Sunday, November 24, 2013

Front to Finish: Writing Stories on a Manual Typewriter

A very bright and sunny good day to you! It's 24º F outside. How did people wake up in the morning without coffee? That's too scary to think about, so let's move into this week's discussion.

I've collected two rejection slips for a couple of essays I submitted to The Missouri Historical Review a year ago. Each piece came with some feedback, and in both cases, they said the quality of the writing itself was good. The scope of the research is where they suffered. I knew this before submitting, since I didn't have the time or the resources to broaden them.

Still, they said my writing was good! That's what I call positive rejection. Lots of authors get rejected but the agent or editor is so impressed by what they see, they write something beyond the usual form letter. Maybe I'll revise the essays and resubmit sometime.

Last week, I finished another short story. It's the longest one I've written to date: 7500 words. The online workshop Zoetrope puts the cap at 8000. Some magazines publish stories up to 10,000. Three of my favorite short stories (Children of the Corn, Paycheck, and The Most Dangerous Game) push the envelope between 11,000-13,000. Considering the amount of ground I covered, I'm pleased with the length. It's not too long, but crammed full of dark goodies.

A lot of people ("a lot" being two or three...) are surprised whenever I tell them that I use a manual typewriter for my creative works.

"Sounds tedious," they say.

Truth be told, it certainly can be.

Hemingway revising a manuscript.

Back in the old days, authors didn't have access to scanners, laser printers, or electronic word processors. For every draft of every work they produced, there was a rewriting phase and then the retyping.

I've had to learn a lot of things about typing on manuals by trial and error. I couldn't find any instruction books or videos, so I had my fair share of accidents along the way. I've developed a process that helps me get my work done in good time while also ensuring maximum enjoyment.

So here it is! From front to finish, how ideas get from my head to the final draft.

1. Ideas and Outlines

I'm not going to talk about how I get my ideas. That's a whole post on its own. So let's fast forward and say that I have an idea and I've got a raw concept that I've molded into something that can serve as the basis for a narrative.

The first thing I do is sit down at the computer and type an outline. It's not a bulleted list, more of a synopsis, and written in such a way that makes sense to me.

Here's an example.

Working Title


What if (X) happened and someone had to do (Y)? What would that look like? Who would it affect?

Background and Setting:

(This is where I talk about everything that's happened before the story takes place, and the location. Characters A, B, and C, did this and that, which has brought them to Story Starting Point).


(This is what I actually write the events of the story. Background info is related via conversation or narration, but it is not the focus of the text. It's in the past. Characters with this Background begin at Starting Point after being confronted by X. Now what? Now I tell the story.)


(Biographies of each named character)

2. First Draft

After I've got the outline finished, I'll get the manual typewriter and peck out the first draft. My newest story took me two days to finish, which is the longest amount of time I've ever needed for a first draft of a short. Novels can take anywhere between three months to a few years. The Hammer and the Keys took me 50 days. It depends on a lot of things, and varies between writers.

3. Revisions 

After I've finished the first draft, I put it away and don't look at it for a few days. This gives me time to forget specific details. If I try to edit while anticipating every line of every page, my mind tends to skip over words and then I miss things that need to be corrected. I try to wait at least three days before looking at a story again.

When I decide to revise, I get the hard copy and mark it up with a pencil. Not only is it fun, it helps me keep track of the changes I've made. Once that's done, I'll sit at the typewriter and type a second draft with the applied corrections, then repeat the process until I'm satisfied with how the story flows.

4. Digitize

When I think the story can't be improved any more (or the story is so long I don't want to transcribe it to the computer) I'll scan the pages.

My scanner is an HP Deskjet F300. It's old by computer standards, but it gets the job done. When the pages are scanned, I save the file as an RTF, then copy it into Mac Pages (MS Word for you Windows people).

But this step is fraught with technical difficulties.

The most difficult part is making the scans as legible as possible. My Remington De Luxe 5 has a new ribbon. It prints clear as day.

Picture of a typed page. Not bad!

The quality of the printed page and the scanner will affect the digitization.


When I wrote The Hammer and the Keys, I was using an old ribbon that didn't print well. I thought the scanner would compensate for that. It didn't. It was far worse than the example above. The text was jumbled and the structure so miserably distorted that I couldn't read it.

The computer doesn't know how to translate certain characters. A quotation mark often comes out as II.  Periods and commas appear where I never intended to put them. If you compare the two examples, you'll notice that the paragraphs have been destroyed, the text is lumped together. I don't even bother with headers because the scanner doesn't know what to do with them (but I still number my pages; the "BL-2"is an abbreviated title with the number).

It might look horrible, but it saves me a lot of time. It took my printer 36 seconds to scan each page. 7000 words of a draft equalled 25 pages. 15 minutes to scan the whole thing. That's a lot faster than transcribing the whole thing word for word (for me, at least). Since Hammer and Keys didn't scan properly, I had to save it as a PDF, and am now in the process of doing just that (with a little help from my loving and insightful girlfriend, of course).

Now think about this: In the old days, a writer had no choice but to retype every page, incorporating the changes to the story, along with spelling, grammar, and watching to make sure the sentence didn't break off at the bottom of the page (what's known as a 'widow'). In the business world, using White Out to correct even minor errors was seen as a cop out and lack of professionalism. Authors have to abide by the same rules.

In one of his interviews, Frederick Forsyth said that he types his books on an electric typewriter and hands over the manuscript, with errors, to the editor. The company secretaries correct all of it for him.

Don't do that.

Forsyth spent his years in the trenches, like all beginning novelists, and earned whatever he's got. It'd be unreasonable for me to expect that from a company. But I won't lie, it'd be really nice to have a team of secretaries on speed dial.

So that's it! From front to finish that's how I get my ideas from my brain to the final draft.

Now think about THIS.

The longest published novel ever written was In Search of Lost Time, my Marcel Proust. He started working on it in 1909 and kept at it until his death in 1922.

The novel is 4200 pages long, containing over 1.2 million words.

It was published in seven volumes, first in French, from 1913-1927. The final English translation came out in 1931.

Proust, circa 1900.

Can you imagine typing and then retyping 1.2 million words?!

Some pages from one of the drafts, with Proust's handwritten notes.

But there's only one thing more difficult than typing a colossal novel.

Summarizing it!

Power to the pen!

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