Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Maryland

On Tradecraft and Track Changes (An Update)

Nobody teaches you how to write a book. Yes, in graduate school, you may get “feedback” on your dissertation to a greater or lesser extent from mentors and peers. But that typically has very little do with the process of executing on a marketable book project (and even scholarly monographs have to be marketable, all the more so in the current publishing climate). So writing—making—a book is something most of us figure out on our own, as an assistant professor, on the tenure clock. In my case my first book, Mechanisms, had relatively little in common with my dissertation—really only a single chapter (some of the work on Afternoon if you’re wondering). But even though I had an advance contract for it, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was very much a process of feeling my way, stepping along from one passage, paragraph, section, and chapter to the next. I often refer to Mechanisms as my “kitchen sink” book, meaning I thought I had to get every interesting thing I ever knew about computers and textuality into it or it would somehow be less than it should have been.

The backend of the project, meanwhile, was a mess. I wasn’t using citation management software. I kept drafts in bloated Word files with titles like “chapt 3 notes and fragments” that I would occasionally pick through to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything worthwhile. I didn’t use an outliner. I didn’t use Zotero or EverNote. Online sources? PDFs sat in folders alongside of HTML scraped from the Web using my browser’s Save As function. Somehow, though, I found my footing along the way and worked through to completing the text as a manuscript (which subsequently underwent review, revision, and copy-editing). At the last minute I sent frantic emails soliciting permissions for images. Luckily my publisher took care of the index.

Track Changes, the book I started a year ago, is different. Like all of my projects I began with questions, questions that I honestly couldn’t answer for myself. I genuinely wanted to know who was the first author to write a novel with a word processor. (And now I believe that I do.) But I also began with a fairly complete sense of the topic space I wanted to cover, namely the literary history of word processing. I knew there would be a beginning, or a series of beginnings, as I covered the early adopters. I knew the arc of the project would conclude in the present day, with emergence of tools like Scrivener and the dissolution of desktop software into the so-called cloud. I knew there would be interesting stories and personalities along the way, though I didn’t yet know what most of those were or who they would turn out to be. But still: I could see the shape of the whole as a “book,” and I mean that quite literally: I could (and can) visualize it as an object in the world, something that I was only able to do with Mechanisms much later in the process.

Unlike many newly-promoted associate professors, I didn’t immediately begin work on “the next project.” Or to put it more accurately, I didn’t immediately begin work on the next book project. I did do lots of writing though, including this and this and this. And I also helped plan, launch, and run this for two years. By the time I was getting ready to start work on Track Changes in earnest, with the support of a year’s research leave on a fellowship, I felt I had gotten some healthy distance from the experience of writing Mechanisms. I was also, of course, working without the immediate pressure of a tenure committee, and believe me, that makes a huge difference in one’s attitude towards a major writing project. One choice I immediately made was to reach out for a more general audience, and I was happy to sign a contract that would bring the book out on the well-regarded trade list of an excellent university press.

I also knew that I would have to do a different kind of work and a different kind of writing. Whereas Mechanisms was primarily concerned with producing interventions in certain ongoing scholarly conversations, this is a book where I wanted to answer questions and tell some important stories. I knew I would have to talk to people, namely the writers and technologists who were my subjects. I also knew that I would have to do some archival work, and so I began making plans to go places, including the Microsoft campus. I knew I would need to spend time going through trade literature (publications like Writer’s Digest) as well as popular computer journalism (Byte, PC World) and venues like The Paris Review. And finally I knew I wanted there to be a hands-on experiential component to the research, actually acquiring and working on some of the antiquated systems I was going to be writing about. So I planned to expand my collection of vintage computers.

Much of the fall semester was spent laying this groundwork. Then, in December, at the invitation of Doug Reside and Ben Vershbow, I gave a talk at the New York Public Library, based on my first completed chapter on Stephen King and his well-publicized use of a Wang word processor (and yes, he beat all the rest of us to the jokes). There was a New York Times reporter in the audience who published an excellent story based on the talk, which came out on December 25th, Christmas Day (a slow news day, I was fond of reminding people). This immediately and irrevocably changed the character of the project, which was suddenly massively public—not only for the exposure in the Times, but for all of the syndicated papers and the aggregators that picked it up.

The next morning my inbox had over one hundred messages and in the days that followed they kept coming in, especially as other outlets picked up the story, requested interviews, and wrote their own stories. I will say unequivocally that Track Changes is a better, more complete, more accurate, and frankly more fun and interesting book than it ever would have been without this media exposure. People who I never would have had access to otherwise were eager to talk to me because they wanted their story included (and rightly so, in most cases). There was incredible generosity. References, source materials, and introductions all landed in my inbox. I began doing lots of oral history interviews. I also made the decision to commit to EverNote in a serious way, and began the process, after several false starts, of organizing my research materials, using a system of notebooks and tags that made sense to me.

Everything went into EverNote: PDFs, images, Web clippings, stray URLS, notes to myself,  audio files, interview transcripts, email (which EverNote can ingest automatically upon forwarding to a dedicated address)—everything. The great power of the software is, of course, that it is searchable, and so a simple string search on, say, “Asimov” (he has a particularly interesting word processing story) instantly put dozens of entries at my fingertips. I also made sure to keep up with another resource I had begun early on, a spreadsheet documenting information about individual writers and their first computer or word processing systems. For well over one hundred authors I now have data as to when they got their first computer, what it was, and what was the first thing they wrote and published on it (this will go into the book as an appendix). In LibraryThing I created a dedicated tag for trackchanges, allowing me to browse a virtual bookshelf of titles in my collection related to the project, as well as export a catalog (which subsequently went into EverNote). I started to regularly use the #trackchanges tag on Twitter, and also began a Tumblr blog (which I’ve kept up with in fits and spurts—something I wish I could be more diligent about).

