Tuesday, June 26, 2012

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

These are two covers I actually remember from when I was a child.
Science Fiction Fans, Science Fiction Writing Class, and Dirty Purple

From the time I was six years old, I read science fiction and fantasy without knowing anyone besides my dad and my aunt (his sister) who also read books in those genres.  My dad had boxes of magazines with colorful, fascinating covers--robots and spaceships and aliens--in the basement.  So I devoured Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction magazines from the 1950s, not really understanding a lot of what happened in the stories, but captivated by them nonetheless.  My dad read A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, to me at bed time.  Then my aunt gave me some paperback novels--a few of the Witch World series by Andre Norton.  I wanted more!  I searched the school library and found books by Robert Heinlein and the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis.

When I got old enough to graduate from the children's section of the city library to the adult section (I got special dispensation to get the "adult" library card early), I discovered science fiction had its own section!  I started at the top, in the "A" books (Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, etc.) and worked my way down through the entire section to the "Z" books (Roger Zelazny).  It became obvious to me that other people read science fiction--I just didn't know anyone who did.

When I was in high school, I received a phone call from the city librarian asking if I'd be interested in attending a science fiction discussion group.  Despite being incredibly shy about meeting new people, I immediately said "Yes."  When I got to the meeting, I asked the person in charge how the librarian had known I was interested in science fiction.  He said he had looked through all the checkout cards in the backs of the science fiction books, and had given the librarian a list of names of people who might be interested.  Of course she wouldn't give him the phone numbers, but she was willing to contact people.  An ingenious way of sleuthing out SF readers, indeed!

After that, although I still didn't know any writers of science fiction and fantasy, I did know other people who read the genres.  When, during my second year in college, I moved away from home to live in the dorms, I lived with one of those science fiction fans.

My roommate and I--and a few other science fiction fans--discovered that if students could find a faculty advisor and get more than six people to sign up, they could make any class the faculty advisor was willing to oversee.  So we created a class for reading and discussing science fiction.  When we put up posters advertising the class, we attracted other SF readers whom we didn't know!

During discussions in this class, we discovered that several of us wanted to write, or were already writing, science fiction and fantasy stories.  So we created another class:  one in which we would write stories and share them with each other.  We had just created the first writers' critique group of which I was a member.

Ditto machine (spirit duplicator) showing the master and a sheet it has just printed.

In the early 1970s, if you wanted to make several copies of something (like a story to pass out to other class members), there were several options.  No one wanted to type up a separate copy for each person in the class.  Another option was photocopying, which was expensive, and gave you rather heavy, slick gray copies which might vary slightly in sheet height because the paper came on a drum, and the photocopy machine cut each sheet to size.  The one most of us settled on was the spirit duplicator, or 'ditto machine.'  Everyone I knew called this way of printing 'dirty purple'--with good reason.

To use the ditto machine, I typed on special two-part sheets called 'spirit masters' (that sounds like a fantasy story of its own) or 'ditto masters.'  The top sheet was similar to normal paper; the second sheet, attached to it, was covered with purple ink, rather like a sheet of carbon paper.  (Ditto masters actually came in several colors, but the most common was purple).  As I typed on the top sheet, the ink transferred to the back side of the sheet I typed on, so it was a mirror image on the back of the paper.  Fixing errors on these sheets was horrible.  Usually, once the sheet was finished, I'd use a razor blade to scrape off the error on the back of the sheet, find a place on the 'carbon' sheet where the purple was unused, put it under the error, and hand-write the fix on the sheet.  Hands and clothing often ended up covered in purple blotches.

Once I'd made a stencil for every sheet of a story, I had to find someone with a ditto machine who could run off the copies for me.  There were several available at the university (as well as one at church), but I soon discovered that my dad had a ditto machine at his work that he'd let me use if I brought in my own paper.  I also discovered, after the first time I typed a story on the messy ditto masters, that he also had a machine that would take plain typed sheets and make ditto masters.  (A quick internet search tells me this machine was the thermofax.)  I had to pay for the (more expensive) masters this machine used, but it was worth it.  Ditto masters were extremely messy to type on.

Once a ditto master was typed, the purple sheet was removed and discarded, and the master sheet was attached ink side up to the drum of the ditto machine.  The paper to be printed on ran through a solvent, then the drum turned around (often hand cranked) and ran across the solvent-soaked page, leaving ink from the master on the paper.  The smell of the solvent probably remains a pleasant memory for anyone who ever got dittoed handouts in school.

Of course, the ink from each master was limited, and just like a typewriter ribbon got fainter and fainter (or today, when the ink cartridge or toner cartridge is running out on your printer), later copies from a ditto master would be much fainter than the first crisp purple-printed pages.

Somewhere, in a file, I still have some of those 'dirty purple' copies of stories I wrote to pass out in that science fiction writing class.  I still remember the excitement I felt.  People were reading my stories and telling me how to improve them!  This was far better than the feedback I received for the stories and poems I had written in high school English classes (yes, those stories were science fiction).  None of the students got to see them, and the teacher had corrected a few grammar or punctuation errors and given me a grade, but the stories had not been critiqued.

None of us knew much about critiquing stories, but we all had opinions about what made a good story, and managed more or less to convey our opinions about the stories we handed out in the class.  I don't remember which 'legendary' BYU professor or staff member headed that class:  Marion K. "Doc" Smith?  Betty Pope?  Whoever it was, the professor guided us skillfully into understanding what made not only a good story, but a good critique.

At this point, I had already finished two novels.  I had rewritten one of them, typed it up, and sent it off to a publisher.  But I had never had an inkling of what it was an editor was looking for--other than the examples of what had been published in the magazines and novels I had read.  As we progressed through this class, I not only became excited about my writing again, but also about submitting stories to magazines.  I had considered myself a novelist, and complained that I rarely had 'short' ideas.  (Odd.  I still do that today.)  But for this class, because I had found peers, others who were interested in science fiction and writing, I started writing short fiction.  It was both difficult and enlightening.

I started writing short stories, rewriting them, and preparing them for submission to magazines.  I felt like I was one step closer to being a 'real' writer.

To be continued.


Julia H. West has far too many cats, collects penguins, and has had a fair number of fantasy and science fiction stories published professionally.  Most of these stories are now available as ebooks from Callihoo Publishing.

September 1954 Astounding Science Fiction:  http://www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/galleries/scifi2.htm
April 1952 Galaxy Magazine:  http://ironbombs.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/a-brief-history-of-fantastic-digest-fiction/
Spirit Duplicator:  http://found0bjects.blogspot.com/2010/11/spirit-duplicator.html

1 comment:

  1. I love hearing about your "early days" as a writer!