February 2015

For the love of typewriters

by Suw on February 27, 2015

My creative writing process has changed a lot over the years. Back in 2001 when I was commuting between Reading and London on a daily basis, I was doing most of my writing on a Philips Velo, a delightful little device that was a bit bigger than a PDA, had a full keyboard, but was lightweight and easy to carry around.

Philips Velo

In 2004-ish I got my first decent laptop, a by then already quite old Mac Tibook. I started writing on that, instead, given that I was carrying it around so much anyway. The laptop remained my tool of choice for a long while, with only the model, operating system and writing software changing.

Of course, I still used pen and paper, keeping ideas in various notebooks, but I didn’t take longhand writing seriously until I started using a Livescribe Echo smartpen, which Kevin had bought for me one Christmas a few years ago. I loved it – I could write a first draft by hand, upload it to my Mac, and then put it through handwriting recognition software and skip the typing up process.

The problem was that longhand writing takes so, well, long. I needed to write carefully so that the software could understand my scrawl, which meant writing relatively slowly. That’s fine for a short story or a novelette, but would be a real drag for a novel and, if I’m honest, probably contributed to my not actually starting one.

That said, writing slowly is a good thing for my brain. I can touch type quite well, and writing a first draft of fiction on my computer would invariably lead to my fingers moving faster than my brain and taking my characters down ill-considered routes that usually ended up in narrative disaster.

There’s a great talk by Clive Thompson on the differences between writing by hand and typing which is well worth pausing to watch.

(The bit about people taking notes on a laptop turning into verbatim transcriptionists? Yeah. Me. Totally. Was almost famous for my conference notes for a while. I must say, though that transcription fluency only works if your idea are already queued up, it’s no good if you’re still organising them.)

I need to have a relatively slow way of writing in order for my brain to have time to properly consider what comes next. Handwriting provides slowness. But perhaps too much slowness.

As is inevitable with technology, the screen on my Echo died. The pen itself still works, but I can’t tell if it’s turned on or off, which is a bit of an issue. I’d find myself constantly turning the volume up, just so that I could hear it click and feel reassured that the thing was on and recording my writing. At that point, I fell very much out of love with the Echo, and with Livescribe as a company. I expected the Echo to last longer than the 18 months than it did and, given that the screen dying is a common problem with the Echo thus indicating a manufacturing flaw, I’d expected better than just ‘buy another’.

After the Livescribe, I tried various iPad apps in an attempt to find a new way to write longhand digitally. One such app, SmartNote, actually has fantastic handwriting recognition, but the user interface is irritating in the extreme. Not only does the interface not right itself when you turn your iPad round, you can only write one paragraph per page, and each page is really very short. That might be fine if you’re writing little notes, but it’s no good if you’re doing something meatier. Again, the idea of writing a whole novel this way was enough to put me off the whole idea.

I also found myself starting to worry about permanence. If I write a novel on my iPad, what happens if it crashes and loses my work? Or if I lose my iPad and haven’t had a chance to back it up? Not new problems, to be sure, but ones that I hadn’t worried about when writing longhand, because I always have the hard copy to fall back on.

The antique typewriters

Last March, I flew over to Sheboygan from the UK to pick a house with Kevin. The day after I landed, I was going round houses, looking for a place to live. We settled on a lovely house, built in 1900 and now showing just how badly the poor thing has been hacked around by overenthusiastic DIYers. But whilst we were driving round, looking at houses, we stumbled on an estate sale (house clearance sale). Sitting on the floor in the basement was a typewriter, a Smith-Corona Sterling, which I later found out was built in 1960, in its original case. We bought it for $12, and then I went back home to the UK.

Fast forward nearly a year, and New Year’s Day saw us driving through Rockford, IL, and past the antiques mall where Kevin had bought his gorgeous 1935 Royal Standard Portable typewriter for $18 some 20 years ago. I had been playing with Kevin’s Royal Standard and had totally fallen in love with it. Yet it felt a bit odd to be writing on someone else’s typewriter, rather like it feels wrong to use someone else’s pen, so getting one of my own became a priority.

