Singularity | Commentary

Tilting @ Wordmills by David J. Schow

I just completed a massive revised edition of The Outer Limits Companion, a book first published in 1986, detailing the production ins and outs of the classic 1963-65 TV series. I promise not to crow too much about it; if you want a copy you can go to http://www.gnpcrescendo.com and get one. Rather, I’d like to record a few words on the technology utilized to accomplish this new edition, which would certainly have seemed like science fiction in 1986. (And just so you don’t start smirking, “yeah, well, get over it — it’s the Nineties,” I remind you that the friggin’ 1990s are almost over.)

My very first book, such as it was, was hammered out on one of those massive Royal office machines that weighed two thousand pounds and used a cloth ribbon. That typewriter cost me $20 and returned not a lavish living, though it certainly kept me off ramen and eventually permitted me to loan money to people I loved. I had been using manual Smith Corona portables ever since my relocation to Los Angeles in 1980, and from their platens cranked forth the original edition of the Outer Limits book — all 800+ pages. Each machine ran me about $50, and I had a gang of them because I type so damned hard; sometimes the machine is cantankerous and needs a more definitive stroke; sometimes your ribbon is running dry and you need to hit it harder to produce a character. The result of this practice, inevitably, is broken keys, which you notice as that little e or s starts to rise on your page, slowly elevating as if possessed. It’s because the elbow of the type arm has cracked, and each stroke widens the break a bit more. When this happens in the middle of a book on a deadline, you can’t afford to wait while a rapidly dwindling pool of artisans capable of fathoming manual typewriter repair procrastinate about fixing the wounded writing device . . . you simply grab the next typewriter in the queue and keep going. I once wrote a 60,000-word novel in four days using this method. I don’t recommend it if you spend a lot of time pissing and wheezing about how the new Word for Windows really sucks.

Another weird advantage of the manuals is that I was able to work, during a power outage, on a short story called “The Woman’s Version,” typing pages 11 through 13 by candlelight. It was essentially a horror story, so typing by candleflame freighted romanticism onto the whole enterprise. Then I thought: Those writers with the quill pens felt the same way when “typewriting machines” came along. (Remember, a “typewriter” originally denoted the person operating the machine, not the machine itself.) Yeah, and those fashion-challenged primitive storytellers with the awls and stone tablets probably spurned the whole “ink” thing, as well.

Was I a technophobe? A Luddite? Hadn’t “electrical typewriting machines” been around since, gosh, what - 1970? Earlier? Didn’t Isaac Asimov have one as soon as Christopher Sholes turned his design over to the Remington Arms Company in 1867?

The advantages of keeping manual typing skills in trim had mostly to do not with antediluvian job opportunities, but with the manufacture of fiction — “manufacture” being a good, iron-riveted, Expressionist, Industrial Revolution sort of way to describe flights of fancy that result from hand labor. Retyping whole pages which required only minor revisions became a great way for me to reconsider the text I was mostly just copying onto a fresh sheet of paper; it was an intellectual caesura amid the frantic need to get it all done and said and out the door.

Then came Wite-Out, but that’s another story.

When the Outer Limits book came up for revision, I had already typed that manuscript so many times (including an 8-part magazine series version of the same material) that there was no way it could benefit creatively from another roll-through. Now it was just a titanic wad of data needing endless rearrangement. I caved and got an IBM which I also still own. It made the job simpler and faster, as writing tools are supposed to do. Being an “electronic” rather than a mere “electric” typewriter, the IBM featured rudimentary memory functions, so I could program it to automatically justify text and type return envelopes, that sort of thing. Gradually the bulk of my work shifted over to the IBM, because I really could work faster on it, even though I pounded the hell out of several keyboards and its promise of going into machine psychosis at a critical moment ballooned exponentially. I did not want a stack of these machines in waiting. Service contracts and loaner machines were not such a bad idea, but by the time I made this begrudging admission I was living in a whole city which sympathized with the concept of something needing to be typed right away, dammit, by dawn on Monday!

Of course, by then everybody else was “word processing,” and engaging in snide, endlessly geeky dick-measuring contests about whether this Atari was superior to that KayPro. I hated the sound of “word processing” — it sounded too much like flipping burgers of type, and reminded me of the “wordmills” used by potboiler-generating robot writers in Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads. But the meaning of the term I understood to be a kind of freedom of manipulation . . . if only they could get all those memory and software shortcomings unpuzzled.

I ignored this nascent pop-tech while diversifying into screenplays and teleplays on the more-or-less trusty IBM, using tab stops for everything. It still amuses me to hear so-called screenwriting software championed the loudest by people who have no stories to tell, only pitches to sell. Such creatures have been newly-termed “pitch bitches,” and that’s a whole other topic, but you get the idea.

I collided headlong with the computer thing around 1992, to show you just how far behind the trend-wave I usually surf. I wrote, and rewrote, and re-rewrote two features for the same director, slingshotting between a gang of loaner Wheelwriters — at one point I had two machines in a hotel room with a separate project in each one — and, gasp, a PowerBook, courtesy of the production company.

Then the backer of the new edition of The Outer Limits Companion loaned me a (then) brand-new 520c PowerBook (I think that was the model). To make the text manipulable, we chopped the spine off a copy of the old edition and scanned it. Glitch Numero Uno: The optical character recognition software imported so many errors into the text that every line had to be scrutinized. So much time had to be spent troubleshooting the text that it probably would not have taken much longer to just retype it. But this imposition of new errors forced a very thorough proofreading; it provided a rationale for paying close attention to text I had already read hundreds of times, and might be tempted to skim.

At this point I needed an associate who knew more than I did about this computer stuff, or there was going to be Big Moby Trouble.

Ultimately, the book we delivered filled up two Jaz discs, for a project that took so long to complete that our original photo storage was on SyQuest cartridges (I know, I know . . .). Since Jaz discs will qualify as antiques by the time you read this, the data is being burned onto CDs for later download onto whatever new medium toddles along next year.

To lay out the book, I learned Quark and PhotoShop on the fly and did 400 pages — text, photos, leading, kerning, bleeds, gutters, frames, borders, captions, page numbers, headers, fonts, everything — in about two and a half months, with more than a year of tweaks after that. Why? Because I now had it within my power to become the “director” of my own book, front cover to back, including the spine, where the logos went and how big my own name was going to be. I determined which reviews would be quoted. I wrote the legal page and secured the ISBN numbers myself. The previous edition had been a matter sending a box of manuscript and photos to New York . . . and hoping for the best.

I got entire files of photographs by e-mail. I collaged seamless photos together from multiple sources, descreened them, lightened or darkened them. I resurrected photos that would have been flat-out unusable and grabbed frames off laserdiscs, tinkering with their dot density and tickling their pixels until they did what I wanted. And while my eye and design sense may redefine “terrible,” at least the result is the book I envisioned, and that’s a creative flexibility writers have won back in an age of desktop publishing and small presses. Whether New York even knows what a book is anymore is becoming increasingly irrelevant as “big” publishing’s antique distribution system finally sinks into the tar pit that has beckoned it for so long.

I wrote this, incidentally, on my latest laptop. I somehow managed to bypass the humungous hardware phase, which is good because I need the desktop space for all my paperwork.

About the Author

Copyright © 1998 by David J. Schow and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.