The Mechanics of writing

Oh no, I’m not about to tell you how to use grammar, or what the structure of novels should be. What I’m going to do is talk about the things we use to do our jobs: in my case computers which I largely treat as glorified typewriters and telephones, because typing with ten fingers is much, much easier than thumb typing, at least for me.

All of this started because for reasons I can’t fully explain. I was trying to write my post for According to Hoyt, when lo and behold, elusive basement son (kind of like basement cat but not really nefarious except in terms of being a distraction) came upstairs.

I have absolutely no idea what he came upstairs to do, because he got captured by my husband for one of those “up hill, both ways” talks that sometimes happen.

In this case, it was about the “Portable” computer Dan brought home from his first job on the weekends so he could work while I was writing, since we only owned one computer. (Joaquim of blessed memory, which is still in the basement somewhere and which, five years ago when we moved still booted. And which, of course, has less memory and far fewer capabilities than my phone. Never mind.)

Anyway, that “Portable” computer weighed something like thirty five pounds. So son was making fun of us, as sons do, and from there…. we went other places.

To wit — someone’s wit. Probably halved — husband was telling son about my writing my first novel and how this got us into a kind of weird habit which years later would cause his mother to accuse him of patriarchal oppression.

The habit was this: every night, before leaving work, Dan would call me and tell me he was headed home. When this started, we lived in Rockhill South Carolina, but he worked in Charlotte. So it was 30 to 40 minutes on the highway to get home.

He didn’t think anything of this, since he came home at fairly regular times, until I was writing my first novel.

He’d leave the house with me sitting on the floor (look, that novel was written on an Atari hooked up to our TV, okay? Deal) typing madly into the computer, and come home and I was in the same position, still typing. So, Dan started calling me so maybe I’d make dinner, or at least be aware he’d come through the door in half an hour to forty minutes.

Later on my mother in law decided he was ordering me around. What she didn’t know is he usually also called me at lunch to make sure I remembered to eat something, or at least have a second cup of coffee (when I’m on a writing jag he still comes in to make sure I ate something. Though if he’s on a working jag, he might forget, in which case at around 9 pm we both go “OMG, we’re starving. Who delivers?” because we’re basically teenagers, sorry.)

At which point son said, “Wait, if the novel was only 80k words and she was working that kind of hours, it took her like three days to write it, right?”

To which my husband laughed and said, “Your mom wrote 20 words a minute, on a good day.”

As son boggled, husband explained I typed with two fingers (which was normal in Portugal at the time) and then I explained, “Yeah, and on an HCesar keyboard.”

At which point they both stared at me and told me no such thing existed. It took a bit of poking around on the net, but voila, the hcesar keyboard:

So you know, I was not only trying to adapt to a different language, but also to a different keyboard.

And I did it as I do most things, in the end: I brute forced it.

Brute forced it? Oh, not the keyboard.

Look, it’s easiest if you think of me as two people, really. One of me is a relatively decent, but lazy as all get out writer. The other is the poor sap who chases her around and forces her to actually write.

So, usually, eventually, when I get tired of my own sh*t in overcoming some obstacle, I catch myself by the scruff of the neck (it’s important to realize that I’m probably also a cat. Or something) and go “Do it, now.”

Which is when I brute force it. Like after putting in less than stellar effort into my first trimester of English, back when I was 14, I got really upset at myself and went “This ends now. You like the language, you’ll fricking learn the language. How are you going to be a writer in Denver, if you don’t speak English.”

So, I got hold of English paperbacks for native speakers and started reading them. Hey, I had three months. I knew the verbs to be and to have, and had probably a 200 word vocabulary. I also had a pencil and an English-Portuguese dictionary. And sometimes I had to diagram sentences to make sense of them, because the word order was completely different.

The first book I read in English — Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, which my sons found a few years back, in a plastic-laminated cover and with lots and lots of pencil marks in it, and then I had to explain — took me 6 months to read in every spare moment I could find. Then I read it through again and that took about a month. The sixth book I read in English — I THINK Glory Road, but it might not be — I read in two weeks. And then I was reading fluently in English. Brute forced it.

In the same way, writing that first novel was absolute and complete torture, because my head was usually two chapters ahead of my plodding fingers.

I was complaining to Dan about this, and he said, “Well, you could take a touch typing course.” And to show me what it was and what you did, he unearthed and showed me his high school typing manual.

Well…. I decided to brute force it. The summer after our wedding, I spent every day while he was at work, sitting at the kitchen table, at a manual typewriter, going from beginning to end, doing every exercise, then going back to the beginning and starting again.

