Flight of the Vajra: Tools of the Trade Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-10-08 14:00:00 No comments

The other week I scored a replacement typewriter ribbon for my Remington portable, an artifact a good decade older than I am and still in functional shape. My original version of this post was a dig at how this fifty-year-old machine works better than some of the PCs I've had that didn't even last a tenth that long, but even I have to see clean through the chicanery and half-truth in such a statement. Sure, the typewriter still runs, and I get good results with it, but the only way I'd write a 350,000 word manuscript on it (like the one I'm pounding out right now) is if the lights went out, Revolution-style.

Remington Manual.

That thought inspired another one: what if I, with my current headful of ideas, had been living in, say, 1975 or so, with nothing but that typewriter (or that level of technology generally)?

It took more time for me to hang up on a telemarketer than it did to realize my current work habits wouldn't translate at all into that environment. Not easily, anyway.

I've been writing Flight of the Vajra using multiple pieces of software technology, and the features therein, to make the job that much easier. To wit:

  • The manuscript itself (in Microsoft Word)
  • Revisions to the manuscript (Word's change-tracking mechanism)
  • Annotations on the manuscript (Word's annotation mechanism)
  • Files tracking the characters, plotline, technologies, etc. (TiddlyWiki)

In 1975 technology, all of that would map to:

  • a typewriter
  • a big ol' looseleaf binder and filler paper
  • pens and pencils
  • maybe a pack of index cards

... with all of the concomitant manual labor involved in using each. Suddenly, being a writer in the modern age seems a lot more appealing.

But all the same, the tools you have only work as amplifiers of the intellect using them. Dune was written with nothing more than 1960s technology — which, again, amounted to a typewriter and notebooks. Ditto the Foundation trilogy; ditto every other SF epic of decades past. Go back further than that and you lose even the typewriter. (Not that this would have bothered, say, J.G. Ballard, who wrote all his first drafts longhand.)

The common element in every case is the intellect of the creator, which can be given systematization and discipline with the right tools. But the intellect has to be there first. Great tools don't make a mediocre creator into a great one; they only make it easier for him to produce more mediocrity. At best they can provide an environment for growth, but again that requires some impetus on the part of the creator to do that in the first place.

That said, a funny thing happened with me and the wiki. The more I worked on the book, and the more I tried to use the storage of the wiki as a substitute for my brain's own storage, the more I encountered the inherent drawbacks in such a system. For one, organizing the wiki proved trickier than I thought, and still is. Certain kinds of information don't lend themselves to being organized in a single place, so all that stuff you wrote about faster-than-light travel also needs to somehow be filed (or at least crossreferenced) in the section on planetary economies ... and before you know it, you're writing more of a book in the wiki than you are in the book itself, which was exactly the trap I wanted to avoid. A balance had to be struck.

Once, I tried to let the whole of any story I worked on live entirely in my head. Note-taking was cheating. Now that stance was a big mistake; all it did was frustrate me and limit the types of projects I could work on. But the opposite of it was not to shovel everything into the wiki and forget about it: it was to let the wiki become a mirror of what I knew the book had to be — a proving ground and not a dumping ground.

... Then again, with a typewriter, you can't open a new browser window and slack off with the Times. It's a trade-off.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra technology writing