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Reflections: Making Backups
by Robert Silverberg


I was the youngest boy in my elementary school class, and when I became a professional science fiction writer in 1955 I was for a long time the youngest writer in the business. I am still the youngest writer ever to win a Hugo, for Most Promising New Writer in 1956. All that precocity has left its imprint on me. I continue to tend to think of myself as younger than I am, even though that Hugo, you will note, came to me exactly fifty years ago, and a glance in the mirror is enough to remind me that I am no longer in the first flush of youth. I am, in fact, a man of grandfatherly years, and as a writer I’m a kind of survivor from the Pleistocene, old enough to have been a contributor to the last few shaggy-edged pulp magazines.

There are, of course, still plenty of SF writers around who were already famous when I was just a kid, and who now, in their eighties, are still turning out books and stories. Just last year I was on a panel with three of them—Frederik Pohl, Phil Klass (William Tenn), and Harry Harrison—at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, and for that one shining hour, sitting among those sprightly codgers, I felt like a boy again.

But I’m not a boy. I’ve had one of the longest careers around, and I’m old enough to remember typewriters, and carbon paper, and manila envelopes, three of the primitive implements that were essential tools of the trade for writers when I was starting out. When, at a more recent SF convention, I found myself explaining to someone what typewriters actually were like, I got a vivid jolting sense of how much the technology of professional writing has been transformed since my earliest days in the business.

The typewriter, for instance: I still keep mine sitting on a side desk in my office as a sort of museum piece. I bought it in 1968, because I needed a new one to replace the one I lost in a fire that wrecked my home that year, but it’s essentially identical to the one I was using when I won that first Hugo in 1956. It’s a German-made item, an Olympia: a big sturdy box-shaped object with a keyboard that looks something like a computer keyboard, a roller-plus-knobs thingy that allows you to insert a sheet of paper, and a chrome-plated lever on one side that you pull to advance the paper when you’ve reached the end of the line. A little bell goes “ping” to tell you that it’s lever-pulling time. Since each line you typed contained about ten words, and we were usually paid by the word then, each “ping” announced that the writer would earn a dime at the bottom rate of a cent a word, twenty cents if his story was going to a two-cent-a-word market, thirty cents if it sold to Astounding or Galaxy, the two top-paying magazines.

Some writers of the Fifties used electric typewriters, but mine was the manual kind. The electrics, though they required less muscle-power, made an annoying hum, two or three times as loud as the hum that computers make today, and I found that too distracting. I also was in the habit of resting my fingers on the keys while thinking, and some electrics had such jackrabbit calibration that it was all too easy to type a whole string of unwanted letters during a pause of that sort. Which was a problem, because you didn’t just back up your cursor and get rid of such unwanted letters then: they were permanently there, marring the paper you were typing on.

Of course, it was hard work banging away on a manual typewriter, and my refusal to switch to an electric seemed a little quaint to some of my colleagues. But, what the hell, I was young then and had plenty of energy, and in a perverse way I enjoyed the physical demands of pounding on the keyboard. (The only writer I know who still uses a manual typewriter is Harlan Ellison. He isn’t exactly young any more either, but he’s mighty stubborn.)

One big problem we had, back then, was the riskiness of depending on typed copy. Today’s computer-using writers can back up each day’s work on diskettes, or ZIP drives, or any one of a number of other sophisticated data-storage devices, or they can simply e-mail it to a web site that will store it for them. The closest we could come to making backups back then was to use carbon paper, a messy substance that you slipped between two sheets of conventional typing paper: as you hit the typewriter keys, the impact on the carbon-paper sheet in the middle of the sandwich created a more or less legible duplicate of what you were typing on the sheet below. This gave you an identical copy that you could store in some place other than where you were keeping your primary copy.

That system didn’t work so well if you were the sort of writer who typed out a first draft, revised it by hand, and then retyped the whole shebang (or had it retyped professionally) for submission to a publisher. First-draft writing involves a lot of second thoughts as you work; you rephrase stuff, crossing out earlier rejected versions, and sometimes striking out whole paragraphs or even pages. I often wound up with only four or five lines of useful copy on a page. Doing that when you were using two sheets of paper at a time was wasteful and expensive, something to consider in the days when a five-thousand-word story might bring a writer fifty dollars, before taxes. It was also a nuisance when you were zooming along through a first draft in the white heat of creation to pause at the end of every page and assemble a new paper-plus-carbon-paper sandwich. And when you worked over your typed first draft by hand, the changes you made didn’t automatically turn up on the carbon copy—you had to inscribe them there too, separately, if you wanted to keep an accurate backup version of your current draft. If you didn’t, you risked the loss of all your revisions if something happened to your one and only copy of the manuscript, and I heard plenty of horror stories from my colleagues of just such losses.

