17 August 2012

On writing with this new-fangled technology

As I mentioned a few days ago, P and I have finally started on the book. It says something about my advanced age that the last book I had published came out in 1989. That was not exactly pre-computer, but it was close enough. I remember that I offered to send the publishers a word-processed manuscript* on file (I was up with the technology then!) but they declined, saying that it was more bother than it was worth. So I paid for the wife of a colleague to type up a fair copy from my MS onto several 5.25" floppies, and then imposed on a geeky clergyman friend to use his study and his BBC B computer (with 32k of RAM!) to edit them, and print them out.

The alternative was for me, or someone employed by me, to re-type partial or complete drafts. At least this time I was able to buy a little program called "Grease" (the name is a reference to an incident in David Lodge's 1984 novel, "Small World") which generated the index automatically--it had cost me £200 for to have someone compile it for the previous book (more than a third of total earnings; I get more from photocopying levies than I ever earned from sales...).

So despite writing innumerable structured documents and reports and reviews and webpages and blogs --I realise that I am now facing a blank wilderness, which I have to populate with ideas, with no boundaries or guides or constraints. No, that's not quite right. I don't have to populate it. It's what I want to do, but there is just too much choice about how to do it.  It's largely a function of the "freedom" to go back and cut and revise and insert, with the MS miraculously healing itself (and since I am careful about version control, the capacity to revert to a version of weeks ago in seconds.) Sartre talked about being "condemned to freedom"; I have a taste of what he meant.

Of course I have been assembling resources--papers written for this and that, lecture notes, and so on. In one afternoon I found 57k words on an archive drive, all more or less relevant to the book, but some of it fifteen years old. And all author/date referenced--a convention we are not going to follow this time (I wrote about the reasons earlier, here).

I'm still not clear whether to revise or to start from scratch, but in the meantime I have adopted what is probably the worst possible tactic--start at the beginning--recognising that the writing will all go through many more iterations than a paper-based process ever could. But will that make for a better product? On the evidence of student writing probably not. It's the constraints of paper which force so much greater attention to detail; sculpting in marble is different from moulding plasticine (Wallace and Gromit notwithstanding).

Yes, I know. You make a maquette in clay, and then you create the real thing in the permanent form based on it. But with this technology there will never be a permanent form, because I can always go back, and revise and update; the material is infinitely malleable, and since we are planning to publish electronically, at least initially, it will indeed "never be finished, merely abandoned" (attr. Leonardo or E M Forster).

* Even then a misnomer--"manuscript" means "handwritten", and of course mine was type-written.

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