Monday, 10 January 2011

Kindling The Flame

Recently Dick King-Smith, the author of The Sheep-Pig (the book on which the film Babe was based) died. Reporting his death on the BBC, the newsreader described how he wrote his manuscripts out in longhand with a pen before typing them up with one finger on an ancient typewriter.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve got a bit of a thing about people who fetishize the pen as the only suitable tool for writing. In this case it wasn’t so much the fact that the BBC felt it needed to include this piece of information that annoyed me, it was the reverent tone with which the newscaster spoke. I wanted to hurl the radio across the room and scream:


What counts is the storytelling, the style, the voice, the ear for dialogue, the ability to visualize, to paint word-pictures, to capture the essence of character, to construct compelling plots, to use images to convey and heighten meaning, to weave the disparate elements of a writer’s craft together into a coherent unity. But it doesn’t matter a hoot whether you do this with a pen, or a computer or whether you write it in your own blood on the whitewashed wall of your study with a paintbrush made from unicorn hair

Well, maybe the unicorn hair might make a difference but not the rest.

I like to write on a computer for a number of reasons. A very significant one is the fact that I type very quickly and I write very slowly. In fact my hand starts to hurt if I have to write more than a paragraph with a pen; and I make mistakes. I’m not even very good at signing my name consistently.

I used to be able to write when I was at school and even when I was at university. There were no personal computers then so I had no alternative. But as soon as PCs came on the market in Britain I bought one and I immediately loved it. I could cut and paste text, navigate with ease through a document, compare different versions of a passage with the click of a mouse. I had found an extension for my brain.

A few days ago I got a Kindle as a birthday present and I am similarly enamoured. It’s not just a convenient way of reading e-books, though it does that perfectly. It’s also a much better way to read manuscripts. Instead of burning your eyeballs out scouring back-lit text for a missing comma, or shuffling a heap of printed pages around your desk until you drop the lot and have to spend the next ten minutes putting them back in order, you can do the whole thing in comfort.

Every writer has to spend a lot of time proof-reading, reading to make editorial changes, reading your way back into a story that circumstances have made you put aside for a period, or just reading to see whether what you've written actually works. A Kindle allows you to do all that with consummate ease.

Today, for example, I had to look at some work in progress from my apprentice of this year. (I’ve previously blogged about my participation in the Apprenticeships In Fiction scheme here.) It was a hundred-page, single-spaced outline. I knew it would be very well-executed because this year's apprentice is an impressive individual. All the same, I didn’t fancy reading it on my computer so I sent the document to my Kindle email address. Just doing that converts it into a document that can be read on the Kindle. A few moments later I was able to sit back on my sofa and give my apprentice’s work the attention it deserved.

You can also annotate a text on the Kindle and then export your notes to your PC if you need to. I had a few notes to make about this manuscript so I inserted digital bookmarks wherever I needed to refer back to the text and summarised my concerns. Admittedly, it’s not easy writing using the Kindle’s miniscule keyboard but the more you do something, the better you get at it.

It’s just a tool, like a PC, like a biro, like a quill, like a stylus and a wax tablet but it’s a very sophisticated tool and one that integrates very well into my working methods. Of course I shall only use it when the moon is waxing. I mean no true author would write under a waning moon, now would they?


Paul Lamb said...

So many things to say about this post. To begin with, Happy Birthday!

I'm sure that reporter who idealized the use of the pen did not use one himself when he wrote his piece.

I can't imagine trying to write anything more than notes without a computer, and I prefer a mechanical pencil rather than an ink pen. (I do keep my journals in handwritten form, but still, that's with a pencil.) When I sign my big book deal (it could happen!), I intend to indulge myself with the purchase of a fine fountain pen, but I'll only use it to sign my royalty checks and autographs for those appropriately sycophantic.

So far I have a grudging respect for my new Kindle. I'm about half way through the first book I've purchased for it, and I suppose it's been okay. I still miss the feel of a book in the hand, the turn of the page, the placing of the bookmark (my children made me dozens of them when they learned their dad was a reader). I haven't tried the spoken word function yet. I don't have any trouble proofing on my computer screen, but it's a Mac so maybe that makes it superior for the creative mind in some way.

100 pages of single spaced outline??? What is he writing?

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks Paul. I hope you get that fountain pen soon.

My apprentice is a she and I can't really say what she's writing but she's very talented and very industrious.

Have you bought a cover to go with your Kindle? I got one of the leather ones and to me that does make it feel a lot like a book.

Derek said...

I agree because surely the ink wouldn't flow as well on the wane.