Making a photocopy of each day’s work would have been a neat solution. Ah, but photocopiers didn’t come into general use until the 1960s, and when they did they were the size of SUVs and cost thousands of dollars. Large companies could own them, but not the average science fiction writer. (I bought my first photocopier somewhere around 1980, a huge, expensive thing that was maddening to use. It too is a museum-piece in my office today; I use it as the table on which my nifty pint-sized modern copier sits.)

When I was writing Lord Valentine’s Castle in 1978, a long, complex novel on which I was essentially gambling the whole economic future of my career, one thing that caused me no little concern was the possibility that a fire or earthquake might destroy my precious copy of my ongoing draft somewhere during the many months of composition. (This was not quite as irrational as it may sound; only ten years before, remember, I had had that fire in my previous house that sent me out into the middle of the night with the half-finished manuscript of my latest book under my arm. And now that I had moved to California, I was living about a thousand yards from one of the most dangerous earthquake faults in the state.) So what I did was store my first-draft copy in a small disused refrigerator in my office, which I hoped might protect it against fire, and every time I finished a hundred pages or so I took them down to the office where my ex-wife was working and had her use the company machine to run off two or three photocopies, which I would store in various places on and off the premises. The process took an hour or so.

It sounds like a ghastly system. It was. But that was how we went about making backups as recently as 1978. Eventually, of course, you finished the first draft. But most first drafts are too messy to show to a publisher, so the whole thing (650 pages in the case of Lord Valentine’s Castle) had to be retyped. I could have hired a typist to prepare a submission draft for me, but I liked to revise even while retyping, so I did it all myself, at a pace of some twenty pages a day—more than a month to retype the whole thing.

Then, of course, the manuscript had to go to the agent or book publisher in New York. Today we e-mail them in: instantaneous, inexpensive. But e-mail, in 1978? Don’t be silly. We used the U.S. Postal Service to get our copy to New York. You stuffed your paper manuscript into a manila envelope that you hoped was sturdy enough to hold together on its journey across the country, stuck the postage on it (and, if you were submitting a short story to a magazine, usually enclosed another manila envelope with an equal amount of postage on it so you could get your manuscript back in case the story was rejected) and, muttering a prayer or two, sent it off. Five, six, seven days later it reached its destination, if all went well.* (We didn’t use FedEx. FedEx didn’t exist yet either.)

To modern writers it must seem appalling, and I suppose it was. But we had no alternatives in that ancient era. Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov all wrote and submitted their stories and books that way—typewriter, carbon paper, manila envelope, post office—and so did I. Then came computers, and everything changed. By then, I had come to hate the typewriter with a terrible passion, having followed Valentine with an even longer novel that required close to three months of retyping to produce a final draft, and in 1982 I bought myself a state-of-the-art computer with a gigantic 10-megabyte hard disk so that future final drafts could be generated just by telling the thing to print one for me. Nearly all the other writers of the typewriter era made the same changeover sooner or later, and those horrible old days seem like nothing more than a bad dream today.

I am, by now, behind the curve once again. After acquiring all the usual gadgets of the era I seem to have contracted gizmo fatigue in this very electronic new century, and I upgrade my computer only when I’m absolutely forced to by the obsolescence of the systems I use. (Isaac Asimov was like that too. He had a modest sort of computer toward the end, but he never even owned a fax machine, and I doubt very much that he’d be an e-mail user if he were alive today.) So I limp along with Windows 98, I have not acquired any of the snazzy new computer accessories of the past five years, and I still use diskettes for my backups. None of that is a problem for me. I’m not all that active as a writer these days, and my current computer setup is good enough for my needs, however laughable it must seem to the likes of today’s writers. If I were thirty-five instead of seventy-plus, no doubt I’d install a zorch port and a frammis storage unit just as they have. But I’m content with my equipment. Zorches and frammises will seem ludicrously obsolete ten years from now, so why, say I, bother to learn how to use them? And to anyone who remembers typewriters and carbon paper and sending in typewritten manuscripts by first class mail, the system I use seems downright miraculous as it stands. Yearning to improve on miracles seems to me like tempting the vengeance of the gods.

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"Reflections: Making Backups" by Robert Silverberg , copyright © 2006 Agberg, with permission of the author.

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