Thursday, August 23, 2007

Micro literary history

I started writing fiction by hand, and then on a manual typewriter, and then, when my budget permitted, I transitioned to what I at the time considered to be the greatest writing machine conceivable: the IBM Correcting Selectric II. (I still have that red metal beast, though currently its main job is to hold up graphic novels.)

Now, like most writers I know, I work on a computer (well, actually, on many of them). I've done that for over two decades. For most of that time, I worked the same way: open the file of the piece in question, work on it, save it, work on it, close it, and repeat the next day. I'd start a new file only when I started a new version of the piece. The result was that the online files and the paper files of any story were identical.

When I started One Jump Ahead, however, I knew I was invading foreign territory: the novel. I was afraid of losing an entire file and having to face rewriting a whole book. For that reason, and because I thought it might be interesting, I started saving every day's version of the file on which I'm working. For speed of file opening, I also broke the book into chunks of roughly 350K bytes each; for example, OJA comprises two full chunks and one partial.

The result of this process is that one could, if one chose, carefully reconstruct every change I made to that book and know on which day I made it.

For me, this is useful when I'm rewriting a section and want to look at earlier versions. Were someone to be interested in dissecting my work, however, it could prove to give an unprecedented level of insight into how I work. (I don't expect that to ever happen, but it is an odd thought to contemplate.)

A simpler and more automatic version of this practice would come from what's known as a journaling file system, one in which behind your back the operating system saves every version of every file. With disk capacities soaring, such file systems may well become commonplace because of the automatic data backups they provide.

Were such file systems to become common on systems writers use, writers would unknowingly be leaving on their hard disks complete records of their work.

I have to confess two reactions to this notion: discomfort at anyone seeing my work, and great interest in seeing that level of detail about the work of writers I adore. Predictable, of course.

Privacy is, I fear and mostly believe, rapidly becoming a thing of the past, so I suspect this small technical change is but one tiny aspect of that fading of a once-beloved aspect of life. It does intrigue and trouble my writer's soul, however; it really does.

But not enough to make me wipe out all those files. For whatever reason, I just can't do it.


Anonymous said...

Just install Perforce revision control ( It's free for up to two users.

In source code, history is important. It lets you know whom to blame.

Mark said...

I work on both PCs and Macs, and this would add complexity, so I think I'll stick with my approach. That said, the prospect of using source control for my novel is sufficiently geeky to appeal to me. Of course, I can blame only myself, so that aspect of source code control doesn't apply here.

Anonymous said... two are such dorks.


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