Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘WordStar

The joy of text

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Search query

When you’re working on any long writing project, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you’re eventually forced to deal with the problem of information management. In contrast to what a lot of readers might imagine, most writing—at least for someone like me—doesn’t consist of waiting for inspiration to strike while you’re staring at a blank page. A lot of the work and hard thinking has taken place prior to the physical act of writing a first draft, and more will come later, during the revision process. The rough draft becomes a kind of bottleneck through which ideas have to pass to get from one step to the next, and the challenge is less about coming up with good stuff in the moment than about ordering the material that you already have. If you’ve spent three months thinking about a project and six weeks in the actual writing, which isn’t an unreasonable proportion, you’re faced with the task of mapping one collection of thoughts onto another. The first set is amorphous, disorganized, and accumulated over a long stretch of time; the other needs to be set down in some orderly fashion, in a shorter period, and without forgetting anything important. As a result, many of the tools that writers develop to keep their thoughts straight are really designed to enable a lossless transfer of data in the transition between the chaos of conception and the more linear writing stage.

Over time, I’ve come up with various tricks to keep this information under control. The trouble, as with so much else in life, is that the approaches that work well when you’re first starting out don’t always hold up when you graduate to more complicated projects. Early on, for instance, I used hundreds of index cards to plot out my novels, supplemented with handwritten notes and mind maps, on the belief—which I still hold—that the tactile qualities of pen on paper would generate ideas in themselves. Later, as the individual pieces became too numerous to manage, I switched to keeping track of it all in a series of text files. Without thinking too much about it, I began to use TextEdit, the default text editor that comes packaged with my MacBook. And somewhat to my surprise, I’ve realized that I use it more than any other piece of software. For the actual manuscript, I still use Microsoft Word, but for almost everything else, I turn to TextEdit without hesitation. Why? It opens instantaneously when I click on its icon, as opposed to the ten seconds or so that Word takes to boot up, which makes it ideal as a notepad for jotting down quick thoughts. Even for longer writing sessions, its lack of bells and whistles appeals to me for much the same reason that WordStar still attracts loyalists like George R.R. Martin. There’s nothing between me and the words. In fact, I’m typing the first draft of this blog post on it right now.

Notes in TextEdit

But the most interesting use I’ve made of TextEdit is as a kind of filing system for notes. Nearly all of the information I’ve assembled for Astounding, for example, currently lives on one of four text files. One contains general biographical information about John W. Campbell and my other subjects; another consists of notes gleaned from going through 12,000 pages of his correspondence; another holds similar thoughts from reading through four decades of back issues of Astounding, Unknown, and Analog; and the last houses my notes on the hundreds of science fiction stories and novels that I’m reading or rereading for this project. My notes on back issues and stories are arranged chronologically, so I can scroll down and see patterns at a glance, but with the others, I don’t bother with any kind of order: I just type the notes in the first available spot, and I don’t really care where they end up. The result is a set of huge files—the one for biographical details alone is 60,000 words long. But it doesn’t really matter how big it is, because it’s searchable. If I’m looking for a particular piece of information, I just enter a query, either in the search box within TextEdit itself or through Spotlight, which searches the entire hard drive at once. It’s very fast and generally reliable, as long as I know what to look for, and assuming that I was smart enough to peg my notes to some obvious search term in the first place. It’s as if I’ve created a small, highly specialized slice of the Internet that only returns results that have previously passed through my brain.

Needless to say, there are limitations to this approach. My ability to find anything is predicated on my capacity to remember that it exists in the first place, which is harder than it sounds, given the thousands of discrete facts that I need to keep straight for a project like this. Every few months or so, I’ll sit down and read through the whole bulk of my notes in their entirety, which takes several days, just to refresh my memory about what I’ve got. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s arguably better than trying to do the same with handwritten notes. There’s also a real loss when it comes to the physical manipulation of ideas: I still do mind maps and write down ideas in my notebook whenever possible, and I can even do a rough version of shuffling the pieces in TextEdit by copying and pasting chunks of text until they fall into an order that makes sense. (Much of this, I imagine, would be possible in programs like Scrivener, but I prefer my more flexible approach.) A lot of it also depends on how much I can keep organized in my own head. It’s impossible to imagine writing a whole book at once in this fashion, but as David Mamet once said, you eat a turkey one bite at a time. I’m familiar enough with my own attention span to know how much I can handle—usually the equivalent of three chapters or so—at any given moment. So far, it seems to be working pretty well. Taking notes, as I’ve said elsewhere, amounts to a message that you send from the past to the future. And while I still miss my cards sometimes, I’ve found that it’s easier to just text myself.