Looking round the mall, we stumbled on a gorgeous Royal, with little windows in the side and the old round glass keys that mark out an early typewriter. It was a Royal Number 10 from 1930, in great condition overall but desperately in need of a clean and some TLC, which I have not yet had a chance to give it. The type bars are all mucky and they don’t connect with the platen evenly, so the type is  both faint and blotchy.

Royal Number 10

But until I have some time to devote to cleaning up the No. 10, I’ve been using the Smith-Corona. When we first took it out of its case, it was a bit stinky and very gummed up, but Kevin cleaned it out and after a bit of use it works just fine. Apparently, typewriter connoisseurs believe that it is one of the best typewriters ever built. I find it harder going than the No. 10, which has a much lighter, smoother action.

Still, I got a myself an old typing table and now my typewriter set-up is complete.

Smith-Corona Sterling

A new process

And so, over the last few months, a new writing process has evolved. At the moment, all my first drafts are written on the Smith-Corona Sterling. I then do the first edit on paper, before typing it up in Scrivener and at the same time, doing a second edit. Then it gets printed out, read by Kevin and then I do a third edit on paper, with those corrections and a fourth edit in Scrivener again.

It’s a fairly paper-intensive process, but I’m pleased with how it’s working out. I feel more excited about writing, and more connected to the physical process of getting ink on to paper. For some reason I find it much easier to edit on paper. There’s something very satisfying about scribbling red ink all over everything.

I also get my hard copies, although they aren’t in nice neat notebooks, which is a shame, but I can still file them away and refer back to them if needed. And when I’m travelling, I can still use my laptop or write longhand in a notebook if I want to. I’m not married to the typewriter, but I do find it a very comfortable and creative way to write.

I will switch to the No. 10 eventually, though I won’t get the time until April to clean it up. I already have new ribbons for it, though, so all I need to do is get some denatured alcohol and find some instructions written for idiots and the time to devote to it, and away I go! And, come the spring, I’ll be taking the typing table apart too, refinishing the top and painting the frame. By summer, I hope to have the perfect set-up, and it amuses me that, after all these years of experimentation, I’m finally settling on a piece of technology that’s 85 years old.

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The worst book I have ever read

by Suw on February 11, 2015

This review contains spoilers, but if I were you I’d read this, not the book. Also, let’s face it, this is less of a review and more of a rant, because I read 454 pages of shite and the only way to expunge it from my brain is to share. You’re welcome.

Anyone who reads a lot will occasionally find themselves in a the middle of a real stinker, a book that disappoints on so many levels that you lose count. It used to be that I’d plough through such books regardless, out of some misplaced sense of duty to give it a ‘fair go’.

More recently, I’ve come round to the idea that life is too short to read crap books when there are so many good ones out there. So I gave up on Stephen Bury’s Cobweb (written by Neal Stephenson and his uncle, George Jewsbury), JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, and Dan Abnett’s Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero. None of these books floated my boat, but none of them can even hold a candle to the worst book I have ever read, an experience the pain of which is still fresh in my mind and which I must, therefore, share with you.

Now, before I go further, I need to clarify that not all bad books are bad. A book can be badly written but still a page-turner. It can fall over on florid prose but have fantastic characters whom you care about. Or the author can have a deft hand with the tension and cliff hangers which keep you reading even though you really, really want to just put the damn thing down. Those books might be bad, but they’re not terrible.

One great example of a bad book that I love is Flood by Richard Doyle. It’s far too long and it jumps around far too much between characters, with the end result that you don’t really care enough about any particular person. However, Doyle did his research about what would happen if London actually flooded, and the book contains some incredibly eerie scenes that stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Particularly if you have ever commuted on the London Underground or been in a lift. The result is that it’s a technically terrible book that I love.

This is not that. This is a book that fails at every conceivable turn. It’s a book that should never have been published, and it’s the only time I’ve bought a book and felt cheated enough that I resent the money I gave Barnes & Noble for it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst book I have ever read: Supervolcano: Eruption, by Harry Turtledove.

