Monday, April 11, 2011

My Writing “Tech” From 2011 to 1979

My Writing “Tech” From 2011 to 1979

When many of us discuss technology today, it’s most likely to be a conversation about our cell phones or cars. Aside from that kind of tech, YA Authors may discuss writing programs between themselves on occasion, or engage in the interminable argument about which is better: Microsoft or Apple. Now I have nothing new to offer on the subjects I listed, but I have a long history of writing using various bits and pieces of technology and proto-technology. Here’s a brief account from the present to the past.


I am still using my Dell Dimension 9100 which I bought in the middle of the 2000’s. I revised my “Earthbow” ( ) manuscript on it, and I’ve now started revising “The Gryphon & the Basilisk” on it. Nowadays, I save to flash drives, and I save often. I don’t want to lose years of work if this computer crashes terminally. (I probably have a dozen flash drives on a long bead chain.) This Dell has already had both its hard drive and motherboard replaced, and it still runs WORD 2003 on the old XL platform. Yes, it’s positively ancient by today’s standards but I’m terrified of switching software platforms or even updating WORD. And of course I'm terrified of a permanent crash.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve fallen behind the curve in tech—not just computer tech but also sound systems, phones, Bluetooth (whatever that is) and so on. Proof? I bought my second laptop (“Piglet” because it’s so tiny) over two years ago, and its Windows Vista OS –still- has me buffaloed. I’ve even had the Geek Squad people come out to instruct me on how it works. It did little good. Occasionally, I’ll cried piteously for someone to give me all-day training on VISTA and on the laptop’s newer version of WORD--preferably at Panero’s where I could stuff my instructor full of luscious food and coffee--but, so far, no one has taken me up on this.

As I said, the desktop is beginning to show signs of its age, even with the hardware face-lift it got about three years ago. I’d buy a replacement in a snap, but I am wary of new software like Windows 7 (or whatever the latest is) and WORD 2010(?). I don’t want to have –two- computers in this house, without knowing how to use either. This does not lend itself to writing output.


I bought my first Dell desktop in about 2003, but I continued to use the humongously clunky and heavy screen from the previous computer since that was still working and I didn’t really have the cash for a new monitor too. I used this 1st Dell for revising my “Seabird” ( ) manuscript amongst other things (like computer graphics). I also scanned in many, many typewritten pages of other book manuscripts which had been hand-written beginning in 1979, then typed up a while after that.

The Dell and I worked together happily for a few years—until it gave out abruptly. Virtually anything manuscript-related that I had keyed in was on disc, so I lost nothing that was writing-related. I did lose some other files on the hard drive, including some of my graphic art.


I was okay for the moment because I’d bought my first laptop the previous year, technically for audio file creation. I used it for writing instead when the Dell went down, until I got a replacement desk top. This early laptop was dubbed “The Elephant”. I don’t know how much it weighed but it was bunches. When a good writer friend has her computer die on her about two years ago, I gave her “The Elephant”.


Back then, I was still working at the university library. On a Saturday afternoon, a co-worker and I drove up to the Gateway store, where I picked out the first full-fledged desktop computer of my own. I had a lot of uses planned for this one, but writing and revising my novels were kind of side issues during this period. (This was during my 1990’s writing hiatus, brought on by heavy duties in a new position at work. I did write some short stories around then, but that was because I was taking writing courses.) Anything I wrote was saved to diskette—if I thought about it.

One of my main activities with this computer was keying in my “Analyses” of Babylon 5 ( ), a splendid SF show that few people watched. While I had WORD and Word Perfect software on this computer and knew how to use them from work, I didn’t have a way of creating the analyses as WORD files and then sending them by e-mail to the people interested in them. This was in the days of message boards, before the actual internet. Plain library staff were not permitted to have web pages, even once they became fairly common, so I couldn’t store my analyses on one, and point people to my page.

The only way I had to distribute these show analyses was via the B5 message board, using the –very- clunky university e-mail software, the only email software available to me. (Maybe some of you older folks will remember most U.S. university email addresses ending in “…”.) The email was so clunky that it didn’t have cut-and-paste, and the only way I could figure out how to correct an error was to back up to it, deleting everything between where I had stopped keying in and where the error was, and trying again.

