18 May 2014

The Nothing

Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross is a New Zealand mystery writer. His stories have appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine where he appears in the current July/August issue, and other publications. 

Many of you know Stephen through his long, strong friendship with Criminal Brief, where he became one of our most loyal supporters. No man is a prophet in his own land, or at least a writer in the land of Ngaio Marsh. We followed his efforts toward recognition in his own nation as the rest of the world honoured his talent. We at SleuthSayers have great admiration for this author, commentator, and friend, Stephen Ross, who writes…

Before the Internet, there was nothing

by Stephen Ross

Before the Internet, there was nothing. It was like living in a tent at an outpost at the end of the world. I'm talking about writing. Books were only in the library or at the bookstore. Finding a magazine full of fiction in my hometown (Auckland City) was like embarking on a quest to find a three-toed sloth. Finding mystery fiction in a magazine was like looking for the dodo. Other writers simply didn't exist. I wrote in isolation.

There's a black and white photo of me (somewhere, I lost the print and I never owned the negative) sitting at a typewriter with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It could have been taken in 1930. It was taken in 1988.

By 1990, I had come to know only two other writers, and both of them were playwrights -- both 10 years older than me and hardened to the rule that you can't make any money out of writing, and no one will ever publish you. And maybe you should just shoot yourself.

And then the Internet happened… Actually, personal computers happened first, and that changed everything.

1969 Triumph
The typewriter I wrote on was a 1969 Triumph Gabriele 10. It belonged to my mother and I had been bashing away on it since I was 5. Stories and screenplays: sci-fi, horror, and mystery.

Not one thing I ever wrote on that poor, long suffering machine ever got past my bedroom door. The world is lucky.

In the late 1980s, one of those playwright friends of mine acquired a personal computer. I have no memory of what operating system it was running, but it had a word processor on it (the other playwright hated technology and wrote in long hand (and probably by candlelight, and with a quill)). I could immediately see the benefit of writing on a word processor: Freedom & Fluidity.

Writing on a typewriter forces the writer to commit to the typed. It was a rigid way to work; like trying to dance in concrete. It meant hours of retyping for corrections, or adding a permafrost layer of correction fluid to each page.

I used to cheat. I did a lot of paragraph snipping. If there was a typo or something that needed to be changed on a page, I'd simply retype the offending paragraph and cut and paste it over the faulty one.

Once I eventually got onto a PC, my writing method changed overnight. I became an abstract expressionist. Think Jackson Pollock, only instead of oils, words.

My first drafts (even of this short piece) are complete messes of text. In fact, I often write my firsts on my iPhone, bluetoothing to it via a wireless keyboard. I don't even look at the screen while I type.

For me, writing is rewriting. That's where the good stuff lies. The first draft is like– I'm trying to think of an analogy that doesn't sound like projectile vomiting. Here we go: It's like leaping off a tall building… and maybe the parachute will open.
current writing desk

I haven't written anything on a typewriter since 1991.

And then the Internet happened. And that changed everything else.

My computer connected to the Internet in 1996. Instead of just seeing what was residing on my PC's hard drive, I could now look out into the world. What I found there were a handful websites about writing– and all of them decked out in the glorious three-tone website design of the day: gray background, black text, blue hyperlinks (does anyone still say "hyperlink" anymore?). And I found other writers– for a long time I lurked in the background of writing newsgroups, soaking up the chatter, tips, and experiences.

As more and more websites and resources came online, the Internet started to make research easier, and it began to make it easier to find magazines. In fact, when I got up the nerve to finally submit a story to one, I had gotten the address and submission instructions off the magazine's website (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, if you're curious).

The last ten years has seen the rise of the blog. There are now countless blogs on the Internet catering to writers. The first one of these I followed (right from its beginning) was Criminal Brief. Naturally, I followed along when it evolved in SleuthSayers, which is now my current place of background lurkage.

