverse sort of way. When personal computers with word-processing software came on the scene in the early 1980s, a number of writers leaped into print declaring their contempt for the newfangled technology. Some swore by their prehistoric Underwood or Smith-Corona manual typewriters. Others would rather die than part with a beloved IBM Selectric. And a few insisted that a pen and a legal pad were all a writer really needed (I wonder how many of these never even learned to type).

As for me, I thought they were nuts.

I used to write newspaper copy on typewriters. I wrote my book using one. I also drafted letters by hand. (At the office the boss' policy was that we would draft using every other line, using the in-between lines for corrections.)

And time and time again I would find myself launched on a sentence and then having to twist phraseology to the breaking point to make suddenly thought-of changes without smearing on correction fluid or retyping the page. This practice leads to really awful writing.

Computers were a godsend for me and the quality of my writing. I find it almost impossible to imagine how anyone can think handwriting or typewriters beat computers.

But Stephenson is no fool, so who knows?



posted by Donald at January 26, 2006


Stephenson took seven years to complete the Baroque Cycle. The actual writing phase, even writing things out longhand, couldn't have been more than a relatively small percentage of that period. It probably didn't matter, therefore, that he used a slow writing method. If he were trying to churn out a book in a couple of months, he wouldn't have had so much time to spare.

Posted by: Peter on January 26, 2006 10:06 PM

I really have a feeling that it depends on how one's brain has learned to respond when one writes. If the words spring out of the keyboard reflexes, then computer. If the words come from one hand and an accustomed grip on a pen, then fountain pen. Sort of a left brain/right brain deal. Then there's the ceremony of preparing to write, like Hemingway's famous box of pencils to sharpen. It certainly pays to have a little ritual that begins the act, but one doesn't want it to be so expensive or hard to perform that one is preventing from writing.

Just don't make the major of blunder of saying (as Wendell Berry did with disastrous consequences) that you don't need a computer if you have a wife -- who also conveniently edits.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 26, 2006 11:27 PM

To each his own, I suppose. I still chuckle over people who act as though typewriters are some kind of organic thing that grows on trees, and chuckle more over the odd tendency of people to think that whatever technology they grew up with or are accustomed to is “natural,” and whatever is new is somehow odd, unnatural or inhuman. I had an elderly aunt who preferred that I write her a letter rather than call her on the phone, while another aunt thrives on email.

Here is Mark Twain (with errors intact) in a letter to a friend on his first use of a typewriter: “You neednt alswer this; I am only practicing to get three; anothe slip-up there; only practici?ng ti get the hang of the thing. I notice I miss fire & get in a good many unnecessary letters & punctuation marks. I am simply using you for a target to bang at. Blame my cats, but this thing requires genius in order to work it just right.”

I never could get into fountain pens, though I have used various mechanical pencils and well balanced ink pens to compose drafts. I alternately have done drafts by hand or directly at the typewriter (for much stuff I have this odd knack of pre-composing and editing in my head). But the bottom line is that I have always found that, simply, writers write. The method, place, materials, etc., are largely a matter of personal preference, but has absolutely no impact on the final result.

Posted by: Alec on January 27, 2006 12:06 AM

I think Mary's on it. It's how the brain works, how you learned.

But, there is also the storage issue. If you write longhand, it stays on the page. Even if you cross it out. It takes a great effort to completely obliterate it. Meanwhile, things written "on" a computer are easily deletable. Hence with longhand you can review your writing, and re-review, and look at it once again, whereas with writing using a computer, one tends to do less of that.

Note that I use the word "tends." Of course you can hit "save as" copy1, copy2, copy3.... But who does that?

Stephenson actually writes about this in his nonfiction book, "In the beginning... was the command line." When writing longhand, we are technically proficient, we're in control of the symbols. The paper is there. The ink is on it. Unless the proverbial dog get a hold of it, we've got the whole record, the whole canvas, the prior experiments, the drafts, the false alleys. When writing on the computer, how many of us are in anywhere near that much control? Who is a hacker?

Posted by: cc on January 27, 2006 11:25 AM

I write in hand so little anymore that my handwriting (never good in the first place) has degraded to about 3rd grade level. I have to write very slowly now for it to be legible for others.

The upshot is that only a keyboard can keep up with my thoughts. By the time I've scrawled out the first part of a sentence, I've forgotten what I wanted to say in the second half.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 27, 2006 11:42 AM

"And a few insisted that a pen and a legal pad were all a writer really needed (I wonder how many of these never even learned to type)."

Woody Allen still writes all his scripts on a yellow pad, then types them up himself. The guy writes a script a year this way. I find this flabbergasting, but there ya go.

Having read this about Allen, a few weeks later I heard that Beethoven wrote all his scores with a carpenter's pencil. Ah hah! That must be the ticket to genius. So I ran out and bought a carpenter's pencil and a yellow pad and set to work my masterpiece. Two smudged pages of childish scrawl later, it was back to the keyboard for good.

Friedrich Schiller, according to his wife, could only write when his desk-drawer was filled with rotten apples. Apparently the stench nourished his mighty genius.

Posted by: Brian on January 27, 2006 12:02 PM

I suspect that people don't consider enough options. For example, I think that people who use computers don't print out the document often enough.

Posted by: L on January 28, 2006 1:26 PM

"Woody Allen still writes all his scripts on a yellow pad, then types them up himself. The guy writes a script a year this way. I find this flabbergasting, but there ya go."

There's an argument that this is the way go. When you're typing and re-typing multiple drafts, you'll introducing minor improvements that you wouldn't bother with if you were word-processing or dictating to a secretary. In particular, you'll become so bored with the process, that you'll work to compress your language and omit unnecessary passages, a habit that is likely to improve your writing.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on January 29, 2006 5:27 PM

Stephenson's style changed a lot in the transition from \Latex and emacs (the method he used for Cryptonomicon) and fountain pen (Baroque cycle). On the computer he was wittier and more glib, on paper he is more ponderous and possibly a little deeper.

In my opinion, Stephenson's stylistic peak is found in Snow Crash,The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon. The Baroque cycle has deeper characters thinking deeper thoughts about more interesting things, but to my mind, Stephenson never really solved the problem of getting us on the same page as his characters without lengthy pages of exposition.

A lot of this is subject matter: the Baroque cycle deals with weightier issues in a much less familiar setting -- whereas in Cryptonomicon, Stephenson could make jokes about the cliffhanger finish to Bobby Shaftoe's dream _Strafed by Yellow Men XVII,_ in the Baroque cycle he often has to spend half a page setting up the background information that his characters are thinking about before he can give us their thoughts.

Posted by: Zach on January 29, 2006 8:36 PM

When I heard him speak, Stephenson claimed that writing the Baroque cycle in longhand didn't really slow down the process of getting words onto the page. The initial draft was slower, but he needed to make fewer revisions, so the overall output was just as fast.

Posted by: Zach on January 29, 2006 8:39 PM

The speed of computer typing lures me in most of the time, but I think my pieces tend to be better when I print them out to edit on paper.

If my computer's off, I go straight for my fountain pen and a large sketchbook. It's very satisfying to scrawl in whatever manner suits my mood on a particular day.

Posted by: claire on February 1, 2006 4:52 PM

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