I am a quintessentially late adopter. Even when I have been pushed through the airtight seal into the orbiting 21st century, I’m not one who expects to find anything much good coming from the new technology at my command.
Mainly, of course, because it’s NOT at my command. It goes its own way. Sometimes it’s too fast for me and whizzes onto the next page, next program. And freezes. Or it’s too slow, so that I lose confidence and try to go back. And it freezes.
This is true of laptops, desktops, tablets, E-readers. The whole boiling. I hate ’em.
Except that they make my writing life just a little bit, well, easier.
Conviction Tiffler Addicted to Micro-editing
If, like Autocorrect, you don’t recognise the term, I borrowed it from a woman who was once my editor. What she actually said was — in a public restaurant, quite loudly — “If you don’t stop tiffling with that sodding book, I shall come round with chloroform and forceps and remove it surgically.”
And, although I bridled a bit, I did know what she meant by tiffling. It is compulsive micro-editing. And I’d nearly killed a tiffler, just the week before.
He was one of those men who couldn’t read without a pen in his hand. (He may have done crossword puzzles.) But basically he regarded the written page as, at best, one half of a conversation. I don’t know whether he had a massive ego, a serious philosophical turn of mind or just hated listening to other people. But give him something to read and he was jolly well going to make sure that he had his say too.
The Tiffler Confused
This was in the days when no senior man had keyboard skills. Typing was a woman’s job. He would have a secretary to type his great thoughts.
In the case of the Tiffler, who was a very Top Chap indeed, the designated secretary typed and retyped his micro-editing many times. He was known to the secretariat as TDD – Ten Draft Denzil.
Although the institution’s personnel management was still set firmly in the 1950s (or earlier), we did actually possess some fairly advanced technology for the times. Top Chaps each had a computer terminal on his desk. Denzil had no idea how to turn his on. His sainted secretary logged him in every morning just before he arrived.
I am the most junior member of this team. They know I write novels. So I can type the thing out for them, right?
Denzil, in fact, hands over to me a scrawled sheet of hieroglyphics with a benevolent smile. He clearly expects me to seize it with eagerness and jump to it.
“No,” I say.
The Tiffler Confounded
Five pairs of eyes fix on me. One in blank astonishment. The others in varying degrees of weariness, sympathy and outright pleading. One of them says, “Why not?”
Three reasons: I have no idea how to work the WP machines; management will kill me if they find I have touched the things, not being qualified; the secretaries will kill me if I bugger up the temperamental machines, which is only too possible. And fourth reason: it is not my job.
Eventually, sheer humanity and the thought of the warm fire and supper waiting for them all at home, push me to say I’ll try to do it on the computer system.
“But,” I say, fighting a rearguard action for self-respect, “you must read it out to me, because I can’t make head or tail of that. And I will do it once and only once. So make sure that damned draft is what you really want to send.”
Geoff, my immediate boss, writes the whole compost heap out again in his best handwriting and stands at my shoulder, reading it aloud, as sonorous as a bishop. Denzil stands at my other shoulder, interpolating, arguing (often with himself), peering at the screen and changing his mind. Once he even tries to make a correction on the computer screen with his biro. One of the others holds him back.
Eventually, I wrestle the alien system into some sort of compliance, sweat over the typing, proof read it, as does Geoff, and print off the letter. Geoff retrieves it from the printer and gives it to Denzil to sign.
Denzil takes it to a nearby desk, sits down, clicks his biro in readiness and lowers his hand to the top of the page….
Four agonised souls and me draw a sharp breath.
The Dangerous Moment
I should explain here, what Ten Draft Denzil actually did when a letter was put in front of him. He would read it like a teacher correcting homework. And he inserted as he went. And then — my word, good heavens, those three sentences I’ve just added in biro, they were already there in Paragraph 2 now I’ve got to it. Ho, ho, ho. Well, maybe let’s see what it looks like the other way round, anyway. “Just run it through again, Suzanne.”
Did I say she was a saint? How she didn’t eviscerate the idiot, I have never understood.
So now he happily leans forward, pen poised, long nose quivering, about to start his customary micro-editing. And Geoff launches himself like a ninja and seizes the biro before it can so much as touch the paper.
I say, “If you change anything in that letter, you do the typing yourself, Denzil. I mean it.”
Geoff says kindly, “She really does, Denzil. Sign it or leave it until Monday. Your choice.”
The Micro-editing Writer Restrained
It was, of course, infuriating. And the problem is: I now realise that I do the very same thing. As Jacqui told me, of course.
In my defence, I don’t do it to anyone else. It’s me I’m torturing with umpty-um drafts of That Chapter, That Paragraph, That Sentence. But at least I’m not idiot enough to try to cross things out on a screen.
There comes a point in every book’s life when all it needs is its author to sit down and read it. Just that. Read it. As an ordinary reader would. No pen in hand. No thumping great pile of pages to wade through — and pick up when they get knocked onto the floor by the cat. Nothing to interrupt the flow.
And by golly, that’s what an e-reader will give you in spades. I don’t even notice That Paragraph as I gallop through my story. The novel looks like all the other books I read on my Kindle.
On a good day with the wind behind me, I can even forget I’ve written it. Bliss.