There are also cool new things happening on the Net, like writers.StackExchange.com, which in many ways is like the newsgroups of yesteryear: People ask questions about writing, and people respond with help, tips, and advice. It's not very chatty, but at least it's spared the newsgroups' old habit of descending into chaos (and the subsequent invention of Godwin's Law).

For me, writing has a learning curve that began with a nice slow upward ascent, which quickly went vertical. The Internet has made climbing that a lot easier.


  1. You're so right, Stephen. I too started out writing in utter isolation, and now with the Internet I'm part of a richly supportive worldwide community of writers. It makes such a difference!

  2. Love the post, though I'm blessed to live in New York, so I get the best of both virtual and RL community. Come to think of it, I found the New York mystery community on the Internet. What's changed most for me is research: from "hate it, never do it" to writing historicals, reading like mad and always eager to round the next blind curve and find the next stranger-than-fiction tidbit.

  3. Stephen, you've long been a great friend and we're glad to feature you.

    Congratulations on your latest AHMM story. I dropped Linda a note that I loved the cover! Now for the story…

  4. Bev, I'm thrilled to see another New Zealander! Welcome!

  5. Great column, Stephen. I too began on a typewriter, where (as you said) cutting and pasting of text had a far different meaning. Thank God those days are done.

    Congrats on the AHMM story!

  6. Agree completely. Working on a computer, which has been my practice now for some twenty years (!), is enormously liberating. Nothing's graven in stone. (I really enjoyed the story, too: "Bad Memory," in HITCHCOCK.

  7. Stephen, nice piece. Good to hear from you again. Will look forward to more.

    In the '70's when i wrote stories for Easyriders and Outlaw Biker magazines, my first drafts were in longhand on yellow legal pads. Due to deleted paragraphs, plus insertions via cut the page and Scotch Tape a new paragraph in, no two pages were of the same length. Then they got typed. Much easier now to write and re-write.

  8. Very nice piece, Stephen. I know several people who were very good writers pre-word processing and who could never get the hang of computers. (One was a high school English teacher of mine who was inspirational in the age of typewriters but couldn't stand the thought of moving on.) I often think that these folks were like the actors with squeaky voices whose careers couldn't make it once the talkies came around.

  9. I envy your work environment! Very high tech and you deserve the fruits of your labours.

  10. enjoyed your look at the positive aspects of our digital age, which I found quite refreshing. I hadn’t previously given much thought to the support network available to writers online.

  11. the computer is wonderful and Google so useful. But the internet is also a great thief of time- it certainly offers more opportunities for procrastination than the old sharpen the pencils and water the plants routine.

    Congratulations on your latest sale!

  12. Great piece, Stephen, and very entertaining.

    I now have many "virtual" friends, thanks to the internet, who seem very real. I sometimes wonder if having a "virtual" enemy would be as gratifying--in a virtually negative sense, of course.

  13. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:12

    Thanks for inviting me, Leigh.

  14. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:14

    Hi Bev, and is it me, or are there a lot of writers who live north of the bridge?

  15. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:17

    Thanks, Elizabeth! Research on the Internet can be a bit of a time sink. One interesting link leads to another, and another...

  16. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:18

    Thanks, John! Yes, in those days, it actually was physically cutting and pasting! I do not miss those days.

  17. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:21

    Thanks, David! I've yet to receive my copies (postage down to here takes a wee bit longer). I look forward to reader yours.

  18. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:22

    Thanks, RT! I occasionally come out of hiding!

  19. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:25

    Thanks, Dale! I love your "talkies" analogy. I wonder what the next thing in the future will be that we'll all have to get the "hang of"?

  20. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:27

    Thanks, Anonymous!

  21. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:29

    Thanks, Dixon!

  22. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:31

    Thanks, Janice! I agree. I often find I have to disconnect from the Net when I'm writing, so as to avoid all its distractions.

  23. Stephen Ross18 May, 2014 20:34

    Thanks, David! I think I have more virtual friends than real world ones. I hope I never get a virtual enemy, that might even be worse than a real world one!

  24. You're welcome, Stephen. We're glad to have you.


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