A Song of DOS and WordStar
I was recently delighted to discover that George R.R. Martin, the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, still writes all of his novels on a DOS computer running WordStar. Martin isn’t a complete technophobe—he maintains an active blog, much to the dismay of fans who might prefer that he spend all of his time on other projects—but remains faithful to what he calls “the Duesenberg of word processing software (very old, but unsurpassed).” In itself, this isn’t all that surprising. Writers like to stick with what they know, either out of habit or superstition, and in particular, science fiction and fantasy authors have a tendency to persist in writing on antiquated systems, even as they allow their imaginations to roam far into the future. And although you don’t need to be a political conservative to be conservative about word processing, the two sometimes go hand in hand. Another prominent WordStar fan was the late William F. Buckley, Jr. who, when asked about his preference, said: “I’m told there are better programs, but I’m also told there are better alphabets.”
I’m particularly pleased to see WordStar singled out, because that’s the program I used to write my first novel. At the time, I was thirteen years old, and in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I pounded out a science fiction novel heavily influenced by Dune and the work of Orson Scott Card, about a religious matriarchy on a watery planet populated by intelligent fish. The computer I used was the IBM clone in my parents’ office, and I still get a little misty when I recall its clunky monitor—white on black, with each letter comprised of visible pixels—and the mysteries of navigating its operating system. I also wrote fragments of stories on an even more ancient “portable” computer that weighed about twenty pounds and resided for about a year on the desk in my bedroom. It didn’t have a hard drive, but it had a keyboard and amber display, and that was all I needed. (All of what I wrote there, sadly, has been lost forever, and if it still exists at all, it’s on a floppy disk that would require considerable archaeological ingenuity to read.)
Like most of us, I’ve since moved on to Word, but I can understand the impulse to remain loyal to what you find familiar: I wrote my first novel as an adult on Word 4.0, and resisted making any upgrades for a long time. (I still think the latest version has too many bells and whistles, but I’ve managed to get used to it.) Part of this can be chalked up to sentimentality: just as many of us tend to believe that popular music peaked around the time we got our first girlfriend or boyfriend, writers tend to cling to whatever tool or system they used at the time of their first great success. But there’s a practical element to it as well. Much of writing, as I’ve said many times before, boils down to habit, and writers are rightly nervous about upsetting the intricate balance of routines and rituals that they’ve developed over the years. Even the most productive writer knows that he’s one bad morning away from the hell of writer’s block, and it makes sense to persist in whatever works, when we’re surrounded by a universe of doubtful alternatives.
And it’s possible that these writers are on to something. I once asked Stanley Schmidt, the legendary former editor of Analog, why he continued to write acceptance and rejection slips on a typewriter, rather than a computer, and his answer was simple: it’s faster. With a typewriter, you just roll in a fresh sheet of paper, type the message, and slide it into the envelope the author has hopefully provided, and you don’t need to worry about saving and printing. WordStar benefits from a similar simplicity. You aren’t distracted by fonts or anything more than the most rudimentary formatting, and you don’t need to worry about how the text will look on the screen: like the Model T Ford, WordStar will show you any color you like, as long as it’s black. Ultimately, it’s just you and the story, and if it isn’t working, there’s no way to fool yourself otherwise. Most of us, of course, will continue to write on a piece of technology far too advanced for our real needs. But in the end, the words are the stars.