Jack Vance

Jack Vance was the Guest of Honor at a convention in Virginia Beach many years ago. He was perfectly comfortable in small room parties — such as the one I was hosting — talking with people even if they weren’t fans. He influenced a lot of writers, and readers too, by his storytelling, characters, and plots. Something he told us that night would eventually change the way I wrote my first drafts.

The conversation was about word processors, and he explained that he had been reluctant to try them, since he tended to edit himself while typing. That’s not easy, especially if he did more than just fix typos. Revising a whole sentence meant x-ing it out and retyping it, which broke the stream of his creativity. Going back to revise anything before the current sentence meant retyping everything after that, sometimes the whole page. His internal editor was insistent.

He discovered a way of dealing with that. He would take a sheet of yellow legal paper, fold it in half top to bottom, turn it 90 degrees, and write across the lines, using four fountain pens: black, blue, green, and red. As he wrote, he concentrated on making colored patterns with the different inks. This distracted his internal editor completely, and liberated his unconscious creator, in a kind of automatic writing. When he finished his draft, his wife typed it all up, and then he could make his revisions.

He was afraid that, if he used a word processor, it would only give his internal editor more power. Someone suggested that he should try using it with the brightness turned down, until he couldn’t read the text well enough to edit, so that he could just stare into the depths of his story. After a bit of experimenting, he found that it worked. He didn’t need the pens any more, and his wife didn’t have to type it up. And editing a finished draft on a word processor is far, far easier than retyping all those revisions and corrections and changes scribbled on a typed page.

I still use longhand when working on a story, if I have to think carefully while creating. But most of the time I compose at the computer, especially if the story is alive in my head, and I need to get it all down. In my own version of Jack Vance’s solution, I turn away from the screen, stare into what my muse is showing me, and transcribe what I see there. 

I really like it when I can do that.