Boring? Oh, yeah. But you see, it was a skill I needed. So I did it. Brute force.

Which is how I came to be a professional writer who lives in Denver, though I’m not particularly fond of this most recent incarnation of Denver. (If I wanted to live in Moscow in the sixties, I’d have moved to Moscow int he sixties. Somehow, since I was eight when the sixties ended. I mean, I’d probably have to hitchike or steal a tank or something, but what the heck. Brute force. Though if I WANTED to live in Moscow in the sixties it would be more like Thorazine force. Never mind.)

Anyway, Dan told me I should tell you guys this story, because both he and I, on the regular stumble across some post in which I’m mentioned as a Portuguese writer and someone comments that “Well, lots of people are military brats, that doesn’t make them part of the country they were born into.”

Bah. I realize the name is … deceptive, since I got tired of no one pronouncing my birth name properly, and anyway I hated my first name, a name so old fashioned it would be like being named Ethel today. So, my first name was acquired at citizenship (I’ve now had it two years longer than I had my birth name) and my last name if of course my married name.

None of which changes the fact that yeah, I was born in Portugal, to people who spoke Portuguese only (though my brother was taking English in high school, and my grandfather spoke some (very bad) English from his time working as a carpenter in South Africa. But still it’s not like either spoke it around the house, trust me. I mean, grandad’s English might have been worse than younger son’s French.) And I learned English at fourteen. And I became an exchange student at 17, but I went back after a year, and finished my education in Portugal.

And then I had to learn a new way of typing, just so I could get the d*mn novels out of my head and onto paper. Which I’m still doing, 34 years later, thank you very much.

…. I don’t know what y’all want out of life, or what distant star you have set your ship to.

But it can’t really be any worse than a little girl — I decided at 8 — in a small village in Portugal deciding she was going to be a novelist and live in Denver (a novelist who wrote in English was implied, mind you, because Portuguese don’t make enough money to live from writing) which thanks to my stellar knowledge of Geography I thought it was a sea-side town.

Surely compared to that, whatever your goals are they are far more attainable.

So go to it. Do what you have to do.

And if all else fails, grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and brute force it.

38 thoughts on “The Mechanics of writing

    1. These days, since he can’t go to barber as often as he needs and he has a Jew-fro who first grows upwards, then in all directions, and a beard to match, he really looks wild. 😀

        1. It’s amazing. He’s the “purty one” of the family too, so he still manages to look lovely even like that. Just…. Savage Lovely.
          He takes after the elf side 😉

  1. One of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury novels features a ‘portable computer’ which really dated the novel. I think it was The Dirty Duck IIRC. I remember the first ‘word processor’ I had, which my parents bought for me as a graduation gift to take to college. It was basically just a glorified typewriter with a diskette to save work on. It was a real POS as it would suddenly start typing gibberish all by itself sometimes.

    As for geography; I have to keep reminding myself sometimes when reading books set in the UK that the entire island is roughly the same size as Minnesota, and that it’s entirely possible to drive from one end of it to the other and back within a day.

    1. In my first job in the legal field, I had one of those typewriter things with a monitor and disk drive. Sometimes, I miss it, because it did what it did pretty well, and there were no Internet distractions to be had. (Partly, of course, because there really was no Internet at the time. GRIN)

    2. In Patriot Games (I believe), Jack Ryan appears with one of the earliest word processor things, which he uses to write his history books. I sort of have to wonder if Clancy himself used the device, or a similar one, to write his early novels.

      1. Heinlein did. I LUSTED after one. LUSTED. we could never afford it, though, so we got a computer, because then Dan could also use it for stuff at times.

    3. That reminds me of the time that a European was sneering at the American inability to speak multiple languages.
      I told him that Europeans couldn’t spit without it landing in another country. American is BIG. And, relatively, monolingual. That’s our Superpower.

    4. And that the natives start passing out from heat exhaustion if it ever gets above 75 degrees,

  2. I had to look up HCESAR on Wikipedia, which led to the whole wonderful world of keyboard layouts. Dvorak I knew about, but not AZERTY. How typical of the French to have their own unique keyboard! There are three Macs in my house . . . and two manual typewriters, one a Smith-Corona “Silent” for summer use and camping trips in computer-unfriendly environments.

    1. i found it interesting enough to tell my roomate, and he’s still shuddering, especially after he was things like how you make an exclamation point.

      1. I learned how to type on a manual from the 1950’s. There was no “1”, you have to use the lower case “l”. And yup, to make an exclamation point definitely keeps an author from putting too many at the end of a sentence!!!!!

