PROSE MECHANICS EVOLUTION!
How the Writing Process has Changed Over the Past 45 Years
By Ronald Kelly
A random comment or two on a Twitter post a few days ago led Sadie Hartmann (known by those of us who love and cherish her as Mother Horror) to ask me to elaborate on the way writers have performed the physical process of turning prose into the printed word over the years. In my case, it has been 45 years since the writing bug first bit me – rather hard – at the age of 15.
Not to sound like some grizzled, old dog horror writer (which, truthfully, I am), but today’s writers just don’t realize how easy they have it. I’m not talking about the creative process itself; that’s always been hard work, along with developing technique and finding your own distinct voice. What I’m referring to is the actual physicalway we write and submit our work for publication. A lot of young writers have only known the current and modern way; writing on a computer and then, after editing and polishing, saving it digitally and emailing it off to potential editors and publishers. But for those of us who have been doing this for a while – and by a while, I mean twenty years or more – the physical act of writing has evolved over the years, from methods that are now considered crude and unproductive to the high-tech, internet-driven processes we have readily available today.
This is my story… how the act of writing and submitting work changed, quite dramatically, within a span of nearly fifty years.
Midway through the 1970s, during my junior year in high school, I
made the decision to abandon a longstanding desire to be a comic book artist and focus solely on writing short stories and novels. I was young, naïve, and full of lofty dreams of being the next Stephen King. As my junior year stretched into my senior year, I began to commit my ideas to paper, mostly college-ruled notebooks and legal pads. This was not a bad way to start out writing and I know professional authors today who still pen their first rough draft in longhand, before taking it to the next level. There is a definite advantage to committing your thoughts and ideas to paper through the physical act of longhand, especially if your inspiration is coming at a fast and frenetic pace.
Of course, after a while, you had the desire to actually see your work typed out in neat, uniform rows, much as it would be on the printed page of the book. It was then that you would crave ownership of the magical word machine known as a typewriter. I’m certain there were probably electric typewriters in 1977, but they were mostly for office or corporate use and were incredibly expensive. So, most students and novice writers had to depend on the manual version. My first manual typewriter was a fossil; an old 1920 Underwood Number 5. You know the kind; the ones you see newspaper reporters use in all those black and white 30s and 40s movies. Tall, industrially aesthetic, and heavy as lead at a solid 40 pounds, the Underwood Number 5 only came in the color black, the same as Henry Ford’s Model-T. The one I had came from a storage room of the tool and die company my father worked at, after the front office had been updated to more modern machinery. To say that it was intimidating to sit before is practically an understatement. I always felt like some lowly, unworthy sinner standing before some dark and somber cathedral. Given that the typewriter was nearly sixty years old, it had it’s share of quirks and problems. Changing the ink-infused cotton ribbon was like threading an old-time movie projector and the long type arms tended to bind and stick, especially on the A, E, and I… the most commonly-used letters in the English language. Also, the letters tended to either smear or imprint lightly on the paper you were typing on, causing the text on the page to appear unappealing and sometimes downright illegible.
When I was seventeen, my parents got me another manual typewriter for Christmas. It wasn’t brand new; precision typing equipment was still expensive then, especially for families of limited income such as mine. They bought mine second-hand through a classified ad in the newspaper. It was a 1955 Royal Quiet Deluxe and it was a creamy pink in color. My dad wasn’t very keen on his son having a pink typewriter, but I was just glad to have a decent one that worked smoothly with no contrary keys to slow me down (I’ve since discovered that, as far as the Quiet Deluxe was concerned, pink was the most popular color that it came in). The ribbon changed easier than the old Underwood. It still wound from spool to spool, from one side to the other, and most ribbons were two-toned, with black on the top and red on the bottom, with a switch built into the typewriter to switch from one color to the other. It was on this typewriter that I typed my first short stories and, eventually, a couple of novels that never saw publication. I was just testing the waters at that time, getting the feel of turning my thoughts and ideas into credible, saleable prose.
After graduating high school and entering the workforce, I struggled with the little pink Royal for a while, then got the hankering to indulge in more modern
technology. Electric typewriters were becoming more and more affordable, and a
personal home model would run you between two hundred and fifty to three hundred dollars in the early 80s. Having my own money to invest in a new machine, I chose the Smith Corona SL 400. It was a smooth piece of technology with automatic return (instead of having to manual shift the roller carriage yourself) and a clever revolving type wheel that you could interchange for different fonts. It was on this typewriter that I wrote the first few novels that I submitted to several New York literary agents, including the Scott Meredith Agency, which represented me during my years with Zebra Books.
This is the point in the narrative where I should tell you exactly what an aspiring or professional writer had to endure at that time. First, you would type a rough draft of a story or novel, then a second version, painstakingly correcting and editing as you went. That involved many realms of typing paper and ribbon cartridges. After a presentable copy was completed, you would go to the local library to have it photocopied or find someone who worked somewhere that had a business copier. Home copiers were pretty much out of the question in the early 80s. They were too expensive and so were the cartridges that they went through at an annoying fast rate. These days, you can run out to Walmart and buy a good copier that copies, scans, and faxes for fifty bucks or under. Back then, one that simply copied could cost you five hundred bucks or more.