I did key in a bit of writing stuff on the Gateway, using floppy discs for storage. And I imported many files—also on floppies--from my old word processor. I still have these floppies and I’m very glad I do or I might have lost sections of my manuscripts. (When I bought it, I made sure that my Dell Dimension had a floppy disc drive.)

(Between 1985 and 1990?)

One day I took myself up to a predecessor of Best Buy--I’ve forgotten its name--and nervously bought a Smith-Corona word processor. It was supposed to be portable, but that was largely a Fig Newton of the amalgamation.

The word processor had a small green screen recessed directly above the keyboard in which you could see perhaps the previous paragraph that you had written. I used to use it on a TV tray while sitting in one of my wing-back chairs. This made the keyboard a bit too high, so I sat on a thick pillow. The Smith-Corona was a wonder to work with at that time. I especially enjoyed the flexibility it gave me for formatting. Naturally, I saved files on floppy discs. So far as I can remember, I wrote my first draft of “The Gryphon & the Basilisk” plus a few short stories on the word processor. I used this for years, even after buying the Gateway, because writing was such a snap on it. Eventually I gave it to someone who helped me move.


I bought a Commodore 64, with every intention of using it to transcribe the longhand and typed drafts of “Seabird” and “Earthbow” which I had begun writing in 1979. It didn’t work out, though I tried very hard. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Commodore’s built-in word processor assumed that the user was going to be using a Commodore monitor. I was trying to use the computer with a JC Penney’s television. (Yes, Penney’s sold TV’s in those days.) Because the software didn’t know how to communicate with the television, all I could see on the screen were a couple of dozen huge letters at a time.

Eventually, I taught my mom how to play Frogger on the Commodore. I think it was the only computer game she ever played.


My boyfriend at the time bought me a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter. I originally used it to type up class assignments for myself, and eventually branched out into typing up papers for fellow students. Beginning in 1980 or so, I began typing up chapters of “Seabird” etc on this typewriter.

Many of these early “Seabird” chapters (and typed chapters of later books) would later be poorly scanned into the first Dell computer, causing me no end of headaches down the road when I tried to decipher the scanned-in files. In fact, just a few months ago, I finished deciphering chapters of “The Gryphon & the Basilisk” manuscript from these scanned files, which were originally typed on the Smith-Corona. Oh, what a mess that was, but it beat keying them into WORD from handwritten sheets. Which brings us to:


I wrote my very first drafts of “Seabird” and “Earthbow” in 9x5 spiral-bound notebooks—later to be revised and copied (in tiny writing) unto notebook paper which had 50 lines per side. Sometimes I transcribed a few hastily-written sentences off of the index cards I kept hidden in my pockets while I was at work.


I had something that was once considered to be a computer before the Commodore. Maybe a Tandy? It had like zero kb of RAM, and was definitely not up to running writing software. I think I got it used from someone.

It only had one program so far as I remember, and we played it on the family TV. It was some kind of aircraft landing game. You started at such and so many feet away from the landing strip and then had to control your speed, altitude, angle of descent, etc. as you came in for a landing. My family and I used to play it as a group, with a cacophony of suggestions from everyone on what to do next to whoever was at the controls.

We crashed a lot. :-)

Sherry Thompson, author of "Seabird" and "Earthbow".


  1. Recalls the days of my Remington manual typewriter. Still have that somewhere, but the ribbon is a bit...worn. First computer, a TI-99 4a, very similar to the Commodore 64.

    Didn't get my first full-fledged computer until 1990 when I was in seminary and realized I was at a disadvantage compared with the other students who used computers, while I still banged our my papers on the Remington.

    Now, because the a couple of the keys on my XP laptop are going out, and it is more than 5 years old, I have a Wondows 7 on the way. Not used that op system much, though I've dabbled in Vista. What I'm most fearful of is the programs I'm not going to be able to run on it that I'm comfortably using now. If it weren't for the Word macros I use regularly, I'd seriously consider using Ubuntu and just use Open Office.

