Let Me Finish

Computers cursed writers with a potentially infinite revision process. Using handwritten drafts during NaNoWriMo brought me home.

Last Sunday night on Twitter I ran across one of those Tweets that tells you about yourself. By which I mean, I learned something I thought was a deeply private humiliation is in fact a glass mountain many other writers try to climb: the practice of using determined aspirational file names (“FinalFinal.v.3.docx”) to try to announce to ourselves that this time — really, really this time — we are going to finish that novel.

The ego wants the novel to be done before the novel is done, as I learned eventually, after 8 or so years of typing these file names on at least 250 drafts of my novel. I had begun the practice of renaming drafts if major changes occurred back during the writing of my first novel, but that was not a good plan for a second novel, once that novel grew longer, eventually three times the size of that first novel. In 2008, for example, determined to finish, I first began using “queen.final.” By 2013, typing “final” on any of the files brought down waves of scalding self-mockery. By 2015, when I was really finishing, I stopped using “final.” By then it seemed, if anything, more like a sign I would not finish.

The novel doesn’t care what the ego wants. You can type “final” into a file name as many times as you want and the end will not come until you’ve figured the novel out. Stamping your foot under a half blank screen won’t help. I was struggling with the technology involved in being a writer as much as I was struggling with the writing itself. The existential question for those of us writing on word processing software: How do you finish a book when you could always fix something?

I am a writer who began on a typewriter in 1984, and by 1986, first began using a computer owned by my only friend who could afford one. The rest of us otherwise used the computers in the computer center.

His computer was the size of a small suitcase, and cost more than I dared ask. The screen looked like a paragraph or two, the screen black with letters glowing in a yellow-green light. We call it dark mode now but it was the default. Courier was the only typeface, and as you typed, a glowing cursor waited on the screen, like a glowing door from which anything could emerge. I liked it.

But then the cursor went away, and the door was gone. And Microsoft Word gave us all of these fonts. Soon it seemed that as you wrote, you were typing into an electronic version of the book on a white page, a book that already existed somehow. This strange illusory version of first try best try, good at one go, contradicted the fact of a software program that made the text permanently revisable.

96,000 words, 96,000 things that can go wrong, as I often joked during the many years of revising The Queen of the Night.

Many of us loved the Word fonts when they first appeared, but this was at least part of the problem, at first. The neat-looking page that looks like the book you want to write is actually an obstacle to producing the messy first draft you need to make. As a writing teacher, I know well that most student writers are trying to overcome the illusion that the works they love best come from some orderly process that is beyond them, and not the chaotic one they see in their own drafts. And it was too easy to undo what had been done, for all it seemed permanent. I needed a revision process that ended, more than I needed a device I could go to at any time, where I could accidentally delete something at 3AM that represented days, even months of work.

I first openly fought with this weirdly doubled illusion — that the text was permanent but also permanently revisable, during the summer of 1998 when it felt like I kept revising — and ruining — the first 30 pages of my first novel’s manuscript. Three years into my work on my second novel, The Queen of the Night, I took to using a vintage Olympia typewriter, like the one Patricia Highsmith preferred, because the paradoxical feeling of “writing” a book onto a surface that already looked like a book, but could also be revised forever, paralyzed me. When I named these different files this sad, horrible way, using “final,” it was an aspirational gesture. “The boy who cried ‘novel,’ as I put it. Or really, “the boy who cried ‘I finished my novel.’”

If you want to see the change to Microsoft Word that I’m speaking of at high speed, please click through to the Version Museum, where you can scroll down a series of screens that shows you what it has looked like to log into Microsoft Word over the years.

In 2017, a year after I published that second novel, The Queen of the Night, I discovered a solution for myself. I participated in Nanowrimo as I waited for proofs on my third book, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel (which is not a how to book, but not not a how to book). I wrote in a notebook for an hour each day, and at the end of the month I began typing the handwritten pages up. It was one of the most satisfying writing experiences I’ve ever had — to just write for an hour, by hand, and then to type it up and revise it later. This was a process I had used back during the writing of my first novel, and had learned it from Janet Frame, when she described her process — to write longhand, for a first draft, and to type it up to create a second draft — in her autobiography. I wasn’t ever distracted by font when writing by hand. I wasn’t distracted at all. A paper notebook communicates only with your ideas. And after the pages were handwritten, the pages I was typing up had all my attention. It was easy to ignore social media and email, and the printed pages have no notifications on them. Long ago, I had switched to typing drafts directly into my computer to ‘save time’ but no time is saved if you can’t settle on a decision, or if your screen is constantly flickering with the horrible possibility of connection.

Once this was done, I began using another old school method for any eventual further drafts: printing a manuscript, marking it up and retyping it, with corrections, into a new file. It reproduces the same mix of energy, continuity and decision making.

That 2017 NaNoWriMo month draft turned into 127 pages, and I enjoyed writing it, all of it. I didn’t obsess endlessly over the minutiae in the same way as the previous. I was able to make decisions and move on. And while I didn’t end up going forward with that novel, I learned something about what I needed as a writer in the age of the computer: a finite process that makes use of the best of computers and paper notebooks.

Any doubts I had about this approach vanished when I watched a short charming interview clip also going around this weekend, showing the legendary novelist Muriel Spark at her desk, describing her writing and revision process: She handwrites a draft in a notebook, sends it off to a typist, gets it back and revises it, and that’s that.

Peter Ginna, a former assistant of hers, confirmed the details in this thread. He was working for her while she was writing Loitering With Intent, a favorite of mine. It was a bit of a relief to find my old new process remarkably like Muriel Spark’s, though I am my own typist, and I suspect I always will be. But perhaps, when I can afford it, that is the next old-school frontier.

My NaNoWriMo pep talk from 2016 is here. If you enjoyed this and want updates about future posts, you can follow me here.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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