10:21:15 How I Write When I Write

Novelists sometimes choose idiosyncratic writing tools. Hemingway used carpenter pencils for his first drafts. He subsequently typed the draft out on a typewriter [standing up].

[ed text editor]

I always felt, however, a key advantage to composing on a computer [which Hemingway didn't have] was no re-entry of what you write out by hand: You get to rewriting sooner.

That said, I was never happy with word processor programs. Microsoft Word, as an example, appeared to cost more energy than it saved me. Font choices? An infinity of formatting choices? Writing a novel is not desktop publishing. It's only plain words.

So I looked around for a way to simply write text files, nothing more. I remembered a unix command-line editor I ran across working at a software company [that later submarined]. In the computer world, Ken Thompson's ed is antediluvial, dating from 1971 & obviously pre-PC.

I vaguely recalled in ed navigating a text file meant cryptic commands like +3 and -2 to get from one line to another [no WYSIWYG]. But writing a novel draft is analogous to turning a screw: No navigating of the text file needed. I thought ed might be the best tool for generating one digitized word after another.

Because a novelist absolutely has to get the story down, it is pure mule work. My goal on novel drafts has always been 1,000 words a day, every day, until I'm done. I have an hour to 90 minutes for this. So when I got reacquainted with ed, I was surprised at how how well it met my needs.

As I said, what drives my mule-like morning routine is word count. But ed doesn't give word count; it gives byte counts each time the file is saved. My style of writing give 5.5 bytes for each word. So when I hit 5,500 each day, I quit.

In less than three months, I finished a 72,000-word novel draft and give ed credit for not slowing me down.

So why would I recommend ed for a wordsmith? I'd say it comes down to just enough computing resources to do the job. Getting the story down as Hemingway famously did with carpenter pencils is anything but desktop publishing.

But then perhaps I've a "less is more" bias [My car lacks power steering; I have a fixed-gear bicycle — better road feel for both rides]. That feeling is the sum of things there [and things not there]. When I ride my fixie bike, it seems to know why I ride. Similarly, when I invoke ed, the text editor, it seems to know why I write. An illusion, sure, but also a harmony that goes with being responsible for all of it and staying focussed [without any distracting help balloons!].

Note: An earlier version of this essay was published at slashdot.org.

Image credit: Charlie Dickinson

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

Also, a flash fiction, "Ylena Thinks Nyet," is at Cigale Literary Magazine.

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