  2. My first computer was before windows. It was an IBM 8088. It operated on DOS. The screen was monochrome amber on black. It cost more than my first car. If I remember correctly, even keyboards were expensive back then and you didn't buy a new one with each new system if the old one still worked. The floppies actually flopped (5 inch ones) and I don't think MS had a word processor yet. I used Word Perfect. Because the screen was not graphically oriented, they didn't show the pages in WYSIWYG. You often had to print and check it about 12 times before it came out how you wanted.

    I did not even consider creative writing until I had Windows 3.0, a 256 color monitor and a WYSIWYG word processor. I think that was about 1993 or 94. I cannot imagine how anyone could write with typewriters or by longhand. To me, that is as inconceivable as crossing the country in a covered wagon or on a horse. Just craziness.

  3. Hi, Rick!
    We have certain similarities in our experiences then--at least our older experiences.

    I've heard that 7 is a bit better than VISTA; however, I still want my XL. It's never done anything bad to me: why should I have to dump it? Yeah, I know. Microsoft has to make a profit.

    I'm concerned with software incompatibility too. I have a very old and straight-forward graphics program, Print Shop Photo Pro. It's very easy to use and does everything I need in a graphics package. So far, I've been able to load it on the Gateway and both Dell desktops. "Piglet", the new laptop, wouldn't let me load it. I doubt anything I buy from now on will let me load it either. And I don't understand how to use other graphics packages I've bought.

  4. Caprice, the only IBM computer I've ever been involved with was the university mainframe, which we interfaced with mostly via punch cards and later tapes generated by card-reading terminals in the library. In fact, I used to carry the tapes over to the computer center sometimes.

    I remember DOS, and what I always thought of as it's very scary prompt. I knew several computer programing languages once. Now I can't even remember their names. There was one used for business programming whose name began with a C. I used it for a project that emulated our current circulation/reserve checkout system in the library. Very proud of myself, I was. ;-)

    I remember the screens with the amber lettering on black. There was a caste system in the library: administration had computer with amber lettering, the rest of us had green.

    Whether it's cross-country trips in wagons or pen and paper manuscript drafts, when it's all you know, it seems normal.

    A lot of things are like that. It just keeps happening to us, only at an ever-increasing rate. Frankly, I'm not pleased. I'm good to go about where we are now, or even where we were five or so years ago. Except for medicine--they have my leave to keep improving that as much as they want.

  5. I just found it and had to post it--it ties in so well with my curmudgeonly grumbling about recent tech developments directly above.

    Report: Elderly woman takes down Net in Georgia, Armenia

    The writer ends the article by saying, "she might simply be a senior citizen with a sense of outrage at how the Web has taken over human life".

  6. Sherry, I wonder how many writers have gone through the same thing with the use of technological advances. Sure one gets behind. Recently revised a book that was being re-issued and had to give the heroine a cell phone and get rid of the station wagon. Sometimes it's the words that change and not the vehicle.

  7. I just bought a new laptop last summer with Windows 7 and Word 2010. I do really like Windows 7 (and am glad I managed to hold out long enough to avoid Vista) but I haven't taken the time to get to the new interface for Word. And it's annoying to have to manually save things in the old doc format instead of docx so most people can actually use the file.

    That's probably Cobol you're talking about. Never used it but it's still common in business.

  8. Enjoyed the journey down memory lane with you. It brought back a lot of thoughts for me of early typewrites, wordprocessers and computers. Everytime I learn how to use one thing, they change it and I have to start over again.

  9. Wow, as Beverly says, quite a trip down memory lane. I started with a manual typewriter (Remington), went through several electric typewriters (ugh, carbon paper) before finally switching over to a computer (Leading Edge) around 1990. I'm in the process of switching over from Vista (grr) to Windows 7 (when the new laptop arrives in a week or so).

  10. This post is hilarious! It takes me back!

  11. I still remember taking typewriting classes in high school. I used a type writer in college too. It wasn't until 1985, when I met my future husband at BYU, that I was introduced to a computer. It was one of the first Apple computers. Husband teased me saying he couldn't believe I still used a typewriter.

    One of the benefits of being married to a computer programmer is we're usually up to date on the latest technology. Husband just got an iPad and loves it.

