Saturday, November 6, 2010


Even before clear cutting and rain forests and were big news, I equated wasted paper with lost trees. In the 70s, I recycled blueprints (from my work), cutting the large sheets into stationery size, and wrote letters on the back. When I got my first computer in 1986, I regularly raided the trash bin next to the Xerox machine in the office to feed my home printer. These days, when I see wasted paper, I visualize barren hillsides and mourn the loss of habitats to flora and fauna, and suffer guilt at the part I play in this. (Not so Scotiabank or BMO who send me five pages of text over three sheets quarterly to report 2 lines of meagre assets. Yes, I did complain. “We’ll look into it.” Hah!)

For my current project I took my conservation efforts one step further by making a conscious change in work habits. In the past, I printed as I wrote, chapter by chapter, taking them through many drafts. This meant the early chapters were rewritten and refined many times by the time the last one saw a first draft. You can see that often in published novels — the early chapters are polished to perfection and the last chapters are thrown together – often with a contrived or cop-out ending. (As when, 400 pages into the investigation, the main suspect/character drops dead so there is no need for resolution of the plot, which has been proving his innocence or guilt. I still haven’t forgiven the author – one of my favourites in the legal/mystery genre – for that one.)

As I began the real work on Current Events I decided that before printing anything I would complete the first draft. I would press on, with minimum editing – and when I did edit, it would be done onscreen. Not only would I save paper, but also the cost of toner/print drum.

It was also my hope that by forcing myself to work mainly on screen I would force myself to mend the disconnect between the me who as a child won two penmanship competitions and the me who is approaching her second childhood determined to keep up with technology. (I’m already huffing and puffing, trying to keep up in that marathon.)

I had already got over a similar disconnect that existed between the writing me and the creative me. I remember sitting in front of that first mechanical box I owned – with its green screen and its dual disk drive – unable to call up an ounce of creativity. So for a long time I continued to write longhand, then input the finished text. (I have a theory on this: I believe it is a left brain/right brain thing – penmanship being close to an artistic expression; typing being a mechanical skill.) Gradually – and I do mean gradually – over a few years – I progressed to a point where I could edit or rewrite on screen. And then the breakthrough – when I realized what a waste of time longhand was. You could say it was laziness that forced my hand. Soon I found I could go direct to the keyboard with the most insignificant notes and – writer’s block and insecurities notwithstanding – get in the “zone,” i.e., lose myself entirely. Now, that is a good day.

There remains another disconnect, however. In the past I printed often and read/edited the hard copy. Somehow I got a better sense of sequence and flow when I could see the type, feel the weight of the pages. I could flip back or forward, have several pages in front of me at the same time to refresh my memory.

Which takes me back to last winter’s work on Current Events. I managed to get through fourteen chapters without printing. But, when I needed to go back and check on something, no matter how much I willed myself to ”just rrrread it, then, why don’t ye?” I invariably got caught up in editing. As if I’d miss a comma or bad phrasing on another day. Not necessarily a waste of time. But it was time I wanted to spend on progressing the story. Over several months – working only on screen – I took those chapters through several drafts and many additional editing passes – more than I would in print – before I printed them for the first time.

In late summer I finally sat down, brimming with optimism, to read through the fourteen chapters I had been so pleased with. I stopped after six, crushed with disappointment.

What is it about the printed page? Reading hard copy text, my perception shifts. The video display is perhaps too ephemeral a medium to hold the full weight of those little black symbols, meaningless in themselves but for an auditory placement of the tongue or an exhalation of air. But with the weight of those same printed symbols in my hands, I gain clarity, perspective. I see that, rather than lead the reader into the plot, I repeatedly digress into the background of secondary characters. This is not back story – only placed too early in the novel. Here it gives them a false sense of importance in the narrative. And, in some cases, I give away information best held back for a later reveal. In the meantime, the plot loses focus; and, I fear, would lose the reader as well.

So it’s not quite back to Square One. I saved whatever files I had into a Draft 1 folder and copied them to Draft 2. The first thing to do is to go through those printed chapters and remove the sections that don’t advance the plot – to my “Removed” file. Nothing will be discarded. Some will be inserted elsewhere; some will contribute to new chapters. Reduce, reuse, recycle.