Tuesday, July 3, 2012

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

In Which I Join the Working World and (Much Later) the Computer Age

Here's a page from "All My Crewmen." You'll note it was printed in good ol' 'dirty purple.'
Two pages from "In Memorium."  These are scanned from the master, which I still own.
When I dropped out of college, moved away from home, and got a job, I discovered that I didn't have nearly as much time to write as I had when I was in college.  Part of it was the fact that I had discovered science fiction fandom and become very active in a Star Trek fan club.  Even there I used my writing--I helped publish a newsletter, and dabbled in writing Star Trek fan fiction with my roommate (All My Crewmen).  I also wrote a Star Trek play--which is odd, for I've never really wanted to write scripts.  In Memorium was performed, at a local science fiction convention, in 1976.  (I obviously wasn't nearly as curmudgeonly about spelling back then, as I never bothered to look up the spelling of 'memoriam.')

For much of that time, my only typewriter was my roommate's portable, which often as not I used sitting cross-legged on the floor, with the typewriter on my lap as I typed.  Not nearly as easy to use as today's laptop computer.
This looks a lot like my old gray Remington Rand--even the extra-wide carriage.
I don't remember where I got the huge old gray Remington Rand wide carriage typewriter--yard sale?  Newspaper ad?--but I bought it for $10 and was very pleased with the purchase.  It was almost identical to my dad's old black Remington Rand, except it was gray, and it had a wider carriage, into which I could put 8-1/2 x 14 paper the long way.  Since I was doing a fair amount of genealogy, and in those days family group sheets and pedigree charts were 8-1/2" x 14", that extra space on the platen was perfect.

I was still writing stories--often by hand, but sometimes straight to the typewritten page with my snazzy 'new' typewriter.  I occasionally submitted my stories to magazines, and after waiting for months to hear back, acquired rejection slips.  Gradually my wish to be a published author slipped to the back burner, as I started doing many other things with my life.  As well as working on science fiction conventions, I helped found a branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) in Salt Lake City, and most of my writing then became research and occasional articles on various medieval subjects.  When I became a herald in the SCA, most of my writing and research went to heraldic subjects.

After years of using the trusty old Remington Rand typewriter, I finally upgraded to an electric typewriter.  It didn't make nearly as much of an impression on me as my good old manual typewriter, though, for I can't even remember what kind it was--certainly not a Selectric (far too expensive).  Instead of typebars like my old manual typewriter had, it had typeballs, round balls with all the letters on them.  They'd move and strike the ribbon to the paper when I pressed the keys.  The cool thing about the balls was that, for the first time, I could change my typeface!  Instead of the standard 'typewriter font,' I could now use italics or other fancy fonts.  All I had to do was buy another ball, and change it out when I wanted to change my typeface.

These are balls (stop sniggering) for the IBM Selectric, but the ones my typewriter used were very similar.

Unfortunately, my typewriter had a problem; it would often substitute 'b' and 'h.'  I took it back to the shop several times to get this fixed, but they never did actually fix it.  If I didn't proofread carefully as I typed (which really slows down typing if you're a rapid touch typist, which I was) I'd discover later that the typewriter had created typos of its own!

A downside to my electric typewriter was that instead of an inked ribbon (which could be used over and over, and even re-inked, until the cloth wore out), it used a one-use and rather expensive polymer ribbon.  However, the typed characters were much crisper and blacker than with the old cloth ribbons.  The electric typewriter also had a function that, if I discovered a typo before I pulled the paper out of the typewriter, I could backspace, re-type the erroneous letter, and it would be lifted from the page!  Then I could type the correct letter, and go merrily on my way.  Despite that, for quite a while I used both typewriters:  the Remington Rand for rough drafts, and the electric typewriter for the final draft.  I can type more quickly than I can write by hand.

I very carefully typed up crisp new copies of my short story manuscripts on this new typewriter, and sent them off.  But the nice new copies didn't make a difference.  I still didn't sell anything.

Computer punch card.

I have been a computer fan from way back when it really was all ones and zeroes.  My dad worked in the computer department at BYU, and he wrote programs in machine code.  On weekends when I was in high school I'd go in and type new punch cards for his programs, since I was a fast, accurate typist.  A computer program back then consisted of a box full of cards with holes in them, which the computer read and executed.  Programmers would draw a thick diagonal stripe with a marker across the top of this "deck" of cards, so if they got dropped (heaven forbid!) there would be a better chance of putting them back in order.  (After over forty years, my dad still uses old punch cards as note cards.)  I was fascinated by the room-large computer, which I could see if I went down a hall in one of the buildings there:  lots of blinking lights behind glass.  I have more computing power in my digital watch than that entire roomful of equipment, but at the time, it was impressive.

As new personal computers were invented, my dad sometimes brought them home to test.  I remember one which had the keyboard in alphabetical order instead of QWERTY.  My dad, who is a hunt-and-peck typist, didn't think that was so bad.  I, who learned to touch type when I was 11 years old, pointed out that no touch typist could use it.  Then there was the Commodore PET, with the horrible 'chiclet' keyboard.  Tiny clicky keys--almost like trying to 'type' on a cellphone keyboard.

I vowed that, as soon as a personal computer that was worth using--and that I could afford--became available, I'd buy one.  The idea of saving my stories, typing them only once, and being able to print them out was exciting to me.

Atari 400 and Atari 800.  It's rather hard to see the 'membrane' keyboard on the 400, but believe me, it was not a good keyboard for a touch typist.

