How To Write Books With Your Atari
by DAVID WADE, Author of 15 published novels
It's great! I love it," gushed the movie producer, "but do you think you could change the ending back to the way you first wrote it? And maybe add in your other idea for the opening?"
Could I do that? Sure, I could--but I was smiling through gritted teeth. Eighteen months ago, on the strength of my involvement in the best-selling paperback action series The Executioner, I had been asked to prepare a treatment for a toughguy action movie. A treatment is the first version of a film script, rather like a very long short story. This latest draft ran to 90 pages, and the revisions the producer wanted were the fourth set of changes he'd asked for in as many weeks. It meant another round of cutting, pasting, rewriting and then retyping this whole new draft from scratch.
Even to a computer-phobe like me, it was now obvious that I needed a word processor. I went looking for a computer that (a) cost less than the down payment on a large house, (b) had a wide range of software applications and games, (c) and didn't require an advanced degree in computer science to operate it.
Today my cluttered office includes an 130XE, an 800XL, (picked up on sale as a back-up computer), a 1030 modem, a single 1050 drive, both amber and color NEC monitors, and a Roland PR-1011 printer. There's also a raft of software. I seem to be collecting word processors even faster that I accumulated typewriters during my years B.C. (before computing). I now own AtariWriter and AtariWriter Plus, HomeWord, Word Magic, G.T. Estate WP--and my favorite workhorse, PaperClip.
This system handles my correspondence, accounts, and a schedule (when I remember to update it). I used the Atari to write a film treatment, two long speeches, my lectures as a writer-in-residence at Lynchburg College in Virginia, several magazine articles (including this one) and a couple of short thrillers. Right now I'm two-thirds of the way through a 600-page epic about the French Foreign Legion ---Seven Flames, to be published by Arrow Books, London.
Oh yes, I've also had hours of fun chasing round Castle Wolfenstein and trying to force Colossus Chess to resign.
You can attempt even quite ambitious writing projects with a modest computer setup. Don't put off writing that sword-and-sorcery saga or grand space epic just because you don't yet have a hard disk, mouse, and real-time thesaurus. Boot up your word processor, slip a fresh disk in the drive, and go for it!
Let's pretend that we're writing a popular novel together and I'll take you through the process step by step.
You have decided to tell an entertaining yarn about two young fliers who went over to France during World War I to join the famous Lafayette Escadrille, and maybe they meet a nurse over there and both fall in love with her. Hey, this is beginning to sound like a proper story already!--we'll call it Where Eagles Fly.
Every story starts with an idea. It might be a smashing opening, a surprising twist for the finale, a memorable character, or whatever. Well, we've already got a working title and the basic premise for Where Eagles Fly. Now comes the job of fleshing out our lead characters and putting them through all sorts of conflicts and complications. We've got to start building up a plot outline.
If you've got an outliner or "idea processor," that's great! If not, you can always use your word processor. Sure, you won't have the same versatility for grabbing topics, hiding text, and so on, but through judicious use of your tab settings and block moves you can create the initial outline on most word processors.
Concurrently with this plot development, you must also begin your research. Some of this will require manual note-taking and photocopying--Atari doesn't have a laptop which we can take into the library! Use "card index" software or a simple database to build up a bibliography of the books you've checked and the ones you still want to get hold of. Add notes of the relevant material and page numbers.
At this point you can open up some word processing files to keep lists of potential names, both for characters and places (you'll be surprised how many names you use up in the course of a book). And develop profiles of all the leading characters.
Some of you might be lucky enough to cadge a flight on a real biplane, or visit with enthusiasts who have collected memorabilia of WWI aviation. Anyway, there's always software like Flight Simulator II, F-15 Strike Eagle and Solo Flight which will give you a flavor of piloting a small plane. And don't over-look videotaped movies such as "Wings", "The Blue Max," and "Aces High" as visual research sources.
You'll be gathering details on words and expressions used at the time, notes on what people wore, what they ate, descriptions of places, specifications of planes and weapons, tactics used in aerial warfare and the general historical overview. All this information must be broken down into workable database or WP file entries.
As the research accumulates, it will give you fresh ideas for the plot an cause you to revise earlier developments. And, as the plotline evolves you'll find out where you still need to do more detective work. By now, on carefully indexed and backed-up disks, you're beginning to build up the files you'll need for the actual exercise of storytelling.
