Photo of John D. Cressler
Jan 282013
 

As my family knows well, as do my students, I have a love-hate relationship with electronics technology (e-Technology) in most forms (those ubiquitous e-Gadgets). While my laptop is an essential companion and I am addicted to e-mail as a form of communication, I do not carry a cell phone, and I do not text (the horror!). I find smart phones just too intrusive, and the constant interruptions of the insidious “ding” of an incoming text disturb my sense of balance and my need to reflect/think/imagine. But I have been musing of late on the role that e-Technology has played, and is playing still, in my novel writing. Let me explain.

While I grew up writing in longhand (which has since devolved into near illegibility these days!), and have kept a journal for most of my life in longhand, the demands of academic life quickly forced me to learn to compose on a computer using a word processor (i.e., MS Word). I found this cumbersome at first, then more comfortable, then absolutely indispensable, especially with respect to productivity in my writing enterprise (my research team has published over 500 scientific papers).

When I begin to compose I start by laying down a few lines, then editing it, often trashing what I just wrote, then starting anew for another variant, and I repeat this process until the words begin to smoothly unfold in a way that pleases me. Finally, I arrive where I need to be, I find my muse, my voice, and all flows from me rather fluidly at that point. But my habit with composition (especially with fiction) is to do a paragraph at a time, and then go back edit, re-edit, write another paragraph, then re-read/re-edit from the day’s beginning, slowly but surely advancing the wordscape (admittedly at a snail’s pace!). In short, composing is a highly iterative process for me, and one that requires a ton of changes to my prose as I go. When done, I may still tweak what I wrote from time to time, but I don’t rest well with a “rough draft” in a conventional sense, instead preferring to edit/re-edit until it is 95% of what I want (hopefully 100%). It is just my creative style.

During my research for Emeralds of the Alhambra, I traveled to Spain and spent two weeks on site (Sevilla, Córdoba, Jaén and Granada). To my intense chagrin, my laptop died only a few days after arriving. Major panic! At that stage I was already about five months into my writing. One of things I had really wanted to do while in Spain was not just note taking and absorbing, but also some composing, especially while on-site inside the Alhambra while that special world was at my fingertips.

Sigh. It was back to longhand. Wow, what a chore! I filled a whole notebook with scribbling, inked blue with cross-outs and arrows and annotations and whole pages chopped up to insert elsewhere. And the ache in my hand after even an hour of writing! That, I had forgotten. This forced rediscovery of the perils of longhand composition was no surprise, in retrospect, but it did make me step back and appreciate just what a productivity boost electronic word processing brings to the novel writing business. One obvious downside of e-composing? It is not easy to look back and study the changes to an author’s prose with the various drafts as they evolve (I just saw a new book on Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms that includes the various drafts and the word changes and strikeouts and key alterations – fascinating). To at least partially get around this I date-stamp and save my manuscript as I go (every couple of weeks), so that I can look back and see how things went if I ever need to.

What are the attributes to e-composing that I enjoy most? The breeze of cut-and-paste. A quick search to locate a scene from 166 pages back I need to instantly find and re-read, or typing a character’s name in to locate all the scenes they are presently hiding in. Spell checks. Word counts. Passwords.

And then there is Google. Wow! I find that as I write, especially with historical fiction, where so many facts and people and dates are involved, there are constantly things I need to know while writing that I do not know, despite my many months of research. I call these the “unanticipated must-haves.” For example: What types of chain mail were used by knights in the fourteenth century? What did crossbows look like and how were they used? How quickly could they be fired? What was on the flag of the Kingdom of Castile in 1367? How did coinage differ between medieval Christian and Muslim kingdoms? How do you say “good morning” in Arabic? “I love you”? What names were common in the fourteenth century for Muslims and Christians, men vs. women? What did the Sufis’ believe vs. mainstream Muslims in the medieval period? When did Rumi’s poetry make it to Spain? The list is positively endless!

In the old days, one was forced (I suppose) to construct a list of daily information needs and then spend time locked in the library chasing things down. Today, I pop up Google Chrome, do a Google Search, then find a Wiki entry or a map that tells me everything I need to know. The world at my fingertips. I have found that there is a real knack to a quick data track-down of “unanticipated must-haves.” The interruption to my composition process of this search? Minimal. Five minutes to find and absorb and then I am back elbow-deep in my prose and moving forward. I cannot begin to imagine how much slower the writing process would be if the internet were not at my fingertips.

Do I maintain a love-hate relationship with e-Technology? I do. Am I a hook-line-and-sinker subscriber to e-composing with the internet at my fingertips? I am. Believe it!

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