Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Talisman of Brilliance

Ok, here I am as promised!

Funny thing happened. While perusing Barnes and Noble I noticed that Lunar Dawn had 15 votes and an overall 5-star rating. Great, right? Yeah, until I noticed that a most unusual conversation was taking place.

Have a look for yourself.

Not exactly how I planned to get 5-star reviews, and certainly not the kind of "reviews" I want. It's likely that anyone who sees them will not take my work seriously. But at least one person was honest by saying they never read it.

But I didn't come here to talk about that. I said that I had been able to get out of my writing rut, and I did it a magical artifact that endowed writers with inspiration since 1887.

A manual typewriter.

That's correct. In this digital age I decided to revert to a machine that has been considered obsolete within the United States for over 30 years (but not in other countries, ironically).

My story of infatuation began in the summer, when I was home visiting the folks. I had started several projects waiting for my brain to formulate enough material so I could finish EC Part II. I decided that I wasn't reading enough fiction (I usually alternate every six months between history and fiction). While at the local thrift store I picked up a bunch of titles by James A. Michener. Back in the day, this guy put out a lot of meticulously-researched historical fiction. As Wikipedia describes it, he wrote geographic historical fiction.

While I was shopping for more books, I saw a typewriter. Specifically, it was a baby blue Underwood Golden Touch. What amazed me is that everything worked! Naturally, I was drawn to it and started typing on the blue sheet of paper someone had left inside.

The beautiful language of the steel keys, the bell, the carriage. I was forever seduced. This is what I needed!

Mother heard me and came over. "I know what you're thinking, and let me tell you that it's not a practical tool for any serious work."

"Ah," I countered, "but you typed your Master's thesis on one of these."

"No, I gave my notes to your aunt because she had an electric word processor."

The exchange went back and forth for several minutes before Mom conceded. "At least get one that you really like. This color, this era, it's not what you want. I know your taste in antiques."

She was right, I didn't like the baby blue scheme. Thus began a search that would take nearly three weeks. In short order I learned all of a typewriter's basic parts and some popular models. The choices seemed endless! Desktop or portable? Royal, Underwood, Corona, or something else? Pre or post-WWII? Low or high dollar?

None of the local antique stores had one to my liking, so I went to the world's largest garage sale: Ebay. Ebay was useless. I quickly discovered that most of the sellers on that website were auctioning show pieces, not tools. I even had one person say they were "too scared" to perform a basic function check because they might break something.

Really? That's just lazy.

It turns out that because of the sheer weight of these machines (30-35lbs for desktop models, 12-15lbs for portables) that shipping alone would cost a fortune (also read plenty of horror stories that careless postal workers damaged a machine through rough handling).

No, this was something I'd have to test drive in person before plopping down the money. My saving grace came from none other than Craigslist, which I had never used before. I found a machine in good condition that was within reasonable driving distance, so I called the owner and setup a meeting. After asking lots of questions and testing all of the parts, I was satisfied.

Here's a stock photo of what I got.

Beautiful isn't it? Mine was made in April 1935. When I bought it, she was very dirty on the inside, caked with years of neglect, but the finish is in exquisite shape for a machine over 80 years old. It was bought by the previous owner by someone who owned it second-hand in the 1960s and it's hardly been used in all that time! What's more, the carry case had most of the original leather, the locks and latches were in good shape, and the handle was still there.

Rather than clean it myself, I decided to see a professional. Again, the internet offered little prospect of finding a local man. Most of America's major typewriter shops are on the east coast or the west, and they're booked three days from Sunday with so many customers.

But luck again was on my side. Nichols Office Machines in mid-Tennessee is the last business in the area that still offers basic service. For $70, he cleaned the machine from top to bottom and even installed a new ribbon. Windex never smelled so good.

Typing on the machine proved to be a bit of a challenge. Computer keyboard skills do NOT translate to a manual typewriter. Instead of pecking the keys with the tips of your fingers, you have to push straight down all the way. If you don't the key will probably strike the paper too lightly to make a good impression on the paper.

Like most things, you learn by doing, and typing on an antique machine is really fun!

The whole experience was so memorable I incorporated a large part of it into the new novel I'm writing. Currently, this WIP stands at 228 pages, roughly 55,000 words. Most adult contemporary fiction is between 80-100,000 words. Using the 250-words-per-page rule (which is dead reckoning at the very most) I need at least 320 pages before the novel is considered long enough to market.

The typewriter experience is much more pleasurable than the laptop. Instead of my words jumping from my brain onto a glowing screen, my passion and energy is transferred through my fingers into the members of the machine. I can feel, hear, and see it come alive. There are no spellchecks or other cold, soulless editorial features trying to wrest control from you, the writer. The machine just looks at you and says, "Tell me your story."

The amazing thing is this: unless I'm out of the house on a trip, I have yet to spend a day NOT writing anything on my current project. You always write your first draft with your heart and the second with your head. Since the last week of August I've been typing on the WIP every day.

It's been years since I felt so empowered! Watching my baby grow in a shoebox next to my work station has been a very rewarding effort. Granted, I put forth quite a bit of effort in plotting, character backgrounds, and world building before I ever typed the first page (which I will  make part of my standard practice from now on).

Using a typewriter gave me the kickstart I needed to get back on the job. I've experimented with writing first thing in the morning, in the hours approaching bedtime, and even with music playing (classical is the only way to go). I paid $115 for the machine and $70 to get it cleaned. A total of $185. Not even 1/4 the cost of a basic, no-frills Macbook.

No, compared to a computer, typewriters are no efficient machines. The only way to correct errors are to throw out the whole page or use white-out (I prefer the latter). What you get in the end is a marred, imperfect, LIVING manuscript. It's all ME, a direct reflection of the one who authored it.

The document is imperfect, just like me, and just like the machine. The N character is crooked, somehow coming loose from the key ring and got twisted. The P key sags a bit, probably a worn out spring in the key-lever mechanism. Capitol C has to be pressed lightly or the carriage will skip. The rubber feet are caked and hard, evidence that the machine was stored in a very hot place for a long time. The bell doesn't always work, and when it does it's so faint I often don't hear it. That means I have to visually check myself so I don't hit the margin mid-sentence.

But she's my new partner and is proving to be a wonderful companion. I think a manual typewriter of some kind should be owned by any serious creative writer. My computer is now reserved only for blogging and school work.

For more information, check out this awesome documentary on Hulu!

Power to the pen, but a set of steel keys will do just fine.

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