You should now have a reasonably detailed plot outline, the names and imaginary biographies of all your principal characters, details on the places, the units, the planes, the history of early air warfare, and so on.
Some material like maps, actual newspaper clippings, photos and diagrams will remain in their original form or as photocopies. But much of the material will now exist as dozens, probably hundreds, of electronic "filling cards" indexed by topics such as Locales, Ranks & Uniforms, Jargon & Slang and so on. Where Eagles Fly is beginning to take shape.
Next, this whole mass of information needs to be broken down and resorted in story order. Following your plot outline-- which at this point should be in a chapter- by-chapter format--you can examine each small package of research data and decide where it's needed in the chronological order of the novel itself. In some cases, you'll want to duplicate the entries.
If you have a database which is compatible with your word processor you can transfer your reorganized research directly into WP files. If not, you can print it out and work from the hard copy.
Does all this spadework sound rather tedious? It really isn't--often it's the most fun part! But now you're about to discover why it'll save you a lot of wasted time and heartbreak... believe it or not, you're ready to start the rough draft of Where Eagles Fly.
With a sheaf of maps, photos and hard copy data printed out in story order sitting at the side of your desk, turn turn on the word processor and begin to juggle around with the opening sentence. You still can't do that? Skip it-you'll come back later--and plunge right into the second paragraph.
Here's why I use PaperClip--it has the vitally important function of dual text windows. That is, it'll handle two files at once (So does the new First XLEnt Word Processor, which I'm looking forward to adding to my collection.)
Keep a "working disk" in your drive which contains a customized version of your word processor, complete with special macros for your novel, the appropriate section of the outline, and short separate files on the major characters and research. This still leaves enough room to automatically save the draft as you create it. Finished chapters or sub-sections can be saved and backed-up on other clearly labelled disks.
If your word processor doesn't have an autosave function, it's all the more important to make back-ups as you go along! If you don't have split screen capability, then all the research material will have to exisat in hard copy form right next to your keyboard. With PaperClip, I call up the outline or chronological research notes on the bottom screen, while I begin to tell the story on the top screen.
There is no longer any excuse for not getting on with your big writing project. All the information on characters, background, technical stuff, etc., appears just as fast as you can move the cursor or load the next file. All you need to do is concentrate on what's right in front of your eyes!
You don't need files that stretch from here to Timbuktu. They are unwieldy to manipulate and very costly if you ever make a mistake. An 800XL with PaperClip provides a very workable file length of about 19 or 20 double-spaced pages, which is more than enough for a fair-sized chapter.
Don't worry about the whole house, just concentrate on the building blocks. Those chapters will keep on piling up, even as you focus your attention simply on the section at hand, and pretty soon you'll realize you've completed a first draft. Now the real job of writing begins.
Spelling checkers are dandy tools for picking out all your inadvertent typos as well as genuine spelling errors. Check each chapter carefully-- cutting, revising, and polishing as you go. Now you can step back and look at the story as a whole. Tighten it up, make it move, smooth out the rough edges.
In this phase the word processor really comes into its own. Everything from trying out block moves and "undoing" them, to instantaneous word counts is at your disposal during rewriting. A handsome manuscript of Where Eagles Fly will be ready to make the publishing rounds a lot quicker than you might think.
Of course, the computer can be used for a lot of administrative tasks as well. A spreadsheet can chart your production logistics, or keep track of all your expenses. (Don't forget, the equipment itself becomes a tax deduction if you're using it for professional purposes.) And, finally, the spreadsheet can add all the royalties which will eventually come rolling in.
Yes, it would be a little easier with a 20Mb hard disk, online thesaurus, and a built in style checker. The system I outlined for you could be enhanced. But to say you can't possibly get going on your own project (and Where Eagles Fly can be adapted just as easily to a Viking swashbuckler or an industrial espionage thriller, etc.) without all the very latest gizmos is the high-tech version of "sharpening pencils" to keep from doing any real writing.
I know that commercial books can be written on the Atari. I've done it. And so can you!
David Wade has written more than 15 paperback novels, under as many pen names (from "Diane Hunter" to "Alan Bomack"), with combined sales of over a million copies.