Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How Writing has Changed (For Me) Since the 1970s--Part One

1970s:  Handwriting a Novel and Typing it on a Manual Typewriter

Throughout my childhood I was a voracious reader, and also loved playing make believe and making up stories.  I remember lying on my bed one day (I was probably in my early teens) reading a book I was dissatisfied with.  I thought, "I could write better than this!"  Shortly after that, I started brainstorming stories I could write.  I carried a small writing notebook around with me, and wrote down ideas and scenes.

Then, as now, I loved science fiction and fantasy, so my first novel was science fiction.  I brainstormed it after dark with my younger sister (who slept in the lower bunk bed while I slept in the upper bunk).  When I started writing it, I was in high school.  Since I used lined paper in a three-ring binder at school, that's how I wrote my novel:  in pencil, double-spaced, on college-rule binder paper.

I worked all that summer and through my first full year in college on that novel, writing between classes.  By the next summer I had finished it and rewritten it.  All the rewrites were done on binder paper too.  If I had extensive rewrites, I'd cross out the old part and add another page, numbering it "56a" to show where it went (after page 56).  Then on the page with the crossed-out part, I'd write in the margin "see addition."

This was in 1972.  I didn't know anyone who was a writer, and had very few references to tell me what to do next.  Finally, I found a copy of The Writer's Market in the Brigham Young University library.  That book let me know there was a whole world out there, a world where there were other writers, people who had done what I was trying to do.  I read almost every article in that book, then checked the market section for publishers who wanted science fiction.  From this book I finally figured out how to create a manuscript to send to a publisher.

A Remington Rand typewriter just like the one I used for years.
Through high school, I earned pocket money by typing papers for my classmates, so I was a fairly quick and accurate typist.  I used my father's old Remington Rand office typewriter (not electric).  Since photocopy was far too expensive for me, and I was unwilling to send off my only copy, I made a carbon copy of my novel as I typed it.  For this, I made a "sandwich" with a piece of "typing paper" on top for the original, a piece of carbon paper, and a piece of onionskin (a thin paper rather like tracing paper) and rolled this into the typewriter for every page I typed.  I also had a sheet of paper with a dark pen line drawn on it, which I put under all the rest to remind me where the bottom of the page was--so I didn't type off the page.  People who have grown up typing text into word processors will never understand what it was like to have to keep track of where the end of each line was (and manually hit a lever to move to the next line).  Nor will they know the frustration of typing off the end of a page and having to re-do an entire page.

Round typewriter eraser
When I first learned to type, the only way to correct errors was with a typewriter eraser.  There were two kinds:  the round ones (most of which had a brush), and the long ones (rather like pencils) with a brush where a pencil's eraser would be.  I had to roll the page up so the typo was in a place on the platen where I could reach it, erase the typo, roll the platen back down, back up to the error, and type the correct letter where the erasure was.  The worst thing was finding a typo after taking the sheet out of the typewriter.  Then I had to roll the sheet back into the typer and hope I lined the rows up the same so the letter wasn't too high or low, or too far left or right.  When erasing, I had to assure the crumbs didn't fall down into the typewriter and gum up the bars for the keys.  That's what the little brush on the eraser was for--to whisk the eraser crumbs out of the way.
Long typewriter eraser
I didn't erase errors on the carbon copy--the carbon was kind of oily and didn't erase well.  So I just typed over the erasure, knowing the carbon would show both the original and the typed-over letters.  I might write the correction in if it was long and looked really messy on the carbon.
The good old black-and-white Liquid Paper bottle.
By the time I was in college, a magical thing had been invented:  a correction fluid called Liquid Paper.  Instead of having to erase errors, risking making a hole in the paper or smearing ink, all I had to do was paint over the error.  Then, when the Liquid Paper dried, I typed over it.  So much better than erasing!
"Vintage" typeface.  Note how the "a" and "w" are messy.  They look like no one has cleaned the keys!
There were two more things that had to be dealt with when I used a typewriter.  I had to constantly clean the typewriter keys, because they'd collect ink which would make the letters on the page messy (filling in "o" or "e," for instance).  I also had to change the ribbon when it started getting too faint.  I hated having pages with the type getting lighter and lighter, then putting in a new ribbon and the letters on the next page were very dark!

I spent the entire summer just typing the manuscript--original and carbon copy.  I figured out how to write a cover sheet, bought a box to put the manuscript in, and mailed it off.  Then, I proceeded to wait.  I was still busy with classes, but I started writing another science fiction novel.  I also began writing short stories.

When a very long time had passed, and I'd heard nothing, I wrote to the publisher I'd sent my novel to.  When they wrote back, I discovered I had done a very stupid novice trick.  I'd forgotten to put my return address with the manuscript in the box!  I was extremely lucky that the publisher hadn't just thrown away the manuscript I'd spent months typing.  So I sent my address, and enough stamps to mail the manuscript back "if necessary," and then waited for another very long time.

Of course, I got my precious manuscript back eventually.  I honestly don't remember if I was crushed or not.  By that time I had written another novel (handwritten, in pencil), and a few short stories.  Also, I had found other science fiction fans.

To be continued.


Julia H. West has published fantasy and science fiction stories in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy and anthologies such as Sword and Sorceress.  She was Grand Prize winner in the Writers of the Future Contest in 1995.  Most of her previously published stories are now available as ebooks from Callihoo Publishing.

Remington Rand typewriter picture from silkwaterantiques.com
Round typewriter eraser picture from artfire.com
Long typewriter eraser picture from technicalshipsupplies.com
Liquid Paper picture from motelwest.blogspot.com
Vintage Type picture from  web.mac.com


  1. I remember all this! What a mess it could get to be. And mimeos. Remember mimeos? The ubiquitous blue ink? Of course, that typically was not a home-based type of technology then, though some low-budget newsletters were churned out that way.

  2. I'll get into "dirty purple" next installment. . . . Ah, the heady smell of mimeo fluid! Do you still remember it? Amazing how a smell has remained with me all down the years.