Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Stone Tablets, Anyone?


Terry Shames here, answering the question: Laptop, desktop, Underwood or pencil: what works best for you? How has the way you write (and submit stories) evolved since you started? 

 Stone tablets were so hard to write on. 

Either the stone was too hard to chip into, or it shattered too easily. Then there was papyrus—don’t get me started. It was always too damp or too dry to scratch onto. And it was liable to crumble before anyone could read it. The pencil and paper were a huge breakthrough. And then, glory be, there was the typewriter. A mistake was still hard to correct (eraser; then whiteout), but it was a lot better than having to chisel a whole new stone tablet. 

 At last, after all those struggles, true bliss: The computer. 

Okay, yeah, I’ve been at this writing business forever. In fact, I have a true story about my early days as a budding writer. When I was a child, Big Chief tablets were the primary writing tablets—a pad of big, brownish paper with wood chips in it (okay, I exaggerate, but only a little). The tablet had a red cover which would horrify people today because it had the picture of an Indian chief on it (an aside: what the Big Chief had to do with a pad of paper is beyond me). Not to mention how the meaning of the word “tablet” has changed. 

The sight of a blank page in a tablet was thrilling for me. One day I was at my grandparents’ house and saw some “spare” change on my grandmother’s bureau. I snatched some up and went downstairs to the little general store they ran on the first floor of the house, and bought myself a new Big Chief tablet. Somewhere I found a pencil. 

I had just opened the pad of paper, dazzled by all that blank space for writing a story, when my mother asked me where I got the tablet. I told her I bought it. “Where did you get the money?” I told her I found it, and promptly burst into tears. She made me march back and return the pad and tell my grandmother what I’d done. 

 I would have made a terrible thief, but at least it’s a good story that illustrates, 1) that I’m ancient, and 2) that I always wanted to be a writer. 

 Being ancient means I first submitted stories, and later novels, written on my typewriter. First I wrote the story in long-hand, and then did my first edit when I transferred the story to the typewriter. I sent out the manuscripts in the mail, and received mail telling me it had arrived at its destination. And eventually, if the manuscript was rejected AND if I had sent with it enough postage to have it returned, it would land back on my doorstep like a dead rat. There’s some comfort in getting a private rejection that isn’t on the doorstep for the world to see. 

There were some advantages to the old system, though. Requests for full manuscripts were not handed out lightly. Agents and publishers knew it cost dearly to send the full manuscript through the U.S. Postal Service. So if you got a request for a full, you knew it meant something special. And it also meant that agents and editors didn’t get as many manuscripts, because it took more time to write them and it was more expensive to send them. 

 I’ve heard critics say that using the computer has made it too easy to write first drafts that aren’t well thought-out. It might be true for some people. And in fact, I suspect there might be some issues with people who don’t edit seriously. Most writers I know do some version of reading their manuscripts aloud when they edit. I don’t think I ever heard of that before the computer, and I wonder if it evolved to help people take editing seriously when the computer makes it so easy to throw things onto the page. 

 However it has changed writing, the computer has made submission a lot easier—and in some ways harder. It’s easy to send a manuscript winging off to an agent or an editor. But it means editors and agents receive significantly more manuscripts that they have to wade through. It has led to many of them only replying to authors if they are interested in a further look. As appalling as that is, it strikes me that it means not everyone fully embraces the capability of computers. Formulating a quick boilerplate reply that can be sent with one key stroke isn’t that hard, and yet it seems impossible for many agents. 

On the other hand, I suspect that as mentioned earlier, the computer has made it possible for fledging writers to bang out something they think is brilliant and send it winging to agents long before the work is ready. It’s the flip side of not quite understanding the capability, and short-comings, of using the computer for the business of writing. 

I sometimes miss the feel of pen on paper. But I don’t miss having to make corrections from a typewriter! Whatever the shortcomings of creating by computer. I have no interest in going back to pen and paper, then typewriter. I wonder if there are writers who still use and paper, or typewriters to compose their first drafts—or even editing? 


Susan C Shea said...

What a great post - funny and so true. I could not write even a short story with pen and paper any more, and I'm sure most typewriters hold prominent places in heaven by now. But, hey, stone tablets might be coming back, who knows!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

That's funny, Terry. Stone tablets were hard to edit, and WiteOut on papyrus – forget about it.

Terry said...

I tired to take notes for a meeting with a pen and paper and it looks like some other language. Like something a three-year-old would write.

Edith Maxwell said...

Can you even imagine chipping an novel into a stone tablet, LOL?

I still love the blank page, whether it's in Scrivener on one of my two laptops (one in my office, one smaller one downstairs for recipes, email, and traveling), a notepad with lovely smooth paper, or my brainstorming notebook.