In the late 1970s, the Atari 400 and 800 became available.  Although they were primarily billed as game machines, they did have 'real' software as well.  I truly hated the Atari 400's membrane keyboard.  It just wasn't tactile enough for a touch typist--or at least, for me.  The Atari 800 was more expensive, but I liked the looks of it.  It was sturdy, the keyboard had a good feel, and the RAM could be expanded to a 'huge' 48K!  Yes, 48 kilobytes.  Not megabytes, not gigabytes.  Kilobytes.  But back then, for a personal computer, that was a lot of RAM (programs couldn't be memory hogs like they are now).  So I borrowed money from a friend and bought an Atari 800, a word processor cartridge for it, a cassette tape drive, and a 9-pin Centronics printer.  This entire package cost me $1000.
Atari 800 cassette drive.

My Atari 800 had no hard drive, not even a disk drive.  Data was saved on cassette tapes--in fact audio cassette tapes could be used.  I bought a package of 10-minute cassettes, because fast forwarding through a longer tape to find where a certain bit of data could be tricky.  With the 10-minute tapes, I could put one program or data set per tape.  I didn't need a monitor--the Atari 800 could be plugged into my TV.  I only owned a black-and-white 12" TV, which was a waste of the Atari 800's graphics capabilities, but I had not bought this computer to play games.  I had bought it to be a writing machine.

The word processor cartridge plugged into one of the Atari 800's game slots.  It had its own rules (some of which were pretty esoteric) and its own system of saving documents, but I doggedly learned them.  At the same time, I was teaching myself BASIC.  The Atari had a BASIC cartridge that also plugged into one of the game slots.

5-1/4" 'floppy' diskettes.

Eventually, the stupid cassette system drove me crazy, so I bought a floppy disk drive for my Atari.  It used 5-1/4" disks, and I could fit 88K of data on each one.  That's about two short stories or chapters (depending on length, of course).

I discovered that I also hated my huge, expensive, unwieldy Centronics printer.  As more people acquired computers, publishers' guidelines would often state something along the lines of "computer printed okay; no 9-pin dot matrix."  Even on "condensed" print, where the print became blacker and somewhat more readable, the characters that could be formed by nine pins were just too hard to read.  The lowercase letters didn't have true descenders.  So I could either go back to re-typing my manuscripts . . . or I could get clever.

Part of the 9-pin dot matrix character set.  Note how lowercase 'g,' 'j,' 'p,' q,' and 'y' don't have true descenders.

I bought an inexpensive little electronic typewriter.  It was incredibly slow, but I could hook it to my Atari and use it as a printer.  For anything more than standard typewriter keyboard characters, like underlining, I had to embed control codes in the text of my manuscript (rather like html coding today).  But it worked.  It printed a clean, black manuscript acceptable to publishers.

I had been getting frustrated that I had not sold any fiction, so began branching out by dabbling in writing non-fiction.  I submitted several short pieces to the LDS Magazine The Ensign.  By this time, I was married and had a small daughter.  I remember that I was up at Hill Air Force Base, doing 'man days' (basically working for my Air Force Reserve unit doing much-needed clerical catch-up--because I was a fast, accurate typist).  My husband called the front desk, and when I took the call, I was afraid something had happened to him or the baby.  But no.  I had received an envelope in the mail.  That much-awaited envelope, the one with the piece of paper inside.  The piece of paper that said, "We'd like to buy your article."

So, with the primitive computer set-up of a 12" black-and-white television, an Atari 800 computer with a word processor cartridge, and an electronic typewriter for a printer, I finally made my first sale.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic!  You can read my article, "Baby's First Newspaper," in the online version of the April 1989 Ensign

Very shortly after that, I sold my first fiction to the LDS children's magazine The Friend.  Read "The Best Babysitter" in the online version of the September 1989 issue of The Friend.

I was overjoyed that, after all my years of trying, I had finally sold some of my writing.  But I was also worried.  Neither of these pieces were my first love--science fiction and fantasy.  It was wonderful to get these sales, but would I ever sell my SF stories?  I kept writing and submitting both science fiction and fantasy, but I added nonfiction and children's stories to the mix.  In writers' magazines I read that it was often easier to make a living writing nonfiction, and so I spent hours at the library reading children's magazines and coming up with ideas for articles.  But none of those sold, either.  Had those two sales been a fluke?

By 1990 I didn't have a lot of time for writing, as I had two small children and had gone back to school--plus I had a 3/4-time job and spent a weekend of every month at Air Force Reserves.  However, I was now in a writing critique group, and the very act of critiquing what others had written helped keep the love of writing alive.

To be continued.


Julia H. West has had many interesting jobs over the years, including playing with ultrasound heart machines and fixing airplanes for the U. S. Air Force.  She also 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.


All My Crewman sample page: http://fanlore.org/wiki/File:Allmycrewmenpage.jpg
In Memorium pages:  scans from master owned by Julia H. West
Remington Rand Wide Carriage: http://i.minus.com/iRz62reeDiVP9.jpg
IBM Selectric Balls:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Selectric-iii-balls.jpg
Computer punch card: http://sebastians.jimnedhs.com/InterestSite/Photos.html
Atari 400: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atari-400-Comp.png
Atari 800: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atari_800.jpg
Atari 800 disk drive: http://www.computercloset.org/atari800.htm
5-1/4" floppy diskettes: http://delightlylinux.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/what-is-a-flippy/
Dot matrix map: http://www.fontriver.com/i/maps/dot_matrix_map.png

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