21 June 2022

Miles of Files

I started my writing career long before personal computers were anything more than a plot device in science fiction stories. Despite making the transition from a manual typewriter to an IBM Selectric and from there to a series of ever more powerful PCs and then to a series of ever more powerful Macintoshes, my record-keeping system has remained almost entirely manual.

The file folder and tracking
system I used for “Disposable
Women,” currently
shortlisted for a Shamus.
I’m uncertain if this is ironic or pathetic, given that for most everything else in my life I’m a heavy user of computers and computer programs, but I think it may be the result of long-established habit and the knowledge that if I did convert to a more sophisticated system I wouldn’t be satisfied with a spread sheet or two for new work. I would want to build a sophisticated database that includes everything I’ve ever written and includes every possible bit of information about each story.

I would want to know at the click of a few keys which is my shortest story and which my longest, which had the most submissions before acceptance, which has been reprinted most often, my sales/rejections ratio with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, how many times I submitted to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine before I received an acceptance, and so much more.

The time it would take to input all of that information, and the time I would later spend using the data to create charts and graphs and all manner of interesting reports, would consume a significant amount of time and eliminate what little writing time I have these days.

These six filing
cabinets may soon be
joined by a seventh.
For now, I remain with the tried-and-true: Every finished story gets a file folder, and into it goes a hardcopy of the story and a cover sheet where I track submissions, rejections, and other important information such as the dates I returned the signed contract, copy edits, and page proofs, and the story’s publication date. Also in the folder goes a copy of the signed contract, copies of important research, and a copy of the published version.

This file folder travels through a series of file drawers: awaiting submission; under submission; accepted, not paid for; paid for, not published; published, not paid for; and so on until the folder moves into its final home after the story has been published.

There are six of these filing cabinets in my second office, containing everything I’ve had published since my first sale back in the mid-1970s. In my first office—the one where I do much of my writing—are three file drawers containing the work under submission or awaiting submission, as well as several bookshelves filled with my novels and short story collections, anthologies I’ve edited, and many books and magazines containing something I’ve written (short stories mostly, but essays and non-fiction as well).

A 5.25" floppy disk
containing an early
version of the novel published
as All White Girls.
Hard copies of finished manuscripts take up a great deal of space—hence the six filing cabinets—but I can still read every one of them. Many of the earliest stories were written on typewriters, so hard copies are the only versions that exist, and the on-going evolution of computer science has left me with 5.25” floppy disks, 3.5” diskettes, and Zip drives for which I no longer have appropriate drives. Even if I had appropriate drives, many of the files were created with WordStar and I no longer have a program that will allow me to open the WordStar files and save them as Word documents. Luckily, I so rarely need to access the oldest files that it is easier to retype anything I might need.

Temple and I have reached the age where retirement is in her foreseeable future (writers don’t retire, so it isn’t in my future), and we’ve discussed downsizing to a smaller home with less upkeep. The biggest obstacle, though, is my antiquated record-keeping system—a system I started using long before personal computers stopped being a science fiction plot device and became a reality.

My story “Disposable Women,” published in
Tough (July 19, 2021), has been shortlisted for a Shamus Award.

“Sit. Stay. Die.” A story I co-authored with Sandra Murphy was published in the July/August Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This is our fifth collaboration and my second consecutive appearance in EQMM.


  1. Wow. Lotta work there. And you're right, a writer doesn't retire.

  2. Congratulations on your recent story and the Shamus nomination!

  3. Michael -- I thought I kept good records of my writing, but your system puts mine to shame. Thanks for this "look inside" your process.

    And yes, congrats to you on the Shamus nomination and to you and Sandy on this latest EQMM collaboration. Keep up the good work!

  4. Yes, congratulations on the new pub and the Shamus nomination.

    I wrote my first five novels on a portable typewriter (I think it was a Smith Corona) that I finally beat into submission about 1980. Then I wore out two electric typewriters over the next fifteen years or so until I got my first computer.

    Now, I keep my records on computer, but still do a certain amount of my writing--especially in the planning and flailing stages--on paper. I'm most comfortable writing with a fountain pen, too. When something works, I don't like to change it. I guess I'm still a Luddite at heart.

  5. Like the rest of them said, congrats on your Shamus nomination.

    Most of my paper files are research material: handwritten notes on legal pads, Xerox copies of book pages, cut out magazine articles, cut out newspaper articles, anything interesting or odd that might make a good story. As the files get too thick for my computer desk drawer, they go downstairs and into the two metal file cabinets.

  6. What you need is a willing child aged 12 to 15 years (ideally a relative on summer vacation) who wants to earn some money and doesn't mind doing something tedious. Have the kid scan all stories and contracts into a computer for you. You'll need a printer that includes a scanner, and the kid will have to merge the pages into single pdf docs. Then reprint the pdfs double-sided. (I'm betting those old, typed pages aren't double-sided.) You could reduce the amount of paper by half, reducing your file space, and still keep your hardcopies of everything. Bonus- you'll have scanned copies to keep in the cloud which is a much better protection from fire and flood. Then you can downsize.

    1. I might add that turning on OCR (optical character recognition) while scanning to PDF might be useful.

  7. And that, ladies and gentle, illuminates the difference between a pro and the rest of us.

    Michael underscores questions that government and business need to worry about: Will the media survive decades? (Magnetic ‘rust’ media isn’t likely to.) Will a drive mechanism survive to read the media? Will a computer capable of attaching the mechanism still exist? Will software be available to read it? (See Sarbanes–Oxley Act, aka Sarbox or SOX.)

    My friend Crystal Mary and some odd optical cartridges. We found a bare drive for them. I guttedd an old CD/DVD external drive with a power supply and SCSI interface and we got the data off! One small win for hoarding!

  8. For someone who might want readable files decades from now, I have a suggestion that might sound peculiar: Don’t archive files in Word, ODT, or even RTF formats, but in HTML. The reason is that unlike proprietary formats, HTML is written in plain text. Unicode (UTF) is likely to still be around decades from now and HTML reasonable readable.

  9. I still keep hardcopies of all my stories, essays, even SleuthSayers blogs. And while I keep spreadsheets on publications, when/where/how long/ etc., I print those out, too on a semi-regular basis. I just don't trust the cloud.


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