Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Life was Slower

I rushed through college in 3-1/2 years, graduating in December 1971. I was anxious to be done with schooling and start a “real” life. I was fortunate because my parents paid for my college expenses. I could have had an extra semester for “free,” but I was ready to tackle the world. The U.S. was in the middle of a recession and jobs were a problem. What was I thinking?

On March 6, 1972 I started working at Kwasha Lipton, an actuarial consulting firm. The major portion of our work involved determining how much a company should contribute to their defined benefit pension plan each year. This involved updating employee data from the previous year, resolving data questions, writing complicated evaluation programs, determining the correct results and writing a 30-60 page report documenting the findings. The process took 8-10 weeks assuming we got our data questions “quickly” answered.

IBM Selectric
The fax machine did not exist (teletype was slow, expensive and not widely available). Simple questions could be answered by phone, but any large data questions required using mail to send the questions out and get the answers back. There was no Fed-Ex next day service; in fact mail took the better part of a week to get from one place to the next. Due dates were approximate. Typing was done on IBM Selectrics and we had a big printing press in the basement to print our reports. You submitted computer runs in the morning and got them back the next morning, unless they were rush (which had to be approved by a VP).

If we ran into an unexpected problem that caused an extra day’s delay, we simply blamed the postal service if it arrived late.

I won’t take you through each technology change and its impact on lifespeed between my first days at work and my last, a decade ago when I retired. Instead, I’ll consider the effects of the changes in speed in transferring information between clients and ourselves. The first crack in the armor came with local clients: an expensive courier service was available and we could deliver material in a half-day’s time.We rarely used it, but it was available if necessary. Once Fed-Ex and their rivals introduced next-day shipping, our deadline became the last pick-up at the latest drop-off point (usually the airport). We knew exactly how long it took at 11 pm to get from the office to the drop-off.

The nail in the coffin was the fax machine. Originally expensive and slow (high quality took something like six minutes a page), soon faxes could send a page in under a minute. They became ubiquitous, relatively inexpensive and as soon as you were done with your work you had to IMMEDIATELY FAX IT.

A product that could legitimately have a delivery window of a week or two now had a fixed deadline attached: 5 pm June 18th and not a moment later.

It’s not just at work that communication speeds have changed our behavior. We used to write letters; now we IM. We used to have conversations at restaurants, now we pay more attention to our phones than to our dinner companions. We feel the necessity to put our best friend on hold so we can answer a phone call from who-knows-who. We need Amazon Prime to deliver our next toy tomorrow. We download an interesting app immediately. We used to reflect on thoughtful essays; now we pontificate in 140-character tweets.

HL Mencken said, “Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.”

This rushed life has caused our nation and probably the world to lose its ability to reflect on a problem and arrive at a considered solution. We insist on instantaneous answers to our questions. They’re usually very simple, and I fear often wrong.

In today’s frenetic environment, do we have to intentionally slow ourselves down to write well?

~ Jim


E. B. Davis said...

Yes, I think we do, Jim. For those of us who want a series, the whole series must be conceived, ideas for future books that take the mc through the arc, even planning the end of the series before the first book is finished. There are those who prescribe that authors must write everyday. I'm not one of those. I think writers must think about their series, characters and plots everyday. The writing is much easier once you know what you are going to write, and that doesn't happen by spontaneously putting words on the page. Some pantsers think so, but I think that you must know your goal, then use the pantser approach once you worked through your story line.

When working on a particular novel, I'm not in favor of presenting the murder on page 140, as one best selling mystery writer just did, I also don't think that writing to the formula of "get the murder done by the end of the first chapter" is right either. No one wants to take the time to set up the story to put the reader in the frame before the murder. It's "hit 'em hard and fast" sort of mentality. We've all agreed that the plot is important, but the characters are what keep readers reading. Portraying characters can take pages. Sure, you can insert little tidbits letting readers taste characters and not wax poetic, but a well thought out mystery does more than whet readers' appetites.

I had to laugh seeing the picture of the Selectric II. Just the thought of have to use white out tape, white-out, using exacto knifes to really cut and paste...the whole thing brings back the horror, a writer's nightmare.

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, I agree with E.B. that it's not necessary to write every day. Sometimes it's better to let an idea perk. I admit to being a pantser. I prefer to introduce my characters before the actual murder takes place. Sometimes putting a murder in the first chapter seems a contrivance to get the reader hooked.

I remember those antiquated days, too, Jim. Right now after spending money for a new color cartridge for my printer and finding that didn't work, I'm faced with replacing my old, tried and true printer. I got a new one when I got my computer last year with all the bells and whistles and it was horrid chewing up papers once in a while when it felt like it. So now I have two black ink cartridges as yet unopened - at least their in their sealed package, but the boxes have been opened and a new color cartridge in the printer. Oh, the expense. Sigh.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Excellent post, Jim! I, too, had to laugh at the photo of the IBM Selectric. I wrote my first novel on one. I still remember the many revisions crisscrossing it in many colors of ink, trying to avoid a total retype until it was on the final draft.

I think we as writers must slow ourselves down in order to understand what we're writing and what we think. I get so frustrated at email because I try not to dash off flow-of-consciousness emails, but rather to give them the thought I used to put into letters, business and personal. That takes time--and folks who email me are frustrated because they don't get an immediate answer back. But I have seen so many problems develop, seen whole organizations crash, because of hastily written, ill-thought-out emails.

So my email inbox is overloaded because I can't bring myself to whip through it without taking much conscious thought.

E. B. Davis said...

You're not alone, Linda. My inbox is ridiculous. I have email from two months ago left over that I can't delete. Some are reminders to myself, some are things I have to read but never take the time, and others are from people I've promised myself I'd get back to--but need to think first. Okay--I'm thinking all the time, but some items I've put on the backburner. Maybe for a reason--?

Yo1-Jim, so how was the bridge tournament? Did you place? Did you place any side-bets? (Sorry I didn't mean to alert the IRS!)

Warren Bull said...

When I first took a computer class there were two languages, cobol and fortran. I learned fortran 2 and wrote program on a pile of punch cards that were then held together by rubber bands.

E. B. Davis said...

Yes, for a freshmen class, I did a "research project" for which I produced punchcards. It was such a farce. It didn't prove anything. It was supposed to correlate something for statistical purposes, but I think that good old math would have been quicker and better. I think they were trying to acclimate us to computers--which at the time took up and entire 12 x 12 room. Those were the days, and I guess to sum up Jim's blog--love and hate slow life. Still Life with Woodpeaker? Anyone read that?

Jim Jackson said...

My first programming was 1967-68 in a high school course. We learned to program in machine language and FORTRAN. The thrill of the class was we got to go the the University of Rochester and watch our programs actually run!

Early in my working career I learned to keypunch those cards you guys remembered. We had keypunch operators, but they worked regular hours and whenever we wanted something early or late, it was up to us. They were programmable as well.

And I could repair cardreaders when they bent, folded and mutilated your deck of cards.

Ah the good old days.

As for the bridge tournament: it went okay, but not great. No problem with the IRS since I never bet on bridge. I did a couple of short lectures and sold 7 of my bridge books, so that was fun.

As to Still Life with Woodpecker, Jan and I are huge Tom Robbins fans. I suspect he found a great way to take borderline craziness and make a small fortune with his novels.

Thanks for all the comments.

~ Jim