31 May 2016

quill, fountain pen, typewriter...?

what's your choice?  
... My Tuesday Talk guest .... author T. J. Spears



Writing a novel has never been easier; getting it published has never been more difficult.

Note that I said easier. It has never been easy. Likewise it has always been difficult to find a publisher. But consider the toilsome business of writing a novel before the invention of the word - processor.

In the nineteenth century Charles Dickens wrote his novels with a quill pen, dipped every minute or so in a pot of ink. Mark Twain used a fountain pen. If you search the internet for examples of the manuscript pages of their first drafts you will see a jumble of almost illegible annotations, corrections and excisions, not to mention unsightly blots and smudges. Scholars find these pages fascinating for the insight they reveal into the creative processes of these giants of literature. On a more mundane level I find them impressive for the sheer hard work that went into writing a novel in longhand. (I should have said ‘goes’ in the previous sentence as I believe Anne Tyler still does.)

Typewriters compounded the problem for those of us who never learned to type properly.  It is true liquid paper allowed limited correction and modification. However the resulting first drafts were still something of a nightmare to anyone other than the author when it came to typing up a cleaner version.

These paragraphs above were drafted on a word processor. For the record, up to this point in the article, I have used the following tools: delete, cut and paste, spell-checker and altered my word choice on half a dozen occasions. Imagine how the draft would appear if I had been working on real paper. 

The ‘save changes’ command banished all these tentative attempts at expressing my thoughts into electronic oblivion. Of course the consequence is that any future scholar who is foolish enough to seek an insight into the creative processes of  T.J. Spears is going to be sadly disappointed.

Now I made so many false starts, vacillations and sheer careless mistakes when composing these few paragraphs to realise I could never have written a novel if I had had to rely on pen or pencil, rubber, scissors and glue stick. You might say I am insufficiently motivated, but I would reply that I am very aware of my limitations. I would have been too discouraged by the sight of the complicated mess of my first draft and balked at the grind of rewriting the next draft and all the future drafts that would be necessary. 


However for thousands of aspiring writers like me the invention of the word processing program has been immensely liberating. Now any schmuck with a processor (to paraphrase Jack Warner famous dismissal of scriptwriters) can produce a decent draft with two fingers - a draft that is capable of being modified infinitely without any more effort than the thought that must go into the content.

(There is an interesting analogy to be made with digital photography. Everyone is a photographer now but how many memorable photographs are being taken?  Probably a considerable number but they are buried away among many millions of pointless ‘snaps’ and ‘selfies’ on countless hard drives.) 

When I did eventually succeed in writing novels I discovered that my method of working is particularly suited to the word processor. Not having a firmly laid out plot line I often draft at both ends of the novel in progress. To take one example: early on in ‘Eva Jelinek’  I wrote a good deal of dialogue between two characters which portrayed their relationship as deeply antagonistic. Towards the middle of the novel I realised that it would suit the plot development much better for them to begin to see good qualities in each other. It was very easy to go back to the beginning and soften the early dialogue to make a rapprochement credible. Now in writing the sequel to ‘Eva Jelinek’ I am in the process of going back through the draft and adding scenes to lay the ground for later events. That would have been extremely laborious without my word processor.


Most of us know the feeling that comes after a conversation (usually an argument) when the clever clincher of a remark comes to mind just too late to use it. Reading over a section of dialogue days later these belated inspirations come unbidden and just cry out to be inserted (painlessly) with the word processor. And how many times does a writer want to change a character’s name because it no longer feels quite right? There is some thing particularly satisfying about using the ‘find and replace’ tool and the message comes up to inform you that “Word has checked the document and made 41 changes”. No danger that the reader will come across some mysterious intruding character with the original name that one has failed to spot on a proof reading.

So the word processor has ushered in an author’s paradise? Not quite.

There have always been more writers clamouring for publication than firms prepared to take the risk of publishing them. The sheer technical effort of finishing the manuscript weeded out the faint-hearted so there was a kind of natural selection at play. Historically writers submitted their work to the publisher directly, and the comparatively manageable number of manuscripts arriving in the office enabled the firm’s readers to cope. Then around 1880 the profession of literary agent appeared and these firms began to act as a filter between writer and publisher (as well as providing other useful services).  For a century or so good material had a decent chance of finding a publisher.

Now the literary agencies are inundated with the product of a hundred thousand word-processors and the works of talented new writers are the needles in that literary haystack.

I am a member of a mutual review site (in which reviewers are randomly allocated an extract from a work of fiction) and this has given me an insight into the difficult job confronting the staff of literary agencies. In general the extracts I have been allocated for review are derivative, predictable, ill-proofed and do not always conform to the specifications laid down by the site. I imagine a great deal of the writing which is sent to literary agents is not dissimilar, so it is no great surprise that each submission gets only a cursory glance before ( if one is lucky) the standard polite refusal is sent out.

Does this sound bitter? Please excuse me - I got one of those polite emails today.

It hasn’t been an entirely bad week however. The Historical Novel Society, has given ‘Eva Jelinek’ a very positive review which more than makes up for today’s rejection. 

And I can console myself with this thought: that’s just one more literary agency which will miss out on the ten per cent when I sell the film rights!  

HNS Review


Helen - and ironically, the original format sent to me was not one I could open, so I had to ask for it to be set in word.doc *laugh*
but..... another book for my To Be Read Pile I think!

buy here from Amazon.com on Kindle



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