The Nothing

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Sleuthsayers, May 18, 2014 READ

Before the Internet, there was nothing. It was like living in a tent at an outpost at the end of the world. I’m talking about writing. Books were only in the library or at the bookstore. Finding a magazine full of fiction in my hometown (Auckland City) was like embarking on a quest to find a three-toed sloth. Finding mystery fiction in a magazine was like looking for the dodo. Other writers simply didn’t exist. I wrote in isolation.

There’s a black and white photo of me (somewhere, I lost the print and I never owned the negative) sitting at a typewriter with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It could have been taken in 1930. It was taken in 1988.

By 1990, I had come to know only two other writers, and both of them were playwrights — both 10 years older than me and hardened to the rule that you can’t make any money out of writing, and no one will ever publish you. And maybe you should just shoot yourself.

And then the Internet happened… Actually, personal computers happened first, and that changed everything.

The typewriter I wrote on was a 1969 Triumph Gabriele 10. It belonged to my mother and I had been bashing away on it since I was 5. Stories and screenplays: sci-fi, horror, and mystery.

Not one thing I ever wrote on that poor, long suffering machine ever got past my bedroom door. The world is lucky.

In the late 1980s, one of those playwright friends of mine acquired a personal computer. I have no memory of what operating system it was running, but it had a word processor on it (the other playwright hated technology and wrote in long hand (and probably by candlelight, and with a quill)). I could immediately see the benefit of writing on a word processor: Freedom & Fluidity.

Writing on a typewriter forces the writer to commit to the typed. It was a rigid way to work; like trying to dance in concrete. It meant hours of retyping for corrections, or adding a permafrost layer of correction fluid to each page.

I used to cheat. I did a lot of paragraph snipping. If there was a typo or something that needed to be changed on a page, I’d simply retype the offending paragraph and cut and paste it over the faulty one.

Once I eventually got onto a PC, my writing method changed overnight. I became an abstract expressionist. Think Jackson Pollock, only instead of oils, words.

My first drafts (even of this short piece) are complete messes of text. In fact, I often write my firsts on my iPhone, bluetoothing to it via a wireless keyboard. I don’t even look at the screen while I type.

For me, writing is rewriting. That’s where the good stuff lies. The first draft is like– I’m trying to think of an analogy that doesn’t sound like projectile vomiting. Here we go: It’s like leaping off a tall building… and maybe the parachute will open.

I haven’t written anything on a typewriter since 1991.

And then the Internet happened. And that changed everything else.

My computer connected to the Internet in 1996. Instead of just seeing what was residing on my PC’s hard drive, I could now look out into the world. What I found there were a handful websites about writing– and all of them decked out in the glorious three-tone website design of the day: gray background, black text, blue hyperlinks (does anyone still say “hyperlink” anymore?). And I found other writers– for a long time I lurked in the background of writing newsgroups, soaking up the chatter, tips, and experiences.

As more and more websites and resources came online, the Internet started to make research easier, and it began to make it easier to find magazines. In fact, when I got up the nerve to finally submit a story to one, I had gotten the address and submission instructions off the magazine’s website (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, if you’re curious).

The last ten years has seen the rise of the blog. There are now countless blogs on the Internet catering to writers. The first one of these I followed (right from its beginning) was Criminal Brief. Naturally, I followed along when it evolved in SleuthSayers, which is now my current place of background lurkage.

There are also cool new things happening on the Net, like, which in many ways is like the newsgroups of yesteryear: People ask questions about writing, and people respond with help, tips, and advice. It’s not very chatty, but at least it’s spared the newsgroups’ old habit of descending into chaos (and the subsequent invention of Godwin’s Law).

For me, writing has a learning curve that began with a nice slow upward ascent, which quickly went vertical. The Internet has made climbing that a lot easier.