Anyway, after the copying, there was the submission process. When I started submitting short stories to small press horror magazines like Cemetery Dance, Deathrealm, Eldritch Tales and Grue, you kept a physical copy for yourself and mailed the other to the publisher with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Then you waited. Sometimes you didn’t hear anything for three to nine months, sometimes a year or more. But you didn’t agonize over it. You just kept on writing and submitting, hoping something would catch an editor’s eye and net you a sale. There was no internet to speak of at that time, so everything was done via snail mail and that’s how the process pretty much remained until the year 2000 or so.
The Smith Corona SL 400 served me well, but when it finally went on the blink in 1987 due to a bad circuit board, it turned out to be a real pain in the ass. The writing of my first certified horror novel, Hindsight, was put on hold for three months while my typewriter languished on a dusty shelf at the local Smith Corona repair shop, awaiting a replacement for the defective part. I often wonder if it were fickled Fate taking a hand in the grand scheme of things and if the novel would have even been accepted by Kensington Publishing if the timeline had proceeded differently. I guess we’ll never really know.
At the end of the 80s, I had finally reached a lifelong goal and was officially a professional, published author. Dozens of my stories had appeared in leading small press magazines and anthologies, and mass market publisher Kensington had bought two novels for their Zebra Books horror line. After finishing the second book, Pitfall, I proceeded to the next step in cutting edge writing technology: the word processor. The word processor was mainly an electric typewriter with a monitor and a hard drive with which to save your work on floppy disk. You could also edit, polish, and delete during the writing process, which saved you a small fortune in correction tape and Liquid Paper. After your story was saved and ready, you merely pressed a button and the typewriter would act as a printer, delivering a slick, pristine copy of your work. I chose the Smith Corona PWP System 14. The setup was easy to work with, but its black screen with stark green text would absolutely kill your eyes after sitting there for hours at a time.
I had been publishing books with Zebra for three years before I finally decided to buy a personal computer. The physical process of writing, printing, and submitting work by mail was as it always had been. The internet was still in its infancy and email hadn’t yet been implemented as a viable way to transmit your literary files to agents or publishers. So, where did I go to get my first PC? Why, good ol’ Radio Shack, of course. The Tandy 1000 was the one I chose and I ended up writing novels like Fear, Blood Kin, and Hell Hollow on it. Being a computer novice, I had no idea that the system was outdated and basically obsolete in the rapidly-evolving PC market. It had limited storage space and Radio Shack retired the model in 1994. I put my Model 1000 to good use until 1996.
This is the point in the story where you say “Whoa! Didn’t you just say that you used that last PC until 1996? So, why did you wait so long to buy another one?”
That’s because, in October of 1996, Kensington unceremoniously shut down the Zebra Horror line and I was abruptly without a job. So I stopped writing, period, for ten long years. Part of my decision was due to my frustration at having lost my publishing career and my inability to find another publisher who was willing to publish horror after the devastating Horror Implosion of the mid-Nineties. The other part was my sincere belief, as a Christian, that God had had a hand in ending my writing career because He simply didn’t want me writing the stuff. I no longer believe that way, but I did back then.
So, when I finally decided to come back to the horror genre in 2006 (after the encouragement of fans and friends), I discovered that the ways of writing and submitting had changed quite a bit. Sending your work off via the United Postal System was pretty much a thing of the past. Manuscripts were transmitted to editors and publishers through email, much the way Scotty beams Kirk, Spock, and the poor, doomed Red Shirts to the planet’s surface during an away mission.
To tell the truth, I was completely ignorant of the new process and had to scramble to update my knowledge of the publishing industry and the tools with which to best compete in it. A week or so after I decided to launch my comeback, I went to BestBuy and bought an HP Pavilion Media Center TV M7470n Desktop.
The HP M7470 served me well in the years to come. I began to submit new work and edit and prepare the old Zebra novels for republication as the Essential Ronald Kelly Collection, which Thunderstorm Books released in limited edition hardcovers between 2011 and 2015. Through the years since, I’ve stuck with the HP brand because that seems to be what suits my needs the best.
There you have it. My own personal experience with the gradual evolution of writing technology from 1975 to present day. So, when I scroll through posts on Facebook or Twitter and see today’s writers gripe and complain about how hard it is to write and submit their work, please forgive me if I smile and shake my head… and remember what I and other authors of my era had to go through to get our stories and books written, submitted, and published.
Website: Ronald Kelly: Southern Fried Horror
Twitter: Ronald Kelly
I am a huge fan of Ronald Kelly's story telling. In 2020 I read his Halloween collection, THE HALLOWEEN STORE And Other Tales of All Hallows' Eve and SEASONS CREEPINGS: Tales of Holiday Horror. Both books are fantastic additions to any horror fan's library if you love reading seasonal horror. His next book comes out in March, IRISH GOTHIC Tales of Celtic Horror. Of course I'll need this one as well. -Sadie