Tag Archives: typewriters

Saving the Dinosaur

A bezillion years ago, I stood in my hometown’s public library and made the decision to become a writer. From that point forward, I pursued all the necessary avenues:
1) Learn to write a complete story.
2) Learn to write a complete story that’s good.
3) Learn to type properly.
4) Save for a new typewriter.
5) Save for the best typewriter on the market.
6) Buy a personal computer.

By the time I achieved step five, I was an ace of typewriter technology. Since achieving step six, however, I have stumbled along the fringes of the techno-world. I ignore the pitying looks, the sidelong glances of my students when they catch me fumbling with which button to push.

Unlike me, they learned about computers in elementary school. They’ve never known a world where personal computers don’t exist. Some of them have heard of typewriters, but stare at them in antiques stores with little-to-no comprehension.

My world is different from theirs. It has spanned a broader, longer range of technology, some of it now obsolete. For example, I have known a world where VCRs did not exist, then they opened a new world within home entertainment, and now they have all but faded from cognizance.

(The violin should start playing now ….)

In high school–focused on my goal of preparing myself to be a professional writer–I chose typing class over honors American History, thereby sacrificing my chances to be class salutatorian. (The prospect of giving a speech at high school graduation versus a future as a prospective bestselling author? Puhleeze!)

In typing class, our first lesson was to learn how to fold the typewriter cover neatly and place it in the appropriate slot on our typing table. Although some people in this world may not know what carbon paper is, I know how to make an erasure on the top sheet without smudging the carbons beneath.

Yeah, no kidding. Big woo.

I also know a number of additional useless typewritery things, like how to count and divide spacing in order to center a heading on the page. You see, on typewriters there was no mouse to click on the “center” toolbar icon. Imagine! A writer having to learn rudimentary arithmetic skills in order to type.

My only official computer training consisted of two lessons at the IBM personal computer store, where the salesman perched on a stool next to me and showed me how to boot up a 64K floppy and how to save a file. The computer mouse didn’t exist then. Learning how to work that little gizmo came much later.

Now all this walking-to-school-in-the-snow posturing is just that. Posturing.

Uh, mostly.

I could have taken computer lessons any summer of my life since the darn things became affordable for ordinary consumers. I’ve never wanted to spare the time away from my real purpose: writing.

It’s like a car. I know how to drive so I can get where I need to go. I don’t know how the engine works. I cannot change a spark plug. I feel no need to learn these skills.

With computers, I know how to write books on them and a few other things. Beyond that, I never take the time.

I tend to change computers every decade or so, usually when the exponential zippety-zip-zip of technological advances means that I can no longer buy a printer that will speak to my elderly software.

Recently, I was faced with the danger of being left too far behind. My computer was coughing in the dust, gasping on the verge of no longer being able to keep newer technology in sight.

Good old XP could not upload my backlist book files to print-on-demand venues. Even writing this blog involved dealing with all sorts of bizarre error messages.

At some stage, you can no longer blame all your computer woes solely on the invention of Chrome.

It was time to either buy a new computer and be faced with the dreaded, to-be-avoided-at-all-costs Windows 8 or upgrade my operating system slightly.

I chose the latter option.

Now the reason I avoid changes for at least ten years isn’t because I’m a Luddite, or cantankerous, or a curmudgeon, or a miser, or simply lazy. I’m not opposed to new technology–as long as I can see clearly how it’s going to improve my standard of living or smooth my writing path.

The main reason I dodge technological change is because it means taking the computer down. I’m cut off. I cannot work. The book in progress is stalled and endangered while mysterious processes go on. So there I am, clutching my life’s blood in a flash drive, standing at the edge of the firelight while a witch doctor mumbles mysterious incantations over my PC tower.

Installing a new operating system this time involved these dreaded words: wiping everything.

With tech support dangling on the fiber-optic end of my phone line, I hastily saved critical files much like an individual running through a burning house. Get the book! Where’s the dog leash? Get the manuscript. Get the other manuscript. Is that the right draft? Where are my book notes?

And then we pushed the button. It was akin in some ways to the US president firing Nuke 1.

My computer was dead on the operating table … well, lying there on life support.

We began the awful process of resurrection and restoration. Now, those who can change the spark plugs on their cars or DO understand how computers actually work can sit back smugly and think, How sad. How feeble.

Yeah, it is. It also pushes me to that edge where panic is clawing in my throat. Almost always, there comes a moment when that reassuring little green light and graphic indicating installation is running smoothly is halted by a sudden and emphatic error message.


