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Writing, creativity and the internet


So apparently George RR Martin writes his novels using some 1980s software running on a computer that has no internet connection. Because obviously Game of Thrones needed to be mentioned again in the national press and this seemed like a good excuse. But seriously, I don’t see what’s news-worthy or admirable in someone who continues to use thirty-year-old technology when far more sophisticated and useful wordprocessors exist today. It has nothing to do with “creativity”.

As for the internet being a “distraction”. Well, okay, Martin doesn’t exactly have to check his facts or look things up because he’s writing big fat commercial fantasy and where do you research that sort of stuff? (Other than the history the author is ripping off, of course.) But some of us do a lot of research, and the internet is pretty damn useful for that. Sometimes it’s just a first port of call, before moving onto more detailed books on the topic; other times, the internet provides more than enough information for the purpose.


I’ve often wondered how writers – especially science fiction writers – managed before the invention of the Web. I remember James P Hogan on a panel at the 2005 Worldcon talking about the various contacts he had made during his career – he admitted he was quite shameless at approaching people he thought might prove useful and blagging their contact details – and how he’d telephone them if he needed their expertise. So that was one method. And, of course, there are libraries. But reading some Golden Age science fiction, it’s plain a lot of sf authors didn’t even bother – they just made it up and assumed no one would catch them out. Nowadays, given that readers have access to exactly the same tools as writers, getting caught out is almost a certainty. (And it’s not like authors before the Web weren’t pulled up on their mistakes either – cf Larry Niven having the Earth rotate the wrong way in Ringworld; or indeed the design of the ringworld itself.)

There’s no such thing as too much research, although it’s certainly possible to put too much of the research into the narrative. Unlike Kim Stanley Robinson, I don’t consider the info-dump just another narrative tool in the sf writer’s toolbox – so no, I don’t think it can be used freely without embarrassment. Exposition is a speedbump, or a pothole, in the reader’s journey through a story. However, I do think a writer can make a virtue of the research. Some, in fact. do. But there are those, on the other hand, who do it really badly – like this one:

“Ready, Barn,” the lunar commander replied.

“Okay. TIG 142034700 NOUN 67 5530000370 plus 0002, need A 47 in plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955, needle 465 is plus 00370, needle 546 is NA. Ignition 1 Rev late is 1440209, toug weight 10789. Over.”

“Roger. Copy 142034700 55350000370 plus 0002 plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955 plus 00370, NA 1440209, tug weight 10789. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Kathy. P32 CSI PAD follows. NOUN 11 143015060 NOUN 37 14438 all zips NOUN 81 0492 all zips. Need A 473 is 01818, 275 is 02780, AGS DELTA Vs plus 0492 all zips plus 0010. Over.”

No, that’s not from Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s actually from Space Station Friendship by Dick Lattimer, published in 1988.

Of course, not all science fictions require research. A style that has become quite common over the last few years – I’ve seen it labelled with the horrible term “sci fi strange” – seems almost completely made-up. Nothing requiring research there (unless you include the frequent references to other science fictions, that is). Still, it’s not for me  – don’t like reading it, have no intention of writing it. I like my research, it’s often what motivates me to write a story. And finding a way to use it in a narrative that works is, for me, part of the fun of writing.

Also, the shit that I look up is usually just plain interesting.

(Incidentally, the picture is, as the front of the machine states, a Research Machines 380Z, the first computer I ever used. The school I attended had two of them. These days, most of my colleagues at work are younger than that computer…)

8 thoughts on “Writing, creativity and the internet

  1. A literal infodump is terribly annoying. If I want that, I read non-fiction. Well-researched info that is well-integrated into a well-told story, on the other hand, is a beautiful thing.

    Although I do have a lot of patience for stories that need an abiding suspension of disbelief, as long as the story is still well-told.

    • Stan Robinson’s views on info-dumping aren’t shared by most genre writers, and while I think his approach is interesting I don’t think it’s one that’d work for me. To me, research is there to give the prose authority and verisimilitude, not to inform the reader on the requirements of the plot.

  2. I have always said those that write SF have to work harder at getting their research and world-building done than most, probably all, other genres. Info-dumping and sci fi strange looks like people are taking short cuts to me.

  3. Yes, quite, who gives a rat’s ass whether George Martin concocts his muck on a vintage computer or on stone tablets collected daily from the slopes of Mount Sinai. It’s still merely tarted up high fantasy, with all the criticisms that implies…

  4. Martin didn’t say he doesn’t use the internet, for research or anything else, just not on that machine. A lot of people who complain about him being too slow have been vocal about him blogging, for instance. Wordstar on DOS looks clunky to me, reminding me of the Amstrad PCW8256 I used to write on, but presumably it is essentially invisible to him after using it so long, and some other program with bloat and bells and whistles would be more irritating than useful.

    I’m reminded of another Martin, James Martin, the futurologist and computer consultant and writer (author of The Wired Society in 1977 and about 100 others) who died last year. In the 80s and 90s I used to work in a distant division of his publishers, the college & professional company Prentice Hall (now part of Pearson), and we were told he submitted all his books literally as manuscripts, ie hand written. I even checked this again last year with a former colleague who had known him personally, just in case I had been sold a porkie.

    Plenty of authors still write stuff longhand, though I don’t suppose any get to submit that way.

  5. Neal Stephenson wrote the baroque cycle by hand (then typed it in as part of his editing process, or something like that). His reasoning was that he could type faster than he could think, but writing with a pen was perfect in that respect, and it forced him to get a first draft down without initially obsessing over typoes, etc… Now, when you talk about integrating research seamlessly into a story, Stephenson is pretty emphatically not an author to talk about (especially not the Baroque cycle), but the idea is that there’s no one way to write. Shocking, I know.

    • Equally shocking are my points that a) GRRM using Wordstar 4.0 is not news, and b) what wordprocessing program you use has nothing to do with creativity. But I stand by my point that the internet can be a crucial tool for a writer, and only a fool would refuse to use a tool so powerful.

  6. Ah, the 380Z. The first computer I worked with in teaching.
    Both my sons – well into adulthood by now, getting on for late twenties even – are younger than that machine.

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