Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Physical Writing Process [Pt. 3: Neal Stephenson - Fountain Pen and Malfunctioning Typewriter]

Neal Stephenson started out writing on a typewriter, but when he began work on The Baroque Cycle, he decided to write the whole thing with a fountain pen. In an interview for Quicksilver, Stephenson said, “I’ve written every word of it so far with fountain pen on paper. Part of the theory was that it would make me less long-winded, but it hasn’t actually worked.” The plan didn’t seem to have worked out at all, as I believe the complete Baroque Cycle turned out to be his longest work yet:

I’m currently reading books 4 and 5 (con-fused together) of the 8 books that stack of paper was eventually turned into. (Image courtesy
That’s the complete manuscript, created only using a fountain pen as he’d intended at the outset. The paperback version is about 2600 pages, but I'm sure the handwritten one takes up even more.

It would seem that writing with a pen worked out better than when he used a typewriter – at least better than when he used a typewriter to write his first novel The Big U. During a keynote speech in 2003, Stephenson told the story of how his first novel was created. He had written up an outline, character biographies, and a few sample chapters, which he sent out to a bunch of editors. One of them replied back with interest, requesting that Stephenson send along the entire novel. Stephenson was excited, but quickly realized there was a problem – he hadn’t written the novel yet. He was working a standard full-time job, so he used all his vacation days - and including the 4th of July - that gave him 10 days to write the novel.

He rented a typewriter and got to work, but he was faced with yet another problem: the typewriter had a plastic ribbon and it was melting and getting stuck in the summer heat of Iowa City. The only way to keep the ribbon from sticking was to keep it in constant motion, which meant typing nonstop. As Ehud Lamm explains, it “did wonders for his productivity.” With speed that may have been even quicker than Kerouac’s, Stephenson was able to finish the novel and send it off to the editor, who said that his publishing house couldn’t print it. Nevertheless, Stephenson found an agent and another publisher who did publish the novel. I have no idea how much he edited the manuscript between that first draft and what was eventually printed, and I haven’t read The Big U myself, but I do know that Stephenson doesn’t really like it anymore, and for years it wasn’t in print. This changed when he realized that the scarcity was causing the used copies to be sold at very high prices, so now anyone can hop over to Amazon and get it new for $11.24 or used for a penny plus shipping.

UPDATE - May 2nd, 2011: Logan Cale on Reddit taught me something cool about Stephenson's manuscript for The Baroque Cycle: "It's pretty awesome, the Baroque Cycle manuscript is (or was at one point) on display at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, along with all the ink bottles and cartridges he consumed while writing it, and what appears to be his blotting paper."


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