Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tools of the Trade: Computers

A personal computer is an essential tool for the writer, but which one to choose, what operating system, and which software? After 26 years of writing on PCs, I have concluded --

Well, first, let me give you a tour of the Bethke Museum of Obsolete Computers.

In 1979, I started out with a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 and a program called "Electric Pencil," I believe. That was soon replaced by an Apple ][+ and a program called "Magic Window," then "WordHandler," which was one of those truly great, years ahead of its time, and completely forgotten products. I wrote and sold a lot of fiction using that old Apple ][+ and WordHandler, while simultaneously going through a lengthy succession of other Apples -- I believe I have 10 of them up in the loft of the garage -- before finally coming to the conclusion that there is nothing as worthless as last year's Macintosh. Every one of those other Apple hardware and software upgrades was made necessary by a client requirement, and none earned out. In the end, I decided that if a client required the work to be done on a Mac, I didn't want the project.

In the meantime, my dear old Apple ][+ kept chugging along, and I kept selling all the fiction I wrote using it.

On a parallel track, I went through a succession of CP/M, MP/M, and Xenix machines and their associated programs, and produced quite a lot of non-fiction work in WordStar, which was a real chore. At one point my "personal" computer consisted of an Altos Xenix minicomputer and a bunch of DEC VT-52 terminals, which if nothing else kept my otherwise poorly heated attic office warm, and I was producing entire sets of manuals using vi and ditroff, which is not unlike doing desktop publishing in cuneiform. The greatest virtue of this phase was that it made me quite conversant in operating systems, and the Xenix work naturally segued into Unix and Linux, which has been most beneficial to my career ever since. The next-greatest virtue was that I eventually wound up doing work for a client in this buggy new WYSIWYG program called "FrameMaker," which at the time was insanely expensive and ran only on SCO Unix, and to this day the later, cheaper, and much-improved versions of FrameMaker remain my tool of choice for complex publishing projects.

In the meantime, though, my dear old Apple ][+ still kept chugging along, and I still kept selling all the fiction I wrote using it.

But it was becoming embarassing, y'know? I mean, me being this cutting-edge cyber techno kinda guy, and here I am still pounding away on an Apple ][+? Especially when my fiction publishers started asking for my files, and I had to admit I was working in a proprietary binary format incompatible with everything else in the known universe? So I bought my first IBM-compatible PC. ("IBM-compatible." Does that expression even mean anything anymore?)

I've lost track of the number of PCs and programs I've gone through since. Desktops, laptops, 8088s, 80286s, 80486s, Pentiums, AMD K6-2s, Pentium IIs, Pentiums IIIs, AMD Athlons: at the moment, on the non-fiction side of the house, I'm up to my armpits in AMD Dual-Core Opteron work. But for all the various variants on PCs and associated software I've gone through over the years, just two truths have emerged:

1. I despise Microsoft Windows in all its many incarnations.

2. I absolutely loathe Microsoft Word, with a passion that defies description.

How ironic, then, that most fiction publishers now insist on getting work in Microsoft Word format.

I would love to be able to claim that my solution is to use OpenOffice on Linux, and in truth, I do have that combination and use it regularly for non-fiction and correspondence. But OpenOffice is still just a good emulation of an awful product, and when it comes to writing fiction, I spend far more time fighting it than writing. When I write fiction, what I want more than anything else is a word processing program that stays out of my way.

Which is why my current tool of choice is an old 486 laptop running DOS and WordPerfect. It does just one thing -- edit text -- it does it very well, and when I've hit "The End," then I can port the file to Microsoft Word format, if the publisher insists. In the meantime my dear old Apple ][+ resides in a place of honor in my office, and every now and then I dust off the keys and think, "Maybe, just one more time..."

And that's my story. Let the Computer Holy Wars begin.