All of this, I should emphasize, takes time, and there’s really no one who can show you how to do it—you just sort of have to hack out your own systems and workflows. The result of that investment, though, is a cloud-based cross-platform research infrastructure that keeps me organized and sane. For actual writing I spent some time with Scrivener, badly wanting to adopt it, but eventually reverted to Word, owing (mostly) to Scrivener’s limitations with citation management. By later in the spring, the publicity from the press exposure had slowed down. I had over two dozen oral histories in the bag; I had been to Microsoft; I purchased a 200-lbs. specimen of the first machine IBM ever marketed as a word processor on eBay and moved it into my campus office. My EverNote installation had swelled to nearly a thousand entries.

Track Changes is on track for delivery to my editor in early 2013. I will be giving some talks based on the work in progress at the University of Maryland this fall, as well as the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Ghent (last spring I gave talks at the University of Toronto and Western Ontario, which provided valuable occasions for early feedback, along with the NYPL). My point in writing this up, though, is two-fold. One, because a year ago I asked rather publicly to be left alone for a while—and everyone, colleagues, co-workers, friends near and far has been most accommodating—so I wanted to say something about what I’ve been up to. And second, to encourage others to talk more about their own workflows and systems and tools, the kind of thing we don’t do such a good job of teaching our graduate students or mentoring our younger colleagues about, as though the process of writing was devoid of material tradecraft.

The book I’m writing now is, of course, all about that tradecraft, and its impact on a generation of authors who were there at the transition between typewriters and notebooks and legal pads and the writing machines most of us also now use today. Its been a great ride for the last year. I have some great stories to tell, and I can’t wait to share them with the rest of you.

Red Storm Rising’s Game Plots

Techno-thriller genre fiction may seem like an odd place to look for rules-based textual experimentation, but I’ve just argued that Tom Clancy and Larry Bond’s 1986 cold-war-turned-hot bestseller Red Storm Rising may be the most widely read piece of procedural writing ever.  Find out why in “Choreographing the Dance of the Vampires,” which is my contribution to Kari Kraus’s superb Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process collection just launched on MediaCommons’ The New Everyday.

And AGRIPPA Again

If you’re here because of the link on Quinn DuPont’s AGRIPPA Challenge, you might be interested in “‘No Round Trip': Two New Primary Sources for AGRIPPA,” which details the recovery of an hour of bootleg footage from the 1992 launch in New York City as well as a bitstream image/emulation of the original software.

Track Changes is on Tumblr

I’ve created a Tumblr blog for Track Changes to collect some of the media coverage and other developments related to the project. I will also continue to post periodic updates here.

My Literary History of Word Processing: Your Assistance Needed

Greetings. As described in Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times story “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute,” I am in the midst of researching and writing a book entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. The book is under contract to Harvard University Press, and should be out in late 2013. You can listen to a talk I recently gave at the New York Public Library based on the first chapter, “Stephen King’s Wang,” here.

The book documents the moment at which large numbers of literary writers began making the transition from typewriters to word processors and personal computers (late 1970s, early 1980s). I want to know who the early adopters were, and how they thought about the new digital technology in relation to their writing practice. I am interested in both “highbrow” and popular authors alike, fiction and non-fiction. I am also following the story through to the present day: many writers now have platforms on social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

Some of my best information so far has come from word of mouth. That’s where I need your help. I would be very interested in hearing from:

  • authors who were early adopters of computing and word prcocessing and/or social media (also authors who made a deliberate decision not to switch to a computer);
  • editors, publishers, agents, and others in the business with relevant insights to contribute;
  • technologists who worked on early word processing programs;
  • anyone with relevant primary source materials to loan, share, or contribute;
  • anyone who knows of interesting fictional renditions of computers and word processing (for example, King’s short story “Word Processor of the Gods”).

If you would like to offer information, anecdotes, corrections, or tips about things to look at or persons to contact, please write to me at mkirschenbaum at gmail dot com. Thank you for reading.

Stephen King’s Wang

Update: Audio here.

I will be giving a talk entitled “Stephen King’s Wang: The Literary History of Word Processing” on Dec. 16 at the New York Public Library. Here’s an abstract:

Mark Twain famously prepared the manuscript for Life on the Mississippi with his new Remington typewriter, and today we recognize that typewriting changed the material culture (and the economy) of authorship. But when did literary writers begin using word processors? Who were the early adopters? How did the technology change their relation to their craft? Was the computer just a better typewriter, or was it something more? This talk, drawn from the speaker’s forthcoming book on the subject, will provide some answers, and also address questions related to the challenges of conducting research at the intersection of literary and technological history.

The talk, which is drawn from Track Changes, my new book in progress under contract to Harvard University Press, will be at 12:00 noon in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Wachenheim Trustees Room (that’s the main 42nd St. branch).

Thanks to NYPL Labs for the invite!

Digital Humanities Archive Fever

My plenary lecture at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, June 2011. The talk, which runs about 50 minutes with questions, attempts to present a framework and rationale for more closely integrating the activities of the digital humanities with the work of those archivists now beginning the formidable task of processing born-digital cultural heritage collections.

DHSI Plenary Lecture: “Digital Humanities Archive Fever” from MITH in MD on Vimeo.

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