Sunday, 19 April 2009

Writing on Easy Street


Have you ever thought - I mean really thought – what it must have been like writing, years and years ago? First things first, you wouldn’t have had a computer. Try writing several short stories or a novel in longhand, by candlelight– the ink stains, the strained eyes, the writer’s elbow, bent over a desk, minus a back-friendly, especially designed chair. Even with a typewriter, imagine retyping or crossing out before the dawn of Tippex? Then you’d be faced with sending off your one and only precious copy – or, if the photocopier was invented, stumbling into town and handing your manuscript over, amidst your blushes, explaining to the man who knows everyone in the village that yes, you do fancy yourself as a writer.That’s the great thing about the computer, you see - the anonymity. No one else need know. You can print out your baby, post it and wait for the rejection slip without having told a soul. Previous to that, the best plan for discretion would have been a pseudonym.


Then there’s the matter of finding a publisher - literary agents weren’t always around. You would have had to count on maybe writing to a favourite author for advice, or blindly submitting to a publisher if you could get the address from your local bookseller. Even with Directory Enquiries, how would you know exactly which publishers and editors to target? Sure, The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has been around for over one hundred years, but would Mr or Mrs Average who fancied a go, have known it existed?


As for research, for the book I am presently subbing, ‘Lunch Date with a Tomb Robber’, I have had to find out about everything from Egyptian underwear to the size of Tutankhamun’s…er…nose! Which I have been able to do at the touch of a button, at the tinkle of the keys on a board… Imagine the many treks to the library, the thumbing through mammoth book that would otherwise have been involved. And that’s if I’d had any free time, in an age before washing machines and convenience foods.


Talking of food, I come to the very important subject of writing sustenance. We’ve got Oreos or Doritos, we’ve got cookies or Kit-Kats, all washed down with a glass of Chardonnay or home-filtered Americano… How did authors used to write without coffee beans! Without chocolate! Without hydrogenated fat!


I reckon us writers from the Noughties are a pretty lucky bunch. All the information we need about writing, subbing and researching is available at our fingertips, in the comfort of our own home. More importantly, we have a support network from writing sites and blogs like this. I think for me that is the killer difference and without it I would have given up long ago.It’s no wonder there are more aspiring novelists out there than ever before. Like doctors and teachers, writers aren’t revered like they once were - everyone thinks they can become one and thousands of people have a go. I suppose that’s the downside to us writing on Easy Street - it makes for one heck of big slushpile! It makes for more competition. Indeed, some might say the good old days really were the best.

11 comments:

cmshevlin said...

I agree. It's very nice to know you're not writing in a void and there are others who have been through and are going through the same thing.

What I'd really like to know is if ye olde editors/publishers (think literary agents are of fairly recent vintage) had to deal with slushpiles too.
I wonder if Dickens' publisher ever laboured over his manuscript and thought "I wish he'd stop with the calligraphy. Doesn't he know its about the content and not the curlique of your 'A's'? And what's with the scented paper?"

Sarah Fox said...

Great post Sam. We are lucky - particularly those who need to do historical research, such as the size of... um, noses and the like!

Samantha Tonge said...

LOL, cmshevlin!

"Writing from Experience" is a great book, it's a collection of letters, articles, written by the greats of English literature about their writing life, dating back years - how they got fellow authors to crit their work, trekking off to London with their one manuscript wrapped in brown paper and string...

Yes, i think writing in a vacuum is the worst thing you can do, especially when the rejections start piling in.

Indeed, Sarah;)

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Yes - we are soooo lucky. I heard, though, that even recently JKR typed her first Harry Potter book on a typewriter, and then typed it all again for an agent because she couldn't afford to have it copied.
Susiex

Samantha Tonge said...

I have an old copy of WAAYB that talks about using typewriters!

My first attempt at writing about 20 years ago was done on a typewriter and i don't remember having a problem with it - i guess you don't miss what you don't have.

cmshevlin said...

Thanks for the tip about the book. I've just bought it for 49p from the Book Depository through Amazon!

Samantha Tonge said...

A bargain!

CarolineG said...

That's really interesting, Sam...haven;t thought about it like this before. Remember reading something recently about TS Eliot, as head of Faber, editing George Orwell and slagging off lots of his prose!

♥ bfs~"Mimi" ♥ said...

So true, but we probably miss out on a lot of the 'romance' of writing 'way back then' ... :-)

Roderic Vincent said...

You are very right, Sam. The thing I appreciate most is the search and destroy in Word. Being able to find anything in a manuscript in a second with CNTRL/F and then change it without retyping the whole thing: bliss.

Samantha Tonge said...

Yes, agreed, Mimi, i suppose it is a bit more clinical nowadays...

God, so true, Rod. I don't know what i would do without the 'Find and Replace' facility, i've changed so many characters' names in my present book.