It doesn’t help that installation fails on the last section of my new Windows program, a section that may or may not be critical to the entire operation. It doesn’t help that installation failure will only happen on the one night of the year when tech support’s due to go home and the new shift has decided not to show up.

(Imagine being halfway through your gallbladder operation and the surgeon goes home for the night, leaving you lying half-sutured on the table in the cold darkness of the operating theater.)

It doesn’t help that once that sleepless night is over and more tech support is found and installation is finally, mysteriously, somehow achieved by finessing our way around the glitch, the email remains down.

It doesn’t help that this is the precise moment my editor decides to email me the final proof of my manuscript-in-press and wants it back immediately. How do editors know to do this? They’re across the country and yet they can drop proofs on me at the worst possible moment. I liken this ability to the way my cat used to jump in my lap and put her fuzzy paw unerringly atop the very word I was reading.

It doesn’t help that my groggy invalid of a computer–now stitched back together in the awkward style of Frankenweenie–decides next to lock me out sans password, necessitating a furious disconnection of the tower and hauling it through pouring rain to the nearest tech/repair center.

It doesn’t help that although I can now play video on my improved computer, the audio card has died. And it doesn’t help that the repair guy–after annihilating the lock–shakes his head and mumbles that I really need to buy a new machine.

Let him be wrong.

My machine is off the operating table and working again. I have a new screen saver, I think. I have new icons. I have found my emails. I got the manuscript proofs checked over. I am writing again, and ongoing projects have resumed. The printer has been returned to its rightful status as the default beast in a strange hierarchy of places my file now can be sent. There’s still no sound, and something is funky with photograph uploading, but these are minor problems.

No longer am I debating each time I leave the house on whether to put that precious flash drive in my purse or secure it in a fire- and tornado-proof location.

The dust is settling, and I have almost recovered from several sleepless nights. Writing–which is the only reason I put up with computers at all–can go on.

For another decade perhaps on this creaky HP?

Ah … no, perhaps not.


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Writing Ergonomics: Laptops

In my previous post, I sneered at the current litter of computer desks available out there as being largely unsuitable for sustained writing. Writers need to work without interruption for two to four hours minimum. Many write in eight-hour shifts. Of course, when a deadline’s looming or the story has you by the throat, you may go even longer.

Trouble is, the human body wasn’t designed for computer work. The screen’s hard on our eyes. Long periods of sitting affects our body. We get stiff and sore. Our circulation grows sluggish. If we slump, our organs suffer. Poor posture takes its toll on our shoulders and lungs.

The laptop computer is ideal for writers who prefer to work away from a desk. I have friends who like to write on the sofa or outdoors or in bed. However, the laptop brings its own ergonomic problems, chiefly from the size and position of the keyboard.

Maybe you enjoy writing with the laptop balanced on your knees. But if you ever try to use it on a desk or your kitchen table, you’ll quickly find that the keyboard is too high. Your shoulders are pushed up, and that position can eventually bring strain, discomfort, perhaps even pain.

My best recommendation is to comb through used office-furniture stores or garage sales for an old-fashioned typing table. These inexpensive tables are generally small and low. Many of them have wheels and may feature drop-leaf extensions. They were originally designed to support a typewriter. I’ve found them to be ideal to hold a laptop at an optimal height.

I own about three or four of these versatile little tables. One has a wood top, but the others are all metal. Cost has ranged from free to $30. I’ve spray-painted them to spiff them up, and find them equally useful for occasional sewing or craft projects. Their small footprint makes it easy to tuck them into a corner when they aren’t in use. Presently, I have one supporting my copier.

If you’re lucky, you may find a table fitted with a small undershelf. This was designed to hold typing paper, carbon paper, or envelopes, but it can also be a terrific place to store the laptop.

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In Praise of Ink

Sleek, cool, sophisticated. The Cross fountain pen.

How long will it be until pens and ink are extinct? Writing paper is all but gone, as people abandon the romance of the written love letter for the cold brevity of emails or the semi-illiteracy of text messaging. Pens are surely on the endangered list.

These days, instead of selecting a proper pen with the right barrel size to best fit our hand and thus reduce fatigue, we exercise our thumbs on miniscule touchpads.

Now, back when I was a mere tadpole in the pond of aspiring writers, personal computers did not as yet exist. The highest state of technology writers had was the now-defunct typewriter. (Did you know the last typewriter manufacturer stopped production this year?) Instead of computer courses, my generation was offered high school typing and shorthand.