Supervolcano eruption

The dullness, the dullness

The first problem I have with this pile of shite is that it commits the worst sin that any book can commit: It goes beyond being merely boring, through total tediousness and into the kind of soul-destroying monotony that few authors ever fully explore. Nothing happens for pages. Dozens of pages. Most of the book, in fact. Just people going for meals in which nothing of note occurs, or having arguments that make no difference to anything. They drive. They drive some more. They stop driving and wait until they can start driving again. They make weak jokes. They fail to do almost anything, at all, worth reading about.

There are a few set pieces that lull you into a false sense of security: The opening scenes in Yellowstone — and yes, you all knew this was going to be set in Yellowstone, didn’t you? Because obviously no other volcanos exist — start off boring, but then really perk up and the temptation is to think that after a lacklustre start, things might actually turn out to be quite good. Chapter II will, however, disabuse you of that notion.

Later on there’s a plane crash which is not handled badly. I think that’s the best I can say about it, really. And then there’s… erm… there’s… no, that’s pretty much all the set pieces.

The rest of the book is made up of the glue that should stick set pieces together, but because there are actually so few set pieces it’s like a mosaic that’s made almost entirely of grouting: Dull. You start skim reading just to keep your sanity intact.

Eruption? What eruption?

It wasn’t just the poor writing that failed to hold my interest, it was that it’s not actually about an eruption. With a title like Supervolcano: Eruption, I foolishly expected a bit more about Yellowstone and about the eruption itself, but you have to wade through a third of the book before the eruption properly begins. And after that, well, you hear a lot about ash, and there’s one scene where a geologist, one of the key characters, flies out to take a look at things from a nice safe distance, but overall there’s really very little eruption to go round.

One of my motives for reading this book in the first place was that I have an interest in volcanology and I was curious to see how the science held up. Well, Turtledove fixes any potential problems with faulty science by simply not including any. He may possibly have read the Wikipedia entry on Yellowstone, watched a documentary or two, or maybe even watched the BBC’s Yellowstone mockumentary. But that’s about it. There’s simply no depth at all. Richard Doyle would suck his teeth and sigh.

Turtledove manages to avoid the science by avoiding all but the most cursory scenes of Kelly, our geologist heroine, at work. She rarely talks to other geologists, and never talks to civil protection officials, politicians, or, in fact, anyone interesting. Although she’s supposedly at the forefront of human understanding of Yellowstone, she does almost nothing professionally after the eruption begins, except for the aforementioned flight.

Instead, Turtledove uses her as a device to explain to the reader what’s going on as she describes it all to her new beau, loveable and sadly betrayed by his now ex-wife copper Colin. And they don’t get to talk all that often, so if you want to know more about what’s going on geologically, tough luck.

The scattered family

In order to give us a taste of how the eruption has affected different parts of the US, Turtledove focuses on Colin’s family: His daughter Vanessa who’s moved to Denver trailing after her new boyfriend after leaving her live-in partner; his ex-wife Louise who’s shacked up with a younger man after walking out on Colin; his stoner son Marshall, the eternal student who’s carefully attempting to delay graduation from university so he can continue to sponge off his dad; wannabe rockstar son Rob, who’s pottering around on tour with his ludicrously named band, Squirt Frog and the Evolving Tadpoles. (Really? Turtledove? Fucking really?) There are a few satellite characters, including Bryce, Vanessa’s ex, who is still friends with her dad, Colin, and some coppers that Colin works with.

This ensemble cast is scattered to the four American winds purely and solely so we can see how Yellowstone popping its cork fucks almost the whole country. Vanessa is in Denver, which survives the blast but rapidly gets covered in ash. She escapes the city in her car, but it soon breaks down due to said ash and she walks to the nearest town to find her situation in the emergency shelter rather grim. The one and only time I’m moved by this book is when she is forced to turn her pet cat loose.

Rob gets a fair amount of page time, allowing us to get a taste for how fucked up Maine gets. Unfortunately, these scenes are also some of the most tedious. I’ve worked in the music industry, I know how utterly boring going on tour really is, especially if you’re a small band, and this is at least one thing Turtledove gets spot on. His description of all the driving, the hotels, the restaurants is just as wearisome as the real thing.