    As a reviewer I'm finding more and more publishers are sending e-galleys out. This makes sense as they're cheaper than ARCs. But not all the .pdf files convert over to my Kindle which means I'm getting a Nook Color this weekend.

    The thing I haven't done yet is texting. I've only used it in my stories and got advice from the experts, 'teens'. Even they disagree on what is the right way to text.

  12. Jeesh, you guys are faster on the uptake than I was! I wrote on my portable Royal typewriter until about 2001 when I finally had to concede that the computer was a bit quicker after all. I still don't like that cursor blinking at me, though!

    Great post!

  13. JL Walters: Sorry, I got a little behind in answers people's comments. Computer crash problems and preparing for a reading partially.

    I suppose there's bunches of us that are behind the curve in tech, but I wonder if we're the minority.

    The trouble with needing to insert phones is that it can disrupt a chunk of the story--if she wants to contact him at this point, why is she driving furiously to his home or looking for a phone booth? Why not use her cell? (And they can't also be out of range or need recharging.)

    The last time I flew was previous to 9-11. I have a scene in my most recent manuscript in which a major character flies into town and meets her brother at the airport. I had to get someone to describe to me what she would see at the airport now, in order to revise the scene.

  14. Andrew, I'm one of those low-tech people who annoys you. I can't open a docx document with my current software.

    Thank you! The business software was COBOL.

  15. Hi, Beverly! I'm glad you enjoyed the memories!

    You write:
    Everytime I learn how to use one thing, they change it and I have to start over again.

    Exactly! It's infuriating! I know there's a lot of first-adapters out there who are gleeful about the situation but I bet those of us "behind the curve" outnumber them. The problem is we have no clout so we spend money for new tech as rarely as we can.

  16. Oops!
    ...SINCE we spend money for new tech as rarely as we can.

    (I wish we could edit these entries! or can we and I don't know how?)

  17. Hi, Kathy!
    I didn't mention my original manual typewriter--with the return lever. I suppose I should have, since I technically wrote fiction with it. I was in junior high and I began writing what I expected to be a novel, in which I was the main character who was recruited by the government to be a time traveler into the past. I only wrote one chapter though.

    Good luck with the software changeover from VISTA to 7 with your new laptop!

  18. I'm really glad you enjoyed the entry, Anita! It -is- hilarious -- now. ;-P

  19. Kim, you are -very- lucky to be married to a computer expert. Between the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook, you sound like you're way far ahead of me in tech.

    I don't really like PDFs but I've learned to tolerate them because that's what my publisher sends back to me when I submit manuscripts. The problem I have with pdfs--which may be my fault--is that I have trouble getting the thing to stop scrolling at the point at which I want to read. Most pdfs tend to not move far enough or to move too far. I don't have this problem with WORD and websites.

    Re texting, I see no earthly use for it. I would so much rather have an actual email or else a phone call. Pref an email--I'm very e-mail oriented. I do like phone calls instead of texting because I can hear the tone of the person's voice and that adds to the information I'm getting from them.

    BTW, I also loathe IM. Why? Once, I had a supervisor who would IM me for about an hour a night, over frivolous things & when I was off duty. A simple phone call or email would have been so much more efficient.

  20. Hi, Ophelia! I might have waited that long & kept using a typewriter as well, if I hadn't had to use computers at work throughout the early-80s til when I retired. At the very beginning, we used propriety software that had nothing to do with writing--it was mainly searching for items from a database. This did not make computers attractive to me.

    However, when Word Perfect and then WORD were loaded on our work computers I could tell that revisions and corrections were lots faster than what I was doing at home. Hence first the word processor and eventually my first computer.

    BTW, the university library bought us all Gateway computers at one point, and then we had workshops on the differences in using their brand vs our previous brand.

    Anyone remember Gateway? Their logo was a black and white pattern that looked like the hair pattern of a Holstein cow. They even had mouse pads with the B&W pattern. A fellow office mate and I were in the last row of computers at the workshop. One of us pointed to the mouse pads and whispered to the other that Gateway was cruel to animals--they had cut off the heads and legs of the poor cows! We had to stifle our giggles throughout the whole workshop.

    Well, it was funny at the time. ;-P