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2016 at 8:57 am

Gravity’s word processor

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The Scythian

In this week’s issue of the New York Review of Books, the literary critic Edward Mendelson outs himself as yet another fan of old-school word processors, in this case WordPerfect, which he describes as “the instrument best suited to the way I think when I write.” He goes on to draw a contrast between his favored program, “a mediocrity that’s almost always right,” and Microsoft Word, “a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose,” with its commitment to a platonic ideal of sections and styles that make it all the harder for writers to format a single page. It’s the difference, Mendelson implies, between a mindset that approaches the document from the top down, thinking in terms of templates and overall consistency, and the daily experience of a writer, who engages in direct combat with individual words and sentences, some of which have to be italicized, indented, or otherwise massaged in ways that don’t have anything to do with their neighbors. And as someone who lives comfortably within his own little slice of Word but wants to tear his hair out whenever he strays beyond it, I can’t help but sympathize.   

I happened to read Mendelson’s essay with particular interest, because I’m a longtime fan of his work. Mindful Pleasures, the collection of essays he edited on Thomas Pynchon, is one of those books I revisit every few years, and in particular, his piece on encyclopedic fiction has shaped the way I read authors from Dante to Joyce. Pynchon, of course, is a writer with more than a few ideas about how technology affects the way we live and think, and in his conclusion, Mendelson takes a cue from the master:

When I work in Word, for all its luxuriant menus and dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.

There’s more than an echo here of Gravity’s Rainbow, which pits its anarchic, cartoonish personalities against an impersonal conspiracy that finally consumes and assimilates them. And if Pynchon’s fantasy is centered on a rocket cartel that manipulates world events to its own advantage, a writer trying to wrestle a document into shape can sometimes feel like he’s up against an equally faceless enemy.


If Word can be a frustrating tool for writers, it’s because it wasn’t made for anyone in particular, but for “everyone.” As one of the core handful of programs included in the Microsoft Office suite, it’s meant to serve a wide range of functions, from hammering out a high school essay to formatting a rudimentary corporate newsletter. It’s intended to be equally useful to someone who creates a document twice a month and someone who uses it every day, which means that it’s tailored to the needs of precisely nobody. And it was presumably implemented by coders who would rebel against any similar imposition. There’s a reason why so many programmers still live in Emacs and its text-based brethren: they’re simple once you get to know them, they’re deeply customizable, and they let you keep your hands on the keyboard for extended periods of time. Word, by contrast, seems to have been designed for a hypothetical consumer who would rather follow a template than fiddle with each line by hand. This may be true of most casual users, but it’s generally not true of coders—or writers. And Word, like so much other contemporary technology, offers countless options but very little choice.

There are times, obviously, when a standard template can be useful, especially when you’re putting together something like an academic bibliography. Yet there’s a world of difference between really understanding bibliographic style from the inside and trusting blindly to the software, which always needs to be checked by hand, anyway, to catch the errors that inevitably creep in. In the end, though, Word wasn’t made for me; it was made for users who see a word processor as an occasional tool, rather than the environment in which they spend most of their lives. For the rest of us, there are either specialized programs, like Scrivener, or the sliver of Word we’ve managed to colonize. In my post on George R.R. Martin and his use of WordStar—which, somewhat embarrassingly, has turned out to be the most widely read thing I’ve ever written—I note that a writer’s choice of tools is largely determined by habit. I’ve been using Word for two decades, and the first drafts of all my stories are formatted in exactly the way the program imposes, in single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman. I’m so used to how it looks that it fades into invisibility, which is exactly how it should be. The constraints it imposes are still there, but I’ve adapted so I can take them for granted, like a deep-sea fish that would explode if taken closer to the surface, or an animal that has learned to live with gravity.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2014 at 9:38 am

