Thursday 23 May 2024

Life Before Computers Gave us Anchovy and Claptrap. Part Two

A Play Shakespeare Never Knew He’d Written


I went through three generations of manual typewriters before the glorious day when I bought an electronic one that would store a line of type and let me preview it before I let it actually print on the page. Wow! What a breakthrough. However, not long after that I got my first computer. Well, word processor really.

I opened my heart to an Amstrad PCW9512 and my world changed. But, as I’ll explain, some things remained the same for a long, long time and cost a small fortune because, while the age of computers had arrived agents and publishers preferred the old methods…

But for now, here I was with this wonderful bit of kit on my dining room table. It came with a monitor, daisy wheel printer (you’ll still need that older friend/relative you borrowed in order to understand the finer points of part one of this saga) and something called a floppy disk. This was always confusing because it was a square-shaped piece of hard plastic. Not floppy at all. Some years later, I saw that in fact the disk split apart and inside was this floppy disc-shaped thing. The scales fell from my eyes.

Anyway, without too much ado, I inserted the floppy disk into its designated slot on the monitor and, lo and behold, it loaded up the most basic of programs. Of course, being all-new, this seemed wonderfully sophisticated and incredibly technical. Before long I was ready to create my first file in a way not dissimilar to what we do now. Well, up to a point. I couldn’t select whether I wanted 10 point, 12 point or whatever.

That was all down to which daisy wheel I decided to put in my printer. The pack came with one and you could buy others in different styles. Oh. The wonder of it!  I couldn’t choose Garamond, Georgia or anything else for that matter as that too was all dependent on which daisy wheels I had bought – and there wasn’t a lot of choice. I seem to remember Courier was one everyone used - the Times New Roman of its day. But never mind. At least if I made a mistake I could correct it without a load of hassle and wasted paper. Right?

Yes. Right. Absolutely. The Amstrad 9512 did indeed have a dictionary built into its limited brain. Now, I don’t know who had helped write that dictionary but I am betting at least one person with a medical degree was involved as the Amstrad would offer perfect renderings of the most complex medical terminology when asked to check spelling. But I am equally convinced that no one with an English degree had come anywhere near it. And the thing was that once you had accepted its proffered alternative to a spelling it had queried, it would automatically proceed to alter every repeated instance of your apparent mistake. This led to some hilarious (and not so hilarious) bloopers. 

One has always stuck in my mind and, funnily enough, it wasn’t one that happened to me although plenty did. I read an article in what was then Writer’s Monthly magazine. The author had been writing an article relating to that well-known play by William Shakespeare called, Anthony and Cleopatra. The only snag was that every Anthony had been rendered ‘Anchovy’ and every Cleopatra ‘Claptrap’. He had inadvertently accepted the proffered correction. This was all too easy to do as the Amstrad seemed to believe it was infallible and that if it didn’t recognise a word, it couldn’t be correct. Only words in its dictionary were possible, or so it believed. An early instance of the arrogance of artificial intelligence perhaps? Whatever the reason, unless you stopped it from doing so, it would correct every word it didn’t like by inserting one it preferred unless you stopped it from doing so.

This kind of stroppy behaviour led me to abandon the spellchecker for many years, up to and including my early ventures into working with a ‘proper’ computer. I simply didn’t trust it, you see.

Aside from that minor inconvenience, my little Amstrad was a godsend. I could now copy my precious story onto floppy disks (you needed something like half a dozen for a novel) and I could keep these in various locations as I was always wary of the house burning down and taking with it the only copy of my novel. 

A tip from author Judith Krantz had led me to wrapping my top copy of any manuscript and putting it in the freezer on the basis that it was usually the last bit of equipment to succumb to the flames. Now I could carry it round me with me if I wished to. And I did until I realised this was a silly idea. What if I was mugged? The robber would have my manuscript and could sell it as his/hers. You can see a state of paranoia underlining this, can’t you?

Anyway, onto the printing itself. The daisy wheel printer was a noisy thing that vibrated a lot and was programmed to print off a line when it detected it was coming to the end of a sheet of paper. (Don't ask me why it did that, but it did. I think it was purely for aesthetic reasons, although as this practice inevitably devoured a fair amount of printer ribbon, there may have been other, ulterior, motives. Who knows?) It would then repeat this exercise at the top of the new page. The noise of the same key repeatedly hitting the ribbon resembled rapid machine gun fire (imagine spending a night in an active war zone) but at least I could set it printing and only have to return when, either it had finished that chapter, run out of paper or run out of ribbon. Printing a 400-page novel was, as a result, noisy and expensive (those ribbon cartridges weren’t cheap) but so much less hassle than my now-abandoned typewriter.

Then it was time to try and get someone interested. In my case, at that time, I concentrated heavily on finding a suitable agent. The targeting process wasn’t unlike today’s except that there was no internet so you referred to a physical copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

I would send out half a dozen query letters at a time. Each carefully targetted and personalised (some things don't change) and all utilising what we now call 'snail mail' – we then called it ‘the mail’ because there was no other. You had to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope and obey the individual agent's instructions which might mean you also sent out a sample chapter or two. Postage had to cover the return of whatever you had sent. This could prove expensive but at least you could fit everything into an envelope – usually an A4-sized one. 

The process meant a trip down to the Post Office, armed with your letters, sample chapters and envelopes. The assistant would weigh each one and hand it back to you, along with stamps. You moved away from the counter, stuck them on appropriately, sealed your envelopes, with the return, stamped, addressed envelope safely inside each one, prayed to your deity of choice, and mailed them.

Then you waited. 

If you were really lucky, one agent out of four or five might request chapters or the entire manuscript. In the latter case, you cheered and groaned in equal proportion, printed out a new copy of the manuscript or looked for the least creased one, and then marched down to the Post Office once again. This time, you were equipped with brown wrapping paper, paperclips to attach the required postage to the letter, adhesive tape, scissors… 

You waited in line. The assistant weighed everything, multiplied it by two for the return postage, added on the required extra for Recorded Delivery in case the parcel got lost, handed everything back to you, and off you went to find some quiet corner to assemble your precious package.

Once safely sealed, you once again joined the back of the line because, of course the package was too large to go through the mailbox. I have spent many Saturday mornings thus engaged.

Then it was back home to wait.

And wait…

And wait…

Then one day, weeks later you returned home from work to find the mailman had attempted to deliver a parcel. Your heart sank and you asked yourself if it was worth all the effort and considerable expense.

You wept bitter tears. 

On Saturday you went and collected the slightly battered parcel containing the dog-eared, expensively produced manuscript that would never be able to be sent anywhere else (who wants to receive a manuscript that looks like a golden retriever tussled for it with a somewhat over-excited poodle?) You found the agent's letter or, worse, the scribbled note on the front page of the submission.

“Sorry, not for us.”

You sighed, poured yourself a drink, picked up the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and started your search for an agent all over again.

Because that’s what we did, back in the days before the internet made it all so easy…

 (In case you missed it, you can find Part One of this article here)



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