Louise’s scenes don’t advance the story at all, showing us very little new or interesting. She seems to exist only to satisfy another need for Turtledove that I’ll come on later.

The problem with this divided family approach is that their relationships are incredibly weak, and their interactions limited to the odd phone call. We’re not invested in the family, so their problems are pedestrian, their disagreements and predicaments don’t create any useful tension. They provide plenty of conflict, but none of it serves the story, it’s all just run of the mill bickering.

Ultimately, the only people I really cared about were Colin and Kelly, and even then, only just.

The sexism and racism

What disturbed me the most, though, was the casual racism and sexism in both speech and description. Kelly, who’s obviously supposed to be a capable, independent woman excelling in her scientific endeavours, turns out to hate her legs. That’s not factoid that fleshes out someone’s personality, it’s sloppy and sexist.

Louise, the ex-wife, seems to exist only to make Colin look good and to give Turtledove the opportunity to editorialise on the nature of such shallow, grasping, bitches. She has left Colin for the younger, hotter Teo, who promptly runs away when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child. The only thing this character does in the narrative is get herself punished for betraying her husband. This is her arc: Leave husband, shack up with dreamboat, get pregnant, get shafted.

Then there’s Vanessa, another bitch and another woman to betray her man, Bryce. She shacks up with an older man (age differences really seem to tweak Turtledove for some reason), follows him to Denver, has a massive row with him when she realises he went to Denver to escape her, and ends up alone in a strange city. She ends up in an emergency shelter, and then a refugee camp, and is threatened with sexual violence of the “fuck me and I’ll help you” nature.

Bizarrely, Vanessa also always makes sure to pack her tampons. Twice this is mentioned, but I’m really not sure why. To emphasise that she’s a woman, in case the name ‘Vanessa’ wasn’t enough of a giveaway? To highlight that she is fertile and menstruates and is therefore… what? Dirty? Vulnerable? Does Turtledove believe that us women are so paranoid about when our periods start that we can’t go anywhere without knowing where our tampons are? It’s a mystery to me.

Vanessa is also casually racist. She refers to how many ‘wetbacks’ there are in Denver. And for those of you who aren’t aware of current American slang, ‘wetback’ is a racial slur for immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Vanessa drops this slur into conversation and literally no one blinks. It doesn’t serve any purpose in terms of fleshing out her character, or those around her, but I suppose that in Turtledove’s mind, it makes her more unlikeable, which makes her “comeuppance” all the more rewarding.

That’s not the only example of casual racism in the book either, but I can’t be arsed to document the rest.

Basically, Turtledove’s core women characters are either madonnas (Kelly) or whores (Louise, Vanessa), a tedious pair of stereotypes that I pray I never see in fiction again. But he extends this sexism to his minor female characters too. The pretty news anchor, the cute hotel receptionists, the waitresses eager for a free ticket to a local gig and the opportunity to get laid by a member of the band (passivity deliberate). Every woman has her attributes, it seems.

The stoppage

My final (major) complaint is that this book does not end. Literally, it doesn’t end. It stops. When you reach the end you realise that nothing happened. Not one plot line resolves, not one character completes their arc, not one question gets answered.

Even the subplot about a serial killer that Colin’s trying to catch doesn’t progress or show any sign of wrapping up. Colin and his colleagues have no idea who the serial killer is at the beginning of the book, and they have no more clue 454 pages later. You’d think that, of all the subplots in this book, the serial killer one would be an obvious candidate for completion, though that would mean devoting more time to it which really wouldn’t be a good idea.

Ultimately, this doorstop of a book is nothing more than the set-up for its sequels, of which there are, horrifyingly, two. I bought the second out of misguided enthusiasm when I saw it for sale next to Eruption, but I doubt that I’ll bother reading it.


I expect to read books that turn out not to be to my taste once in a while, that’s part and parcel of reading a lot. But when I read a book that is not just badly written but sexist and racist, I find it very depressing. I don’t buy the argument that I should be happy because it means any old shite can get published. If I ever get published, I want it to be because I wrote a blinder, not because I wrote something that is marginally better than this monstrosity of a novel.

Penguin should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such drivel.


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