    2. I remember the QWERTZ keyboards from Hungary. Very similar to QWERTY but with just enough differences to drive me batty. I created my hotmail account while I was over there, and the user name and password were both very carefully chosen not to use any of the letters that were in different places…

  3. Thirty pound portable computer? Called the Osborne or somesuch? Little bitty screen?

  4. I remember lug-tops from around 1990. I was so impressed.
    I took a touch-typing class in high school and that’s still the most useful course I ever took.

      1. I’ve actually been dream-building a luggable *in* a suitcase/briefcase…. was from noticing how screens have gotten big and cheap enough you could find one to fit an old suitcase/briefcase relatively easy, and…..

        1. a friend has an editing system built into a piece of high end luggage, back when an editing system required hardware.

  5. Yeah, I wish I’d applied myself better in the wretched required typing class. I guess I retained enough of it to keep up with the stories in my head, but retyping from written? Horrible chore as I look from paper to key board to paper . . .

    1. I chose to take typing class in 10th grade. Never regretted it.

      It did take me a couple of weeks to get my pinkies buffed up enough to make legible Z’s and ?’s on the manual typewriters, though. There was always a rush for the 4 electric typewriters in the classroom. I was more, ‘If I can type on a manual, I can type on anything.’ Which has proven true over the decades.

      1. I learned on a manual. I kill fragile keyboards. I ended up getting a DAS Keyboard because it will keep up with me and take the speed + pressure. Playing piano and organ for *coughcough* years doesn’t help.

        1. I had an Olivetti portable in college. We hated each other, because it wanted smooth, even typing or it would give an extra space in mid-word. And this was before Liquid Paper (Lawn, mine. You, get off.) was available. OTOH, one alternative at home was a sadly unmaintained 1910 Underwood. It wanted a hammer for the ‘e’ key, but otherwise it was OK. Ish. I rather liked it, especially when it raised the entire platen for a shift.

          Mom sold the Underwood when I was in college. Had the opportunity to buy a similar one a dozen or so years later, but sanity prevailed and they got the Olivetti from Hell and I got a tiny bit of cash. Not sure which computer I had at the time; could have been a Heathkit or a 9″ HP touchscreen, but either was sufficient for my typing needs.

          I’m using laptops right now (mostly), and it’s a problem, because the desktop computer keyboard is a MS Natural. I missjudge the home keys on the laptops, with interesting results from touch typing.

      2. Heh. We were required to take one in 6th grade. Hated it initially, but have been grateful for it ever since (after about 6 weeks in the class).

        And apparently, being able to type 90+ words a minute with high accuracy still boggles a lot of people here in the U.S. Or at least, middle-of-nowhere Mountain West U.S….

        1. Typing with ten fingers got my entire family collected around me making exclamations about how amazing this totally natural talent was.
          I explained how I acquired it, they didn’t believe it.
          And that’s why Portuguese is how it is.

    2. Mom insisted when I was between 7th and 8th grade. She had secretaried (totally a word) both full and part time, and typed 60 WPM on a good manual typewriter. I hated it and ended 11 WPM at rhe end of that class (not for credit…) Once computers became a thing, I got to 20-25 WPM, which I figured was Good Enough for an engineer/programmer. Didn’t often get ahead of my fingers because of my programming style, so that speed worked. Aside from an inability to decide which finger should hit the “P” key, I still touch type medium well. And yeah, I can use the ring or pinky in the same sentence.

  6. I had a touch typing class in elementary school. Hated it and learned nothing.

    In middle school, I recognized that touch typing would be extremely useful. Like Sarah, I decided to brute force my way through on my own. Hated it and still learned nothing. Resigned myself to the fact that I’d be a lousy typer.

    Then one day either late in high school or early in college, someone came into the room while I was working on a paper. I talked to them while continuing to type, then looked back and realized I hadn’t made any mistakes while I wasn’t paying attention to where the keys were. Then I realized that I hadn’t actually looked down at the keyboard in a while. Somehow, through all the stupid essays I’d written on the computer, I’d figured out how to touch type without even realizing it.

  7. It must have been three or four months of my reading here before you offhandedly mentioned that you were Portuguese. First reaction was “Nah!” Thought about it, and realized that your sense of humor doesn’t work that way…

    Ha! My mother’s first name was Ethel. Which I did not know until sometime in my teens, about when that abominable song was released, and I was informed of the truly dire consequences if I ever revealed that bit of knowledge.

    1. Would that be ‘The Streak’ by Ray Stevens? 😛

      “Don’t look Ethel!!”

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