The Reddit Wedding

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The front page of Reddit

Early last Sunday, after giving my daughter a bottle, putting on the kettle for coffee, and glancing over the front page of the New York Times, I moved on to the next stop in my morning routine: I went to Reddit. Like many of us, I’ve started to think of Reddit as a convenient curator of whatever happens to be taking place online that day, and after customizing the landing page to my tastes—unsubscribing from the meme factories, keeping the discussions of news and politics well out of view—it has gradually turned into the site where I spend most of my time. (It’s also started to leave a mark on my home life: I have a bad habit of starting conversations with my wife with “There was a funny thread on Reddit today…) That morning, I was looking over the top posts when I noticed a link to an article about the author George R.R. Martin and his use of the antiquated word processor WordStar to write all of his fiction, including A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones. At first, I was amused, because I’d once thought about submitting that very tidbit myself. A second later, I realized why the post looked so familiar. It was linked to this blog.

At that point, my first thought, and I’m not kidding, was, “Hey, I wonder if I’ll get a spike in traffic.” And I did. In fact, if you’re curious about what it means to end up on the front page of Reddit, as of this writing, that post—which represented about an hour’s work from almost a year ago—has racked up close to 300,000 hits, more than doubling the lifetime page views for this entire blog. At its peak, it was the third most highly ranked post on Reddit that morning, a position it held very briefly: within a few hours, it had dropped off the front page entirely, although not before inspiring well over 1,500 comments. Most of the discussion revolved around WordStar, the merits of different word processing platforms, and about eighty variations on the joke of “Oh, so that’s why it’s taking Martin so long to finish.” The source of the piece was mentioned maybe once or twice, and several commenters seemed to think that this was Martin’s blog. And the net impact on this site itself, after the initial flurry of interest, was minimal. A few days later, traffic has fallen to its usual modest numbers, and only a handful of new arrivals seem to have stuck around. (If you’re one of them, I thank you.) And it’s likely that none of this site’s regular readers noticed that anything out of the ordinary was happening at all.

My blog stats

In short, because of one random link, this blog received an influx of visitors equivalent to the population of Cincinnati, and not a trace remains—I might as well have dreamed it. But then again, this isn’t surprising, given how most people, including me, tend to browse content these days. When I see an interesting link on Reddit, I’ll click on it, skim the text, then head back to the post for the comments. (For a lot of articles, particularly on science, I’ll read the comments first to make sure the headline wasn’t misleading.) I’ll rarely, if ever, pause to see what else the destination site has to offer; it’s just too easy to go back to Reddit or Digg or Twitter to find the next interesting article from somewhere else. In other words, I’m just one of the many guilty parties in what has been dubbed the death of the homepage. The New York Times landing page has lost eighty million visitors over the last two years, and it isn’t hard to see why. We’re still reading the Times, but we’re following links from elsewhere, which not only changes the way we read news, but the news we’re likely to read: less hard reporting, more quizzes, infographics, entertainment and self-help items, as well as the occasional diverting item from a site like this.

And it’s a reality that writers and publishers, including homegrown operations like mine, need to confront. The migration of content away from homepages and into social media isn’t necessarily a bad thing; comments on Reddit, for instance, are almost invariably more capably ranked and moderated, more active, and more interesting than the wasteland of comments on even major news sites. (Personally, I’d be fine if most newspapers dropped commenting altogether, as Scientific American and the Chicago Sun-Times recently did, and left the discussion to take place wherever the story gets picked up.) But it also means that we need to start thinking of readers less as a proprietary asset retained over time than as something we have to win all over again with every post, while getting used to the fact that none of it will last. Or almost none of it. A few days after my post appeared on Reddit, George R.R. Martin was interviewed by Conan O’Brien, who asked him about his use of WordStar—leading to another burst of coverage, even though Martin’s preferences in word processing have long been a matter of record. And while I can’t say for sure, between you and me, I’m almost positive that it wouldn’t have come up if someone on Conan’s staff hadn’t seen my post. It isn’t much. But it’s nice.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2014 at 9:52 am

A Song of DOS and WordStar

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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 composed 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.)

George R.R. Martin

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.

Written by nevalalee

April 16, 2013 at 9:52 am

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