This little portable Royal typewriter belonged to my grandfather. Isn't it a cutie?

My parents wouldn’t let me play on the typewriter, despite my proclaimed intention of being a writer. They said I had to take typing class and learn properly. (Thanks, Mom and Dad! Today, I am one lean, mean touch-typing machine.)

So, for most of my youth, I had little option but to use pen and paper in composing my stories. Eventually, I purchased a manual portable Smith Corona typewriter, eschewing the electric model in case I wanted to write on a deserted island without electricity. But I found that such romantic notions are often inefficient ones. For college, I invested in an electric typewriter that proved too frail for the amount of typing I dished out. Unfortunately, I found I hated composing on the typewriter. It was too noisy, too clunky. The machine got in the way of my story sense.

So I continued to write stories by hand.

Thus, I came to know pens. Fountain pens that leaked blue ink on my fingers. Ballpoints that either glided or sputtered in skips and blobs. Felt tips that were too expensive but came in “wild” colors such as red or green. I learned that I loathed Bic stick pens and preferred PaperMates instead.

Later on, when gel ink came along, so many varieties skipped and stalled that I refused to write with them for a long time.  Even now, in gels I’ll use only the Pilot G-2, Sarasa, or Parker gel ink refills. There are such exotic colors! For cheap ballpoints, I favor the Bic Velocity.

For years, I scribbled my novels on ruled notebook paper or blank sheets of typing paper. Yes, I wrote the entire first draft by hand. If I had the whole chapter planned ahead of time, I could write a 10-page scene in about three hours.

Then, fingers cramped and elbow aching, I would stop. The middle finger on my right hand developed a knot at the first knuckle from the way I held my pen. I told myself that the ink stains on my skin connected me to great writers of the past, like Samuel Johnson and Edgar Allen Poe.

Once the rough draft–in however many versions it took–was completed, I would laboriously type the whole manuscript, edit and polish it, and type it again for submission.

Fortunately, when computers became affordable, I found that I could compose on them. But I didn’t lose my love of pens.

Presently there are far too many scattered around the house. When I moved last year, it was a shock to pull all the pens and boxes of pens from my office supply closet and realize I needed an entire cardboard box to pack them in.

I like green gel-ink pens for editing. In a second run through, I’ll switch to hot pink.

I use a lapis-blue Tornado pen for my journal and a brushed silver one for personal correspondance. Last Christmas, I received a Tornado covered with embossed lavender leather–very pretty!

Here's my beloved blue Tornado pen. The silver one is temporarily misplaced. The lavender one would NOT photograph.

And then there’s the fountain pen collection. Several years ago, I succumbed to temptation and bought a real fountain pen instead of those cheap, leaky ones available in discount stores.

This is the Shaeffer with the extra fine nib. Such a small nib means the ink can't flow well, so writing with it is scratchy. That can feel authentically old-fashioned.

There’s the Shaeffer with the extra-fine nib that squeaks as I write spidery-thin notes in Christmas cards. There’s also the elegant Waterman with a hard-working steel nib.

Who knew that loading this pen with ink could be so challenging? But it writes like a dream. Smooth, smooth, smooth.

And there’s the Parker (shown above), a handsome pen indeed that required several months of layaway payments. It has a gold nib that’s supposed to conform to the way I write–how much pressure I use in bearing down on the paper, etc. I confess that I’m a little intimidated by such a regal pen and seldom use it.

There’s the cleaning of the nib, for one thing. Then I face the ritual of filling the pen with ink from a bottle–something I’ve never quite mastered. (No drop-in cartridge on this baby! It has an internal bladder and by practice and magic you siphon the ink up into the barrel.) And of course, there’s the fear that this pen will get lost, knocked off my desk by accident, or carried off by someone who hasn’t a clue of what it cost.

The Parker pen.

So the magnificent Parker resides in the fire safe, where it’s of no use–let alone inspiration–at all. That’s no way to treat a good pen.

Someday, once the desk is properly cleared and I invest in an elegant desk set, then perhaps I’ll take the Parker out and use it.

A thriller novelist named Robert L. Duncan was one of my writing teachers, also the coach who helped me get my first literary agent. Bob usually wrote his novels on index cards with a Flair felt-tip pen. He told me of how, one Christmas, his wife gave him a beautiful pen and said, “This pen contains your next book.”

How charming is that? And what could be more inspiring?


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