It All Started When: Charles Stross

Charles Stross is the award-winning author of acclaimed SF series such as Accelerando, the Merchant Princes, the Laundry novels, as well as stand-alone works such as Glasshouse.

My first typewriter died of metal fatigue when I was 16.

I’m not making this up: it was an ultra-compact manual journalist’s typewriter from the 1950s, an Imperial Aristocrat, that my sister had acquired for typing classes at school. I got hold of it aged 12 when she went to university, and hammered it so hard that the wire armatures connecting the keys to the type-arms began snapping. Parts were rare, so eventually my parents caved and bought me a newer, heavier, German portable (also manual) as a birthday present. I didn’t kill it, but over the next five years I wore a shiny spot on the space bar under my left thumb, which developed a corresponding callus.

Mind you, the manual typewriter was a step up. I’d tried writing fiction long-hand when I was 8; I gave up after a couple of pages. (Left-handedness and a tendency towards writers cramp doesn’t help my penmanship.) Later on, aged 11, an English teacher — whose name I have sadly forgotten — set my class a work assignment; we were going to write a story of our own, and fill an entire exercise book (over the course of an entire term). I was one of three boys in my class of thirty who filled two. I never managed more than two pages a day, but I kept coming back to it. Writing, if it’s going to go anywhere, has to become a habit.

I kept on using the typewriter. It was the mid-1970s, and Dungeons and Dragons had just arrived in the UK; the typewriter made my dungeon notes much easier to read, and clear enough that I could send my monsters to the column for user-contributed horrors in “White Dwarf” (from where they eventually migrated into the D&D canon). Around the time I turned 14 I began writing my first novel. You wouldn’t want to read it — or the dozen that followed, clogging up lever-arch files with single-spaced lines and minimal margins. It would be another couple of years before I learned that there was an expected format for manuscripts.

Nobody taught me to type. I was at a single-sex school in the 1970s, in England, and typing was a course that girls took to train them for a career as a secretary in the office typing pool. Nobody even thought boys needed to go anywhere near a keyboard until, some time in the dog days of the 1970s, coterminous with the arrival of Thatcherism, computers began to appear in schools. It would be another five years before I had my first word processor (an Amstrad PCW — a strange British throwback to the green-screen age of CP/M, that sold by the million to those who couldn’t afford the £5000 price of an early PC).

The word processor did something odd to my prose: for the first time, revision and rewriting became cost-free. That, combined with discovering a postal writers workshop, made an enormous difference. For the first time, in my early twenties, I began to polish my writing. Those early years of hammering on a manual typewriter made me fanatical about trying to get it right the very first time; even today, I try to produce a first draft that is of submission quality.

Like this.

http://locusmag.com/Magazine/Digital.html

9 thoughts on “It All Started When: Charles Stross

  • January 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm
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    We all remember our first typewriters. Mine’s still with me, a Smith Corona Galaxie. I break it out when I’m feeling blocked and want to get back to Square One.

    As for learning to type, well, I picked up one of those “touch typing in ten easy lessons” booklets. As I recall, I only got through five lessons before launching into literary creationism—the rest was practice, practice, practice.

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  • January 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm
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    Hey! ‘Oo nicked my nonage?

    After I killed my dad’s elegantly aging Brother machine, my first and only very own manual typewriter was one of those late cheap Imperials that you had to make like the Phantom of the Opera to work. Then I moved on by stages to that… inimitable… Amstrad PCW – marvelling at the new and magical feasibility of serious redrafting – and thence to PC word processing, and finally to self-taught touch-typing because I couldn’t get chopsticks to exceed 45wpm, and this was finally becoming an intolerable irritation.

    Finding myself temporarily computerless and climbing the walls in consequence, I broke out the old Imperial as a desperation measure, and was seriously irritated to discover that both my reflexes and my joints had grown too wimpy to get any good out of it. Even my Ungoliantish longhand had become a better alternative. But I did love that engine once: shall never forget one memorable and ridiculously luggage-beset journey, in which I ended up wheeling it behind me on a makeshift rig like a whippet on a string.

    Happy days, or at very least their happily recalled highlights. Ah, the sweet smell of Tipp-ex, and the joyous clatter of a whole page being retyped in the aftermath of some tragically irredeemable error!

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  • January 2, 2011 at 12:30 am
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    I also started with a manual that had been used in a typing class, and it more or less forced you to learn touch-typing since all the keys were blank! The idea was that in the typing class you’d have a big keyboard chart at the front of the room and thus have to learn the keys by touch. I later took such a class, which was about as useful as anything I took in high school.

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  • January 2, 2011 at 1:02 am
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    I remember I first took typing in high school. Our school board was just beginning to realize that computers were here to stay and that boys might need to know how to use a keyboard too. My first home computer was a little 16k paperweight from Radio Shack. But the one I started to learn to use was the school’s ICON computer. A network system built specifically for the school board that froze if more then ten people were using it at once. Oddly now when I mention that to my friends and others, they look at me like I was using one of those old room filling computers no one’s ever heard of.

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  • January 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm
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    The discipline of writing clearly and understandably.
    Yes. There are other routes to this. Trying to get scientific reports and paers in fit form for publication is another.
    Sadly (perhaps) in my case it hasn’t led towards publishable fiction, though I can still write a mean essay.

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  • January 3, 2011 at 9:00 pm
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    I wrote my first copywriting projects on an electric typewriter (I simply wasn’t man enough for a manual), though I quickly moved onto a 128K Mac, which only barely ran faster.

    I still consider a typewriter an instrument of torture, and in fact blame them for the rampant alcoholism found among yesterday’s writers (today we have Twitter to blame).

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  • January 5, 2011 at 10:45 am
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    I’m an example of reverse evolution, Charlie. I had a Smith-Corona electric that my mother gave me when I graduated from high school, but I couldn’t stand the noise. So worked with a succession of manual typewriters for some years. Began writing first drafts in longhand back in the eighties, and still do it, though now I dictate into the machine via MacDictate for later drafts.

    Joe

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  • January 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm
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    The fact that tyoday there are so many Tomes ie Books of up to 1,000 pages many that would be better if shorter is because it is so easy to add using a word processer. Names and incidents can be changed added to or extended without all the rewriting and fitting in that would be neccessary if using a typewriter or writing long hand.

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